"The Clay Feet Of Beliefs"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 13, 2001

John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18


     Today we are going to consider how we manage and operate our lives from beliefs that may be different and very specific to each of us. Quite often to understand what people believe, all we need to do is watch how they live, listen to the attitudes they express and observe the values that are being made visible. All beliefs govern nearly everything we do.

     The other morning I met a little boy in the hallway of the church. He was hanging his coat on a hook and putting his lunch box on the shelf above him that he could barely reach. I stooped down to talk to him. He froze, dropped everything, and ran into his classroom.

     Did I merely startle him, or was he operating from a belief that I might hurt him? His parents may have etched into his mind, "Never talk to strangers!" This is a tough teaching for parents who want their children to grow up open, gregarious and friendly, yet who also want them to be cautious, careful and a little skeptical of newcomers. It may be difficult for children to absorb and act from seemingly opposite sets of beliefs.

     Most of us have been to parking lots where someone has angled their car so that it takes up two spaces. The driver believes that if he parks that way, no one will put a ding on the side of his car. A number of us who see an automobile parked in that fashion respond from a belief that the driver who did that is a self-absorbed, inconsiderate jerk, particularly if we see this on a very busy day at the Annapolis Mall. Remember, beliefs will mold our behavior.

     With Mother's Day upon us today, we need to examine as a society what may be destroying the physical health of many of our nation's younger women. Few people are doing anything about it, but we sure do know how to dispense medications to them. Let me frame this for you.

     The other day I stood in a line that was nine people deep at the Bowie Post office. A woman in front of me had several packages she wanted to mail. That is not all she had. She had a little girl who looked to be about three and on her arm was an infant carrier with her newborn in it. The little girl was filled with questions about everything in the post office so I was able to watch the skills blossom from this very patient mother.

     Since her baby sister was being held, the little girl was quite insistent on having equal time. So up into her arms came the 3-year-old. At this point I said, "You have to be kidding me? There is no need for you to go to a gym for a work out, is there?" She said, "No, there isn't. But you have to do what you have to do."

     Now suppose we added to that mother's load, a daily two-hour commute, an eight-hour job, family meals to plan and prepare, a house to maintain, and the schedules of the children to coordinate. Then suppose she is married to a spouse who has not changed his beliefs about a woman's role in the home.

     How interesting that a new, mysterious illness has surfaced, an illness that is gender specific. Up until about 12 years ago, it did not exist at the levels it does today. In fact, providers are divided over what the symptoms mean. Currently many physicians are treating it with medications which successfully mask the symptoms of the disorder. And for the lack of a better name, the medical community is calling it "fibromyalgia."

     How far will we stretch the belief that we can keep adding and adding to the load of these young mothers without taking anything away? Her body is screaming, and we are turning a deaf ear to its sounds, preferring instead expensive medications. If there is a person who needs celebrating today it is our mothers. And maybe more of us need to work with greater resolve to remove the causes of her massive amounts of stress rather than medicating her. She will break, and it is my observation that many of them are in the process of doing that.

     Every behavior from aggressive driving to gossip, from our volunteering to taking night courses at the local college or university is rooted in some belief. All of us should routinely exam not only what we are doing but also why we are doing it. Some beliefs serve us enormously, while others tarnish our personalities and build barriers that will prevent our growth. As we have suggested, some beliefs can even destroy us.

     We mistakenly think that beliefs that have withstood the test of time should be looked upon as truth. Some of these beliefs are excellent, while others have caused wars, wars resulting from centuries of people holding on to fear, mutual mistrust, and hatred. The one interesting quality about beliefs is that they can change. When they change, we change. This is how we grow.

     A number of years ago, Janice Romanosky gave me a quote from Tim Galway's book, The Inner Game of Tennis. Tim urges us to be gentle and generous with ourselves. He has a beautiful way of expressing how we are "a work in progress," always changing, growing and evolving.

     We cannot grow if we maintain all the beliefs that we developed along the way. For example, low self-esteem is nothing more than a collection of energy destroying beliefs we hold about ourselves. God did not wire us this way. We have managed to create such beliefs by ourselves by taking cues for who we are from our environment rather than growing our identities from within. Listen to what Tim wrote:

When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as "rootless and stem less." We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed.

When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don't condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear.

We stand in wonder at the process taking place, and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is born until the time it dies. Within it, at all times, is contained its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.

     This means that it is okay to be confused over what we believe. Never allow anyone to make you fearful because you are not as clear in what you believe as they appear to be! Equally, it is fine to give up certain beliefs if they no longer help us to build character, or inspire abilities to be more loving and peaceful men and women, or enable us to reach out in service to others.

     We must remember that because of their ability to change, beliefs have clay feet. Beliefs do not represent truth; they are only assumptions about truth. They are meant to guide us until we discover something that is more life-enhancing. This happens, for example, when children finally learn the meaning of the word, "No." Like the rose seed, God designed us to grow, to move forward until we are mature enough to bear fruit.

