Choosing What We Will Serve

The following was preached as a sermon on Joshua at the Congregational Church in Exeter, Sunday, August 23, 2015.

Everyone has heard of Moses. He was the guy who talked to the Burning Bush. He told Pharaoh “let my people go”. He helped his people cross the Red Sea and went up on the top of the mountain and came down again with the Ten Commandments. As Biblical figures go, he’s a rock star.

But the guy you probably don’t know as much about, is the one who had the unenviable task of following him in the job. The one who had to assume command after Moses died just shy of the Promised Land. The one who had to lead the people as they figured out what it was to no longer be lost in the wilderness, but to be putting down roots.

His name was Joshua. And his job was to be the new Moses for a new time.


Orthodox Christian icon of Joshua.

It’s not a job I would have wanted, but it’s one Joshua did well. He helped the people to secure their land and start a new community. And at the end of his life, he called the elders to him and said to them all the things you just heard in the Scripture reading. Including this:

24:14 “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.

24:15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, 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 the LORD.”

In other words, figure out what you are worshipping. Choose who or what you are going to serve. And if it is some thing other than God, then serve that. But if it is God, then serve God. No more divided loyalties. Make a choice. Commit.

When I was in seminary, my theology professor had us read centuries worth of church history and theologians. And he had one topic that he hammered home probably more than any others. He wanted us to read these heavy texts looking for what he called the “polemic against idolatry”.

I’ve talked before about how theologians sometimes use big words for relatively easy concepts. This is another example. Because all he was really talking about was how important it has been for Christians throughout the centuries to turn away from idols.

And even that word, idols, can be broken down. Because, what do you think of when you think of idols? You may well think of the statues of false gods that people worship in the Bible. Like the people who built the golden calf in the wilderness while Moses was up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments. They thought he wasn’t coming back, they lost faith, and in the void they melted all of their golden jewelry and created a god of their own. A gold cow. And they worshipped it!

It sounds ridiculous to us. None of us, I don’t think anyway, are dancing around golden calfs in our living rooms or backyards. We can look at those people in the wilderness and feel superior. Who would build a big gold cow and make it their substitute for God?

Except, as it turns out, the lesson of the golden calf didn’t take so long to be forgotten. Because by the next generation, by the time of Joshua’s leadership, the idols were back. They weren’t big golden calfs, but they were there. Some had even been brought from Egypt, where the people had lived for so long that they had begun to worship the gods of the Egyptians. And the people had begun to have divided loyalties between the God who had brought them to the promised land, and the gods they had gathered around them.

Those gods, often actual statues or physical objects, became the places where the people could put their faith. And their fears. Places where they could make meaning and work through their anxieties. And places where they would put energy and faith that was meant only for the one true God.

Another word for “idols” is very simple. It’s “distractions”. Because that’s what idols are; they are distractions from the God who loves us and who asks for us in body and soul.

When Joshua was dying he looked around at his people and he saw all the false gods they had brought with them from Egypt. All the idols and distractions that they were worshipping and serving, and he called his elders to him and he said: “Make a choice. Decide this day who you will serve. And if it’s the idols, then serve the idols. But if it’s God, then put away those distractions. Decide. But as for me, I will serve the Lord”

What Joshua is saying is to stop worshipping distractions. Stop worshipping what cannot and will not save you. Stop worshipping what is not God.

We hear that word “worship” and we might think about what we are doing right now, and what we do every Sunday morning for an hour of our week. But worship, it doesn’t have to be formal. In fact, in a real way we are worshiping during every hour of our lives. And what we worship can give us great life. But if we choose unwisely, it can also destroy us.

I don’t think Joshua called the people to him and told them to stop worshiping distractions because they were somehow just backing the wrong team. I think he warned them to make a choice because he knew an important truth. He knew that worshipping, and serving, false idols is not just pointless. It can actually hurt you.

I’ve talked before about being an English major. I think being an English major is more than just being someone who set out on a particular academic course. I think it’s choosing a way of life that involves trying to find the lessons of great literature. And so, I spend more than I should down at Water Street books. That’s okay. I consider it part of a continuing education, especially for a theologian.

Because in so many books I have found theology. And in so many I’ve found the lesson to be this: our false idols have the power to destroy us.

In Moby Dick Captain Ahab lives for finding and killing the giant whale that had injured him. And his obsession destroys not just him but others. In The Picture of Dorian Gray the protagonist so worships his own beauty, that it becomes his downfall. And in Harry Potter, Voldemort so fears death, that he kills multitudes to try to avoid it.

The false gods we worship, the distractions, the things we put our faith in other than God, they will not save us. They will more often than not aid us in our own destruction.

