Preaching to a stone (07/20/2014)

Read Joshua 24:1-27
I’m going to confess something about preaching: we preachers often wonder if our preaching does any good. We want to know: Does our preaching change people? Does it increase faith and strengthen the church?
These are the same questions that pastors in Colombia struggle with. These past two Sundays, Nadine and I went with a group from our Southeastern Minnesota Synod to visit our mission partners in the Lutheran Church in Colombia.
What we saw were places of deep fear and profound need. Windows, doors, houses and businesses surrounded by metal bars, and in some cases, razor wire. One pastor told us of how she was walking home from the church recently and two men came up to her – one pulled out a knife and pressed the point of the knife into her chest and said, “Give me your cell phone.” We were told that kind of thing happens often.
We experienced areas of poverty in Colombia – between 3 and 5 million people have been displaced by 60 years of war, terrorism, drug cartels, violence, and a poor economy.
These folks have no place to live. They form communities on the mountainside – unstable places to build – and occasionally there is a mudslide during the rainy season. Homes get buried and they have to start again. There is no government welfare or aid. They must piece together houses with scraps of metal and wood, and eventually save enough money, working jobs or selling trinkets in the streets, to purchase some bricks and cement and build something.
Churches experience opposition in Colombia. We were told how some government officials and rebel groups will tell Pastors, “We don’t want you to preach anything political. You can take care of your people, but don’t preach against injustice, oppression or corruption. But many pastors do. We were told that 100 religious leaders and social justice leaders in Colombia have been killed in the last 10 years. Some of the murders are reported – many others go unreported for fear of retaliation.
It is to this culture of fear and need that pastors preach their sermons. And that is why I picked these bible readings for this morning.
In the Old Testament, Joshua preaches his farewell sermon. He is now an old man, and he is concerned that the people continue in their faith and not turn away from the Lord.
Joshua challenges them to renew their commitment. He says to them, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15).
Joshua calls the people to make a decision. Will they serve the Lord? Will they strive to be who the Lord calls them to be?
Joshua holds out the choice for them, and they answer, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord…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.” (24:16-17) Joshua has tapped into their memories of stories heard around the campfires. They know how the Lord has acted on their behalf. They know that the Lord has given them their identity. They choose to serve the Lord.
And that’s what we saw in the people of the Lutheran churches in Colombia. Their numbers were few, but their faith was strong – young and old alike. They wanted to be there, to worship, to pray, to hear God’s word, to serve, to seek the strength and courage to live their lives in faithfulness to God in the midst of a violent and dangerous world.
However, Joshua still thinks they could be tempted to turn away from God. Joshua says. “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.” (24:19)
We know the Lord is forgiving. Joshua believed that. The people of the Old Testament believed that. Our God is a forgiving God. But Joshua is concerned with the people falling away from their faith.
And that’s the same concern expressed in our gospel reading. You had this gospel reading last Sunday, but I repeat it because it speaks so well of the danger that Joshua is concerned with. The seed is God’s word that is sown into our hearts. But some of that seed falls on the path, and some on rocky ground, and some among thorns, and it does not grow and bear fruit. Jesus says, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and receives it with joy…yet…when trouble or persecution arise on account of the word, that person falls away.” (13:21)
Joshua pushed the people to make a commitment, and yet he knew they could still fall away.
And then, Joshua does something strange. He takes a large stone and sets it up in front of them. Then he says something that makes us wonder if he has been nipping at the communion wine. He says, “This stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all of the words of the Lord that he spoke to us.” (24:27) When do stones hear anything?
If Joshua can get the people to use their imagination, they can see that stone as a kind of sponge that has absorbed the sermon. The words of the Lord have not disappeared into thin air; they remain forever in this stone. Every time they see that stone, they will call that sermon to mind, and they will be reminded of who they are, that they are God’s people and that they have made a commitment.
Today we baptize Raegan. In our baptism, God makes a promise to take us as his own forever. This sacrament of baptism tells us that we belong to God. God has committed himself to us. But in our baptism, God also calls us to commit our lives to him. There are many words in the bible that express our commitment to God. The words spoken by Joshua in our reading this morning are among the best. Say this with me: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) And now, turn to someone else and say the same thing to them.
Each time we baptize in this Church, we renew our choice. We confess our faith. We say, along with Joshua, that we will serve the Lord.
We have no stone to look at, to remind us of our commitment, but we do have each other.
When we start to lose sight of our commitment, we in the church can remind each other of the vows we have made. We can help each other be the church. We can be stones of witness for each other. Together we can be whom God has called us to be.

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About pastorjohnwaseca

ELCA Lutheran Pastor
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