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Once Upon a Time in Shechem

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
August 22, 2021
Joshua 24: 1-2, 14-18 John 6: 56-69

Our guide, Max, had started the day badly. Our tour group of pastors from Fort Worth and North Carolina had visited the holy site honoring Jacob’s Well near Nablus in the Palestinian territories. The door into the building was short and Max is tall and the result was a pounding headache. So as he began his lecture for us on the site we were about to visit, he became somewhat short-tempered. Max is a semi-retired biblical archaeologist who had worked in Israel, Jordan and Palestine for decades. In his eighties, he had the energy of a man half his age, and we found ourselves often scrambling to keep up as he enjoined us in his deep Mississippi accent, “It’s just a dogleg around that corner!” “Anybody able to tell me something about Shechem?” he asked us. Nobody could. He kept pressing and finally said impatiently, “You all are pastors who supposedly know the Bible and you can’t tell me a thing about Shechem?” Our church’s good friend Rev. Katie Hayes said, “We can tell you what happened, but we don’t know where it happened. That’s why we’re here!” Max, somewhat chastened, apologized and explained about his headache. We were all very fond of him and it didn’t impact our trust. He went on to tell us why Shechem, in particular, is extremely important in the Bible. Archaeology shows that from the early bronze age Shechem had been an important city. In the Bible, Abraham builds his first altar to Yahweh there. The rape of Dinah takes place in Shechem, along with the revenge meted out by the sons of Jacob. Jacob was buried there. After King Solomon died, his son Rehoboam met with rebellious northerners to tell them how he would rule. They grew disgusted with him. “What have we to do with David’s family?” They say, and from that point on they form their own country, named Israel, which ultimately becomes Samaria. Eventually they build their own Temple in Samaria, on Mt. Gerazim—in Shechem. And when Jesus visits the Samaritan woman at the well, whom he asked for a drink of water, and engages in a theological discussion with what his disciples think of as an unbeliever, he is doing it at Jacob’s Well—in Shechem. Ultimately, the Romans rebuild Shechem and give it a new name, Neopolis, “New City.” Over time, the Arabic name for Neopolis becomes a contraction: Nablus. So when you hear about fighting or discord in Nablus these days, you’re hearing about ancient Shechem. Our bible story today gives us another incident at Shechem. After the death of Moses, the people of Israel engage in a war to seize the land of Canaan and make it their own, led by Moses’ militaristic disciple, Joshua. Now in his advanced years, with the war nearing its end, and his own life growing short, Joshua brings the leaders of God’s people to Shechem and tells them they have a choice. They can serve ancestral gods or the gods of the Amorites—or they can serve Yahweh, the God of Moses, who led the generations before them out of slavery and at last to this Promised Land they are laying claim to. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua tells them, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Now, the first thing I have to say about this passage is: Max didn’t mention it! Not in his whole list did he mention it! I know because I have it recorded and listened to it to write this sermon: Max forgot to name this story! Nyah! Nyah! Got one on ya, Max! Now that I have that off my chest…. When you take the fact that later on, this is the place where the northern people choose to split from the Davidic tradition and break away and form their own, from a biblical perspective, faithless faith… and when you add to it the story of the Samaritan Woman at the well, right there in Shechem, who meets Jesus and chooses to believe him…. It seems like Shechem is the place of choices. Shechem is the place where decisions are made, for or against God. And not just little decisions. Big, life changing, “choose this day whom you will serve” decisions. Where has your Shechem been? And on that day, whom did you choose to serve? In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus is not in Shechem. He is preaching in his adopted home of Capernaum, in Galilee, in the synagogue there. What he says is shocking, especially when heard at the bema of Jewish Temple: he tells people they must eat his flesh and drink his blood to be part of him and to have eternal life. And hearing it some say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” and they turn away from Jesus. Then Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks them what they are going to do. And Peter, speaking for the group, says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” For Peter and most of the disciples, the choice has been made. They have been presented with the same challenge that Joshua presented to God’s people at Shechem: Whom will you serve? And they have chosen Jesus Christ. They have chosen him, even though Jesus makes it really difficult for them to choose him. He makes great demands. He expects them to believe radical, uncomfortable things that will make them outcasts and pariahs with other Jews. He calls them to sacrifice themselves, the same way he will sacrifice himself. He says hard things they don’t understand and that make them deeply uncomfortable. But they’ve