August 25, 2018
At JustChurch, we always say that a sermon is never finished, that it continues in our conversations and deliberations, and this is true. A sermon is not a book, contained in a shiny new cover. Nor is it a painting, framed perfectly and hung on a wall. A sermon is a living, breathing thing, a snapshot of a particular time, shared with a community of specific people in a specific context. A sermon can never really be re-used, because the world situation has changed since it was originally preached, the people have changed; indeed the preacher herself has changed. A sermon is a bold gesture, holding a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, so that we might catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom as it unfolds in our midst. The moment the final amen is uttered by the preacher, the sermon flies out into the universe, seeking a place to land, in your ears and heart, perhaps. The sermon begins with a confession of the world’s brokenness and proclamation of God’s grace, and continues on in lived reality. And so today we embrace that challenge and celebrate the ongoing sermon.
That is not to say I haven’t done my work, because I have. But the truth of the matter is, for this preacher, who loves a composed sermon, who adores a careful crafting of words, who prefers things to be tied up neatly with a bow, this is not a week for such a sermon. So this pushes me, a preacher with OCD tendencies, and perhaps it will push you as well.
This week has seen too much for me to neatly tie is all up with a bow. So what I am going to do today is share with you the various threads I have noticed in our readings, hold them in tension with things that have unfolded this week, and hand them back to you, for us to engage as a brave community in our conversation groups.
I found myself captivated by Joshua. In our first reading, Joshua collects all twelve tribes of Israel and says this to them, “Listen, people, today you have to make a choice. Today you need to choose your god. Are you going to choose these false gods, these flashy and snazzy idols, or are you going to choose the God of your ancestors?” And it’s fascinating that there are some verses left out of this reading at this point, omitted because they are a bear to read aloud, with all those names and places that lectors hate to read like Amorites and Hittites and Jebusites and all those other names that the Rev. Lovejoy from the Simpsons always seems to be going on about. But what these omitted verses do is recount God’s history with God’s people. So, in other words, Joshua says, “Choose–but before you do, remember who God has been to you and what God has done for you.” Remember how God saved you when you were in the wilderness? Remember how God gave you victory in battle? Remember how God led you into a land of vineyards and olive trees? These false gods have done none of that. So choose, but choose wisely, calling to mind that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Nazi woman drinks from the wrong chalice and she melts into a gross puddle of ooze. Except that’s not what Joshua intends, that’s just a cool scene; nonetheless, his question is laden with gravitas, this is his family, after all, despite their in-fighting and their feuds, and he wants them to choose what kind of people they are going to be. Choose this day the god you will worship, he says, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
This phrase stuck with me all week–the phrase “choose this day.” I know this word traditionally makes Lutherans nervous, because we’re afraid that any action we take might be misconstrued as working for our salvation, which we know to be a free gift, but still. Lutherans, in my opinion, have the best theology in the world–we understand that God’s love for all people is free, not earned, and so God gives us the freedom to choose bold things. Lutherans must be active in this world and push back against the waves of injustice that we see every day, and that is why JustChurch was born.
So let’s lean into this choosing language together, even if it makes us uncomfortable, remembering that today there may not be a tidy conclusion. First, let me offer an image from a family who are friends of ours, which might help clarify our goal a bit. Austin Schroeder, also known as Flash, died when he was only 15 years old, in 2015. His family throws a charity golf event and dinner every year, and this was last night. The proceeds go to support the AYA Cancer Speciality Center at the Stead Family Children’s Hospital here at the University. Flash’s attitude remained positive through his diagnosis, treatment, and even right up until his death. The family used the phrase “Win the Day” with Flash, which gave him the strength he needed to meet every day with courage and strength, I asked his mom Stacy last night if I could share this tonight, because there is a connection between Austin’s drive to win this day, this particular day, even in the face of a terminal diagnosis, with Joshua’s challenge. Choose this day, even though injustice, discrimination and hatred seem to rain down all around you, choose this day what you will be about. Let God work out the entirety of time; just choose this day, win this day.
This week our nation witnessed a rather significant implosion in Washington, with Paul Manafort being found guilty of tax evasion and bank fraud and Michael Cohen’s confession of having paid off women who had dirt on Trump at the President’s behest. Are we faithful citizens of this country who will be complicit with this continued display of corruption, or will we resist through petition and ballot and say enough is enough? Choose this day.
