“Does Our Faith-Storyline Still Work?”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – October 15, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Philippians 4:1-9; Luke 14:15-23

This message was part of a celebration during the 75th Anniversary Year of Cheverly United Methodist Church

    Right now, words and historic illustrations are flooding my mind as I stand here looking at all of you.  Thanks to the gracious invitation of Reverend Lillian, I am able to deliver a message from this pulpit that last occurred 37 years ago.  Since that time, all our lives have continued nonstop down our individual rivers of collected memories.

    The Overgaard family reunion is what brought us across the pond for two weeks.  So, Sue and Steven are with Lois and me as are my twin sisters, Ruth and Jane.  Other members of our extended family have also joined us.  This morning's service provides a lovely occasion for a number of reunions.  

    For me, this Sunday is filled with a lot of symbolism.  I am the only active pastor left in the Baltimore-Washington Conference that was ordained by the Evangelical United Brethren Church, the parent denomination of this church where I grew up. 

    Those of you that know me well may be questioning why I would wear a robe that looks like this.  This morning, I have chosen to wear my dad's pulpit robe, not only to honor his memory but also to bring another symbol into our anniversary celebration.

    Debbie Davis, who is here this morning, did a magnificent job in assembling hundreds of pictures of former memory-makers who made this church facility possible.  Viewing them, however, has given me great pause when I realize that I knew personally most of the key players featured in those pictures.  These were the movers and shakers of our church's earliest days.  This May, I will be celebrating my own 75th anniversary of being on the earth.  My family moved to Cheverly when I was 18 months old.  Believe me, the math works out.

    My temptation this morning was to discuss certain historic events that fueled the evolution of two massive building programs and three distinctly different congregations that came and went through the doors of this church during my dad's 35 years of ministry in this church.   

    I have resisted that temptation because life is not about looking in the rear view mirror.  Life is about moving forward into an uncertain future with courage and faith as we continue our evolution as spirit-beings. The question I want us to explore this morning is this:  Has our faith-storyline continued to nourish us as it did during our earlier days?  Or, has that part of our lives become a matter of concepts and core-beliefs rather than a relentless resource of life-expanding experiences?

    We know from our Gospel lesson today that we are no strangers to having our favorite excuses for not participating in what will feed our spirits.  Coaches are now using Sundays for athletic practice for our children.  Churches are in competition with so many other activities taking place on Sunday. Some of us have to go to work on Sundays.  How about this one:  "We want our children to make up their own minds when they are old enough to understand." These are up-dated versions of the excuses listed in Luke's Gospel. (Luke 14:18-20)

    Just how important is church attendance where we sit for a considerable time looking at the backs of other people's heads while listening to some preacher talk about what he or she believes will nourish our spiritual journey? This question about church attendance is rather judgmental, but it accurately defined my personal understanding of what attending church was like when I was a teenager.

    After services at St. Matthew's, occasionally the ushers would bring notes to me that people had written to each other during our worship experience. Here are some of them that clearly demonstrate how my carefully crafted sermons kept members of my congregation riveted to their seats as they listened intently to all the pearls of wisdom I was sharing:

  • Ask your Mom if she is taking all of us to McDonald’s when we are done with this.
  • What are people doing before church that makes them so thirsty?  Look at all the women who are sipping water from plastic bottles.  What's with that?

  • Look around at all the people texting.  What is so important that it can't wait?  We are supposed to be listening to this stuff.

  • How long does this guy talk? Tell me the truth.  Please don't lie to me about this.

  • Did Becky really tell you that she likes me?
  •     As I mentioned, when I was a teenager, there came a time when I no longer wanted to tolerate Sunday mornings.  I was bored out of my mind from listening to my dad's sermons. 

        One Sunday, the six of us were sitting around the table eating our Sunday dinner when I made my request.  When I heard my dad's response, I asked my mother if she could remember one thing that dad had said in his sermon that he had just delivered earlier that morning. She hesitated for quite some time and then admitted that she could not recall anything.

