Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Preached FCCW, November 12, 2017
The story that the Bible tells often reads like a family tree of faith.
Interspersed throughout the Old Testament and the gospels are genealogies, like mile markers along a road. Those are the passages that never get read in worship, and the ones that we most likely skip over when we read the Bible ourselves.
Why take the time to wade through lists of people who most have never heard of with names that few can pronounce? What purpose does it serve?
Well, it served an important purpose for the Israelites.
For one thing, it reminded them that they were all part of one great household of people who were defined not by ancestry alone, but by their association with a God who was ever active in their history.
God was known, not in mythological tales, but in the stories of real people and real historical events.
God even referred to Himself in terms of His relationship to bygone generations; often introducing Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The God who led them up from slavery in Egypt, or the God who gave them a land flowing with milk and honey.
And, they divided their history according to the generations of those who had preceded them.
Our Old Testament reading this morning falls in the Joshua Generation.
The Moses Generation before them had been slaves in Egypt.
God had sent Moses to lead them to freedom.
After that, they had wandered in the desert for forty years, searching and waiting for a land of their own. Moses had climbed a mountain and glimpsed the Promised Land, but he died before he could ever set foot on its soil.
The mantle of leadership passed from Moses to Joshua. Joshua led the people across the Jordan River into Canaan, where they claimed a homeland for themselves.
Now it was Joshua whose time was running out.
So he assembled the people of Israel, they of the “Joshua Generation,” and reminded them of their ancestors who had served God and how God had delivered them and protected them.
Joshua gathered them at Shechem to recommit themselves to serving the God who had brought them this far, and to shun the worship of all other gods.
He challenged them to pledge themselves, household by household to serve the Lord.
Their own words would stand as witness against them should they abandon the way that God set before them. He said, “Now if you are willing to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua sealed the deal with a covenant; an agreement with guidelines by which faithfulness would be measured by future generations.
Just as it was with the Israelites, our nation’s history can also be measured by generations.
The first Pilgrims who felt led by God to sail across the Atlantic to a New World could be our Abraham Generation, because Abraham was called by God to leave his home beyond the Euphrates in order to start a new nation.
Our ancestors who fought a revolution to gain independence from tyranny, could be called our Moses Generation, because it was Moses who liberated the Israelites from the tyranny of Egypt.
We, too, have our covenants – our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution — by which we still determine how faithful or unfaithful we are to the visions those documents embody.
And, just as the Israelites of the Joshua Generation had to be challenged to remember all God had done for them, and to relinquish their affinity for the worship of false gods; we too, are a kind of Joshua Generation, challenged to self-examination when it comes to our fidelity to the ideals that others before us sacrificed to preserve, and our faithfulness to being the people of mercy and Justice that God calls us to be.
On April 5, 1976, the year of the American bicentennial, a picture was published that said more in one shocking image than a thousand words ever could say about how far we can fall from what we profess to be. The picture was taken in Boston, literally in the shadow of City Hall, during the unrest over court ordered busing. It was a picture of a white man using an American flag on a pole, like a spear, to attack an unarmed black man.
Someone appropriately titled the picture, “The Soiling of Old Glory.”
More recently, the nation was once again shocked by another public exhibition of racism, as the streets of Charlottesville were filled by white supremacists, many brazenly wearing the swastika symbol that so many veterans of the Second World War fought to repel from our shores.
But, my first real encounter with the ugliness of bigotry was more personal that a photo in a newspaper, or images on a TV screen. It happened at a campground in a small New Hampshire town.
My best friend and I were shooting baskets when a trailer rolled down the dusty camp road and pulled into a field site at the edge of the basketball court.
It was an African-American family.
I remember the father setting up a badminton net for his two little girls to play.
After a while he came over to where we were and asked if he could join us shooting baskets.
Friendliness flowed instantly and easily between us.
That night, my friend and I were back at the basketball court, playing under the lights. Across the field our new friend’s camp was tranquil; soft light spilling through a window in the small trailer.
But all was not to remain peaceful.
From the road into town, a group of people came silently marching across the field toward the campsite. Without a sound, they tore down the little girls’ badminton net, snapped the poles in pieces and left the whole mess on the ground. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the vandals dissolved back into the night.
It had all taken place so quickly, that we just stood there. Paralyzed by disbelief. Then, we left our ball on the court, and we too, walked away, back to our campsite, into the safe anonymity of darkness.
We wondered that night how that family would feel when they opened their door and saw those broken nets on the ground.
We agonized over how those two innocent little girls would feel in the morning at the sight.
And what words the parents could possibly find to explain it to them.
Most of all, we wondered whether or not the father who had played basketball with us would suspect us of having something to do with it.
We resolved to go to that trailer in the morning and tell them what we had witnessed.
But, by then they were already gone.
I guess they got the message that they were not welcome.
I too, got a message from that experience. The message that hatred is never just “someone else’s problem.”
The message that racism on the scale of what I would later witness on the streets of Boston and Charlottesville grows out of a tolerance for barely noticed acts of bigotry in places like that out of the way campground, and the prejudices that fester behind the doors of ordinary households.
The message that noble words like justice and equality that define us as a people also stand as witnesses — not only against those who mock them by acts of racial bigotry, religious bigotry or gender bigotry.
They stand as witnesses that I am accountable for the sins of my household.
If not by my participation in them, then at least by my silence or inaction.
That this is as true for all households to which I belong, be they family, church or nation.
And, that no land is truly a Promised Land until it is a land of promise for everyone.
The “Joshua Generation” of the Bible was put on the spot and made to choose which gods they would follow.
Would they serve the God who had led them from slavery to freedom?
Would they serve the God who had taken them from being homeless refugees and provided them with a land to call their own?
Or would they worship other gods, who would lead them to abandon the path of righteousness made known through the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
It was the critical decision with which THAT Joshua Generation had to grapple.
In a way, every generation is its own Joshua Generation.
This Joshua Generation, our generation, has its own choices to make.
Will we serve the old gods of racism, divisiveness and intolerance?
Or will we serve the God who breaks down the walls of hostility.
The God who reconciles.
The God who shows no partiality.
Will we serve the old gods of self-interest and greed, whose cynical creeds continue to teach that it is every man for himself, while turning a blind eye to the widening gap between rich and poor?
Or will we worship the God of abundant provision who encourages us to be people of generosity and sharing; who reminds us that you and I are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper?
Like the Israelites, the words written in our revered covenants stand as witness against us when we fail to honor them.
Words that declare “self-evident truths, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Words that set as our goal the formation of “a more perfect union.”
Words that veterans, living and dead, have sacrificed to defend.
Joshua knew how important a role personal accountability plays in transforming the world.
He left no doubt about where he stood.
“As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” he said.
May we, of this Joshua Generation, stand by those same words.
Because, the best way to be faithful to God, and the best way to honor veterans who are faithful to duty, is to hold up our side of the struggle for righteousness.
Copyright 2017 Raymond Medeiros