Christ is King (is means is), Matthew 25:31-46, Nov. 20, 2011, Christ the King A

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Christ is King, Matthew 25:31-46, Nov. 20, 2011, Christ the King A

Matthew 25:31-46 

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Christ is King (is mean is)

I do not usually tell jokes in sermons, but from time to time, one makes a point better than anything, and this is one of those times.  The joke comes from the time of Yugoslavia, before it broke apart.  It comes during the time the country was ruled by the Communist strong man, General Tito.  The setting is a prison cell with numerous inmates.  The guard opens the door and shoves in a new convict.  He immediately starts shouting,  “It’s not fair!  It’s not fair!  It’s not fair!”  Finally another prisoner interrupts him, “What’s not fair?”  He says “I got ten years!”  “For what?” the other asks.”  “For nothing!” he replies.  “O, that is unfair,” says the other prisoner, “usually for nothing, you only get five years.”

When doing nothing is criminal

In a totalitarian state, doing nothing can be a crime if someone simply wants to punish you.  But are there times when doing nothing really is criminal?

How about  the recent revelations about what happened at Penn. State?   Doing nothing when a child is being molested is a serious problem.   In fact, doing nothing in the face of suffering is what the priest and the Levite did in the parable of the Good Samaritan; they just walked on by, refusing to be a “neighbor.”

 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength” so says the first and greatest commandment, and the second, Jesus said, is like it, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Nobody ever “walks on by” themselves.  We tend to get pretty insistent on finding solutions  to our personal needs, when we feel hungry, or thirsty, cold, or whatever.  We never  just “do nothing,” when we suffer.  So, we are called to respond to our neighbor’s needs with the same determination.

The do-nothing goats

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Jesus just told a story, a parable, about the separation of the righteous and the unrighteous by the King at the end of time.  In the parable the King is a shepherd, the separation is of the sheep and the goats.

What did the goats do that was wrong?   They did nothing.  They were not guilty of actively sinning: they did not worship idols, forget the Sabbath, dishonor their fathers or mothers, kill, commit adultery, or steal.  They simply failed to respond when they saw people suffering.  They did nothing.

42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

The happy sheep

The sheep, on the other hand, were the ones who responded to the needs around them.  They responded when they saw hunger, when they saw thirst, when they saw deprivation and oppression.

I believe that the people represented by the sheep, had not been looking for a reward.   They were not looking over their shoulders to see if anyone was noticing how much they were spending on emergency food, bottled water and clothing for the ones they helped.  They were not expecting a pat on the back, or even trying to coerce God into a blessing-in-kind.

In fact they were surprised that anyone noticed at all.  They say,

 ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  

Then, the Shepherd-king at the end of the ages will say to them,

40 ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

I’m sure the sheep were happy hear him say to them,

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

But I think they were already happy.  It is a one of those remarkable, wonderful facts of life, that serving, that responding to needs, that being the Good Samaritan  does not diminish us, it gives us joy.  The old saying is true, “Goodness is its own reward.”

It is the misers who are miserable.  It is the ones whose evil eye is constantly making comparisons with their neighbor’s wealth who are unhappy.  It is those who do nothing good, like the goats, that feel nothing good in the end.

But, people who look at other people with “Jesus eyes” and who stop what they are doing, and go over and minister to the pain they see are the ones who know what Saint Francis taught: “it is in giving that we receive.”  The greatest irony is that when we feel someone else’s pain, and respond, we end feeling joy.  God made us that way.

On not seeing Jesus

This parable calls us to an entire lifestyle of caring and compassion.  This year as I read this parable I realized that I had always read this in way that makes it say  almost the opposite

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of what actually it says.  I have always thought that this parable teaches us to look at people in need, to look at the “least of these” and to see Jesus.

But the odd thing is that nobody sees Jesus – neither the sheep nor the goats.  They are both equally surprised that Jesus was in their story at all.

