Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost 2017 — Preaching Notes

November 12, 2017 (Year A)
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

A Season of Saints | STORIES OF THE SAINTS
 

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Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Last week, we celebrated the beginning of this Season of Saints with All Saints Sunday, and we focused on how saints can be identified publicly. They’re the ones coming out of great suffering. This means they’ve been in great suffering, whether by circumstance beyond their control, or by choosing to go and be among those suffering greatly. They’re the ones who don’t just wear Jesus on their sleeves, but cover all their garments in his lifeblood. And they’re the ones waving palm branches and crying, “Victory” through Jesus.

So we know what saints wear.

But what stories do saints tell?

Today we’ve heard something about those stories through a public conversation between Joshua, the successor to Moses who brought the people into their promised homeland, and the leaders of the people. 

The very first thing we learn about the stories of the saints from that conversation is they are stories of a God who called us while we may very well have been serving other gods in a place far away from where God was calling us to go (verse 2).

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 for someone like me who grew up in a Christian family, indeed, in generations of Christian families as far back as I can reliably trace, a bit over three centuries, the idea that my ancestors served other gods is a bit hard to relate to.

Of course, by the time Joshua is talking to the people about their stories as we pick up his story this morning, it has likely been well over three centuries since Abraham had 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.

And the second thing he wanted them to know about Abraham’s story was that first our God made a choice, and then Abraham did. Our God chose to call this man who was not serving our God, and Abraham chose to pay attention and devote his life to following where our 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 preventing, or prevenient grace. Before we were even trying to pay attention to what our God was calling us to do, even before we could pay attention to such things, God called, and kept calling.

For many of you, you heard that call and you followed. You made a pledge at your baptism, if you were older, or perhaps at your confirmation that you would renounce all other allegiances, and serve Jesus as Lord, accepting the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. And over the years, you’ve learned what it means to rely on grace to keep you 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. 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 pray for us at every baptism-- “that we may become true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”

Hear this good news. God keeps calling. The Spirit keeps striving. Prevenient grace is still very much a thing! 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 ends.

Hear this even better news. 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 that of those robed in white.

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 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 still exercise sway among us. 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 may forget the best news of all. God really is out to save us.

God is out to save us.

And save us to the uttermost.

That’s the heart of the story of the saints, all the saints. You and me, too.

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.

We tell it because we’re likely to forget it if we don’t. We get overly focused on ourselves and our circumstances and our ability (or lack thereof) to cope with them. We can quickly devolve as some into “God is out to judge me” or “God is out to get me” or “God is out to tell me every little thing I’ve ever done wrong, and I just keep making that list longer and longer.” Or worse, we project our own feelings of condemnation onto others and say to those we fear or despise, “God is out to get YOU!”

Don’t lose the story of the saints, fellow saints!

For every one of us seeking to be saints, our truest story is never only about ourselves or about other people. Our story is about a loving, saving God, who is out to save us all and renew all people and all relationships and all things in the universe.

Keep telling that story, saints to be! Love to tell it. And then love to live it. Love to let God work out God’s salvation to the uttermost in and through you.

Categories: Year A, Twenty-Third Sunday After the Pentecost — November 12, 2017

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