Monday, November 10, 2008

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

See the introductory note about Bishop Jones in the preceding entry, or by clicking through to the diocesan website.

The Messenger of God Appearing to Joshua

Ferdinand Bol
Dutch, about 1640 - 1644

On RCL Proper 27 A, 2008 Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Given by the Rt. Rev. David C. Jones
at St. Andrew’s Church, Highland Park
Pittsburgh, PA on 9 November 2008


I am grateful for the invitation to preach. I bring you warm greetings from the clergy and people of the Diocese of Virginia. I am here to remind you that you are not alone – that the Episcopal Church stands behind the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

For the past 30 years, I have been serving in the Diocese of Virginia, the last 13 as a bishop. I visited Pittsburgh on a number of occasions as a boy visiting my cousin, Alexander Reed who at that time was the President of the Fidelity Trust Bank. I spent many of my Thanksgivings in Washington, Pennsylvania at the home of my Aunt Isabel Reed Clark.

I have been asked by the Standing Committee of the continuing Diocese of Pittsburgh to assist them during a time of transition and change.

It was also a moment of transition and change for Joshua when he was called to ministry. He had served as Moses’ assistant. Then after Moses death, God had called Joshua to succeed Moses saying, “My servant Moses is dead, now proceed to cross the Jordan.”

The task may have seemed impossible. Joshua may very well have felt inadequate. He might have asked, “How could I step into the shoes of Moses and lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land?” Might he have heard the words that were recorded at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, “Never since has there appeared a prophet in Israel like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face.”

I suspect that many of us have faced insurmountable challenges in life – tasks put before us that seemed utterly impossible – challenges that seemed beyond our comprehension.

As Joshua embraced his new role as Moses’ successor, he had one string of hope to which he could grasp. He could hold on to the words of his call – a promise recorded in the first chapter of Joshua:

“No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.”

As a young college student, I was resisting a call to ordained ministry. I sensed that I was called to ordination, but did not feel up to the task. I knew my own shortcomings and knew that I was not worthy to be called a priest. Encouraged by a college chaplain, I attended a conference on the ministry at the Virginia Seminary. I went there expecting to have my reservations about ordination confirmed. But in the first session of the conference, a question was posed to a retired bishop – an elderly man. A participant said that he had been resisting a call for more than 20 years because he did not feel worthy.
The retired bishop smiled. He replied that he had never felt worthy – that only God was worthy and that God’s grace made him worthy to be a priest and a bishop.

In one instant, my reservations vanished and I yielded to the call. Through one man’s testimony, I heard essentially the same message given to Joshua at the beginning of his ministry, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.”

Toward the end of the Book of Joshua, we meet the prophet at the end of his life as he is gathered with elders and heads, judges and officials. He reminded them of the words of his call saying “Not one thing has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you; all have come to pass for you, not one of them has failed.”

Those words of encouragement are especially important to us today. We are reminded of God’s faithfulness and God’s gracious provision.

It is in the context of promises fulfilled that we hear Joshua’s challenge to the people of Israel in today’s lesson, “choose this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Joshua’s challenge is founded on his experience and faith – not only in his life, but also through the life and experience of Moses, his teacher and mentor. It is not a blind choice, but one founded on trust in a faithful God.

The question of choice is evident in the parable of the five foolish maidens in Matthew 25.

At the heart of the parable is the rejection of the five bridesmaids who were not prepared for the bridegroom to arrive.

We can hear that parable in the context of Joshua’s question “choose this day whom you will serve.”

Obviously, the five had chosen to do other things and were not prepared. Might they represent those among us who try to get by in life with minimum effort?

Might the foolish maidens represent those who are too preoccupied to build their spiritual houses on solid ground – who take chances with matters of ultimate importance?

On too many occasions, I have been with people grieving over relationships that had NOT happened – over opportunities that were lost - about marriages that had slowly died because of lack of attention.

“I just didn’t realize” is the most common explanation for the profound grief that is experienced over an unnecessary loss. “If I had only known” is a common confession of a person experiencing grief.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Second, the foolish maidens represent those who assume that material things can replace eternal things –
• who move too fast through life to make friends
• who offer their children things instead of relationships

We live in a fast food culture that prizes technology and speed more than feelings and relationships. But the fastest communications in the world still have to slow down for ordinary people like you and me.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Third, the maidens represent those who try to defy the limits of humanity
• who want to beat the system and have life their way
• who are overextended financially
• who are too busy to meet their commitments
• or who risk their lives with excessive speed.

So there are really two messages in our lessons – the first is God’s promise that he will be with us and never forsake us, and the second is the importance of our faithful response to God’s gracious love.

One way that we answer that question is through our giving. I have already begun to think about what I might give at Christmas and what I will give to the Church next year.

I will give out of a sense of gratitude – the kind of gratitude expressed by Joshua as he gathered with the leaders of Israel – the kind of gratitude that brings tears to our eyes when we realize the gracious provision and protection of God.

“No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.”

Joshua’s question then can be very personal. Choose this day whom you will serve. We answer that question day after day, hour after hour. Amen.

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