First United Methodist Church
November 12th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
What Stories Do Saints Tell?
The Great Wall of China was built 214 years before the birth of Christ in order to protect the vulnerable northern border of China from the raids of the Mongolian horsemen.
The wall, which is the longest structure made with human hands, still stands today, zigzagging its way through the hills of northern China. It is estimated that as many as one million people died building the wall.
When the wall was finished, it appeared to be unconquerable. It was just too big and overpowering to be scaled. Yet history tells us that the enemy got past the Great Wall three times. How? Not by breaking it down or going around it. The enemy got past the wall by bribing the gatekeepers!
According to Henry Emerson Fosdick, a prominent pastor in the early 20th Century, “It was the human element that failed. What collapsed was character which proved insufficient to make the great structure men had fashioned really work.”
“Choose today whom you will serve.” Let us pray…
Last week we spent some time thinking about what makes a saint a saint. Each one of us, in one way or another, is called to be a saint – called to serve because we aspire to live under God’s reign. How we are called, and how we serve depends on our own unique talents. But when we do answer that call, when we make the choice to love God with our heart, mind and soul, to place our lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, our lives begin to tell a story. And that story is the story of how Jesus Christ saves the world.
Our passage from Joshua today contains the memory verse, “Choose today whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Usually, with this scripture, we stop there. It’s pretty straight-forward. Make a choice to serve God. But there’s another message hidden within this text and I think it has potential to speak to us even louder than the obvious one.
When Joshua gathers the Hebrew leaders and people together, he begins to tell a story about their ancestors who lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. By the time Joshua is talking to the people about their history, it has likely been well over three centuries since Abraham lived and died. His name and some of his stories had been carried forward through the ages.
But the first thing Joshua wants to tell the people about their ancestor as he is about to finish his work among them is that Abraham was not always connected to the God they knew as their God. He had served other gods, as his family before him had.
Now, a lot of us in the United States can relate to having ancestors who came from a very different culture and a faraway place. But it’s much harder, especially for someone like me who grew up in a Christian family that has roots as far back as I can trace, to imagine that any of my ancestors served other gods.
But if we listen carefully to what Joshua is saying about Abraham, we realize that they are stories of a God who calls us while we may very well be serving other gods in a place that is far away from where God is calling us to go.
The second thing he wanted them to know about Abraham’s story was that first God made a choice, and then Abraham did. God chose to call this man who was not serving God, and Abraham chose to pay attention and devote his life to following where God led him. God acted first. God called. Then Abraham forsook all other allegiances and followed.
That’s our story, too, isn’t it? John and Charles Wesley would call this prevenient grace. Before we were even trying to pay attention to what God was calling us to do, even before we could pay attention to such things, God called, and kept calling.
For many of us, we have heard that call and followed. We made a pledge at our baptism or confirmation, that we would renounce all other allegiances, and serve Jesus as Lord, accepting the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. And over the years, we’ve learned what it means to rely on grace to keep us connected to God and to others in the body of Christ, the church, and to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world.
This is our story. At some point in our lives we were serving other gods. We were following our own way. Even if we were “good Christian people” and “in the church,” and for some of us, even if we were confirmed and meant it at the time, we still hadn’t completely broken all those prior allegiances. Just being “in the church” may not really have been enough of an influence to do what the church promises to do at every baptism-- “that we may become true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”
But here’s the thing. God keeps calling. The Spirit keeps striving. Prevenient grace is still very real! Even when our story is that we’re ignoring God, God doesn’t ignore us. Indeed, God is calling us toward the fullness of life in Christ even then, even when we’re actively serving other gods or purposes.
Today’s passage reminds us that we don’t have to keep ignoring God’s call and God’s promise. We can “choose THIS day whom we will serve.” And in making that choice, our story can become more like the saints that we read about and admire.
Joshua told the people an ancient ancestor story to speak of a God who made them a people –in effect–out of nothing, out of no prior allegiance.
They responded with their allegiance to their God who had done something even more remarkable than that. It would have been enough if God had simply called Abraham and given him descendants. But their story was that their God did more. Their God delivered these descendants from slavery and cruel oppression at the hands of the Egyptian empire, brought them through a long journey, and enabled them to settle in a new land. Their God wasn’t just out to get them started, but to see them through whatever would come and work for their good. How could they not pledge sole allegiance to their God?
That’s the story of the saints, too. It’s our story. Some of us may have found ourselves caught in literal slavery and cruel oppression from others. Racism and white supremacy are still prominent in our society. Some of us may struggle with other forms of slavery and oppression such as addiction or other diseases beyond our apparent control. Probably all of us have struggled with patterns of selfishness or habits or actions or attitudes that destroy our relationships with God and neighbor and ourselves. And in our struggles, we sometimes forget that God really is out to save us.
God is out to save us. That’s the heart of the story of the saints, all the saints, even us. We don’t just tell that story to make ourselves or others feel better when we’re down. We tell it because it’s true. It’s the truest thing we know, because God is Love.
God has blessed us with a great church and a wonderful opportunity to work for God’s kingdom in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this work often fails, not because of God or structures or well-crafted plans. The work of God’s kingdom often fails because of us. Like the gatekeepers of the Wall, we run the risk of being bribed and seduced to compromise our faith and serve other gods.
So rather than telling that story, tell the story about a loving, saving God, who is out to save us all and renew all people and relationships and all things in the universe. Tell that story with your lives.
As Jesus reminds us in the story of the ten bridesmaids, we should always be ready. Don’t let another day go by without inviting Christ into your heart. Choose today whom you will serve and pray that you can be a strong gatekeeper who is not bribed by the temptations of the world.”
Let us pray…
Christ Jesus, we want to believe in your kingdom—
a kingdom that is already, but not yet, in our midst.
It seems so far off as we bear our load
of suffering and grief.
Some days it’s easier to get discouraged and distracted,
even to give in to the long, dark nights
of our worries and fears.
Sometimes it’s easier to grow numb and lose hope,
even to forget we even know you.
We want to trust that you haven’t forgotten us.
We want to wake up and choose to live our lives
inside the rule of your love.
We want to hope.
We want to offer wisdom and encouragement
to the generations to come.
But we need your help.
In your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.