The sheep, in this parable, did not feed the hungry because they saw them as Jesus; they fed the hungry because as sheep of the Good Shepherd, they had adopted his way of living.  His agenda had become their agenda.  His perspective on suffering and pain was now their perspective.  His values had become their values.  They did not need to “see Jesus in the faces of the poor.”  Rather, they saw the poor; and they responded as Jesus did.  And he took it personally.  He always takes it personally.

Christ, the complex King

This is Christ the King Sunday, the ending culmination of the Christian year.  Next week Advent begins, and a fresh new year will start.  We end the year with Christ the King Sunday, celebrating a truth that is as complex as it gets.  The Christ, who is the King, who gets to make the final, ultimate decisions, is a shepherd-king.  The king in Jesus’ parable has the scent of the sheep-fold in his clothing.

In the parable that Jesus tells of the Great King at the End of Time, the king is not sitting on a gilded throne, obsessing about his power over people.  Rather he is there, with his sheep, thinking about their care for each other.  We could say, he is not the king of coercion, but the king of compassion.  And soon, he will be the shepherd-king who lays down his own life for his sheep.

“Is” means “is”

Let us be clear.  We are never asked to “accept” Jesus as king.  We are never told  to “invite Jesus to be our king.”  Jesus is King, already, and “is” means “is.”  He is the one whose agenda matters.  He is the one whose perspective matters.  He is the one whose values matter.  As the scripture tells us, “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.”  (Psa. 97:2)

Doing nothing in his kingdom is considered unrighteousness.  Doing nothing is counted as injustice.  Just ask the goats.  As the King who is King, he is not coercing us to be compassionate.  These are the days of our freely chosen lifestyles of doing nothing or something.  But King means King, and in the end, there will be consequences.  This parable is as ominous as it is inviting.

Answer the Shepherd-King’s call...

Let us hear the invitation, the call to embrace the King who is King!  Let us embrace his compassionate, responsive, self-giving lifestyle, and let us live in the happy joy of those whose lives have made a difference in the world.

On this Sunday of the dedication of our stewardship commitments of our lives, our hours, our abilities, and our wealth, let these be the expression of our thankfulness that we bring to our Shepherd-King.  Let these offerings be the index of our faith and the measure of our joy and our response to his call.

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“The Life or Death Talent Show,” Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30, 33rd Ordinary Year A, Pentecost +27, Proper 28, November 13, 2011

 The Life or Death Talent Show

Matthew 25:14–30

[Jesus said:] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one,

who would do that?

to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”

What do we believe about God?  It’s a tricky question.  We could answer it by reciting a creed, like the Apostles Creed and say, “That’s what I believe.”  But perhaps the question, “What do we believe about God?” asks us what we really believe to be true at a deep level.

We can use that word “believe” in vastly different ways.  I can say I believe in the benefits of diet and exercise, but if you see that I’m eating in an unhealthy way and not working-out regularly, then you would be right to question whether I truly did believe in the benefits of diet and exercise as I claimed to.

Perhaps the true test of all belief is behavior.  Don’t ask me what I believe; watch me.  It’s not what I say I believe about God that matters, it’s how I live which tells the truth about what I believe.

Two Radically Different Beliefs

The parable we just read is about belief in God; in fact it is about two radically different beliefs.  There are three servants who are given money in this story.  The first two are given different amounts, but they do the exact same thing with it and they get the exact same praise from the master for the exact same accomplishment.

The third is the one who acts differently and gets a different reaction.  So, since the first two are the same, we can talk about this parable as an alternative between two ways of believing about God; the way of the first two servants, and the way of the third.

Which way got it right about God? What difference did it make?  Those are the questions the parable explores.  Maybe those are crucial questions for us, as well.

All three are given money by the master.  A “talent” here is not an ability, the way we speak of talents, but rather it’s a term for currency.  It’s like how some people call a $100 note, a “Benjamin” because it pictures Franklin.   A normal day’s wages was one denarius, a talent is worth 6-10 thousand denarii.  It’s a huge pile of cash, equivalent to years and years of income, if not a whole lifetime’s income.

