I learned to march when I was about 12 years old. You might hear that today, knowing me, and think I’m talking about marching against some sort of social injustice. It would make sense if you think that, but I’m not talking about that kind of marching.
In middle school I really thought I wanted to go to one of the military academies. And so, I joined the Civil Air Patrol. And the first night I went to a meeting, they taught us how to march. We learned to stand there, first, at attention, not moving. Then we learned how to move. We learned how to march in formation, moving at a brisk pace, turning on a time. Column lefts, and column rights.
I didn’t end up going the military route, but I always appreciate the discipline I had learned as a military cadet. Marching made sense to me. Stay aware, listen for the next movement, and keep moving as a unit. You will make it to your destination together. Those lessons helped me later on when I started to work for justice and equality. I began marching in a very different way, but with the same sense that if we stayed together, we would make it to where we needed to be.
Today’s Scripture lesson is one about marching, too. The Hebrew people have been walking for a long time. They’ve walked out of the land of Egypt, where they were oppressed, and out into the wilderness of Sinai. For forty years they followed Moses, who told them that he was leading them to the promised land. It takes so long that by the time they finally get close, Moses dies. He only gets to see the promised land from afar.
Before he dies, though, Moses appoints a new leader. His young assistant, Joshua, is chosen to lead the people into the promised land of Canaan. Joshua brings the people into the land, and to the gates of a city named Jericho. This is the place God has promised them, but this will not be easy. The people in Jericho do not want Joshua and his people there. In fact, Scripture tells us that the people inside the walls of Jericho fear the Israelites and even God.
Meanwhile, outside, Joshua’s folks are trying to figure out what to do. The walls are tall, the gates are locked, and they have no clue how to get in. But God tells Joshua what to do. Look, God says, take your soldiers, and circle the city. Have seven priest with seven trumpets lead the way, and take the ark of the covenant with you. Do this for six days.
And then, on the seventh day, circle the city again, not just once but seven times. Once you have, blow the trumpet, and have everyone shout, and then…the walls of Jericho will come tumbling down.
And so that’s what they do. For six days they march around the city, and blow the trumpets. And on the seventh they do it seven times, and the people shout, and the walls do indeed come down. The Israelites get their city.
The story of Jericho is a lot of fun in church school. We can have the kids march around in a circle, and blow instruments. Then they can shout out, and we can knock over some boxes. It’s an easy story to reenact. But for those of us upstairs this morning, we don’t get to march around and blow trumpets, or knock walls down. We just get to try to figure out what this story means to us today.
I realized this week that I had never preached on Jericho before. Not at this church, and not at any other church. And as I was thinking about it this week, I had no idea at first about how to relate this to our lives. (I briefly considered reenacting this upstairs too, but I thought that might be a little much.)
In time, I came back to marching. I remembered the discipline of learning how to keep marching that I learned as a military cadet. And I remembered the passion of marching for justice that I learned as a young adult. And I thought about those Israelites who kept marching around Jericho, and how they needed a little bit of both.
I wonder if they wondered why they were doing this. Why did they have to march around the city, blowing trumpets? Why did they have to do it not just one day, but for seven days? And on that last day, why did they have to circle not just once, but seven times? Why did it take the marching, and the shouting, for God to let them enter the city?
And then I started to think about the kind of walls that surround Jericho. Scripture tells us that the people who lived inside of them were afraid of the Israelites and of God. And so they built these walls that were tall and thick, and they vowed that no one would be able to knock them down. Even if the Israelites brought hammers and rammed the walls, nothing could make them fall.
But the Israelites didn’t need hammers. They didn’t need to even touch them. In the end, all they needed was this: their feet, their voices, and a little time. When they had all three, the walls that fear had built up crumbled into dust.
And that’s where the relevance for today comes. Because we live in a world where a lot of walls have been built up over fear. Dismantling these walls is not an easy process. Sometimes it can take so long, and be so tedious. But with everyone who joins in the march, and raises their voice, we come one step closer to shouting down the walls.
I think of some of the walls we have known. Recently my older sister was telling me a story about growing up in small town Virginia. On Saturdays they would go to the movie theatre downtown. Reflecting back now she realizes that something happened without anyone ever saying why. When the teenagers would arrive, the white kids would sit downstairs in the theatre, and the black kids would go up and sit in the balcony.
She realizes now why that was. It was a decade or so after segregation has been officially ended, but the legacies of Jim Crow still prevailed in the rural South. That’s just the way it had always been, and despite what the law said, people weren’t changing just yet. The walls had not yet tumbled down.
I thought about her story and I thought about a march I participated in about a month ago. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, a similar rally was rumored to be happening in Boston. Like some of you, I went down to Boston Common to be part of a counter-rally against racism. That day the original rally did take place. Only a few dozen people showed up in the end. They were vastly outnumbered by the counter-protestors. They held their rally and then, with the protection of police, left the park.
Just after they left, the march against racism made it to the park. We stood on a hill and watched it come in. Thousands of people streamed into Boston Common. Looking down the street, all you could see were blocks upon blocks of marchers. Shouting words of hope, they entered the gates, and the walls, or at least a small part of them, came tumbling down.
There is a lot of work to do when it comes to dismantling inequality, but I believe that if Jericho teaches us anything, it teaches us to keep marching, and keep shouting out the truth. The movie theatre that my sister sat in the early-1970’s Virginia was not so long ago. And there are still plenty of places where that kind of thinking is allowed to go one, safely ensconced behind the high walls of fear.
But this is not what God wills. And so people have begun to fall into the ranks with one another, and have begun to circle those walls, speaking the truth until they fall. And one day, if we keep marching, they will.
This is only one wall, though. There are walls everywhere, just waiting for us to bring them down. The good news is that we can. We can do it if we stay in formation, keep raising our voices, and keep following God. The fear that builds up barriers to understanding might look powerful, but in the end it can be brought down by our refusing to stay silent, and refusing to stop marching.
One of the reasons I believe in church is because I need a community to march with me through life. I need to be surrounded with others who can blow the horn, and raise their voices, and testify to the love of God that we know. None of us does the work alone. We make walls fall when we refuse to leave one another isolated.
We are circling some mighty walls these days. They have been standing for far too long. The good news is that the crowd that surrounds us is growing, we are marching towards justice, and we are speaking the truths that we know. The walls will fall, and when they do, we will rejoice.
For now, we keep marching, with God, and with one another. Amen?