The year was 1876, and the United States was celebrating its centennial. Other nations sent dignitaries to the celebrations and brought gifts to honor this nation as it celebrated 100 years of freedom. The nation of France wanted to honor the United States and this important milestone. The gift that they decided to present to our nation was the Statue of Liberty.
The Statue of Liberty has become one of the most recognizable symbols of our nation. We look at it now as a sign of freedom, and hope. It stands, rising up out of New York Harbor, looking out over the ocean, it is a sign of welcome to the visitor, and the refugee. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
But originally this gift’s meaning was much simpler. It was meant to symbolize the relationship…the friendship really, between two nations. But this meaning…the symbolism of this amazing gift, changed over time. It became a symbol of something much more significant. It became a symbol of freedom. And we know that symbols…have power; they carry importance. They can evoke strong emotions for people.
Look at the attention given in the last few years over symbols…statues… monuments of confederate generals that are scattered mostly throughout the south, and the strong emotions that these symbols evoke. Conflict has erupted, because some people perceive these as symbols of history and legacy…others as symbols of hatred and racism.
Symbols are very, very powerful.
So now, rewind over three thousand years. Do you remember the story of the Exodus? Moses, speaking for God, had led the Israelite people out of slavery towards freedom. But the people faltered and had begun worshipping other Gods. As a punishment, they were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years, until the generation who had lost their faith had died out and there was a new generation. Joshua, the Son of Nun, inherited the responsibilities of leadership from Moses and with him leading, God finally allowed the people of Israel to enter the Promised Land.
But the Israelites were nothing if not consistent. And they continued to fall away from the God who had freed their parents and grandparents from slavery; they continued to worship other Gods. And now, just prior to Joshua’s death, he challenged the people of Israel to put away all of their idols and commit themselves to serve the Lord their God, who had led them out of slavery, and who had protected them. The people agreed…in fact they made a pledge…a new covenant to follow only God.
Joshua had his stone masons design and then place a giant monument, carved out of rock. It was to sit there for generations, reminding the people of God’s faithfulness, and of the promise the people had made to God. It was a symbol. And as we know…symbols are powerful.
Children today, when they see the Statue of Liberty reaching to the sky, ask their parents “what is that? What does it mean?” Well, likewise, one can imagine young children in the years following the Israelites arrival in the promised land, asking their parents “what is this stone, this monument? What does it mean?” When a child would ask this, I can imagine the parent telling them the story of God’s faithfulness, and then quoting from the Book of Joshua, one of the most well-known verses in the scriptures: “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors, or the gods of the Amorites; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
This is a pretty well-known scripture verse. It fits into a category of scripture that I call “plaquey” verses. If you walked into a Christian bookstore, and you walked over to that section where they sell little wall hangings and plaques, you would likely find this verse on several of the wall plaques that you could purchase and bring home to hang in your entryway, or in the hallway on the way to a guest bedroom. As a matter of fact, our family has this verse on a little plaque that hung outside of our front door in Maple Grove. It was a gift, and we brought it with us when we moved here…but we haven’t hung it up because the area outside our front door is brick…and I’m scared of trying to drill a hole into brick.
There nothing wrong with plaquey verses, by the way. Verses of significance are put on plaques because we want to see them…we want to remember them…because they make a statement about something important to us…they memorialize an idea, or a concept.
Like a monument, this verse: “As for me and my house…we will serve the Lord…” reminds us that while our faith is a gift from God, it is also a choice. God gives us the power to choose what to believe and how to act. We can choose to reflect God’s love and to share and serve. We can choose to be graceful, as God has been graceful to us. As for me? And my house? We will serve the Lord. We will live in a way that shows love to God and love to our neighbor. This is our choice.
In his book, What Good is God, Phillip Yancey tells the story of Victor Yushchenko, who ran for the presidency of the Ukraine in 2004. Yushchenko was strongly opposed by the ruling party. In fact, the party tried to assassinate him. His face was disfigured and he almost lost his life when he was mysteriously poisoned. But this was not enough to deter him from standing for the presidency.
On the day of the election Yushchenko was comfortably in the lead. But the ruling party, not to be denied, tampered with the results. The state-run television station reported “ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”
In the lower right-hand corner of the TV screen, a woman by the name of Natalia Dmitruk was providing a translation service for the deaf community. As the news anchor regurgitated the lies of the regime, Natalia Dmitruk refused to translate them. Instead, she signed: “I’m addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine. They are lying and I’m ashamed to translate those lies. Yushchenko is our president.”
The deaf community sprang into action. They text messaged their friends about the fraudulent results and as news spread of Dmitruk’s act of defiance, journalists were inspired risk their own lives, and to report the truth. Over the next several weeks, the “Orange Revolution” occurred as a million people wearing orange made their way to the capital city of Kiev demanding a new election. The government was forced to meet their demands, a new election was held and Victor Yushchenko was finally declared to be the president.”
This happened because one person, Natalia Dmitruk made a choice. She chose, at great risk to herself, to defy those who spread lies, and to tell the truth. She chose to be honest in a culture where dishonesty was expected. And her choice inspired literally hundreds of thousands and brought about reform to a nation that desperately needed it.
So, let’s think for a moment about what it is to be people of faith; to be Jesus-followers. We believe that God always takes the first step. In the waters of baptism, God chooses us and calls us by name, marks us with the cross of Christ and seals us with the Holy Spirit. This is always God’s choice. We cannot prevent this choice that God makes. We don’t have that kind of power. But we can choose to receive it and live into it…or we can choose to ignore it.
But as people of faith, as Jesus followers, the Holy Spirit gives us the power to see the world differently:
- We choose peace over anger
- We choose compassion over apathy
- We choose relationships over distrust
- We choose forgiveness over grudges
- We choose inclusion over exclusion
- We choose love, over hate
As for “we” and “our house,” we will serve the Lord. This is what we choose.
I have heard people who do not recognize the gift of faith that is within them describe churches as “monuments to an idea that died 2000 years ago.”
I beg to differ. I see the world and the church very differently. I have seen the outcomes of God’s choices, and ours:
- I have seen the grieving comforted
- I have seen the hungry fed
- I have seen the young nurtured
- I have seen the dying surrounded by love
- I have seen the homeless given shelter
- I have seen the excluded, feel included
- I have seen eyes being opened
- I have seen the nourishment of the bread and the wine
- I have seen the promises of God in the waters of baptism
No…no…no…I have seen grand and glorious churches like Trinity, with our gothic architecture and our steeple that points toward God, not as monuments to a dead idea…they are monuments to a living God who is at work…right here…right now.
And these monuments really have nothing to do with architecture. I’ve seen churches that are new and modern, churches in the round with high tech video systems…and I’ve seen churches that meet in storefronts…and I’ve seen churches that meet in people’s homes, or in coffee shops, or in basements…they are all monuments to a living God, who is active and at work in the world, empowering his people to love and serve.
As for we and our house? We will serve the Lord, the Savior who first chooses us.
In a world greedy for power, status, fame, we choose a Lord who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and teaching us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
In a world that encourages us to be selfish, we choose a Lord who calls us to reach out to others in his name, for whatever we do for any of God’s children, we do for him.
In a world wracked by violence, we choose a God who promises that instruments of violence will one day be turned into plowshares.
Above all, in a world too often in despair, we choose the God of resurrection hope.
My friends, let our homes…let our churches…let our very lives, become monuments that rise up and point to God; that point to the truth of God’s love…let them be monuments to the God who chooses to love us.
As for “we,” and “our house,” let us serve the Lord.
Thanks be to God!