Sermon preached by Anne M. Watkins
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 26, 2012
Choose this day whom you will serve. In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
I want to commend you for your choice to be here this morning. After all, summer is waning too quickly – wasn’t it Memorial Day and the beginning of the vacation season just last week? – and there are many things you could be doing this morning. Still, you choose to be here; for praise and prayer in word and music, for holy food, for connection with each other. It is not a choice made lightly, nor is it a choice any of us should take for granted. Not to put too heavy a burden on us, though, it is a choice tied to salvation. Other choices flow from it – as evidenced in both of this morning’s readings — and it is this notion of choice we might explore this morning. First, though, a bit of context …
Joshua’s name – the prophet from whom we hear in our first lesson – is formed from the root word for salvation yet he was not, according to many Biblical scholars, a major figure in the earliest history of Israel. Rather, his is a personage that continued to develop as stories were handed down. In later traditions, he provides an essential link in the transmission of Torah – the Law – from Moses.
In Christian tradition, Joshua became something of a prototype for the Christian warrior. Unfortunately, this prototype was used as justification for extreme military action; i.e. the Crusades. In Pilgrim theology it provided a model of divine guarantee — God’s people escaping from oppression across a body of water to “providence plantation” – and, even more unfortunately, this theology continued to inform our own American History, including the claim to “manifest destiny”.
There’s just a wee bit of a problem with all of this. For the most part, archaeological evidence contradicts the Joshua narrative. All those battles, all that conquest, all those wars and destruction of cities didn’t really happen when and as the Joshua narratives say they happened.
Instead, what Joshua presents is something like historical fiction with certain theological underpinnings. It depicts an ideal Israel under ideal leadership. Instead of literal accounts of wars and conquest, the Book of Joshua consists more of cautionary episodic tales that depict the consequences of a peoples’ failure to observe Mosaic commands – to follow the Law. The underlying conviction here is that Yahweh had given the land to Israel and in order to maintain possession, Israel had to obey the law.
Shechem – where scripture places us this morning — was a cultural and political center and is one of few major cities whose destruction is not recorded in Joshua. Remember that lack of scientific evidence for most of Joshua’s stories of war? Shechem is one of the places that confirm this because one of the things archaeologists and other scholars know is that it was continuously occupied from the Late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age. The conclusion that gets drawn from this is that Shechem was peacefully incorporated into Israel and it is this model of peaceful incorporation that more likely represents the actual processes by which Israel emerged in the land of Canaan. The truth seems not to be of a God charging forth with the armies of Israel to bludgeon, pillage, destroy, conquer and claim the Promised Land.
So, if the facts of scripture cannot be taken as literally accurate, where do we find the truth that scripture wants to share? Well, something dramatic and real does happen here. Something more important and more remarkable happens at Shechem and this is the passage we heard about a few moments ago. What we have is another important covenant ceremony for God’s people. Unlike previous covenant ceremonies, there is no altar here nor animal sacrifice. But no matter, for even more remarkably what happens at Shechem is that God’s people are given the choice to NOT worship Yahweh.
Earlier, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses spoke words reminiscent of these spoken by Joshua. Before the people entered Cana, you may recall Moses also saying, “… today I set before you life and death, blessings and curses; choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” In Joshua, however, this idea of choice is far more developed. The people are reminded of what God has said, what God desires: revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness, putting away other gods. Yet there is no real command from Joshua – this is what you must do. On the contrary, his reminder of what God has said is simply followed by choice. If you are unwilling … choose whom you will serve. And then quite simply, here are my plans, as for me and my household we will serve the Lord. All the tribes drawn together at Shechem choose. A confederation of disparate elements and personalities become united not necessarily by kinship or even a shared experience but rather by their communal acceptance of Yahweh and their allegiance to follow the Law.
