Sermon: Stories of the Saints

slide-5-communion-of-saintsHere is today’s sermon from Shiloh United Methodist Church in Stanton, KY. We are doing a series based on material from the United Methodist Church Disciple Ministries regarding the saints. In the UMC, our understanding of saints is not the same as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We believe that saints are all of those who lived for Christ and have gone on to their reward in glory.

This sermon is based on verses from Joshua 24 where the prophet tells the people that they can not serve two gods and to choose carefully who they will serve. He begins by relating the story of Abraham and how they, as a people, came to be through his lineage. The stories we weave as disciples are important and can also reflect on all believers. Thus, it’s important for us to make our story the best one it can possibly be.

I hope you find some hope and inspiration in these words. May God bless you and yours. – Jonathan

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 (NLT)
Then Joshua summoned all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, including their elders, leaders, judges, and officers. So they came and presented themselves to God.

2 Joshua said to the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors, including Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River,* and they worshiped other gods. 3 But I took your ancestor Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him into the land of Canaan.

14 “So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. 15 But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.”

16 The people replied, “We would never abandon the Lord and serve other gods. 17 For the Lord our God is the one who rescued us and our ancestors from slavery in the land of Egypt. He performed mighty miracles before our very eyes. As we traveled through the wilderness among our enemies, he preserved us. 18 It was the Lord who drove out the Amorites and the other nations living here in the land. So we, too, will serve the Lord, for he alone is our God.”

19 Then Joshua warned the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy and jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you abandon the Lord and serve other gods, he will turn against you and destroy you, even though he has been so good to you.”

21 But the people answered Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!”

22 “You are a witness to your own decision,” Joshua said. “You have chosen to serve the Lord.”

“Yes,” they replied, “we are witnesses to what we have said.”

23 “All right then,” Joshua said, “destroy the idols among you, and turn your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

24 The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God. We will obey him alone.”

25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day at Shechem, committing them to follow the decrees and regulations of the Lord.

Last week we began a series on saints, but not the ones from New Orleans or ones who we might celebrate on certain holy days. We began to hear about the saints, ultimately all of those who are in Christ and have gone on to their reward and those who are currently in Christ and will go on to glory someday. We heard about the clothing that a saint might wear – how do we identify them? The white clothing placed on them by Christ certainly does much to show us who these people are – their everyday way of living. Today we hear their stories. What do we hear about from the saints? What ist their story?

There is a song that came out several years ago that contained these lines: “What’s your story about his glory? You gotta find your place in his amazing grace.” Recently I heard this song again for the first time in several years and I began to ponder these words. On first look, I have my faults. Every single day I do things that perhaps at the time I don’t realize are displeasing to God. This could take the form of anything from being rude to someone or not doing something that I know God would want me to do as a disciple. But I also know that I love Christ and I seek to grow in his grace every single day, to do better than the day before, to continue to be transformed into a completely new creation. I desire nothing but Christ and to walk in the Holy Spirit. My goal is perfection and I am, as John Wesley asked his pastors when they were being ordained, earnestly striving for and going on to perfection. But how I live my faith – the outward everyday testimony that I give – tells a story that will be my legacy. I hope to make it a good one.

Here’s a question that’s good to wrestle with from time to time: If I were to depart this world for glory right now, would my story as a disciple of Christ be one that’s worth being shared by others? Every single one of us will be remembered in some way by the people we leave behind. Another sure thing is, some will remember us differently. Some will remember us for the way we made sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving or for the way we told jokes around the fireplace on Christmas Eve. Some will remember that we did some heroic thing one year in a blizzard that kept everybody and everything frozen in place for a week. These, of course, are examples of the good things that someone might remember about us. Let’s hope there are many more of these sorts of stories than the other kind.

A saying that is popular among those in sales is that it can take a very long time to gain a customer but only a very short time to lose one. Likewise, it can take someone years to obtain a good reputation while it may only take a split second to have a bad one. The bad stories that may be recalled about someone after they have departed, unfortunately, can outweigh the good one. We have all seen it. Someone with a bad reputation can die and all some people will talk about is how much of a jerk they were, how badly they treated their spouse, beat their kids, did drugs, or any number of other things. Nevermind that that person could have once saved a building full of school children from a fire, it will be the vices and other bad things that will be remembered the most. Research has proven that negative events and traits can have a larger impact on our memories than positive ones. This may seem counterintuitive but the numbers do not lie. We tend to remember the bad stuff and forget the good stuff.

This is why it’s all the more important for every one of us who are in Christ to strive every single day to leave a positive legacy and to make sure that the story told about us is the best that we can possibly make it. Not only will this story reflect our life but can also reflect on all disciples of Jesus Christ.

