Monday, November 27, 2017

11-26-17 Sermon Notes “A Way Out of Now Way: Serving”

11-26-17 Sermon Notes “A Way Out of Now Way: Serving”

   The events of today’s reading occur decades after last week’s about the Ten Commandments. At the end of the Book of Deuteronomy Moses dies and the mantle of leadership passes to Joshua. It was Joshua, not Moses, who led the people of Israel across the Jordan River and into the land God had given. So in our reading today, Joshua, now an old man, is approaching death. 
And just as Moses, at the end of Deuteronomy, left final instructions with Joshua about what the people were to do - reminding them of the journey they had made with God to that point - so we now find Joshua, at the end of the book that bears his name, doing the same thing.

   He reminds Israel of the promise, given first to Abram as he was called from beyond the Euphrates, then passed on through his once unimaginable (even inconceivable) heirs, that God would bless them to be a blessing to others, and that God would give them this land that, 
by Joshua’s time, they finally possess. 

   There’s only one problem…or ten of them. Those pesky commandments keep getting in the way. Especially those first couple about having no other gods or no images of gods. The people of Israel keep messing up on those two in particular - the others as well, but those two are the ones that are particularly worrisome to Joshua. So at the conclusion of today’s passage, Joshua, frustrated by their ongoing failure, says to them, 

“Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.”

   What a Hallmark moment, right? Other translations phrase it more poetically, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” which presents much nicer for the pillows, wallhangings, and cross-stitch patterns on which we usually see this line emblazoned. But unlike other little snatches of scripture that, when taken out of their larger contexts sometimes don’t always hold up as well, this one can stand on it’s own. We can be certain of what this statement means, what it commits the proclaimer to, even without reading the rest of the book. 
Joshua proclaims loudly and clearly, “We will follow the Lord!”
   But listen to this. Here’s how this reading, which almost always ends with this well known phrase, continues - what Paul Harvey would have called the rest of the story:
   Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! The Lord is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. 
He has done these mighty signs in our sight. He has protected us the whole way we’ve gone and in all the nations through which we’ve passed. The Lord has driven out all the nations before us, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

   Well Joshua is skeptical to say the least. These people haven’t shown that they could successfully follow God to the end of the block, first under Moses’ and then Joshua’s leadership. So when I read this next piece, in my mind, I heard it as though spoken by Tom Hanks with that “there’s no crying in baseball’ voice from A League of Their Own:

“You can’t serve the Lord, because [God] is a holy God…a jealous God. [God] won’t forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you leave the Lord and serve foreign gods, then [God] will turn around and do you harm and finish you off, in spite of having done you good in the past.”

   But the people persist - they’re sure they can do this. 
  “No! The Lord is the one we will serve.”
   So Joshua said to them, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”
They said, “We are witnesses!”
   So Joshua says, “…put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the Lord, the God of Israel.”
The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and will obey him.”
   So Joshua writes a covenant for the people in the instruction scroll that Moses had passed on. 
Then, the passage says, 
he took a large stone and put it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. Joshua said to all the people, “This stone will serve as a witness against us, because it has heard all the Lord’s words that he spoke to us. It will serve as a witness against you in case you aren’t true to your God.”  Then Joshua sent the people away to each one’s legacy.”

   So Joshua calls the people out. Fine, he suggests, you can SAY you’re going to follow the Lord, but everything you say and do can and will be held against you in a court of law… as it were. And if you read on into the next book, Judges, you find that yes indeedy doody, as Joshua suspected, the people couldn’t do it - they turned to their “other gods,” their little hand crafted gods, their carved stone gods, their fired ceramic gods, and if they’d had them their blow mold plastic gods as well. The people of Israel fell like snowflakes. They fell like a house of cards. They dropped like rocks. They collapsed like all the male politicians, journalists, comedians, actors, and celebrities who are dropping all across the spectrum these days amidst various sexual abuse accusations. 

   Oh, those “other gods” are tempting aren’t they? 
And who knew they wielded so much power? 
Certainly they are false gods, there is no other God but the one True God…but these little gods of paganism, chauvinism or whatever isms, still seduce men with power, pleasure, and entitlement and then raise their ugly heads and bite some men right in the…ego. And I say men because it is nearly always men. 
And I have to admit that I cringe when the people I like or support have been caught up in this moment, and I have smiled when the people I don’t like have been ensnared. And honestly, I think this is just beginning - this has a long way to go before it’s over - and that might be a good thing. 
   Jim Wallis, the Evangelical writer and theologian once described racism as America’s original sin. That may be the case. I think the events unfolding, nearly every day before us now though, indicate that this sexist-misogynist-patriarchal power trip mess could be the world’s original sin. And here’s why I say that.

