First We Eat – Joshua 5.9-12

March 6, 2016 – 4th Sunday in Lent

The book of Joshua is the story of the Israelites inhabiting the land of Canaan; the land God promised to Abram way back in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. When the Israelites cross the Jordan river and first come into the promised land they camp in Gilgal. The root of the Hebrew word gilgal means “to roll.” You’ll hear that allusion in this short passage.

Read Joshua 5.9-12.

We’ve been taking the alternate route through Lent this year. We haven’t gone the route of Jesus in Luke’s gospel on his way to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, tried in a mock trial, tortured and and executed.

Instead we’ve taken a path through the Hebrew Scriptures, wandering through the wilderness on the way from slavery to freedom in a land promised but not yet seen or inhabited. Every text we have preached in Lent reminds us that God will provide; in Deuteronomy, in Genesis, in Isaiah, and today in Joshua, the writers declare that God’s promise will be—or, today, is—fulfilled.

It’s probably been around 600 to 700 years from the time God and Abram talked out under the starry night sky to the time that Joshua and the Israelites cross the Jordan River into Canaan.[1] The hundreds of years of enslavement are over. The years of wandering in the wilderness are over. Finally, now, there will be a new start in a new land.

And what do they do to mark this place and time? They eat. They eat the Passover meal together—a meal celebrating God’s liberating power on behalf of those who were oppressed. Now, in Gilgal, in the land God promised hundreds of years before, they give thanks for God’s provision.

This Passover is different. For the first time since they left Egypt, the manna stops and now, finally, the Israelites eat from crops that were grown on the land. No longer would God provide manna in the morning and quail to eat at night. Instead God’s people will be in one place where they can settle, plant crops and harvest the fruit of the land.

A sidebar. The story tells us the Israelites ate the produce of the land. For this first Passover meal in Canaan they have not been in town long enough to plant and harvest their own crops. Did they buy them? Barter for them? We know there are other people who are already living in this land and the Book of Joshua is not a great story for them. This morning in this sermon I’m not going in that direction. Give some of what has happened in our state and country this week, if I took the explicitly political route this morning, I think all I would do is shriek and you wouldn’t want to hear that. But you can find where I did go in that direction in my sermon two weeks ago.[2] End of sidebar.

For Joshua and the Israelites this settled place with all its promise, also comes with a danger. In this place where the people will grow crops, raise animals, and build houses, there is a danger they will forget who it is that brought them to this land. Who it is that led them through the wilderness. Who it is that parted the Red Sea so they could escape their captors in Egypt. It will be easy for the people to say, “I grew this food. I built this house. I did it all with the strength of my arm and the sweat of my brow.” It may also be easy for the people to fall in love with the gods of their neighbors and turn away from the God who heard their cries and brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm[3] to a land flowing with milk and honey.

How do the Israelites remember where they came from? How do they remember their story? With a meal. They keep the Passover. They eat “and the food opens their eyes to wonder about their journey and their dependence on God, who is the giver of land, food, and life.”[4] Every time they keep the Passover they tell the story of where they’ve come from and who’s been with them. They eat the story of their suffering and their liberation. They eat the story now in a new land, with unleavened cakes and parched grain. “They sample a new cuisine, which tastes like the beginning of a whole new life to them,” says pastor Dan DeBevoise.[5]

We, too, have a story that we eat. A story that also begins with the Passover meal in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. A meal in John’s gospel that begins in the story of five loaves and two fish. And in Luke’s gospel, a meal where the bread, blessed, broken, and given opens our eyes and burns in our hearts and we savor the presence of Christ in our midst.

Author Sara Miles describes her conversion to Christianity that began by eating a piece of bread around the altar of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. In a book she wrote about that experience she says, “Food and bodies had always been wrapped in meaning for me…[But] it took actually eating a piece of bread—a simple chunk of wheat and yeast and water—to pull those layers of meaning together: to make food both absolutely itself and a sign pointing to something bigger. It turned out that the prerequisite for conversion wasn’t knowing how to behave in a church, or having a religious vocabulary or an a priori ‘belief’ in an abstract set of propositions: it was hunger, the same hunger I’d always carried. Holy communion knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God.”[6] All from eating bread.

After becoming a Christian, Sara Miles started a food pantry in her church. Every Friday, volunteers turn the church into a gigantic free farmer’s market, and give away literally tons of fresh, free groceries to their neighbors—providing food for somewhere between 400 and 600 hungry families every week. It all happens right in the sanctuary around the communion table where on Sunday the bread and wine are shared with everyone who shows up.[7]

Communion, just like the stories about eating in the gospels, involves other people. A few years after her conversion and after she started the food pantry, Sara Miles tells about complaining to a friend about a “filthy, hostile visitor to the [food pantry—someone she] kept wanting to bounce.” And her friend “ruefully” responded, “Sara, if you want to see God, sometimes you have to sit in the smoking section.” Or, as Sara wrote to another friend, complaining, again, this time about people at her church, “The thing that sucks about being a Christian is that God actually lives in other people.”[8]

But here’s the amazing, unbelievable, transforming, grace-filled thing about it. The very meal that we’re supposed to share with the very people we may most not want to share it with; that very meal transforms us to be able to see God living in one another.

Martin Luther, of the Reformation hall of fame, explained it this way: “To give a simple illustration of what takes place in this eating: it is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep [was] so powerful a food that it transformed the wolf and turned [it] into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us into itself and out of…sinful mortal[s] makes…holy, living [persons].”[9]

That part about eating Christ’s flesh is a little more Lutherany than Presbyterian-ish but the transforming power of the food is the same. First we must eat. Together we eat the story to remember who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Together we eat this story that has the power to transform and sustain us in times like these where a political candidate cannot find the words to disavow support from a Klan grand wizard, and when he comes to town he does not stop his followers from assaulting protesters. Together we eat this story that has the power to transform and sustain us in times like these where our Governor and legislature continue to attack access to reproductive healthcare for women in the commonwealth; in times like these when we learn of low-level nuclear waste having been illegally shipped to a landfill in our state.[10]

We are hungry and so we eat the story that has power to transform us—together—into the body of Christ. We eat this story and through us God is at work to transform the world for good.

As we eat this bread and drink this juice, may it taste to us like a whole new life.

* * *

[1] Mary Mikhael, Joshua – A Journey of Faith, (Louisville: Presbyterian Women / PC(USA), 2009), insert.

[2] accessed 5 March 2016.

[3] Deuteronomy 26.8

[4] Daniel M. DeBevoise, “Joshua 5.9-12 – Pastoral Perspective” Feasting on the Word, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C, Volume 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 100.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] Sara Miles, Take This Bread (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007) xiv.

[7] accessed 5 March 2016.

[8] Ibid., xvii.

[9] Quoted in Ellen T. Charry, “Sacraments for the Christian Life,” Christian Century, November 15, 1995, 1077.

[10] accessed 5 March 2016.