July 23,2023 Aurora Sermon
I’d like to do something a little different today. Let’s take a look at one of the less emphasized aspects of our Christian life. One that I think our kids and grandkids are hungry for. Something I think that we here today are hungry for. I think we are all hungry for spiritual experience, the taste of heaven Jesus promised. We’re good at doing good works; we protest injustice, we help the needy. We worship on Sunday. We repent. We love our neighbor. But there’s a nagging something we’re missing. And it’s something God is eager to give us. So let’s take a fresh look this morning.
I will confess I love cars. Not as much as when I was 19, but I still love cars. Today, the steep fire lanes down to the lake (and Katie) limit me to a Jeep and a Subaru. Good solid cars. But as a more or less normal American male I still remember my first car love, the old dark blue Fiat 124 Spider with four on the floor.
Men my age learned to drive either on the farm John Deere with the manual clutch and stiff gear box, or on the family car with the three-speed gear shift lever on the steering column. But that beloved sports car had four on the floor. Ahhh, male bliss! Responsive. Finesse driving. Almost no need for brakes.
Multiple gears in a car allow different road speeds with the same engine speed. Once you get rolling, high gears let you cover more ground with less effort. Like a bike with 7 speeds. I’m beginning to think people also have gears that let us do more with less. Mind gears. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant by, “Come to me all you who are heavily loaded down. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me... My yoke is easy and my burden light.” Spiritual high gear.
We run our minds flat out in low gear during long stretches of life. Certainly, when we are infants our brains run fast. Everything’s new. The learning curve is straight up. A pre-school child probably doubles their information about the world every week. Sights, smells, balance, movement, enemies, layers of friends, trust, suspicion, fear, wonder. The psychologist Erik Erikson imagined humans went through eight stages of development. Sort of like gears. The first five stages are during childhood and adolescence. Emerging from the womb– the slap on the bottom is our jump-start into first gear. Early childhood is the next stage, followed by play during ages 3-6. Next comes school age, followed by adolescence. With early adulthood we shift into a sixth distinct age, or gear.
That’s the age the insurance companies call males, “The Immortals.” Turns out American males in late teens to mid-twenties behave — and drive— as if death cannot touch them.
Then Erikson lumps the entire block of adulthood from 30-64 into a seventh stage he calls Middle-Age. (I think Erikson was getting bored.) Then 65 and onward is the end, our top gear, where we either integrate and assess and make sense of our lives and the meaning of our contributions, or else fall into despair. That’s it. Shift into neutral. No more gears. No more growth.
Other psychologists imagine there are more or fewer stages, but one thing they all seem to have in common; our last gear is accessed when social security kicks in.
Scripture suggests otherwise. Humans are not like other animals. We have more stages or gears at our command than we know how to measure. Scripture suggests we have an additional gear or two available to us. These additional gears give us access to a level of reality which may not be accessible to other animals. Dogs have us beat by their nose, but humans have something going on in our brains that dogs, dolphins, horses, and even elephants don’t have. A sense that does not reveal itself in an MRI or EEG or microscope. I think it’s receptivity to the divine voice, to God’s presence. It’s like a mental gear available to us at almost any age. One more gear. Overdrive.
Think of today’s reading from Genesis. Jacob, a young man fresh from the blessing of his father, was on the road headed off to his grandfather Abraham’s extended family back in Haran to find a wife. As he traveled his mind was likely on finding a wife. But he also pondered on God’s promise to his family and his role in God’s promise. Come night, he pulled up a rock for a pillow and slept. And Jacob had a dream. Oh what a dream. In the vision Jacob sees a great ladder with angels going up from earth to heaven, and then descending again to earth. In this dream vision God confirms the promise and assures Jacob that he will inherit this promise made to his grandfather Abraham; that his descendants will possess the land of Canaan forever, and all the families of the Earth will be blessed through Jacob and Jacob’s offspring. Jacob recognizes this is not an ordinary dream, this is a vision and promise from heaven. He says “Surely the LORD is in this place … This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven“ So, Jacob, creatively, names the spot Beth El. God’s House. God is here.
Jacob’s vision on the road to Haran brings to mind Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. Maybe there’s something about being on a journey driven by a serious spiritual purpose that helps us shift into our spiritual overdrive gear. Something that quiets the noise around us and makes us receptive to God’s constant presence and action in our lives.