Who would put that much money into the hands of his servants and then walk away, trusting them?  Could this be the first clue in this parable about who God is?

Actions show Belief

The first two servants do the exact same thing with the huge piles of cash they are given.  They both go off “at once” and put the money to use in some kind of business trade.  That is, they at once invest the money.

Wasn’t that risky?  What if they simply made poor investments and lost money?  What if there was a global recession and the market collapsed?  What if they invested in stocks that were way over-leveraged and the bubble burst before the master returned?

What allowed these two servants to risk investing their master’s resources with such light heartedness?

Don’t their actions tell us about what they believed about the master?  They must have believed that they were doing exactly what he wanted them to do.  They totally embraced his goals and values.  The bundles of bills that he put into their hands, he expected to be put back into the community through investment.

They knew that the master’s perspective was not “survival mode” thinking, but rather “growth mode.”  The two servants put their money down on the belief that  the master himself wanted to accomplish something positive by taking a few risks and putting himself out there in the fray.

But still, it’s a risk; what if they failed and lost the money?  They didn’t give it a moment’s worry.  They both went out “at once.”  Does’t that clearly show what they believed about the master?  Were they right to be so confident?  Did they have any evidence?

They must have imagined that the kind of person who would put piles of cash into their hands and walk away would also understand if they had done their best, and it turned out badly.  They simply didn’t believe they had any reason to fear.  What does that tell us about the master?

Results and Reactions

What was the result for these two?  They reaped fantastic results.  Even Petro-China cannot promise to double your investment.  They both lived in the world of abundance that they believed in.

How did the master react?  Remember that we are talking about the slave-owning world of the first century.  Masters did not need to thank slaves.  Slaves did not expect praise.  If they did their job perfectly, they were only doing their duty.  For doing anything less, they could expect to feel the lash.

But what does this master do?  He praises them extravagantly.

 “‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’”

Amazing: they get praise, plus the honor of increased trust; he is going to be giving them so much more that it will make the first pile of cash seem like just “a few things”!

And on top of increased trust, the slaves are both going to be welcomed into “the joy” of their master!  Is the master making them members of the family?  If so, does this mean they are going to get to keep what they has been given?  That is the implication – it’s grandiose!  It’s utterly unprecedented!

The two slaves showed by their carefree investments that they believed in a master who was good, and generous, risk-taking and involved.  And that is the world they got to live in – far beyond their expectations.

The Other One, the other outcome

What a different story for the third slave.  He showed by his actions what he thought of his master.  Then he actually said it in words.   He thought of his master like you would think of Pharaoh – greedy, ruthless, self-interested, dangerous.  He lived in a world of scarcity where risk was impossible, and helping the community to prosper had nothing to do with it.  He says:

 “‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

He too got the world he believed in.  It begins in the location of fear, it moves to a hole in the ground, and ends in darkness and misery.

Joy versus weeping; the two outcomes of the two different beliefs could not be more opposite.

What do we believe about God?  We recite the creed.  Probably all three of these good Jewish servants could have recited the Jewish creed.  Their actions, however, showed what they truly believed.

Talents and Talents

I told you that the word “talents” in this parable means something like a “Benjamin” – meaning a $100 dollar note.  True enough, but the way we use “talent” to mean an ability may be a happy coincidence.

This parable is about money, but not only about money: it’s about what we truly believe about God.  People who truly believe that God is good, generous, involved for the good of his people are the kind who show it in all kinds of ways.

Like Barbara

They are people, like Barbara, whom we celebrate today.  She showed us and still today shows us with her life what she truly believes about God.  She has invested herself in us, the church, and in this community, week after week, year in and year out.

You may think I’m talking about her organ playing.  Yes I am, but that’s only the beginning.  I’m talking about her faithful Sunday School teaching.  I’m talking about her faithful stewardship.  I’m talking about the heart and soul that she is putting into the tutoring program.  Don’t ask Barbara what she thinks about God; watch her life!

