Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Choose This Day”
Rev. Art Ritter
August 26, 2018
Joshua 24:1-6, 14-18
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea.
“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
There is an old story, perhaps the tale is even told in a cartoon, about a conversation between a hen and a hog. The pair are standing outside a church following a worship service. The minister has just provided the congregation with a sermon about helping the poor and the hungry. The hen says, “I’ve got it. We can help the poor and hungry by providing a ham and eggs breakfast.” The hog answers, “Oh that works well for you. For you, only means a contribution. But for me, that’s a total commitment!”
A couple of weeks ago a woman stopped into the church. Colleen Foster was the only one here to greet her. Evidently the woman was interested in renting our Fellowship Hall and kitchen for a Saturday evening event. Colleen correctly explained the procedure to her – that she would need to fill out a building use request which would then need approval by the Board of Trustees. Colleen also told her that because she was not a member of the church, the rental fee would be a bit larger than it would be for members and that the church also might find it difficult to rent out the facility on a Saturday night before a Sunday worship service. The woman responded, “How do you become a member of the church?” As Colleen told me this story, I began to recall that I’ve had similar conversations with people interested in our building before. Sometimes people see churches like private clubs and want to know what they have to do to start enjoying the benefits. Colleen patiently said that she should start attending worship services, get to know the rest of the community of faith, become involved in a ministry project or two, and then make a decision based on how comfortable she felt. The woman’s next question was, “How long does that take?” Colleen told her that it usually took a few months and that the woman would probably also be interested in coming to a church information class. This didn’t seem to register. The woman’s final response was, “When can I join? I am ready to join now.” Colleen tried to turn down the ease of obligation level a couple notches again saying that the best thing to do was to come and worship with us on Sunday. And so the woman left with the building request form in hand. She seemed very committed, but perhaps more toward using the building than joining the church. She seemed very committed, although her commitment was so glib and casual that it would be hard to trust it at all.
Commitment is kind of an old school thing. Life today is more about choices and the opportunity to chart our own course at our own pace and in a manner that makes us feel good and promotes our own needs. Perhaps commitment doesn’t seem as practical anymore is because there are more choices and we want the ability to pursue a certain direction today but then the freedom to change our minds and move in an entirely new path tomorrow. Commitments are fine as long as they benefit us. Commitments are acceptable as long as they work into our priorities and schedules. We make commitments to areas in which we can measure our achievements and position ourselves for success.
Theologian Walter Bruggemann writes about some young friends who have a four year old son. Recently the mother of the boy told Bruggemann that she was about to make a crucial commitment. She had to get her son into the right kindergarten because if she didn’t, then he wouldn’t get into the right prep school and if he didn’t get into the right prep school than he wouldn’t get into Davidson College. And if he didn’t go to school at Davidson he wouldn’t be connected to the bankers in Charlotte to be able to get the kind of job where he would make a lot of money. Commitment these days is based on our choices and we are less loyal to commitment than we used to be.
We feel a lot of within the church as an institution. People tend to choose a church as they would a dry cleaners or restaurant, like a consumer picking something that brings benefit to them rather than as a place to learn and grow and serve. People want to participate in the activities of the community of faith but are more hesitant to make a commitment to volunteer to be a regular part of a ministry or a board if it infringes upon the rest of the lives.
On the other hand, commitments of faith are sometimes made too casually. We don’t measure the cost of discipleship when we make decisions regarding things like church membership, stewardship, and baptism. We fall prey to the idolatry of the false gods of culture and politics and personal success. We take Jesus’ words seriously when they benefit us or agree with our beliefs. We sacrifice faith for comfort and commitment for popularity.
In today’s Scripture reading from the book of Joshua, the leader of the people of Israel Joshua, has gathered the people together at Shechem, the very place where God promised Abraham land and many descendants. Joshua is an old man, well advanced in years and he seems to have some concern about the future of his people. He is worried about their commitment. He seems to think that in the future they will be prone to make choices that will benefit themselves and not the way of God. He is afraid that they will forget their covenant with God and their promise to be faithful in word and in deed. He fears that sentimental and romantic pledges made in the heat of the moment won’t last when things get tough or more tempting choices come along. Joshua wants them to reckon with the reality that it is easy to be tempted into idolatry and to recognize that a covenant with God is a serious commitment, not some frivolous choice that one can later ignore.
He calls the people to a type of covenant renewal ceremony, beginning with a recitation of God’s history with Israel. One commentator states that Joshua’s words are akin to the famous recitation of the genealogy of Kunta Kinte in the television miniseries Roots. It is kind of a grandfatherly speech. He speaks of what God has done to bring them the promise, to lead them to and out of Egypt, to the Promised Land, and past every foe that might squelch the promise. Now Joshua urges the people of Israel to reaffirm their covenant with God and to renew their commitment to serve God – as individuals and as a nation. “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that you ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Choose this day whom you will serve. While this question is part of an ancient narrative of the history of the people of Israel, its language and imagery provide the substance of the church’s and Christian’s discernment of how we are committed to the promise of God in the midst of competing allegiances of the world. We may not worship a wooden idol or burn incense in front of a golden calf, but we do create other idols that demand our worship. Do we revere God in the priorities and choices of our lives? Do we serve God in our words and in our actions? Do we forsake what God calls us to do and be when we give our affection to money, power, pride, ambition, or pleasure? Do we profess belief and service but are all too ready to offer ourselves to gods too beautiful and enticing to pass up? Talk about religion is easy and cheap. Adhering to God’s intention in the midst of difficult choices and cultural pressure is yet another thing.
In his book Future Grace, John Piper defines covetousness as “desiring something so much that you lose your commitment in God.” Covetousness is idolatry because it comes from a heart divided between two or more gods. This is what Joshua was afraid would happen to the people of Israel. This is what the ancient writers of Scripture knew would happen to all of us who enter into covenant with God. We must have something more than God to make us complete. We must find something more to elevate ourselves, something we can’t trust God to provide. We find it easier to put our confidence in things and stuff rather than in the promise of faith.
High atop the Black Mountains of California is Dante’s View, an overlook with some of the best panoramic views in the world. On a clear day, you can see both the lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States. You can easily see Death Valley, around 282 feet below sea level. Across the valley and barely visible in the distance is Mt. Whitney, at 14,496 feet above sea level. You can choose to look and consider whichever view you wish.
And so to each generation of believers and to each of us as individuals comes the question, “Whom will you choose?” The question of choice, commitment, covenant, and faith comes to each of us this and every day.