The ladder, by the way, is not Jacob’s ladder. It’s God’s ladder. And the angels are already here. The angels went up the ladder before coming down. They are already here. We are here. Heaven’s Gate is here. God is here. We just need to engage our spiritual eyes to see and spiritual ears to hear. As Jesus told us, the Kingdom is here, at hand.
Today’s Psalm 139 continues the theme of God’s presence here and now. It’s a whole song about “here-ness”, the everyday immanence of God in our lives:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
God is here and everywhere, always, and eager to give us a steady guiding hand. Yes, God knows us inside and out, but he is with us and will “lead me in the way everlasting.” We have hints and glimpses of unseen spiritual dimensions throughout our lives. God’s guidance is available to us all throughout our lives. As we mature, psychologists may tell us to shift into neutral, but our spiritual gears call to be engaged more fully. But we have to select that gear. How do we do it? The “how to” is less important than the decision. I think the key is to make the decision to select a spiritual gear. To use that overdrive.
Jacob was a young person on a spiritual journey. No doubt he was stressed, aware of the dangers of travel in open country and anxious about the unknowns ahead. But, he took care of himself, he made time to rest; he rolled up a stone and laid his head down.
I’m grateful to be old. One of the great blessings of older age is a release from the frenzy of youth. I believe we can pick up spiritual speed, can even begin to take flight as we mature. The spiritual gears are available all through our lives. But we are usually deeply involved in the visible, seeable, here-and-now of going to school, making a living, gossiping, dealing with what’s in front of us. Inevitably we worry, stress, have troubled sleep, too little sleep, too much anxiety – even fear.
This is the burden Jesus wants to lift from us. Excess involvement in the immediate is a daily barrier that keeps us from shifting up from the lower gears. We live much of our lives way below our enormous capacity for experiencing deeper reality. I believe as time goes on and as our lives advance, higher, unmeasurable “gears” become more accessible, more available to us. But we have to make a decision to shift.
We can see why God commanded we make the Sabbath central to our life. What better way to disengage us from the workaday and focus on the full range of life experience open to us! At least every seven days, we have been ordered to disengage from work and shift gears.
Yes, I know there really aren’t gears in our brains. But I like it as a metaphor. In another metaphor in today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus presents the parable of the good seed and the weeds, teaching why wickedness isn’t immediately done away with. How at harvest time, God’s reaping angels metaphorically pull out the weeds and discard them. Jesus uses this metaphor to teach us not to over-focus on the weeds around us. There will always be weeds. Yes, ending injustice and solving social problems are important good works. But, it’s possible to get so very focused on pulling up the weeds, that we also pull out the nourishing grain. Yes, the world is full of the weeds of evil and injustice. But we are cautioned to not get so engaged in attacking and killing weeds that in the process we unknowingly also destroy the growing plants.
Jesus reminds us that God’s angels will take care of the weeds at the right time. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the enormous human needs everywhere among us. We strive to be the good wheat, living out God’s word. But it’s important to find a balance. The good wheat needs the nourishment God has available for us and for all. Shifting into the spiritual dimension gives us access to the bread of heaven.
So how do we do this? How do we do we shift gears and access the spiritual dimension? What does it look like? There are many tried and effective ways of doing this. You just have to decide to do it.
As Presbyterians or Episcopalians we tend to be wordy and intellectual in our prayers. We’re really good at that. This is good. The Sunday service itself allows little time for silent worship. We pray with words and music. All good, very good. But we also regularly need time in every day when we disengage from our constant flow of concern and worry and thought and work. God’s Sabbath doesn’t have to wait until the weekend. We have more mental and spiritual faculties available to us than we are taught. Changing gears to access the spiritual is an act of will.
God's presence is here. God's Kingdom is here and now as well as somewhere in the eternal everlasting. We live in the presence of our Creator, with God-given purpose and our own God-given place in the Creator's plan. It's too easy to get trapped in the swirl of doing, studying and teaching, yet neglect the Good News of God's love and Presence. We can choose to shift into spiritual overdrive and into that presence and love and awe and wonder. Whether our vehicle is contemplation or adoration or repetitive prayer or simply sitting in peace with God, we have the gears to soar. Make the choice to shift up. It’s a decision. When we make the decision to shift, to let God in, our self-imposed heavy burdens fall off and we receive the light and easy yoke of Jesus. His burden is light, and we will find rest for our souls.