chosen to bear up to those uncomfortable, disturbing aspects of who Jesus is because they have come to realize that Jesus has the words of eternal life. They have come to know and to believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God. So yes, he says incredibly uncomfortable things, even outrageous things, things that seem to stand against the religion they’ve always believed. And they’ve decided they have to believe it, because it is Jesus who said it, and Jesus is the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life. In the Gospel of John, this is the disciples’ Shechem. Jesus has said to them, “choose this day whom you will serve,” and they have said, “We will serve you.” It’s not a choice is once and for all and pervasive. They will often fail to live up to their own words. Peter will deny Jesus three times. Most of the disciples will abandon him when he is arrested and killed. Their faith will be deeply shaken when he dies. But this moment, this one choice, is the one that defines them. It’s the choice that also makes Jesus choose them. Even when they fail to follow Jesus, they will judge themselves by this other pre-existing choice, by the day they said, “As for me, I will follow Jesus, for he has the words of eternal life.” Their entire lives, their entire destiny, will be defined by this one choice. It is the choice that makes them who they are. It is a choice that has laid claim to their whole lives. And ultimately, this choice is what gives them hope when they fail to live up to it, because they know—and God knows, and Jesus knows—that their momentary failure to follow Jesus, no matter how profound it is, is not actually what defines them. What defines them is the Shechem choice—to follow Jesus. I am not one to believe that everything in our lives, as human beings or as Christians, is absolutely dependent on one choice that we make. I once thought that, as a young Christian highly influenced by the Evangelical movement. They emphasize that one decision. Now I see our Christian journey more as an ongoing series of decisions. I agree more with theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who has said that the definition of a Christian is an ongoing series of deaths and resurrections, a never-ending process of dying and being reborn after the image of Jesus Christ. That could be viewed as a series of decisions, a series of times where we choose this day whom we will serve. For myself, that’s how it’s played out. I became a Christian when I was fourteen, and I thought like a 70s evangelical, thought the Bible was the infallible word of God, thought terrible things of unbelievers, and so forth. But in college I discovered a new way to read the bible. And I discovered that the people I often thought of as unbelievers were actually just believers who were different from me; and that I could learn a lot from unbelievers, too, and could be friends with them, and actually feel like I’ve learned things that draw me closer to God from them. I thought the way evangelicals often thought of gays and lesbians, that is until I met Christian LGBTQ folk and started to really think through what it means to believe in a God of grace and love, instead of the punishing God I’d been taught to believe in. How could such a cruel perspective represent the love of Jesus Christ? And I always believed in social justice and interracial harmony. But over time I came to realize that God didn’t want this just in the Christian community, but in the whole community, and that God cared about people of all sorts, believers and unbelievers, and wanted us all to live together in harmony. The Bible says all things are to unite in Jesus— and that begins right here and now in the real world with how we live with one another in our local communities. I went through hard times and difficulties—family troubles, suicides, the deaths of loved ones, personal crises—and in those times by the grace of God I didn’t lose faith but found new ways to affirm my faith. In all these things I grew and changed, and in some ways stopped looking like a Christian to others who didn’t agree with me. But from my perspective, I changed all the time— but my faith only deepened. To me, at every point, at every decision, I was simply returning to my Shechem, to that time when I was fourteen years old and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. In different circumstances, I could have struggled with those same questions and lost faith. Instead by the grace of God, I ran into questions I couldn’t answer, problems I couldn’t solve, and found a way to deal with them while still affirming that Jesus is the Holy One of God, whose words give eternal life. I truly believe that if we face honestly the problems and choices of the world around us with an open mind that says, “Christ is in this, let me figure out how,” we will discover that the troubles and difficulties of life, the new horizons that diversity and open-mindedness open up to us, are not threats to our faith in Jesus but affirmations of it. The choice we have made to follow Jesus gets re-made again and again. For over one thousand years, the Israelites returned again and again to Shechem. We too come to Shechem again and again. But each time, our faith is only reaffirmed and strengthened. We have chosen whom we will serve. And we will serve him, no matter what. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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