And yet, more often than not, we do it anyway. We find idols all around us. And we put our faith in them instead of in God, even when we don’t realize we are doing it.

I said a few moments ago that we worship not just one hour a week on Sunday mornings, but every hour of our lives. I believe that is true. No, we don’t sit in pews and offer up formal prayers to our distractions, but they are there none the less, and we do worship them.

We worship them by giving them our attention. Our time. Our money. Our hope. We let them shape our identity and define us. We let them give us meaning. And far too often, they leave us disappointed.

I tell parents especially that their children are keen observers of what their parents worship. They know what they give their attention to, and they are sharply aware of what is given priority in their parents lives. They know what their parents will drop everything for, and what gets done when there is time.

And I tell them this, that the greatest predictor of a child’s future faith, is their parents’ current faith. I don’t just mean church attendance there. I mean lived faith, in the home and in the pews. And if your children see worship as something you only do when you have the time, it will send them a powerful message about what gods you are asking them to serve.

That’s true for all of us. Each day, each hour, each minutes, we make the decision about what we will serve. Each minute we decide where we will put our faith, and our trust. Each minute we choose distractions, or we choose what really matters.

Rest assured, we will always do this imperfectly. But also know that with a little practice, the choices we make will become more automatic, more joyful, and more life-giving. And we just may find that in a real, every day way, they will save us.

And so, as you prepare this day to choose who you will serve, I will leave you once again with this caution: do not serve, do not love, what cannot love you back. And then make your choice. May we all be so bold to say, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. Amen.

What We Worship: Sermon for October 5, 2014

Recently I heard a story about Ruby Bridges. In 1960 she was a six year old African-American girl in New Orleans who had the unenvious task of desegregating a formerly all-white elementary school. You may have seen pictures of her. A little girl walking into school surrounded by tall US Marshals.

As she walked to school each day protestors yelled at her. One grown woman would say that she was going to poison her. Another held up a black doll in a coffin. And when she got to school all but one of the teachers walked off the job and refused to teach her.

"Adoration of the Golden Calf" - Herrad of Landsberg, 12th Century

“Adoration of the Golden Calf” – Herrad of Landsberg, 12th Century

The one teacher who did stay taught Ruby that whole year. And at the end of the year she asked Ruby a question. She had noticed that when Ruby walked through the crowds she talked to herself, repeating something over and over. And so this teacher finally asked her, “What were you saying?”

I’ll come back to that story, but first let’s look at today’s story from the book of Exodus. Over the last two months the lectionary has brought us a lot of readings from this book about Moses leading the people out of Egypt and towards the promised land. They are familiar stories. The Burning Bush. The Passover. The parting of the Red Sea. And today is no exception; you have probably heard about the Golden Calf.

The people have been journeying in the wilderness for a while now. And Moses is called up to the top of Mt. Sinai by God to receive Ten Commandments. But the people don’t know that. They just know he’s been gone a long time. So long that they start to worry is he never coming back.

So Aaron, Moses’ brother who is left in charge while he is gone, gets scared. He wants to calm down the people who are getting panicked. And so he has all of them bring him their gold, and he melts it down and makes a giant gold cow. And he shows it to the people and says, “this is your god, who brought you out of the land of Israel.” And the people respond by worshipping before it, bringing offerings, and having a feast. It’s only when Moses comes back down the mountain, alive and angry with them, that they stop.

It’s easy to identify with Moses here. It hadn’t been so long ago that God had brought the people out of Egypt. It wasn’t so long ago that the Red Sea was parted. They should have remembered that. And they should have recognized that this golden calf, this brand new statue that had been set in front of them, had nothing to do with it.

So we get why worshiping a gold cow is so ludicrous. It’s easy to think they were just plain foolish. But here’s where Scripture works its trick. Because sometimes we think the truth is so obvious that we would never fall into the same trap as the people in the stories. But sometimes we have more in common than we think.

This isn’t really a story about a gold statue of a cow. This isn’t really just a story about the Israelites. This is a story about all of us, and about what we choose to worship. And, most of all, it’s about what we put in God’s place when we are afraid, or uncertain, or lost, just like the Israelites were.

In theological terms, the Golden Calf was an “idol”. An idol can be an object, like a statue of a cow, but it doesn’t have to be. An idol is just anything that we put our trust in instead of God.

So, sure, a golden calf seems silly to us now. But is it really any more so than some of the other things we worship? Money? Power? Sex? A big house? A nice car? Maybe none of these things are bad by themselves, but when we start to attach our ultimate meaning, and our hopes for salvation, on them, that’s when they become a problem.