If you do, will you see a person who is fear-based?  Will you see a person who is risk-adverse?  Will you see a person in misery?  Or will you see just the opposite?  A person of confidence, a person who puts herself out there on behalf of others, and a person of great joy?

Show and Tell

Next Sunday is Stewardship Dedication Sunday.  It is the time we come with our Time and Talent surveys and our financial pledges.  It is a hugely important moment for all of us.  What we bring as an offering to the Lord next Sunday will be the best index of what we really believe about God.

It’s not about the amount – some can do much, others are able to do much less.  God looks at the two talent servant in the exact same way as the five talent person.  The amount is not the issue, the issue is that what we choose to do with the “talents” of money, time, and “talent” that God give us shows what we truly believe about God.

Getting what we Believe

What if, like the servants in the parable, we get the kind of God we believe in?  What if we get the kind of world we believe in?  What if we get the kind of church we believe in?  What kind of God, or world, or church would we have?  What do we really believe?  We shall see, right?.

This is the time in which we can put our faith into action.  This is the time we can affirm our trust in a God who cares, a God of generosity, and a God of radical welcome into extravagant joy.  This is the time we can live in such a way that we will one day hear:

‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; enter into the joy of your master.’


Why I Give to the Church

Why I Give to the church

Every stewardship season I review why I give to the church.  I would like to share these reasons with you.

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  1. I give because of my own spiritual need to take the would-be god Mammon off the throne so that God alone can be King in my life.  The only way to knock Mammon off the control center throne that it keeps trying to claim is to subvert it by doing the exact opposite of what Mammon wants me to do.  Mammon hoards, so I give.  Mammon is fear-based: “maybe you don’t have enough yet, so hang on to what you’ve got.”  I claim that, like my money says,  “In God we Trust.”  Well, if I trust in God to provide “enough” then I have to prove it by refusing to listen to Mammon’s constant chatter of fear.  Mammon always says things that are partly true (the best lies are always partly true).  Mammon says “the future is uncertain”.

    True enough, but the future is in God’s hands, and therefore I will not fear.  Mammon says, “Prices are rising.”  True enough, but God is faithful, and so I will trust him.  Mammon says, “Just this month, you need it.”  True enough, I always can find reasons for “needing it” – I have a mortgage, a child in college, an adolescent at home, and auto-repair expenses.  Yes, and next month I’ll have similar reasons,  and the next month after that the same.  But I will believe that God can and will provide for me this month, so I will reject Mammon’s temptation to withhold.  There are a million little tricks Mammon tries to play with my my heart and my mind.  For the sake of my own spiritual life, for the sake of my faith in God who is the only and the true source of my security, I will give.

  2. I value the church, so I give to make sure that I support it.  I have been a member of a variety of churches in my life.  None of them was perfect; all of them were comprised of humans like me.  All of them nurtured my faith, week to week.  All of them provided me with opportunities for worship and prayer, study and ways to serve.  All of them fed me spiritually through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  All of them provided me with a community of people who encouraged my faith, taught me in Sunday School, visited me in the hospital, and helped me through painful times.  All of them gave me a way to celebrate Christmas and Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost.  I was baptized in a church, as were my children, and someday the church will conduct my funeral service as a witness to the resurrection.  I love the imperfect church because it is the church of Jesus Christ, my Lord.  The church was his idea, and so I value it.  Of course, as with everything else I value, I prove it with my support.
  3. I care about the ministries and missions that I support though giving to the church.  I care about the people who are victims of disasters, so I  am glad to be able to support them through my giving to the church which supports Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  I care about people who need decent housing, so I am happy to support Habitat for Humanity through my giving to the church.  I care about the people who need the Christian Service Center’s food pantry and “hand up” out of their crises.  I am proud to be able to support, through the church, Presbyterian missionaries who are at work on my behalf all around the world.  I have signed up to receive, every day, an email message with that day’s page from the Mission Yearbook for Prayer and Study, so I can be aware of and pray for missionaries from Brazil to Burundi, and all points in between.  The same could be said for all of the missions and ministries our church supports.  I care about those ministries, and I support them through my giving to the church.

