Sermons That Work

Following God Is a Difficult Thing…, Proper 16 (B) – 2003

August 24, 2003


Following God is a difficult thing. God requires things of us.

The ancient Israelites of today’s lesson are an illustration. Much of the history of Israel, at least that part that’s shown to us in the Old Testament, is a constant saga of the people falling away from following the Lord. Israel had a series of prophets who were constantly calling the people back to the way of the Lord when they would stray. Joshua was one of the better known prophets. One day when he was particularly troubled about something, we don’t know what, he called all the leaders of the tribes of Israel together and began to preach at them. He reminded them of all that God had done for them. In the part of the lesson that precedes today’s passage, Joshua reviews the founding of the people under Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He reminds them how God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. How God supported them as they took possession of the Promised Land.

Joshua then called the people to be more faithful to the Lord. They said they were. Joshua said, “you can do better,” and after some persuading they satisfied Joshua that they would try harder. So Joshua renewed with them the Covenant that had been made so many years before between God and Moses.

A covenant is a promise or a contract between several people. It carries with it obligations. Just as the Israelis had requirements for following God, all of life, even today, has requirements. If you join a club, you are expected to agree to follow the club’s rules as a condition of continuing membership. Apartment buildings have by-laws. And if you don’t follow them, you risk being thrown out. Most people, when they buy a car, sign a contract to pay back a loan, or to make regular lease payments. Stop the payments and you lose your car.

Life comes with obligations. No one can escape them. Those who try usually end up on the fringes of society-in jail, perhaps, or homeless. But some obligations are easier than others. And sometimes our perceptions of what is an acceptable obligation changes with the passage of time. The verses from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians are an excellent example of this kind of change. Many people today find words such as “obey” or “submit” when talking about husbands and wives to be offensive. Wedding ceremonies no longer ask the bride to promise to obey her husband. But if we take a broader view and don’t get hung up on the specific language, we can see that this entire passage is about living up to obligations. On the part of both the husband and the wife. And maybe the easiest thing to do with this passage is just to quote St. Paul himself and say that, “this is a profound mystery.”

The theme of all three scripture lessons for today is the necessity for us to live up to obligations. Jesus knew this better than any of us. Think for a minute about the absolute dedication with which he lived up to his obligations to God. Our society recognizes no greater heroes than those who lay down their lives for the sake of others. Firefighters, police, soldiers, whenever they lose their life in pursuit of their duty, become instant heroes for us. Jesus is perhaps the prime example — he voluntarily allowed his life to be sacrificed on a cross — a sacrifice that, we believe, atones to this day for the sins that we commit.

One of the obligations we have in life is to sacrifice something of value for the greater good. It rarely reaches the stage of the ultimate sacrifice, giving one’s life, but there are many other smaller sacrifices along the way that are expected of us. Who among us would not postpone some sort of personal pleasure like buying a new suit or dress, or going to see a show, if it meant taking money away from buying medicine for our child? It used to happen all the time and hopefully still does, that someone will give up a comfortable seat on a bus in order to allow a frail elderly person to sit. Who would avoid the responsibility to quickly try to come to the aid of someone who has tripped and fallen? Our obligation is to be there for one another, even if it means some sacrifice on our part.

Unfortunately we sometimes fail to do the right thing. If you saw someone back into someone else’s unoccupied car in a parking lot and leave a big dent or broken headlight, and then just drove away, would you take the time and effort to leave a note on the windshield giving the license plate of the inconsiderate person? Or would you just say to yourself that you did not want to get involved? If you saw someone doing something — not only illegal, but clearly dangerous, like jaywalking with a small child — would you interrupt? Or would you try to avoid earning the anger of the jaywalker?

There are times when we think it is just too much trouble, or too dangerous, or perhaps just not worth the effort, to do what society calls us to do. Jesus experienced the same thing in today’s Gospel. He was beginning to attract followers. Quite a few. And as one might guess, some were more dedicated than others. Some said, “This is a hard teaching,” and turned back and no longer followed him. But the Apostles continued the course. Because they believed that Jesus was the Holy One of God and had the words of eternal life.

Perhaps that’s the difference in helping us to make the decisions about whether to do the right thing in a certain circumstance or not. Sometimes the benefits we derive from our decisions and actions are much more immediately apparent in the here and now. If you work, you get paid. If you love someone you get loved back. If you extend kindness to someone you receive kindness in return. Smile-get a smile back. But sometimes the benefits are harder to put one’s finger on. We can say we believe in eternal life, but who of us knows for really, really sure? So it comes down to faith. We fulfill our societal obligations, like working to get paid so we can buy food, because we must. We fulfill our moral and ethical obligations like being kind and caring not only because it gets us the same in return, but also because we know that it is what God requires of us.

A short time ago on television there was a special about the life of Martin Luther, the priest who began the Protestant Reformation. In his day, the church was quite possibly the most powerful force on earth, not just a spiritual force, but a temporal, military, monetary force in society that no one could challenge. Or, if they did challenge it, they did so at their peril, both to their well-being and life in the present, and to their well-being and life in the hereafter. Luther somehow found the nerve to challenge that force, knowing full well that he could be put to death and that he would be declared to have gone to hell. But when it came down to the bottom line, when he finally stood personally in front of a church court, he was so convinced that he was doing what God required of him, that he was given the strength to risk his own life. And he uttered those famous words: “Nevertheless, here I stand. I can do no other.” I can do no other. God sometimes demands much of us. But God also gives us the strength to respond.

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