At home a couple of weeks ago I pulled out a box of pictures from a few years ago - - back when we still remembered and had time to actually print our digital pictures instead of just loading them up on the computer. I found some pictures of a trip we took to Pennsylvania about eight years ago.
Karoline was fourteen months old on that trip, and the pictures where filed right next to the ones of her first birthday. Just after the pictures from the trip to Pennsylvania were ones from the Nebraska State Fair that same year. Karoline joined me on the couch to look through them, and one by one so did the rest of the children, asking "Where was that? Who is that?” and (from the younger two) When do I come alive and start showing up in pictures?"
Looking through pictures first from the box then on the computer we remembered holidays, gave thanks for grandparents and great-grandparents we have lost, and giggled over pink, wrinkly, newborns. The afternoon turned into a time of family story-telling, remembering both the highs and lows of the last nine years or so.
Joshua didn't exactly gather all the tribes of Israel to a big comfy couch in Shechem and look through the national photo album, but he did about the closest he could come to the same thing.
In the story between then and the one we read this morning, the newly-freed slaves went from joyous dancing and singing of their gratitude in response to God's faithfulness to grumbling in the wilderness and wishing they could be back in Egypt. They received the gift of bread from heaven, water from a rock, and God's covenant delivered to Moses on tablets from Mt. Sinai. Their response was to build a golden calf, an idol of a false god to worship instead of turning to their Saving Grace.
Moses, with Joshua as an assistant and the covenant renewed and sealed in the gift of the law, led the Israelites from Sinai toward the Promised Land. They were given instructions to take the whole land when they arrived, a troubling command that could only be carried out with violence, but they didn't trust the strength God gave them, and refused to follow the command to completion. For their disobedience and lack of trust, God sent them back to the wilderness for forty years. No one from this exodus generation would enter the Promised Land. No one.
Not even Moses. His own disobedience and lack of trust brought down God's anger. He died in the land of Moab at the top of Mount Nebo on the eastern side of the Jordan River, but not before laying hands on Joshua. Commissioned by the great leader, it was Joshua who led the Israelites onward into the land that had been promised them from the time of Abraham and Sarah.
And now. Whew. Here they are. Finally. They have reached their goal; they have reoccupied the land. They are at their destination. The Israelites are at a place in their life together where they can breathe a little, let go a little. It is time for them to settle into their identity as a free people, an exodus people, a people called out of slavery and turmoil and confusion, and into covenant relationship with God. And you know how God wants to start that time together? By crawling up on the metaphorical couch together, looking through the family photos, and remembering the stories about from where they have come.
Last week our guest preacher, Dave Crittenden, challenged us to a similar activity. As he talked about how we might "do the right thing" individually in terms of stewardship, he also challenged us to do a new thing as a community. Rev. Crittenden pointed out how much more private our contemporary society is about how we live in relationship to our money than the early church was, where believers held all things in common. He didn’t tell us that to be faithful Christians and members of the faith community we needed to open up our check registers and explain every last entry, but he encouraged us to tell each other our stories about our relationship with money and faith. When was it good? When was it stressful? When was it uncertain? And how did we experience God in the midst of goodness, stress, and uncertainty?
I'll tell you for me money was a source of anxiety when we first moved to Hudson. Our house in Lincoln wasn't sold when we left. For a while I jokingly referred to it as our vacation home. Then after a couple of months the joke wasn't so funny anymore. Paying two mortgages with two young children in fulltime daycare got to be downright terrifying. We didn't know when it would end, and the anxiety just hovered all. the. time. My relationship with money, my relationship between our money and my faith was strained at best. A way out was impossible to see.
Until finally the house sold. A year after it went on the market, eleven months after we moved out of it, the house finally sold. As just about everyone says who goes through something like this (and I'm well aware there people who go through much, MUCH worse) it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, like I could just breathe a little easier. And with the anxiety gone, I could also see that we had survived. We had come through that anxious time; we had made it out to the other side of a season that had felt burdened by a sense of scarcity. But we had made it. And even when it felt like resources were scarce we hadn't lacked anything we really really needed. In the midst of it all I could see was what was missing, but on the other side I had a different perspective, one of abundance.
