Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
November 23, 2008
STONES OF MEMORY, STONES OF HOPE
Texts: Joshua 4:19-24; I Peter 2:4-7, 9-10
The Jordan River was swollen with seasonal rains the day Joshua led the people to cross over into the Promised Land. When they arrived it looked impossible to cross.
Then God gave the instructions to Joshua: Tell the priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant into the river. When the priests’ feet hit the water, God said, “I will cause the waters to stop and you will be able to cross.”
Now that’s “faith”! That’s how faith works, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Sometimes we have to put our feet into the river before the waters cease! According to Hebrew legend when the Hebrew people stood earlier at the Red Sea only one person had the courage and faith to jump in first: Nachson ben Aminadav. We always need leaders who will take the first step.
The priests followed God’s command and waded into the swollen waters. The waters stopped, the priests stood in the middle of the river with the Ark of the Covenant and the people passed safely across the river bed into the Promised Land.
Then God told Joshua to choose twelve men, representatives of each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Instruct them to go into the river bed and each pick a stone and carry it out on their shoulders. These stones, said God, will be a memorial to what I have done.
So they carried the stones and placed them down in a circle of twelve stones. The place was called Gilgal, which means “circle of stones.”
Carry these stones from the river bed, God said, so that when your children ask, “What do these stones mean?” you can tell them how Israel crossed the Jordan on dry land, so people will know the power and mercy of God.
Stones of memory, and stones of hope.
We have our own stones of memory, stones of hope.
On this Thanksgiving week in America we remember the pilgrims who made their perilous voyage across the Atlantic and landed at Plymouth Rock. When we see the granite rock jutting out above the harbor we tell our children, “That’s Plymouth Rock,” that’s where our nation began.
Remember the rocks the American astronauts brought back from the moon? Who would have thought, even a few years before, that such a thing was possible? But there they were, picking up moon rocks, putting them in bags and carrying them back to earth, these rocks, silent testimonies that we had walked on the moon. If you visit the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., there embedded in the middle of one of their magnificent stained-glass windows is one of the rocks from the moon.
People of God are always storing up stones of memory and hope, stones which tell of how God has helped us in the past and therefore give us hope to move into the future.
Samuel took a stone and set it up as a memorial to the victory God helped them win over the Philistines. Its name was “Ebenezer” - - which means “stone of help.”
Here I raise mine Ebenezer
hither by thy help I’ve come
and I hope by thy good pleasure
safely to arrive at home!
What are the Ebenezers in your own personal life? Places, moments when God has been your help?
That stone on that ring on your finger? That pin marking your years of sobriety? A scar on your body which is a visible reminder that God has brought you through - - of healing that has happened, that God has brought you through war, injury, illness. A member who has been given the gift of sobriety said to me: I now live by the words “Let go and let God.” And I’m so grateful God did not let go of me until I was able to “let go and let God.”
Do you remember when God entered your life? The day of your baptism? Some turning point where God brought you out, passed you over from death into life, from darkness to light, bondage to freedom?
Baptists have their stones of memory, stones of hope, mementoes of how God has called us and used us.
In the winter of 1636 Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and sent into the howling wilderness. He did not know when he left if he would survive.
Why was he banished? He preached the limited sovereignty of government and the separation of church and state. He preached that Native Americans were the sole owners of American land and should be compensated for it. That will do it!
Cast into the midwinter wilderness, he was rescued by the Narragansett Indians. Then he bought land from them to found Providence, then Rhode Island as a colony of religious liberty, then later the first Baptist church in America.
In April, 1970, Mt. Carmel Baptist Church and Myers Park Baptist Church co-hosted the first meeting of the American Baptist Churches of the South. It was and is a sign of the presence of the kingdom of God, of the holy work of reconciliation that God has called us to, where black and white, rich and poor, women and men build a church and a society based on the justice and mercy of God.
Yes, we have our great Baptist stones. I name five:
∙ believer’s baptism - that we baptize those who have decided to follow Jesus and be transformed by his life, even as we in this church accept and honor all forms of baptism.
∙ soul competence and soul freedom - two great seventeenth-century phrases which mean that every person is competent under God and led by the Spirit to open scripture and interpret it for his or her life, and if competent should be free to do so.
∙ local church and autonomy - that the local congregation is competent to open scripture and led by the Spirit, interpret it for its life and faith, and if competent must be free.
∙ separation of church and state - When church and state lie down in the same bed together, nothing good can come.
∙ religious liberty - coerced faith is no faith at all. Religious liberty, freedom of conscience is the foundation of true faith and a guarantee of all liberties. Freedom of religion is a foundation stone of a free society. That’s why it is included in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Our own congregation has its stones of memory and stones of hope: Stones which mark our founding in 1943 amid WWII; cornerstones on buildings raised in 1952 and 1962 and 2003. Stones which signify challenging times when God has brought us through. Stones of witness and courage when we have stood for the best truth we knew.
Here we raise our Ebenezer!
But the greatest stone of all is the stone which the builders rejected but which has become the cornerstone, the Living Stone, Jesus Christ.
Remember the words of Peter? Remember how Jesus had named him Cephas, Rock. But Peter wrote:
Come to him, a living stone...
and like living stones let yourselves
be built into a spiritual house.
For you, writes Paul, echoing words of Moses at Sinai,
...are a chosen race, a royal
priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
We?!, we might say with incredulous voice. Me? Yes, you! And for what purpose?
...that you may proclaim the mighty acts of God who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. For once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Anybody out there received mercy? Been brought from darkness to light, bondage to freedom? Anybody been isolated, exiled, alone and been given a people, community?
Anybody out there come to Christ the living stone?
Christ has given us stones in time to mark his life and his gift. Here are five: Advent, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost.
Mom, what does Advent mean? It means “Coming,” the coming of Jesus into the world, and our waiting for his coming and preparing for it like a mom and dad waiting for and preparing for their child to be born.
Dad, what does Christmas mean? It means, as the black preacher put it, that God came down the back staircase of heaven with a baby in his arms. It means that the infinite God has come to dwell with us in human flesh, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh.
Mom, what does Good Friday mean? It’s the day Jesus was crucified. And why do we call it “good”? Because while people were killing him he was forgiving them. That terrible day showed how deep God’s love is for us.
Dad, what does Easter mean? It means that on Sunday, the third day after Jesus’ death, God raised him from the dead to be the Risen One, our Living Lord, who is alive and with us even now.
Mom, what does Pentecost mean? It means that the Spirit of God that moved across the face of the deep and created the heavens and the earth, the Spirit that God blew into us at our birth and made us living souls, the spirit that blew across the valley of dry bones and raised the nation of Israel to new life, the spirit that hovered over Mary’s womb and brought forth a child of heaven and earth, that same Spirit fell upon Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem and created the church. And that same Spirit is in you too!
Mom, Dad, what does Communion mean? This little glass of grape juice, this bread? It means that we remember Jesus’ life, how he lived for us and how he died for us.
“This is my body broken for you; this is my blood shed for you,” stands for his whole life given for us, from his birth in Bethlehem to his death on the cross, how he gave himself to God and to us, how he loved people and taught people and healed people, and forgave people and never stopped, even when he was dying. And that’s how he loves us even today.
We call it “Communion” because when we eat this bread and drink this juice, Jesus comes close to eat and drink with us. He has promised to meet us here. At this table.
So come, all of you, to that living stone, Jesus Christ, eat and drink with him, taste his mercy, receive his power, give thanks for all that God has done, and be yourselves living stones, alive with grace of God.