2-25-18 Adult Cathedral Sermon

Abram and Lot Separate: Growing Understanding Leads to Better Choices
By the Rev. Eric H. Carswell
February 25, 2018

Now the land was not able to support [Abram and Lot], that they might dwell together, for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together. And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. (Genesis 13:6-7)

This is the third in a series of sermons about the spiritual journey each of us is to follow on our way to heaven. The series is part of the story of Abram’s life as recorded in the book of Genesis. The first sermon was on the call of Abram when the Lord told him to leave the city of Haran and travel a long distance to the land of Canaan. The Lord promised him wonderful blessings for obeying this call. It represents an event that can happen many times in each of our lives. It represents a subtle realization that something isn’t what it should be in the way we are living our lives. A person can first be aware of a lurking consciousness that he lacks the wisdom and judgment that he needs to better serve his loved ones. A person can be aware that she spends way too much time fretting and fuming over relatively trivial inconveniences. It could be that a person has a dawning awareness that some important role in his life isn’t at all what is could or should be. Whenever we turn our minds to these sorts of quiet awareness as they flit through our consciousness, it is like hearing the Lord calling us to change. Abram’s journey to Canaan represents the growing strength of motivation to attend to what needs to be changed.

The second sermon dealt with the famine in the land of Canaan that forced Abram and his family to journey to Egypt. This famine represents the lack of knowledge or understanding that inevitably faces a person when he or she is first recognizing some need for change. Caring about the need for change is an essential first step, but caring by itself is like undirected and un-contained energy that is rapidly dispersed, accomplishing little. Abram journeyed to Egypt looking for food. This represents a person learning or reflecting on what he has already learned. It especially refers to a person learning those things from the Lord’s Word that he would never recognize on his own. The power of our God-given intellectual abilities to learn and reflect is tremendous, but there is also a danger carried within learning. Abram feared that some man seeing the beauty of his wife would kill him to take her. He asked that she say she was his sister. As it turned out, her beauty was recognized and Pharaoh took her to his palace. The taking of Sarai by Pharaoh represents a person getting so captivated by the learning that it becomes an end in itself to the detriment of the useful things that person should be getting to in his or her life. As it were the goal gets forgotten in the preparation. But there is a benefit hidden within this state. In the story Abram, as Sarai’s brother, was given many rich gifts by Pharaoh. Times of focused learning can provide a rich and broad array of knowledge to guide our thinking. In the story Pharaoh’s household was plagued because he had taken Sarai. Pharaoh recognized what had happened and returned Sarai, untouched, to Abram. These plagues represent the aspects of our lives that will suffer if we become captivated by learning without sufficiently using what we’ve learned.

When Abram left Egypt to return to Canaan with Sarai, his nephew Lot, and the rest of his household he was far richer than he had been when he had arrived there. But, as the story continues, this very wealth is the source of a new problem. Not only is Abram rich in livestock, but so also is Lot. As they travel together there is insufficient watering spots and good grass for all the livestock. Strife breaks out between some of Abram’s herdsmen and some of Lot’s herdsmen.

Lot, his wealth, livestock, and herdsmen, represent the life of our mind that most immediately arises from our five senses as described in the following passage from the teachings for the New Church.

“Lot” symbolizes [a person’s mental life most directly connected to the senses] that is the outer self and its pleasures which are pleasures of the senses and are therefore our most superficial aspect. They tend to ensnare us when we are young and lead us away from goodness. After all, the more we indulge in the pleasures that rise out of our cravings, the more we are distracted from heavenly qualities of love and charity. Self-love and materialism, which heavenly love can never harmonize with, permeate those pleasures. (Arcana Caelestia 1547)

The part of our mind that is like Lot inevitably makes poor decisions. The quality of these decisions can be seen in an example from the animal world. People have found a very simple way to capture a monkey without harming it. All you need to do is get a container that has a hole in it just large enough for a monkey to put its hand into. You secure the container so that the monkey is unable to run off with it. Then you put some desirable food in the container. When a monkey finds the container and the food it will reach in and grab a handful of the food. Now it cannot draw its hand out of the container. Even when a human comes to capture it the monkey will still hold onto the handful of food that keeps it captive. The monkey is so unwilling to let go of the desired food that it loses its freedom.

Lot represents a part of mind like the one fixating the monkey on his handful of food. It is a part of our mind that can lead us astray. Think of a child who is so enticed by getting candy that he will do almost anything to get it. He may fear punishment and/or a negative reaction from a parent, but he hopes not to be caught. Lot can also represent a person being too concerned with wearing the right clothes or having the right car. It is the quality represented by Lot that can keep a person warmly snuggled into bed repeatedly hitting the snooze button on the alarm when there are more important things to be done. It is the quality represented by Lot that motivates a person to watch television shows and movies that are relatively mindless or even rather corrupting providing they entertain even if very superficially.

If a person never reflects or doesn’t know enough to be able to reflect on the pleasures represented by Lot, they will drive aspects of that person’s life. But once we have been educated and especially learned what the Lord wants us to focus our lives on we can no longer mindlessly pursue what feels good in the short run and so brings shallow temporary fulfillment. Choices are forced on us.

Sometimes the learning that a person needs comes from experience. A person can slowly slide into spending habits that far exceed his income. At first the problem may not be very apparent, but eventually he will face an overwhelming debt. This should lead him to reflect on how that debt arose. He can lead him to realize that he needs to look to a fundamental change in his spending habits.

