A sermon preached November 6, 2011 at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
In our text this morning, Joshua tells the people their story as God sees it.
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.
Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out.
The narrative goes on from the experiences of the Patriarchs and the Exodus and then includes a reminder of the Wilderness and the entrance into the Promised Land. And in this telling of the events, let’s notice what God didn’t say.
God did not say, “I called your ancestors from beyond the Euphrates because I could tell that you, someday in the future, would be more deserving of my blessing than other people.”
God did not say, “You made it out of slavery because you were super fabulous “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” types.”
God did not say, “It was your own ingenuity and great ideas that delivered you.”
It is clear, in both God’s telling of the story, and in the people’s reiteration of it later in the chapter, that God is the actor in the story. It was God who brought Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and who made him to be a blessing. It was God who blessed the 12 tribes of Jacob’s sons. It was God who parted the waters and who cleared away the earlier inhabitants of the Promised Land.
Joshua asks the people to choose, this day, whom they will serve.
The people answer Joshua:
“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.”
Their answer is clearly the “right” answer for them to have given Joshua. But he doesn’t accept it at face value. “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God,” he tells the people.
“Well”, they say. “We know that we have sometimes forgotten that God is leading us. We know that, in the past, we have served other gods and exalted ourselves, but we promise, promise, promise, that this time we will have no other gods but God.”
And, here we are, thousands of years later, and still being asked this question. “Choose this day whom you will serve”.
What I appreciate about the question from Joshua is that he asks us to choose “this day” whom we will serve. And we, on this day, consider that question in light of all of the days before us. From the time God brought our ancestor Abraham from beyond the Euphrates to the time God brought our ancestors to Boise. From the time God called Southminster Presbyterian Church to be built on the southern edge of Boise in 1956. From the time God called these new people to join our family this day.
There have been a lot of “this days” in our past, bringing us each here from our different journeys to be family, to be God’s people here in this neighborhood on this day.
The stories we tell about ourselves and about our history are important. If you want to know how someone sees the world, ask them to tell you about their past.
For me, it probably shouldn’t have been a big surprise when I became a pastor, because the narrative of my life starts like this. “My earliest memory is of my parents telling me that I was adopted as an infant because they prayed for a baby and God gave me to them.”
So, I have tangible proof in my life experience that God was actively working on my behalf before I was even born, preparing the family for me that could help turn the loss of adoption into the gift of family.
What are the stories you tell about your own life? What are the stories you tell about this community of faith? Is God the major player in our life stories? Or do we recast ourselves as the leading actor?
And sometimes we choose to only tell what we think are the “good” stories. We tell about how our grandparents invented post it notes, or played drums in Glen Miller’s band, but we neglect to mention how a gambling addiction led to financial ruin.
But the stakes are too high for us to only tell the pretty stories.
The letters that people include in Christmas cards are good illustrations of this. While it is appropriate to focus on your blessings and to share the gifts of the past year, many people send out Christmas letters that tell the story of the year as if it had been lived by a perfect family that we all know doesn’t really exist.
And those letters are okay. But they aren’t the ones you remember. And they don’t connect people as well because you don’t look at their story and see room to enter into it. They don’t help us look at the brokenness in our own lives and realize that if God is at work in that person’s broken story, then surely God is at work in mine.
But we have some friends in New Mexico who send out an honest Christmas letter. While they do share their blessings and write about the good things that happened that year, George is also likely to write about the son who flunked out of college because he forgot to go to class. He’ll tell you about the smells, sounds, and body changes that go along with having adolescent boys in the house. He’ll tell about car crashes and mistakes.
And, while I confess that our own family Christmas letter is not quite as brutally honest as George’s, I recognize that his is the more Biblical one.
Remember how God tells the story of the Hebrew people? Remember how they tell it themselves? It is human. It is flawed. It is messy. It is full of things they would just as soon forget. Slavery, exile, being lost, and making bad choices.
And these are the stories we need to share with each other. The stories of our pain, our brokenness, our mistakes.
Because if you look at the world around us, where people spend millions of dollars a year on plastic surgery to deny the very human processes that are going on in their lives, if you look at the world around us where rates of depression are higher than ever and where substance abuse rates continue to rise, we can see that telling only perfect stories isn’t working.
If you look around the television dial, you will find plenty of stories of not perfect people, I’m told. From the Kardashian family to the Real Housewives of wherever.
But the problem in these stories is that the stories they tell don’t say anything about where God is moving in the midst of their imperfect lives. Their stories present a narrative that suggests that had Joshua asked them to choose this day whom they would serve, their answers would have been “we serve ourselves and our endorsement deals.”
Yes, we are appalled that a celebrity marriage that reportedly earned the couple millions of dollars in endorsements came to an end after 72 days, as happened this week. But the truly sad piece of the story that is missing is that they seem to be trusting that more endorsements, more reality TV is what will heal them.
What we know, from the stories of scripture, and the stories of our lives, is that it is only the grace of God that can turn the broken and messy, true stories of our lives into beauty, into salvation, and into grace filled moments of wonder.
That’s why we tell the stories that include our brokenness. Not because it will get us endorsements with People Magazine. But because it is how we share where God is moving in our lives.
Remember how the people answered Joshua when he asked them who they would serve?
Then the people answered, “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. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
In a few minutes, we will be welcoming new members and baptizing people who are new to the Faith. We will be dedicating the pledges of our Tithes and Offerings to support the budget for 2012.
I invite all of us to remember the stories of our own faith journey as we welcome these new members. How did we end up in this place? Who were the people who led you on the journey?
And as we dedicate our pledges, I invite you to consider how God might be calling you to serve God with your time, your talent, and your money. How have other people shared their gifts in your life and is there a way that your tithing and pledging can be a way to answer Joshua’s question?
Friends, let us choose, this day, to serve and love the Lord who has provided for us in the past, who is leading us today, and who is preparing a future for us that is better than the story we could invent for ourselves. Amen