Most of you know that the readings from scripture that we share here each Sunday are not chosen by us. Those readings come from a book that's called the Revised Common Lectionary. And it's called the Common Lectionary because most of the Christian denominations follow this lectionary. I really love that. I love that every Sunday thousands of Christians around the world – Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, UCC – we're all focused on the same readings every Sunday. I think there's a great power in that.
So if you've been coming to Douglas UCC for a while, you know that our Call to Worship every Sunday comes from the lectionary reading from the book of Psalms. Our first scripture reading usually comes from the Old Testament, and our second scripture reading comes from the New Testament.
Now, I usually focus the message of my homily on the New Testament reading, on the Gospels, the teachings of Jesus. But today, I'm going to do something different. Today, I'm going to be focusing my message on the Old Testament reading, the reading about Jacob's Ladder, because it only comes around every three years. And it's one of my favorite stories.
Again, it's so full of symbolism and meaning, and I am looking forward to talking about it with you this morning. But before we get to that, I do want to touch briefly on the Gospel reading for today. It is on the front cover of your bulletin, the wheat and the weeds.
This is a continuation of the teachings Jesus started last Sunday. If you were with us last Sunday, we were talking about the parable of the sower. And then Jesus immediately goes into this other parable, the parable of the wheat and the weeds.
Sometimes it's referred to as the parable of the tares, T. A R. E. S. Tares are weeds that look like wheat. Now, if you were with us last Sunday, I shared that quote that said, “Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are seeds, you can grow flowers, or you can grow weeds.” It's your choice, you get to choose. And so here Jesus is saying, ‘Discern. Discern whether your thoughts, your behaviors, your actions, are things that are nurturing you, feeding you, good for you. Or are they weeds? Are they not good for your growth? Are they choking you?’
Jesus is saying, discern those things, pull the weeds out and burn them away. And then water and nurture the wheat, the good seeds.
Now we're going to talk more about this next Sunday. Because next Sunday, there's another parable about seeds. Jesus talks to us about the parable of the mustard seed. That's next Sunday.
But let's get into the story of Jacob's Ladder. This is a story Jesus would have known well, since he was a little boy. Jesus, as you all know, was Jewish. And all good Jewish people knew this story, because it came from the Torah. The Torah is the first five books of what we now call the Bible. It was written more than a thousand years before Jesus lived. Now these stories of the Torah, if you notice, they're full of very dramatic images. So we've got talking snakes, and burning bushes, and parting seas and ladders to heaven. And of course, the Scripture writers were doing that on purpose, because most people a thousand years before Jesus couldn't read or write.
They wanted these stories to be remembered and shared and passed on. And youremember those stories with those powerful, dramatic images. But none of the people back then believed that those things were true. They didn't believe there was literally a talking snake or a burning bush.
It is only in our lifetimes that people have started to interpret Scripture literally. The ancient people did not. They understood these stories were symbolic.
So let's look at the symbolism in the story of Jacob's Ladder. Jacob is out in the wilderness. We hear about the wilderness throughout the Bible. Moses goes out into the wilderness, Jesus goes to the wilderness, all of the prophets in the wilderness, they experienced the presence of God, and they hear the voice of God. We see it throughout the Bible.
So where is the wilderness?
Well, a lot of people say, ‘I guess the wilderness is the forest, the woods.’ Now, certainly, if you've ever been out in the woods alone, I'm sure you have felt the presence of God. When you're alone in creation, you feel the presence and power of God is so tangible. That's really what the scripture writers were trying to express with “the wilderness.” It's really a place that is untouched by human activity. So yes, a mountaintop, out into the desert, the forest, places where there isn't a lot of human activity, we get a more full, conscious contact with the divine.
So Jacob is out in the wilderness, and he sees this long ladder going up into heaven. So where is it? Where is this place? Well, our Celtic friends, they refer to these wilderness places as “thin places,” Meaning the veil between the earthly and the spiritual is very thin. So in this place Jacob experiences this ladder. Where is the ladder? Well, if you subscribe to our weekly church newsletter, the E-Pistle, you know that this week, I shared a quote from the first century saint, St. Isaac the Syrian. And he said, “The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is hidden deep within you. Dive down deep into your soul, and you will discover the steps with which to ascend.”
