I have to admit, our Old Testament lesson for today made me laugh. Out loud.
It wasn’t the Scripture itself that made me laugh, exactly. It was more the fact that we were given this Scripture passage on the last day of our Stewardship season—the day that our Planned Giving cards are due.
You see, in this passage from the Book of Joshua, Joshua is near death. Let’s remember for a moment that Joshua took over for Moses when Moses died. Remember him? The Israelites had been in slavery in Egypt when God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and told him to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. There were plagues, there was the parting of the Red Sea, but the people were finally set free. In response to their release from slavery, they were given all of the law and the Ten Commandments, asked to respond to God’s call to them to be holy as God is holy, in thankfulness for their deliverance. God also promised them a land—the aptly named Promised Land. But they messed up, and they whined, and they built this golden calf and worshipped it, and they questioned whether God could really help them defeat the peoples inhabiting the land of Canaan when they arrived. And so they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, being made ready for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Moses died without ever entering the promised land, and Joshua took up the mantle of leadership. And here, in our reading for today, he is about to die, and delivers an address reminding the people that God would fulfill God’s promises to them, and that they are called to obedience and faithfulness. He calls them to service to the Lord, to renew their covenant with their God.
And as I remembered all of this history, as I read about this renewal of the covenant, all I could think of is that this calling the people to renewing their covenant, in calling them to covenant faithfulness in thanksgiving for God’s blessings and love—well, that it’s like Joshua had just collected their Planned Giving cards. ‘Cause that’s kind of what we do every stewardship season, right? We renew our covenant to God and to this parish, and we respond to God’s call that we give of ourselves through our time, talent, and treasure in faithfulness and in thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. So it’s like Joshua had just collected the Israelite’s Planned Giving cards, and his response? It’s not exactly what I would do.
And that made me laugh. Out loud.
In fact, it tickled my fancy so much, that I realized that I wanted nothing more than to reenact this scene with you, on our stewardship ingathering Sunday—the day our Planned Giving cards are due. So—I wrote a script. And we’re going to act it out together. ‘Cause I think we need to hear what this sounds like, and because gosh darn it all, Scripture can be fun! (Have volunteers had out scripts.)
So here’s what’s going to go down. I’m going to play the role of Joshua, because you know, delusions of grandeur and all, and you all are going to play the role of the Israelites. I’ve adapted the Scripture a little to fit our circumstances, but basically it’s the same. So, ready? Here we go.
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So my stewardship sermons, had I depended on Joshua as a source, would have sounded something like this:
Mtr. Jen: “My friends, thus says the Lord, your God: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. And from his lineage came a man named Jesus, Emmanuel, my only begotten Son, who lived among you and died among you and rose again, thereby saving you all.
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve God in sincerity and faithfulness; put away the gods that your neighbors serve—wealth and comfort and security and power and leisure and all the rest—and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom or what you will serve; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
And then, you all turned in your Planned Giving cards, and replied,
Congregation: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the Lord our God who died and rose for us, so that we might be freed from the slavery of sin and death. God has protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the people through whom we passed. He gave us this parish, this Body of Christ. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. This is the sign, and our promise.”
(The Planned Giving cards are presented to me.)
Me: “Phfffff! You blockheads! You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve other gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
Congregation: “No, we will serve the Lord!”
Me: “OK—You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, so serve him y’all.”
Congregation: “We are witnesses.”
Me: “Then put away the other gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, your God.”
Congregation: “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
And so I make a covenant with you people today, and accept your Planned Giving cards.
* * *
Well, that’s certainly one way to go, eh? You know, on our Stewardship Sundays, the vestry makes you brunch and then we write you thank-you notes, but this works too.
Actually, while I would never use this as a stewardship strategy—it’s not my style—there are parts of this that do work.
Let’s take a look at the parts that work.
We’ll start with my favorite line of the whole bit: “Phfffff! You blockheads! You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.” You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.
My friends, I am afraid that that is absolutely true. To serve someone is to perform duties or services for them, to be of some specified use for someone. But our God is a holy God. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient. Our God is transcendent. Our God is a completely different order of being than us—in other words, our God is not just a greater, stronger, more powerful version of us. Our God is completely other. And if that is true—then our God does not need our service. Our God does not need us to perform duties for him, or to be of use to him. Our God does not need our money, or our time, or our talents. Because our God is a holy God.
Yet Joshua says, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Why? And the Israelites go on to proclaim that they too will serve the Lord. Why? Why do we continue to come here on Sundays, on Wednesdays, to turn in our Planned Giving cards, to do all this? When our God does not need any of it, because God is God, and we are not. Why?
Because a call to serve the Lord is a call from love itself. And this God who IS love awakens within us a responding love in the deepest center of our being.
There is no other reason that God would care enough to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. There is no other reason that God would bring them to the promised land. There is no other reason that God’s Son would take on human flesh and become one of us—Emmanuel—God with us. There is no other reason that Jesus would die an excruciating death. There is no other reason that we would be freed from the slavery of sin and death. There is no other reason that God would be in the constant process of leading us all to the Promised Land—the Kingdom of God—God’s full and utter reign. There is no reason that God needs to do any of this, except out of a love so deep, so high, so broad that it can only BE God in Godself.
There is no reason that God should have brought all of us—a motley crew of broken and damaged sinners—together into a fellowship of love, except that God loves us.
A call to serve the Lord is a call from love itself.
And I would propose that that’s why Joshua proclaimed that he and his household would serve the Lord. He was responding to love with love.
And I would propose that that’s why the Israelites proclaimed that they too would serve the Lord. They were responding to love with love.
At the end of the day, I don’t really know why exactly you come here. I have some ideas, some of you have given me some indication, but I don’t really know. At the end of the day, I don’t know what led you to fill out and turn in your Planned Giving cards.
But I hope—I hope and I pray—that you are simply responding to love with love. That you are responding to the God who IS love. That you are responding to the love that you find here, in us. And that all that you do—both here and not here—springs from a responding love in the deepest center of your being.
So that at the end of the day, we all will put away the other gods that are here among us—the wealth and comfort and security and power and leisure and all the rest—and that we will incline our hearts to the Lord, and to one another.
The Israelites, of course, were not faithful to their God or to their promises. And we aren’t either. Not always. But I want to thank you all now for the times that you were faithful stewards of this parish. I want to thank you all now for the times that you were faithful stewards of God’s creation. I want to thank you all now for the times that you were faithful stewards of the people we never see here. I want to thank you all now for all the times that you were faithful.
The Lord our God we will serve, and God we will obey.