The following is an abridged version of a sermon by David Spain, senior minister of First Christian Church Norman. The lectionary reading that day was from Joshua 24: 1-3, 14-28, in which Joshua is setting up the nation of Isreal in their new land after they had wandered in the wilderness with Moses for forty years. Joshua gives the people a word of advice and warning: set aside your false gods and idols, and become fully devoted to God. Joshua asks his people to make a decision, who will you serve? For Joshua and his house will serve the Lord.
This sermon is in response to the tragic shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas this month.
Paulo Solari has written, “Choose, choose, choose…to fight or run, to sleep or read, to study or play, to be faithful or promiscuous, to obey or rebel, to yield or resist, to create or destroy, to repent or deny, to forgive or resent, to save or spend, to take risks or be cautious, to dream, to trust. Who will I trust? Who will I serve? Who will I please? The crowd, the fashion, the neighbors? For what will I sacrifice? Choose this day…” (Imaging the Word, Vol 3, p. 68) Solari reminds us that life consists of choices—thousands of them every day, and indeed part of the gift God gives humanity is the power to make choices.
Long before Solari penned these words, Joshua gave a similar charge. Joshua, the heir to Moses, had been with our ancient ancestors through the conquest of the Promised Land. Moses had led them to the doorstep, Joshua had led them in the occupation. To be sure the book of Joshua and the stories of the conquest of the land of Canaan are the most disturbing in the biblical witness. A nationalistic, and at times a nihilistic fervor pervades the ancient understanding of God. There have been occasions through the years when a few of the stories from Joshua have been directly imported to a current situation without any interpretive efforts. A biblically irresponsible move used almost always to justify some horrific action. Whatever claims were made of the conquest of the Promised Land and God’s action therein (claims that are elsewhere in the biblical witness disputed) what draws our attention in today’s text is Joshua’s farewell address.
Joshua also knows gratitude never occurs in a vacuum. And so his speech is not only an exercise in nostalgia; it is also a charge to serve. Going forward, Joshua reminds his beloved that there are endless temptations, endless enticements, endless distractions, so many ways that look more promising and are immediately gratifying, and lest Israel dismiss such reality Joshua reminds them that when Moses was gone a bit longer than anticipated, Aaron had the people dancing around a golden calf of their own devising. It will not be easy going forward, for though the hymn had not yet been written, Joshua was reminding the people “there will be sights that dazzle and tempting sounds to hear.”(from
It will not be easy going forward, for though the hymn had not yet been written, Joshua was reminding the people “there will be sights that dazzle and tempting sounds to hear.” (from O Jesus I Have Promised) Near the end of his farewell address comes the signature moment. They are free to choose who and what they want to worship, “but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua did not say this so that a closely held company could sell that phrase beautifully framed years later; he said it because it is a foundational truth about life.
We choose what and whom we will serve. The response of the people is predictable, swept up in the emotion of the moment. We will serve the Lord, they respond, to which Joshua says, You won’t be able to do it. He doubles down on the call, reminding them of the challenge that God will not protect them from the consequences if they choose other gods, but that God wills and wants the people to live as God calls them to live, and that God will be a source of strength for the people to embody God’s love. To that end, Joshua even establishes a ritual for reminding and renewing the covenant with God. Choose this day whom you will serve. God, or the endless array of little gods.
I have pondered at length Joshua’s call to choose who and what we will serve. There is so much that promises security and safety. I have been particularly mindful—and more to the core of the feeling—terribly broken-hearted in light of what happened last Sunday in Sutherland Springs. It is obvious that we are tragically and deeply flawed. When I say we, I am not suggesting we are all the same, but I am suggesting that we all have a stake in the events that are unfolding and have been for years. If we are ever going to be well, we must find a way to change the conversation, because it is obvious that the choices we are making are ineffective. It is important to find a theological voice in this culture of violence—a culture that is tempted to make gods out of weaponry’s power. Joshua would expect no less of us than he did of those to whom he gave his farewell address. Choose this day whom you will serve.
Choose this day whom you will serve.
To be sure violence is as old as the biblical witness. We make it to the fourth chapter of the book of Genesis and are witness to humanity’s first killing. It was fratricide, and every killing since has been brother against brother. Cain’s defense is to suggest that he is not his brother’s keeper—a defense that God rejects. God hears the cry of the one who has been killed, and we too must never turn a deaf ear to that. God does not protect Cain from the consequences of his action, but neither does God initiate an endless system of vengeance—subjecting Cain to vigilante justice. Violence to be sure is global and is part of what is tragically flawed about humanity, but we deny at our peril the unique issues of violence we are facing in this nation. No place seems untouched—a high school in Colorado, colleges at U.T., Virginia Tech, and California, an elementary school in Connecticut; a cafeteria and army base in Texas; a Colorado movie theater; a night club in Florida; a park in Las Vegas; and churches in many parts of the country. By and large, our choice in response has been to offer religious words of condolence and then do nothing.
By and large, our choice in response has been to offer religious words of condolence and then do nothing.
Some turn to blaming politics or politicians and certainly there is a responsibility that elected leaders bear. Their reasons, especially over the last 10 to 15 years for ineffectiveness are legion, but to borrow a line from the movie All the President’s Men, follow the money. Some have suggested that the solution, as per the attorney general of Texas, is to increase arms for everyone which is tantamount to suggesting that everyone become chain smokers to cure lung cancer. Some have suggested that all weapons be removed, but such is not possible because like splitting the atom, the genie is out of the bottle. Where that leaves humanity is managing the world we have created.
This is the point of despair for some people, because how can we, who have chosen this absurdity, choose something better? Loss of vision for a better way might be the greatest temptation we face. It is important to remember two truths: first, humanity has, in fact, learned ways to improve the world and societies. It often takes time, but advances happen. Second and more importantly, for people of faith, we proclaim that God is at work in and through people to bring about healing and justice and love. This is God’s way, this is God’s covenant, and for those who heard Joshua’s speech and those who proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, we affirm that God gives strength to those who work for life and for peace.
In light of this affirmation, these propositional statements of faith as a way to change the conversation:
Let us acknowledge the second amendment is important, and let us be sure we never forget the opening phrase of the second amendment which sets the context of what follows; “A well-regulated militia…” However, as people of faith, more prominent than the second amendment to the Constitution is the First and Great Commandment of Jesus. “Love God and love neighbor.” Jesus said everything in life is to be seen through this context, and nothing else takes precedent. Let us be reminded that we are, in fact, our brothers and sisters keepers. God has put us here to care for one another, which means that there is a greater good to life than individual autonomy and freedom which are not biblically ordained divine rights. God’s calling is to live in covenant communities which work together for all of God’s children and to hear the cries of those who suffer.
Let us acknowledge that violence of any form and the proliferation of weaponry as we have now chosen in this country solves nothing. We have the responsibility to do better, and more of the same will not heal us.
Let us acknowledge that our rhetoric about this is broken. Polarization into camps of extremism, villainizing another who sees life differently is a verbal form of violence and it only deepens the problem and it only incites more horror. Let the civilization begin in our ways of talking and engaging another.
None of this is easy. There is room for conversation and difference and nuance, which means that what we do and how we speak is to be done with courage, compassion, wisdom, and in the context of Jesus’ great commandment that is the core of our faith. The great poet Robert Frost, concluding his most famous poem “The Road Not Taken,” has written, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” We have a chance every day to make all the difference. Joshua says it begins with a choice.
Choose this day whom you will serve.