I'd like you to join me in some audience participation. Don't worry- trust me. Many of you will know what to say and when. It seems like an odd place to begin, but I'd like you to imagine we are the end of worship. I am not trying to get out of preaching. So imagine, we've already been gathered and reminded who God is for us; we've heard words of forgiveness, and a dazzling sermon (wink). We're ready to hear the call to "Go in peace. Serve the Lord." And we will respond with "Thanks be to God!" I knew you could do it! One could view this exchange "Go in peace and serve the Lord," as simply a convenient way to end the liturgy and leave church behind 'til next week. Yet this call to "serve the Lord" and be sent forth is the same call the Israelites heard after they had been gathered by Joshua in our Old Testament lesson. I invite you to contemplate with me what exactly it is we are proclaiming when we promise to serve the Lord in these times.
Before our Joshua story opens, the Israelites have been told that they're God's chosen people. God used Moses to liberate them from generations of slavery in Egypt and lead them to a new land. They witnessed God's might in parting the Red Sea so they could escape and it was so exciting! God gave them commands for living and asked them to trade their slavery and other gods for a new relationship with God as Master. They agreed to this relationship. But since then, they've been confused and wandering in the wilderness without a GPS system and God has been slow in fulfilling the big promise. As they journey to their destination not everyone has been happy to see them- they've been attacked on all sides by enemy tribes like the Amorites, and... Why are God's chosen people having to do this? Is this really the way it is supposed to be? They liked being the "chosen," but if this isn't really all that great why exactly do they have to stop worshipping their other gods? And why doesn't God share all of the details? Maybe they just need to take control. It's hard to wait and trust.
Moses gathered his inner circle to plan the next strategy, but they were divided about how to win the next big challenge. Each was convinced he should take charge. He knew what was needed. His view was right. Joshua was in the minority. He advised against rashly taking matters into their own hands. He urged waiting and trusting in God to provide. But I can just imagine it, "We're exhausted from all of this fighting and our patience is gone. There's trouble all around us, Joshua, and you say we should wait, not decide for ourselves?" He wasn't popular. Yet for his faith, God anointed Joshua the new leader, and they won the battle even when it seemed impossible.
Joshua's reward? Gather all the tired, impatient people who've been fighting amongst themselves, and challenging and complaining and continuing to seek out and worship other gods to hear Joshua speak God's words of promise after the bailout. Before the relationship is renewed, Joshua recounts a history of what God has done and who God is in this relationship, even now. This relationship has a history.
I encourage you to read the verses our lectionary omitted that relate this history which goes something like this:
God gave Abraham children even when he didn't believe it possible and tried to solve it another way. God gave more than a little piece of land, but enough that everyone could have space if they could share. When God's vision was corrupted, God brought deliverance, not as quickly as people wanted, and not in the way they thought, but God gave what was needed for that time. When trouble arose, God offered rescue in ways that are surprising- like using a hornet to drive enemies away. God spoke and the forces of nature obeyed and chaos subsided.
As I read, I was drawn to all of the actions of God for the people, "I gave… I heard you… I rescued… I delivered." But then I was drawn to what lies underneath- what kind of God would continually relate to us in this way? When the people grumbled, God could have become jealous and demanding, or simply tired of humanity, and invoked law and vengeance and wrath. Instead, underlying all of God's doing is a sense of God's being- as loving creator and provider. Angered and anguished, yet desiring a relationship, even now. Even after more challenging and turning away by the people who God had not so long ago freed. This is God's history.
Hearing Joshua, the people seem to get it. They have a bailout conversion and they promise this time to truly serve the Lord! Yet, this passage is not the end of Scripture. We don't hear the "all's well that ends well" music as Joshua rides off into the sunset-"MISSION ACCOMPLISHED." This is because the people have a history too- of quickly forgetting what God has done and how to live. After they promise, Joshua, still speaking for God, tells them they will FAIL to keep their promise. And they do -after lots of big talk, the "faithful" soon move on, building another altar to another god. They fail again and again in what they do, how they treat each other, and in trying to define each other by doing and having. God knows this will happen, but renews the relationship anyway! Joshua becomes one of a long line of prophets, culminating with God creating another relationship that will be everlasting. Instead of "manna for this day," God provides living bread and words of eternal life to a people continually imperfect in being; to a people who continually struggle.
