Well, we made it through the summer of bread! Five straight weeks in John 6. I must say this last week hardly qualifies, because it is mostly the reaction to Jesus’ teaching about bread, instead of more teaching. My sermon focuses on the disciples’ choosing to stay with Jesus when given a chance to leave and on Joshua’s command to “choose this day whom you will serve.”
Lutherans can get very skittish around “choice” language. We believe that God chooses us, not the other way around. It is only through the Holy Spirit that we are able to know and to love God. And yet, in our daily lives, we are faced with myriad choices. Do we make choices to serve God’s ways? Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Let me know what you think.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Choose this day whom you will serve,” demands Joshua, as the people are rededicating themselves to the covenant. “Choose which gods you will follow, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God who led them out of Egypt. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I think I have that verse on a wall hanging in my house somewhere.
Choice is all over in our readings this morning. Jesus, abandoned by all but his closest disciples, offers them a choice, too. Do you want to leave, do you want to go with not just the crowds but other disciples for whom this teaching has been too difficult? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” asks Peter. “You have the words of eternal life.” For Peter and the twelve, it’s not a question of choosing. They made their choice already, when they chose to follow Jesus.
From our position in history, it’s easy for us to look down on those who made the other choice, those who walk away. These aren’t the casual observers, these aren’t the crowds who don’t really know or understand who Jesus is. These are disciples the Gospel tells us. Maybe not as close as the twelve, but these are people who have been dedicated to following and learning from Jesus. And when the going gets tough, when it becomes clear that following Jesus will demand things of them, they leave.
It’s easy for us to choose God when the choice doesn’t require much of us. We romanticize these verses, particularly Joshua’s, in cute art: on bookmarks, on greeting cards, on prints for our walls. But Joshua lays out a stark choice for the people: You are going to be serving someone, is it going to be the God of heaven and earth, or is it going to be the gods, small g, of the culture all around you?
I am reminded of the story of a pastor and his entire congregation who was forced to make that choice. Andre Trocme served in the small village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south central France. He was a Protestant pastor sent to this remote village in 1938 because his pacifist stance made him an outsider in his own church.
When France fell to the Nazis, Trocme and his church turned their town into what he called “a city of refuge.” They took in Jews, at first French Jews fleeing deportation, and then others who were escaping from Nazi territory. They hid them in plain sight in their homes, in their church, and in their town, until they could be safely smuggled to Switzerland. By the end of the war, Trocme himself had been investigated and arrested, and the town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon had sheltered and assisted more than 5,000 Jews, guiding them towards safety.
“Put on the whole armor of God,” the apostle writes in Ephesians, “so that you will be able to withstand” the evil forces at work in the world. Our choices are often not as fraught with life and death as Andre Trocme’s were. In some ways that makes them more difficult, not less. When the forces of evil are not easily identifiable, when we are not faced with such a clear moral imperative, the choices are muddier.
But the choices are still there. Are we not also tempted to abandon the God of Israel and to serve the gods of our culture? To abandon the callings and convictions of our faith and instead take the path of least resistance? The gods not of the Amorites or of the people of Egypt, but those gods we make out of wealth and success. Those altars of nationalism and militarism that we make sacrifices on. The gods of individualism and consumerism. These are the gods that test our choices.
They regularly test mine. Choose this day whom you will serve: the things you see being glorified and valued all around you, or God, who calls on us to value different things: community, peace, compassion, and service. These aren’t always easy choices, and sometimes we don’t know whether we’re making the right one or not. When I heard of the death of Senator John McCain last night, my first thought was how well he embodied someone faced with these struggles. A man of integrity, he often made choices that didn’t serve him, politically or personally, but served a higher purpose.
I sometimes think that the people in our readings had it so much easier than we do today. That their choices were clear cut. But it’s not true. These have never been easy choices. Even with Jesus standing right in front of them, the disciples say, “This is a difficult teaching, who can accept it?”
Jesus has just made clear that to follow him means to consume his body, to embrace his death and resurrection. To follow him means to emulate his way of living and dying for others. This is a difficult teaching. This remains a difficult teaching. It changes us, pushes us past our comfort zones. It asks things of us that we might not be willing to give. It tests our loyalties.
“Choose whom you will serve,” demands Joshua. “The Lord,” answer the people, “we will serve the Lord.” “Do you want to leave, too?” Jesus asks his closest followers. “Where else would we go,” responds Peter, “you have the words of eternal life.”
It’s very inspiring, it leaves us hoping that we might be like these brave and steadfast souls who chose God and served God. What the readings don’t cover is what happens after, though. The people may have vowed to serve the Lord, but they quickly stray. They lose sight of the covenant that would help them to live in peace and justice with each other. They instead begin serving the gods of wealth and power. Peter may have said there is no one for him but Jesus, but he too will abandon Christ. Will deny that he ever knew him. The twelve will follow the way of the other disciples, leaving Jesus when it becomes too difficult.
When we have to choose between God and other temptations, we will always fail eventually. We will always choose wrong: maybe not at first, maybe not even intentionally, but at some point we will slip up. We will serve the gods of culture instead of the God of love.
But even though the people of Joshua and John slipped up, even though we slip up in our choices, the God who chose the people of Israel, the God who chose the disciples, the God who chooses us never does. When our choices waiver and falter, God remains steadfast. God continues to choose us, continues to seek us in love in the hopes that we might return once again.
When Joshua said, “Choose this day whom you will serve,” it is clearly meant to be a choice once and for all. But I’d like to take that scripture and read it a little bit differently: choose this day whom you will serve. Each day is a chance to serve God. God does not hold the past against us, God offers us new beginnings every day.
Choose this day whom you will serve. It’s not an easy choice. It’s filled with gray areas and ambiguities, with difficult teachings and hard lessons. And we will fail sometimes. But a new day always comes. Choose this day whom you will serve. May we seek to serve the God who always chooses us. Amen.