  4. I support the church through my giving because I believe God expects me to, and I want to be obedient.
      God required the tithe, that is the first ten percent of income, from his people, Israel.  They were harshly criticized by the prophets when they were lax and irresponsible about tithing.  Read Malachi 3:8-12 – the language is really tough.  Failure to tithe was called “robbing God.”  That was the Old Testament; what about the New Testament?   God still expects his people to give.  In 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 we read,

 “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

God expects us to “sow bountifully.”  It sounds to me as if a tithe would be the minimum of “bountifully.”  I believe God expects me to tithe, so out of obedience, I do.   As with every other way in which we have opportunities to obey God, I believe that blessings follow obedience.  But that is not why we obey – to get blessed.  We obey because God is God; the blessing is simply icing on the cake.

 There are some ideas that are NOT reasons I support the church.  

  1. I  do not support the church because there is a budget to meet.  Yes, there is a budget, but I would support the church with my tithe even if all of the budgeted expenses were covered by an enormous endowment, because of the four reasons I just gave.  None of those reasons go away, even if the budget is flush.  I don’t tithe because we need to repair an air conditioning unit or pay the light bill.  I may respond to a special request and give over and above my tithe if there is a special need, but with or without a need, I would still give to the church.
  2. I do not give to the church for tax reasons.  I am happy to take every deduction I can take, but my taxes have nothing to do with the four reasons I listed above.  If the government takes away the charitable deduction, I will simply have to learn to live with less.  And yes, God will help me figure out how to do it.   By the way, in many other countries, there never has been such a thing as a charitable tax deduction – there certainly was no such thing during the time of Jesus in or Paul in the days of the Roman Empire!  Taxes have nothing significant to do with the motivation to give to the church.
  3.  I do not give because the church is one of my charities.  I do support some other charitable organizations (although, not much, compared to my church support).  Charities are causes I believe in which I support with “expendable income.”  In other words, I support them when I believe I can afford to.   That is almost the exact opposite of how and why I support the church.  The church is not a charity holding out her hand for left-overs.  The church gets the “first fruits” of my income – not the dregs from the bottom of the barrel.  The church is God’s church, Christ’s bride, the body of Christ; Jesus died for the church, she is not one among many “good causes”  but rather is the unique vehicle of God’s grace in action in our world.
  4. I do not support the church because all my other needs and most of my other wants are taken care of.  I still have bills to pay.  I don’t go out to eat or buy new clothes nearly as much as I feel tempted to.  I don’t have all the “stuff” that looks so fun in the commercials.  I don’t take all the trips I would love to take.  Big deal.  I am not suffering.  In fact, I have things the Kings of England and France never dreamed of: heat and air-conditioning on demand; hot water on demand; ice cubes on demand; pure water at the tap; machines that wash my dishes and my clothes, and even dry them for me; I have fresh fruit and vegetables all year around; I have spices, nuts, even sugar and salt (in moderation).  If I want to go somewhere, I don’t saddle a horse, I get into a clean, dry temperature-controlled car – or plane!  I have music anytime, any style I want, from all over the world, from all the world’s best and all the world’s popular composers, performers and musicians, and I have all of it in high quality stereo headphones.  I have excellent doctors and safe and effective medicines.  I even have a dentist who never lets me feel pain!  No, I don’t have “everything” I could want – but there is no such thing as having “everything” a person could want, is there?  As scripture observes,

They eye never has enough of seeing….”  (Eccl 1:8)

No Regrets

There are many things I have regretted spending my money on.  There are the things that didn’t work as they were advertised to, or that broke quickly, or became obsolete when the new model arrived.  There were the things that were supposed to be fulfilling or thrilling or meaningful that turned out not to be.  There were the things that were great while they lasted, but did not last too long compared to the price I paid.  There were the things that I didn’t really need and didn’t end up using.  There were the dumb mistakes, the impulse purchases, the “good money after bad” expenditures.  There have been a lot of things I regret spending money on.  But I have never regretted supporting the church.  My stewardship has not always been what it should.  There have been times of failure on my part.  I regret them.  But I have never regretted the times I have been responsible, faithful and obedient.  I have never lacked anything essential.  I have never gone hungry or homeless.  I have been blessed.