The root of the struggle lies in what we learn from the Hebrew translation- The people don't just promise "to serve." They promise to TRULY serve the Lord. Liberated from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, they're being given the chance to liberate themselves from the bondage of their way of living, and all their competing gods, to TRULY serve one Lord- To let God order not just their actions but their existence. The question of whether they really can is the struggle that continues in us.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO TRULY SERVE THE LORD? How do we hear and live into this in our own time of challenges? Perhaps we hear "serve the Lord" primarily as a call to "Go and DO." But serving the Lord involves something deeper than just visible actions. We are challenged to enter a relationship not just of doing, but of being. More than a short-term "no risk" commitment. A long-term relationship, with all its ups and downs. "Serving" is not an event with a defined beginning and end, but a perpetual state- a state in which we stop fighting with ourselves and each other, stop struggling to serve other gods, and re-orient our lives to the one God. TO TRULY SERVE THE LORD requires inner transformation of our hearts and minds so that "whose we are" shapes our doing.
But we'd rather focus on our doing first. After all, we are a people of "doing." Our culture suggests that what we "do" establishes our identity. Ask a young child what he or she wants to be upon growing up and you will hear what someone wants to do. We like action. We like to be seen "doing." Our nation's history is forged not by our faith, as much as our industry and ingenuity. We honor the "self-made" man or woman. We praise technology, convincing ourselves that it's solely by our own effort that we reap the harvest. So, it's not surprising that one of the latest "how-to books" reviewed on CNN is entitled "Carve Your Own Road." Its author assures readers they can become the master or mistress of their own destinies, choosing their path, even in these times. They can choose and thus control every aspect of their lives to get what they want preferably before someone else does. We like to say that success is within our grasp. We also praise or criticize others based upon what they have "done" or "not done." And it becomes an impossible standard. When serving equals doing, we turn serving into Law. We try comparing ourselves to others- thinking "I do most things right- what about him, or her, or you?" But the truth is, nothing we can DO will bless this relationship. We all are in bondage and cannot break free. We are prisoners.
Today's lesson shows God turning to us over and over again. It also captures who we are- we keeping turning away to what we are sure gives us what we need. God continues to give, but we continue to believe we can do better. We keep searching for the answers we want and we deceive ourselves. We proclaim we will serve the Lord, but these words don't become a pattern of being that is "Written on our hearts." What we write on our hearts is based upon the sufficiency of our doing, and the other gods we worship, gods that cannot give what the Lord gives no matter how many times we ask, yet we challenge each other again and again for them- gods of land, and power and resources. In this way of living we are choosing who, or what, we serve.
To "TRULY serve the Lord" we must confront OUR other gods- we all have them. The things we truly worship- the god of career, investments, food or sports. Whatever it is we give pride of place; whatever it is we seek to give us comfort and peace. We have faith- that more of these gods will free us from the weight of the world. In Charles Dickens' classic, A Christmas Story, the main character, Scrooge, is confronted about his ways of living by a series of ghosts, one of whom is his former law partner, Jacob Marley. Marley's ghost appears, weighed down by clanking and rattling chains. A frightened Scrooge asks what the chains represent. Marley moans that the links of the chains were forged in his life in his choosing greed, pride and self-interest as his masters. When we serve our other gods, we too hold onto and forge new links of the chains that imprison and enslave us to these masters.
God offers freedom, yet we cringe at making God the new Lord and master of our world. "TRULY serving the Lord" means accepting that God's timetable and God's words order our lives. We're not sure about this freedom. It's said that when people are released from prison, some are unable to make the adjustment to freedom. Prison is unbearable, but it has structure and limitations. Being freed "on the outside" presents a whole new world of decisions and temptations. We get caught up in our plans. We say that this time we'll get it right, but there is a constant temptation. How can we let God lead when culture tells us otherwise? Old ways of living become too comfortable. It's frightening to leave behind old friends and old hangouts. It requires us. Like the Israelites, to walk into unknown territory, to live with a new identity and to face those who will tell us not to bother. This living is countercultural and it's hard. Like the Israelites, we get impatient. We don't want to struggle or wait for God. Perhaps we fear serving the Lord because it challenges our greatest other god, the god of self-sufficiency. We can't trust breaking free to serve the Lord. We are in bondage to that fear.
