The Whole Story

A sermon about the time Joshua called all the folks from ALL over Canaan together in a Sacred Place and teased, and cajoled and invited them to remember who they are…

 “i imagine that yes is the only living thing.”
~e.e. cummings

Prologue: Since receiving the Ten Words from God the Israelites have traveled the Wilderness for forty long years… generations have passed, Moses has died and Joshua takes leadership… they have passed through the Jordon and are making a life in Canaan – “the promise land” and today Joshua calls the people together at Shechem – We first hear of this sacred place Shechem (in Canaan) in the book of Genesis when God first promises this very land to Abram… Abram builds an altar in this very place and worships God… before continuing his own journey.

The book of Joshua records their passage into Canaan in it’s early chapters and the 12 tribes of Israel have spread out across the land… Joshua calls the Israelites from all over Canaan to gather once again at Shechem to renew their commitment to God.

 

Covenant at Shechem

Covenant at Shechem

Joshua 24:1-15

1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 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. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; 4 and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.

5 Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. 6 When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7 When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness a long time. 8 Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you.

9 Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. 11 When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. 12 I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” 

14Then Joshua said, “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve the Lord in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 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.”

Have any of you heard a mama turn to her sassy child… young or old and say, “listen up… I carried you in my womb for nine whole months, and I wasn’t just sick in the morning, but noon and night… my feet swelled up and by skin stretched to hold you and my belly grew and grew until I was as big as a house…  and then I gave birth to you… 18 hours of backbreaking labor to push you into this world.”

Or, if you were adopted like me it might go more like, “we waited and waited and waited for you, we thought we would never ever have children, and then we met you, and fell in love with you and we chose you and brought you home and made your ours.” And then she goes on…

“All these years I’ve fed you and clothed you, I’ve run you around and I’ve learned new math and had to remember old math to help you with your homework, I’ve taken care of you when you were sick, staying up all night – even the time you puked all over me, I stayed right there by your side. I’ve dried your tears and held your hand when you’re afraid… I’ve loved you and I’ve never, never asked for anything in return…”

And it’s not just Mama’s who do it, is it? We all do it. We do it to our parents and our children, to our spouses and partners and friends… we do it in community – in families and churches and baseball teams We love to tell and retell our origin stories, origins of life, origins of friendship, origins of relationships, stories of the most, the best, the worst… and we don’t tell them in some neutral or scientific way… we tell them in a way that gives them the MOST meaning and the RICHEST life and IMPORTANT purpose. We shape the stories in ways that describe who we were and who we HOPE to become…

I love this story from Joshua… I love the way his God sounds like my Mama… “After all I’ve done for you,” says this Mama God… “After I’ve chosen you and loved you, after I’ve rescued you and born you out of what enslaves you and after I’ve given you a new life; after I’ve shaped you into a community and fed you and nourished you; after I’ve walked, carried, led and conquered the world for you… now You’re going to worship another God… now you’re going to serve yourself and forget about me?!”

I love how Joshua goads the people… “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…”

Just like a Mama, “Go on now… do what you want, pay no mind to me… I only gave you life.”

I don’t say this to dismiss Joshua (or our Mama’s); just like those who have shaped our stories, whether our actual mothers or other wise folks who have come before us, whose ancestors told them the story – Joshua is doing the important work of communal historianwhat Joshua is saying is, “Remember who you are… you’ve seen this God at work, you’ve heard these stories, you are these stories…  There’s no better GOD than this… will you choose this God? Will you love and serve this God?”

Joshua is one in a long line of oral historians that have been telling the story of God back to the community since Abram was first called to leave Haran and become a movement people. And each voice has a different tact and different flavor… for different times and places in the unfolding story of the ancient Israelites. And we can see how the people of God’s ideas about God – their theology and their moral philosophies, their ethics and their own relationships evolve through the voices of these historians… I want to spend a little time thinking about the story Joshua is telling and why… and what stories we are telling and why?

Questions to ask about this story and our stories:

It is a good story? And by that I don’t mean happy endings and simplicity…

Does it compel the people? Does it serve them? Is it life-giving? Does it bear essential truths about their identity and God’s identity?

What about the stories we tell about ourselves and about God? Are they compelling and life-giving? Do the bear real truth about who we are? About who God is?