        I was so excited that my mom came through for me with the evidence that I needed.  I exclaimed, "I rest my case!"  Without batting an eye, my dad said, "Your case has been heard, your evidence has been considered and your frivolous argument has been denied and dismissed."  However, he was noticeably disturbed by my mother's wonderful response.

        Because my parents made church attendance a requirement for all of us, something interesting occurred.  If my dad ever repeated a sermon or used an illustration that he borrowed from another day, I knew instantly that he had done so. 

        Something in me had been listening and absorbing what I heard while my attention was clearly elsewhere.  This happens to all of us.  Many of the qualities of our character and the values we develop are not the result of our choices.  They have become a part of us through the process of absorption from the personalities that surround us, from the interpretation of our news by commentators or our choice of reading materials.  The building blocks for who we are becoming can be absorbed from many sources.

        This morning, can each of us point to the sources that nourish the spirit by which we live?  What is feeding us?  What is causing us to decide this way instead of that way?  These questions are worth pondering.

        Have we become so self-sufficient that feeding our spirits has been put on the back burners of our lives? Is this process something that we take for granted? The changes to our identity happen so slowly that it often goes unrecognized by us. Sometimes economic security can shield us from the countless fears that once invited into our minds all of those Yes, but what if discussions that we once had with ourselves.

        The Apostle Paul gave his readers a point of entrance for evaluating the quality of their consciousness. He wrote:

    Do not conform yourselves to all the values that you find in this world, but let the source of love transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.  Then you will be able to know the will of God and share your discovery of the power of loving energy with everyone around you.  (Romans 12:2)

        We do not need to look too far to understand that people in our society, who believe that they are self-sufficient, are starving to death spiritually.  Church attendance for many people may be an ancient memory.  In fact, recent generations may have no idea of what we are talking about this morning.

        We can look to isolated cases like the one that happened recently in Las Vegas, the deaths and addictions from Opioid abuse, the number of adolescents engaged in cyber-bullying, the lack of courtesy on our highways or we can look at the civil war of words that continues to rage throughout our society over who occupies our White House. 

        What may be more important is the number of people who are filling their lives with responses of unhappiness because their world is not the way they want it. People have either forgotten or were never taught that nothing in this world has the power to make us happy.  Daily happiness and fulfillment come from only one place. We demonstrate happiness and fulfillment because we have chosen specific qualities of spirit by which we live.  Continually, we need to polish our own stone, a thought I tried to instill in teenagers and young adults years ago.

        Many times, I wish that each of us could die for a period of time and then be successfully resuscitated. From listening to people's testimonies throughout my ministry who have done just that, I can tell you unequivocally that you would not return to this life the same person you were prior to your death.  

        What can shatter our concepts and our strong core-beliefs is having a mystical experience -- a brief encounter that gives us a glimpse of what is on the other side of the curtain.  

        Jesus had one of these experiences at his baptism that so shattered his life that he had to redefine his identity after a period of wandering in the wilderness.  He abandoned the cultural war-god Yahweh and gave the world a loving, compassionate God. He also moved the thinking of his followers beyond the Torah as he taught, "You have heard it said, "Love your neighbors and hate your enemies, but now I tell you love your enemies." (Luke 6:27f)  

        Saul of Tarsus had one of these experiences that radically changed the course of his life.  Think of it!  He had wealth, the privilege of being a Roman citizen, was a Pharisee of letters and he was born into the coveted Tribe of Benjamin.  After his encounter with the resurrected spirit of the one whose followers he was persecuting, he called his pedigree, "Nothing but pure garbage." (Philippians 3:8)

        Once our lives have been touched by the opening of a door to the loving energy of spirit in all its many forms, our lives are never the same.  The door was there all along, but often people are so busy with the issues of this world, they cannot see it. 

        Once we get a peek of what is on the other side of that door, our attitudes are elevated by optimism and our judgments are filled with love, joy, peace, faithfulness, humility and self-control just as Paul wrote in one of his letters. (Galatians 5:22)   There is nothing more beautiful than redefining our lives because of an experience that teaches us that this life is not our final destination.  