 

“The Choices of the Chosen” Sermon for Nov. 6, 2011, Matthew 25:1-13, Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Proper 27A/Ordinary 32A/Pentecost +21

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of

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Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: 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.

“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him 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.”

Then the people answered, “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. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

Matthew 25:1-13 

[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The Choices of the Chosen

For another whole year we will be in “election season” in this country.  If you are not already weary of it, you may become so at some point between now and then.  But I bet no one here would want to live in country in which you didn’t have a choice about who would govern.   Even though ours is not a perfect system, we value highly our right to choose, or to elect our leaders.

Choice texts

Both of the texts we have read involve moments of choosing.  In the reading from Joshua, the Israelites are presented with the choice of renewing the covenant their ancestors made to be bound to Israel’s God, Yahweh or to go after the gods of the surrounding peoples.  The ten bridesmaids in the parable Jesus told, have all made choices about lamp oil; some have chosen wisely, some not.  Choices have consequences.

It is not just political seasons that present us with important choices.  In fact, we make choices and live with the consequences all the time.  If we could look at our behavior more often as though it were chosen, instead of automatic, perhaps we would live better.

Chosen habits

Choices quickly become habits, and habits stop feeling like choices.  At some point, choices, which have grown into habits, take on the feeling of inevitability.  We get used to our habits and stop questioning them.

But habits have their roots in choices – repeated choices.  This fact can be a great source of hope for people who recognize that some of the habits they  have chosen are unhelpful.  Habits can be broken.  We can choose to behave differently.

That’s what our doctors tell us about our diet when the cholesterol levels or the blood pressure gets too high.  We may be used to eating this

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way, but the truth is, the choice is ours.

Moments of decision

That visit to the doctor can be an important moment in our lives.  It is not just another day in the routine of habitual days.  Because the doctor calls attention to the consequences ahead, she presents us with a fork in the road.  In her office, it’s no longer an ordinary day, it is a day of decision.

That was what Joshua did with Israel on that day; he created a moment of decision.

 15 “choose this day whom you will serve”

Joshua, remember, was Moses’ successor.  Moses had led the Israelite slaves across the Red Sea into freedom and had given them the book of Torah, or guidance, to show them how to live as God’s chosen people beginning with the ten commandments.

Joshua led the people across the Jordan River, into the Promised Land, and after many conflicts, finally the land had rest.  In this text it is near the end of his life.  Joshua wants to give the people of the generation that will follow him the opportunity to choose for themselves to put their allegiance and trust in Yahweh, the God who had set them free and given them the land.

Our text presents us not with a monologue, but a conversation, or, should we think of it as a call-and-response litany?  He begins, in a rather ominous tone:

 “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” 

Then they, with one voice answer:

“No, we will serve the Lord!” 

Joshua wants to make burn this moment of decision into their memories, so he continues:

 “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” 

And again, in unison they reply:

“We are witnesses.”

They choice has been made.  They will not be a people on auto-pilot, following the covenant made for them by their parent’s generation with Moses.  They, the chosen people are now people of the choice.  They bind themselves in solemn covenant, “cross my heart, hope to die.”

Too harsh?

I wonder if you felt that Joshua was a bit hard on the people as he presented them with their moment of choice?  It is as if he expected them to fail.

We must remember that the story of Joshua was written down long after the events it tells about.  Looking back at that moment of choice, from the point of view of an Israelite exile, in Babylon, after years of doing the opposite of what they had promised to do, probably affected the way that day was remembered.

