Sunday, November 8, 2020

Sermon: "One Nation, Under God", Joshua 24:1-5, 14-16, 18b (November 8, 2020)


We join the Israelites today at a significant turning point in their history. They’ve spent forty years wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership, and they’d made a pretty comfortable life for themselves (as comfortable as possible while nomads, anyway). But now, they had a new leader (Moses had died), they’d finally taken control of the promised land, and they were on the cusp of forming a new nation.

I imagine that, while many Israelites were excited and impatient to finally take this long-awaited next step, there were those among them who felt very differently. Some had been born in the wilderness and would have been uncomfortable with all these new developments. Some would have been dreading the work that lay ahead of them in their new life. Some wouldn’t have trusted Joshua at all and probably wished Moses were still leading them, or maybe that Aaron had taken over instead. I don’t know exactly how many of the Israelites would have felt this way, but I imagine there were plenty.

To be honest, it’s not even particularly difficult for me to imagine this. Our nation is currently facing a similar situation. We’ve all spent the better part of this week anxiously waiting to find out which path the country will take into the future and who will lead us there, and it’s clear that we are sharply and painfully divided as a people. Despite enthusiastic hopes on both sides, there was no blue wave and no red wave. It was more like a vaguely purple tsunami that knocked us all down and left us confused and filled with anxiety. Undoubtedly, no matter what the results are when the dust settles and the recounts are over, some of us will be thrilled and relieved, while others of us will be disappointed—even angry—and defiant.

I’m sure Joshua sensed this same sort of dynamic as he stood before the people at Shechem. But rather than issuing conditions or ultimatums for participating in their new society, rather than demanding that they all adopt his own perspective, he does something remarkable here instead. He reminds the Israelites of everything they’d been through, and he essentially says, “This is what our next steps as a people will be, no matter how you feel about it. So each of us has a choice to make regarding HOW we go forward. You can choose to serve the ancient gods that your ancestors served, or you can choose to serve the gods of the people who lived in this land before us…but me? I’m going to choose to serve the Lord.”

You know what this makes me think of? Those moving walkways in airports. At this point in their history, the Israelites are on one of these walkways. Their flight out of Egypt had finally landed (after a long time in a holding pattern) and now they were making their way towards the next leg of their journey. The moment they started marching around the walls of Jericho, they’d set themselves on an inexorable path towards their new identity: no longer just the people of Israel, but the NATION of Israel. They’d all stepped on the moving walkway, and there was no way to go but forward—whether they liked it or not.

But even though they couldn’t change their trajectory, they still had to decide HOW they would act on the way there. They could make their displeasure known, vocally complaining, pushing and shoving their companions, or even deliberately leaving their luggage where others would trip over it. This is what would happen if they adopted the gods of the Amorites: they’d be complicating the path of their fellow travelers. They could fight the relentless pull of the walkway, running in the opposite direction. This denial of the path ahead of them is what would happen if they clung to the ancient gods of their ancestors. On the other hand, they could accept where they were headed and choose to listen to that disembodied voice bestowing order and making sure everyone arrives safely: “The moving walkway is now ending; please look down.” They could choose to follow the Lord instead.

I’m sure it would have been tempting for some of the people to try running in the opposite direction or pushing and shoving their way along the path. After all, even if they didn’t particularly like the gods of their ancestors or the Amorites, they’d have wanted everyone to know how unhappy they were about the situation! And according to Joshua, that would have been their right. But it would cause unnecessary pain and division among the people. And at the end of the day, they’d still all wind up in the same place at the end of the moving walkway; they’d still have to figure out how to be a community together. It was pretty clear to everyone that the “right” choice was the one that Joshua made. So the people decided to make the same one.

