Monday, October 13, 2014

Call the Question

Joshua 24: 1-15

For $69.99 at Home Depot you can purchase a 17 inch Cherry wall clock with the phrase “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  At Walmart you can buy Thirstystone Occasion drink coasters for $8.50 with that same verse emblazoned on it.  And if you would like a cotton poly blend sweatshirt with “As for me and my house…” phrase on it you can get it at CafĂ© Press for $34.99 and how about a Candle Pot with tea light illuminating these words to go with that sweatshirt for $18 from Grasslands Road Nature’s Elements.

The fact is this Bible verse from Joshua 24:15, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” has become, for lack of better words, kitsch!  It’s over sentimentalized.  Now I know that there is good, good intent with the wearing or displaying this endearing verse.  It’s a beautiful public statement of religiosity.  But I’d like for us to think much deeper about this Bible verse and its meaning. 

This particular verse is at the very end of our reading today from the Book of Joshua.  Last week we were in Exodus and since then a lot has happened which brings us forward into Joshua today.  The ten commandments were given a second time only this time written on stone. The covenant was renewed.  An ark to house the covenant was built.  Moses dies without ever stepping one foot into the promised land, the sweet land of milk and honey.  Then Joshua was commissioned to lead the people over that glorious border and settle the land.

And those people?  Well they weren’t the same people that Moses had sashayed through the wilderness for forty or so years.  It was their children, maybe even their children’s children.  A long time had passed, generations.  The land had been conquered and redistributed to the tribes of Israel.  They’ve settled in yet the people still grappled with the cultures around them, they still kvetch, they still wonder about who this ‘God’ is that seems to get angry at them but then brings them out of their misery and loves them through it all.  And now we come to another threshold for them.

Let us now hear the word as recorded in the Book of Joshua from the Hebrew Bible, the 24th chapter.

Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God.
Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his family went down to Egypt.
“‘Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out. When I brought your people out of Egypt, you came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued them with chariots and horsemen as far as the Red Sea. But they cried to the Lord for help, and he put darkness between you and the Egyptians; he brought the sea over them and covered them. You saw with your own eyes what I did to the Egyptians. Then you lived in the wilderness for a long time.
“‘I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you, and you took possession of their land. When Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam son of Beor to put a curse on you. But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand.
“‘Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you—also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.’
“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

These beloved words that we hang on our walls or wear just happen to be part of Joshua’s final parting words to the people Israel. Not long after this oration that I just read he takes his last breath.  He had been with them for a good long while, through the battles and the trials and triumphs of life. And so he recounts their history reminding them of all of those times in which the God of Israel saved them from demise. 

I don’t think he is really sure that they get it, or if they do, he knows how they are mightily tempted to worship other gods which prevents them from following the God of Abraham.  While we may think that it is just a dry lesson in their history, Joshua is really pointing out that they belong, that they are part of a narrative that has been unfolding for many years, in fact many centuries before them, that they now are a part of. 

They are part of an ongoing history of struggle and faith, of doubt and fear, of trusting in this God above all other gods because this God, while perhaps at times displays questionable actions, IS the God of their ancestors, IS the God who continually forgives them, and IS the God who will consistently renew this beautiful covenant of steadfast love.

And so Joshua calls the question!  When debate drones on endlessly, the question is called and you have to vote immediately to determine if the debate should be cut off.  He calls the question and cuts to the chase…. Who will you follow?  Where will your allegiance be?  Are you willing to give up all of those other gods to follow the one true God?  Are you willing to stick with this God through the mucky muck of life, into the wilderness, and still declare that this is your God?  Good questions Joshua!  Thank you very much for raising them for us.

Life was messy for them as I suspect it is for most of us too.  We’re happily skipping along and you come to a fork in the road.  Which path will you choose?  Imperfections of your character or soul manifest at the oddest and most inconvenient of times and you find yourself completely adrift in a sea of unknown. Will you blame God or call upon God? Or will you decide that another sort of god could do a better job for you?

Sometimes the Israelites just wanted other gods.  A household god to make sure that the mana nut bread came out ok, a god of plentiful harvest for the fields, a god who would produce rain during a drought, a warrior god to best their enemies in battle.  I mean, the Amorites had such gods, why couldn’t they? 