"TRULY serving the Lord" means we must trust in God's providing and letting God order our existence all of the time, rather than at times seeing God as the God of convenience- the "Turkey Hill" God. Maybe we'd rather only promise to serve the Lord when things are bad, or let God be in charge just long enough for that bailout. But do we really trust or do we keep our backup gods close by, just in case? If the preferred plan is Plan A and the fallback is Plan B- is God our Plan A or our fallback? Or perhaps we find ourselves trying to change the equation in our relationship with God to one of bargaining- "IF you do this God, I will do that." God isn't using this model. Thankfully God doesn't base our relationship on any of our terms.
Instead I'm reminded of my own growing up. I had my fair share of "bailout" conversions-times when I did something wrong and my Dad would sit me down for a "talking to." These talks always opened with "Take it from me- you don't have to do this the hard way." Advice followed about making the right choices. I wish I could say I faithfully followed his lead. I wanted to, but more often than not I wanted to believe that I knew better. Other options seemed so appealing and I was sure he just didn't get it. But it was only a matter of time before "I can't believe I have to bail you out of this jam- AGAIN!" could be heard. Perhaps this has happened to you too. We're saved in the nick of time, and we're incredibly grateful. We won't do THAT again. But then...after awhile, well… you know how it goes. We don't want to face the fact we might need to look at the world in a different way. We're relieved that we've been spared, but we also want to stomp our feet and whine a little, and chafe against the idea someone else knows best. Like sullen teenagers we swear our Parent just doesn't understand. We are in bondage to "I know better."
We all are in bondage.
Yet, in grace, God calls us to serve even though we're in bondage to all of these struggles. We're liberated from ourselves by a God who knows us and our struggles, but renews the relationship anyway, sending us to go in peace and serve the Lord. But we are not freed to just pick up our chains again on the way out the door. Instead we are no longer captive to our way of looking at the world. We're freed to live in the blessing of God's arrangement. To live thankfully in a world where God continues creating, ordering, toiling and arranging for us. Where God continues sustaining and redeeming this relationship even when we cannot. What "better" relationship is there than to let go of our striving, set free to focus on being in a household where God has it all covered?
Prisoners released from jail are often asked how they will spend their first day of freedom. We could ask how we will spend our days of freedom? We are freed to live in a world where no longer have to "look out for # 1." This is the world of our other gods. Freed to see ourselves as part of a much larger arrangement that includes others and their needs, not just our own. Freed to trust in God's providing for all, rather than stockpiling and striving. Freed to see that the phrase "as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" is not an individualistic promise. God is not our individual personal God, but Lord of the whole household. We're freed to adopt the much more expanded view of "household" of the Hebrew Scripture, where one's entire family tree by birth and marriage, hired hands and servants and everyone living on the land were all encompassed in the term "household." We're talking vast numbers of people, all part of God's household. Promising to live in this arrangement is a promise not only of how each of us will live, but how we will work to sustain the promise across the entire group- even when we or others stumble. God's arrangement is radical "big picture" thinking. We are called to embrace this arrangement of TRULY serving the Lord in this relationship where all of the land, and all of the towns and all of the resources are lovingly arranged by God for all in the household. We are called and we are freed to THIS very way of life where God is saying "take it from me- you don't have to do this the hard way." It seems too good to be true.
So can we really live as freed people, where what we do is shaped first by whose we are? We leave here again today with that chance, as a people claimed and liberated in spite of all of the times we have disagreed, grown impatient and challenged God and each other. God continues in ultimate faithfulness, knowing we are imperfect in reciprocating, yet calling us back again to serve in faith and trust in this way of life each day- to "TRULY serve the Lord." This week I encourage you- step out of the bondage of the way the world tells us things are. Remember the sending words "Go in peace, serve the Lord" and in thanksgiving to God, ask each day- how will I spend my freedom today?