St. Paul’s Congregational Church, UCC
September 13, 2020, Proper 19A – off lectionary
Joshua 24: selected verses; A New Beginning
What a week it has been! California, Oregon, Washington State are ablaze with the worst fires ever – one of the commentators remarked that the destruction area is comparable to the entire state of New Jersey! Street lights and orange skies over the Golden Gate Bridge. Smoke so thick you can taste it! We’re approaching 200,000 deaths from COVID. News of a flurry of tell-all books coming out in the next couple of weeks, one backed up by audio tapes. More allegations of corruption in the Justice Department. Stark differences between the candidates for office – and it’ll get worse as we approach election day. And on Friday we observed the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – all of us drawn back to where we were that awful day, memories seared in our brains of planes going into buildings, ash covered people fleeing lower Manhattan, a great hole in the side of the Pentagon, a group of passengers who took down the 4th plane into a field in Pennsylvania.
We’re now 6 months into remote worship at St. Paul’s. Who would have thought it! Today in “normal” times we’d be beginning Sunday School classes, welcoming back our choir, celebrating the new program year with a special coffee hour: but not so this year. It doesn’t feel much like a celebration Sunday, does it – but how about we observe Affirmation Sunday instead.
Rachel Maddow ended her Friday night program by encouraging her audience to get some rest this weekend: take good care of yourselves – ground yourself in something solid – something that brings you strength – you’re going to need it.
So today I went off the lectionary suggestions and turned to a passage that grounds me: Choose this day who you will serve. This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible – it’s so rich, so direct in its simplicity – the bedrock of our faith. God has chosen us. It is up to us to choose God, God’s ways known and to be made known to us. And it’s up to us to choose to carry out the mission of the church – to be and to do. To foster love of God and neighbor. This is our life long task, as individuals and as church too.
As I reflected on this passage again, three key words stand out, appropriate in our context here at St. Paul’s and the world situation swirling around us: choose, respond, serve.
Choose. We look at options and then make a decision. We humans are the only beings capable of that activity: a gift from God. It seems like the challenge these days especially is to stop: to expand our options, to know the facts, to talk with others, to make choices based on all the available information we can get our hands on.
Isn’t that one of the primary tasks of the church for all of us, not just the children? To provide facts, to expand possibilities, to listen and talk to each other, to help develop that very bedrock of our faith. God has chosen us. It is up to us to choose God.
One of the images I like to use about our faith development is that of planting a seed. One of our goals as church is to plant and nurture that seed of faith in our children – we know that seeds are different in that they take varying amounts of time to germinate and grow. Beans break through the soil very quickly but if you’ve ever grown cactus, you know they are so slow that you might be tempted to start over. But they eventually do sprout.
So it is with our faith. We plant seeds but often we don’t know until perhaps much later how those seeds of faith come to fruition when we’re faced with the need for a decision, when we’re looking for grounding, for meaning in our lives. One of the tasks of the church is to plant and nurture those seeds in our children, our youth, in each other.
Joshua’s people have that seed in them. We have that seed in us. That seed can provide us options, comfort, and also challenges unlike any other – even those we face in such a time as this.
We need to be grounded in the Christian Story: the story of our relationship with God from creation to covenant to Christ to the promise of life to come. Once that Story becomes our Story, once that seed is implanted and nurtured, we have a tool – for me, a vital, irreplaceable tool, which provides us with all the strength we need, the ability to choose. Our options are broadened – we can choose God’s way.
Joshua’s choose this day is not just a one time action – it’s a continuous daily decision, isn’t it. Maybe some people experience an event which from that moment changes their life – from then on they’re on the straight and narrow – but for most of us it’s not like that, is it. We are constantly being called on to make choices – and there is so much noise, so many distractions all around us. Our idols are calling us all the time. We know what they are: addictions of all kinds, power, the love of money, things – you can add to the list. How quickly a gift from God can become an idol when we forget the source of that gift.
We make our choices every day at home, at work, at school, at church. This is another message in Joshua’s “this day” – every day we have new chances to choose God’s way for us. We all have days when it’s easier than others, but God keeps calling us. No matter what. God is with us – that’s the promise, that’s the good news. We are forgiven. We are grounded in God’s love and care and strength. All we must do is respond.
So much of our communication these days is electronic, isn’t it. We keep each other informed about life in the church, life at work, life in our families by emailing – it’s a good news-bad news form of communication for sure – our inboxes get all clogged up.
But to keep up with it, we have to log in. So it is with our relationship with God. God waits for us to log in and respond. This day we’re called to choose, we’re called to respond.
And then, the final word: serve. Joshua called on his people to serve. We are called to serve, to foster love of God and neighbor. And loving our neighbor means serving our neighbor. We share the fruits of our seeds.
And that sharing, that serving, comes from the choices we make every day, out of someplace deep within ourselves, that still, small voice where we are in relationship with God, where God has touched us somehow and continues to touch us, through worship, through other people, the beauty of creation. Somehow, somewhere, we have been made aware of God’s presence, God’s calling, and it’s through that gratitude, a sense of thanksgiving that we serve.
There’s the challenge to us all who make up the church, the body of Christ: we have something to offer this world where people yearn for meaning, to make sense of what’s going on in the news, in our neighborhoods, in our lives. We have some answers through the grace of God. We know that there is something bigger, wiser than us – we have God’s promise that we are called to share. Are we brave enough to do it?
Yes, talking about our faith takes courage, means taking a risk. People want, people need to hear some good news these days and we have a story to tell. Sure, not everyone will listen or respond but I’m willing to take the chance that a seed is fighting to germinate inside of the person who is struggling, searching. God calls us to serve, to fertilize, if you will. We’re called to walk with each other and that certainly isn’t always easy. But with God nothing is impossible. We know God is with us.
Choose this day who you will serve. And may we gather together, on this first day of our new program year to ground ourselves: then we can support, encourage, challenge each other, come together and respond through God’s grace: as for me and my household we will serve the Lord.
Now, let’s, with one voice, observe and celebrate Affirmation Sunday by reading together the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, followed by the Covenant of St. Paul’s Congregational Church. May these statements ground us in the midst of the chaos of the world, strengthen us to come together as People of God, committed to loving and serving God and our neighbor.
The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith
We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:
You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death.
You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.
You judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles.
In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.
You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.
You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.
You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.
Covenant of St. Paul’s Congregational Church
We are striving to know the will of God as taught in the holy scriptures, and in our purpose to walk in the ways of the Lord, made known or to be made known to us.
We hold it to be the mission of the Church of Christ to proclaim the gospel to all people, exalting the worship of the one true God, and laboring for the progress of knowledge, the promotion of justice, the reign of peace and the realization of human sisterhood and brotherhood.
Depending, as did our forebearers, upon the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, we work and pray for the transformation of the world into the realm of God and we look with faith for the triumph of righteousness and the life everlasting.
Let us choose this day, let us respond, let us serve! Amen.