Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 26, 2018
“Choose Ye This Day: Faith or Party”
Joshua 24: 1-2a-14-18 – NRSV
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:
14 “Revere the Lord, and serve 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.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 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. And protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18 and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, who is our God.”
Joshua is a pretty significant biblical character about whom most people know very little. He was, among other things, the successor of Moses. After 40 years in the wilderness, he and Moses looked down from the mountain, but it was Joshua who finally led the people into the Promised Land. Joshua was also a military general. But, he was only successful when Moses was there holding up his hands. When Moses’ hands were up, Joshua was victorious. When his hands fell, Joshua’s army suffered defeat. So, to remedy this problem, on at least one occasion, when Moses grew tired, two men held his arms up until sunset, so Joshua could prevail over the Amalekites.
Joshua was also with Moses when he went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Six weeks later when they came back down the mountain, he was at Moses’ side when they discovered the people had built a golden calf in their absence. That’s when Joshua learned how quickly the people could abandon their god for something shiny and covered in gold. And because they chose a tacky idol instead of remaining faithful to the Lord, no one who had been alive when they were slaves in Egypt was allowed to enter the Promised Land, hence the length of a 40-year generation; not even Moses entered. Poor Moses, who had suffered through their constant whining and complaining. Only Joshua and two others.
Of course, we can’t forget the Promised Land wasn’t theirs to settle. It wasn’t empty land. It belonged to other people, whom they had to conquer first. It was the same kind of “in-the-name-of-God manifest destiny” that white settlers forced the original inhabitants off their tribal lands in the US and blacks off their land in places like South Africa. Colonial powers seized land around the globe for themselves not just out of greed but with the religious fervor of “civilizing and Christianizing.” So, it’s hard to “celebrate” Joshua’s victories when in reality it meant killing the Canaanites to get it.
You’ve probably heard the story of at least one of those victories at Jericho. We even sang a song about it in Vacation Bible School. Joshua’s army marched around the walls of the city of Jericho for six days in silence. On the seventh day, they blew their trumpets and the wall of Jericho fell, which, I’ll give it to them, was a brilliant strategy. The walls didn’t necessarily fall from the blast of the trumpets but the weight of all those curious people standing on the adobe walls watching an army march around their city in silence.
We may “celebrate” the Fall of Jericho, but what would the residents who lost their home call it? Just like the U.S. government called it Custer’s Last Stand – a heroic, romanticized image. Tribes, who were victorious, called it the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The U.S. government called it the Battle at Wounded Knee. Tribes call the slaughter of 300 mostly women and children without weapons the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Independence Day in Israel is called Nakba, the Catastrophe, by Palestinians.
Therefore, I always feel a sense of unease with stories like these involving Joshua taking the Promised Land. Unease, but not as sick to my stomach as I was this week when on Fox News, Tucker Carlson chose to highlight the most obscure allegation of wide-scale killing of white farmers in South Africa. As he decried the injustice of this literal “fake news,” he called the president of South Africa a “racist,” with such a look of sincerity you might even think he that he thought racism was bad or an issue with which someone should be legitimately concerned. And yet it was just one more in a string of attempts to change the narrative of corruption by this administration. All of it without any hint of irony that blacks in South Africa, 80% of the population, own 4% of the land of which they once owned 100%. Gee, how’d that happen? It’s all a bunch of white supremacy garbage, which only increased the likelihood that the president would tweet in support of a conspiracy theory without the facts to keep his base happy.
But back to Joshua. We may think of him for his roles with Moses and the Ten Commandments and the golden calf and the two of them standing overlooking the Promised Land and the fall of Jericho and all his military victories. But it is today’s story that will always stand out to me: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Growing up we had a plaque in our kitchen with the words, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” alongside a picture of the Last Supper and one of those half a billion copies of Sallman’s portrait of a blonde-headed Jesus.
At 110 years old, Joshua was nearing the end of his life. No longer nomads, the people were now fully settled. The text says they were living in houses and eating fruit from trees. To be more accurate, it says living they were living in houses they didn’t build and eating fruit from trees they didn’t plant. I’ve even used the text before on such occasions as church anniversaries as a kind of tribute to the generations who sacrificed to build edifices like this sanctuary without thinking – hey, wait a minute – we’re in this church because the generations before us meant for us to inherit it, and for the next generation to inherit from us. That’s inspiring. But Joshua’s people were living in houses and eating the fruit of people from whom they took it. That’s not inspiring. That’s theft.
And yet, the point is, the people were settled and ready for new leadership. It was time for a kind of rite of passage. Sort of like, you’re an adult now so you get to decide. He had them gather at Shechem, which is a narrow passage between two mountains. Choose this day whom you will serve. It is a decision we are faced with nearly every day.
Michael Cohen told George Stephanopoulos, "My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will. I put family and country first.” And with that he flipped on a man for whom he had once pledged to take a bullet.
Under different circumstances, such a statement would have been lauded by faith leaders for its expression of family values. But some faith leaders today need a “Joshua moment” to decide whether family values include:
Are those the positions of your faith or your party?
Some “whom shall we serve” questions might include:
Perhaps we can be criticized for only accentuating the negative aspects of the times in which we are living. Can’t you find anything good to say? Perhaps we can just as easily find ourselves parroting the positions of only one party too. So what, then, do we stand for? But more important than what we stand for, who do we choose to serve?
It doesn’t matter what party we belong to, or what country we live in, the basics of our faith are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. As it says in the Book of James, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
It doesn’t matter whether Trump is president or Obama or Warren G. Harding. The question is always to choose this day: faith or party. When one conflicts with the other, which shall you choose? If you don’t know, ask “Where is the love?” What makes our world more like the Kingdom of God about which Jesus was constantly talking; more open, inclusive, just, and compassionate? One party doesn’t have a monopoly on that.
Now interestingly, after the people shouted, all pumped up and inspired, “We choose the Lord!” Joshua yelled back at them, “No you won’t. You’re incapable. You can’t do it.” They protested back, “Yes we can.”
And at times throughout their history, they were faithful. Wonderfully. And at other times they failed. Spectacularly. As spectacular as that gold covered calf or a gold-plated toilet.
And that’s when we realize, the issue isn’t whom we choose but that God keeps choosing us despite our failure to make the right choice. And offers grace that we might begin again. And again. And again. And, I’m sorry God, it looks like we’re gonna need it again. I’m sorry. And thank you.
 Richard R. Losch, All the People in the Bible, Eerdmans, 2008
 James 1:27
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 19, 2018
“A Blue Wave Won’t Fix This.
That’s Not Entirely Bad.”
2nd Corinthians 12:9-10 – NRSV
God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
A pastor, teacher, and public defender all died and went to heaven. Standing in front of the pearly gates, they looked for instructions where to line up. The pastor thought surely there must be an express line for her. The teacher and public defender similarly thought they deserved expedited service for their years of dedication to the public good. But all three had to stand in the same line as everyone else and wait their turn. When it came their time, Saint Peter came over with his clipboard and explained that everyone needed 100 points to get in. They all thought that should be easy.
The pastor proclaimed, “I was a minister of the gospel for 47 years.” The teacher proclaimed, “I taught sex ed to middle schoolers for 30 years.” The public defended proclaimed, “I saved the lives of over 200 falsely accused men and women.” Peter exclaimed, “That’s wonderful. You each get one point!” Each of the recently deceased protested. “That’s all I get for 47 years of ministry?” The teacher leaned in, “Have you ever spent even one day in a classroom with 30 boys who haven’t discovered deodorant?” Peter wasn’t amused. He reiterated: “One point.”
So, each began to list things they thought should count as points, one after another. I tutored a neighborhood child. I spent a week at church camp. I marched in Selma. One by one, Peter put checks next to each name and kept a running tab. “OK, you’re each up to four points. Just 96 more.”
The threesome looked at each other in distress. The teacher said, “I don’t think I have 96 more examples.” The pastor yelled at Peter, “This isn’t fair. I’ve given my whole life to the church.” The public defender shook her head and finally said, “I don’t stand a chance, except for the grace of God.”
“Ding, ding, ding!” Peter handed her a ticket and swung the gate open wide. She smiled back as she walked in, as the other two quickly yelled at Peter, “Grace! Grace!”
Week after week this summer, the news has given us another reason to feel depressed one day, outraged the next; or “fired up and ready to resist” one day, and “I’m worn out, let’s just wait this out,” the next, each week causing more people to slowly disconnect from the news.