   We know from our previous study that the entire Bible largely reflects the patriarchal culture in which it was written. And by patriarchy we mean a society organized according to the idea of the supremacy of men, of rule by male descent, or where power and control are predominantly held by males.  For example, historically many traditions in the church at large, owing to that patriarchal slant, ascribe blame for the presence of Sin in the world to the woman Eve, when even a cursory reading of that text reveals that the man Adam was right there next to her being seduced by the same temptation and said nothing. That, along with various passages of scripture that we have talked about here before, that seem to limit or diminish the role of women, have created an atmosphere and a skewed point of view in what is primarily but not exclusively the Evangelical branches of the larger church, that have led to women being held in a diminished role or value, of servitude, and at the extremes even of sexual and other forms of slavery, and of being considered property of lesser value than cattle, which has only fed into this cancer of male-power, male-dominance that has persisted for centuries. In some Evangelical traditions those beliefs persist and are reinforced even today, and reflect a centuries-long church supported patriarchy that we see playing out in the news. 
When Jesus came along he very dramatically rejected patriarchy and many patriarchal and otherwise marginalizing practices, and it got him killed. 
Within two to three centuries after his crucifixion, the elevated roles women had gained in what would become the church of his followers that developed immediately afterwards, were quashed and patriarchy was again the norm. As it has been ever since. 

   So Joshua’s question to the people of Israel - which gods will you follow - is as much a question for the church today as it was then. Which gods will we follow? As we said last week with the Ten Commandments, we all have “other gods” that we kneel down to in one way or another. Whether that god is one of the isms - racism, sexism, nationalism, militarism, consumerism, materialism, or another - or whether that god is a social, economic, or political philosophy, we all have  “other gods” that tempt us, that nag at us to be worshiped, 
to be sacrificed to, that seek to come between us and the One True God. 
   Now Joshua’s response to the people - that if they pledge their allegiance to God and then turn back to these “other gods” that God will harm them - I find problematic, not because I don’t like it or because I’m “soft on sin,” but because I don’t believe that it reflects the nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. 
That may very well be how Joshua thought about God, but on the other side of the Christ experience I think we have a different, more grace-filled understanding of who and how God is. But if we understand Joshua’s warning to mean that there will be natural consequences to these decisions we make and that because of our free will God will not prevent those chickens from coming home to roost, then I would certainly agree with that. You see, when we say we are going to follow God by following Jesus, that we’re a Christian, we’ve set a bar, a standard. As followers of Jesus Christ - which we all profess to be - the bar that we’ve set, the standard we’ve created, not only precludes following these other gods but also commits us to following the standard Christ set for us of what is right and what is wrong. Jesus Christ, in his life and in his teachings, drew a line - a line tempered by grace, I agree - but a line nonetheless, of what it means to be one of his followers, a disciple. When we are baptized into the faith, whether as an infant or as an adult, a commitment is made to begin a journey toward that ideal of being a follower of Jesus. When a profession of faith is made on our own, we commit to that ideal. It is an understanding of what is right, of what is wrong, of how we are to be in relationship with God and with one another. And even more, as part of our profession of faith, in all Christian traditions, we vow to not only renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers of this world, but also to accept the power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves. 

   Unfortunately, much of the world, and with it many Christians, seem to have lost track of that ideal. When the sins of celebrities or others who lay no claim to a faith are exposed I’m saddened but not overly surprised. But when an Alabama Senatorial candidate who made a name for himself by advocating for the public display of the same Ten Commandments he now makes a mockery of is revealed to have abused, assaulted, and molested women and girls - 
and then is defended and excused by self-proclaimed followers of Christ, despite the overwhelming evidence against him, I’m appalled. 

   You see, that whole “as for me and my house, we will follow the Lord” thing is not just a kitschy slogan to hang on a wall and dust off in time for family at Thanksgiving. It’s a pledge of allegiance to God, and Joshua warns we best not say it if we don’t mean it, or if we don’t intend to at least try to follow it. Who we follow, who we serve, how we relate to God and to one another isn’t something to be considered lightly. Yes, we’re all going to fail in some ways; 
I fall short in some way every day, but God knew we would, and that’s why God surrounds us in grace. But we can’t sit back, assume that we have the right - as men or women - to hurt or oppress someone else, to exercise our power to whatever degree we have it, for our own pleasure, our own satisfaction, or our own gain, or at the expense of others,and then try to claim to be a follower of Christ.

     Theologian Robert Cornwall writes of this passage, 
“What Joshua is doing here is asking for the undivided loyalty of the people to God. In this conversation, the issue is whether they will serve Yahweh, or the other gods served by their neighbors and their ancestors. 
But what about us? Do we have divided loyalties? Is our faith compromised by loyalties to nation or culture? Does our faith define our politics, or does our politics define our faith?”