It would be so nice to have a specific god in your pocket, wouldn’t it?   A god for the stock market, a more efficient god who will immediately cure ebola, a god who will take terrorists down way low, a god who will straighten out the mess that you woke up to this morning.  But it’s just not that way.  Following God is just not that neat and tidy. There will be unanswered questions and disappointments along the way.  So which god will you choose?

Walter Brueggeman, OT professor says this about what was set in Shechem that day by Joshua. Following God ‘requires a purging of all competing loyalties…for obedience’.  ‘It is a rather elemental decision to reorder life….within an entirely different set of risks and possibilities.’[i]

And to follow ultimately means to serve the Lord.  And to serve is to follow the example of Christ who served his Lord – to welcome anyone and everyone into your home and to sit at your table.  To serve is to look at this world, or the world in you neighborhood and to do something to make it better, to strive for the kingdom of God here on earth. 

Following this GOD of salvation won’t make your life perfect.  But we do know that this God will be the one who is with you, who calls you into the unknown and promises to stay with you until you see some daylight.  It is this God, who, yes, created your imperfections and loves you more deeply because of them.  It is the obedience of choosing God above all others, at all times, and then serving with your most sincere heart and hands.    

Joshua calls the question for us.  Which God will you choose? 


[i] Walter Brueggeman from ‘Spill the Beans’ Issue 13.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

These Ten Words

Exodus 19:1-17; 20:1-17                                                                       

When I packed my bags and trotted off to college I felt like I had been shot out of a canon.  I was charged, energetic, and most definitely ready for an adventure.  Now my home life was not bad, not bad at all.  In fact it was nurturing and loving.  But when you go to a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod grade school and high school, you know the rules.  And you follow them because that’s just what you did.

So when I went off it was a new horizon, uncharted territory, the wild, wild west.  All bets were off, all rules banished and I had to figure out what it meant to be on my own without Mother and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church to guide my life.

Needless to say, I explored this newfound freedom to its fullest extent.  Party invitation?  Yes, I’m free, I can go.  Cigarettes and beer?  Sure, I’ll have one, or two. Church on Sunday morning?  Uh, gee, I’ve got an exam I have to study for, I’ll pass.  It was a new day and I was developing as a young woman at the tail end of the 60’s and early 70’s. 

Good thing I had those 10 Commandments under my belt to keep me afloat.  Good thing I had to memorize from Luther’s Small Catechism the 10 C’s and their meaning.  Especially number one.  The First Commandment.  Thou shalt have no other gods above Me.  What does this mean? (The Catechism also told you exactly what the commandment meant.) We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

And so I did love and trust in God as I enthusiastically and sometimes recklessly carved out a new existence and identity for myself all of which made me the person I am today, for good or for ill!  I’m sure we all have had to do that for ourselves at different times in our lives.  So did the Israelites!

Last week we reflected on Moses leading the Israelites out of the hands of Pharaoh.  They went from an existence of slavery to being free men and women.  Let us now hear their continued story from the 19th & 20th chapters of the Book of Exodus.
Marc Chagall

At Mount Sinai
On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak.  And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

“You shall not murder.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Well there you have it!  The Decalogue.  Ten Words. The Ten Commandments.   Except for maybe number one, ‘I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before Me’, they are all of equal value and importance, probably not listed in any particular order except to say that the first four commands speak of relationship with God and the remaining six commands help us relate to one another.  It’s where the vertical – God’s presence – and the horizontal – our living - and meet.

There is nothing abstract about them.  Love God.   Spend some quality time with God.  And then don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat.  Don’t crave. Don’t murder.  Honor your elders.  Right?  You have to admit there is nothing remotely vague about these ten words. 

And yet it is these ten words that are probably the most difficult to understand because if we are honest with ourselves, and I hope that we are, we like to make exceptions to these words or, at the very least reinterpret them so that there is some wiggle room. 