Stories are exactly what we are reading about in this passage from the prophet Joshua. Of course, by the time Joshua is talking to the people about their stories as we pick up his story this morning, it has likely been well over three centuries since Abraham had lived and died. His name and some of his stories had been carried forward through the ages. But the first thing Joshua wants to tell the people about their ancestor as he is about to finish his work among them is that Abraham was not always connected to the God they knew as their God. He had served other gods, as his family before him had.

And the second thing he wanted them to know about Abraham’s story was that first our God made a choice, and then Abraham did. Our God chose to call this man who was not serving our God, and Abraham chose to pay attention and devote his life to following where our God led him. God acted first. God called. Then Abraham forsook all other allegiances and followed.

That’s our story, too, isn’t it? John and Charles Wesley would call this preventing, or prevenient grace. Before we were even trying to pay attention to what our God was calling us to do, even before we couldpay attention to such things, God called, and kept calling.

For many of you, you heard that call and you followed. You made a pledge at your baptism, if you were older, you would renounce all other allegiances, and serve Jesus as Lord, accepting the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. And over the years, you’ve learned what it means to rely on grace to keep you connected to God and to others in the body of Christ, the church, and to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world.

This is our story. We were serving other gods. We were following our own way. Even if we were “good Christian people” and “in the church,” and for some of us, even if we were confirmed and meant it at the time, we still hadn’t completely broken all those prior allegiances. Just being “in the church” may not really have been enough of an influence to do what the church promises to pray for us at every baptism– “that we may become true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”

Hear this good news. God keeps calling. The Spirit keeps striving. Prevenient grace is still very much a thing! Even when our story is that we’re ignoring God, God doesn’t ignore us. Indeed, God is calling us toward the fullness of life in Christ even then, even when we’re actively serving other gods or ends.

Hear this even better news. We don’t have to keep ignoring God’s call and God’s promise. We can “choose THIS day whom we will serve.” And in making that choice, our story can become more like that of those robed in white.

Joshua told the people an ancient ancestor story to speak of a God who made them a people –in effect–out of nothing, out of no prior allegiance.

They responded with their allegiance to their God who had done something even more remarkable than that. It would have been enough if God had simply called Abraham and given him descendants. But their story was their God did more. Their God delivered these descendants from slavery and cruel oppression at the hands of the Egyptian empire, brought them through a long journey, and enabled them to settle in a new land. Their God wasn’t just out to get them started, but to see them through whatever would come and work for their good. How could they not pledge sole allegiance to their God?

That’s the story of the saints, too. It’s our story. Some of us may have found ourselves caught in literal slavery and cruel oppression from others. Racism and white supremacy still exercise sway among us. Some of us may struggle with other forms of slavery and oppression such as addiction or other diseases beyond our apparent control. Probably all of us have struggled with patterns of selfishness or habits or actions or attitudes that destroy our relationships with God and neighbor and ourselves. And in our struggles, we may forget the best news of all. God really is out to save us.

God is out to save us.

And save us to the uttermost.

The story that we proclaim and that we weave for ourselves must be one worth telling and remembering. This is especially vital in the age in which we find ourselves. As I mentioned a few moments ago, we all have other gods whom we have been serving and at some point, those of us who have taken membership vows have professed before this or some other congregation that our allegiance is first and foremost with the risen savior Jesus Christ. What we see playing out in certain circles around us is nothing short of evil and idolatrous. We are more polarized than ever and we are also in a place in our nation’s history where we see many people throwing away what they know is morally correct and in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ for the sake of political gain. We are seeing people use scripture to justify everything from racism to pedophilia. We are seeing people equate allegiance with this or that politician or party with being a Christian. It makes my soul ache to know that such is the story that we are collective weaving about the witness of the church of Jesus Christ in the United States. Political gain and the setting aside of morals for the sake of political clout is not why Christ died on the cross. This is not why our veterans offered themselves up for us and why some gave literally everything they had. We can do better than this, we must do better.

As we write the story of our lives and our witness, we must make sure that if nothing else is said about us, it is proclaimed that we placed God above all other things in our lives, period, full stop. That means that we must do everything that we can to serve him and to take every single opportunity to show others the love of Jesus Christ as often as we can. In the sermon titled “The Use of Money” John Wesley said, “Employ whatever God has entrusted you with in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree . . . to all mankind.” Do we do all the good that we can, in all the ways that we can, in as many places as we can, to as many people as we can, for as long as we ever can? And when we fail to do good and we cause some kind of harm, do we make amends by confessing, repentance, and amends to the person we have wronged? This is how we make our story as a saint one worth telling. Above all, we love God and then we love all people as Christ loves them. Leave a lasting legacy, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Amen.

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