Sometimes the learning comes from the Lord’s Word as in today’s recitation from Matthew, familiar to many of you:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

A person can set her heart on an earthly treasure, for example a clean and orderly kitchen, and over and over again she will find that the course of its being used leaves it far from clean and orderly. Imagine though a person who has such a beautiful kitchen and so hates to see it messed up that she allows it to be used as little as possible. But if this keeps her children from experiencing the joy and usefulness of learning how to cook and stands in the way of the kitchen being one of the happy family gathering places, think of what is lost.

Once a person has learned that there is an alternative to old behaviors choice will be required of that person. He or she cannot simultaneously hold onto the old choices with their pleasures and fulfill the call for a higher goal and use. Something has to win out. As the Lord observed:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

The conflict between Abram’s herdsmen and Lot’s represents the impossibility of simultaneously serving both the corrupt sensual pleasure of the external person and the call of a higher life. Abram spoke to Lot offering him a choice of which way he wanted to go separate from Abram. The teachings for the New Church observes the following about his words:

Here the internal self addresses the outer here, but what it addresses are the features of the outer self that clash. This is a common occurrence among people who notice in themselves some evil [or destructive] quality from which they want to separate, as they do in times of spiritual trial and battle. (Arcana Caelestia 1580)

For many people all of these ideas would seem as nonsense. They would have no idea of the difference between the internal self and the outer one.  If people’s lives are overwhelmingly focused on things of this world and the desires of their natural body, they will not see or recognize deeper insights (Arcana Caelestia 1594).

In the story Lot looks about and sees the rich and green land around Sodom and Gomorrah and chooses to go that direction. For anyone who knows the fiery destruction that will befall those two cities this choice has to carry an ominous feeling to it. But the quality represented by Lot cannot help but make bad choices. This is why it is so important that it not direct our life. This is why the Lord calls us to seek His help in fighting its urges and supporting ideas.

Sometimes a person can have a sense that life was simpler when he was relatively ignorant. He could pretty much follow his whims and then shrug at the consequences as being inevitable–or someone else’s fault and/or problem. But once we’ve recognized the possibility of a higher and more useful life we are faced with choices. Making ever wiser choices over and over again is what helps to form a basis for a far more useful, happy, and peaceful life. But at first there will be strife and discontent.

An amazing part of the teachings of the New Church about this story from Genesis is that this challenge that we face in our lives is also one that the Lord, Jesus Christ faced while in the world. He had to recognize the hereditary inclinations He had from being born of Mary and fight against them as we do. His spiritual battles from childhood through to the end of His life on the cross re-established the spiritual freedom we all have to choose between the perspectives represented by Abram and Lot. The teachings for the New Church are clear that this is how the Lord became our savior and redeemer. Through His life and spiritual battles each of us have the possibility of choosing a heaven-bound life.

May we seek to ever better understand the spiritual pathway that the Lord would lead us on toward a heavenly life. May we learn ever better what He wants us to do and not do. May we use this knowledge to make good choices. Through it all may we ever trust that the Lord will be there to guide us and strengthen us. He will guide us towards lasting happiness and a useful and fulfilling life.  AMEN.

Lessons: Genesis 13:1-16, Arcana Caelestia 1568

Genesis 13:1-16
13:1  Then Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, to the South. 2  Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. 3  And he went on his journey from the South as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, 4  to the place of the altar which he had made there at first. And there Abram called on the name of the LORD. 5  Lot also, who went with Abram, had flocks and herds and tents. 6  Now the land was not able to support them, that they might dwell together, for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together. 7  And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. . .

8  So Abram said to Lot, “Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren. 9  Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me. If you take the left, then I will go to the right; or, if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.” 10  And Lot lifted his eyes and saw all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere (before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah) like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt as you go toward Zoar.  11  Then Lot chose for himself all the plain of Jordan, and Lot journeyed east. And they separated from each other.
12  Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent even as far as Sodom. 13  But the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the LORD. 14  And the LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are–northward, southward, eastward, and westward; 15  for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. 16  And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.

 Arcana Caelestia 1568

The land could not sustain them, [to allow them to] live together, means that different aspects of [a person’s] deeper, heavenly dimension could not coexist with those things, that is, with the things that Lot symbolizes here. . . .

The outer self has many characteristics that the inner self can live with. Positive emotions and the pleasures and gratifications that rise out of them are an example, because they are effects of the inner self’s good qualities and of its joys and blessings. When they are the effects of these things, they correspond to them perfectly, and then the inner rather than the outer self lays claim to them. After all, an effect results not from an effect but from an efficient cause, as is recognized. For example, when neighborly love shines out from the face, it is not the face that is respon­sible but the love lying within and so shaping the face and causing the effect . . .] On the other hand, there are also many elements that are out of harmony, or that the inner self cannot live with. Take everything that wells up out of self-love and materialism. Anything from that source focuses on oneself and the world as its goal. With this goal the heavenly impulses of love for the Lord and love for one’s neighbor are incompat­ible. The latter look to the Lord, and to his kingdom and everything belonging to him, as their goal.

Self-love and materialism look either out toward the surface or downward for their aims. Love for the Lord and love for our neighbor, though, look inward or upward for their aims. This leads to the conclu­sion that they clash too sharply ever to coexist.

To learn what creates correspondence and agreement between your outer self and your inner, and what creates discord, simply consider what aims predominate, or to put it another way, what type of love pre­dominates. (The different kinds of love we have are aims, since whatever we love is what we focus on as our aim.) From this you will see what kind of life you presently have, and what kind of life you will have after death. The goals or—what is the same—the types of love that predominate are what shape our life. No one’s life is ever anything else. If elements that clash with eternal life (in other words, with spiritual and heavenly life, which is eternal life) are not put aside during bodily life, they will have to be put aside in the other world. If they cannot be – put aside, we cannot help being unhappy forever.

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