DON'T FORGET THE BONES
We start this morning with everyone standing. Do any of these conditions apply to you? Sit down if you have...
Why do we have this stuff? For almost 20 years I saved a little, clear plastic box that contained the remains of a housefly that my brother and I had named "Marvo." Why? Sometimes we save things because they have monetary value, but I don't want to focus on those. I want to focus on the things we save because they help us remember something about ourselves. The things that tell us who we are when we look at them. We have saved these things for a variety of reasons, but the reason we saved them doesn't matter too much. The fact that we have them serves to remind us of something important about ourselves.
This is part of what is going on in the passage I read from Exodus. The Hebrew slaves have finally made their break from Egypt and are headed out to someplace called the "Promised Land." They've heard a lot of tales about it--that it flows with milk and honey--but nobody living has ever seen it. They have been slaves in Egypt for 400 years...generation after generation after generation. Slavery is all they know. But when families gather and tell stories, some of them talk about a time when the Hebrews were not slaves. They talk about the Promised Land where their ancestors came from...how one of them got sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers but God helped him to become second only to Pharaoh in power.
"Is that really true, Dad?" asks a young boy. A boy slave like me went to live in the palace and had power like Pharaoh?"
"Yes," says the father, "His name was Joseph. And God told Joseph that a famine was coming on the land, so Joseph saved lots of food for the people." And the story goes on of the Hebrew people coming from Canaan to Egypt during the famine because there was food...how they stayed there as shepherds in Goshen...and how Joseph died and was buried and made his children promise that when God brought them back to Canaan, they would bring his bones back home and bury them there.
"I don't believe there is a God like that," says the boy. "The gods of the Egyptians take care of them. If we had a God, we would not be slaves. I think it's all just a story."
"But I can show you where his bones are buried," says the father.
"Could be anybody," says the son..."Could be a horse."
Now perhaps that boy is old, but all of a sudden there is talk of this God again. The old stories are being told with more intensity as this strange Moses--another Hebrew slave who escaped death and ended up living like a king in Pharaoh's household--as this Moses calls on his God and makes plagues to come on the Egyptians. Someone has come running by and said it is time to go...400 years as slaves, and now we're really leaving?
"Yes, yes, come on. Moses is leading us. Hurry, before Pharaoh changes his mind again. He has dug up the bones of Joseph, and put them on a cart. We are going to the promised land!"
How odd it must have seemed...how like a strange dream. How exciting, how terrifying. Suppose there wasn't really a promised land. We're headed for the desert...how can we possibly cross the desert? Who is this Moses? Who is this God? Is it a trick?
But there go the bones. Maybe there was something to the old story...maybe this God has power. The plagues have been so strange...they have only fallen on the Egyptians. Maybe there is a God for the Hebrews...could those really be the bones of Joseph? They don't look like horse bones. Is it possible that God brought us here and is now bringing us home?
"Move it out, old man. Do you want to be the only slave left in Egypt? You wanna make enough bricks for the city all by yourself...without straw? We're outta here...light a fire under it, man."
The cart with the bones rattles by. Could it really be that there was a man named Joseph? Could the stories about God really be true?
The bones of Joseph. Moses took them along because of a promise made hundreds of years before he was born. But in the taking of them, Moses provided the people with a concrete way to remember things about themselves. They had not always been slaves. There was a God who kept promises and made slaves into kings. It might be long in coming...400 years even...but God was faithful, and they were being led by someone who also was faithful...faithful to God and faithful to ancient promises.
Strange things were happening. A shining cloud went before them in the day and a pillar of fire by night? Could it be trusted? Was it the God of the Hebrews leading them to freedom or a god of the Egyptians leading them to destruction? The bones of Joseph were a reminder.
OK, Anne, point made. But so what? Glad the Hebrew slaves had some help, but what has all of that got to do with me? Funny you should ask, I was just getting to that.
We have had a bit of fun with the things around the house that we save. Things that remind us of our personal history, our families, our country, our travels. And those are important. But I want to make a plea here for saving some other things as well...things that remind us who we are as people of God; things that remind us that God is faithful. This is not meant so much to be an inspirational sermon. This is meant to be a practical sermon that highlights things you can do to aid your spiritual life. And the basic message is...don't forget the bones of Joseph in your own lives...and don't let the church forget them either.
