A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 26, 2012.
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-15; Ephesians 6:10-17
It is most appropriate that this morning, of all Sunday mornings, we read this familiar passage from Joshua. The people of Israel have gathered for a covenant ceremony in which they recommit themselves to their faith in God. This morning, in our worship, we are doing the same.
We’ve had a baby dedication. Actually, the dedication is of John Edward Peyton, not by. The dedication has been made by his parents, and to a certain extent his big brother Henry, as well as our congregation. We have made covenant together to help raise him in the faith that is very important to us.
The making of covenant is a vital function of the church, especially on notable occasions such as this.
We have dedicated ourselves to the beginning of a new school year, in which we pray for the students and teachers and parents who are so inextricably intertwined in this important process of forming and guiding young minds to learn and know and experience more of life and knowledge every day.
A number of us are past the point in life when this affects us directly. By that I mean, if we have children, they are out of the nest. But it is important to many people in our church and community, and we need to covenant to pray for those who are going through this time of year and of life. It is not called a rite of passage or nothing, you know.
That realization came to me Monday during my early morning three-mile walk. I was about to hit THE hill. I’m referring to St. Charles Avenue, between Green Mountain and Napa Valley. At 11820 St. Charles, the street begins a sharp incline. Walk it with me some time, you’ll see. It’ll get your heart pumping!
As I was about to begin my ascent, I spied a young family on the sidewalk… mom and dad and two little girls. Mom had a camera in her hand and she was snapping pictures of her husband with their two daughters. At least one of them, the older one, I guessed, was starting school. It was a momentous occasion for the little girl, and her family, and they were recording it for posterity. Dad then took the camera from Mom and took a picture of her with their two little ones. As I approached, I asked if they would like for me to take a picture of all of them. “That would be very nice,” they responded. I did so and wished them all a good school year, and was rewarded by the cutest smiles you’ve ever seen on the part of the two little girls.
This is an important time, for them certainly – and for many in our church and community – and it is right and good that we acknowledge that and make covenant together about it.
By sharing these commitments together, we follow the tradition of our spiritual ancestors. It is quite possible that, if he were able to be with us this morning, Joshua would be proud.
Or maybe not.
You see, there may be a problem here. How? Well, we have reduced Joshua’s words to a fairly easy sentimentality, if for no other reason than they sound so poetic, so “domesticated,”1 when, judging by their original intent, they have a real edginess to them.
This is what I mean… go into just about any pious household – and I mean the word pious in the best sense of the word – and you will find Joshua’s words crocheted or stitched or needlepointed, framed and hanging on a wall. I know this to be true because we were given such a thing twenty-five years ago by a thoughtful parishioner and we have it on our guest bathroom wall. “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
I don’t think needlepoint was what Joshua had in mind. The people of Israel have gathered during a time of real crisis, a crisis largely borne of their penchant for wandering around looking for gods that satisfy in ways they feel their God does not. Joshua is pulling the people back together and he is taking a stand… a bold stand, one that requires a great deal of courage. And he’s calling his people to do the same.
And the people immediately say, “Yes! We too will follow God. Thank you, Joshua, for setting the example for us and calling us to that which is eternally important. We will indeed do as you say, for that is what a covenant is for.”
And Joshua says in response, “Wonderful! I’m so happy you have seen the light and will do as I have encouraged you to do.”
No, that’s not what he says at all. The first word of response out of his mouth is, “Careful! Careful! Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. Following God is not as easy as you think.” When we speak covenant words, Joshua is telling his people, we are held accountable for them and how we live them out.
If Joshua were here today, he might caution us in the same way. Reciting a few words that call us to assist Ginny and Stephen Peyton in raising their son John Edward is an easy thing to do. After all, they’re printed right there in the worship guide and all we have to do is try to say them in unison without getting too far out of the rhythm of it. Careful what you say, though! Pretty soon John Edward is going to be running around this place, getting on your nerves, demanding to be seen and heard, and you’re going to be thinking, “Why isn’t that kid in the nursery?”
Saying or listening to a prayer on behalf of our children who are starting school, and asking for guidance for those who will be teaching them, is the easy part. The next time you get stuck behind that school bus that stops every hundred feet or so to pick up yet more students, you may be muttering under your breath about the delay it is causing you.
The next time you are tempted to do something on the basis of your very human impulse rather than doing that which runs counter to it, that which Jesus teaches us to do rather than what human nature compels us to do, you might find your commitment to him to be more of a burden than you want.
Sometimes, that which we covenant ourselves to do becomes inconvenient if not downright painful. But making covenant means we will participate in the process, whatever that process is, even when it gets messy. In our case, it means we will be serving the Lord, whatever that entails, and it calls for everything that is in us.
That is why we come to this table… not just because it’s the fourth Sunday of the month, the time that is designated for us to do so… not because it is in our church’s constitution that we will do so… not because it is a ritual that is so ingrained in us we have to do it from time to time in order to feel better about ourselves… not for any lesser reason that we can think of. We do it because it is a covenant, a covenant in body and blood, because it requires us to choose this day whom we will serve.
A young man once sought entrance to the court of King Arthur. He presented himself at the gateway to Camelot, but an old knight barred his way.
“What do you seek?” demanded the knight.
“I seek admission to the Round Table,” said the youth.
“Dare you?” the old man asked. “Once past this arch, and our royal Lord will lay vows on you which it were a shame not be bound by, yet to which no man can keep.”
The boy answered, “Sir, write my name down!”2
I wonder if, every time we commemorated the Lord’s Supper, what kind of impact it would have if we required every person who participated to write down his or her name as a sign of loyalty to the King. Would you do it? Could you do it? What would you choose?
“Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” That was Joshua’s covenant. Is it yours?
Lord, we come to your table, not because we are worthy of it, nor because we are good at being good. We come because we are sinners and our choice is to give in to that sin or give in to your mercy. Help us to choose you, we ask, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
1Jennifer L. Lord, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 363.
2Clyde Fant, “Is Your God Too Small?” unpublished sermon, October 12, 1988.
We who have chosen
The lesser gods
Now seek the Great God.
Deliver us from their tyranny;
Embrace us by thy grace.
Lead us into challenges
Worthy of our Lord,
In whose name we pray.