Trials and Fermentations

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 12, 2003


Readings

Psalm 78:1-8
I will open my mouth in parables

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
     Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
     I will utter dark sayings from of old,
Things that we have heard and known,
     That our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
     We will tell to the coming generation
The glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
     And the wonders that he has done.

He established a decree in Jacob,
     And appointed a law in Israel,
Which he commanded our ancestors
     To teach to their children;
That the next generation might know them,
     The children yet unborn,
And rise up and tell them to their children,
     So that they should set their hope in God,
And not forget the works of God,
     But keep his commandments;
And that they should not be like their ancestors,
     A stubborn and rebellious generation,
A generation whose heart was not steadfast,
     Whose spirit was not faithful to God.

Matthew 13:33-35
The parable of the yeast

He told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world."

Heaven and Hell #510, 511
Separating evil from good

After we die, we each go to the community where our spirit was while we were living in the world. In our spirit, we are actually united to some community, either heavenly or hellish. Evil people are connected with hellish communities, and good people with heavenly ones. As spirits, we are gradually brought there, and eventually we move in. . . .

The separation of evil spirits from good spirits takes place in our second stage after death. In the first stage, everyone was together. The reason is that as long as spirits are focused on external matters, it is like the situation in the world: evil people are together with good ones, and good people with evil ones. It is different when we have been brought into our inner nature, and are left to our own character and intentions.

Sermon

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. (Matthew 13:33)

Our sermon series this fall has been focusing on heaven, as expressed in images in Jesus' parables of the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of Matthew, and in plain language in Emanuel Swedenborg's book Heaven and Hell.

In a picture, dark lines and backgrounds bring out the lighter foreground image by providing contrast. In the same way, hell brings heaven into sharper relief. If we never experienced anything but good, we probably would not appreciate in. When we have experienced evil, pain, and sorrow, the good times are so much sweeter by comparison!

So today, along with our consideration of heaven, we're going to bring in a little of hell also. Even though it may not seem like it, that is what the parable of the yeast is all about. We usually think of yeast as something good. After all, it is yeast that makes our bread rise, so that we don't have to eat flat, hard bread, but can have nice, soft risen loaves that both look and taste better. It is true that the results of yeast are good. But one of the surprising revelations of the Bible's spiritual meaning is that it is actually evil that brings out this goodness. Yes, in God's economy, even evil is made to serve some good purpose.

This morning, as we explore how this works, let's look at the spiritual world first. Earlier in this series, we have talked about the approach of death, our passage into the other world, and the final judgment that each one of us faces there. Last week I mentioned that whatever is our "dominant love"--whatever we love most of all--will come out into the open there, no matter how well we may have hidden it from others here on earth. Then we will become entirely formed and driven by that dominant love, inside and out.

However, this does not happen all at once. When we first come into the spiritual world, we enter a place that Swedenborg calls the World of Spirits, which is halfway between heaven and hell, and not really a part of either one of them. Like earth, the World of Spirits has a mixture of good and evil, because like earth, heaven and hell meet and mix there. In fact, as we first start out our lives in the spiritual world, we return to what we were used to here on earth, and begin living exactly as we had lived before we died--and even in similar surroundings. You see, everything in the spiritual world is determined by our state of mind. And the mere fact of dying does not change the way we think and feel. We are still exactly the same person we were here. Our thoughts, feelings, likes, dislikes, skills, ineptitudes, and the type of work we can do are all exactly the same as they were before we died. So naturally, we go back to a life like the one we had before.

This is our first stage after death, which Swedenborg calls the "stage of externals." At this point, if we weren't paying a lot of attention to what was happening as we died, we may think we are still here on earth, since things are so familiar to us.

Before long, though, the social masks we had learned to wear during our life on earth begin to wear away, and both we and others begin to see just what we are like inside. At the same time, we also begin to see just what our friends and companions are like. This is a time of change--and it can be quite uncomfortable. In fact, it could be called a time of trials and fermentations.

While we are on earth, we keep our social masks on most of the time while we are out and about, and for some things, even at home. There are things about ourselves that we want to hide from others, and even from ourselves. It can be an uncomfortable for those masks to come off out in public--as they do in the World of Spirits. Then we are confronted with exactly what we are like inside, both the good and the bad, and there is no concealing or minimizing it. It is the ultimate state of "what you see is what you get."

Of course, some people will already have done most of the work of getting rid of their evil and destructive thoughts and feelings--with the Lord's help, of course. Their process in the World of Spirits will be short, as they slough off the remaining scraps of obvious thoughtlessness and self-centeredness, and move quickly to their places in heaven.

Others, though--and I suspect this means most people who leave this earth--are in a mixed state, and have more work to do to get it all sorted out. This work is done in a way that exactly corresponds to the process of fermentation.

Yeast is a fungus. It is a very tiny, one-celled fungus, but it works about the same as the mold, mushrooms, and other larger fungus that we see throughout nature: it takes complex organic compounds and breaks them down into simpler ones. Specifically, yeast consumes sugar, and produces carbon dioxide gas, which is what causes the bread to rise, and alcohol, which is burned off during the baking process, but leaves behind a distinctive flavor.