What does Joshua include? What does he leave out? Why? What parts do we tell and leave out?

Why is God always on the side of Ancient Israel? Is God ALWAYS on our side in the stories we tell?

What does it mean to tell a story about belonging to God and claiming God in the midst of exile? 

It’s likely Joshua’s version of this story is coming from the dust and ashes of exile… it wasn’t written down in real time but in the midst of fear and doubt… in the midst of losing members of the exiled Israelite community to other rituals and traditions, to other families and cultures… this was a period of deep theological development, discovery and rediscovery – the Israelites faced the very real risk of assimilation after living for a generation in exile… These stories about their history and about God invited them to remember, to reimagine and reevaluate who they are.

Transient, homeless, enslaved, exiled, abandoned and yet chosen, remembered, loved… this is an identity that is rich in the imagination of the Ancient Israelites and has been their lived experience before… this is a story of hope… of promise that the morning does and will come, if only they hold onto God and one another. Imagine hearing these words, from a loving, goading, promising God, in the midst of utter despair.

I love the next part of this story even more than the first – in the second half of chapter 24 the people answer Joshua (Joshua 24-16-28)

16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods…

19But Joshua said to the people (nudging them along), “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…

21And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” 

22Then 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.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

26Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27Joshua said to all the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” 28So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.

It’s not just Joshua that chooses God but all the people gathered at Shechem. And ALL of their stories are important, ALL of their voices are important. For those living in exile, this story is an invitation to renewal – to reclaim the God of their ancestors and the God of their future… of their own inheritance.

Story is power.

It can shape us and move us.

Or it can bind us and defeat us.

We have a different story than the Ancient Israelites. We are not exiles. We are not prisoners. But we have a story.

Joshua told the story of the Ancient Israelites as God’s chosen people – a protected people – but that’s not the whole story is it? Remember the time they wanted to turn back to Egypt at the first sight of the Reed Sea? Remember how they first greeted Moses when he came down the mountain with God’s Ten Words? Remember how they failed and forgot and lost? These parts are recorded in other parts of the Bible, and the book of Judges tells a less dramatic, a less violent story of how the people came to live in Canaan.

The first hearers of these words knew the whole story and so do we, but in that moment Joshua told the story they needed to hear most. And what they needed was a word of hope…  even if it was a goading word of hope.

Like that story our mama tells, it’s not a story we tell because it’s historical or factual but because it’s true on a deep and visceral level. She’s telling it to compel us to listen, to behave, to remember who we are.

Joshua charges the whole community to be witnesses to one another’s’ stories – he reminds them that he is not the only storyteller, that the combined voices of the community bear the whole story of who God is.

Telling the whole story as a people of faith in our time is even more complex. There isn’t a monolithic experience of God but there is a central story about a God who hears, rescues, claims and challenges. About a God that coaxes and pushes and goads us into covenantal life, into a believing and loving God in return. What we’re being rescued from might be vastly different here in Norwood Park, than it is in Englewood. What God’s claim on us means is different here in the U.S. than in Palestine. And how God is calling us to respond, to serve, to love might look very different as well. We must listen to the chorus of voices, to their differences, and their commonalities, in order to hear the whole story of God.

How would Joshua goad us if he were here? What would he say to nudge us towards God?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us hope?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us courage?

What are the stories we need to tell that will call us to action?

What are the stories that you will tell about who you are and the God you claim?

This is our story. And it’s an ongoing, living, moving, breathing, dynamic story about a living, moving, breathing, dynamic God of which our we are only a part… and we’re invited to claim this God as our own and to join our voices to it, to add our lived experiences – and to listen for the experiences of others until the whole story of God gets told. Amen.

(731)

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What if this was our starting place?

A Sermon from the time the Ancient Israelites returned to the Holy Mountain where Moses had first heard God. They weren’t disappointed, God was waiting with Ten Words that would shape them for generations…

 “I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” ~Ani DiFranco

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenantyou shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom & a holy nation.

