Marching Down the Walls: Sermon for October 1, 2017

I learned to march when I was about 12 years old. You might hear that today, knowing me, and think I’m talking about marching against some sort of social injustice. It would make sense if you think that, but I’m not talking about that kind of marching.

In middle school I really thought I wanted to go to one of the military academies. And so, I joined the Civil Air Patrol. And the first night I went to a meeting, they taught us how to march. We learned to stand there, first, at attention, not moving. Then we learned how to move. We learned how to march in formation, moving at a brisk pace, turning on a time. Column lefts, and column rights.

pexels-photo-279991I didn’t end up going the military route, but I always appreciate the discipline I had learned as a military cadet. Marching made sense to me. Stay aware, listen for the next movement, and keep moving as a unit. You will make it to your destination together. Those lessons helped me later on when I started to work for justice and equality. I began marching in a very different way, but with the same sense that if we stayed together, we would make it to where we needed to be.

Today’s Scripture lesson is one about marching, too. The Hebrew people have been walking for a long time. They’ve walked out of the land of Egypt, where they were oppressed, and out into the wilderness of Sinai. For forty years they followed Moses, who told them that he was leading them to the promised land. It takes so long that by the time they finally get close, Moses dies. He only gets to see the promised land from afar.

Before he dies, though, Moses appoints a new leader. His young assistant, Joshua, is chosen to lead the people into the promised land of Canaan. Joshua brings the people into the land, and to the gates of a city named Jericho. This is the place God has promised them, but this will not be easy. The people in Jericho do not want Joshua and his people there. In fact, Scripture tells us that the people inside the walls of Jericho fear the Israelites and even God.

Meanwhile, outside, Joshua’s folks are trying to figure out what to do. The walls are tall, the gates are locked, and they have no clue how to get in. But God tells Joshua what to do. Look, God says, take your soldiers, and circle the city. Have seven priest with seven trumpets lead the way, and take the ark of the covenant with you. Do this for six days.

And then, on the seventh day, circle the city again, not just once but seven times. Once you have, blow the trumpet, and have everyone shout, and then…the walls of Jericho will come tumbling down.

And so that’s what they do. For six days they march around the city, and blow the trumpets. And on the seventh they do it seven times, and the people shout, and the walls do indeed come down. The Israelites get their city.

The story of Jericho is a lot of fun in church school. We can have the kids march around in a circle, and blow instruments. Then they can shout out, and we can knock over some boxes. It’s an easy story to reenact. But for those of us upstairs this morning, we don’t get to march around and blow trumpets, or knock walls down. We just get to try to figure out what this story means to us today.

I realized this week that I had never preached on Jericho before. Not at this church, and not at any other church. And as I was thinking about it this week, I had no idea at first about how to relate this to our lives. (I briefly considered reenacting this upstairs too, but I thought that might be a little much.)

In time, I came back to marching. I remembered the discipline of learning how to keep marching that I learned as a military cadet. And I remembered the passion of marching for justice that I learned as a young adult. And I thought about those Israelites who kept marching around Jericho, and how they needed a little bit of both.

I wonder if they wondered why they were doing this. Why did they have to march around the city, blowing trumpets? Why did they have to do it not just one day, but for seven days? And on that last day, why did they have to circle not just once, but seven times? Why did it take the marching, and the shouting, for God to let them enter the city?

And then I started to think about the kind of walls that surround Jericho. Scripture tells us that the people who lived inside of them were afraid of the Israelites and of God. And so they built these walls that were tall and thick, and they vowed that no one would be able to knock them down. Even if the Israelites brought hammers and rammed the walls, nothing could make them fall.

But the Israelites didn’t need hammers. They didn’t need to even touch them. In the end, all they needed was this: their feet, their voices, and a little time. When they had all three, the walls that fear had built up crumbled into dust.

And that’s where the relevance for today comes. Because we live in a world where a lot of walls have been built up over fear. Dismantling these walls is not an easy process. Sometimes it can take so long, and be so tedious. But with everyone who joins in the march, and raises their voice, we come one step closer to shouting down the walls.

I think of some of the walls we have known. Recently my older sister was telling me a story about growing up in small town Virginia. On Saturdays they would go to the movie theatre downtown. Reflecting back now she realizes that something happened without anyone ever saying why. When the teenagers would arrive, the white kids would sit downstairs in the theatre, and the black kids would go up and sit in the balcony.

She realizes now why that was. It was a decade or so after segregation has been officially ended, but the legacies of Jim Crow still prevailed in the rural South. That’s just the way it had always been, and despite what the law said, people weren’t changing just yet. The walls had not yet tumbled down.

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A counter march in Boston.

I thought about her story and I thought about a march I participated in about a month ago. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, a similar rally was rumored to be happening in Boston. Like some of you, I went down to Boston Common to be part of a counter-rally against racism. That day the original rally did take place. Only a few dozen people showed up in the end. They were vastly outnumbered by the counter-protestors. They held their rally and then, with the protection of police, left the park.

Just after they left, the march against racism made it to the park. We stood on a hill and watched it come in. Thousands of people streamed into Boston Common. Looking down the street, all you could see were blocks upon blocks of marchers. Shouting words of hope, they entered the gates, and the walls, or at least a small part of them, came tumbling down.

There is a lot of work to do when it comes to dismantling inequality, but I believe that if Jericho teaches us anything, it teaches us to keep marching, and keep shouting out the truth. The movie theatre that my sister sat in the early-1970’s Virginia was not so long ago. And there are still plenty of places where that kind of thinking is allowed to go one, safely ensconced behind the high walls of fear.

But this is not what God wills. And so people have begun to fall into the ranks with one another, and have begun to circle those walls, speaking the truth until they fall. And one day, if we keep marching, they will.

This is only one wall, though. There are walls everywhere, just waiting for us to bring them down. The good news is that we can. We can do it if we stay in formation, keep raising our voices, and keep following God. The fear that builds up barriers to understanding might look powerful, but in the end it can be brought down by our refusing to stay silent, and refusing to stop marching.

One of the reasons I believe in church is because I need a community to march with me through life. I need to be surrounded with others who can blow the horn, and raise their voices, and testify to the love of God that we know. None of us does the work alone. We make walls fall when we refuse to leave one another isolated.

We are circling some mighty walls these days. They have been standing for far too long. The good news is that the crowd that surrounds us is growing, we are marching towards justice, and we are speaking the truths that we know. The walls will fall, and when they do, we will rejoice.

For now, we keep marching, with God, and with one another. Amen?

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.

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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.