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Rivers and Roads -- Joshua 4:1-8 (Commencement Sunday), Patrick O'Connor preaching

There are symbols all around.

As humans, we use symbols to help us creatively express our own thoughts and feelings. Symbols help us make meaning of the world around us and they can express feelings and experiences when words cannot.

In Language Arts, Literature, and History classes, we talk about how a symbol can be a setting, object, or event in a story that carries more than the literal meaning and therefore represents something significant to understanding the meaning of a work of literature. In other words symbols always have a literal or concrete meaning and a figurative or abstract meaning. Conventional symbols have a previously agreed upon meaning, and often many of these come from the Bible as a work of literature.

In our own church life, we use the symbol of the Lord’s Supper, which symbolizes Christ’s presence with us and Christ’s unshakeoffable love for us seen best in his death and resurrection. We use the symbol of baptism to mark the new life found in the fountains of God’s love.

Our graduates have been and will be participating in some version of a celebration and ceremony that will symbolize their wonderful academic accomplishments thus far and the threshold of entering into adulthood after high school.

And in today’s Scripture, we see a Biblical example of God’s people needing something to make sense of their experience.

Joshua has led the twelve tribes of Israel through quite a journey, and its still not over yet. After forty years of wondering and wandering, their time in the desert is coming to a close, but they need a way to make meaning of everything that they’ve been through, and its impact on their future. Our reading today begins with them preparing to enter into their new unknown by crossing the Jordan River. And as they are preparing to do so, God asks Joshua to pause in the planning and preparing and working to stop and gather God’s people to memorialize the journey thus far, the journey that God has led them through. Joshua and the Israelites have kept their eyes focused on the work that needs to be completed, and after forty years of doing so, I’m sure that’s all they could muster up to do. And yet God gives them a reason to pause. After forty years of wandering, finally there’s a glimpse of the Promise Land. After everything that they’ve been through, how do they process all of it and make sense of it?

The idea was to take twelve stones from the Jordan River and set them up as a physical sign and symbol of the passage through the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Like Moses and the Israelites crossing the river at the beginning of their journey, as Joshua and the Israelites cross, we are told that the river will part and cease its roaring in order for them to cross until the very last heel touches dry land on the other side.

God’s instructions to gather up twelve stones from the Jordan River are meant to remind future generations of God’s presence in the lives of the Israelites thus far. Now, I don’t imagine that the twelve men asked to pick up stones planned on getting pebbles, but it feels like they got nice, hefty, stones deep in the Jordan River sediment to stack as a memorial. They had just witnessed an incredible miracle of the Jordan River, and they knew that they were close to completing this stage of their journey. A new and exciting chapter lies ahead of them- before them lies a land richer than their dreams and more fruitful than their hopes, and more beautiful than their imagination. To be part of the fulfillment of an ancient promise to Abraham and Sarah must have been overwhelming. All of those feelings and emotions of hope and promise fulfilled and work accomplished needed to be memorialized, just as much as the journey led by God that brought them there.

This symbol of twelve stones is like the Ebenezer we sung about in our opening hymn. Have you ever wondered what that meant? It’s not a shout out to the character Ebenezer Scrooge, but rather it is a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of the Israelites’ journey.

We see symbols everywhere.

There are so many symbols just within our story. We see the number twelve, which often symbolizes universal fulfillment- think of twelve months in a year, the twelve disciples, or the twelve days of Christmas. We see water, symbolizing life and cleansing. And we see stone, symbols of endurance, stability, and permanence. Consider the symbolism of our story: God asking Joshua and the Israelites to gather stones from the river offer to us the idea that the renewing life found in God endures forever. And so, when future generations come across this monument of stones, this is the message that the Israelites will carry with them moving forward: God’s steadfast love does not ever, ever fade or falter. God has been present with the Israelites from the very beginning, and God will be present in their lives until the end. God offers the Israelites the symbol of the twelve stones to help them remember that for the experiences and years to come. And while we can recognize that for the Israelites, so can we assume the same for us. Those twelve stones don’t mark the end of the story, but the closing of chapter.

As I was getting ready to graduate from high school in 2010, I was needing a symbol to help me express my experience of being in that threshold and everything that was happening in my life at the time. I found a song titled “You in the End” by Matt Hires, which starts with the lyrics: “This isn’t the end/ we’re just getting started/ the road travels on and and on and on/ we’re moving again”. On my graduation day, I woke up and played this song to set up the day, and this song has been my go to for other big moments in my life- graduating high school, moving to college, graduating from college, my first day as a teacher, and moving from my small home town of Pintlala, Alabama here to San Anselmo to start my seminary career. The symbols of music and the arts often help us express ourselves. And, thinking theologically, God as creator of the cosmos means that God is found in the symbol itself.

