"Strength From Our Religious Heritage”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – November 6, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 78:1-7; Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-18


    This morning I want us to think about our past, particularly some of those snap shot moments that occur in our minds from time to time.  We may have no idea why we retained them or why they imprinted themselves so indelibly into our memories.  They might have taken up residence in our minds because of impressive words spoken by one of our school teachers.  Some of these memories might have particular significance because of an experience with our parents.  Others might come from an enormous fear that swept over us when we spoke in front of an audience for the first time.

    Some of these earliest memories were helpful in forming our self-confidence, igniting our desire to reach for the stars when we established our goals, learning the value of letting go of our early failures, gravitating toward disciplines and practices that fascinated us or teaching us that emotional and physical hurts first begin to heal from the inside.  We have inherited so much from those in our past.

    All of us began our journey on the earth in some garden that our families represent.  Every family has its own culture, a fact that became abundantly clear to us even when we were children.  There was a time when I went to a friend’s home and saw some differences immediately. I saw magazines stacked in piles throughout the living room.  There were coffee stains on the carpet and end tables that had never seen a dust cloth.  I immediately learned that not everyone’s parents had the same values as mine.

    We are told by authorities that most of our values are formed in our families by the age of six.  As we mature, we are always in the process of refining them.  It has been said that one of the greatest gifts that parents can give to their children is a lifetime filled with happy memories.  We build on those memories.  Our characters are also formed by a number of unpleasant experiences.  Some of us were fortunate enough to have parents that set boundaries and they made us do things we did not want to do.

    Many years ago I ran across an interesting point of view that described this growth process by using an intriguing metaphor.  The author wrote that when he was a young man he had a drug problem.  As it turned out, his drug problem made him what he is today.  Here is how he described his experience:

    I had a drug problem when I was young.  I was drug to church on Sunday mornings.  I was drug to family reunions and community activities in spite of the weather conditions.  I was drug by my ears when I was disrespectful to people.  I was drug to the woodshed when I was disobedient to my parents, told a lie or brought home a bad report card.  I was drug to the kitchen sink and had my mouth washed out with soap if I used profanity.  I was drug outside to pull weeds in Mom’s garden.  I was drug to the homes of countless elderly people and those recovering from surgery by my parents in order to help repair a broken clothesline, chop fire wood or mow their lawns.  If my Mom ever found out that I accepted money for doing such things, she would have drug me back to the woodshed.  Those drugs are still in my veins and they affect my behavior and attitudes everyday.  I thank God to this very day for my parents who drugged us.

    In our Scripture lesson this morning, Joshua was talking to his people about what many of them had misplaced in their lives – memories of what God had done among their ancestors. Joshua was asking them to honor God and serve him sincerely and faithfully in their decision-making, their attitudes and their life-styles. 

    Then he offered them a choice.  “Get rid of the gods your ancestors used to worship in Mesopotamia and in Egypt and serve only our God.  You may be tempted to worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land we are now living.  As for me and my family, we will worship and serve only the Lord God of Israel.” (Joshua 24:15)

    The people responded by promising that they would serve only the Lord and they began to remember and recite their history of deliverance from Egypt, the miracles they experienced during their days of wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership and how God had kept them safe.  All the people made a commitment to keep God at the center of their lives.

    What is happening today in Bermuda and throughout the world is that the memory of our spiritual heritage is no longer being rehearsed within families and in the world’s societies the way it was years ago.  Plus there is not the interest in spiritual and religious training today as there once was in previous generations. 

    For the last twenty years, many churches have been trying to attract younger members by offering rock music with lyrics that praise God and Jesus, accompanied by percussion instruments and guitars.  A number of studies during this period have suggested that there is little correlation between the contemporary or the traditional worship experiences and the depth of young people’s understanding of their spiritual journey. 

    These studies are not being critical of either style of worship services.  They are suggesting that the new packaging of the Christian experience may not translate into changed lives any better than any other forms of worship.  Why?  External experiences cannot be counted on to change lives.  What changes lives has always been a decision to do so and remembering that decision every day.

