The Joshua Syndrome


A Sermon by the Rt. Rev Catherine S. Roskam, '84

Suffragan Bishop of New York


(This sermon appears here with the express permission of Bishop Roskam and of Bruce Parker, Communications Officer of General Seminary, who first published it in the GTS magazine.  Do not republish without their permission.  -- LC)

    First, I'd like to thank the Dean for inviting me to preach at this event.  It's both a pleasure and an honor. I'd also like to thank the reader. Some of you may know that I used to teach speech here so I am very aware of the readings. They were very well read, and I thank you. I would feel a little more comfortable at this moment, however, if those were the lessons I had prepared. But as they are not, I will forge ahead anyway. Actually, I'm preaching from the Book of Numbers. As those who have been to the Paddock Lectures can tell you, Episcopalians are not known for reading the book of Numbers, so it's all to the good. Anyway....

    May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

    Moses, like many a pastor, was overworked. The burden of the people was too much for him. And so he complained to God. And God didn't just send him a curate. God said go and gather seventy people. That's a good staff. Gather seventy of the elders and I'll put on them some of the spirit that I've put on you. God in his abundance poured out his spirit on those who were registered, only not all had come to the tent of meeting. There were two still in the camp. And wouldn't you know it, a young man comes up and says, "Moses! Moses! Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!" And Joshua says, "Stop them!"

    I think it's really embarrassing to read scripture that is thousands of years old and find human foibles described in it that are so contemporary. Today's reading is a perfect example because what we might call 'Joshua Syndrome" sounds very familiar to me. What is Joshua Syndrome? It's our human propensity to try to bind and regulate the abundance of God. We do it every time we try to put a price tag on free grace. Every time we try to put a person or a group of people beyond the pale of Christ's redemption. Every time we say something like "We can't do that. We've never done it that way before. " It happens whenever we close down to the new ways that God may be prophesying to us in the community of faith.

    Here we are in an academic setting, and I wonder if there isn't an Eldad and a Medad somewhere out there to prophesy to us today. I'd like to suggest that there are.

    One of the ways that we exhibit Joshua Syndrome is to put bounds and try to regulate the exercise of our erudition. Now erudition, according to the dictionary, is extensive knowledge acquired chiefly from books. Does that sound like seminary? Yes, I think it does. We are reluctant to engage from the standpoint of our eruption, with the popular religiosity that is such a part of our society and which forms the context in which you and I are called to do ministry. We look down our noses at it, if the truth be known. We do not engage it and we try to dismiss its remarkable success. But since we have two people prophesying in the camp I want to talk about two expressions of popular religion in particular^Walthough there are certainly more than that. But I want to talk about two that I think are very important and may have a message for us.

    The first is the rise and success of fundamentalist churches. We have not had much conversation with or about fundamentalism till the present. We have considered it something on the margin, not worthy of our attention. And we have made a great mistake. As we have found out to our shock and horror at the recent Lambeth conference, fundamentalism is in our midst in the Anglican Communion and growing rapidly. We fail to address it at our own peril. Now the particular way in which fundamentalism prophesies to us is not in its content.  Because if there's anything that runs counter to the liberality of the Gospel it's that kind of mind-numbing literalism that is really Joshua Syndrome writ large.

    But it does prophesy to us about orientation, if I may use that now loaded word in a totally different context. Fundamentalist churches have enjoyed a good deal of growth. And I hear a lot of buzz about it. I hear about how people want certainty and that it's the theology of certainty that people crave. I would like to suggest that the answer is something different from that. I would like to demythologize those ideas about fundamentalism. I think those churches grow sometimes despite their rigidity. Many people are not comfortable with that aspect of it and some of them fall away in time. Some longitudinal studies have been done that bear this out. But I think their phenomenal growth has to do with their orientation toward mission. Their success has less to do with theology than with money and with the resources that they put behind the spread of the gospel as they understand  it. And that's a prophecy we can learn from.

    Mainstream religion is mainstream no longer. We are in a post-Christian era.  You will be doing ministry among a population that is increasingly either literalist in its understanding of the Bible or totally biblically illiterate.  I've been told that California is somewhere twenty years ahead on the curve.  Now that doesn't mean necessarily progress. It means in terms of societal changes. And I want to tell you that I lived twenty years in the future in my time in San Francisco. And I remember one young man who was one of our leaders in diocesan youth ministry who related to us that he was the only Christian in his public school class and that he had to explain resurrection in Faulkner to his English teacher, because his English teacher had no religious background whatsoever. So there we are, caught in between those two poles. We need to do things differently and not sneer but rather learn from the priorities of churches which are mission oriented. That's Eldad.

    Medad is twelve steps programs. Just about all of us have them in our churches. They have grown phenomenally in the last couple of decades. And you know what? It's our spirituality. And we've relegated it to the basement.  Twelve step spirituality as I think most of you know grew out of the Oxford Groups meeting in an Episcopal Church. And although it is non-sectarian, its method speaks very deeply to the Christian message of hope, of repentance, of forgiveness and amendment of life, yea, even of resurrection. Right now, twelve step is preaching that gospel better than many of us and doing it in an atmosphere where people can be authentic with each other rather than worrying about their image.

    Christian gatherings are not often places where we can be vulnerable to one another. We dare not be authentic with each other because, to use the language of program, we're too busy taking each other's inventory instead of our own.  The way that Medad prophesies to us is to remind us that repentance is at our core. And not somebody else's repentance. Ours. The log in our own eye, and Christ has called us to be about that and not the speck in our brother's.  Medad prophesies that what we have to offer is the life of the Spirit and not committee work. We have to drop the model of church we used in the fifties when men worked a forty-hour week and women worked for the most part in the home and both had considerable disposable time. We have to streamline and prioritize and rethink and renew the way we do church together in this world, in this age. Because people are hungry for what we have to offer in terms of the life of the spirit.

    And all of this has to start with seminary. This evening we are going to be instituting Ward Ewing as the new Dean of General Seminary. I will participate in that event with great joy. I believe that God has raised up for us a leader who is not afraid of the abundance of the spirit, who feels no need to bind it or regulate it, who seems refreshingly free of the Joshua Syndrome and is ready to lead us into conversation with the context in which all of you, all of us, will be exercising our ministry in the months and the years and the decades and the millennium ahead of us.

    Now please do not for a minute misunderstand me. I am not for a minute suggesting that we in any way water down our seminary education. Quite the opposite. I think we have never been at such a need for the kind of education and learning and erudition that seminary and only seminary can provide. But if we cannot contextualize our education we might as well not have it. We are called to teach and preach, not to the world that was, but to the world that is, and yes, even to the one that is to come. We are called to be open to the prophecy that comes to us from some very strange quarters. And we are called to trust that God's abundant spirit is sufficient to equip us for the tasks that lie ahead of us. Amen.


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