The Autonomic Spiritual System

(Sermon for Sunday, July 17, 2011 || Proper 11 Year A || Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23)

What would your life be like if you had to think consciously about every breath you take? What would your life be like if your brain had to work your lungs like your hands might work a bicycle pump? What would your life be like if you needed to be aware of each of those millions of oxygen atoms that squeeze their way into your red blood cells for their continual circuit around your body? Well, for starters, you would never be able to sleep. You might be able to get a little work done by holding your breath for thirty seconds at a time and then concentrating furiously at the task at hand. You certainly wouldn’t be able to pay attention to this sermon. But that’s okay because I wouldn’t be able to preach in any coherent fashion either.

We are blessed, therefore, that God created us with “an autonomic nervous system,” which removes breathing from the list of bodily functions that require conscious thought. Of course, you might notice your breathing after walking up a particularly long flight of stairs or during a brisk run or when you are in labor. But for the vast majority of our lives, we simply breathe and never give the miracle of respiration a second thought.

I bet your high school anatomy class covered the wonder of the autonomic nervous system. Our bodies do so many things involuntarily, and the autonomic nervous system takes care of each one of them. What I’m sure the anatomy class didn’t cover, however, is the fact that, in addition to our bodily ones, every person here also has an autonomic spiritual system. God’s presence is even more constant than breathing, and so each of us has developed an autonomic spiritual system in order to handle our relationship with God during the vast majority of our lives when we are not consciously responding to that relationship.

Unlike the autonomic nervous system, which controls breathing and other things, none of us is born with an autonomic spiritual system. When you see a child’s eyes go wide at the splash of a stone in a pond or at the scurry of a squirrel on a branch, the child is experiencing God’s presence unfiltered by the involuntary sifting of the autonomic spiritual system. As we grow up, we develop this involuntary filtration, preferring the concrete stuff of the world over the spiritual substance of God’s presence. This is why the children in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia cannot return to Aslan’s domain once they’ve reached a certain age. The cares of the world keep them from wishing to go back to Narnia, and so they never find another gateway.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jacob demonstrates that even someone a mere two generations removed from Abraham has developed the problem of the autonomic spiritual system, this involuntary sifting of God’s presence from our daily experience. Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau, whose birthright and blessing Jacob has stolen. On his way to Haran, Jacob beds down in a certain place, which must have been quite rustic considering he uses a rock for a pillow. During the night, Jacob dreams of a ladder filled with angels going back and forth between earth and heaven. The Lord stands next to Jacob in this dream and says to him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

Jacob wakes up and proclaims to the sky and to the rocks: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Jacob’s involuntary filtration had prevented him from noticing that presence when he went to sleep, but his dream alerts him to override his autonomic spiritual system. Just like during the brisk run when you notice your breathing, Jacob wakes up dazzled by God’s presence.

And then, as so often happens, Jacob makes a common mistake that turns the autonomic spiritual system back on. He says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jacob’s mistakes his physical location as the catalyst for his spiritual awakening. By assigning spiritual meaning to that particular rock-strewn piece of ground, Jacob fails to remember the words that God spoke to him in his dream: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” God doesn’t say: “Know that I am here. God will bring Jacob back to that land, but in the meantime, Jacob will be in God’s presence wherever he goes.

The psalmist may have had Jacob’s mistake in mind while writing Psalm 139:

Where can I go then from [God’s] Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.

The psalmist understands that God’s presence is everywhere we might go because God’s presence is everywhere. These verses, then, are the psalmist’s way of remembering that God’s hand leads us, that God’s right hand holds us fast, no matter how often we might forget to search for God. The good news is that our autonomic spiritual systems do not define our spiritual existence. We can override them by accepting the ever-present help of God. There have been people throughout time who never developed the involuntary filtration: the Church calls them saints. I’m sure you know someone the church hasn’t canonized who lives a life fully present to God, a life without an autonomic spiritual system.

But for those of us who have difficulty overriding the system, we can take solace and strength in holding fast to an essential truth: God’s presence is not dependent on our awareness of God’s presence. Our awareness only matters insofar as we are present to God. We practice this awareness by taking on disciplines that slowly wean us from our reliance on the autonomic spiritual system: counting blessings, praying at times we might otherwise not pray, appreciating the majesty of the simplest created things, loving each other without thought of reciprocation, serving those in need.

Think about the last time you were stressed out – I mean really stressed out – I mean “I have four papers due on Monday and I washed a red shirt with the whites and I’ve been stuck on the tarmac at Logan for two hours for no discernible reason” stressed out. What did your friends do? They took you for coffee or for ice cream or, perhaps, for coffee ice cream. They told you to take a couple deep breaths. They told you to focus on breathing. Everything will be alright, they said. They knew that breathing, like God’s presence, is a constant in our lives. They knew that we don’t have to focus on constant things in order for those constant things to continue happening. But they also knew that when we do focus on those constant things, we often find peace – peace and new beginnings.

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