He wrote that in the first century. Again, I tell you, I know sometimes people online accuse me of preaching New Age theology. This is old age, okay? A first century Christian says the ladder to the kingdom of heaven is hidden within you. And Jesus told us that. Jesus said,” The kingdom of God, God's dwelling place is within you.”
Why are you looking outside for it? It's within you. And it's why Jacob, in this reading says, how awesome is this place? God is in this place, and I didn't know it. This is the gate of heaven. That's what he says. Do you understand the story of Jacob's Ladder is to let us know something so amazing. God's presence is within you. How awesome is that? God is in this place. This is the gate of heaven.
We heard in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, about the seven chakras that our eastern brothers and sisters speak of. I don't think there's any coincidence that Jacob's Ladder has seven rungs. A seven is a very spiritual number. It symbolizes spiritual completion. There are seven steps to our spiritual ascension. Now, the chakras are the seven energy centers that run along the spine. So in yoga – which means union with God – a yogi sits in the lotus position with the root chakra, which is at the base of the spine, touching the earth.
And the purpose of yoga is to align the chakras along the spine, up to the crown chakra, the place of enlightenment. Monks would shave their hair there, and Jewish men wear a yarmulke, it is because of that sacred spot. And so in yoga, in meditation, the person practicing yoga is trying to open up those channels between the earthly and the divine.
In the Jacob's Ladder story, we see angels ascending and descending the ladder. It indicates the flow, that flow of energy, that flow of love between the earthly and the spiritual. And that, my friends, is what we're attempting to do in prayer.
That's why every Sunday, I'm talking to you about the importance of finding time each day, to enter into the kingdom of heaven within you, to go into the wilderness. You don't have to go into the forest or up to Mount Baldhead. I mean, it's great if you want to do that. But the gate to the kingdom of heaven is within you.
We enter into that kingdom in the silence, in the darkness. And when we're there, what we're attempting to do is open up those channels between the earthly and the divine so that we can experience that flow, so that we can experience more fully God's presence, and hear God's voice.
This spiritual ascension is a process. It's not a race. It's not a competition. Some people in this room are on the first or second rung of the ladder, others of you are at a place of higher consciousness, maybe you're at the fourth or fifth rung. But the important thing to remember is, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, God is with you and within you. So the important thing is to keep climbing, keep rising in consciousness.
That's what I'd like to invite you to do this week. I would like you to find time to go into the wilderness. If you want to take a nature walk by yourself, great, but you don't need to, you just need to find a chair in your house. Close your eyes, dive down deep within, stand before the gate of heaven, so that you can open yourself up more fully to that flow of divine love and light. For the presence of God is with you and within you.
Let us rise up to a higher place, a higher place of consciousness and understanding. May it be so.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
Rev. Thomas Shepherd
In today’s reading from Genesis, Jacob has a dream in which he envisions a great ladder reaching up to heaven. This is a wonderful and important image—both for Jacob and for us. Jacob, having manipulated his father Isaac to bestow on him the blessing that by law should have gone to his brother Esau, is fleeing from his brother's wrath. He is forced to leave all the material things—money, authority, power—that he had been struggling to claim as his own. He is alone in the wilderness, and only now can he 'remember' his true identity as an expression of eternal Spirit. Since the ladder has seven steps, many spiritual teachers have suggested that the ladder represents the seven chakras, which our Eastern siblings believe are the energy centers that run along the spine and lead towards enlightenment. Like the seven chakras, the seven rungs of Jacob’s ladder lead you from earth to heaven by raising your consciousness higher and higher. There are indications throughout scripture—from the seven days of creation to the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation—that there are consistently seven stages in our spiritual development while we are here in mortal form. We move consistently upward as we become more and more expressive of our true Spirit nature. In Jacob’s dream, angels not only descend to him from God, but also ascend in the other direction. It's important to realize that the energy, like the angels, flows in both directions. We don't leave our lower chakras behind; we transform them through the spiritual awareness we receive as we move higher.
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