   And I think that’s an important question - does our faith define our politics, or does our politics define our faith? For years now, in Washington and in political capitals around the nation and around the world, the question of what is right and what is wrong has been subverted by what is politically expedient. 
That is, what helps “my people” - be they Democrats or Republicans - obtain or maintain political power. The Governor of Alabama, a woman, said the other day that the accusations against Roy Moore are deeply disturbing and that the accusers seem credible, but that she would still vote for him because they need to keep that Senate seat in Republican hands. The President’s response suggests that he believes it would be better to have an accused child molester in the Senate than a Democrat. 
   And this is not new - it didn’t start with Roy Moore, or Bill Clinton, or John Kennedy - it goes back to the very beginning of our country, even to the beginning of time. People have always sought to exert power and influence at every level of society for their own benefit, rightness or wrongness be damned. It happens all through scripture from Genesis to Revelation. 
It happened in the early church and it happens in the church today. It happens in every nation, on every continent, all around the globe. Why? 
Because we choose to serve other gods. We choose to allow these “other gods” to have greater influence in our lives and in our decision-making than the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. And we do it because it’s easier, because the bar is set lower. So what are we to do?

   Theologian and writer Bob Ekblad asks in his comments on this passage: “What are some of the belief systems, attachments, and allegiances that compromise our full allegiance to God and the divine realm? Have we too readily believed our ancestors’ stories that attribute success to hard work, human intelligence, capital, ethnic, or national superiority?” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 478]. What are the ideologies that draw us away from our allegiance to God? What are the enticements of this world that lead us away from God’s vision for creation? I have written a book on the Lord’s Prayer, in which I argue that the Lord’s Prayer is our pledge of ultimate allegiance to God and God’s realm. How seriously do we take that prayer? Is it something we say by rote, or do we mean it?”

   So, I think the first step is for us to decide who it is that we will follow? We need to take the time to truly consider individually and collectively, in our homes, in our families, in our workplaces, in our church, what are those ideologies or enticements that draw us away from who and what God calls us to be and to do. And I think we need to seriously consider, in light of all that is going on with the sexual abuse scandal and in other ways, does our faith shape our politics or does our politics shape our faith? 

   As Bob Cornwall writes, 
   “Joshua wants to make sure that the people of Israel have thought deeply about their own allegiances. He reminds them that they have not always been consistent. They have been enticed by other gods. They have been susceptible to powers other than God. So now, as Joshua sees the end of his term as leader drawing near, he wants to make sure the people are committed to God and to God’s covenant…It is time once again to reaffirm that promise, which is now embodied in Israel. Joshua has made his commitment. In stewardship terms, he’s turned in his pledge card. The question is, will the rest of the people do the same?”
   "And the people of Israel wholeheartedly say, [Yes! We will serve God!] “And Joshua asks are you sure? Are you willing to pay the price? [Membership has its privileges, but failure has its costs - not just individually but for the society at large.] Joshua makes it clear that allegiance to God and God’s realm must be more than lip service. It requires our full attention, our full embodied attention. That’s difficult for us. Our allegiances do get split. It’s easier to go along with the culture. It’s easier to embrace nation than God’s realm because nation is so much more tangible. Yet, here is the call of God. Whom will you serve?”

   In Advent, which begins our new liturgical year next Sunday, we anticipate the coming of Christ and the new covenant that he brings. But on this Sunday, Reign of Christ Sunday, the final Sunday of the current liturgical year, we celebrate Christ’s presence, his birth, his life, his teaching, his death, his resurrection, and his eternal reign - all of it - TODAY! 

   We worship a God revealed to us in Jesus Christ who, when it seems like all is lost, when it seems like evil has the upper hand, always, ALWAYS, provides a way out, a way through, a way out of no way. When the floodwaters of life and all that we face appear on the verge of overwhelming us, God saves us. 
When the future as we see it laid out before us seems hopeless, God blesses us. When danger, toil, and snares threaten to engulf us, God protects us. 
When we feel lost and don’t know how to proceed, God delivers us. And when we wonder who we are, why we are, and how we are to be, God consecrates us as beloved children of God and provides us with a way out of no way. And after all that God has done for us, after all that God has promised us, it falls to us to make a decision, to answer the question, who will we serve? Of all the temptations that face us, of all the “other gods” who seek to seduce us into their web, who will we follow? 

   Following Jesus Christ offers us a way to know and be known by God that will shape and reshape the world more closely to the dream that God had for us when we were created. Making the wrong choice, following the wrong gods is dragging down people and societies all around the world, with more on the news every night. Being a follower of Jesus Christ doesn’t provide us an easy life, but it does provide us a life filled with hope. And it provides us with the strength to face down the “other gods” who would entice us into living by a lower standard that hurts and demeans other people, and in turn hurts and demeans the world. 
The difference between right and wrong that Christ helps us struggle with is not a question of political expediency - it’s a moral question. It’s an ethical question. 
And it’s a question we answer each and every day, many times a day, in whether we live like Christ, and love like Christ, or whether we live as the world lives. The Christ who reigns forever offers us strength, that we might not allow the world’s lesser gods to entice us into a lesser standard than the love God as shown through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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