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Sermons

From Appearance to Reality

October 07, 2007

Bible Reading

Now no plant of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no herb had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth, and there was no one to work the ground; but a stream would come up from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

And the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

(Genesis 2:5-9)

When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, "Where will we buy bread for these people to eat?" He asked this only to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a little bit!"

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "Here is a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, but how far will they go among so many?"

Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down, about five thousand in all.

(John 6:5-10)

Reading from Swedenborg

If we are worldly and bodily-minded, we say at heart: "Unless I am taught about faith and about things that belong to faith through sensory evidence, so that I see for myself--that is, by facts so that I understand for myself--I am not going to believe." We confirm ourselves in this attitude from the consideration that natural phenomena cannot be at variance from spiritual ones. In other words, we wish to learn about heavenly and divine matters from sensory evidence.

But this is no more possible than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. The more we want become wise by this method, the more we blind ourselves, until in the end we believe nothing--not even in the existence of anything spiritual or in eternal life. This arises out of the basic assumption we make. This is eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the more we eat of it, the more dead we become.

But if we wish to be made wise, not from the world, but from the Lord, we say at heart that we must believe the Lord--that is, those things the Lord has spoken in the Word--because they are true. This is the basic assumption of our thinking. We confirm ourselves by means of rational, factual, sensory, and natural evidence, and set aside things that do not strengthen our belief. (Arcana Coelestia #128)

Sermon

In the beginning there is a garden called Eden. In this garden there are two trees planted by God. The fruit of one gives life to the eater; the fruit of the other is more mysterious, in a sense: it is necessary and intended, but it also threatens to bring spiritual death.

According to Swedenborg's insights, the first tree represents life as it really is. It is the objective reality of God. The other tree represents the birth of humanity, and its fruit of knowledge represents human perception: the way that we begin to see and understand life by the lights of our subjective knowing. So right from the beginning of the sacred story, we deal with the problematical dichotomy between Reality (with a capital R) and appearance--perceptions that distort Reality, perceptions that are partial truth, perceptions that are blatant falsity even, but perceptions that the beholder believes are true, are Reality.

In modern Swedenborgian scholarship, the fruit eaten from the Tree of Knowledge has been identified as the development of the ego. Far from being a lamentable occurrence, eating this fruit is exactly what God intends. In one excellent passage, Swedenborg explains:

The Lord desires to be loved by human beings as if we were doing it on our own. So the Lord dwells with us in what is his own [this is the Tree of Life, objective Reality], which he gives to us so that we may return his love. For the divine love consists in this: that it desires that what belongs to itself should belong to humanity. And this could not happen if each of us as human beings did not feel and perceive that what comes from the Lord is seemingly our own. (Apocalypse Explained #1138.5)

Hence, the "Fall" into egodom: we journey into self-hood in order to become something in ourselves, so that the journey might be made back to the Source with consciousness and with the gift of volitional choice.

Ah, but there are a few pitfalls that go with the risk of egodom. Being finite and oh-so-small, the ego comes into its own with much fear and insecurity. It learns that if it is to survive, it better plug for itself and make things happen for itself. So it gets to work in a most motivated way to pursue the personal goals of the survival of the self. In its intense need to survive, and fueled much of the time by fear and insecurity, the ego has a powerful motivation to interpret reality to suit its own ends. And we come into the classic spiritual problem frequently referred to in Swedenborg's writings that is summed up in today's sermon title: the problems created by the gap between reality and appearance--the ego's persistent tendency to distort Reality and live by appearances instead.

There is an individual whom I admire so much that at the time of his retirement I began work on a feature story summarizing his life and career, which I had planned to submit to a large newspaper. By worldly standards, this person has been extraordinarily successful, with a long and distinguished career in the business department at an Ivy League university. Yet what makes him so spiritually attractive to me is that despite his considerable accomplishments and ability (which gives rise so easily to conceit and self-centeredness), he is one of the most genuinely compassionate and giving people I have known. He takes the most extraordinary interest in whomever he meets, and he makes people feel special--especially those who are struggling.

The reason I bring his story into this morning's sermon is that he also happens to possess what I'll call a healthy dose of the competitive instinct. This certainly served him well in the hurly-burly world of higher academia, and in his frequent role on the boards of and as a consultant to some of America's best known corporations. I have also had the opportunity to play this person in tennis on a number of occasions, and in twenty years of sandlot sports playing, I have rarely competed with someone who so routinely makes questionable line calls in his own favor. Others have noticed this also. If he weren't a man of such integrity, one would suspect him of consciously cheating; but I am absolutely certain that he truly believes he is always correctly calling the play. Unfortunately, in his case there is a rather voluminous mountain of evidence that he sees the balls in a way that advances his own cause far more than the average player.

