Permit me just three opening remarks...
First, it is so good to be here. Yes, in worship. But also, worshiping with you, St Francis House. I know, a lot of students aren’t here yet or are just getting in. Numbers will be low, I’m told. It’s not September, not Labor Day weekend. I don’t care. I’m excited. I am very much looking forward to what God is up to at the University of Wisconsin and especially with this strange subset of the People of God worshiping for the time being at Grace Church on the Square. It is good to finally meet you.
Second, students: to say the obvious, God’s call in this season for you is to be students. That God calls people - that God calls you to be a student - is amazing to me; I find your call infinitely interesting and unspeakably hopeful. My prayer is that this ministry, SFH, will strengthen you, challenge you, and confirm the delight God has in you as a student whom God has called.
Third, if you are not a student, your support of this ministry by your presence tonight is all the more remarkable. Thank you. This ministry will move and grow and finally find its full stride as the visible People of God with your help. Lots of prayers and with your help. We are grateful for you.
Long before Beta Theta Pi or Alpha Gamma Rho or even Sigma Delta Tau, there was Joshua, poised in the midst of the land of promise, asking for a pledge from the people. No word as to whether this pledge involved hazing, that is, no word as to what Joshua - behind the scenes and unofficially, of course - would have asked the people to do to prove their pledge. No recounting of burning matchsticks in the Israelites’ hands as the Greek alphabet was recited, for example, but a pledge requested nonetheless.
The exchange, as it gets relayed to us today, goes something like this:
Joshua says, “Choose the true God and forsake all the others.” The people responding: “You bet.”
In real-time it was considerably more complicated. Notice the carefully crafted arrangement of our Old Testament reading: Joshua 24:1-2a (dot, dot, dot) 14-18. In the omitted verses are Joshua’s recounting of Israel’s repeated unfaithfulness: time and again making this pledge, time and again falling short. The verses after the reading include Joshua telling the people that they won’t keep their pledge. But today it’s not like all that; kind of like an unpredictable parent invited to meet your significant other for the very first time, today, to our relief, the reading has cleaned up well.
Now Professor of Old Testament Anathea Portier-Young suggests that, so long as we remember the whole history of Israel, the messy parts that get cleaned up, the edits of our Old Testament lection today can actually be helpful, serving to focus our attention on the pledge of the present moment. For the moment, Israel is not bound by failures of the past or the people’s limited imagination for the future, but just now, in this moment, Joshua’s question to the people: will they choose the One who has chosen them? And with this question, the reminder that they have been chosen.
Joshua in the heart of the promised land, the very place where God first appeared to Abram and promised the land, beseeching his would-be pledges for a commitment in the present. Not for yesterday or tomorrow. Just present now. Pledged to God and this moment.
And Joshua’s asking the pledge makes me think of two things.
The first thing Joshua and the people’s pledge makes me think of may be lost on you entirely. It makes me think of Colonel William B. Travis, military commander at the Alamo (you may have heard of it). Travis and the people have just received word that reinforcements are not coming, their defeat is sure, but that to remain at the Alamo will nevertheless likely buy the time that the then would-be Republic needs to secure victory, thus paving the way for Texas’ independence from Mexico. To remain in this place will win freedom and/but almost certainly require their lives.
The moment after Travis shares this news is long and silent and uncomfortable before Travis steps up, reclaims the command of his troops and the present moment, and famously draws a line in the sand with his saber and invites all who are with him to cross it. In this action Travis conveyed both the cost of remaining and his own palpable hope that the people would pledge themselves to the promise of the moment before them.
“Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua tells the people. The words name the promise, but also the costs, that is, the alternatives, that which they stand to lose; and it is simply true that pledging to this takes us away from that; that the choices we make inevitably leave us wondering what was behind door number two, anyway. Joshua does not hide this reality, but names that life lived in praise of the God of Israel will cost them their slavery to the gods under which they’ve enlisted. And of course the opposite is also true: to not cross the line of this moment will cost Israel the only real alternative to the lives they are living, the abundant life that God means to make open to all those whom he loves.
So I think of William B. Travis when I think of Joshua and the people’s pledge. And the second thing I think of is, not surprisingly, the pledge made at your baptism.
Another pledge with a cost and a promise.
Just like our reading from Joshua, which the lectionary edits to emphasize not the wanderings of the past nor our failures in the future but the pledge of the present moment, the moment of baptism is less about wandering and failure and most about God and you and this moment and water and splashing and Spirit and the Body, together, and promise: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. The covenant by which we find ourselves united to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And while we are sometimes tempted to think of baptism primarily as our pledge to God we know we are really accepting God’s pledge to us. In our baptism, we discover that, in the pledge and person of Jesus, God has given his own Self for the world and its life. Christ is the pledge that makes it possible for those with ears to hear and eyes to see to see and hear the Kingdom of God - in all its redemptive grace - today, in this moment, now.
Not always easy, for sure, between papers and red lights and children and my bad days and God knows what else - but if the Eucharist can be my practice, discerning by faith Christ present to the present, Christ pledged, in the Body broken and the Cup lifted to my lips, then perhaps...perhaps...
And this is remarkable: that as I pledge myself to meet God in the places and people to which he is pledged, I daily rediscover the depth and breadth of God’s pledge to me.
In a moment, we will receive Christ’s pledge anew: “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” pressed to your hands. “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” fresh on your lips. This moment of moments is preeminent, must always hold the place of honor in our common life together. But the integrity of this moment hinges on the next moment to which you are present. We know that God is present to us, the question as we leave is always, “Can we stay present to God?” In the language of our baptismal covenant, “Will (we) seek and serve Christ in all persons?” That is, can we keep space with those who try our patience and ask where in their company our Lord resides? Can we sit with the mentally challenged and homeless and helpless and God knows who else and still believe ourselves to be more than wasting time? Seeking and serving Christ. Or where and in whom do we believe God has given up acting?
To leave this place each week and keep the pledge that we receive - the pledge of God given as gift in the moment to which you are present - will require that we cross the line in the sand and receive each present moment as if it were the promised place of divine encounter. Not in the anxieties or ambitions of tomorrow, neither in the mountain tops or valleys of yesterday, but here, now, in the ordinary time we so often try to kill: Christ in our midst. So we pray to become people pledged to the God who is pledged to us, pledged to you, in this moment.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, through Israel, your People, and Jesus, your Son, you pledge yourself to us and the world. We confess that we sometimes forget your promised presence and on our bad days resent it. But Your persistence presence finally undoes our attempts to take ourselves more seriously than You do, and we, like Sarah, laugh. Thank you. Give us grace we pray to be as present to the world You love as You are. Give us grace to seek and serve You always. May our preoccupying thought in days ahead be - in each moment - how we may seek and serve You here, now, today. In Christ’s Name we ask it.
[Sermon preached 8.26.12 to the community @ St Francis House.]