There are several forms that the bones can take. One of those is basic....physical objects that remind you and speak to you about your faith. When the Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century, lots of good things happened. But I think, in the zeal to be rid of some of the abuses of medieval Catholicism, we lost some babies with some bathwater.
One of the babies that some strands of Protestantism lost was the visual aid to faith. Because some people had begun to make religious objects more important than the God they were meant to point to, some groups forbid any type of religious object whatsoever. No crosses or stained glass windows in churches. No religious decoration. No pictures, no sacred objects. That prevented the problem of making religious objects into idols, but it made a number of things harder. Stained glass windows told Bible stories with their pictures for the mostly illiterate people who filled the cathedrals. When you were sitting around the dinner table and were tempted to say uncharitable things, a glance over at an icon reminded you who else was present in the house. When you were lost in the woods and felt fear taking over your mind, feeling that little cross in your pocket reminded you of the one who finds lost sheep.
While we do well to remember the warnings about idols, I think we need to have the bones...the tangible reminders of our God and our faith. I recommend that you have something in every room of your house that reminds you of your faith and the God you serve. Find things that speak to you, things that are beautiful to you, things that stir you to be faithful. That's not a commandment. God is not going to frown at you if you don't have them. But I think they help. They help me, and I think they will help you.
There are also some non-tangible things that serve as "bones" in our lives. What do you DO during the day that reminds you that you are a child of God? Do you say grace before meals? When you're in a restaurant? Do you have any time during the week that is holy time? A time of personal or family devotions? A time to tell or listen to Bible stories? A small group where you can share faith questions and experiences? A time when you say your prayers?
The spiritual disciplines that are a part of our lives do two things. First, they help us to remember who we are. They help us to keep our spiritual focus in a world that is filled with things to rob us of it. And secondly, they witness to our faith to those who are watching our lives. I remember as a young child hearing my pastor say, "You may be the only Bible that some people ever read." Being disciplined and faithful in our spiritual practices provide one form of "Bible stories" for those who might never darken the door of a church. Spiritual disciplines are not meant to be an added burden that we are punished for if we fail. They are an aid to our spiritual growth and a witness to others of our faith.
But we don't only need the bones in our personal lives. We need the bones in our corporate lives--as the church. With the things we see and the rituals we perform as a church, we need to be reminded of who we are...who we are as part of the church universal, and who we are as the local congregation that is St. John's.
In this building we have the bones of our old building downtown...the stained glass windows, the old clock on the balcony, the organ, the bells. We also have the bones of the larger universal church in the paraments and banners, changing their colors to remind us of the seasons of the church year.
When we gather for worship, you will find the bones in our liturgy. There will be Communion and Baptism and prayer and singing. The bones may get put in a box that looks very different from the boxes of our ancestors, but when you open it up, you will find the same bones inside. This is my body, broken for you. I baptize you with water and the Holy Spirit. Our Father, who art in heaven. Alleluia.
Is this a plea for ritual and tradition? Yes. They are the bones of our ancestors. They remind us that we share eternity with medieval catholic monks and Jesus Freaks from the 60's. They remind us that God has been faithful not just today and last week, but for millennia past. They remind us that those old stories we heard round the hearth are true...God does not forget God's people...even if 400 years of slavery intervene. God does come with deliverance, God does love us, God does wash us and make us brighter than snow.
We should never forget the bones. But neither should we remain in Egypt. Even as the bones traveling with us remind us of God's past faithfulness, we are surrounded by that faithfulness in new forms--a cloud and a pillar of fire, manna in the wilderness, water from a rock, and commandments thundering from a smoke-covered mountain. Our worship contains the ancient traditions that remind us we serve a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But then it also contains new things, things that remind us that God is living, dynamic, and always assuming new forms--now a burning bush, now a poor carpenter's baby, now a lamb, now a lion. We take the bones, but we also move on toward the promised land, guided by a faithful God who will do anything to keep us faithful...even die.
Come with us old man, old woman, young man, young woman...move it out....you don't want to stay a slave, do you? It does seem strange after all these years in one place. I know you're not quite sure you can trust it...but look, we're bringing the bones with us--it really is true about God's faithfulness. We've got a desert to cross, but God is going with us. So light a fire under it, we're ready to go...and you, you with the cart...don't forget the bones.
© 2002, Anne Robertson
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