One of the gifts we’ve given to each of our graduates this year is a hand-made prayer shawl. These prayer shawls were made by folks in this congregation and is a symbol of their love. When our graduates put on this prayer shawl, it symbolizes being wrapped in God’s love through our church family.

We use symbols to help us engage in reflection so that we can move forward in life. When we see the symbol of a raised, clinched fist, may we be reminded to be in solidarity with our black and brown siblings who are constantly suffering from systems of racism and oppression in our country. When we read and see the words, “I Can’t Breathe” uttered by George Floyd before his death, these three words symbolize both literal and figurative strangling and lynching of people of color due to systemic racism that continues to rip into every fabric of our society. Symbols are not just meant to be simply reflected upon, but rather call us to move, to act, to dream, to protest. May our symbols be calls of action to seek out love and justice for all in the presence of God.

Before closing out our time together, I’d like to address our graduates:

To our high school graduates, we are just so proud of you. Your life so far has been marked by two major events in history- entering this world in the midst of war and destruction, and ending your secondary schooling in a pandemic and protests. And yet, we have seen each of you live out your unique calling of spreading kindness, showing up, and demanding justice in your own ways- don’t ever let that fade. These conventional symbols associated with graduation that we’re so used to seeing and using don’t necessarily work for your graduation this year, and that’s okay. They’re considered conventional because they follow a trend, but they aren’t absolute. You have the opportunity to express your achievements and hopes and dreams and accomplishments in whatever way you choose.

In her online commencement address, Oprah had the following words to say to you: “I know you may not feel like it, but you are indeed the chosen class for such a time as this — the class of 2020. You’re also a united class, the pandemic class that has the entire world striving to graduate with you. Of course, this is not the graduation ceremony you envisioned. You’ve been dreaming about that walk across the stage, your family and friends cheering you on the caps flung joyfully in the air. But even though there may not be pomp because of our circumstances, never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy and hope.”

Now, as I’ve been thinking about what message I wanted to share with you, I’ve been reminiscing about being in your shoes just ten years ago. Considering its been exactly ten years since I was in your shoes, I thought I’d share with you some things I wish I had known back then:

· This summer is full of potential, and it will go by so fast. Do your best to take things slow and really savor the opportunities you’re given to be with your community.

· There will be times over the next year when you won’t be able to describe all the thoughts and feelings you are having, and that’s okay. Transitions take time, and its okay to have moments of overwhelming thoughts and emotions. Don’t keep those bottled up, but share what you can with mentors in your life to help process those feelings.

· Look for ways to express how you’re feeling during this transition, and meditate and pray over that symbol. Give thanks for that symbol. Share that symbol with others- with us! Use your gifts of creativity to create those symbols of who you are in this moment.

· Just as you are entering into a transition, so are your parents and siblings. If your sibling barges into your room and just wants to sit with you, don’t shoo her away. Savor that peaceful moment. I know that the shelter in place has meant a lot of family time the past few months so it might not feel as pressing, but take time to enjoy a meal around the table with your family. If your parents want to watch a movie one night, enjoy the time with them. This is their way of processing their own transition, and consider those opportunities a symbol of their love.

· As you prepare for your next step into undergraduate work, look into ways to celebrate the diversity of your school. If you’re on the school website, look for an office that focuses on promoting inclusion, diversity, and multicultural affairs. Each school has their own title, but the premise is the same. Plan on participating in their events to get to know a diverse group of folks from all over campus. There are also organizations like Amnesty International who may have a campus presence and who promote justice and peace-building. Consider involvement with them.

· Lastly, a word on church. Its pretty common for folks your age to not find a church to worship in your new community. The temptation is to attend Bedside Baptist, but I do want to encourage you to at least try. Good churches love to welcome new students, and often times it’s a good way to expand your community in college. Plus, you often get free meals, and you can get some stellar baby/dog/house sitting gigs in the process, as well as a chance to connect with other families and folks in a different life stage as you. And know that this church, First Presbyterian San Anselmo, is always here to welcome you home. This expanded church community will do everything it can to continue to support, encourage, and love you on your journey ahead.

Graduates, know that my job as Director of Family Ministries does not end with you graduating. I am always a phone call, text, or carrier pigeon away, and I am just so proud of each and every one of you for completing this stage of your life. Remember, above all, that you are known and that you are loved. Amen.

© 2020 Patrick O'Connor

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