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The Witness Stone

November 13, 2017

“The Witness Stone” Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-28 © 11.12.17 Ordinary 32A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a 1980-something movie called Moscow on the Hudson in which the late Robin Williams plays a Russian defector who comes to live in New York City. In one scene, he stands in front of the shelves of coffee in a supermarket. There’s freeze-dried, rich blend, Colombian, Kona, and French roast. You can get it ground for a percolator, for the drip pot or whole bean and grind it yourself on the spot or at home. It comes in pouches, canisters, and cans. There’s caffeinated and decaffeinated. Then there are the instant coffees…. In Russia, he has been used to coffee or no coffee, and standing in long lines to get it. Faced with so many choices, he succumbs to an anxiety attack and falls, knocking over a display.

I can identify. After Susan and I got our flu shots at Kroger last Monday, she took me on a tour of the frozen foods and ultimately the rest of the store to get my ideas about additional options for microwave lunches she could buy for me to bring here and some different fruits and veggies she might get for us at home. I was floored by the ice cream freezer at Kroger. It spanned an entire wall of the store. The pizza, opposite the frozen desserts, also took up an astounding amount of space. Then there were the sandwich meat and cheese choices later on, followed by the fresh and frozen meats and seafood.

We’re confronted with choices all the time, aren’t we? Sometimes the availability of options is overwhelming, as it was for the movie Russian in the American grocery store. Which phone and what plan do we buy? What about shows to watch on TV and from what service? Whom do we trust for our news?

Those choices, of course, are relatively easy. At other times, we have but two options: bad and worse. The treatment for our illness has severe side effects, but the alternative is unbearable. Neither candidate suits our viewpoints, but we subscribe to the common notion that if we don’t vote, we have no right to complain. We long for something different in life, but the risk of thinking and acting outside our box is too great. Better the devil you know and all that.

The text from Joshua this morning is all about choice, as well. At this point in the story, the tribes have conquered the Canaanites, the indigenous people, quite brutally and claimed their land as an inheritance from Yahweh. The Israelites are about to go and take possession of their respective provinces. That means they will no longer be nomads, but permanent residents, adopting a new way of life. As my former professor Jim Newsome puts it, they are at a point of transition from “one crucial and formative era into another. At this major junction in their lives, the people are summoned by Joshua to make a fundamental decision concerning their allegiance and concerning their identity” (Texts for Preaching….Year A: 554). Walter Brueggemann describes the decisions to be made in the new land as of “life-or-death proportion” (

Of course, not everything was for grabs, subject to and demanding new choices. There were some facts, some givens. The Israelites had been given a covenant with the ancestors which included guidance to a new land and progeny. They had been given land and a way to make it in famine. In the case of Esau, the country of Seir; for Jacob, a home in Egypt when food ran out. When that turned sour years later, they were given deliverance in the Exodus. They had been given the territory of the Amorites and other inhabitants of Canaan.

These givens should have obviated choice, because if Yahweh had been so gracious, he should be worshipped. Nevertheless, Joshua offers options. Notice, there is no question that the people will serve, only which master will demand and receive their obedience and gratitude. Bob Dylan had it right. Whoever you are and whatever you do, he sang, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed/You’re gonna have to serve somebody,/It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody” (

So who would their master or mistress be? That’s the question Joshua posed to the leaders of the people, who in that patriarchal society would make the decisions for their households, clans, and tribes. They could go back to the gods their ancestors served long ago beyond the Euphrates, before Abraham left Ur. Or they could serve the gods of Egypt, Ra and Anubis and so on. Or they could worship the gods of the Canaanite peoples, like Baal and Molech and Astarte. If the readers of this work were in fact people in Exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, as scholars believe, then the choice would have been a very present one. Their God had been defeated, since if you defeated a nation in battle, it was thought you also vanquished that country’s god. They were a minority in a strong culture. They were becoming assimilated. The gods worshipped long ago in Abraham’s day still had temples in Babylon. Wouldn’t life be easier, relationships with the people of the city and land more profitable, if everyone worshipped the same god, followed the same set of values?

