Choose This Day
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
Choose This Day
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On October 16th, 2022
Our passage for today comes at the end of the book of Joshua. According to the narrative the Bible gives us, the Israelites have escaped Egypt in the Exodus, they’ve wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, where they’ve received the Ten Commandments, and they’ve engaged in the Conquest of Canaan. They’ve come to control the cities and towns of the land through laying waste to their opposition. Now Joshua, the leader who took over from Moses, presents a challenge to the people in his charge. Now that they have come into possession of the land, will they commit to serving God or not? They have to serve something and someone. What will it be?
As you listen to the words of the passage, notice how Joshua recounts what God has done for the people to this point—and exactly how he frames the choice that is before them.
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: 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. I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness for a long time. Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. Then King Balak, son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.
‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling 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.’
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Let us pray. O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. May the Gospel be more to us than mere words. May the Holy Spirit produce in us strong conviction.
Every time I officiate at a wedding,
As I will be doing this coming Friday for Taylor Olcott and Van Carver,
I find myself thinking about the nature of covenant commitment—
The promises we make to God and one another
At certain moments in life.
Maybe it’s standing in front with your soon to be spouse
Making vows to be loving and faithful to each other
In plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health
As long as we both shall live.
Or standing at the baptismal font with your child
Committing to raise that little one in community
As a follower of Jesus.
There are times when we make big promises
In front of God and everybody.
It could be taking the oath of office for a position in government
Or saying yes to the ordination questions that get posed to
an elder or pastor before the laying on of hands,
Or promising to be a faithful member of a congregation.
It might be rising to pick up a desire chip in a twelve step meeting, indicating your admission that you need help to overcome your addiction—or better yet, taking the 3rd step
Making a decision to turn one’s will and one’s life over to the
Care of the God of one’s understanding.
There are those huge public moments when we make a choice,
As individuals and as a community.
Today’s text depicts one such moment in the life of ancient Israel.
They are at a turning point. A time that calls for commitment.
After long struggle, and many fits and starts, they find themselves
At a place called Schechem.
A couple of generations have passed since Moses led the people
Out of Egypt, through the sea and into the wilderness.
Moses has passed the torch to Joshua.
Under Joshua’s leadership as a military general, they’ve entered
And largely taken control of Canaan, the Promised Land. Before we go any further, the problematic nature of such a bloody conquest of already inhabited land has to be acknowledged, right?
It’s hard to entirely square that with what we know of Jesus, whose name in Hebrew is a form of Joshua—and who takes control not of land, but of human hearts. The story of the conquest of Canaan has its problems, not least of which the way it became the pretext for the slaughter of indigenous people in our own and others’ history. But leaving those aside, our passage from Joshua 24 does frame a moment of decision for the people in Joshua’s charge.
It’s the classic movie scene. You can almost see Joshua drawing a line on the ground in front of the people and saying, “Everyone who is committed, everyone who is all in, step across this line. Those of you who aren’t, step aside.” Choose this day whom you will serve. The God who delivered you, or some other gods.
Now, if only it were that easy. If only the big decisions we make were one off. Snip, snap. Pish, posh. That box is checked. One and done and happily ever after. Sure, count me in, sign me up.
But as anyone who has ever really committed to something knows—whether it be marriage or membership, sobriety or service, being on a team or signing up for physical therapy—the big moment of decision is followed by countless other decisions that we make in light of that big decision. Choosing to get married is one thing. Making choices day in and day out about how we relate to each other is another. Opting for physical therapy is one thing, faithfully doing the exercises, even when they are not easy, is another. Picking up a 24 hour chip is one thing, daily working the steps that lead to continued sobriety is another.
When Joshua calls on the people to choose this day whom they will serve—the Holy One who delivered them or some other power in which they might put their trust—he knows that there will be more choices to follow. Choosing this one day leads to choosing the next, day after day, moment by moment. And before you know it, you’ve created a life. As the wise Albus Dumbledore told young Harry Potter, it is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. Lives get made choice after choice after choice.
Those choices are not just the big ones we make in public, but all the little ones we make along the way. To be kind, rather than cruel. To extend mercy rather than to seek revenge. To do what we know in our hearts is right, rather than what is expedient. To hold ourselves accountable for actions while still giving ourselves some grace for being human.
One way to look at life is to see it as a series of choices—and over the course of my life I have too often failed to see it in that way. I’ve acted as if I had no choice in certain matters when, in fact, I usually did have some sort of choice, at least about how I responded to what happened. happened. I’ve forgotten that I have a choice about whether I react or calmly respond, whether I forgive or cling to resentment, whether I regulate my emotions or spew them willy-nilly, sometimes on the people closest to me.
When I say that life is a series of choices—and that we choose each day and every moment—that doesn’t mean that sometimes our range of options isn’t rather limited. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who have fewer resources and fewer options available to them than we have. For someone who is relatively healthy and arguably in the prime of life, who was born a straight White Anglo Saxon Protestant in the U.S. to at least somewhat functional parents who were solidly middle-class, for someone like that—someone like me– to say we all have choices can be a way of discounting that there are people who are born into different social locations and have faced different circumstances through no fault of their own. And at the same time, the truth of the matter is, we all nonetheless have choices. The trick, of course, is to remember that some of us have more choices available to us than others. There are options that I had as a young person that were not available to people my age who grew up in other places. To not admit that, to pretend that that is not so, is itself a choice. And to acknowledge that there are those with fewer choices than you and I also leaves us with choices about how we might respond to people whose range of options is dramatically smaller than our own, due to their social location or their mental and physical health. What we do with those choices is between us and God.
We all have choices, regardless of how reduced our menu of options may be. My Mom has fewer choices available to her regarding what she does with her time than I do, for instance. She can’t decide to go for a five mile run, or even a mile walk. But she can pray for others, so she continues to regularly ask me who she can be praying for in this congregation. Many, if not most, of you have been the beneficiaries of her prayers. Choose this day whom you will serve.
Given that this past Monday was World Mental Health Day, it should be said that mental illness often functions to limit a person’s sense of options and it can really and truly feel like we don’t have choices at all. In other words, our brains don’t always feel as if they are our friends. What do we do then? What does it look like to choose this day in those circumstances? Well, it might be as simple—and as hard—as picking up the phone and asking for help. If we can’t think of a friend to call, there is now a national mental health emergency number that I think everyone should have at their fingertips, even programmed into their cell phones. 988. 988 is a kind of 911 for mental health help. When we are overwhelmed and snowed under with some form of mental disease, and getting out of bed or off the couch seems hard, choosing this day to serve God might be taking a shower, or getting some good food into our bodies. Choosing this day might be acknowledging that anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication can be a gift from God, as can therapy, and rehabilitation.
I guess the bottom line is that when Joshua says choose this day whom you will serve, and that challenge echoes through the ages up to the present day, we need to remember that the choosing who and what we serve consists in all the other choices we make day in and day out—about how we spend our time, and our money, and how we use or fail to use our talents for others sake, and how we use whatever influence we possess, and whether or not we treat others with compassion and grace, and whether we live in gratitude or with a sense of entitlement.
Lives get made choice after choice after choice.
Maybe it wouldn’t hurt us to wake up each day with Joshua’s voice in our ear. Today is another day to choose.
Choose love. Choose gratitude. Choose life.