Looking back on the day of the doctor visit, months later,  the day you decided to go on the heart-healthy diet, after all all those subsequent

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tasty, fatty meals, that followed, and all those desserts, all those “just this once” exceptions, it makes the previous decision to go on a strict diet look a bit pathetic.

I think that must have been how it felt to the author to look back on that day of decision from the perspective exile in Babylon, after it had all come to grief.  Choices have consequences.

Fear and Failure

Why do people make bad, self-destructive choices?  Why did the people of Israel, after saying they would choose to follow Yahweh, instead turn and follow the gods, the idols of the nations around them?   Why the failure of faith?

Failures of faith are often fear-based.  We choose to believe a version of the future as we imagine it, that presents us with uncertainty, risk, and danger. We feel vulnerable; we need protection.  We are tempted to believe God cannot handle it, so we find supplemental insurance policies to cover us.

That is what idol worship was about for Israel: not just temptations to venerate gods with other names, but rather, a sneaking suspicion that Yahweh, Israel’s God was not up to the task of providing rain, not like the local rain-god who was a specialist, so, they reasoned, best hedge your bets.

God may not be up to the task of ensuring a healthy reproduction season for the lambs and goats, so why not give a nod to the fertility gods who make that their primary business, they wondered?  It’s all about security in the face of imagined uncertainty.  Failures of faith are frequently fear-based.

Are we do different?

We are not so different, are we?  We come up to a moment of decision every year at stewardship time.  Will we fill out a pledge card or not?  We are tempted to repeat what we did last year and the year before.  We have habits, nevertheless, we all know that what we do this year is actually our choice.

And when we consider the amount our giving, whether we write down a pledge or not, the same thought processes go through our minds that the Israelites faced: “Are we protected sufficiently from danger?  Sure, we say to ourselves, God asks for a tithe, but can that work in the real world, especially in an economy like this, we wonder?  We can imagine not having enough; it scares us.

Are we tempted to the idols, as the Israelites were?  Idolatry, according to Walter Brueggemann, is the monopoly of our imaginations.

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Idolatry is yielding the imagination so that we experience our world according to the terms of  the idol, so that we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted to do serious imaginative work; the work of a subversive imagination of an alternative.

Imagining an alternative world

Maybe this world is not, after all, merely subject to the mindless, heartless economic market, as it appears.  Perhaps, with enough imagination, we might be able to believe in a world in which our Heavenly Father really is at work behind the scenes providing our daily bread.

Perhaps we could even be so bold as to imagine a world in which no only our personal needs were met, but a world in which God gives us enough to share with our neighbors in need; a world of blessed, broken bread, given away, and baskets upon baskets left over.

I read of a group of Christian men who wanted to help each other live lives of integrity as believers.  They were tired of superficial accountability; they wanted to be real with each other.  So, they decided that they would all share with each other their tax forms from the previous year.  No hiding.  They were saying that they wanted to make choices that would echo Joshua’s:

“as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

That is what I want to say.  I want to let God’s good dream for the world fill my imagination, and set my agenda.

My experience

It is not easy, I know.  There have been times I have made the right choice, and other times I have given in to fear and experienced failures of faith.  But I can tell you that in every year in which I was faithful, God has been faithful to provide for my needs.  I have never suffered for making the right choice.  The only regrets I have are for the times I chose wrongly.   What has your experience been?

I want to ask something of you; even if your habit has been not to read the newsletter, please choose to read it this month.  I would like you to read the cover article, but not that one alone.  I have an article in it that I would like all of us to reflect on, called “Why Give to the Church?”  Consider it a moment of decision occasion; a moment to make choices. Wise choices.

As we come to the Lord’s table, let your imagination run wild.  Picture the great banquet of Messiah, in which bread is blessed, broken, and given to all, and there is always enough.  All are fed, and no one is hungry.