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Monday, July 24, 2017
Our Preexisting Condition
A Sermon on Jacob’s Dream (Genesis 28:10-19) and Psalm 139
By Griff Martin
For the People of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On Sunday July 23, 2017
The Fifth Sunday Following Pentecost
Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing Resurrected reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Risen Christ and the Comforter. Amen.
The great black contemplative theologian Howard Thurman sums it up like this: “The individual lives his life in the midst of a wide variety of stresses and strains. There are many tasks in which he is engaged that are not meaningful to him even though they are important in secondary ways. There are many responsibilities that are his by virtue of training, family, or position. Again and again, decisions must be made as to small and large matters each one involves him in devious ways. No one is ever free from the peculiar pressures of his own life.”
What he says in elegant and beautiful prose, I would say like this: the human mind does not function nearly as well as we think it does, in fact I might go so far as to say it’s the original preexisting condition to being human and we are stuck with it the rest of our lives.
We used to call it monkey mind... comparing each of our thoughts to a tree branch and how we spend a great deal of our mental energy swinging from branch to branch to branch… thought to thought to thought.
And just to put that into perspective it is estimated we have about 50,000 thoughts each day, which is a lot of branches to swing from, resulting in a fairly constant state of mental exhaustion and collapse (and that 50,000 number comes from the days before we all had facebook status updates and buzzfeed quizzes to add further distractions and thoughts… as if any good has come from constantly being asked “What’s on Your Mind?” and “Which Game of Throne character best sums up your personality?”).
I’ve also heard it put it like this by the time each of us wakes up each morning, our thoughts are already wide awake and they have already had way too much coffee and they are ready to race off into the day and we spend so much energy simply trying to catch them.
And that is just the start of our preexisting condition… it simply starts with all these thoughts, it gives even sicker when we realize what we do with the thoughts, that we also think we can control most of the branches, that we can control most of the thoughts or should at least try. Because on top of having monkey mind we also have some control issues.
I won’t get too specific here because I think you already know the truth of our control issues (and if you don’t let’s have lunch soon because this is territory I know…. as a One on the Enneagram with a very strong 2 wing- which for you non Enneagram people- do those exist at First Austin- means that I am a perfectionist with a tendency to also be a people pleaser, I am someone who carries a moleskin notebook with a to do list everywhere I go and can’t leave the house until the beds are made and the dishes are done and has a pretty strong feel for how each day is supposed to go, it’s sick I know … I know this controlling thing) but just in case you need some further evidence:
- People in a controlled study about control involving lottery numbers showed incredible evidence that they believed they had more control over the outcome if they picked the lottery numbers rather than have the numbers randomly selected.
- People believe they are less likely to get into a car accident if they are driving rather than riding as passenger
- In the game of craps, people believe that if they throw the dice harder they will get a higher number whereas a softer throw will result in a smaller number.
So that is where we start: a preexisting condition of monkey mind and an addiction to control, which results in an age of fearful anxiety… Our book of Psalms knows this condition all too well. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful poetic language of our Psalm for today…”Oh Lord you have searched me and know me.” The pure beauty of this Pslam can almost make it unrelatable to us, like a painting hanging in a gallery for admiration… so make sure and hold on until the end of the Psalm, “Search me God and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts.” Here the Psalm lands and it’s a place we all know well.
Anxiety, experiencing worry or fear or uneasiness about something that you can’t control, something that might not even happen, something that is so long in the past that it only matters to you, something you once read about on WebMD, something that probably won’t ever happen but just in case you need to have a plan for, something that has 10 different outcomes and you need to know what you are going to do in all 10 outcomes, something you wish you had said to that person you were just arguing with yesterday or 10 years ago, something you plan to say next time, worries over bills and your to do list and your job and your relationship…
And if we boil it all down all this anxiety comes back to our fears, our sense of unworthiness and our lack of trust. And if I am not stepping on your toes yet, you need to listen better. Because this is us, this is being human.
So Lord search us and discover our monkey minds, know us and find our addiction to control, test us and know our anxious thoughts. It’s enough to make me want a nap, which might be exactly what God wants as well, salvation through sleep- and trust me this is very much a theological thing.
In our Old Testament text for this morning Jacob is on the move from a brother who is angry with him because of a birthright and a blessing that he manipulated and stole, from a father that he lied to, from a mother who he has now put in an impossible situation, he is running from a past that he has worked so hard to leave.
And we find him running from that past. And he is embodying all that it means to be human at the start of this text…everything that he has worked so hard to perfectly control has not yet given him what he is looking for, he has no one in the world to trust and his mind is racing a million different directions. He’s anxious and he is exhausted.
