13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16B
Lefetime Covenant of Faithfulness, Sermon by Pastor Kinsey
It was a red letter day for the family, and a delightful August afternoon.
‘Everybody gather ‘round, said Ralph, slowing getting up from his chair. ‘Your mother and I would like to give thanks before we partake of this humble meal.’ It looked anything but humble, a huge spread that their children and grandchildren had prepared for a 65th Wedding Anniversary of this matriarch and patriarch of the family. It was a bounty of foods, a feast of grilled fat things, greens in sauces and salads, and of course delicious deserts of every kind of pie, cookie and cake.
But Ralph and Rita, themselves, were humble. And when Ralph gave the prayer he spoke as a one who had pretty much seen it all, in his lifetime, and who was aware that it could very well be the last anniversary that he and Rita might celebrate together. He reminded his family how young they had been when they got married, blindly in love, unafraid of what lay ahead, feeling that the world was there’s for the taking. But today, he said, ‘now we know how God’s hand was in everything, our whole lives, and we couldn’t have made it without the LORD’s grace and blessings.’ ‘I am not a perfect man,’ said Ralph to his family, ‘I am not the smartest one on the block, but I have learned one thing along the way, God chose us, and so, as for me and Rita, we will serve the LORD.’
Joshua, like Moses before him, was the patriarch of Israel, who had taken over from Moses when they entered the land of milk and honey. Now he too was giving his final speech, not on the other side of the Jordan, as Moses had to, but now in the heart of the land, at Shechem. It had been a blessing and a challenge, for the people to remain faithful. He challenged the Israelites to put away the gods that their ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD; YHWH, the one God. It had been a long process, taking many generations, for the Israelites. And the touchstone was always how God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, into the freedom of the Promised Land. “You must choose,” said Joshua, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
As a young man Joshua had been a promising leader when the Israelites first entered Canaan. He was the one picked from his tribe, along with the other 11 tribal representatives, to go on a secret spy mission, in the darkness, designated by Moses himself. They didn’t know what to expect exactly on the other side of the Jordan River. They had no spy planes, no Google Maps, no drones. Was it as good as they’d heard? “Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negeb, and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be bold, and bring some of the fruit of the land.’” (Num. 13:17-20)
And when they returned they were ecstatic! “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey,” said Joshua and all the spies, not to mention, “grapes and pomegranates and figs.” (Num. 13:23, 27)
Young men are willing to do risky and dangerous things. Life is easy and seems endless then, and death is not something you worry about.
Apparently, Joshua distinguished himself from amongst all the 12 young spies, for Moses appointed him as his successor, just before he died. Joshua’s first responsibility, upon leading the people into the Promised Land, was going up against Jericho, that ancient city just over the Jordan River into Israel, and it was up to Joshua to come up with a plan. The very night before, Joshua had a dream about becoming a warrior for God. In it, God gave to him the idea of marching around the magnificent walls of Jericho, blowing the seven trumpets, and having the people give a loud shout, until the walls came tumbling down.
And so in middle-age, Joshua learned the responsibilities of caring for family, tribe and country, the importance of a strong faith, and listening to the voice of God. His life was in the shape of the whole people of Israel, and the book of Joshua details that – from their coming into the land of milk and honey, which the LORD had given them, to the displacing of the Amorites and others who lived there, in all its gory and vengeful holy-righteousness.
And though in our times, we bristle at the holy wars of the Iron Age in the book of Joshua, we live here in this country because of the myth of Manifest Destiny which did much the same thing to the first peoples living in America. Our faith traditions have come to denounce genocide whenever and wherever we see it today, and we’ve learned to call for peace based on a justice that denounces such violence going forward. But to truly understand where God is calling us today, we have to take ownership of the sins of our past, as well. So, how can we affirm with Joshua that we and our households will serve only the LORD, but doing so without condemning other faiths? How do we retain the essence of this covenant between God and God’s people, without its exclusivity?
A pastor from Connecticut whose church was in Sante Fe, NM, had something of Joshua’s dilemma in choosing One God over many. Her neighborhood was very diverse, not unlike ours. And at the time, it also included many New Agers, some of which came to her church, burned out in their quest for enlightenment, having tried so many spiritual paths. Pastor Arnold said, by the time they came to her church “they often felt lost and disoriented, as if they had gone through multiple intimate relationships. At the same time, they were wary and not sure about committing to any faith tradition.”
She said, it was a heavy burden trying to address this spiritual crisis until she went to a lecture by famous Lutheran guru, Martin Marty. Afterwards they talked, and Marty told her, you have to “Claim your inheritance… If you go deep enough into any faith tradition, you find the common ground with all other traditions. That’s why a Baptist preacher like Martin Luther King could learn from Gandhi the Hindu, and why a Catholic Friar like Thomas Merton was in conversation with Buddhist monks. I think that’s what all of us are seeking,” he said. “We want that common ground. But we have to go deep into our own tradition to find it.”
What do we find if we desire to go deep into our Lutheran and Christian tradition? What gifts do we have? What common ground do we come from? These are questions we become more aware of as time goes by, through the different stages of our lives.
In Lutheranism, there are some wonderful surprises! For a musician there is the famous Lutheran, Johann Sabastian Bach. Inspired by the Reformation, he was one of the greatest composers of all time. For geeks and scientists, there is Kepler, an extremely sincere Lutheran, brilliant mathematician, and 17th century astronomer, who established the laws of planetary motion around the sun - well before Newton was even born! And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran Pastor and theologian, whose faith was at the center of his courageous battle against the Nazi’s, who served the LORD, all the way to gallows of the concentration camps.
Bonhoeffer didn’t make it to his 40th birthday, much less his 65th wedding anniversary, like Ralph and Rita! We all have only the time God gives us. The final words of Joshua, at Shechem, after a life of adventure and responsibility to reflect on, were: “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 God.
“Far be it from us,” said the people in humble reply, “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 … [God] protected us along all the way that we went…”
And hopefully, the very next thing they did, was to sit down together to a big, feast of fat things, to celebrate this covenant of faithfulness, that formed them into God’s people. The same covenant and promise we have at the Baptismal font and Communion Meal of our God – the covenant agreement that knows God’s grace has first chosen us, and that we are blessed.