[The following is the manuscript that I preached at my church yesterday for Graduation Sunday]
The Choice Is Yours
7 June 2009
Frederick Buechner is an American writer and theologian. He was a novelist for years before he became a Presbyterian minister. Born in 1926, to date he has published more than 30 books. He has received 9 Honorary Doctorates, including one from Yale University and one from King's College in London. He's certainly no slouch and so when he says something many people tend to listen. He has enjoyed popularity for much of his life, first as a novelist and then as a theologian, refusing to let the two become mutually exclusive. I have not read Buechner voraciously, but I have read him some and there is a quote of his that seems especially appropriate for today, Graduation Sunday. It comes from his definition of vocation in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. For you see, we are all at a crossroads, not just graduates. We need to know what we’re supposed to do. Rick Warren’s A Purpose Driven Life stayed on the New York Times’ Bestsellers List for over 2 years for a reason; people want an answer to the question of what to do with their life. You and I are no different. To this end, what Buechner wrote back in 1973 still rings true today:
There are different kinds of voices calling you to different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to do is work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world needs most to have done…The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
One of the great disservices that the church has done to Christian society (and society as a whole, I might add) is to perpetuate the idea that only those who are “ministers” are called by God. Everyone else, so the story goes, just picks something to do, but ministers have been set aside as more special, more prominent than everyone else. This simply is not true. I believe that everyone is called to do something. That calling may be a vocation or it may be something else. What we have to know is that we are all called. That, however, is the simple part.
The other side of the coin is more difficult. The scripture passage for this morning speaks to that aspect:
Joshua 24:15-24 Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." 16 Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17 for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18 and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God." 19 But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good." 21 And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the LORD!" 22 Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses." 23 He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel." 24 The people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey."
The passage, I think, is fairly well-known. Many churches and homes have picked up part of this passage and displayed it very prominently. Verse 15, especially, has become ubiquitous in recent years. The church that I grew up in had signs that members could place in their yards with verse 15 on it.
The part of the verse that is usually highlighted, though, is “as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” There is certainly nothing wrong with this statement or with Christians today using this statement as a statement of their position and beliefs. I think, however, that this statement is really not central to the point of this passage. The beginning of the verse, on the other hand, is central: “choose this day whom you will serve.” Joshua is not using mere rhetoric here, instead he is issuing a solid command. The people that he is speaking to have a choice to make, a real choice, a difficult choice. Joshua has made his choice, so now do they have to make their choice. And so now do we.
For us the choice may not be between following the LORD and following the gods that our ancestors worshipped, but we do have to make the choice. Sometimes the choice will be between friends and following the LORD; sometimes between our job and following the LORD; sometimes between our family and following the LORD; and then even sometimes between ourselves and following the LORD. I do not presume to know the exact choices you will have to make, but I do know that you will come to that crossroads, on more than one occasion, and you will have to make the choice.
Also, I am not going to stand up here and pretend that we should all make the same choices when presented with them. By that I mean that following the LORD will look different for all of us. I mentioned earlier that one of the great disservices that we have done to Christian society is by spreading the falsehood that only “ministers” are called by God. Another great disservice that has been done has been making people believe that if their walk with God doesn’t look a certain way, then they are doing something wrong. That view usually contains specific elements, such as praying for x amount of minutes a day, reading the Bible every day at the same time and having what we call a “quiet time”, coming to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening and every Wednesday evening and listening only to the “Christian” radio station. Now, please hear me out. I do not think that any of these things are bad; quite the contrary, I think they are all good things. The problem comes when these things become a checklist for what our Christian lives are supposed to look like. Doing all of these things is not me making a choice to follow the LORD, it is me making a choice to line myself up with the American Christian sub-culture.
What, then, does it look like for me to find that place where my “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”? I cannot answer that question for you, I can only answer it for me. For me it means I realize that my call to teach is just as much a call to ministry as was my previous call to preach. For me it means that I realize that while things like reading texts that are thousands of years old in their original languages and reading news from multiple perspectives and multiple countries and following the politics of our country and of other countries and reading the writings of theologians that lived hundreds of years ago and reading poetry may make a “geek”, they also make me truly glad. There are also aspects of my life that some may deem as “heretical”. For you see, I read atheist websites on a regular basis and I very much appreciate what the Quran and Bhagavad Gita have to say and believe that we can learn much from them. These things make me happy and I see that there is certainly a need in our world for people who can understand contemporary issues in the bigger picture of history and so I try to fill that need the best I can. I also see that our world has a need for people who can think in many respects just like atheists and yet still maintain faith and so I try to fill that need the best I can. Our world also needs Christians who can view people of other faiths as still people who are worthy of human rights and human dignity just as Christians are, so I try to be that voice to people I meet. Understand this, I worship just as honestly and just as fully when I am studying ancient texts as when I am here singing songs on a Sunday morning. I am trying to be as fully alive and as fully a follower of the LORD as I possibly can be every day of my life. I have made my choice, now the choice is yours.
