“As For Me and My House”
November 5, 2017 – 22nd Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
Students of Canadian literature no doubt remember Sinclair Ross’s book “As For Me and My House”. This classic story has been described as one of Canada’s greatest novels. It explores life in the drought belt of Saskatchewan as experienced by the Bentley’s. One commentator suggests “in this 2 fold study, Ross describes the barrenness of the West through the varying effects on the consciousness of a man and a woman who long to escape the taboos of their small prairie town. In its depth of insight this book has become a classic in Canadian literature.”
For his first sermon in the small town of Horizon, Phillip Bentley preaches on the Hebrew Scripture text of Joshua 24 “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Reading this story we are drawn into the complex and yet barren realities of life for a country preacher and his wife. The tension between faithfulness and despair is evident in every phrase. This story, that many of us studied in school, is an effective backdrop as we examine our call to serve God.
“As for my family and me, we will serve God.” That is a pretty dramatic pronouncement, isn’t it? “As for me, I will serve God” is the commitment I made with my confirmation many years ago. To commit oneself to the challenge and opportunity of serving God is a big step of faith. Yet each and every day countless people are prepared to direct their lives in such a way that God is honoured.
And that is exactly what the ancient Israelites were called to do. It is a story about choice. So let’s stop for a few minutes and examine the text. Today’s lection is a formal ritual or dialogue between Joshua – who represents God – and Israel. In this text, we are reminded that God had acted on the promise of salvation and as a result Israel was being forced to decide whether or not to follow God. The choice, though, was anything but casual or easy. The difficulty of the option is underscored in the structure of the passage as well as by its language. In hearing the passage, we recognize legal overtones as we today are challenged to make a choice. This is an effective discourse in that God’s past acts of salvation are recounted before the scene shifts to a current time. In bringing the context to the present the people of Israel were confronted with the need to make a clear decision to follow God. Some might say that the choice was a “no brainer”. What is clear is the preference was obvious and Israel responded affirmatively to the question of following God. But, it was as if Israel’s decision was too casual for Joshua, and a whole new cycle started yet again. Later in our text Joshua confronted Israel with the need and danger of making a choice to enter into covenant with God. And once again the people express their will to follow God. Using the tools of language, it was explained why the whole process was repeated.
Needless to say – this account is challenging and even troubling. There seems to be no room for compromise. But – as we reflect on this time in the history of the Israelite people, it is clear that a significant decision was being called for. The people were offered three choices as to whom they would follow and honour: 1) God – 2) the gods of the ancestors in the region beyond the River – 3) the gods of the Amorites in whose land they were living.
In today’s language the 3 choices are: to remain faithful, to revert to the past, or to blend in with the surrounding culture. When we put it in this kind of language, we may well feel that Joshua was describing our own situation with uncomfortable accuracy.
And then Joshua uttered powerful words that speak to us across the millennia. Stating his own decision Joshua says “as for me and my family, we will serve God.” I can’t help wondering what our world would look like if each of us who commit ourselves to serving God really did try to live as God would have us. Would we affirm one another rather than tear others apart? Would our care and concern be visible and audible – with tender words, unsolicited acts of kindness, genuine affirmations? Would we continually ask ourselves, “is this just?” All of that and much more is how I understand serving God.
You have to admire Joshua. In the midst of much stress he was determined to make sure that the Israelites knew what kind of God they had pledged themselves to serve. Joshua told the people that they could not serve God, because God is separate and holy, and that the choice in favour of following God could be very dangerous. Fear was planted, with the suggestion that if the people failed to live up to their obligations, God might do them harm.
To understand God in this way reminds me of a cartoon in the New Yorker. The setting is a large office with a secretary at a desk. Another figure is walking past her toward a huge closed door. As this person prepares to knock on the door, he turns to the secretary with an anxious look and asks, “Is he the God of the Old Testament or the New Testament this morning?”
To understand God as vengeful and unforgiving is chilling. It is no wonder that the people of Israel were quick to agree to serve God. They were scared. They did not know God as loving and compassionate – but instead knew God as punishing and spiteful. As we sit here in the comfort of this sanctuary, we too must ask ourselves, “who is the God that we serve?” “What is God really like?”
Last week, while off on Study Leave, I re-read a number of thought provoking books by Bishop John Spong. Bishop Spong believes that we are an exile people who will be accompanied by God into barren and unfamiliar places. Rather than experiencing God as punitive and judgemental in the Hebrew Scripture sense, Spong understands God as companion into the exile and judge for the way of true justice. Spong reminded us that if we truly seek to follow the way of God, we must be prepared to be different and direct our lives so that the oppressed and hurting are validated and find wholeness.
I’m impressed with Bishop Spong’s candour. It is his contention that Christianity as we know it today must change radically or else it will be extinct in the not too distant future. We can’t cling to time honoured creeds, hymns and traditions at the expense of a living faith that loves extravagantly and seeks justice for the oppressed.
I don’t think Joshua of old would argue against this position. In fact, I believe that Joshua, in stating “as for me and my family, we will serve God” is telling all that he had made a choice to direct his full being in the way of faithfulness.
Those who are involved in 12 step programs say that you must “walk the walk and talk the talk”. In other words we must be intentional in choosing to let go of false idols and security. Instead we are to replace the god of money with the true God who grants strength to support the vulnerable. Rather than giving lip service to the way of peace, we are to direct our lives so that our homes are filled with tolerance, understanding and compassion. We are called to be a visible alternative to the ways of the world.
I for one, am committed to serving God. What about you? Are you prepared to offer yourself and those you love to the way of love, justice and new life? Will you join me in honouring God in work and play and relaxation? Will you throw caution to the wind and make the choice to live as God’s faith filled people? “As for me, I will serve God.” Amen.