In the present context, with Joshua and the leaders of Israel, wouldn’t some homage paid to the agricultural gods of the Canaanites bring benefit? How about to the fertility gods who could presumably help their livestock and their families multiply? Very seductive, very difficult, very real choices.

We might think such an archaic scenario has nothing to do with us. But we all are tempted in our society to worship and serve other gods; they just don’t have exotic names. Instead, they’re called “money,” “power,” “fame,” “self-interest.” With Brueggemann again: “Israel, and the church, must decide again and again about identity, about defining passions and loyalties. And beyond religious community, the civic community continually needs to decide again what kind of society it intends to be.”

So this ancient story is very much our own. As we consider our choices, the sovereign we serve, the covenants we make, I invite you to think about three particularly interesting insights the text provides us as a community, as families, and as individuals.

First, the choices of leaders profoundly affect the course of a community’s life, for good or ill. We know from experience, whether of watching the news or serving in some capacity ourselves, that those in charge of a nation or a community of faith or any organization, as well as those who bear responsibility for a family can lift it up or destroy it by their actions and words. They can inspire hope or incite hatred, pursue their own interests or put the needs of others first, set priorities that benefit the few or the many. Their vision can be narrow or broad, inclusive or exclusive. They can display courage or cowardice, indifference or personal and professional engagement.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we call our leaders “teaching” and “ruling” elders, and they are expected to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. They are to be reconcilers, people who work with others on councils like a session as colleagues, together seeking the will of Christ for the church. Personal agendas have no place in our polity. Leaders set the tone, cast a vision. And I’m not only talking about those in formal, elected positions. The sage or wise woman has influence as he or she is turned to again and again for insight. Or there’s a youth who cares deeply about the poor or the bullied, who comes up with plans to help, and inspires others to do the same. Or think of the homebound widow whose prayers support the community of faith.

Leaders, whoever they are, need to follow the example of Joshua. He states his own vision and mission: “As for me and my household, we will serve Yahweh.” As he presents a compelling vision, he also displays courage, saying in effect: “You may do what you will, but this is what I will do, against all of you if necessary.” He models the faithfulness and wholeness, the reverence and sincerity to which he calls the other leaders and their people.

So, the choices of leaders in a community or organization are especially important. But next, every choice is made in some kind of context, some sort of location. Nothing we do is in a vacuum. In the case of the Israelites, the covenant renewal was done at Shechem. That’s no coincidence. It was already an important religious site by the time the Hebrews entered the land, situated 41 miles north of Jerusalem in a pass between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim. Though it was Canaanite, the Israelites had connections with it, too, that went all the way back to Jacob’s day. Joseph’s bones will be buried at Shechem in Joshua 24:32. And according to a speech in Acts, so was Jacob and other ancestors (Acts 7:14-16). So it had powerful ties to the history of the Hebrews and their commitments to Yahweh. It’s not the case that every place is the same; some have more symbolic significance, more spiritual energy than others.

Everyone has a Shechem, some place where important, life-changing decisions were and are made, vows taken. Maybe it was a sanctuary like this one, where you were confirmed or married or ordained. Could be it was a battlefield, where every move, every sound you made mattered. Maybe Shechem is a graveyard where connections with the past are powerfully felt. Shechem is home, where commitments are lived out day to day as choices are made about everything from what to have for supper to how to care for an aging parent or a sick child. Every space has about it some aspect of the sacred, whether from memories and current faithful actions or mainly because there is nowhere God is absent.

In a broader sense, location affects our choices in sometimes profound ways. Say you live in a food desert, where you can’t get fresh fruits and veggies. You don’t have a car and there’s no supermarket within walking distance. You instead go to a convenience store and get what it offers, which is processed food filled with fat and sugar and at higher prices. Your physical location becomes detrimental to your health.