What makes you happy, truly happy? Is it cleaning, is it rocking children at the hospital, is it helping other people, is it being outside, is it doing “behind the scenes” work, is it working on vehicles? Examine your life and find out what makes you truly happy. My guess is that that’s where God is calling you. Then see how you can be most fully a follower of God there. It may mean that you are supposed to talk to other people about God while doing that, but it may not mean that. It may simply mean that that’s what you’re supposed to do. Nature honors God by doing what God created it do to. Birds, for example, honor God by being birds; by flying, by singing, by perching, by getting food for their young, etc. It is time for us to be who God made us to be.
Unlike a lot of other preachers and prominent Christian speakers, I will not act like I know what that is supposed to look like for you. Doing that would only serve to spread the message that more people should be like me and to get you off the hook. This is difficult stuff. I have had to wrestle and struggle with this in my own life and I continue to on a regular basis. I have made my choice, now the choice is yours.
Let me speak for a moment to our graduates specifically. Many of you have been involved in church for much of your life and that is surely laudable, but you are at one of those crossroads. You must make the decision to make your faith yours. You must own your faith. The faith that your parents or your grandparents have will not be adequate for you. You may very well end up at the same place that they are, but if you do not own that faith and make it your own and figure out why you believe what you believe and why you don’t believe what you don’t believe, then it will never mean anything to you. You will have made your choice, but it will not have been a choice to follow the LORD.
Let me tell you how it worked out for me. When I was 15 years old, I was at a weekend conference put on by a group called Shepherd Ministries. At the end of the conference, an altar call was given as was usual. I felt like I was supposed to make some kind of response, but I knew that I was a Christian and had no need to “rededicate” my life, so I just sat there. A lot of people responded to the call and went down to the front of the church. They were then taken out the back to talk with counselors. The speaker, then, issued another call. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Some of you out there know that God is calling you to do something, but you’re already a Christian. God is calling you to him. It may be to be a missionary or it may be to the ministry, but God is calling you to something different.” That was it. I responded. I went to the front of the church and was subsequently taken out of the back of the church to talk with a counselor. I told him that God had just called me to the ministry. I was young, 15, and I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but as I looked around me, all of the people that I knew that were in the ministry were either pastors or youth ministers, I knew I didn’t want to be a youth minister, so I said I wanted to be a pastor. (Funny how some things never change). From that point forward, then, my focus was becoming a pastor. Things began to change along the way though. I felt like I was doing all the right things, but it didn’t feel like me.
Things continued to change once I got in college. I was a business major, but had decided to take a religion course. I began learning things in that course that didn’t exactly mesh with what I had been taught growing up, but that the evidence did not lie about. I had a choice to make. And so, as a freshman in college who was about to change majors from Business Administration to Religious Studies I made my choice. “If my faith cannot stand up to these things that I am learning,” I said, “if it cannot stand up to history, then it is not a faith worth having”…and I was serious about it. I still am. One thing that is more important to me than anything else is integrity and I will not “believe” something because it’s what I’m supposed to believe if I know in my head and heart that it’s wrong. So I made my choice and I took the challenge.
I am a very different person today than I was in that classroom on the campus of UNC-Charlotte many years ago, but my faith has remained. It is different in some respects, but it is also stronger…much stronger. I know what I believe and what I don’t believe and I know why. It may change tomorrow, but for today I know these things. I made the choice to own my faith. What I learned from my parents and pastor and youth minister could not sustain me. It was not good enough for them to believe something and have convictions about it, I had to believe things for myself.
This is true for all of us here this morning. We cannot rely on what our parents say or what our Sunday School teachers say or what Leland says or what I say or what hymns that we sing say. Our faith must be our own. You must own your faith.
We have a choice to make this morning. “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Will you serve the viewpoints and beliefs of others or will you serve the LORD, making your relationship with God a relationship that is alive and dynamic? I have made my choice. Now, the choice is yours.