These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. (Exodus 19:3-7)

So we’re going to stop here for a moment…

Before we get to the list of what we’ve long called God’s Ten Commandments it’s so important for us to hear where God begins, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself…” God doesn’t say I’ve brought you to my mountain, or I’ve brought you out to wander the wilderness, or here we are, the end of the road, catch you later. God says, “I have drawn you to myself – to the center of my being… I called you and I heard you and I’ve rescued you, I’ve born you and carried you on my wings to freedom” And where is the place of freedom? God says, “I have brought you to myself.” Freedom is being gathered to the very center of God’s being.

 

What if this was our starting place every time we turned to the biblical text? What if this was our starting place at the beginning of each day? What if this was our starting place in every encounter with those we love and those we don’t? What if this was our starting place with every neighbor and stranger and we meet? What if we remembered that in all things, no matter who or where we are, where we’ve been or where we’re going, our story begins at the center of God?

God’s calling, rescuing, loving, drawing us to God’s self is the starting point… it began with Noah standing in the mud and then Abraham and Sarah who laughed and journeyed and believed and with Joseph who trusted God even though his life kept falling apart and now here we are again, and God says this, this is what love looks like.

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God,

who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses God’s name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother,

so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

 God says, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, (that is, if you follow these words, make these the spiritual and communal practices of your life), you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine (all of creation, including you, already belongs to me), but YOU shall be for me a priestly kingdom & a holy nation.” (Exodus 20:1-17)

It’s as if God says, listen up folks… this is what it looks like to be a covenant people, this is what real freedom and real love looks like. This is not an edict, it’s a relationship – and if a relationship is to be grounded in freedom and life-giving love it means giving up the desperate, taking, hiding, stealing and killing that kept you alive in Egypt. It looks like believing that there is enough, enough food and water and time and love to share. If you can believe this, if you can really take this in, then you will truly come to know me… if you can live like free people you will know what it is to live a precious and holy life…

And that’s been our life’s work for generations, hasn’t it? Believing there’s enough… enough God, enough to eat and drink, enough time and enough space, enough love – so much so that we could just start giving it away?

These Ten Words that we’ve often translated as commandments are not meant to be arbitrary prohibitions – they’re meant to be words that ground us, and remind us that God’s story is a radically different story than the world’s story… The world told the Ancient Israelites that they were sub-human, unworthy of just pay or safe homes; the world treated them like property to be controlled, discarded and abused… But God said, “You are worthy of my love and protection, you are called and blessed and set apart to be a people who will demonstrate a WHOLE NEW WAY OF LIFE.

This new way of life takes practice… like learning an instrument or an art form or new skill or craft… to be transformed from a student plunking keys to pianist you start at the beginning and work the steps over and over again… like putting in the time on the potters wheel… hours and hours of lumps and messes and crappy pots until you craft something beautiful. What if we read these Ten Words like the 12 step program…another kind of practice. Instead of a checklist it’s a way of life and when you stumble and fall you go back and work the steps, practicing and practicing again and again until they are inscribed on you… until they transform you.

These Ten Words are meant to craft a people, to shape their identity, to resurrect their hope and purpose and worth. For centuries these Words will shape the identity of the Israelite people as they continue their journey, and they will struggle and they will make progress and they will teach and learn these Words again and again, they will forget them and God will remind them – sometimes not so politely. Sometimes they will really, really suck at living these words (just wait a few weeks the Narrative Lectionary is bringing back the drama) and then there will be times they surprise themselves and God with their capacity to love God and their NEIGHBORS.

That word neighbor comes up a lot in these Ten Words. Often times when we read this story we hear the word neighbor and we think, oh, the person sitting next to me, that’s my neighbor, or the person living in the next tent over… or just down the block in our case. But what if when God talked of the Ancient Israelites’ neighbors God wasn’t talking about other Israelites? What if God was talking about the strangers they would encounter on their journey? What if God was speaking of the neighboring communities, the people already living in the promise land?

What if the most radical part of these Ten Words is that they weren’t about protecting the Ancient Israelites (who God has already rescued and drawn to God’s self) but their neighbors?

What if the most radical part of these Ten Words is that they aren’t for our protection, but our neighbors?

Wouldn’t that be a kicker, if it turned out that this isn’t even about us?

