Old Testament: Joshua (24:1-3a, 14-25)
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.
“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.”
Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
The Response: Psalm (78:1-7)
1 Hear my teaching, O my people; *
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable; *
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
3 That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children.
4 We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, *
and the wonderful works he has done.
5 He gave his decrees to Jacob
and established a law for Israel, *
which he commanded them to teach their children;
6 That the generations to come might know,
and the children yet unborn; *
that they in their turn might tell it to their children;
7 So that they might put their trust in God, *
and not forget the deeds of God,
but keep his commandments;
The Epistle: 1 Thessalonians (4:13-18)
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The Gospel: Matthew (25:1-13)
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Just about a month ago, our first reading was a selection from Exodus, chapter 20: one of two biblical versions of the so-called “Ten Words” or, as we call them, “The Ten Commandments.” They began by insisting that the Israelites make no other gods or representations of God. That demand was fundamental for them.
Yet, just a short time afterward, they made the golden calf, violating that prime precept. Thanks to Moses’ intercession on their behalf, they were spared destruction. Yet they spent the next forty years wandering through the desert wilderness. You would have thought that, after enduring all that, they had learned their lesson. But we human beings are stubborn and, sometimes, not very bright.
In today’s first reading, after the Israelites have settled in the promised land, Joshua is preparing for his own death. And he demands that the people make a definitive decision, either for Yahweh or for someone or something else. When they insist that they will be faithful to Yahweh, Joshua still finds it necessary to command them: “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” While insisting all along that they would serve Yahweh alone, they obviously had held onto their other gods – just in case.
I spoke with you a few weeks ago about some of the other “gods” that we have: some of the other things in which we place our ultimate trust. They include things like our savings and investments, our confidence that we can take care of ourselves, and our assurance that the way we want the world to be is the best, and in fact, the only correct way.
But like the Israelites, carrying their foreign gods along with them – just in case – we sometimes carry along foreign attitudes and values as we make our way through the journey of our lives. Often, they are tucked inside of us so deeply that we aren’t even aware that we have them. The same was true of our ancient ancestors in the faith.
The Israelites, standing there before Joshua at Shechem, knew from personal or family experience, what it was like to be oppressed, to be held as slaves. Forty years earlier, God had set the people free from their bondage in Egypt. One would think that they would have consciously rejected, supposedly forever, the notion that some people could be dominated and essentially owned by other people. Yet, once they gained control of the land of promise, they ended up doing the same things to other peoples that the Egyptians had done to them. Those who supposedly had been set free were still held captive by the attitudes of those who had enslaved them. As sociologist Michael Walzer put it (The Paradox of Liberation, p. 33): “the ancient Israelites… thought they had reached the promised land, only to discover that they carried Egypt in their baggage.”
Nation after nation has done that. Americans of earlier generations, who had come to this land seeking freedom for themselves and their families, denied that same freedom to those of Native American or African heritage, and, in later years, to immigrants from the Far East and even to American citizens of Japanese ancestry. We see the same terrible dynamic at work in our lifetimes in the treatment of Palestinians in Israel, of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, and of the Rohingya in Myanmar or Burma. The attitudes and practices of the oppressors have become the attitudes and practices of those who had once been the oppressed.
What part of Egypt do we continue to carry in our baggage? What attitudes and practices have we packed away, maybe deep down inside us – but which still emerge in our relationships with others?
Except for white supremacists, all Americans seem willing to assert that they believe in the equality of people of all races and nationalities; but we still too often carry within us prejudicial attitudes to those who appear to be different from us. We pledge ourselves to respect the dignity of every human being; yet still, at times, we hold subtly negative attitudes toward those who identify as LGBTQ. We affirm the God-given dignity of all people, women and men alike; yet we see in the news today example after example of the demeaning of women through sexual harassment and domestic violence. This time of year, as churches of many different denominations focus on stewardship and affirm that everything that we have belongs to God and is to be used for the good of all, many people still seem willing to accept tax laws that will benefit them personally, even when they fail to care for those who are most in need.
All too often, we, like the Israelites in Joshua’s time, try to have it both ways. We try to claim that we are faithful believers but, at the same time, still hold onto the gods worshipped in Egypt or beyond the River – or in our narcissistic and self-serving society. We try to affirm our faithfulness to God alone, yet we continue to carry these other attitudes and values – these other gods – along in our baggage.
If we really want to be faithful to God, we need first to examine ourselves and to acknowledge honestly the other gods that we still carry along with and within us. And then, we need to hear again the courageous statement of Joshua in today’s first reading, “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.”
Are we willing, with our full heart and mind and determination, to make the same bold declaration?