A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
October 13, 2018
Last week, Moses was leading the people of God through the parted Red Sea so they could be liberated out of slavery and into freedom. They wandered in the wilderness before they made it to the Promised Land. As our text put it today with some understatement:
Afterwards you lived in the wilderness for a long time.
Forty years, in fact.
Moses never made it across the next river, into the Promised Land. He saw it from across the valley. He knew the future was secured for his people, even if he would never make it himself.
Joshua, who we heard speaking today, had been Moses’ right hand man. Before Moses died, he laid his hands on Joshua and passed the mantle of leadership over to Joshua. God promises Joshua to always be with him.
“No one shall stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not fail you or forsake you.” (Josh 1:5)
The story of the Book of Joshua, summarized for us in tonight’s reading, is a story of conquest, conquering, and inhabiting a land that had been filled with other people, various tribes of Canaanites.
It’s a bit jarring, if we think about it. God the deliverer and liberator quickly becomes God the conquerer. We speak of God as liberator, and so I suspect we don’t spend much time considering God as conquerer. If you’re a Canaanite, however, you see God as an invader.
Robert Warrior, in his article, “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” writes:
The liberationist picture of Yahweh is not complete. A delivered people is not a free people, nor is it a nation. People who have survived the nightmare of subjugation dream of escape. Once the victims have been delivered, they seek a new dream, a new goal, usually a place of safety away from the oppressors, a place that can be defended against future subjugation. Israel’s new dream became the land of Canaan . . . Th[is] land, Yahweh decided, belonged to these former slaves from Egypt and Yahweh planned on giving it to them – using the same power used against the enslaving Egyptians to defeat the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan. Yahweh the deliverer became Yahweh the conqueror .
Robert Warrior is a Native American, a member of the Osage Nation, which is a reminder to me to seek other perspectives, other stories, and to realize my tendency to see only one story, my story.
They say history is written by the victors and while scripture isn’t only history, there’s a piece of it included. Even though our understandings of many things have changed since the book of Joshua was written down, one thing that remains is our belief that God is working for good in the world, seeking an ever more inclusive understanding of family. From Joshua’s band of former Egyptian slaves, wandering in the wilderness and into the promised land, God’s love and concern will extend much further. Remember Jesus’ instructions to the disciples after the resurrection?
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
All nations become the people God includes as family, not people we conquer and displace.
Things change. Even in scripture.
Things stay the same. Jesus’ statement about I am with you always, sounds a lot like God’s promise to Joshua.
Watch the first few minutes of Novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, entitled “The Danger of a Single Story”.
(Feel free to watch the whole thing. We watched to 5:20 in worship).
As we read Scripture, and as we tell our own stories, and as we listen to the stories of others—we have to be attentive to the danger of a single story.
In the case of our story tonight, the truth on the ground, as recorded by other sources, and even as recorded in scripture isn’t as clear as the Joshua narrative would lead us to believe. The Canaanites weren’t all annihilated and removed from the land. The Israelites share space, share culture, fight for space, fight for culture throughout the biblical narrative. Even today, we hear stories of “occupied Palestinian territory”, “Israeli settlements”, and “two state solution”.
Being aware of the complicated truth doesn’t change the danger of the single story.
“People who read the (biblical) narratives read them as they are, not as scholars and experts would like them to be read and interpreted. History is no longer with us. The narrative remains”.
What he means by this, I think, is that we don’t remember the complexity of the story. We only remember the way Joshua told the story.
Columbus Day was this past week. Many people are trying to change the focus of the day. Boise, and many other cities, celebrated Indigenous People’s Day instead. It doesn’t mean we forget about Columbus, or the impressive accomplishment of traveling across an unknown sea with hopes they would find land. Yet as Columbus “discovered” the “new world”, we are reminded to tell the complex story, not the single one. We are inheritors of land that had belonged to other people before it was “discovered”, before our ancestors found the “new world”. The city of Boise is on land that was historically Shoshone-Bannock land. ( Look up who lived on the land before you did at this interactive map.)
Lately, our culture hasn’t been very good with nuance and multiple stories. We aren’t good with the complicated story. We seem to excel at the sound byte, the crowds chanting a simple, repeated refrain. We fall prey to the danger of the single story, again and again.
And the single story keeps us from seeing the humanity of each other.
After Joshua gives the synopsis of the story of the Hebrew people, he tells them,
‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve God 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.’
Choose this day.
I’ve been thinking about what it is Joshua is asking them to choose between.
We choose between false gods, lower case g, and the Lord God, uppercase G.
And Joshua doesn’t make it sound like an easy thing to choose. He tells them not to make the decision casually. And that if they really want to stay with their lowercase g gods, then by all means just do that, and be aware that you have made that choice.
But if you want to follow God, he instructs them: ’….put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.’
For me, today, the choice I’m making is between the easier to follow lowercase gods of a single story that don’t require me to critique my own biases, that don’t require me to remember the humanity of the people on the other side
do I want to incline my heart toward the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls me to listen to multiple stories, and to remember the humanity of the people with different stories, and to trust that we each have something to offer the other?
Choose this day whom you will serve.
Inclining our hearts toward other people’s stories does require a certain level of mutuality. If I am willing to listen to another person’s story, but their story is one that says that women are not fully human and need to be subjected to men, then he won’t be likely to really hear my story.
As James Baldwin once wrote: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
Inclining our hearts toward the Lord, so we can hear the complex story, is not a simple “both sides make mistakes” dismissal of critique. It requires us to trust that every person we encounter is beloved by God and has something to offer, and that everyone has a lived reason for why they believe what they believe.
Inclining our hearts toward God is a difficult choice in a world where the easier to choose single story gets more votes, and rallies the crowds without much effort.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk ends with this:
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.
The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives who had moved to the North.She introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they had left behind. “They sat around, reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained.”
I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.
Joshua set a large stone as a witness, as a reminder to the people about the choice they had made. 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, and all the stories, that have come 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 to the time God called each of you to become a part of this family.
There have been a lot of “these days” in our past, bringing us each here from our different stories to be family, to be God’s people here in this neighborhood on this day.
In a few moments we will come forward for communion, the table where all of our different stories come together as we choose abundance, and feast together. May the Table be our “large stone as witness”, where we remember the danger of a single story, and the power and gift of choosing to listen to other stories.