And he is out of his element, he is in the wilderness and that is Esau’s ground, not his.
So he runs and runs until he can’t run anymore. And he might have outraced his dad and Esau, but he has not outraced his own mind. And then finally the world around him reflects the darkness that he feels inside and he stops for the night, he can’t go any further.
And before he can even select a stone for a pillow, he is out. We know this place- anxiety, worrying, controlling… it’s exhausting work to trick yourself into thinking the world revolves around you and if you stop everything falls apart. So he falls asleep, to the place where worrying ceases, he gives up control, to a place one theologian titled “vulnerable yielding.”
And it’s here that Jacob encounters God in that state of vulnerable yielding, in the place where he can’t control anything, in the place where God’s voice can finally be heard because all the other voices have finally stopped.
And here Jacob has this dream of a ladder where up and down and up and down angles go, from here to heaven, and suddenly Jacob understands it, this dream that promises a divine reality all around him, this promise that God is ever with him and God will never leave him and God is going to hold nothing back… there could be no better promise.
And with everything in me I believe this is the same promise that God wants to make over you and me this day: “I am with you and I will never leave you and I am going to hold nothing back from you.” But the key is for us to hear that promise we have to get to that state of vulnerable yielding.
We have to let go. We have to quiet our monkey mind. We have to release our anxiety. We have to stop listening to the million voices in our mind. We have to give up control. We have to be willing to waste some time. We have to rest. We have to be willing to do some wayward wandering. We have to surrender to a place where we can finally hear.
And I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like the very invitation of salvation. That is exactly what my soul needs.
To me this sounds like the words of our Jesus: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And it’s time we took Jesus up on that offer of rest and the healing of vulnerable yielding…. The only healing of our preexisting condition.
The text today might make us ask one of the hardest questions we face in our lives: what all might we see if we did not have to be in control?
And what a great question. What would I see if I gave up control? What would you see if you gave up control? What would this church see if we finally gave up control?
Think back to when you first learned to float on the water. You watched others do it with such grace and you tried and tried. Everyone gave you advice but it did not work for longer than a second. Because floating in the water is not something you can do if you are working to do it, it’s not something you can control. It’s something you release to, it’s a surrender.
And so is the life of faith… a surrender of being in control, a healing of the anxious mind, a release from all the worries and fears and concerns that form the narrative of our minds… because God has something better for us.
Instead of being the center of life, we get to be servants of life.
Instead of being held captive by our thoughts, we can be set free by Christ.
Instead of monkey mind, we can have the mind of Christ.
Instead of fear we can have faith.
Instead of worrying we can have the Way.
Instead of controlling we have following.
It’s the words of our mystic father Meister Eckhart: “the spiritual life has more to do with subtraction than addition.”
Perhaps today’s text would be best accompanied by a poem a friend recently introduced me to, a poem that just might be the clearest picture of God’s activity in our world that I have ever encountered, a poem by Georgia poet David Swanger, simply titled “What The Wing Says.”
The wing says, "I am the space behind you,
a dent in the fender, hands you remember
for the way they touched you. You can look
back and song will still throb. I am air
moving ahead, the outermost edge of desire,
the ripple of departure and arrival. But
I will speak more plainly: you think you are
the middle of your life, your own fulcrum,
your years poised like reckonings in the balance.
This is not so: dismiss the grocer of your soul.
Nothing important can be weighed, which is why
I am the silver river of your mornings and
the silver lake curled around your dark dreams.
I am not wax nor tricks stolen from birds.
I know you despair at noon, when sky overflows
with the present tense, and at night as you lie
among those you have wronged; I know you have failed
in what matters most, and use your groin to forget.
Does the future move in only one direction?
Think how roots find their way, how hair spreads
on the pillow, how watercolors give birth to light.
Think how dangerous I am, because of what I offer you."
What an invitation…. This is exactly what my soul needs today.
My testimony this morning is that every time I have gotten myself in a corner either through worrying too much, planning too much, anxiety, control- the demons that I know best…. My salvation has always come through letting go, through release and through surrender.
To find the place where God is all around me, to hear the God who is always speaking to me, to find the God that is just waiting for me to surrender. To find myself just like Jacob, looking around and realizing I am on holy ground and God has a calling for me if only I can get myself out of the way.
And if we are quiet this morning, if we can get to that place of yielding vulnerability, we will once again discover that God is all around us and God has dreams for what we can do with our lives.
May we still our minds, may we quiet our souls, may we release our grip, may we let go, may we surrender so we can finally see all that God offers us. Amen and Amen.
*artwork: Jacob's Ladder, 2014 Painting by Yoram Raanan, yoramraanan.com