I thought I’d pass this recent message from a memorial service our hospice hosted at a personal care facility. They had started a rock garden and we donated a tree to serve as a memorial marker.
…Joshua said to them: “Cross over before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.” Joshua 4:4b-7
This scene marks a pivotal point in the history of Israel. This nation of former slaves has survived forty years in the wilderness, scraping by only at times by means of miraculous intervention, to arrive at the land promised to them several generations before. Nobody who heard that promise is alive to see it fulfilled. Even Moses, who lead the bedraggled group for those 40 years and who was for all that time their closest connection to God, died before this scene. This nation of nomads has finally arrived at the end of their journey from slavery to freedom.
The scene itself calls to mind a similar crossing Israel made at the beginning of this 40 year journey, the crossing of the Red Sea. While the Jordan can be relatively easily crossed in some places during most of the year, the Bible states that when the Israelites arrive at the Jordan it’s at flood stage, where it can be over half a mile wide over 10 feet deep. Here again, the priests of Israel carry the Ark of the Covenant to the edge of the river, and when they enter the river stops dry, allowing the Israelites to pass through safely.
In the passage I just read Joshua has ordered the Israelites to build a monument, taking stones from the Jordan riverbed and placing them on the bank. Joshua places these stones there for several reasons.
First they serve as visible evidence of what God has just done. They direct Israel’s attention to where they are right now, and indicate that this event is worthy of recognition.
Second they serve as a memorial, something to remind the Israelites of what happened there for future generations. Joshua goes on to say later that the stones not only will mark the crossing of the Jordan for generations to come, but also serve as a reminder of what God did for them at the Red Sea and as a signifier of His power. Furthermore he says that the memorial is not only to signify God’s power to Israel but to all the nations there.
Third, and most importantly, they are there to instruct. During the 40 years they wandered in the desert, the Israelites often correction. Their hearts wandered as much as they did, and their faith in God was often tested. This monument served then to tell the nation of Israel that however long it takes, God keeps His promises. Joshua points out that the stones serve as an object lesson to their children, and will in turn instruct their children’s children.
Remembering is important. I can imagine that some if not many of the Israelites present would have rather forgotten about the journey that they had just completed. Several times they considered going back and giving up. They faced many dangers and lost an entire generation to the desert. Perhaps it would be best to just forget about the past and move on, I can imagine them saying. Why do we need to be reminded of things that only bring pain and trouble?
So here we are today, perhaps with the same question. We are remembering and honoring the residents here that have passed away recently. It’s a lot in a short time. That itself is painful. It’s always hard to lose someone you care about. Sometimes that loss reminds us of other losses we’ve had: grandparents, parents, friends. Sometimes it happens in the midst of a lot of other difficult times or changes going on and it just feels like it’s getting piled on so high we don’t know when the Chinette plate’s going to break and the baked beans and cole slaw are going to end up in our laps. Isn’t it better not to remember painful things? Didn’t Jesus say something about letting the dead bury their own dead? Besides I don’t think mom or dad or whoever would have wanted us to sit around and mope. Aren’t we supposed to move on?
Yes remembering is hard but it is also good. It’s good to be sad when you should be sad. And when someone dies you should be sad. Yes you can be happy that they’re no longer sick or weak or that they’re finally happy and with God. But you are allowed to be sad. I worry more about the people who aren’t sad when someone dies than those who are. Those feelings don’t feel good though. But just like those memorial stones set up by Joshua and the Israelites they serve several purposes. They show us where we are right now, they show us where we’ve been, and they instruct us.
Think about where you are right now and how you feel. Maybe you’re sad, maybe you’re grateful. Maybe you’re bored because you weren’t expecting a sermon. But take note of that. More often than not we are caught either chasing the future or dwelling on the past. However we don’t know where we are or what we are doing right now. And yet now is all we have. Roger Babson said “Let him who would enjoy a good future waste none of his present”. So take this time to appreciate where you are and to find the happiness and joy possible in it.
Next, only after that, take time to consider where you’ve been on your journey. Hasn’t it been crazy? Who would have known that in your years you would have ended up right where you are today? Who brought you here? Who walked with you along the way? How has God been with you? If you think He hasn’t keep looking. God is often disguised as people.
Finally, how have the lives of those we remember today touched you? What are they teaching you about yourself? Are you stronger than you thought? Are you kinder? And what from those lives can you teach others? When I do funeral services I’m occasionally asked how I can speak on someone’s life when I’ve hardly known them at all. In some cases I may have met them once, and not under the best circumstances. What can I possibly say about them? What I can say is what I learned, for I find that I learn something from everyone I meet. Maybe it’s about how to be generous, or how to be thankful. Perhaps it’s something more painful, like how difficult life can be or something I don’t like about myself. If that’s the case, what can I do to take care of that? How can I pass on what I’ve learned from this life to my friends or my family or my children?
The sad part of the story of Joshua’s monument is that at some point a child asked his or her elder “what do these stones mean to you?” and their response was “I don’t know.” Those stones are gone. We can’t find them. At some point they lost their meaning and their significance, and became ordinary stones. But that doesn’t mean that the lessons have been lost. Memory and remembering only live on in us. Don’t let the seed of memory dry up and wither away without it first producing fruit in your life. Thomas Merton said that every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. So let the garden that we are making be a reminder of the garden of your own life. Tend it and cultivate it, and teach others to cultivate their own.