"Beliefs Are The Propeller"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 3/19/2000
Genesis 17:1-7; Romans 4:13-18
Imagine the difference between people who seek their wholeness by investing their energy in receiving the approval from others, and those who seek their wholeness by looking within themselves. Consider the difference between people who are always in competition with everyone, whether on the highway or in the office, and those who look upon themselves as people who enjoy helping and serving people. Sometimes we believe there is little left to learn.
I had an interesting experience the other day. I am participating in a study for a medication that is in stage three of its clinical trials. This product is a treatment for high cholesterol. Being in this study causes me to visit a Bethesda-based medical practice about every three weeks. Last week during one of my visits I happened to be wearing a tie that one of our church members gave me. The tie has a curious design on it that takes some effort to interpret. Two nurses saw my tie. One of them has been deeply involved in a church in Northern Virginia for years. When she saw the tie she said, "My goodness, I've never seen a tie like that. Isn't that the loaves and the fishes?" I said, "Yes."
What was interesting was the response of the other nurse. She said, "So, are you two going to tell me the significance of the loaves and fishes? What am I missing here?" I said, "Did you ever hear the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people?" She said, "No, I haven't. Tell it to me." So I told her the story.
This particular nurse I have known for three months. Her spirit is spontaneous and delightful. She has high energy, a sense of humor and is deeply committed to her profession. She is a very caring person. But she did not know the story of Jesus feeding of the 5,000. It was an eye opening experience for me.
I wondered how many people living in our neighborhoods, or working beside us as colleagues do not know anything of what Jesus had to say about life. It could be that there are more people than we can imagine who, for one reason or another, have not been exposed to an entire body of information that could enhance the quality of their lives.
This illustration is not to single out this uninformed nurse for any kind of ridicule. Not at all. We know how easy it is to be completely unschooled in the issues surrounding our faith. Some of us have come from families that never went to church. Maybe our parents never read Bible stories to us. Maybe we never discussed prayer or had it modeled for us in the home. Perhaps some of us have come from families where the name and spirit of God were never referenced. It probably happens more than we can imagine.
Sometimes after I have conducted a memorial service, people will talk to me about some of the things I said. They ask questions and want to know more. I often think that people see no connection between getting a better grasp on their spiritual lives and their need to find a good church family. I often wonder what kinds of beliefs are currently governing their lives. This would be a fascinating study. What we believe is communicated through every aspect of our personality.
Yes, 80 percent of Americans believe in God. But what does such a benign belief say about anything. Aside from that acknowledgment, people can easily have their lives governed by all kinds of things. Whether or not God is a part of our lives, our beliefs are propelling us toward our destination. Should we not spend as much time as we can refining them so that they take us to the greatest destination possible?
Our lesson this morning is about Abraham and his beliefs that propelled him to be convinced that he would be the father of many nations. It is interesting that historically Arabs, Jews and Christians all claim him to be the "Father of their faith." Without Abraham, Jesus would not have had Judaism to refine. Without Abraham there would have been no Apostle Paul. Without Abraham, the Islamic faith would not exist.
I want to center our thoughts on the last verse of our lesson, "Abraham believed and hoped, even when there was no reason for hoping, and so became 'the father of many nations.'" When our beliefs become refined around such a hope, they will propel us faster toward a greater harmony with God than anything else.
In Genesis we learn that Abraham had an experience that changed his life. God made contact. Somehow God communicated these thoughts, "I will keep my promise to you and to your descendants in future generations as an everlasting covenant. My presence will remain with you forever."
What if there are lots of people who surround us everyday who do not understand that God loves them? What if they do not know that God wants to communicate with them? What if they do not know where to go or how to find a relationship with God? We need to tell them. We need to bring them to church, a setting where their spirits are more apt to open to something they are not anticipating.
God is with us whether or not we choose to have a relationship. God is with us when we feel confused and uncertain. God is with us when we are struggling for meaning and purpose. God is with us as we run down one blind alley after another looking for happiness and peace in places that can never deliver them. The simple fact is that we are not alone. But how many people today believe they are? Think about this: How does God's spirit connect with those of us who see only what our physical world has to offer? If this were easy for God, we would all know God. If this were easy for God, none of us would walk in darkness.
If you could witness any particular event in history, what would you want to see? I have thought about time travel for a long time ever since I read H.G. Wells' The Time Machine many years ago.
One of the most fascinating things to witness again would be the moment of breakthrough when teacher Ann Sullivan entered the consciousness of Helen Keller to let her know she was not alone, to let her know that there was another reality that surrounded her. I liken that experience to what happened between God and Abraham. God broke through and Abraham was never the same. His beliefs propelled him to become the father and leader of many great nations, including our own.