I reflected back on some of the sermons I’ve preached this summer, one of which, about the underserved suffering of Job and the separated families, I ended by saying we need to just sit in some old fashioned biblical lamentation. I’ve tried to encourage us with reminders that when all we can do is sigh, that is, in fact, the intervention of the Holy Spirit. I’ve given rallying cries for resistance as well as encouraged breathing and making sure we take time for rest. In each sermon, I tried to listen faithfully to the text for our call as Christians during these distressing and disgusting times, last week wondering, how can some Christians just stand by all as all this happens, and not just stand by, but actually approve at rates higher than the rest of the country?
John Pavlovitz joins in wonderment. The early Christians, he wrote, the immediate followers of Jesus, joined him in welcoming the outcast and the vulnerable—they didn’t refuse to serve them or harass them at school.
Christians then, cared for the sick and fed the hungry and clothed the naked—they didn’t claim they were lazy and had made bad choices.
Christians then, sought to destroy social barriers between people—men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. They didn’t try to make the barriers worse.
Christians then, pushed back against the powers that hoarded wealth—they didn’t admire them.
Christians then, loved their desperate neighbors as themselves—they didn’t wall them off and lock their kids in cages.
Politicians can say and do all they want, but Christians can’t hold up “John 3:16” signs at football games and proclaim “For God so loved the world” and then angrily yell “America First” at rallies.
And a blue wave in November or a red wave the next won’t fundamentally change the dynamic of division in our country. It all leaves me feeling both ready to fight and hopeless at the same time.
And then I came upon this text: God said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. 10 Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
When I’m weak, then I’m strong. The president loves to divide people into the weak and the strong. To him, calling someone weak is the ultimate insult. That’s why he loves dictators. Because they are strong. He would have been a huge admirer of Caesar and the ruthless power of the Roman Empire. And yet, Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to demonstrate the opposite.
Jesus lays out his vision at the beginning of his ministry in what we call the Beatitudes – known in Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount and in the Gospel of Luke as the Sermon on the Plain. The more familiar in Matthew speaks only of blessings, though they are upside down, such as blessed are those who mourn, for they shall receive comfort; and blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. But the version in Luke is much more pointed:
20 Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Those are pretty strong statements! They are also examples of things for which we don’t strive. They are not achievements. We don’t try to be poor or hungry or to weep. But they are one way to illustrate Paul’s claim that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The experience of grace isn’t found in those things we can achieve, but grace is revealed each time we say, I can’t. Or, I don’t know how I can possibly do this anymore.
But first, what is the context of Paul’s statement? Earlier in same chapter, Paul says we shouldn’t boast, even if we have a right to do so, whether it is teaching middle school sex ed or being a pastor for 47 years. And yet, Paul has also just listed how he has suffered as an apostle: imprisonments, floggings, stoning, shipwrecks, and the danger and hardships of long journeys: from bandits, rivers, hunger, thirst, cold, to walking hundreds of miles across Asia Minor and Greece. “But I’m not bragging!”
He is, rather, likely trying to defend himself against adversaries, or an adversary, unnamed but probably in Jerusalem, who criticized Paul, for unknown reasons. Kind of vague, right? But hearing only one side of a conversation does that. If I’m listening to someone talk on the phone but I don’t know what the other person is saying, I can only guess and fill in the blanks. The comedian Bob Newhart was a genius at doing this. That’s what these letters of Paul are, whether to the Corinthians or Romans or whomever else. But further complicating matters, this book known as 2nd Corinthians is not just one letter but a combination of perhaps three letters, written at different times about different issues. We’re left to try to figure out what’s going on behind the story.
And yet, whether it’s an actual adversary or something else, in this text he called his adversity a “thorn” in his flesh. He prayed to God three times to take it away, but, he said, God would not. This thorn is the subject of much speculation. Scholars have offered lots of opinions, including, as I mentioned before, a particularly difficult, unknown critic. Others have suggested that he suffered because of a physical problem, or maybe migraines, or maybe depression. Maybe he was trying to control bouts of anger or some other torment. Some scholars have even said that perhaps he struggled with sexuality.
But by not naming his thorn, we’re invited to each name our own. Things we wish we could get rid of or change but will not go away. If I ask you, “What is your thorn in the flesh,” you could probably answer without too much trouble. The president has a new thorn named Omarosa. But with all seriousness, that which we may consider our greatest torment or fault is the source of our greatest strength. Whether it is the thing that causes us to lose sleep at night, or a chronic illness, Paul suggests, from his experience, it is a source of strength. Why? Pr