Fast forward to Jesus and 1st Century Palestine. After a brief hiatus last week while we remembered and honored Mary on her transferred Feast Day, we find ourselves picking up from two weeks ago and the portion of John’s gospel referred to as discourses. This particular discourse is about bread, specifically bread that offers eternal life. Over these last few weeks followers, would be followers, antagonists and the just plain curious among the religious establishment are moved more deeply into the opportunity to recognize Jesus as the source of eternal life – or not. Jesus tells us that he, himself, is the food of eternal life. More importantly, belief that Jesus is that bread and participation in the eating and drinking of Jesus – holy food of bread and wine – is what leads to eternal life. It is the Eucharistic formula representative of what ties together John’s community. There is not Law as there was at Shechem; there is Eucharist.
Now, math was never my really strong suit, but this Eucharistic formula for the math aficionados among us might sound something like this: If B abides with A (that would be Jesus sent by and abiding with God) and if C abides with B (that would be Jesus’ disciples abiding with him by consuming his body and blood), then C also abides with A (that would be us – Jesus’ disciples abiding with God because of and through the Eucharist).
As Mother Cindy noted in her sermon two weeks ago, this Jesus Bread of Life theology is neither static nor “easily put [into] a tidy theological box.” It is complex and it isn’t easy, necessarily, to understand or to accept, especially for people brought up with the Law. Apparently some of those listening agreed, saying, “this is far too hard to comprehend and rather than work at it, in the community of faith, I’m out of here.” They make a choice. It is too hard; it is too foreign – and frankly, too politically dangerous — to their past understanding … even if what’s at stake is their very life.
What we learn from John’s understanding of Jesus’ discourse on himself as living bread is that we are making a profound theological statement when we present ourselves at God’s table and partake of Christ’s body and blood. Peter confesses to that profound, theological statement first, when he says, on behalf of the twelve as Jesus asks if they also wish to go away: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe.”
Coming to belief is an awe-filled gift. It happens over time, just as it did for those first disciples. It is also one that beckons awesome consequences and continues to raise questions – even doubts. For that belief has a pesky way of shaping our deeds, not because we need to – or ever could – earn God’s grace but rather because God’s grace is so freely given. Because we believe; because we come to this table to abide in Jesus and he in us, we face that pesky, potentially difficult question of “now what?” – questions of transformation.
Questions like: Who is the stranger and where and how do we welcome them into our lives? Questions like: Where and how do we feed the needy or care for the sick? Questions like: How do we approach our work and interact with our subordinates or with our supervisors? Questions like: How do we engage in political discourse in this season so ripe for distortions and sound bytes. Questions like: How do we engage issues and make decisions while still remaining loving and just? Questions like: How do we love and show compassion for those with whom we most decidedly disagree or with those who hurt us, without losing ourselves in the process? And, if these questions sound suspiciously like those found in our Baptismal Covenant, it is no coincidence. For the two sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism are the two we believe are tied to salvation.
Two weeks ago, Mother Cindy talked about the “normative” position of the Episcopal Church and Christianity in general that places baptism as a prerequisite for Eucharist. Yet, she pointed out, we don’t say or do that here at St. Paul’s, nor do growing numbers of people around the Episcopal Church. What is perhaps a comfort to recognize is that questions around Eucharist have been challenging the community of faith since at least John’s time. So, we’ve seen this morning. And while tradition has taken a certain, normative position, scripture itself really isn’t clear – and, in fact, is rather quiet on that subject of order. Even tradition – our own tradition — recognizes and has always recognized (if not explicitly) a pastoral reality that does not withhold the sacrament from anyone who desires it and presents themselves.
What is clear is that in each of these – Eucharist and Baptism – we are given the choice and each is a kind of confession, not unlike Peter’s on behalf of the twelve: Lord, to whom [else] can we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have come to believe…on who we will follow. Not a completed destination; nor as a firm conclusion, but as a process of abiding more deeply with Jesus, and through him abiding more deeply with God. So, no matter which comes first — Eucharist or Baptism; Baptism or Eucharist — likely over time, the other must follow.
All the tribes drawn together this morning at St. Paul’s also get to choose. A confederation of disparate elements become united at this table – and at that font — not necessarily by kinship or shared experience but rather by our communal acceptance of Jesus and our allegiance to follow the same.
So, choose this day whom you will serve. And how it will transform your lives. In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.