A young woman works in retail, and it’s Christmas – the busiest time of the year. She also sings in the church choir, and has been asked to be present at the church at 5:00 on Christmas Eve in order to be ready to help lead the music at the 7:00 and 9:00 services. Her boss has ordered all-hands-on-deck until the store closes at 6:00. What should she do?
An older farmer proudly states that he has never missed Sunday worship to farm – he’s always believed that having that chance to focus on his faith for a couple of hours was worth any loss that he might experience due to losing those hours on the seeder or the combine. But it’s been a bad spring, the ground is mud, and everyone around him is working 18-20 hour days to get the seed in before the rain starts again. Can he afford to take that time for worship?
A woman is married to a man who just isn’t all that interested in Christian faith and occasionally resents the time she gives to the church. Their children have been going to Sunday School since they were small, but now they’re at that age where the dreaded question has emerged: “Why do I have to go to church when Dad doesn’t? Why can’t I just sleep in?” What does she say?
You love sports. It’s your favourite thing in the world, and you believe it’s one of the best things for kids. It keeps them physically fit, teaches teamwork, discipline, the ability to deal with failure and success, and keeps them out of mischief (you hope). You also believe that one should live by faith – living it out day to day and moment by moment. You’re asked to serve on a team that will help envision the church’s ongoing ministry into the next 3 to 5 years – but the meetings are at the time when your recreational league plays. What choice would you make?
You work for a bank, helping people with their investments. You know the United Church encourages an ethical investment policy, and if people ask, you try to steer them towards ethical funds. But you also know that those “ethical funds” contain heavy investment into fossil fuels, massive corporations known for overpowering the little guys in business, and operations known for union-busting. You’re not sure if those funds are actually all that ethical. How do you advise people?
You’re sitting down with your partner to consider your budget for the year. On your desk is a whole pile of request letters for donations to worthy charities. Above your desk is a calendar showing travel destinations from around the world – places you’ve always wanted to go. You hear the rain on the roof and wonder if it’s time to look at the shingles again. You also know that the church has been running deficit budgets for several years and can’t continue doing so for ever. How do you decide where the money in your budget will go?
These are all real scenarios, taken from the lives of people I know. These are all examples of having to make choices about how we will live our lives – choices like the one Joshua was asking of the people whose parents and grandparents had followed Moses from Egypt, and who now found themselves on the brink of a new life in a new land.
Joshua doesn’t mince words. This is a life or death choice, as far as he’s concerned. Commit to this covenant with the God who has brought them thus far, or don’t – but they can’t have it both ways. He’s seen the people make promises before, and break them within days. He’s been with them as they’ve struggled through the wilderness; he’s watched them and led them through victory and defeat. He’s old. He hasn’t got much time left, so he’s not sugar-coating anything. He depicts a God who will not forgive or forget disloyalty. It’s a big motivator to make the right choice.
In the old days, and still in many churches, the choice was and is presented in a similar way. “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour or face eternal damnation”. Again the choice one is supposed to make in this scenario is pretty obvious, isn’t it? If those are the two choices, I know which one I would choose!
But the choices of faith are just not that black and white, in my experience. The choices of a contemporary Christian are more likely to be lived out in those blurry areas like the ones I’ve just mentioned. The way of life and faithfulness is not always clear. And even if I were 100% sure what the right choice would be in every scenario, as a preacher I lack the powerful incentive of being able to say it’s either this way or nothing, or it’s this way or something terrible will happen. As much as I dislike that approach to religious life, it certainly makes for a motivated congregation! If you wonder why conservative forms of Christianity tend to flourish, well that’s one reason. Fear is a great motivator!
One of the biggest challenges the liberal Protestant church has faced over the last 60 years or so is how to foster commitment among disciples of Jesus who have chosen to be a part of our faith communities. It’s been decades since Canada’s Pierre Berton wrote “The Comfortable Pew” (1965), but his description of Mainline Protestant Christianity can still make some of us squirm in our very uncomfortable seats. He described the liberal church in Canada as a kind of social club at prayer, completely irrelevant to Canadian society. He felt too many people were in the church for the wrong reasons – business and social contacts, prestige, habit, because it was the “done” thing, etc. He felt that those who tried to bring change and new life into the church usually got shut down by those wishing to preserve the institution as it was. He went on to write that he could only see things in the church changing if a) through some great persecution all the church no longer consisted of “those of little faith, of the status-seekers and respectability-hunters, of the deadwood who enjoy the club atmosphere,of the ecclesiastical hangers-on and the comfort-searchers. Once the Church becomes the most uncomfortable institution in the community, only those who really matter will stick with it. At this point, one would expect the Church to come back to those basic principles of love, faith, and hope that have made martyrs out of men.(p. 142-3) He wasn’t convinced that even that would do it. The other possibility he suggested was that some man would come along (since the book was written in 1965 it has to be a man) – a great reformer like Martin Luther or John Wesley who would turn the church on its ear and start a new movement within Christianity that would be more faithful to the radical, rebel Jesus.
Berton didn’t understand that Christianity could become a reality any way than through such drastic means. He didn’t for-see that as Canada increasingly became a multicultural, multifaith, and secular country, the church would find itself on the margins, and that in that space, his prediction would come to pass.
Those who come to church for those reasons that Pierre Berton condemned are slowly disappearing. And here we are, the few who still care enough to be here and to make this a significant part of our lives. And is it fear of a dangerous and demanding God that keeps us here? I don’t think so.
I suspect it is just the opposite – that it is love. It is experiencing the love, faith and hope to be found in relationship with Jesus and with other Christians that brought us here and keeps us here. In a sense, we are here, not just because we choose to be, but because we know we have been chosen. God has chosen us to be in relationship with one another. God has chosen every one of us to be a light that shines in the darkness. God has chosen every one of us to be Jesus for the world. God has chosen every one of us to share God’s compassion – not to destroy in the name of God, as the storytellers of today’s passage believed, but to heal and mend in God’s name. We are far from the only ones God has chosen, but we are chosen. And as those chosen, we too, must choose.
John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism and spiritual ancestors of the United Church, said: “They that are bound for heaven must be willing to swim against the stream, and must do, not as most do, but as the best do.” (Wesley’s Notes on the Bible) Those who have been chosen for Christian community must make different choices than many others would make. The passage from the New Testament remind us to “Worship and serve Only God”. God first – always, in all things.
I can’t preach the stick, no matter how effective that may be. I can’t preach punishment or eternal damnation or the fear of Hell, because I don’t believe that’s how God operates. But I do believe we have to make choices – real ones, that have real consequences. We make those choices based on our best understanding of what God wants for us and for the world around us. We know the promises God has made to people through the ages; we know the promises we make to God when we become new Christians or members of a congregation. If we don’t know them yet, we will know the words of A New Creed, in which we promise: “to be the church, to live with respect in creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen.” …..
If we don’t do those things as Christian people, will something bad happen to us? Probably not – at least not the way many have understood it in the past. But we will lose something precious – a way of life that not only enriches one’s whole being but enriches the lives of others as well. Our churches and our communities will flounder, our lives will be more barren, our world will be a harsher and less forgiving place, and the flame of hope and love will flicker and start to fail. And then God will have to choose someone else – some other group of people, because God doesn’t give up. If we in the church will not commit ourselves to this life lived in God’s way, God is perfectly capable of finding someone else who will.
Personally, I want to be on the inside of God’s great project for creation. I want to be in on the redemption of the world. I want to be part of a community of love and justice and forgiveness and hope. Every single day that choice is before me! And every day I decide I will continue to choose this path for which I have been chosen. What about you?