A sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Pentecost 25
“…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
In last week’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures Joshua son of Nun, then a young man, led the Israelites miraculously across the Jordan—on dry land between two walls of water– a mirror image of Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea. God’s charge to Joshua was to enter the Land of Canaan and rid it of everyone who lived there, thus fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The list of targeted groups comes tumbling off the page; Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites—It was Joshua’s responsibility to clear them all out.
All of them.
If you’ve read the book of Joshua all the way through, you’ve seen that Joshua was not completely successful. As he gathered the people at Shechem at the end of his life, everyone knew that there were any number of Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites still living in the land. For example, the entire Canaanite family of Rahab was spared because she helped two Israelite spies. And the sneaky Canaanites of the city of Gibeon, terrified of being obliterated by Joshua’s army, managed to outsmart Joshua by disguising themselves as travelers from a faraway country seeking a peace treaty. And Joshua had to honor it once he realized their deception. So the Gibeonites stayed. And these weren’t the only ones.
So Joshua’s record as a total conqueror is, let us say, not so total. Why?
The only way to read Scripture really fruitfully is, as I have often said, to look deeper; to interrogate the text. In Joshua, we already struggle with episodes of apparently divinely sanctioned violence that are woven throughout the book. Now add to that the fact that this violence, even with God’s supposed blessing and aid, still hasn’t accomplished what it was supposed to do. The writer wants us to take a closer look.
So today’s story takes place at the end of Joshua’s life, with a farewell address. He begins by reminding the people of their story, going all the way back to Abraham. And right there, in his first words, is the key: “Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.” Let that sink in. In other words, the origins of the Israelites are outside of the land. The entire history of the people of God is peppered with the concept of Outsiders and Otherness: Jacob’s family lived—where? — in Canaan before going to Egypt to be with Joseph. So the Israelites—all twelve tribes— had their origins in the very land that Joshua was charged with cleansing. So you see, Otherness—who is insider and who is outsider, who is alien and who is native, this is the confusion that has been built into the very DNA of the people of God.
And the fact that Joshua had failed to eradicate the Other in the land is the writer’s way of telling us that Otherness is built inescapably into all of us. We are always in some kind of relationship—healthy, unhealthy, or somewhere in between—with Otherness. Culturally and socially we must co-exist with those who are different from us and who see things differently. Psychologically we must learn to identify and live with our shadow—the parts of us that we would rather hide from the outside world. And as much as we may wish to wall ourselves off, internally or externally, we just can’t. We’re stuck with each other and ourselves. This is a fundamental truth of our identity as the people of God.
The issue was never really the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites themselves. It was what they worshiped. God desired the people to worship only the one God who created them, and who liberated them from Egypt. God called the people to turn away from other gods and idols. And in doing so God was calling them to become a different kind of Other: the kind who didn’t fit in with the prevailing social norms of idol worship.
The kind of Other that was countercultural.
The beguiling thing about idols was that they were so…tactile. So comfortable. Made of wood and stone, they were created by human hands. And if they could be created and molded, then, whether people admitted it or not, the gods that they represented could be created and molded as well. The God of Israel couldn’t be molded or manipulated. The God of Israel could not be controlled.
To follow a God like that requires more than the motor skills to carve or sculpt. It requires trust. Trust in the love, provision, and presence of that which is unseeable, unknowable and uncontrollable. It requires the courage to go against the cultural grain; to be willing to face and endure the discomfort of others’ skepticism, disdain, or even anger. But mostly it involves letting go of something that has become an idol in itself: Fear.
To release fear and to embrace trust, that is to become Other.
“…Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
Joshua knew from previous experience with the people during Moses’ leadership that their newfound zeal for his call to forsake idols would ebb and flow, so he tested them by saying, in effect, “Are you SURE you want to do this? God is not amenable to domestication.” And with good intentions their response was enthusiastic as they declared their renunciation of idols and their desire to worship the one God.
They chose the way of Otherness.
I wonder. Could we do that? Could the Church really do that? Be Other?
In a way we are already. On a Sunday morning, when we can choose to be anywhere else, we choose to be here, and that in itself is a countercultural act these days. The fact that on this Ingathering Sunday we choose to offer back to God a portion of our treasure is an act of faith and gratitude that no one takes for granted.
Perhaps there is an even broader invitation for us, though; broader than Sunday and broader than pledging in order to keep the lights on. Can we also hear an invitation to ponder the competing idols that hold us back from fully embracing our Otherness?
In the Bishop’s address to Convention last weekend—the day before the latest gun violence in Texas—he expressed his concern for the spirit of division, anger and fear that has taken hold in our world. He worries that people have become so estranged from one another that our basic institutions can barely function. Even family relationships are suffering. And violence—violent words and violent actions—is claiming more victims by the day.
The god (little g god) of fear—of scarcity, change, difference; of failure, death, or loneliness; the fear of our corporate and individual shadow selves—this fear has caused us to mold and sculpt numerous idols; idols that we think we can control but that end up controlling us. I don’t need to make a list. You can find that in the headlines.
It seems to be the norm now. But isn’t the church called to a different normal? Doesn’t God (big G God) call us to be Other, and to show a world that fears Otherness a better way—a Gospel way of compassion and justice, a way of listening rather than walling ourselves off in (literally or figuratively) armed echo chambers? Can we let God transform the idols born of fear into a spirit of faith and trust in a God who loves us and nourishes us for the challenges of a wounded world?
The Church is Other. The Church keeps its lights on because it is called to be a beacon—a lighthouse in the darkness where the waves threaten to overwhelm and the rocks lurk beneath the surface. The Church—that’s us—can signal sanctuary for a world in fear. The church is not a luxury. We are a vital necessity, and we’re called, each and every one of us, to live into that, through trust and faith.
Walter Brueggemann says it best: “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”
Last week we baptized two babies and welcomed them into the Household of God. That’s one of my favorite descriptions of the Church because it expresses the bonds and the messiness of the family relationship that is the Body of Christ. Can we embrace that fully? Can this loving, chaotic, ridiculously hopeful bunch of God’s people show the world that being Other is the way of healing and wholeness for creation? Can we? Can we declare, “As for us, and our household, we will serve the Lord. Please join us.”?
With God’s help, may it be so.