Sermons

Incline… Rev. Dee Ledger, November 12, 2017

Our choices can either make or break us…so the saying goes.  If we choose well, we tend to believe that our lives will move swimmingly along.  Choose poorly and life can become difficult, if not burdensome.  I find the thought simplistic, as much of life is trying to figure out what do to with those choices that give both freedom and grief at the very same time.

Perhaps you can relate.  You choose to leave a town or city geographically and for good reasons, but your heart never, ever leaves.  Or you choose to leave a spouse or partner, but your future is much more uncertain and is, at first, much harder to live economically, socially, and emotionally.  You choose one treatment option over another, but the effects of your preferred treatment leave you with neuropathy or odd pains that you never experienced before.  Choices are complicated creatures; we can only see so far, who is to say what exactly might happen down the road or what the after-effects will be.

And yet.

In our story from Joshua, which we read in part, Joshua gathers the people at Shechem for a re-covenanting ceremony.  The context is that the people have completed occupation of the Promised Land.  They have been thru many trials and triumphs.  Joshua is their leader and he calls them together to remember all the things that God has done for them: calling Abraham, multiplying his descendants and their ancestors, leading them out of Egypt and saving them from Pharaoh’s decrees, providing sustenance in the wilderness, leading them as they made the Promised Land their home.   In the language of scripture, God says, “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.”

Basically, God says, “I have been your God through all of your escapades, do you remember?  And knowing this, do you pledge fidelity to me alone?”

We might wonder about the exclusivity that God demands.  It might sound a bit too quid pro quo.  I have done this for you; now you do this for me.  In Joshua’s case, he demands that the people put away their other gods, the gods of other lands and other peoples, the gods of the past that were unworthy to the task of being the particular, living God to the Israelites.

In a multi-faith context and diverse society, we respect the gods of our sisters and brothers.  Many of us take this a step further and enjoy the differing beliefs, traditions, and values of faiths other than our own.  So the fact that Joshua asks the people to covenant and reestablish their faith in the particular God of Israel might not resonate or sit comfortably with us.  We might desire that Joshua recognize and subscribe to a more universal God, a God more in keeping with our more syncretistic and not-so-modern tendencies (as ancient cultures could be heavily syncretistic, blending one faith with another).

However, Joshua does not ask this.  Instead, he seeks to bind the people together with faith in the God of Israel alone, and the directives of that God alone.  Even so, one can interpret Joshua’s call to the people in light of the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”  One can draw this parallel because we are all-too-familiar with the many false gods that readily clamor for our time, attention, life energy, love, resources, health, and relationships.  These are the strange gods to which we worship, sometimes unwittingly and often to our own detriment. And too often, we are more than willing to handover our *very best* to idols that latter prove unworthy or dangerous.

These days, the particular gods to which our Joshua might speak are not the gods of the Amorites, or the gods of the Egyptians, or the gods beyond the Jordan River, but the gods of greed, power, comfort, weaponry, individualism, and violence.  When Joshua says, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…,” he places a clear choice before the people so that they may “see” what their relationship with false gods has been, and how it has hurt them as a people.

We are reading this passage on the one week anniversary of the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs that killed 26 people, including a pregnant woman and her unborn child.   All week my ministerial colleagues around the country have been discussing how to deal with the aftermath of another church shooting, again committed with an assault weapon.  Collectively, we have been examining safety plans, debating locked doors, training sessions for leaders, armed security guards, and church security teams, among other things.  And this shooting is complicated by the good Samaritan with the gun who may have stopped the killer from claiming more lives. Some colleagues who live in “open carry” states have talked about whether having guns in church should be recommended for church leaders and pastors.

In the past, I have happily conducted weddings for service-people in the sanctuary, including those that include a sword salute where the bride and groom walk under the swords of their military peers.  However, when I met with the bride and groom, I was fairly clear that no weapons whatsoever were allowed inside the church—not because we were anti-military, but because we had a clear tradition of weaponry being antithetical to the peace of the church setting and of our prioritizing non-violent resistance as a Christian value, even and especially when it is difficult to espouse.  Any such salute would be held outdoors, outside of the sanctuary, and after the ceremony, if desired.

We follow a Savior who, upon his own arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, tells his own disciples to disarm.  “Put your sword away,” says Jesus in Matthew, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  In Colossians 2:15, we hear, “God disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Christ.”  Furthermore, in church, we come to God disarmed—spiritually, emotionally, psychologically.  When faith in weapons and the security they afford becomes greater than our own faith in Jesus and the peace that God is able to give, then we, as Christians, have a problem.  And that problem is idolatry.  We have given our greater trust and allegiance to something rather than to God.

