Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore
November 8, 2020
Free to Choose
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
Life in the US in the year 2020 involves a lot of choice. We might have more options available to us than any other humans in history. Think about it: With the internet in my pocket, the world’s libraries are literally at my fingertips. Add a charge card, I could choose to buy a million different books, thousands of different pairs of shoes, a dizzying array of kitchen gadgets and articles of clothing. I could order practically any meal I could imagine from hundreds of different restaurants and have it waiting at home when I get there after worship. And choice isn’t only online. Anyone who has travelled in the 2/3s world can tell you how disorienting it can be to go to a grocery store here in the states: an entire aisle of breakfast cereals, fifty-two flavors of ice cream, not just eggs but eggs that are extra large, cage free, free range, grain fed, natural, pasture raised, local, and organic. Our choices as consumers in this country are limited only by our resources.
Life in any democracy – government by the people, for the people, and of the people – is governed by choice… at least in theory. And we exercised our right to choose this week, voting for people to govern our city, and lead our nation. A vote is a choice: a moral choice, where we put our power towards policies and people we believe will promote our values. Richard Rohr writes, “voting is a deeply moral act for me… a decisive act of Christian faith that I matter, society matters, justice matters, and others matter.” It’s a relief to me that the kind of election that happened and was counted… and counted… and counted this week only comes around every four years. But election or not, each day brings moral choices for us, albeit on a smaller scale. A chance to respond with love to the people around us. To listen to one another. To use our voice to advocate for change. To be honest and hardworking and compassionate and faithful. What do we value? Who do we serve? Will we make choices that reflect those values, choices that testify to our faith? Do our choices show a deep-seated belief that justice matters, that we matter, and that others matter?
At first glance, the speech Joshua gives to the Israelites seems light years away from the choices that govern our strange, 2020 lives. He’s leading his people to renew an ancient covenant as they begin life together as a new nation in a newly conquered land. To do this, he reminds them where they came from, and recounts all the ways God accompanied them and their ancestors along the way. God worked through Moses to liberate them from slavery, to feed, sustain, and guide them through the wilderness. Joshua reminds them that their ancestors once worshipped other gods, but God has called them to be faithful only to YHWH, the one true God. And Joshua calls the people to account, saying – choose this day who you will serve… and then he makes a public proclamation: as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Joshua is preaching from memory to hope. He evokes the memory of what God has done for them, and calls them to renewed faith… reminding them of their thirst in the desert, slaked by fresh water pouring from a rock. Reminding them of how their bellies growled in hunger before God made manna appear to sustain them. Reminding them that though once they were no people, now they are God’s people. He gives them hope for the future. Now, I know, Joshua’s speech feels far off. But the question – the challenge – choose this day whom you will serve… this is a live question for us, for me.
As people of privilege in the US, there is so much we are free to choose. And there are a lot of gods that compete for our attention, our loyalty. In this pandemic time, it’s obvious that our personal choices – your choice and mine – are intertwined. For many, the need to work takes away the choice to stay home or stay distant to protect themselves. They don’t have a choice. Which makes our choice to abide by public health recommendations even more important, for everyone’s health and well being. The last eight months have taught us that our personal choices have wide social, economic, and political consequences.
Our choices as individuals, as consumers, and as citizens also reveal deeper truths about what we value. About whom we serve and worship. Each day is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the God who has called us, saved us, sustains us, loves us. By choosing to love, serve, and honor one another.
I struggled to know what to say to you this morning. Words fall short under the weight of my relief. The fragile ember of hope that I’ve sheltered for so long has caught fire again, and yet still I am cautious. I’m wary of what the coming days might bring. I’m also aware that there are those among us who are not feeling relieved one bit. How do we find a way forward, loving, honoring, and serving God together, with hope for the future, in this fraught, fractured time?
Joshua was seeking to unify his people, calling on them to rededicate their lives to love and serve God. It seems like what we might need to do right now, too. With the huge divides that separate us, it seems impossible. There’s probably more than one family feeling a sense of relief that Covid gives them an excuse NOT to have to gather around the Thanksgiving table with extended family of a different political persuasion, relieved that they don’t have to navigate that political mine field. With family. How on earth do we build unity and work for reconciliation?
By remembering the past, recommitting to serve God in the present, and looking with hope towards the future.
Many of you are older than I am, so you probably remember better than I do the wall that divided East and West Berlin. It was built in 1961, to separate communist East Berlin from outside western influence. When it went up, it cut people off from one another, separating families, friends, and people from their places of work – not unlike the wall across our southern border. In the almost forty years that it stood, hundreds of people were killed trying to cross over. One street that ran beside a section of wall was called the street of sorrows, so many desperate people had died there. A towering symbol of the Cold War, it was difficult to imagine how or when it would ever be torn down.
And yet, in 1989, it was. Gradual thawing in surrounding countries led to the opening of the gates, and people on both sides poured through and took sledgehammers to the separation wall. I was only 8 years old when it happened, but I remember the sense of astonishment, relief, jubilation on the nightly news, the images of people dancing in the streets. My sister did a report on the wall’s history, and somehow came across a piece of it, a grey and jagged chunk of concrete you could hold in your hand, a symbol of the triumph of western democracy and diplomacy, of the people’s freedom to choose.
Last year, on the thirtieth anniversary of the fall, a public art installation was put up through the center of Berlin, on the street in front of the Brandenburg Gate where the wall once stood. 120,000 fabric ribbons were suspended in the air, making a path of glorious color, floating in the air, rippling in the breeze. Written on the ribbons were greetings, wishes, memories, and messages of hope from Germans and people around the world, some sent from afar, some written on the spot to mark the occasion. The sculpture was meant to symbolize the unity of the German people and their mutual hope for the future. The visual impact of the installation was breathtaking – ephemeral, beautiful, an undulating wave of color overhead – a testimony to the common hopes and dreams of the people in the place where razor wire, watchtowers, and unthinkable division had once ruled.
Change and reconciliation are possible! Worship each week is a chance to reclaim this truth, and to recommit ourselves to the possibility. To remember who and whose we are. To tell the stories of our faith to each other, to our children and our children’s children, so we remember who God is and what God has done for us. To ignite our hope for the future. We are called into this space by the one who reached out to the margins and brought outsiders in. Who healed the sick and helped the suffering, who spoke truth to power and tore down walls of division. Let us choose this day to serve him, because the world needs us. And we have a lot of work to do.
 Rohr, Richard, “Why I Vote,” Sojourners Magazine, 11/2018. https://sojo.net/magazine/november-2018/why-i-vote