In the history of Christian Doctrine we’ve absorbed these Ten Words as Ten Great Commandments and they run deep in our cultural story like no other people…  in the United States we have held tightly to these Ten Words, insisting they be predominately displayed and we’ve modeled our civic laws and social morality on what we think they mean. These words, once meant to shape the identity of a minority people, to set them apart as a radical community to demonstrate God’s abundance and neighborly love have been used in our time to stand in judgment of those who are different, to reject those who society deems failures. To hold accountable those we believe have fallen short. Have we only used these Words to protect ourselves? What would it look like if they protected our neighbors instead? It’s a radical notion isn’t it? That God’s covenant is bigger than we can imagine?

Today is World Communion Sunday – a day we celebrate the global village of believers – a day we recognize that God’s table is bigger and wider than our table – that God’s love is greater than what we can imagine, even on our very best most loving day… Can we imagine God calling us to extend that love beyond the borders of our comfortable communities, even beyond the borders of our own tradition?

Can we celebrate and deepen our particular identities as well as our place in the global community without degrading or diminishing one another?

If we can hear them anew, God’s Ten Words teach us how. Celebrating and deepening our identities in God is what the first half of the Ten Words is about… Remembering and belonging to God… Loving God above all else… how might a love like that shape us as a people?

And the second half is about how that love will enliven our relationships with everyone else… how to feed and clothe and care for, how to respect and engage and protect the other.

God’s table is big and wide… God’s story is big and wide… and we gather at our communion table to celebrate our story… the story of a Jewish man named Jesus whose whole life was the best demonstration of these Ten Words the world had seen… a man who sat at some of the worst tables, with believers and unbelievers, with sinners and saints, with ordinary folk and messy folk and righteous folk and folks who didn’t know one from the other… and again and again he said there was room for one more. We remember and we celebrate a man who gave his life for love, a man who in the most radical and mysterious way is also God.

And so on this day, we will celebrate at the table where there is always room for one more. One more voice, one more story, one more song and we will eat these Ten Words like bread until they nourish our soul, until we believe every word of them, until they truly set us free. Amen.

(520)

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Standing In the Mud

At Friendship Presbyterian Church where I am the pastor we are starting our second year on the Narrative Lectionary offered by the good people at workingpreacher.

flood waters

com. Eachweek I’m hoping to post notes, a bit of liturgy and, after it’s preached, my sermon (if it’s of the manuscript variety). This Sunday we kick off the fall season by going back to the beginning, to the genesis of our story…

We will hear two portions of the epic and ancient flood story (Genesis 6:16-22 & 9:8-15), it is a story about life and loss, about preservation and destruction, about a wild God and God’s wild creation. So come, come and stand in the mud with us and wrestle with this promise: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 

How do we stand in the mud and live, hope, and believe this promise?

In the midst of beheadings and war zones, in the face of fear and hatred and with the ugliness of racism, and xenophobia on display all around how do we participate in this covenant? How do we recognize our own part the world’s destruction and human despair? Wouldn’t it be easier to blame the divine? Wouldn’t it be easier to hide our heads in the sand, than to put our hands in the muck and mud and plant seeds of a new creation?

 What is our part to play in making God’s promise a reality? 

For starters… We Tell The Truth About Ourselves                                                       (At Friendship this is how we describe our time of Confession.)

Fear rises like the floodwaters of ancient days,

We turn inward,

absorbed in our own pain,

groaning in our suffering,

groping in our anger,

the darkness of despair threatens to wash over us.

If we look outward the world seems to be going under with the tide,

The complexity of power goes unacknowledged,

it is brandished and misused,

We struggle to love well,

to resist deceit, hatred and violence.

Rising, rising waters of hopelessness threaten to engulf us.

 Make good on your promise O God; do not let these floodwaters consume us.

And this will be our Blessing:

You are made in God’s image,

you are beautiful creatures of wisdom and promise,

you are forgiven

and you are chosen.

But God’s promise isn’t for you alone; it is for all of creation.

Carry this blessing with you,

let this promise inspire hope in you,

and all whom you encounter,

make it a symbol of freedom,

flying in the face of indignity, pain and injustice,

make it a call to action, for justice and peace,

until all of creation can breathe the deep breath of God’s promise.

 

If you would like to use my words please feel free, 
but give me a shout out! 
Something akin to © Shawna Bowman 
at shawnabowman.com is perfect :)

(2044)

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