        Many years ago, a ten-year-old boy developed terminal leukemia.  In those days there was little that the medical community could do to bring the condition into remission.  He delivered the newspaper each morning to members of his community. Everyone receiving this news of his illness was emotionally devastated.  His parents were people with strong faith, but the news of this reality pushed them to a breaking point.

        They asked their pastor, "How could a loving God who knows the spirit of our son do nothing?  What good is prayer when God remains silent?"  Their young, and inexperienced pastor knew that no words he could offer would help them to understand what they were not prepared to receive at that moment in their lives.

        Stephen's parents brought him home because they did not want him to die in an institutional setting. His health declined to the point where he could no longer talk.  He could no longer take nourishment without choking. He had no strength even to lift his head.  They kept him hydrated by giving him teaspoons of water. After months of being his caregivers, the day came when Stephen died.  

        What happens to our faith-storyline during times like these?  We may lose a loved one.  With all the mergers and acquisitions between companies today, more people are receiving pink slips. Today, marriages often do not last.  Dreaded diseases take up residence in our bodies.  Fears and anxiety attacks can come that drive smiles from our faces. Our confidence and self-esteem can remain in the basement of our identities. 

        After receiving the news of the young boy's death, their pastor dreaded going to the family's home.  He knew that he had nothing to offer them but his silent presence and support.  When he arrived at the home, he found both of them smiling and welcoming.  He was stunned by their greeting.  He had the presence of mind to ask, "Did you two have an experience that has reassured you of God's presence?"  They both smiled and said, "We sure did!  How could you tell?  Are we glowing that much?"

    In the middle of the night we heard our son call out, "Mom and Dad, come quickly!" We had not heard his voice for months.  We ran to his bedroom and turned on the light. He was resting on his side, propped up on his arm and he spoke to us with a clear, enthusiastic voice. 'Do you see the angel standing at the foot of my bed?  He has come to take me and I want to go with him.  Isn't he beautiful?  I asked him if I could first say 'good-bye' to my mom and dad.  Inaudible words appeared in his head, 'Call your parents, Stephen. I can wait.'  Stephen said, 'Mom and Dad, I love you very much, but I must leave you now.  I know that you and I are going to be okay.' 


    We both stood there speechless as something miraculous was unfolding. We had no idea where his voice and strength had come from. Tears were streaming down our faces. We could not see what he was seeing.  Both of us watched our son's eyes follow something that was coming up along the side of his bed.  Stephen sat up and reached out with both arms as if he wanted to be picked up.  Then his body fell back on his pillow as his spirit left his frail body. These last moments with our son have completely changed both of our lives.  We now realize that our lives here are only a part of a remarkable process.  That angel gave us a life-changing gift that had God's love written all over it.

        The man who told this story to my seminary class was that young and inexperienced pastor.  His name was Dr. L. Harold DeWolf who later became Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary. He also was invited to offer one of the tributes at the memorial service of another one of his students from Boston University School of Theology -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

        As self-sufficient as many of us feel, we need a spiritual connection to what comes next. There is a lot of noise in this world that challenges our faith-story line. This noise lifts up imagery that evokes our emotions and can manipulate our thinking.  No matter how excited we become by the issues that come up for us during our earthly experience, please remember that none of it exists in the environment that comes next.

        We need to learn about our potential to reverse our energy flow.  The more we send our loving energy away from us, the more that energy will expand as we become solution-oriented rather than being engaged in fault-finding.  We need to remember what Jesus asked the Apostle Peter three times, "Peter, Do you love me?  Feed my sheep." We cannot feed anyone if the noise of this world has been allowed to empty our pantry.

        Learn to live a lifestyle filled with attitudes that you will find useful when you leave your bodies.  If you can navigate in this world peacefully and lovingly, as Jesus taught his followers to do, your faith-storyline has served you well and will support you with what comes next.

        Your ability to make your faith-storyline visible is your gift to everyone around you.  Keep feeding your ever-expanding faith storyline.  There is no better place to do this than to be included within a community that makes our world a more loving and wholesome place to live because of what that group does to follow Jesus' invitation to "Feed my sheep."