26 Pentecost Yr A, 9/11/2008
Josh 24:1-3a, 14-25
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Serve the LORD”
The company’s management team put their heads together to decide how to reduce the high employee turnover rate.
“They spend their first six or eight weeks learning our system, then they join another company,” complained one executive.
“Yes, but doesn’t that at least speak highly of our training program?” chirped an optimistic colleague.1
In today’s society, there certainly is a concern about choice and loyalty. It seems that personal interests trump loyalty for the purpose of service and the common good in all kinds of relationships whether it’s in the workplace, in school, at home, or in church. If choices are to be made, loyalty, more often than not, is viewed more as a vice than a virtue by many people these days.
Decisions, choices. It seems life is full of them. Some say we have lots of freedom to choose and relish that freedom. Yet others observe that such freedom only gets us into deeper trouble, since we fail to choose wisely, making the wrong choices. Yet others would say that we don’t really have any choices at all—why? Because someone else more powerful than us chooses for us. And still others would say that by remaining indecisive and not choosing is also actually a choice made by some people.
Dangerous Minds is based on a true story about high school teacher LouAnne Johnson (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) making a difference in the lives of troubled but smart inner-city students.
In one scene, while LouAnne is in front of the class teaching, the students are upset with her because they felt she “ratted” on three students for fighting. LouAnne asks them if they want to discuss the issue. There is no response. Fully calm and composed, she tells them if they feel so strongly about it, they should leave the classroom. No one is forcing them. They can stay or leave.
One of the students objects and tells her they don’t have a choice. “If we leave, we don’t get to graduate. If we stay, we have to put up with you.”
LouAnne tells the student that’s a choice—not one they like, but it’s a choice.
Another student angrily objects and says, “Man, you don’t understand nothing. You don’t come from where we live. You’re not bussed here. You come and live in my neighbourhood for one week, and then you come and tell me if you have a choice.”
LouAnne, with a slight tinge of anger, firmly replies, “There are a lot of people who live in your neighbourhood who choose not to get on that bus. What do they choose to do? They choose to go out and sell drugs. They choose to go out and kill people. They choose to do a lot of other things. But they choose not to get on that bus. The people who choose to get on that bus, which are you, are the people who are saying, ‘I will not carry myself down to die; when I go to my grave, my head will be high.’ That is a choice.” Then in a slightly louder and angrier tone, she says, “There are no victims in this classroom!”
The camera shows one student seriously considering her words.
Another female student says, “Why do you care anyway? You’re just here for the money.”
LouAnne quickly responds, “Because I make a choice to care, and honey, the money ain’t that good.”2
LouAnne in this movie is much like Joshua in our first lesson, who says: “as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” As people of faith, we are called upon to be loyal to our LORD and his will even when the majority all around us are turning away and relying on other gods.
In a conversation I had with an elderly retired woman, she lamented over the trend today of many youngsters and their parents turning to sports as a form of religion. They will do anything to keep themselves involved in sports. They become so committed and loyal to sports that everything else takes a back seat. This elderly woman lamented too that her family members do not attend church nearly as often as they used to and as she and her husband had brought them up to do. In fact, most likely a minority of Canadians attend church on a regular basis or place their Christian faith as the most important commitment in life.
Over against this setting, our first lesson today has much to teach us. Even though we as Lutherans believe, as did the Israelites, that God has taken the initiative to choose us, not the other way round; nonetheless, like Joshua of old and the Israelite tribes, we are called upon to respond to God’s having chosen us first by also choosing to be faithful to God.
Joshua had grown old, under his faithful and wise leadership, the Israelite tribes had entered the Promised Land. They had been successful in their military campaigns against the Canaanites. The Israelites had occupied the Promised Land and the land had been allocated to the various tribes. Life was unfolding in some semblance of normalcy. However, Joshua knew as God’s faithful servant that there were dangers with this semblance of normalcy. It could cause the people to become indifferent towards the LORD and their commitment to him. It could delude them into believing that it wasn’t God who had been providing for them all along—rather, they could falsely believe that it was all their doing, their work. Moreover, unless challenged, the Israelites could put their eggs in multiple baskets by worshipping various gods associated with all of the other non-Israelite peoples around them. Their loyalties could easily be divided among the various false gods. This trend could also mushroom among the Israelite tribes if they lost their sense of identity and unity as God’s Chosen People.
Joshua is now at the end of his life. So here is his last chance to “rally the troops” so-to-speak. He calls them all together in one place, Shechem, his purpose is to renew the covenant between God and the Israelite tribes and reinforce their identity and unity. So, in very solemn speech, Joshua reminds the Israelite tribes of how God had called Abraham away from the worship of many gods in the land of his birth to the worship of the One, True God who led him to the Promised Land and multiplied his offspring.
Following this preamble, Joshua then confronts the Israelite tribes, exhorting them to all false gods from foreign lands and in reverence, sincerity and faithfulness serve the LORD their God. In other words, it was an exhortation to obey the first and greatest commandment of having no other gods beside the LORD their God. He leaves them an option: “choose this day whom you will serve” the LORD God or the false gods of their ancestors. Then, he makes it clear: “as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” In this call to covenant renewal, Joshua takes the initiative as God’s chosen leader to set the example before the people—even though the majority of Israelite tribes serve other false gods, Joshua was going to serve the LORD God. He was not the monkey see, monkey do kind of person. He was a true leader, setting the example rather than following an example of the majority. In this act he was in line with all of his faithful predecessor leaders—including Moses and Abraham.
The people, in response do remember the LORD their God, and recite their salvation history. They remember how God had delivered and protected and provided for them. Then they promise, answering Joshua, that: “Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
Joshua, to reinforce their commitment to God further, reminds them of the tragic consequences of serving other gods—the LORD would do them harm if they were not loyal to him. Once again the Israelites respond that they would indeed serve the LORD.
Again Joshua exhorts the people in the form of them having to agree to take a solemn vow or oath that they were witnesses against themselves against themselves that they had agreed and committed themselves to the LORD, and they responded by agreeing, by taking the vow or oath, saying: “We are witnesses.”
Then, in a final recorded solemn exhortation, Joshua once again commands the Israelite tribes to “put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.” Notice here that Joshua realises his people still have foreign gods, hence the need to abandon them completely if they are to be truly loyal to the LORD their God. Once again the people answer in the affirmative: “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
Following this, Joshua completes the covenant renewal ceremony by drawing up a statute and ordinance for his people.
In our faith and life journey, we too can run into dangers and temptations. There are literally millions of false gods we can choose to divide our loyalties on. We, like Joshua and the Israelites of old need to remember where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re going. Jesus makes that quite clear for us in the gospels. He tells us we, like the Israelites have been delivered, protected, and provided for. We, like the Israelites have been and still are chosen by God. We have been called, loved, and forgiven. We have been assured that Jesus is still with us always. Do we take that too much for granted? Do we divide our commitments and our loyalties? Or do we, like Joshua and the Israelites say: “We will serve the LORD”? Each Sunday in a sense is a covenant renewal ceremony. We are given the opportunity to remember whose we are, who we are, where we are, where we are going and who to get there. Therefore, Joshua’s confession of faith is really one that we all can join together in: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” Amen.
1 Bernard Burnsting, The Ultimate Guide To Good Clean Humor (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, Inc., 2000), p. 432.
2 Craig Brian Larson & Lori Quicke, Editors, More Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching: 101 Clips to Show or Tell (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan & Christianity Today International, 2004), pp. 30-31.