For me, it is a little vignette of Swedenborg's discussion on how the ego will see appearances of truth rather than real truth. The ego, for all the good that it does us--and in fact it gives us our life, our sense of self--for all of its precious value, can become the cause of spiritual death if it persists in trying to go under its own power, and plants itself smack dab in the center of the garden.

Does this mean that we are to endeavor to enter into an egoless state in which all sense of self disappears? That is a typical Eastern view; but though Swedenborg agrees with the ancient East that a basic issue of spiritual growth is the illusion problem, in the Christian vision of regeneration our ego and our selfhood are not annihilated. Instead, we are exhorted to transform our very necessary ego into a heavenly ego. We are given a seemingly separate ego so that we might have life and become vessels of a life. Yet, there is this special problem created by the apparently independent ego: Unless we persist in our spiritual growth and repeatedly transcend the natural tendency to put our ego into the center of our universe, we will live in an increasingly distorted universe under illusions of all kinds--illusions that lead to envy, jealously, malice, unkindness, and narcissistic love. That second tree, the Tree of Knowledge, isn't incinerated and obliterated from the garden; rather, it is to be moved to the sides of the garden, away from the center, where it had formerly displaced the Tree of Life.

But as any gardener knows, moving a living thing feels threatening to it. It takes courage; it requires risk. Sometimes it feels like it would mean losing our very life. And perhaps that is why the Bread of Life said that those who will lose their life for his sake will gain real life.

Taking that sort spiritual step seems to be presented in a historical analogy in Robert Fulghum's book Maybe, Maybe Not. He recounts the story of what many believe was the most brilliant move ever made on a chessboard. An American master, Frank Marshall, was evenly matched with a Russian chess master in a tournament many years ago. In a crucial game, Marshall found his queen under serious attack. There were several avenues of escape, and spectators assumed Marshall would choose one in devising a strategy to protect his queen--the most important offensive piece on the chessboard.

Marshall considered his move carefully for several long moments. Then, to the shock of his opponent and every spectator in the room, Marshall plunked his queen down on a square on which it could be captured by any one of three of his opponent's pieces. Marshall had sacrificed his queen--an unthinkable move!

But it was quickly apparent that Marshall's move was just the thing to usher in his salvation. For no matter how the queen was taken, his opponent would soon be in a losing position. And if the opponent did not take the queen, Marshall's queen was then in a position to devastate his opponent's defense. Realizing the inevitable, not another move was made. The opponent rose and conceded the game. The call to live spiritually likewise requires a risking of that which feels most powerful to our survival--yet this turns out to be the very act that saves us.

This all relates very closely to the sacrament of communion. Communion is intended to be a specialized ritual means by which we grow in sensing how we, as finite beings who are yet immortal, relate to the infinite, to Reality--a Reality that became personified for us in the person of the Lord. About the greatest revelation we can have is that we are because God is. Throughout his gospel, John urges us to perceive the Lord as a powerful conduit to Reality, to the infinite. Jesus said, "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35). "Without me [meaning without authentic connection to the real Divine essence] you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

Swedenborg tells us in his chapter in True Christian Religion on the Holy Supper that Communion as a correspondential act is especially suited for facilitating a commitment to repentance. This brings us full circle back to the Garden of Eden. Reasserting the Tree of Life into the center position cannot happen without a regular sense of repenting of the ego's waywardness and bringing it back to reality. Repentance literally means "to turn," and salvation is described by Swedenborg as a reversal of the turn that we made when we gained our selfhood--when we turned by necessity away from an infant-like oceanic oneness with the Divine in developing our ego. Salvation will require a certain turning again, a transformed relationship to Reality--now again at the center of all things--with our now-strong and sturdy Tree of Knowledge properly at the sides of the garden, drawing in its sustenance with clarity.

In the beginning, there is a garden called Eden. And in this garden there are two trees. Both are planted by God. Both are meant to grow and flourish.

Prayer

Dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we are so far from the oneness that we had with you in our mother's womb, and in our infancy. We are painfully aware that we have placed our ego in the center of our lives, and that we allow it to guide and control many of our feelings, thoughts, and actions. We have fallen from the lovely garden of delight that you created for us.

Help us, Lord, not to destroy our ego, but to transplant it from its position in the center of our lives. Help us to move back into the center that primeval, instinctual knowledge that we are not the center of the universe, but you are. Help us to plant the Tree of Life, the tree of true Reality, firmly in the center of our hearts, minds, and lives. Amen.

Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence