We have three texts this week that talk about choice, which is enough to make a Lutheran theologian shudder as she begins to prepare a sermon. But here they are, so here we go. What’s more, these texts as we read them today, with the exception of the Gospel reading, make it sound as if the choice is an easy one, as if it were a no-brainer to choose God. As if choosing were my choice. All of these texts are probably at least a little familiar. Phrases like, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” the passage about donning the whole armor of God, and the sayings of Jesus about the flesh and blood, these are passages that have been picked up and used for various purposes throughout history. Sometimes they show up on throw pillows. Sometimes they show up as justification for war. All too often, they are treated tritely, without examination of their fuller meaning. I can’t promise that I will do them full justice, but I will attempt to wade in a little deeper. All the while knowing that many in our community are grieving an inexplicable loss; that many of us are wondering how depression and despair can appear to have the last word.
The first text, from the book of Joshua, brings us to Shechem, where all the tribes of Israel are gathered. It is important to know the history of Shechem. To know what Shechem means for Israel. This is the place where Abram first received the promise from God, the promise of the land and the nation. It is the place of the first sanctuary, the first altar to Yahweh, built in the land of promise. Later in Genesis, Jacob, Abram’s grandson, commands his household to put away their foreign gods, and to worship only Yahweh. And it is under the oak tree at Shechem that Jacob buries those idols. And now, as Israel begins to occupy the promised land, Shechem is a place of sanctuary, a city of refuge, a place of peace in the midst of a land, a world, of violence and revenge. So that the people of Israel are gathered here, of all places, is no accident. This is intentional, that Joshua should call them here, and present them with the choice: “choose this day whom you will serve, the gods of your ancestors (who are under your very feet), or the gods of this land, or the God who brought you out of Israel, out of the house of slavery.” It sounds like a simple choice, doesn’t it?
The Ephesians text presents its own kind of choice, and it is perhaps a muddier one, in its way. The books of Ephesians and Colossians are closely linked historically and theologically, to the point where some scholars believe they may both have been written by the same author, or at least in the same school. This text today points out one of those links. In Colossians, the writer uses the metaphor of clothing, saying in effect that your life is what you choose to put on, the way that you choose to present yourself outwardly to the world. I think this is a metaphor that we can understand, as we stand in front of our closets each morning, deciding how we want to look to the world today. In Colossians, the writer tells the people to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, stripping off the old self with its practices, clothing themselves with the new self, and above all with love. In other words, put more tritely perhaps, choose love. This Ephesians passage is not quite so simplistic. It is one of the reasons that Ephesians is so troubling to me, both theologically and historically. “Put on,” he says, “the whole armor of God” in order to “proclaim the gospel of peace.” It is, at best, an oxymoron, to use this language of war to deliver a message of peace. But let’s give our author the benefit of the doubt. Knowing, as we do from the past few weeks of reading this letter together, that this author is in the habit of undermining the Roman authorities by using their own language against them, perhaps this is another pointed reference to the Rome that would proclaim peace throughout its empire, but bring it at the point of a spear, and through the brutal execution of dissenters.
Perhaps that is why he calls us to clothe ourselves defensively. Except for the sword, all of the armor listed is defensive. What’s more, though in English the word “you” makes us think that this is addressed to each of us individually, in the Greek, this is an invitation to the entire community, “you” plural. Which means that we are not in this alone, not being forced to choose alone. The stuff about truth and righteousness, about shoes for proclaiming and the helmet of salvation, that’s all good stuff. But I think the most important piece of armor here is the shield of faith. Now, again, this has been spoken of as a choice. As if you need to pick up that shield for yourself, and simply believe! As if it were that easy. But let’s be clear. Faith is not some intellectual assent, some decision to say, “yes, I can! I believe!” At least not in the ancient world. That understanding of faith comes to us much more recently, as a result of the Enlightenment, and has only grown into the common definition in the past couple centuries. This shield of faith demonstrates that. The shield of a Roman foot soldier, which the author of Ephesians would have had in mind, was designed to interlock with those of his neighbor. It was designed to cover at least 1/3 of the soldier next to him, so that his own shield was not just his own shield, it was the shield of his neighbors. That is what we are called to choose. Not some intellectual assent to choose God, but to choose community. Because on those days when we cannot carry our own faith, the community will carry it for us. On those days when we cannot shield ourselves against the onslaught, our community will throw their shields up for us. Still, even community is not an easy choice, and not every community will throw their shields up for us. Sometimes we choose community, and still feel cut off, alone, unable to connect. There are times when no community could ever fill the void that we carry, and we can never feel worthy of any community. The choice is never just as simple as standing in front of the closet, choosing what we will wear today.