Now, the “right” choice is by no means the easy choice. To begin with, you have to stick to it. We’ve all had a tight connection in an airport and been tempted to bowl down the people in our way in order to make our flight, even though we know it’s wrong. But the choice to serve the Lord isn’t circumstantial; it’s a full-time commitment. It’s also not enough to simply “go with the flow” and assume everything will turn out fine. You’ll still run into other people going in the wrong direction, you’ll need to pay attention to know when to get on and get off, and you’ll inevitably trip over someone’s luggage, even when you follow all the rules. Making the choice to serve God (to heed the walkway voice) is about embracing reality and figuring out how to live with it in a faithful way, whether the circumstances make it easier or not. Sometimes, reform might be needed—“Excuse me; I’m trying to get through”—and sometimes reconciliation is necessary—“I’m so sorry; I didn’t realize my luggage was in your way!”—in order to make sure that everyone gets to their destination safely. But we can’t change the way the walkway is moving. Resistance for its own sake doesn’t change the path. It just makes it harder.

The Israelites, of course, agree with Joshua and choose to serve the Lord. But our current situation is a bit more complicated. There’s the obvious point that we DON’T live in a theocracy (which is important to remember), and, as the purple tsunami reveals, there’s little to no hope of arriving at a national political consensus anytime soon. But the fact remains that we’re all on this moving walkway together, and we need to choose how we’re going to behave as we move forward.

Given our context, Joshua’s speech might sound little different if he were giving it to us instead of the Israelites: “Choose today who you will be. You can choose to separate into several different warring factions, subject to your personal preferences, or you can choose to bully into silence those who oppose you. But as for me and my family, we will choose to be one nation, under God.” The good news is that most of us do want to be “One nation, under God” (although we may define “God” and what it means to be “under God” differently). We WANT to travel the moving walkway safely together. But it’s not enough to want it. We have to do the work.

The first part of living this choice is to remember that we are, in fact, ONE nation. There’s been a lot of division over the past four years—and none of us is innocent of contributing to it. It’s time for us all to start working to heal that division. Joshua reminds us that we don’t all have to agree, but we DO have to remember our shared past and our shared future. We DO have to remember that we’re on the moving walkway together. This doesn’t mean that that the “losers” conform to the “winners’” way of thinking. This means that no matter who’s leading us, no matter which way the walkway is headed, we remember that we’re all in it together, and that our collective actions affect ALL of us. Whether that means that we support an administration that wasn’t our first choice or protest together to make the will of the people known, so be it.

More important to us as Christians, though, is the “under God” part. As Christians, our desire is for all people to recognize God’s sovereignty and to know God’s love. But God doesn’t want us to accomplish this by coercion. Jesus said, “Make DISCIPLES of all nations,” meaning followers or students, not subjects or subordinates. Laws aren't how you make disciples; Jesus was very clear about that. Love is. It’s not our legislators’ responsibility to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. It’s ours. So no matter who we send to Washington, OUR work never changes.

“One nation, under God” doesn’t mean that we live in or even desire a theocracy. It means that we (from the Christian perspective) recognize God’s sovereignty over our whole lives. We’ve chosen the same moving walkway that the Israelites did: serving the Lord. No matter who our secular leaders might be at any given time, we’re still moving in the same direction. And God, like Joshua, has given us a choice: we can either spend our energy complaining that our country doesn’t hold the same values that we do, fighting with one another, leaving our luggage strewn along the walkway…or we can work to help people understand how wonderful it is to follow this Jesus. How important it is to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan. How loving our neighbor is loving God. How there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, immigrant or native, Democrat or Republican, because we are all one in Christ Jesus. And if we work long and hard to serve the Lord in THIS way and don’t give up, one day we may find that we actually are all working towards the same ends. No election can accomplish this. Only conversations and relationships can ever truly make us “one nation, under God.”

Catherine of Siena once said, “Every step of the way to heaven is heaven.” This moving walkway is holy. We haven’t yet arrived where we want to be…and yet, we’re exactly where we need to be. We’re going where we need to go. So rather than spending our energy trying to run backwards, let’s take the next step together. Let’s help each other. Let’s teach each other. Let’s choose this day not to serve our own interests, or our political party, or our pride. Let’s choose to serve the Lord. Amen.

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