Good morning, Friends! Thank you all so much for being here today.
This is Memorial Day weekend. I know a lot of people are spending time with family today, which is a wonderful thing.
When I was a boy in Vermont, we didn’t have mattress sales and car sales and every other kind of sale on Memorial Day. I grew up in a small town up in the mountains. And on Memorial Day, we had chicken barbecue at the church. The whole town came.
And after lunch, we all went outside, and had a parade. We didn’t just watch the parade. We all were the parade.
The high school band went first – all 20 of them – and then the rest of the town fell in behind them. We walked a couple of hundred yards up the hill to the green, and stood around the Civil War monument.
The oldest man in town – when I was a boy, it was always Philo Robinson, who was the son of a Civil War veteran – pulled a paper out of his pocket and read the order that had established the tradition of Memorial Day, a couple of years after the war.
After he was done, the bugle player from the band played Taps, off in the woods behind the monument. One of the men handed out flags to all the children, and we went down into the cemetery and put flags on all the veterans’ graves.
Everybody brought huge baskets of lilacs from home – we have a lot of lilac bushes in Vermont, and by Memorial Day they’re all in bloom. And we spread those around, too. People were quiet, and thoughtful, and considerate of each other. That was Memorial Day.
I want to read a couple of pieces from the Old Testament this morning, back from a period of great suffering and hardship. The people of Israel had been delivered from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. They were out in the desert, trying to find their way home again.
God gave them some new ideas about how to live together. We call those ideas the Ten Commandments. In Hebrew, that also translates as the ten teachings.
God said that these were things which were essential for life. Break these teachings, God said, and you will all die.
“Tell these things to your whole family,” God said. “Talk about them when you get up in the morning, and when you go to sleep at night, when you sit down for a meal, and when you leave for work. Tie these teachings around your arm and your forehead, God said. I’ve written them on tablets of stone. You keep them in your heart. Never forget them. These are the teachings that will keep you alive.”
“I am the Lord, your God. Have no other gods in your life, or any kind of idol that even looks like a god. Don’t misuse my name. Take a full day of rest, every week. Don’t make anyone else work on that day, either.
Honor your parents. Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t hanker after anything that isn’t yours, that belongs to your neighbor – not their house, their spouse, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:1-17)
“Do these things, and you will live,” God said. “Fail to do these things, and you’ll die. You, and your whole family, will perish, if you forget these teachings.”
And the people remembered what God said. They carried the tablets with them, wherever they went, for hundreds of years. Let me read you an interesting part of that story.
The Lord said to Moses: Tell the people to build a chest of special wood. Make the chest four feet long, two and a half feet wide, and two and a half feet high.
Cover it inside and out with pure gold and put a gold edging around the lid. Make four gold rings and fasten one of them to each of the four legs of the chest.
Make two poles of special wood. Cover the poles with gold and put them through the rings, so the chest can be carried by the poles. Don’t ever remove the poles from the rings. When I give you the Ten Commandments written on two flat stones, put them inside the chest.
Cover the lid of the chest with pure gold. Then hammer out two winged creatures of pure gold and fasten them to the lid at the ends of the chest. The creatures must face each other with their wings spread over the chest.
Inside the chest place the two flat stones with the Ten Commandments and put the gold lid on top of the chest. I will meet you there between the two creatures and tell you what my people must do and what they must not do.
Moses told the people that the Lord had said, “Store up two quarts of manna, because I want future generations to see the food I gave you during the time you were in the desert after I rescued you from Egypt.”
Then Moses told Aaron, “Put some manna in a jar and store it in the place of worship for future generations to see.”
Aaron followed the Lord’s instructions and put the manna in the sacred chest for safekeeping. The Israelites ate manna for forty years, before they came to the border of the Promised Land.
The Lord told Moses: Call together the twelve tribes of Israel and tell the leader of each tribe to write his name on the staff he carries as a symbol of his authority. Make sure Aaron’s name is written on the one from the Levi tribe, then collect all the staffs.
Place the staffs in the tent right in front of the sacred chest where I appear to you. I will choose a man to be my priest, and his stick will sprout. After that happens, I won’t have to listen to any more complaints about you.
Moses told the people what the Lord had commanded, and they gave him the staffs from the leaders of the twelve tribes, including Aaron’s from the Levi tribe. Moses took the staffs and placed them in the Lord’s sacred tent.
The next day when Moses went into the tent, flowers and almonds were already growing on Aaron’s stick. Moses brought the twelve sticks out of the tent and showed them to the people. Each of the leaders found his own and took it.
But the Lord told Moses, “Put Aaron’s stick back! Let it stay near the sacred chest as a warning to anyone who might think about rebelling. If these people don’t stop their grumbling about me, I will wipe them out.” Moses did what he was told.Exodus 25:10-22, Exodus 16:32-35, Numbers 17:1-10
That is a really interesting story. During a time of incredible hardship, after they escaped from slavery and then almost died, the people of Israel took the things they learned, and put them in this special box, and carried it with them everywhere.