I mean really, does do not murder mean that I can’t eat the meat of a cow that has been slaughtered by someone else’s hands or swat at and kill a fly?  Does excusing yourself from an invitation by saying you have a family commitment while you sit home on the couch watching ESPN or the Food Network by yourself really constitute a falsehood?   

I suppose that’s how the law and the spirit of the law came to be.  But rather than debate the nature and boundaries of each commandment the larger question for consideration today is what did God intend for us by imparting these ten commandments, these specific ten words?  Why was it important for Moses to trek up Sinai in the blistering heat to receive some newfound wisdom for the free people left below?

It was important because these ten words were to help the Israelites form a new identity, a new nation based upon ethical monotheism.  They were now a free people who had to define an identity with fresh norms in place.  No more would Pharaoh tell them what to do, what to think, or how to act.  They now had the right and liberty to self-determination and governance.  It was up to them to decide who they will become and how they will get there and in whom they would place their trust.  In very simple words, they needed to know how to relate to one another, they needed guidelines for behavior if they were ever going to find their way out of the wilderness.

Forming new identities is never an easy thing to do.  So it is with the Church as we are challenged to find our place, or our new face in this fast paced world.  We know that the Church universal is on the move, that God is breathing a new Spirit within us and it is also true of OCC. 

As we live into redeveloping, repositioning, rejuvenating, and rejoicing we might also want to look at the way we gather ourselves together and for what purpose.  We will be asking soul-searching questions of ourselves as a gathered community of faith.

·      Do we really yearn for the good old days or is it an excuse to not work hard at developing a strong progressive Christian identity that will encompass the cultural change of religious life within our community? 
·      Do we want to develop leaders within who will lead with faith and courage trusting that the past has given us a firm foundation from which we begin the journey into the future?
·      Is our present form of governance the best current practice that will allow for busy lives in this 21st century landscape of technology and yet keep us fresh, innovative and connected?
·      Are we really going to take steps that will position us for the future diverse church even though we don’t know yet what that is or what it might look like? 

These are hard questions and we will need guidelines to steer our dialogue and live into the community that God called us to be and who God is calling us to become.  We will need to renew our covenant with our Beloved first and foremost and then with one another as we walk forward.   I believe that the Ten Commandments are a good place to start, as stodgy as they may seem, as we build a new identity together.  When framed in another way they are a wonderful affirmation of life giving grace.    

The Rev. Bill Lyons has looked at the Ten Commandments, not as a list of ‘shall nots’ but a list of ‘shalls’: 1. God first
2. Only God
3. Respect God
4. Enjoy God
5. Care for the vulnerable
6. Value life
7. Keep your commitments
8. Live honestly
9. Speak truthfully
10. Be content.   It is paying attention to the vertical, our relationship with God and the horizontal, our relationship with each other based on integrity and mutual trust.

After all, Christ very simply has put it for us in the greatest commandment that encompasses all ten, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22: 37-39) 

We can do it.  We can love God deeply and dearly.  We can also love each other carefully, respectfully, and reverently into the congregation that we are meant to become.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Dry Shod

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29
Cecil B. DeMille was right!  At least right with his cinemagraphic depiction of the parting of the Red Sea from the movie, “The Ten Commandments”.  And his pyrotechnics are outstanding!  This is one OUT LOUD text and if you have ever seen this particular scene in the movie you know what I’m talking about. 

Now I really didn’t think you’d appreciate me relying on silly old ‘hat tricks’ to preach to you today but really, the scene where Charlton Heston is parting the Red Sea waters is classic and irresistable!  The scene opens with Charlton AKA Moses boldly proclaiming, “Fear NOT.  Stand Still.  The Lord is with you.”  Then all sorts of supernatural things begin to happen.

Winds howl. Skies darken. Waters churn.  Israelites cry out.  Horses hooves pound the dry dirt and the Egyptians scream.  One old man says in awe, “God opens the sea with a blast of his nostrils”, (just a little midrash on the text, midrash meaning an interpretation by the Rabbis to fill in some scriptural gaps), the sea parts, and the Israelites cross the bottom of the seabed dry shod.  Not one bit of water or mud touches their blessed feet.