That year made an impact on my relationship with our money and with God. We lived through a difficult year on less that we thought we could, so when that year was over we realized we had more we could be giving away and we did. From that year on, I began to look at what we have, whether it's in a good year or a difficult one, as an abundant gift from God, and like Rev. Crittenden said last week, the question became not how much do I need to give away to do the right thing; the question is how much I absolutely need to keep in order to be able to do the right thing; the rest isn't mine anyway.
These are the kinds of stories we would do well to talk about. These are the kinds of stories, the stories ups and downs of our life of faith and finances, that are missing from our community of faith. The stories about the times that helped shape us. The stories about the times that challenged us. The stories about the times that led us to new understandings of what it means to walk with God, what it means to be children of God's covenant. These are the stories that help us choose which story we are going to be a part of in the present and future - - the one where we choose to serve God or the one where we serve the culture around us.
When the Israelites found themselves finally in the Promised Land, when they were invited up onto the couch to look at the pictures of the times gone by, the choice is being laid out before them. They have been through more than two generations of ups and down. They have been though well over forty years of worship and mourning, following and ignoring, faithfulness and disobedience.
Remember how I called Terah and his sons Nahor and Abraham, your ancestor, Abraham?
Remember how Abraham and Sarah had Isaac, after they thought they would never have a child in their old age? Remember that?
Remember how Isaac and Rebekah had Jacob and Esau? They weren't the best of brothers. They struggled with one another even in the womb. They fought over their father's blessing. They used trickery and conniving; it wasn't a good time, but even they made peace. They found a workable solution.
So remember how even when you were slaves in Egypt, a horrendous, awful time but remember how even when you were there, I sent Moses and Aaron and Miriam to get you out. Remember how I brought you through the sea on dry land, and I covered the Egyptians with water?
Remember how even in the worst time you could imagine, I was with you and working for your life?
Remember how when you wandered through the wilderness and had no place to call home, no fortress to protect you, no allies to fight on your behalf, I was your ally? I was your fortress? I was your protector?
Remember how when you crossed the Jordan into this land you had no idea where you would settle? You had no idea what resources you could use to make a life for yourselves. But I made it happen. I helped you find a home, vineyards and oliveyards. I gave you what you needed.
Now that the Israelites are in the Promised Land, now that they have come back to the land they had been hearing about for centuries, they have a choice to make. They can go in any direction to find a temple to another god. They can make offerings to Ba'al to try to fit in, try to get ahead. They can try a get rich scheme. They can stockpile what they have so that that will feel secure someday in the future. They have all sorts of choices to make about how they will live, of which story they will be a part.
Joshua asks them whom they will serve. It's an important question punctuated by what he asks of them if they do indeed choose to serve Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Holy One who has brought them out of Egypt and delivered them into the land that has been promised. He asks them to get rid of their foreign gods, to throw away the trinkets and the statues, the lucky charms they may have carried from Egypt and from the tribes they met in the wilderness. He ask them to do away with any little thing they may be holding on to just in case - just in case Yahweh isn't really strong enough to care for them, just in case Yahweh doesn't turn out to be as all powerful and all compassionate as they have heard and experienced in the past. He asks them to give it all away because a choice for Yahweh, a choice for the one who has already chosen them, has got to be a singular choice. It's not possible to serve Yahweh and serve other gods, other priorities, other purposes.
Today I’m inviting you to do just want the Israelites did when they got to the Promised Land; I’m inviting you to do just what Rev. Crittenden encouraged us to do during this season when we consider our financial commitment to God through First Presbyterian Church. Take a little bit of time to browse through the snapshots of your financial story. Tell those stories in your households, around the fellowship hall tables, with friends, and family. This doesn’t have to be such a secretive topic, because secrets breed shame, and shame has no place in faith. Look back on the stories of money in your life and think about how those stories relate to your identity as a beloved child of God, held in God’s abundant grace by the promise of the covenant. Then consider which story you will choose to for your future. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”