In most translations, the box is called the ark of the covenant. “Covenant” really means “promise”, a promise between God and God’s people. The promise was really simple: do these things, follow this teaching, and God’s going to keep us alive.
Along with the Ten Commandments, they took a sample of the manna, the miracle bread from Heaven that God provided for them, fresh every day, for 40 years in the desert.
“Don’t forget how God provided for us,” they said to each other. “Keep a reminder of that daily bread, and never forget what God did to keep us alive.”
The third thing they put in the gold-covered promise box, was a staff – kind of like a walking stick. That was a reminder about leadership. The leaders from each of the twelve tribes of Israel brought their personal staff – the symbol that they were leaders.
They put their staffs together, and they left them overnight with God. By the next morning, one staff had sprouted leaves. It was filled with life!
It was the staff that belonged to Aaron, Moses’ brother, the head of the tribe of Levi. Aaron had raised up his staff in Egypt, and miracles had happened. Aaron and his family were going to be the leaders of God’s people, from here on.
So, the box or ark was going to hold the Ten Commandments, plus the miracle bread that kept them alive, plus the symbol of leadership, the living sign that God was leading them.
And they didn’t just make the box. They carried it with them, for hundreds of years. When they got to the Promised Land, the priests carried the box right up to the River Jordan, and the water of the river rolled back, just like it did at the Red Sea.
They carried the memory box with them into battle. Aaron’s family, the Levites, would carry the box a half a mile out in front of the army, and for years, they always won. When they got to Jericho, they carried the ark around the city seven times, blowing trumpets the whole time, and the city walls collapsed. The ark was that powerful.
People came to be superstitious about the ark – they said you would die if you touched it by accident. If Israel ever lost the ark, they would lose battles.
But all that it was, really, was a box with carrying poles, about the size of a trunk. And the box was filled with teachings and memories.
It made me wonder, this week, if we had a box or an ark of our own, what would we keep in it?
I looked on Amazon this week, and you can get a cheap plastic replica of the Ark of the Covenant – it’ll cost you less than $20. It looks pretty cheesy, actually.
But what if we had a memory box, something to hold our memories of the past year and a half of hardship and suffering – what would we keep in it? What would we remember, to remind ourselves of what we’ve lived through?
I think we’d remember the fear of the last year and a half. We’d remember the shortages. The unemployment. The isolation, the quarantine. We’d remember the closed schools and the closed stores.
We’d remember all the masks and the hand sanitizer and the tape on the floors to remind us to keep our distance. We’d remember the missed vacations and the empty stadiums.
We’d remember all the deaths, and vaccine shortages, and the millions of people left with lingering illness.
But those aren’t the kind of things the people of Israel carried in their memory box, in the Ark of the Promise. Remember, the things they carried into the future were positive – the teaching of God, the food God gave them, the leadership they needed.
If we were to make our own ark, as a remider of the past year and a half, what would we choose carry into our future?
- All the extra time we had with our loved ones. Sometimes it was hard being at home, but many of us enjoyed a lot of extra time together.
- The times we all reached out, by phone or e-mail or social media, to strengthen and support each other.
- The incredible courage of people who risked their own lives, to provide medical treatment, and deliver food, and keep things going.
- The discovery that millions of people made, that they could work from home, and save time and money and effort, and not be slaves to an office. And the discovery that other millions of people made, that they really missed coming in and seeing people every day. A whole lot of people discovered this year that they could participate in worship online. We still have more people watching our worship message each week than we had here in the building, before COVID.
- I’m going to remember the feeling of incredible relief after I got my second vaccine shot. It felt like a hundred pounds came off my shoulders that morning. I never want to take my health and safety and freedom for granted, ever again.
- Even when things get back to normal – whatever the new normal is – I want to remember to give thanks for all the things that kept us alive during this unbelievable time.
- I hope we remember that God didn’t abandon us this past year. I hope we remember how much we prayed, and how much we needed help. I hope we remember the people who never gave up, and kept working and kept helping and kept praying. Because God and prayer helped to keep us all alive.
Part of what’s important about the story of the Ark of the Promise, is what they chose to remember and carry into the future with them. They chose to carry the teaching of God. They chose to carry the food God gave them. They chose to carry the reminder of God’s leadership.
They also chose NOT to carry a lot of things that would have been a burden to them. They left behind the burden of slavery. They left behind all the fake gods of the people who enslaved them.
They left behind their divisions. They left behind their old fears. They wouldn’t let themselves be burdened by their mistakes and failures. They kept moving on, with God leading them, by night and by day.
They only things they carried with them, were God’s teaching, the memory that God had provided for them, and the symbol of God’s leadership and miracles.
What kind of things are we going to carry into our future? What are we going to remember?