Then the camera pans back to the poor Egyptian army underwater, swirling around, gasping for air as the walls of the sea have advanced back to their normal state.  Yul Brynner AKA Pharaoh grasps his bald head in anguish of his decimated army and says, ‘His God is God’, admitting defeat.   But that was Hollywood!
Parting of the Red Sea, paper cut by Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik
Let us now hear scripture as it was remembered and recorded from the Book of Exodus the 14th chapter.

When the Israelites saw the king coming with his army, they were frightened and begged the Lord for help.  They also complained to Moses, “Wasn’t there enough room in Egypt to bury us? Is that why you brought us out here to die in the desert? Why did you bring us out of Egypt anyway?  While we were there, didn’t we tell you to leave us alone? We had rather be slaves in Egypt than die in this desert!”

But Moses answered, “Don’t be afraid! Be brave, and you will see the Lord save you today. These Egyptians will never bother you again.  The Lord will fight for you, and you won’t have to do a thing.”

Moses stretched his arm over the sea, and the Lord sent a strong east wind that blew all night until there was dry land where the water had been. The sea opened up,  and the Israelites walked through on dry land with a wall of water on each side.

The Egyptian chariots and cavalry went after them.  But before daylight the Lord looked down at the Egyptian army from the fiery cloud and made them panic.  Their chariot wheels got stuck, and it was hard for them to move. So the Egyptians said to one another, “Let’s leave these people alone! The Lord is on their side and is fighting against us.”

The Lord told Moses, “Stretch your arm toward the sea—the water will cover the Egyptians and their cavalry and chariots.”  Moses stretched out his arm, and at daybreak the water rushed toward the Egyptians. They tried to run away, but the Lord drowned them in the sea.  The water came and covered the chariots, the cavalry, and the whole Egyptian army that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them was left alive.  But the sea had made a wall of water on each side of the Israelites; so they walked through on dry land.

Many things might be on your mind right now after hearing the piece of scripture.  The first is probably the question of theodicy or God’s actions.  Does God really take sides? Can God really be this cruel and unnerving?  Remembering that this scripture was still revealing a tribal God – a God that did take sides or was claimed by one tribal nation, will help us understand the nature and context of the Exodus a bit more.  This ‘God’, or a god, fighting on behalf of a people was common to many ancient mythologies, not only the Israelites.

And yet, we know that this thinking still exists in some form or another. Most radically we see it with ISIS who has taken theology to a level of evil and destruction.  With God on their side they see fit to kill and mame in the name of religion.

So did the Christian Crusaders.  But then we all think God is on our side when it comes to war.

Back in the 1960’s Bob Dylan wrote the anti-war song “With God on Our Side.”  He carefully enumerated the wars that the US had been involved in somehow making it OK to kill by any means when God is on your side.  He ends by saying ‘If God’s on our side He’ll stop the next war”, meaning, get real folks. 

None of us are exempt from this thinking because when we use the Bible or the name of God to oppress, denigrate, shame or defame another person’s character we fall into the erroneous thinking that God is only on our side, and that God will or should bring calamitous ruin upon our enemies.

It is human nature, our greatest desire to have God on our side because who doesn’t want the divine in your corner rooting you on, carefully vetting you above the rest.

If we adopt this type of theology we would be living and interpreting text with very old and worn out eyes, and this leads us away from the Gospel message of inclusivity and forgiveness.

Although we cannot possibly speak on God’s behalf with any certainty, we, as humans with good intention have to figure out what good can be done in this world, what good will be done in this community.  When ‘God’s words’ come out of our mouths they are shaped by what we hold dear within our hearts and what we believe in. [i]

Hopefully what we hold dear are the enduring human virtues of compassion, courage, forgiveness, generosity, love, trust and understanding.  And to this end we should strive to live our lives and understand that perhaps this is what would please God the most because.

Our God is a God of inclusivity, we don’t know how many covenants God has made out there, all we know is the one God made with us and that is Jesus Christ who we know practiced a way of life that promoted justice for all persons; a radical hospitality that says there is room for all at the table.  This is the kind of divine love that I want on my side.  How about you?

Amen and just for fun.......

[i] John Manguno,, Isis and the One Ring.