    This morning, prior to our receiving communion, we will rehearse once again what happened when Jesus was alone with his disciples during his last supper together.  We can visually imagine him distributing the bread and cup saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  He did not want his followers to forget his life and teachings. A link between Joshua and Jesus is that both men were asking their listeners to remember their heritage.

    Hundreds of years ago, Bermuda appeared as a lovely island, sitting like a brilliant gem in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  When proud crews on board magnificent ships approached the island, they knew they were entering the waters of a beautiful paradise.  However, without knowing how to get to the island safely, over 300 ships had their hulls torn open by the invisible jagged coral reefs.  It took time, patience and practice before even the most skilled mariners learned how to bring their ships safely to our shores.

    Today, ships routinely come to Bermuda because the location of safe channels has been handed down to future generations.  There are even signal buoys that offer signposts to ship captains.  There are pilot boats that assure safe passage. Try to imagine what would happen if all that knowledge was lost?   

    Transfer this imagery into our culture.  What happens to human vessels when they approach their future without signposts, road maps and an understanding that attitude is everything.  Suppose people do not know that the spirit in which they live communicates to God and the cloud of witnesses, “This is who I am and this is what I am aspiring to become.”

    An increasing number of people have forgotten the values that were once handed down from their religious and family heritage.  If they had learned these lessons as children, perhaps more young people would be more interested in their education and in a career.  Perhaps the gods of gangs, drugs and guns would not have their allure.  In every culture, there are many gods that lead their citizens down blind alleys.

    If people remembered their heritage, they would understand that their jobs are a great gift and a vehicle through which they can give one hundred percent because this is their moment to be of service to others through their faithfulness and accountability.

    If people remembered their heritage, they would not attempt to manipulate the world’s stock markets, or develop computer viruses that destroy the helpful, time saving programs that others have created, or use deceptive scams to swindle seniors and other unsuspecting citizens out of their life’s savings.  There would be no identity theft.  

     What we are experiencing today is a modern version of what Joshua faced when he was telling his people that they must make a choice.  Either serve the gods found in every culture we have encountered or serve the one true God who is our Creator.”  The people had wandered for years just as many people are doing today. 

    If people had been taught as children and had their lessons reinforced throughout their formal education that the purpose for being born was to develop their character strengths and perfect the spirit by which they lived, our world would be a different place.   

    God loves everyone equally.  The grace of God is unshakable and cannot be influenced by anything we do, believe or think.  God’s love has never been an issue for humanity.  The issue for all people is learning to develop and refine the spirit by which each person lives.  

    When we graduate from this life, the attitudes that will prove the most useful are the ones that reflect our loving energy patterns like patience, kindness, helpfulness, and spirits that reflect happiness, curiosity, creativity, dreaming of possibilities and using our imaginations.  If we never gave form to these qualities in this life, how will we navigate in a realm where such qualities literally become our passport to the next phase of our journey?

    How many people today do not realize that many essential ingredients for living remarkable lives are missing from their inventory of life-skills?  This is why Joshua told his people to remember that when God was at the center of their ancestors’ life-experiences, they had a means for defining those experiences so that they provided guidance for their future.

    Knowing that we are a son or daughter of God gives us an identity that no one can take away from us.  All of us are God’s children regardless of whether or not people believe or accept that reality for themselves.

    When we begin to radiate the spirit of God, in whatever way we choose to interpret those loving qualities, our lives take on a new meaning and purpose that others simply will not have.  This is what people experience when they witness with their testimonies to having accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.  They have abandoned their old values that focused their lives on this world and taken on the new values of spirit.  This is what it means to be born again.

    Without this new orientation toward life, countless human vessels are en route toward Paradise Island unaware of the coral reefs that can sink their ships.  Today, in the midst of such accelerated change, we need the stabilizing rudder that following Jesus’ teachings provide – to extend our loving energy patterns to everyone, in every circumstance everyday.  Perhaps the Heaven everyone longs for is already here and we do not have the sense to live in it.