Let us go back to Ann Sullivan's penetration of Helen's dark and silent world. Imagine yourself as Helen for a moment. She was born blind and deaf. She could only feel, taste and smell. What was Helen experiencing as a child? What was she thinking about? Just imagine, Helen had no symbols to fill her mind. She had no understanding that another world existed other than the one she knew. Abraham had been in the same situation. He only knew his world.
Ann worked with a very frustrated Helen who was doing everything she could to escape this larger being who she felt was tormenting her. But one day, Helen had a breakthrough. She understood. By feeling Ann's finger configuration with one hand and the other hand in water, she made the connection. Another finger configuration was made for bread as Helen tasted bread and she understood. Another was made for love while she felt Ann's embrace. And the two began sobbing uncontrollably because Ann and Helen both knew what had just happened. They had established meaningful contact.
From that moment on, Ann patiently built Helen's "vocabulary" by matching finger configurations with objects. It was the beginning of sign language for the deaf community. It was the breakthrough that translated Helen's perceptions of Ann. Helen learned that those painful episodes were caused by Ann trying to break into the silence of her darkness. Because of this breakthrough, Helen Keller became one of the wisest and most articulate women of her generation.
Abraham had this same experience. It happened when he was ninety-nine years old. God broke into his world with a presence that was beyond anything Abraham had known. Until that moment he had been like Helen Keller prior to her connecting with this other world. Many of us are like that. We do not know about God's world even though it surrounds us. In God's world nothing solid exists. There are no physical forms.
Once we connect with such an understanding, there is no returning to ignorance. Once we experience God's presence in our lives, episodes of backsliding are only temporary. If we wander from the path of our discovery, chasing something in the physical world that we believe will enhance our lives, we know how to find our way back home. What blind alley will remain attractive once God has embraced us with a love that is so intense that there is none other like it?
Many of our struggles will be interpreted differently. What used to make us feel isolated no longer will. All along God has been playing the role of an Ann Sullivan trying to break through. Helen resisted because she did not understand what Ann was trying to do. Once the break-through occurred, an entirely different world was understood by Helen. Her new understanding changed what she believed. This is how God uses inspiration to lead us to new levels of awareness.
Our beliefs can build walls or bridges. Our beliefs can lift the shrouds of doubt or they can wrap us in them even more tightly. Life can frighten us into madness or lift us to discover a world from which God has been knocking on our door for years. Remember our text this morning. The risk is to believe and trust in what we cannot see. Here are those words again, "Abraham believed and hoped, even when there was no reason for hoping . ."
If something is tormenting us right now, consider our beliefs about it. Are they serving us or causing us pain? Are they healing us or causing us to build walls? Are they allowing us to feel God's loving presence or are they causing us to feel isolated and alone? Remember, our beliefs are propelling us toward our future. If we are moving toward a destiny that does not inspire us, why not allow God to tear down such walls, while we open the door? There really is another world awaiting discovery. Why not refine our beliefs so God can enter our lives more fully?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, merciful God, for providing moments when your spirit opens the door to our understanding. Yet we recognize that you are more willing to teach than we are to learn. You are more ready to lead than we are to follow. Because many of our beliefs are underdeveloped, we cannot grow beyond them. It is like trying to see through a clouded window. We want to replace our rigidity with flexibility. We want to outgrow our critical nature and develop compassion. Enable us to open ourselves with a renewed desire to be free of all that binds us. Cause us to discover that loving, smiling, and caring are among the easiest things to do. Help us to learn that we are on the earth to extend your presence and not our own. We long for the day when our will and your will are the same. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, for these moments when our order of worship opens the door for us to collect our emotions and thoughts and release them to you. Sometimes we do not know what to say. Sometimes we feel we do not have the right to come to you because we have been away from you too long. Sometimes we have used poor judgment in our decision making and we do not know how to understand that you have never stopped loving us. We thank you for always being there for us.
As we continue to make our way through these Lenten days, lead us to carve out more time in our hectic schedules for silence and meditation. We so badly want you to be our teacher, but it is challenging to be a student if Sunday morning is the only time we isolate our spirits from all the other demands on our time and energy. Just as more of us are taking our physical health more seriously, lead us to be equally as intentional about nurturing and nourishing our spiritual health too.
This morning bathe our spirits in your presence, that we might leave here with a refreshed spirit of thanksgiving that realizes how much we have been blessed. As we leave this service, may we choose words that heal, may we wear joy in our faces, and may others see peace in our spirits. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .