Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25
Matthew 25: 1-13
“Now if you are unwilling to serve God, 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 God.” That was Joshua’s message to the Hebrew people as they established themselves in the promised land. Some describe the moment as the gathering that created the nation of Israel. The Hebrew tribes came together and, in response to Joshua’s question, agreed to serve God.
“Choose.” There’s a lot of rhetoric in our society that tells us we are without choice — that circumstances prevent us from choosing. I heard someone reflect on the shooter at the Baptist Church last Sunday saying that he might be indicative of those who feel that someone — or everyone— else is responsible for the bad things that have happened in life. Finally, that anger erupts in destructive ways. A colleague who had a track record of abusing — not physically — employees by demanding only his perceptions and approaches be determinative in the church’s life responded to challenging criticism, saying, “That’s the way I am!” He didn’t see that he had a choice in how he would relate to his staff. His patterns were long-established and could not be changed. There was no choice. His employees had to accept him as he was — or leave.
The Hebrews had entered the promised land — the land of the Amorites. Now, the Amorites had their own set of gods. And, in that day, it was assumed that the gods were connected to the land. Joshua alluded to that notion when he spoke of the gods their ancestors had worshiped in another region. It would have been a natural thing to start worshiping the local gods when they entered the Promised Land. The idea that God was not bound by geography was still being tested.
“Choose!” Joshua said. Would they, could they worship the God who had brought them out of the land of Egypt and been with them in the wilderness? Could they believe that the God of who had called their ancestors to leave their home was more powerful than the gods of the Amorites? Could they believe in God not bound by geography?
“Gotta serve somebody,” Bob Dylan says in one of his songs. “But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes, indeed. You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
“That’s the way I am,” said my colleague. “I don’t have a choice,” people often declare. “That’s the way things are,” say others. It seems that we are powerless against the entrenched powers of the world around us — or even against the ghosts of our past or our very genes.
“Choose!” Joshua challenged the people. “Choose whom you will serve.”
You have a choice! That may be one of the most powerful messages we can learn for ourselves. God has given us the gift of free will which allows us to choose God’s ways. Years ago I read an article about baptism. The author said that we should really educate parents who are bringing their children for baptism about what the promise they are making means. “It means when you have a stubborn teenager, you drag that teenager out of bed on Sunday morning for church. It means you choose the commitment to bring that child up in the church no matter what the world tells you matters more.” I can see the Sunday, drag the child out of bed thing. But, the other conflict is more difficult. It is no easy thing in the culture in which we live that sees Sunday morning as a sort of free/available time for anything and everything. We live in a multi-cultural society that has a variety of “holy” times set aside. How do we choose God and God’s ways among all the competing demands? What matters to God? Being in church? Or finding a way to live out one’s faith in an increasingly secular society? Does the church have a responsibility to make itself accessible for those who cannot be included in our traditional gatherings?
Dylan’s song points out that even if we don’t actively choose, we still have made a choice. “Gotta serve somebody.” How often do we choose to serve the status quo? ..to not make waves? … to be nice, Christians?
There is a classic prayer of confession that begins, “Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.” “By what we have left undone…”
Culturally we have been conditioned to think of sin as a litany of things we have done wrong. We miss the larger picture of sin (not sins) as that which separates us from God’s ways and from God. In confession, we’re invited to look at our lives and acknowledge that we fail to live God’s call with all of our hearts, our minds, our souls. Sometimes the sin is not an active deed. It is a willingness to be conformed to this world, accepting its ways. Sin is passive. When we do so, we are distancing ourselves from God. “Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul wrote to the church in Rome. “But be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Choosing to follow God means that we are set apart from the world—in a way. We look at this world through the lens of God’s loving intent for us, for our families, our friends, our neighbors, fellow citizens, both friend and foe, for other nations, both friend and foe. The Israelites were soon to discover that it was no easy thing to worship God in the midst of a new culture with different values. They struggled again and again to remain faithful in the midst of the challenges. Sometimes they succeeded. Sometimes they failed. They needed to be renewed in their commitment over and over again.
Part of our faith journey is, therefore, to make our choices conscious and active. How are we to live as God’s children in this world? What things in our lives challenge that call to be God’s redeemed and beloved? What values do we choose, the world’s or God’s? We have a choice! That, no matter what the world says, cannot be taken away from us. I always have to laugh when I hear the complaint that prayer was taken out of public schools. Laws can’t prevent us from praying! They might prevent us from participating in prayer that is for public display and for public coercion. But, we can pray at any time! Jesus condemned the Pharisee who made his prayer a public display of his own sense of self-righteousness. He commended the sinner who stood far off and was honest before God.
I read a facebook meme this week that said something like the church wants to change the world without making waves. That’s just not possible. We know from the Biblical witness, we know from the stories of all the saints who went before us, that faithfulness, that choosing God’s way, challenges the “sin” of the world. And, whenever there is critique or challenge, the world fights back. God’s ways disrupt. God’s ways topple the mighty and lift up the lowly. God’s ways fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away.
We can hear today’s gospel lesson as one where Jesus challenged his listeners, and, particularly, his followers to consider their choices. The foolish bridesmaids chose the easy path. They went with what they had. They didn’t choose to be prepared for possibilities that would delay the bridegroom. So, they ran out of oil.
Perhaps, when the church just goes along doing whatever we have always done, we are like those foolish bridesmaids. We don’t prepare for the challenges that come when the world around us changes dramatically. We don’t prepare for the challenges that come from a world that seems, often, to be plunged into chaos. We wait and wonder where the “bridegroom”, the Christ, is. Why is he, seemingly, absent? The church lives, always, with the possibility of running out of oil. We have to choose to be attentive to God’s call in the midst of the world in which we live. We have to choose to live as Jesus’ followers who trust that God’s ways are born out of God’s deep and abiding love for each of us, for all of us, and for the world itself. That love will not be conquered, even if and when the world responds with death.
Poem/prayer by Paulo Solari
Choose, choose, choose
to fight or run
to sleep or read
to study or play
to be faithful or promiscuous
to obey or rebel
to yield or resist
to create or destroy
to repent or deny
to forgive or resent
to save or spend
to take risks or be cautious
Who will I trust?
Who will I serve?
Who will I please?
The crowd, the fashion, the neighbors?
For what will I sacrifice…?
Choose this day….