Social location also affects choices, whether those we make or those we understand. Suppose you have a broad range of options because you have a great credit rating and two or three high-limit charge cards which you pay off regularly. You can afford to live in a nice neighborhood, buy whatever you want and need within reason, and have put money away for retirement in a well-performing portfolio. Your choices are significantly different than those of someone who has to decide whether to buy necessary medication or pay the rent, who is one auto repair or illness or paycheck away from disaster. But because you live a relatively privileged life, it’s hard for you to fathom the challenges of those several rungs below you on the economic ladder.

In the church, our physical and social location affect what’s possible as well. A congregation may want to grow numerically, but be located in a town that’s not only not growing, but is experiencing flight by younger people to the city. And those that live in the place are already committed to a community of faith, with long-standing family ties, so who are the possible new members? Someone may want to have a more contemporary service, but the sanctuary is set up for a traditional one, so there’s nowhere to put a screen, a band, a computer, and no one much in the church plays rock or folk instruments anyway. You may try to reach out to everybody in the town, but you’re perceived as that rich, snooty, cold and old congregation where a newcomer is expected to be of the same social class and better wear a coat and tie or a nice dress.

On the other hand, a church’s location suggests mission possibilities. Back in the day, visionary leaders in this congregation saw a need in Amory, and the Food Pantry was begun, growing from humble beginnings in the church garage to what it is today. In Montevallo, AL, a college town, my church used a bequest to give book grants to veterans and moms who had gone back to school after their service or raising a family. In Owensboro, KY, thought of as a place where everyone was pretty much the same, a Taiwanese elder in the church had the idea of emphasizing the hidden cultural diversity of the community with a festival on our front lawn. Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville has only 100 members, according to their administrative assistant, but their huge historic building with its unique architecture and perfect acoustics is a tour destination and an arts and music venue. Whatever the community, whatever the space, there are options and choices if people with foresight and imagination will act on them.

Finally, not only do the choices of leaders significantly impact a community, and the social and physical location of it suggest and affect options, but decisions we make result in concrete consequences for which we are or need to be responsible and held accountable in equally concrete ways.

That fact was symbolized in the case of Joshua and his leaders by the setting up of a witness stone, also known as a stela, a commemorative pillar, under a big oak tree. That was a common practice in the ancient Middle East. Anyone who passed by would know of the commitments made in the place, and those who had actually participated would be reminded of what they had said and be encouraged or challenged, as their need might be. The stone had heard every word.

We have our witness stones, too. Sometimes they are literal stones, like crumbling infrastructure, cracked walls, and shuttered businesses that bear mute testimony to choices made in favor of something else. Maybe the witness stones are the bricks and mortar of church or government buildings that have absorbed the sound waves from discussions where budgets and programs have been cut and angry arguments among leaders pressed. They are the rocks in our yards and the concrete and gravel in our driveways that hear our family discussions and know our joys and our pains, our concerns and our commitments.

And witness stones are people. They are folks who hold us accountable, whether spouses or friends or neighbors, whom to look in the eye is to be reminded of our covenants, our vows, our promises when we shirk our responsibilities. And they are the ones who can be for us as solid as rocks when things go wrong, and can remind us when we have feel we have no hope that there will be a better day, that we are capable and strong. They witness to the promises of God when we can barely believe anything at all.

Joshua said: “So now revere Yahweh and serve him honestly and faithfully.” As someone has observed, loyalty to Yahweh is “a matter of intention and motivation, not just outer compliance” (source unknown). To serve God “honestly” means with an undivided heart. “Faithfully” means dependable reliability. The spiritual life today is more a choice than it ever was. The voices of other gods are strong, as powerful as any the Hebrews were tempted to worship. Each and all of us are called to choose, to answer the questions: “Whose am I ? Whose will I be?” Let us all say daily with Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Then when we see our witness stones, we can walk by, we can meet their gaze, with head held high and heart lifted up, because we have kept covenant and steadfastly served as God’s people.


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