The gospel text is the only one that really seems honest about the difficulty of these choices. Jesus has been preaching for weeks about his flesh and blood, about eating it, about how eating it will bring eternal life, and it seems like that’s the choice before us. Believe in Jesus, eat his flesh and drink his blood, and then you will be rewarded. Don’t believe in Jesus, and you are as bad as Judas, like the ones who don’t believe and who betray Jesus. But, as the disciples say, “this teaching is difficult! Who can accept it?” And they have a point. This is difficult teaching – not just the part about eating flesh and drinking blood, though that has grizzly enough undertones. But the part about God walking around in the world. About God becoming human. About God hanging out with sinful and imperfect human beings. This teaching is difficult! Who can accept it? Who can believe that God would think enough of us, would care enough for us, to come into the world! Who can accept that God would love us enough, that God would choose us?
But that is the story that we receive from all three of these passages today, and from the whole of Scripture. We have a God who chooses us, and who chooses us even though God knows full well that we have a hard time choosing God. That even when we do choose God, our choices fail us, and we find ourselves being dragged down by the gods of our past.
The text in Joshua appears to end with the people saying “we will serve the Lord!” but the story actually goes on. After their declaration of faith, after their choice, Joshua warns them – you say you choose God, but don’t you know that the choice is not yours to make? because those gods that are under your feet, those gods that are buried under the oak tree, they will find a way to assert themselves, and your choices will all fail you.
Some days our choices seem simple, but other days, our choices fail us. Other days, the pain or the despair or the heartache are too much, and there is no choice that I can make that can fill that void; there is nothing that I can do that can make that pain go away. I could have everything that I am supposed to have – the spouse, the children, the house, the car, the job, the love and respect of everyone around me, and still the demons are howling at the door. We set ourselves up to imagine that there are things that we can do, choices that we can make, that will make the questions go away, things that we can achieve that will fill that hole of longing in our souls, solutions we can devise that will leave us satisfied and whole and well. And all the while, those other gods are there, beneath our feet, pulling us down, threatening to swallow us. We may not have the gods of ancient Syria and Babylon to contend with. But we have our own set of gods, vying for our attention. Those gods of wealth, power, belonging, the gods who woo us with guarantees of happiness, love, long life. We have our own set of demons tearing at us, telling us that nothing is good enough, and nothing ever could be. And they threaten to pull us down, to throw up walls between us and the world, to isolate us and cut us off, so that we live lives of boundaries instead of unity, lives of isolation instead of community, lives cut off from community and from God.
But the authors of Ephesians and John insist that our God is a God that tears down walls. This is a God who breaks down the boundaries, even the boundaries between heaven and earth. This is a God who chooses us, even when we cannot choose God, even when we are being drawn in by the promises of other gods. And most of all, this is a God who meets us where we are, who would brave the wrath of the world’s greatest powers, of empires, of rulers and authorities, and the cosmic powers of darkness and the spiritual forces of evil, who would even brave death and the grave, in order to show us the depth of God’s love for us. This is a God who meets us in our suffering, who meets us at the cross, where we live and die, where we grieve and suffer, where we wonder and wish. When the gods of our past, and the demons of our present, and the despair of our futures, threaten to overwhelm us, that is where God meets us.
And so we are not alone. Not ever. Even when we despair and depression and the gods and powers of this world block everything else from view; even when we cannot see the light of hope; even when we feel that there is no chance of new life. We are not alone. Because that place, that is the very place that God knows better than anyone. That is the very place that God has decided to assert God’s self. That is the very place that God has declared God’s self as victor. That is the cross. And there are days when the cross is all that we have. And on those days, when we cannot possibly choose to armor ourselves in the wholeness of God, when we cannot possibly decide to serve the Lord, when we cannot possibly make ourselves believe this difficult teaching, those are the days when God puts up the shield for us, and chooses us, and draws us forward, out of the grave, with the words of eternal life. Given and shed. For you.