I have something to show you this morning. [Terri holds up a pitcher] It's not really much to look at...but it does have a special meaning. You see, this was the iced tea pitcher from my Mamaw's farmhouse. It's nothing fancy. It might be an antique, but I'm pretty sure it does not hold much financial value. It doesn't represent a specific event or hold special meaning...it was always just the iced tea pitcher from Mamaw's house. Always and only...iced tea.
The significance of this pitcher has never been the pitcher itself...or the contents...or even that it belonged to my grandmother. It is special because it represents many wonderful years of gathering at a kitchen table...eating an ordinary meal...drinking iced tea...and telling our endless family stories. For me, when I look at this, I don't see a pewter pitcher...I see a symbol of my family heritage being passed from generation to generation.
I suspect that everyone in this room can think of something in your family that serves the same purpose. Some obscure item that represents who you are and where you came from. The item itself may not be precious but stories it holds certainly are. We cling to these things, not for what they are, but as a simple way of remembering the stories and the people who helped create them.
Clinging and remembering through the generations is the theme of today's reading from Deuteronomy. Moses is preparing the Israelites to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land and decides to give some last words of advice before he cuts them loose: remember who you are and remember whose you are. Sort of sounds like a parent sending a child to college, does it not?
You see, also like parents of college-age children, Moses understood the very real possibility that the Israelites would get to the land of milk and honey and forget all about the journey that had gotten them there...or worse yet, they would forget the God who led them there. Moses was worried that the future generations -- those who had not lived through the Exodus or the wilderness -- would not remember the significance or the role that it played in shaping the Israelites into God's people. So in this sermon, he insists that they must be obsessive-like in their remembering.
His advice, if you will, takes the form of the commandment from verse 4 and 5: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
This statement is known as the Shema and is still recited twice a day in the Jewish tradition.
In fact, at one time, this passage was taken so literally that when it says to bind these words on your foreheads and hands, some ancient Jews went as far to put the Shema on their bodies. They did not tattoo it to their forehead or arms, but there is archeological evidence that they engraved it into metal bands that they wore on their forearms. Eventually, they switched to putting the verses inside little boxes, called phylacteries, which were tied to their heads and wrists. Even now, orthodox Jews wear these during prayer times. Likewise, in many Jewish households, a little metal or wooden scroll holder called a mezuzah is hung by the door with this verse inside it. It serves as a reminder to keep this commandment at the forefront of their coming and going.
Still, it's clear that Moses did not intend for this to just be a matter of ritualistic recitation or display. No, the Israelites were told to talk about their love of God...all the time. In their homes, while they are out and about...and definitely with their children. Clearly there is a sense of urgency to pass along their faith to the next generation and the one after that and so on and so on.
From Moses' perspective, actively sharing and passing along the faith to the next generation was essential in order to enjoy the Promised Land to the fullest. As such, the Israelites must not only live and breathe the Shema, they needed to tell and re-tell the story of the Exodus. For the people of God to continue to live in prosperity, future generations would have to claim the same faith as their ancestors. And, the way to make that happen was to ensure they never forgot God's provision...never forgot where they came from...or how they got where they were...and most importantly they never forgot who they were --- the beloved children of God.
To re-tell and re-tell and re-tell was the way to protect against the natural temptation to let the abundance and freedom of the Promised Land distract or cause them to forget God. The process of internalizing the faith would ensure that the next generations claimed it as their own.
American Christians could learn a thing or two from these ancient Israelites. Now I'm not suggesting that we need to tattoo the Shema to arms or foreheads...but it seems to me that we have neglected to pass along our salvation story to the next generations with the kind of urgency that we hear in this passage. In the abundance of our own Promised Land, we have allowed many things to distract us and have taken our Christian faith for granted.
For most of this nation's history, the Christian faith - in all its various forms - has held great power and influence in the United States. Regardless of the theological flavor...pews were full, Sunday School classrooms were brimming with students, and offering plates were overflowing. Things were comfortable and prosperous...a proverbial land of milk and honey from a religious context. But we all know this is not the case now.
So what happened? Well, to be honest, I think it's risky to say that any singular thing happened - many sociological and cultural factors have been at play, as well as economic and religious ones. Still, there is one theory about a contributor to the decline of American Christianity that I find plausible. Perhaps we became too comfortable in our faith -- and maybe even presumptuous -- assuming that since everyone went to church, everyone had deep sustaining faith. We also practiced a rote faith...lots of memorizing and recitation...but not so much claiming it for ourselves. There was very little sharing from our own experiences. We were lax about telling the stories of the gospel in our lives. In hindsight, I believe we lost our zeal for raising the next generations of Christians. I would even go as far as to suggest that perhaps we got lazy about it.
Now, don't get me wrong, I am not talking about First Presbyterian Church. All you have to do is look around the room and see families that are multiple generations deep rooted in their faith. All thanks be to God!
But overall, as Christians in America...we have lagged. I don't know...maybe we got too busy. Maybe we felt inadequate. Maybe we didn't appreciate the importance. Whatever the case, we learned to confine our faith-talk to just one hour of worship on Sunday, and we relied the so-called "professionals" - Sunday School teachers, Christian Educators, missionaries and clergy - to keep the faith alive. As a result, there are a whole lot of people who have never heard...who do not remember...or for whom Christianity has become irrelevant.
Sadly though, unless the church regains a sense of urgency...similar to what Moses was impressing on the Israelites...or like what Paul had for the early church...how on earth can we ever expect anything to change? How can the Christian faith continue to be shared from generation to generation without Christians who are willing to do the hard work of sharing it?
Now, folks when I say sharing our faith from generation to generation, I am not talking about just memorizing scripture or telling Bible stories. I don't even mean getting people into church buildings. No, for us to share our faith like the Israelites means we put our own salvation story...the gospel of Jesus Christ...at the forefront of our comings and goings. We live Christ's love and compassion continually. We talk about it with each other day and night...imprinting it on our hearts and minds. It's front and center when we are in here...when we are sitting in Presby Park...when we are walking the neighborhood...when we are waiting in line at Walmart.
Don't worry...no one has to become a street corner evangelist...but, if we want future generations to share in our faith, then it's up to us to pass along. First in our living...then in our telling.
Generation-to-generation faith happens when we are willing to share our personal stories of how God is at work in our own lives...so that others can see the same in theirs. Telling our stories...the stories of forgiveness and mercy...the stories of love...the stories of our faith journey. Telling the stories not only helps pass along the Christian faith from generation to generation, it is the only way those future generations are able to claim it as their own.
Church, how will all the children who are waiting to hear...and the children's children....make this faith their own if we do not do our part to tell our story? It is as Moses, said...when the children ask...tell them the story. We may not have been slaves to Pharaoh, but all believers have their own Exodus and wilderness stories to share. Stories about our own coming to faith that others need to hear. So, I wonder...friends...as we look to the next generation...what story from your life does God want you to share? From generation to generation, Amen.