Text: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
My grandmother had a ritual after eating dinner. After dinner she would sit back in her kitchen chair and say with a sneaky grin on her face: “Now I need me a little taste of something sweet.” Karla and I have continued this little ritual. At least once a week, after dinner, one of us will say, “I would love a little piece of really good chocolate.” To which the other will say, “Let’s go to Fresh Market and get one little piece of really good chocolate.” Once at the Fresh Market, each of us will survey our options. I go first to the dessert counter and scope out all the decedent treats behind the glass. Then I will peruse all the sweet treats lying on the tables at the back of the store—rich chocolate brownies, chocolate pie, fudge, and my favorite chocolate éclairs. Karla goes straight for the chocolate aisle where all the 95% dark chocolate bars reside. Eventually we meet at the check out, Karla with her decedent and sophisticated 95% pure dark chocolate bar and me with my, hold it, Justin’s Reese Cup. She will often look at me and say, “That’s it? You’re choosing that?”
Well, one might say that about my text for this morning, Joshua 24. You are choosing that text? Why not instead savor the sweet and decadent taste of the prophet Amos’ words: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” How can you pass that by? Or why not the Psalm for today that proclaims the wonders God has done? Certainly, if ever, we need to hear of God’s wonders. Even the gospel reading of the complex and confounding Parable of the Talents would be better than reading from the repulsive book of Joshua. That’s right, I called a book of the bible repulsive. And I did so because it’s true. Possible the only redeeming line in the entire book of Joshua is the one line we know from it and have read this morning: “…choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
It is the book of Joshua, in the Bible, that details a story of “ethnic cleansing, the savage dispossession and genocide of native peoples, and the massacre of women and children—all not simply condoned but ordered by God.” Robert Coote, professor of Old Testament at San Francisco Theological Seminary, in a commentary on Joshua writes, “These features [and stories in the book of Joshua] are worse than abhorrent; they are far beyond the pale. Excoriable deeds and many other of at least questionable justifiability have been committed with the sanction of the book of Joshua, such as the decimation of the Native American peoples. People who regard themselves as peaceable Christians tend to shun the book of Joshua as not simply unedifying but irreconcilable with their faith…” Maybe, he suggests, this is why the common lectionary includes only three passages from the book of Joshua: the crossing of the Jordan, the keeping of Passover at Gilgal, and the covenant at Shechem—the familiar passage we have read today.
I suppose we could do as some commentaries and scholars and preachers have done in dealing with Joshua and try and put lipstick on the pig. But making superficial or cosmetic changes to the stories in Joshua would be futile in disguising the true nature its content. Sure, we could tell some of the stories to illustrate relying on God or obedience to authority or even community solidarity. But we would do so with little integrity. There is no redeeming the ethnic cleansing and genocide and massacre’s detailed in the Book of Joshua—and all at God’s command as the story is told. The only thing we can do with this Book of the Bible that holds our scripture text for the day is to try and understand it better, and through it try and understand ourselves better. Maybe in reading Joshua, we can begin to own our “own affinities with the atrocities, violence, coercion, and prejudicial categorizing as means to social betterment…” (Robert Coote) Possibly we could understand from Joshua our own inconsistency and hypocrisy in how we live out our covenant with God. Maybe Joshua could teach us about our complicity in the atrocities of our day—human trafficking, the abuse of our natural environment, immigration bans, elimination of services to the mentally ill, and the violence committed against our transgender sisters and brothers just to name a few.
Consider the verses we have read this morning. Our text begins with Joshua calling on the memory of the people: Remember long ago when your ancestors lived out of state and served other gods. And remember how God took Abraham from way down south and led him through strange places where they do strange things—through Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and South Carolina all the way to good land of North Carolina all along the way making many friends. Joshua warns, don’t make the same mistake as your ancestors and worship those other gods—confederate monuments, Dixie flags, and white plantations. No, revere God and serve God with sincerity and faithfulness. And if you are unwilling to serve the God of justice and righteousness and mercy then choose this day whom you will serve. It is your choice. Keep choosing as your ancestors did—power and greed and economic disparity and racial inequality and militarism and genocide and ethnic cleansing and violence against women and children. Or, if you will, choose a different way—God’s way—the way of justice-love, the way of mercy to downtrodden, the way of compassion to the stranger, to way of equality to those who are different, the way of peace to those who prefer violence, and the way sharing to those who are caught in the trap of never having enough.
Choose this day whom you will serve! The gods of your ancestors or the God whose justice rolls down like waters and whose righteousness is like an ever-flowing stream.
Have you ever had one of those defining moments when you realized you were not the person you thought you were? Maybe you responded to a situation in a way that was out of character for you. Maybe it was one of those parental moments when you did or said something that you had sworn to yourself you would never do. Maybe it was something you did at work that went against your values and ethics. It could have been something as simple as gossiping about a co-worker or as complicated as betraying a friendship. Whatever it was, it was inconsistent with how you see yourself and who you believe yourself to be. Maybe it even revealed a bit of hypocrisy in you. Maybe when it came right down to it, the padded paycheck was more important than the dream job that would have paid you half your current salary. I imagine we’ve all had those moments. Those moments that reveal that we are not always who we think we are. Our good intentions, even our values, can get lost in our fears, and anxieties, and insecurities.
As Joshua was imploring the people to choose whom they would serve, they responded with great confidence that they indeed were serving God. Listen again to their words…
“Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 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. It is our God who protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed…”
Remember how I said earlier that the only thing we can do with this Book of Joshua is through it try and understand ourselves better? Think about it. How often do we proclaim to serve God but really our alliances and our commitments are to all those other gods? Our fears, our prejudices, our need to be important. I’m not judging here. I am simply inviting us to see ourselves.
Far be it from us…We say we want peace but we keep sowing seeds of division by participating in partisan politics. We say love is stronger than hate but we are afraid to risk radical love. We say all people are welcome but we like you best if you think like we do. We feed the hungry but stop short of addressing the systemic problems that leave people hungry. We march for economic equality while benefiting from the systems that keep widening the gap between the poor and the rich.
Choose this day whom you will serve—the gods of your ancestors: the gods of nationalism, materialism, and militarism; the gods of greed, power, and privilege; the gods of apathy, complacency, and comfort. Or the God of all people in every corner of the globe, the God of peace and non-violence, the God of compassion and mercy and grace, the God of action, risk, and discomfort, the God of abundance, of sharing, of welcoming.
As you, and as we, stand in this moment—our Shechem moment—what covenant will we make? What choice will we make as to whom we will serve? Will we choose the gods of the world or will we choose the God of Amos—the God whose justice rolls down like waters, and whose righteousness is like an ever-flowing stream. It is ours to choose. That is the beauty of our faith and the country we live in—the freedom to choose. May we have the courage and strength and vision—individually and communally—to choose the God of radical love and hospitality and compassion. In these defining moments may we be careful to not simply be the people we think we are, but rather may our actions show that we are the people we say we are. God’s people who serve God with sincerity and faithfulness.
And in the meantime, as we work on freeing ourselves from all those other gods, we do so in the knowledge that no matter what, God is always choosing us!