Our readings today include some of the pretty basic teachings of Christianity: The Ten Commandments and the Gospel parable of the tenants who defied the owner of the vineyard. Together the message seems pretty stark: listen up and fly right. For many of us, our religious childhood started with the Nativity and Noah’s ark, then jumped straight to the rules and list of things we ought to get busy and do. Work in that vineyard, pay the rent, obey the big guy. These were the first steps of our Christian life. Good steps, but is it enough?
Even for we Christians, the world today seems to be full of worry, tension and anxiety. Studies tell us that young folks - and old - are anxious, not sleeping, worried, worried, worried. I see that in the research I do for health companies. Something is missing, and whether we call it security, or “being seen” or having a purpose in life, we’re all looking for something. There’s a nagging something we’re missing. And maybe we find that the basic first steps of our Christian faith aren’t helping with that missing something. Yet we’re told 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.” Overdrive. 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. I’m on a roll so I’ll call them 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. The stage where we fall in love with those sportscars.
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, the psychologist’s top gear. 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.
Scripture suggests otherwise. Humans are not like other animals. We have more stages or gears at our command than we know how to measure. And without a measure, the psychologists can’t study these gears. Scripture suggests we have additional gears which 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, whales, and even elephants don’t have. A sense that does not reveal itself in an MRI or EEG or microscope. I think it’s hunger for and receptivity to the divine voice, to God’s presence. Divine ears. It’s like a mental gear available to us at almost any age. One more gear. Overdrive. And we can shift up.
We know we should pray more. We know we want to hear the divine voice. We know God is right there, right here, waiting for us to just look up. But we are too busy.
One of the Ten Commandments in today’s reading may seem a little out of place at first reading. Nine of the ten commandments caution us to respect God, respect other people, and especially honor our parents. Stuff to do. One commandment institutes the idea of a Sabbath: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. Sabbath is the time to stop doing, reach out to God, listen to the divine voice and be refreshed.
Scholars believe this was the first time a religious or political authority, instead of requiring work, had required rest. We should pay attention.
When we think about it, God took a break on the Sabbath. After six days of creating Creation, God rested. God took a break. Probably put His feet up and had a drink. God didn’t say he was finished with Creation. He was pleased with the first six stages of Creation and particularly happy with the start of humanity. But God turned the finishing touches of Creation over to us. It’s our job now to pitch in and cooperate with God. We’ve been given both the tools and the instructions to move evolution forward. Creation isn’t over.
Human evolution happens in the firmware of the brain and software of the mind as well as the hardware of the skeleton. We have the skeletal hardware of the Human. We have the neural operating system. But we haven’t yet integrated the application software. I think Jesus gave us a new app. And Jesus explicitly reminded us we were not yet perfect, not God’s finished product. We want to be rich. Jesus says it’s better to be poor. We get a kick out of crushing the opposition. Jesus tells us to practice turning the other cheek. We cheer ecstatically for our team to win and hoot the opposition. We want success and prosperity. But we’re still anxious and worried. Something is missing. Our Psalm today has a reminder:
"The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and dripping of the honeycomb.”
Our faith teaches that missing something can be found; maybe the clue is in that Sabbath commandment, the call to shift into our spiritual gear.
We long for something that quiets the noise around us and makes us receptive to God’s constant presence and action in our lives. We have hints and glimpses of unseen 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 spiritual 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 shift up to our spiritual gear.
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 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.
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!
Yes, I know there really aren’t gears in our brains. But I like it as a car metaphor. So how do we do this? How do we shift gears and access the spiritual dimension? There are many tried and effective ways of doing this. You just have to decide to do it. Prayer. Listening. Whether our vehicle is contemplation or spoken thanks to God for this or that, or adoration or a repetitive prayer or simply sitting in peace with God, we have the gears to soar.
As Presbyterians we tend to be wordy, orderly and intellectual in our prayers. We’re really good at that. This is good. Our Sunday service itself allows little time for silent worship. We pray with words and music. All good, very good. But we also need time 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.
Make the choice to shift up. It’s a decision. When we make the decision to shift, to let God enter our conversation, our thinking, the 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. Don’t we all long for that sense of peace and rest?
Katie came across a short expression of this profound truth recently. I think everyone here today knows this truth in their heart. It’s the fundamental need that’s going unsatisfied for the “spiritual but not religious” Nones, for those fighting off the religious impulse. It explains the stress, the sleeplessness, the existential anxiety so many people are experiencing today. Here’s the quote:
In the heart of every person, there is a desire to be in union with God. Such a union is realized and deepened by a life of prayers. Such a summons to prayer is as necessary and essential to human flourishing as breathing and eating. If we neglect prayer, our souls suffocate and starve. If our souls are depleted, they cannot perform the functions for which they were made. These functions include showing faith, persevering in hope, and laboring to love others.
Prayer is the base we need to support our Christian mission of worship, adoration, charity and love. Before we can be changed into people of love, we need to shift gears to become people of prayer.