This week our state received the devastating news on Tuesday of the discovered body of Mollie Tibbetts, after an excruciating search after her disappearance last month. The focus on her murder was quickly hijacked by the alleged killer’s immigration status, taking this murder of an innocent young woman and feeding it to the bipartisan fight over the immigration laws in this country, when we all know that Mollie’s murder isn’t about immigration–it’s about women getting killed for rejecting male advances. Are we going to use this murder to perpetuate stereotypes against illegal immigrants, or are we going to acknowledge that murder is a symptom of an entire human race which is broken, including people of every race, class, gender, and ethnicity? Choose this day.
This week our university community was notified of three more student deaths, including yet another student suicide. Because this is such an epidemic lately, we are taught to watch for signs and symptoms of depression and distress and intervene. On the other hand, we are taught to respect boundaries, to let “you be you,” and “I’ll be me,” and we will co-exist, but I will not get into your space if you stay out of mine. Are we going to ignore the ones whom we know are struggling, risking the reality that they might not be here tomorrow? Or are we going to bravely reach out to that student/coworker/colleague who seems to be struggling and say, “You matter to me” and “How can we walk through this together?” Choose this day.
Every day we get to choose who we are and what we are going to be about. Every day, I choose to break from my past, when I choose to not harm my kids, when I choose to not use racial slurs or tell dumb blond jokes. Every day the alcoholic chooses to drink or not drink. Every day the cutter chooses to cut or not cut. Every day we choose to ignore what’s going on around us or we choose to get into the arena and try make a difference, nationally, locally, personally. Every day is a choosing day. Every day we can choose to win the day or lose the day, and this is a difficult battle, I know. But the choices we make about how we live out our faith in the world can make an impact more far-reaching than we’ll ever know. Every day, our choices can save the life of another human being, in the actions we choose and the words we choose. And remember, the gift in all this is the freedom we have in Jesus is that our choices don’t bring us into relationship with him; Jesus is in relationship with you whether you like it or not or even choose it or not, he still died for your sins. But our choosing lets us participate in that relationship. When you’re in a relationship with someone, it’s much more fun to participate in that relationship, isn’t it?
When Doug and I were dating, he was living in California. He came home for Thanksgiving and addressed my fears of being in relationship. He simply said, “I love you. My track record shows I am not going to leave you. Now, are you in or are you out? You choose.” And choosing to be in that relationship opened to me a love and grace I had never before known. Risk the bold choice.
Our elementary and secondary kids went back to school in the Iowa City Community School District this week, and I cried, as usual. However, this year, I noticed it was harder for me to shut the tears off, what with all the heavy news this week. I saw my three kids off the school, and scrolled back in my mind over the first steps, the first tooth lost, the first words, the first day of kindergarten, the last year of elementary school, now the new braces, the first day of football practice, the first win of a high school cross country meet, the blurring increased momentum of each passing year, and I thought of my relationship with these three young men, who at times drive me crazy, who sometimes behave in a way that offends me, who sometimes make choices that disappoint me. But I know to my core, I will never leave them. They are stuck with me, not simply because I am their mother; I had a mother and she left. I choose every day to stick with these boys, because it is a privilege to walk through life with them. And I know that the hugs they choose to give me, the times they choose to say I love you, are far more precious than if I forced them to do these things, and so I understand God’s gift of free will. God could command us to do this and do that, and in fact did this 10 times, but, finally realized it is the voluntary act of the human heart that is priceless. It is loving your neighbor because you choose to, not because you have to. It is empowering minority populations and immigrants because you choose to, not because you have to. It is standing up for women’s rights because you choose to, not because you’re told to. It is initiating a relationship with someone who is desperate for a friend, because you choose to, not because you have to. It is trusting another human being with your heart, because you choose to, not because you are coerced. God gives us the choice to love one another, and God gives us the choice to love God. But God’s love for us is unchanging and endless and unconditional.
So I finish my portion of this sermon, and I throw the ball in your court now, brave JustChurch-ers, and ask you to move into small groups, after a moment of silence, and to engage in some questions together. Honor the introverts in our midst, for active listening is every bit as valuable as active speaking, as we contemplate the intersection between faith and choice.