The Israelites were trying to get somewhere. They had left everything they knew behind, and now they were lost in the wilderness. And the guy who said he knew where they were going, the one with the direct line to God, was gone. And it didn’t look like he was coming back. And so, they took matters into their own hands.

We do the same things. We all have our own Golden Calves. We find ourselves lost. Or full of fear. Or searching for meaning. And when we feel the most scared, or alone, or uncertain, we build ourselves false idols, things that we think will make us feel better, but rarely do. And that’s because we turn to idols when our fear overtakes us, and we lose so much hope that we stop turning to God.

In the best case scenario our idols only destroy us. But taken to their extreme, our idols can destroy not just us, but those around us.

At the beginning I was talking about Ruby Bridges and the teacher who had watched her repeat something over and over to herself while protestors were tormenting her. At the end of the year she asked the little girl, “what were you saying”? And this six year old replied that she was praying. She was repeating over and over to herself the prayer her mother taught her to say while the protesters yelled at her: Forgive them, God, because they don’t know what they’re doing.

Now, that’s an amazing story of forgiveness and reconciliation. But you might wonder what that has to do with idolatry. For me, it’s this. The people who were yelling those horrible things at Ruby were, at their core, afraid. They had been given this false idol of racial superiority couched in “the way things have always been” for their whole lives, and now it was being taken away. And they were so scared of losing it that they lost their humanity entirely and terrorized a small child. I’m sure many of them were even Christians, and yet, their fear and hatred drove them to stop seeing a child as beloved of God and to instead love their idol even more.

Some would say that six year old Ruby Bridges had every reason to hate those people who hated her. And yet, with the help of the adults around her, she somehow didn’t. Every morning she walked through a hell that most of us never will, and somehow refused to build a false idol of hate or anger. She didn’t give the people who hated her that power. She refused to live in their fear. Instead, she put her trust in God, and ultimately that trust carried her through and gave her hope.

You and I, hopefully, will never face anything like she did. And yet, we will know what it is to be afraid. We will know what it is to forge ahead on a new path. We may even know what it is to live with the fears of others. And when we do we will be tempted to create our own golden calves, our own little idols, to protect ourselves.

But we have another option. In fact, we have the only option that will keep us from letting our fears destroy us. We have God. And we have the assurance that worshiping anything else will never save us. It will just destroy us from the inside out.

And so we have a choice. Do we worship our fears? Or do we instead bless the possibilities?

As you know, today after church we are having our annual blessing of the animals. I was a little worried about preaching about the Israelites worshipping the golden calf on the day we were blessing the animals. I thought it might look like we were trying to recreate the scene out front.

But, of course, we are not worshipping them. Instead we are blessing them. And when we bless something, we are not worshipping it…we are putting it in its place, and asking God’s blessing upon it.

Churches typically do this blessing of the animals on this first weekend in October because it is the closest to the Feast of St. Francis, who was known to be a lover of animals. He saw in them evidence of God’s work in creation, and he blessed them as good. We in the Protestant traditions don’t view saints the same way our Catholic brothers and sisters do, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t look to them as examples. And St. Francis is a fascinating example of someone who wanted to shed all the false idolatries of the world and look only for evidence of God’s presence, even if that evidence came covered in fur or feathers.

There’s a story about Francis that I love, that also reminds me how important it is for those of us who are Christians to keep our eyes on the prize, and off the idols. The story goes that Francis attended a lavish dinner with other members of the clergy. Inside the tables were heaped with food and drink, paid for by the church, and everyone was having a great time.

Except right outside the doors of the banquet hall, people were starving and begging for food. And so, quietly, while others feasted, Francis put only a few breadcrumbs on his plate. And he quietly began to eat them as everyone else ate from the feast. And when they finalized realized what was happening, they stopped too. And they realized that they had been distracted from what they really wanted to be. And they shared the feast with those outside.

To me that story is about putting aside our idols, our distractions, clearing our vision and choosing instead to focus on what really matters. It’s about letting go of our golden calves, and choosing God instead.

In the end, Francis and the bishops found they couldn’t serve Christ until they focused on the people outside their door. And the Israelites found that they couldn’t go to the promised land until they left the calf behind. They could have remained there, with the idol they made for themselves. But they would have been stuck there. They never would have become what God intended them to be.

And in the end, we can’t find the promised land until we leave our idols behind. No matter what they are, and no matter what fears or insecurities created them, we will never manage to move until we let go of the distractions that don’t matter, and cling for dear life to what does. Only then will we ever find what we are truly seeking. Only then will we have hope. And only then will we be given the wondrous privilege of being used by God to bless the world. Amen.