The fermentation takes place before the bread is baked. While it happens, the bread is just a lump of soft, sticky dough, with many biological and chemical reactions going on in it. If this doesn't sound very appetizing, it's because it isn't very appetizing. It is only after the heat of the oven kills the yeast, stops the fermentation process, and burns off the alcohol--while causing the loaf to become firm--that the bread becomes edible and nutritious.

Right about now, some of you may be thinking that our worship service has adjourned, and reconvened as a chemistry class. And you might be right! But it's all in the cause of understanding our parable--the parable of the yeast--and its spiritual significance for our lives. Because what happens chemically in the process of fermentation and bread-baking is exactly what must and will happen in us spiritually.

The fact is, while we're here on earth our motives are mixed. The "sugar" in our dough--what we love and enjoy--is partly self-centered, and partly focused on others. For example, most of us do our jobs just as much, if not more, for our own benefit (to support ourselves!) as we do for the sake of the useful services we provide for others.

Under ordinary circumstances, these mixed motives are fairly harmless. Even if we may be working just to make a living, we still are doing useful work, serving people, and generally doing it with reasonable thoughtfulness for others. Our employment requires this--and most of us do also do want to treat others right.

But as we go along, there are times when those mixed motives keep us from progressing any further in our spiritual life. We are held back from rising to a higher level of love and service by our focus on ourselves and our material possessions and pleasures. We may even be dragged down to a lower level by our more corrupt desires. Before we can progress, we must separate out the good from the bad in ourselves, and leave the bad behind.

This does not take place without a struggle.

The struggle is pictured in the process of fermentation, where there is a "struggle" of chemical reactions as the sugars are broken down into things that aren't nearly so sweet: carbon dioxide gas, which is a waste product that is purged from our body through our lungs--and will suffocate us if we are immersed in it--and alcohol, which is a systemic toxin in the human body. These toxic compounds must be driven off by the heat of baking before the bread becomes edible and nutritious.

We go through similar struggles as we undergo the painful process of separating our good motives from our bad ones, rejecting the bad and keeping the good. What corresponds to the physical process of fermentation is the spiritual process of temptation.

Let's turn to the spiritual world for an example. In the World of Spirits sorting out these mixed motives can take some hard and painful forms. One particular form that Swedenborg mentions is when people who are good at heart have taken up with friends and associates who are not good at heart. While we are here on earth, we often form friendships and associations based on outwardly held common interests. Let's look at such a situation, and see how it might fare in the World of Spirits.

Consider a man who has been a member of the local country club all his life. Fred (as we'll call him) goes there regularly and golfs with his buddies. And of course, it is on the golf green that the real business decisions get made! Fred is an ordinary fellow. He makes his money in various business ventures, and his connections on the tee are critical to his financial well-being. The club is also where all his closest friends are. These friendships form the basis of his own and his family's social life around town.

Unfortunately, though Fred himself aims to be good and honest in his business, and to serve his clients and customers well and fairly, some of his associates are merely putting on an outward show of honesty in order to get as much as they can for themselves. And though Fred has occasionally felt a twinge at some of the stories of sharp business dealings he has heard from his friends, he has just chalked it up to the "realities of the business world."

In the course of time, Fred's generation moves on, and he and his friends find themselves in the spiritual world. They get back together there, and carry on their friendships and their dealings as they had before. Life seems very much the same, and Fred figures that his life will continue to be smooth sailing.

However, this is only a temporary situation. As this group passes out of their stage of externals in the World of Spirits, and into their stage of internals, the true character of Fred's friends starts coming out. Some of them are fine. But others become increasingly sharp in their dealings, and move into open cheating and stealing.

Now Fred is in a very painful position. These are the people that his life has been intertwined with for many years. The bonds of friendship are strong, and Fred is nothing if not loyal to his friends. So he excuses and covers up what they are doing. He justifies their actions, arguing to himself that the people that his friends took advantage of were even worse, and they deserved it, or some such thing. Truth be told, Fred himself occasionally bent the rules, and engaged in practices that his better self knew were not right.

As his friends begin their downward spiral toward hell, Fred spirals down with them. He simply cannot let go of his best buddies, his lifelong friends. So he approaches hell along with them, and there, among the dregs of the World of Spirits--a place sometimes called the "lower earth"--he goes through many hard experiences. He himself is attacked and cheated. Finally, even his own friends turn against him when he keeps balking at their increasingly devious and destructive schemes to engage in fraud and theft of all kinds.

Fred is now faced with the hard reality that he must abandon these erstwhile friends of his. He realizes that his heart is heading in a different direction than theirs. And so he takes his leave, and heads back upwards to where he belongs. But the experience was not in vain. Through it, he has realized just how wrong some of his own motives for mere self-advancement have been, along some of the things he has done pursuing them. His former mixed motives have been broken down. Through this hard experience, he has rejected the bad, and gone wholeheartedly with the good. He now does his work not at all for his own advantage, but out of a love for serving his fellow human beings, and the Lord.

This is the process of trial and fermentation that we go through here on earth as well. It is a process of breaking our loves and motives down into their component parts. We don't like going through it! And the "dough" of our lives becomes quite sticky and acrid while it is happening. But in the end, this great ferment within us purifies our souls. In the end, our spiritual character is transformed from being a rather unpromising lump of dough to being the bread of life, purified from our evils, and well baked in the heat of God's love. Amen. 

 

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Music: Dream of Angels, Live in Love
Bruce De Boer - Used with permission