“There are moments which mark your life. Moments when you realize nothing will ever be the same and time is divided into two parts—before this, and after this.” This quote is taken from the 1998 American supernatural thriller film, Fallen, starring Denzel Washington. The film is about an ancient and diabolic spiritual being, Azazel, who is supernaturally condemned to eternally transmigrate at will between unwitting and susceptible human souls who act as hosts for possession. On rare occasions, Azazel’s spiritual transmigration is blocked by an unreceptive human host who appears to be immune. These rare exceptions become special targets for Azazel’s sustained spiritual stalking through subtler means. The plot takes viewers through a series of transmigrations, and while I don’t want to spoil the ending for those of you who might rush from here today and watch the movie, I will simply say that if you have a yellowish-orange cat at home, beware. While the film had a respectable cast, Denzel Washington, John Goodman and Donald Sutherland, by most critics, it was deemed a theatrical failure, earning only $25.2 million at the box office.
While movie reviewers may have reasoned it a failure, this one line spoken by one of the films main characters, John Hobbes, may very well be its redemption, at least in my opinion. Notwithstanding the original context, anyone who has lived much life at all knows the truth of this statement. Life marks us with defining moments and from those moments we, in turn, mark life. From our childhood, we might mark life from the moment before our parents divorced, or after. Or, before we moved because of a dad’s job transfer, or after. Some of us mark our lives with “before I came out and after I came out.” Before children and after children. Or as one of my friends will often say, “Before Prozac and after Prozac.” Some among us may mark life’s defining moment as “before the death of my spouse and after the death of my spouse.” Not all the moments that mark our lives are traumatic. Some are joyful. Like, “before I fell in love and after I fell in love, before I got my dream job and after I got my dream job, before I started exercising and after I started exercising.” All of these are defining moments that mark our lives—moments when we realize that nothing will ever be the same again. These defining moments recount the history of our lives. Which brings me to our text this morning.
In 18 short and simple verses, Joshua reminds the Israelites of the defining moments that have marked their journey as God’s people. When I read this text, I marveled at the writer’s ability to so profoundly and concisely recall the defining moments of the Israelites journey—the moments that truly marked the “befores and afters” of their life together. I started wondering, “If I had only 18 verses to write of the defining moments in my life, which might I include?” Would I begin with one of my earliest memories from the third grade when I got caught playing doctor with one of my childhood friends, actually the preacher’s son, and was shamed by the adults who found us? A defining moment. Would I next mention the moment when, in fifth grade, I made a profession of faith and joined the church. Definitely a defining moment in my life. Maybe next I would use a verse to write about when I became aware that I was gay. A huge defining moment for me. For certain, at least one verse would speak of becoming the pastor of this church. Becoming a mother, getting arrested, going through a period of depression some years ago—all defining moments in my life. All before and after moments when I realized that from that moment on nothing would ever be the same again. Maybe not in some outward, earth-shattering way, but in small ways that mattered on the inside.
Joshua begins his litany of defining moments by reminding the people of a time when their ancestors “lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.” The Euphrates, the most important river mentioned in Bible, set the boundary between two kinds of existence—the before and the after. Joshua’s point here is to remind the Israelites of the time before their covenant with God. He then chronicles the “after time”— the time after God established a covenant with Abraham, the leader of the Israelites, leading them through Canaan and giving Abraham offspring—thus naming the future leaders of God’s people. He speaks of other moments that mark the lives of the people—the plagues on Egypt, the deliverance from captivity, the deliverance from the wilderness, the protection from enemies, the provisions of land and towns for the people to live in that they had not built and food to eat that they had not planted. And then he comes to that moment of true definition, and he says to the people: “Now if you are unwilling to serve God, choose this day whom you will serve…”
All of us have these defining moments that unquestionably mark our lives. Possibly, though, none are more important than defining the values and principles by which we will live our lives and to what or whom we will give our lives in service. In the presence of Joshua’s words, we are invited to ask ourselves: Will our lives be marked and defined by moments of self-indulgence or by the moments in which we choose to serve others? Will our lives be marked and defined by moments of scarcity or by moments of generosity? Will our lives be marked and defined by moments of forgiveness or of grudges tightly held? Will our lives be marked and defined by loving power or by the power of loving? Will our lives be marked and defined by guilt and shame or by the grace and mercy of God? Will our lives be marked and defined by our communal sins of commission or our communal sins of omission? Will our lives be marked and defined by what we risk for the sake of sharing God’s radically inclusive love or by how safe we play it when it comes to establishing God’s commonwealth here on earth? What and whom we will serve are the everyday defining moments in our lives, moments that often mark the “befores and afters.”
Our church’s life is also marked with defining moments. Given our 130+ year history, I’m not sure we could get all of them into 18 verses. However, some of the ones that I have heard repeated over the years include when the church burned at its original location on South Street and then relocated to its present location; the death of John T. Pullen; the death of Dr. Poteat on the front steps; the design and building of the sanctuary with the divided chancel that says something about our theology; the welcome and inclusion of blacks during the civil rights era, especially the Sunday Clarence Batts joined—the first black person to join the church; the church’s vote that members coming from other Christian denominations did not have to be re-baptized to join Pullen; the decision in late 1980’s to not buy the property behind us; and the holy union vote in the early 90’s.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.” Each defining moment that Pullen has faced, the congregation has approach them by living faithfully in the present moment. And I would submit to you that if we look back on our history, both individually and collectively as a church, we can see how each defining moment was indeed the door to the next defining moment. It is the way life works: defining moments that mark our lives are just that—moments in which we lean forward into the next moment. And that is exactly what Joshua was reminding the Israelites of when he said, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” For whomever you choose to serve this day will be the door to the defining moments to come.
Except in extreme circumstances, defining moments are not keepers of right and wrong decisions. They are simply experiences in the present that shape the next moments of our lives. These defining moments are always happening to us.
I want to end with a thought from our text this morning. The Hebrew word used in Joshua for the Euphrates River is “perat” which means “always breaking forth.” The river separates metaphorically a place that was fertile and lush to the north (foreshadowing of Israel) and a rocky and inhospitable land to the south (foreshadowing Judah)—two ideas and two sides of Ancient Israel. In our text, when Joshua speaks of a time when the people “lived beyond the Euphrates,” he seems to be talking about a metaphorical crossing from the inhospitable and isolated land to a fertile and lush land. The constant struggle from the inhospitable to the safe and welcoming runs constantly throughout the Hebrew Bible. So why is that important? For this reason:
Each time we come to a defining moment, in our lives personally and in our life together as a community, the call of our faith is to step through the door that leads toward a fertile, lush, safe, welcoming and inclusive land. A place where we choose to serve a God who stands with the powerless, who eats with the sinners, who loves the unlovable, who welcomes the stranger, who turns the world upside down and inside out for the sake of justice-love. And when we live on this side of the Euphrates, our defining moments become sacred, God moments.
I began this sermon with the quote: “There are moments which mark your life. Moments when you realize nothing will ever be the same and time is divided into two parts—before this, and after this.” That quote ends this way: “Sometimes you can feel such a moment coming. That’s the test, or so I tell myself. I tell myself that at times like that, strong people keep moving forward anyway, [and always breaking forth] no matter what they’re going to find.”
Sometimes you can feel such a moment coming. I’m wondering this morning, can you feel such a moment coming in your life and in the life of our church? If so, remember this: The present moment is the door to the next defining moment. The present moment is the only moment we have.