One of my colleagues, Martha Spong, wrote the following reflection a few days ago prompted by her 7-year old son’s question, “Why would anyone go to church now?” and the social commentary given in the aftermath of this latest shooting.  She wrote: “It might not be fair for me to make suggestions about what churches should do about their security when I am not serving one right now. Our own history as people of faith is problematic. Joshua and his house pledged to serve the Lord, but in the Promised Land, they used all their available weapons and powers to kill the people they saw as enemies, and to gain the land they wanted. They saw being the chosen ones as permission to deal out death. We should not be surprised that righteousness and power have been confused and conflated throughout human history…

“I’m not saying this is easy. In the United States, we worship our guns like no other nation in the world, and some will say more guns are the answer. I do not believe this. We need to be direct in saying the god of guns is a false god. As much as I believe Jesus is among the grieving, I believe he is also pressing on his church to engage with the powers and principalities and say “No more!” Our culture privileges the powerful; often our church culture does the same. Yet we know Jesus proclaimed a preferential option for people who are marginalized and oppressed. We need the church to be a place where we talk about why mass shootings happen. We need to have those conversations and let God be part of them. We need to decide whether the church will be not just a voice speaking but a body acting to bring change in human priorities and understanding. If we have any power left as an institution, we must work together for good, in Jesus’s name.”[1]

For many of us, guns may not be an object of our own private idol worship, but we may be truly reluctant to examine those idols that have been the recipients of our unquestioned attention in our lives.  A good teacher once taught that defensiveness could point the way to extremes.  If we are persistently defensive about something—some idea or some particularity—perhaps it is because we have idolized it.  This passage from Joshua serves as both a warning about our idols and a renewed declaration of fidelity and trust in a relationship that prioritizes God before anything else.

In an NPR broadcast about church reconsidering church security in the wake of the Sunderland Springs church shooting, pastor Jeff Brown, lead minister of the Woodmont Hills Church, admits that contrary to his own preference, members on his church’s safety team have been arming themselves.[2]  Even so, he comments, “The call to love my neighbor in a risky way to me is a stronger priority than the call to defend myself or protect myself.”

An Episcopal diocese in Kansas (an open carry state) has posted signs in churches which prominently prohibit firearms, except for designated law officials in the line of duty.  These signs would not deter a criminal such as the one in Sutherland Springs, but they do help to dissuade people from having the means at hand when personal disputes escalate precipitously and they create legal standing that armed guests will be asked to leave.  One argument is that such clear postings help to prevent accidental harm and collectively and publicly reinforce the church as a place of sanctuary and peace.

In our own denomination, the Rev. Nancy Taylor of Old South Church, Boston, published an open letter to the Old South Church ushers and posted it on the church’s website.  It is well-worth your time to read.  In it, she talks about how the Old South Church ushers are both “welcoming and watchful.”[3]  She writes, “While in earlier decades it was fine for ushers to take a seat once worship had begun (job well done), or to turn their backs on the open door, or to spend ushering-time in friendly conversation with an usher-mate, no more. Today’s ushers are asked to remain attentive, Welcoming and Watchful, eyes trained on the open doors, on visitors, tourists, and strangers. They are asked to look out for worrying behaviors: the agitated visitor, the unattended backpack. They keep watch over the people in the section they have been assigned.”[4]  In her letter, Taylor manages to lift up the important “watchful” work of the Old South Church ushers, while simultaneously prioritizing the church’s commitment to offering hospitality as a theological commitment.

When the people protested that surely that would love and serve the Lord only, Joshua calmly reminded them, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” (Joshua 24:22).  He tells them to put away their foreign gods and to incline their hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.

In ancient tradition, the heart was seen as the place of decision-making, thought, and will.  It was where our internal questions were identified and addressed.  We might say “mind” today, or maybe “conscience.”  But for the ancients, it was the heart that was the center of the human spirit.  The ancients believed that our response to the dizzying array of choices and conundrums that confront us daily was rooted ultimately in the heart.  What do we love? How does God factor into that love? Or rather, if we say that we love God, does that love translate to our preferred lens of choice when we view the world, its problems, and its peoples?

Joshua asks the people to “incline” their hearts.  Which is to say, Joshua asks the people to feel willing and favorably disposed toward God—toward God’s commands, God’s desires for the people, and God’s way of things.

Are you so inclined?

Privately, only you know what you prioritize over and above God, or Jesus, and why.

Communally, Joshua calls upon the people to re-examine their choices and to re-covenant with the particular God whom they profess to love.

Are we so inclined as a community of faith?

Speaking for himself, Joshua affirms, “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

How do we answer?

 

[1] Martha Spong, “Why would anyone go to church now?,” November 7, 2017, https://marthaspong.com/blog/

[2] All Things Considered, “Churches Rethinking Security In The Wake Of Sutherland Springs Shooting,” NPR broadcast, November 9, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/11/09/563133685/churches-rethinking-security-in-the-wake-of-sutherland-springs-shooting

 

[3] Nancy Taylor, http://www.oldsouth.org/blog/welcoming-watchful-open-letter-old-south-church-ushers-greeters-and-welcomers

[4] Ibid.