     One of the statements that has circulated on the landscape of our language in recent years is, "Learn to think outside of the box." We have all heard that. Another statement is, "Learn to color outside of the lines." Children only delay their creative expression when they are given drawings to color. The same delay occurs when adults have to mold themselves to existing patterns, rules and guidelines.

     History has dramatically shown that every creator in our world's society whether in business, science, parenting, or in the service of God has broken many of the existing rules. And this includes Jesus Christ, who on a number of occasions set the rules aside that governed what it means to live "the holy life." He would say, "You have heard it said . . . but I say . . ."

     This morning, we are confronted in the Book of Acts with a major shift in beliefs. In fact, this recorded episode could possibly be the greatest shift of all time when it comes to the expansion and form of our faith. The Apostle Peter had to encourage his peers to think beyond the constraints of their current beliefs. He had to challenge them to move through their need to protect beliefs that were time-honored for hundreds of years.

     Think of the challenge! Think of how difficult it is for us to change our beliefs. We resist strongly. We become fearful if someone asks us to change what we believe lies at the root of our faith. Perhaps if we understood our own resistance to change, we could more appreciate why some people were so highly motivated to crucify Jesus. To them he was the "anti-Christ."

     When Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was confronted with a number of rumors that had clearly placed him in violation of century-old beliefs. They said, "You were a guest in the home of Gentiles and you even ate with them?" Jews were not allowed to enter the home of a non-Jew, let alone eat with them. Peter had engaged in heresy, of picking and choosing from among cherished traditions what to believe and what not to believe.

     Peter tried to convince his listeners that God had given him a greater, more inclusive vision. Not all of them believed him. As a result, the Jerusalem Church maintained its orthodoxy and died. The Gentile churches established by the Apostle Paul flourished throughout the Greco-Roman world. The message of Jesus sprouted and mutated as it became the leaven for the loaf in many cultures.

     The bench-mark belief that was mentioned in our Gospel lesson today was, "Learn to love one another as I have loved you." Jesus gave his life that we might understand that message. That belief, regardless of all others we hold, is timeless and will not change. This one belief will put humanity in harmony with its Creator. This one belief will save us from the possible devastating consequences of many other beliefs that we claim have equal value.

     One of the most significant current events that has taken place recently was when the Pope entered an Islamic mosque. This was the first time in history a Pope has done that. Think about that! Where has the Church been? Perhaps we have been so busy wanting to take the message to others in the world that we have failed to make that message visible in our own lives. Beliefs are what separate people. As beliefs change, their clay feet will be revealed. And change they will!

     If leaven refused to mix and become one with the other ingredients in the dough there would never be any yeast-based bread to eat. Jesus gave us that image. Are we practicing it? Are we here to serve one another as we claim? The great temptation, of course, is to use our theology to manipulate others into being who we want them to be. Beliefs like these build walls and destroy the means of substantive communication.

     Beliefs are like rungs in a ladder. A number of them are like cocoons that protect us during our spiritual infancy. They change as our awareness grows. Paul tells us that the day will come when "we put away our childish ways."

     I have a cartoon in my office showing two butterflies talking. As they are flying together, the one is saying to the other, "All that stuff we learned as caterpillars -- none of it applies!" Perhaps that is more true than we realize.

     Our lesson today is extremely powerful. Some beliefs will imprison us, while others enable us to fly. I ask all of you to take time to examine what you believe. What life-enhancing skills have your beliefs given you? And which ones build barriers that prevent you from loving "those who are least among us?"

     Peter was urging the followers of Jesus to move through their resistance. Only some of his listeners did. Because the few were courageous enough to move forward, we are here today. We are the descendants of those ancient Gentile churches. Thanks be to God!

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     We thank you Lord, for these moments when we come to you as a church family. Each of us has our own cutting edges. We each have those personal areas that invite us to stretch in our life skills. There are times when we are confused about what to believe. There are moments when change is unsettling. We have occasions when our choices are not easy, and our indecision causes pain and stress. Lift us above such fears so, that we might radiate more joy. Teach us that who we are is far more important than achieving any desired outcome. May we understand that we do not control many of our true successes. Thank you, God, for being the creator and for allowing us to be in fellowship with you as the drama of life unfolds. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     We thank you loving God, for placing in our midst the opportunity for us to experience a day of rest. Not many of us honor that commandment. In fact, our Sabbaths frequently become our catch-up dayŚ the day we try to complete all the chores that have been gaining on us. With timid smiles on our faces, we often confess to you that our Sunday violations are justified as our "ox in the ditch."

     Today we honor our mothers who have laughed through the ages at the possibility that a day of rest existed. As we look upon this woman who carried us, who nurtured us once we were born, and who took time to make visible whatever form of love she had thus far refined, we thank you for her. Sometimes we have praised her, and sometimes we have blamed her for who we are. Yet we know that the attitude and spirit we direct toward our memory of her is reflective only of the distance we have come spiritually.

     We thank you for giving us life and for everyone who taught us how to laugh at ourselves, to find joy in the simple elements of life, to appreciate beauty in whatever form we find it, to love music and to value the friendship of caring people. We thank you for those who have shown us the value of stretching to unreachable heights, confident that one day your will will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .