Archive for November, 2011
O Come Emmanuel
Rev Dr. David J. Fekete
November 27, 2011
Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-37 Psalm 80
This Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. There are four weeks of Advent during which we look forward to Christmas and Jesus’ birth into the world. Both of our Bible readings for this morning treat different approaches to the coming of the Lord. Our reading from Isaiah begins with a plea for the Lord to come down to earth. “O that you would rend the heavens and come down” (1:1). Our reading from Mark is about the second coming of the Lord, when the Son of Man will come in the clouds and in great power and glory. And in both readings we find a statement about how we are to receive the Lord when He comes. In Isaiah there is a consciousness of sin, and an appeal to God to forgive. In Mark there is the warning that no one knows when the Lord will appear. We are told to watch and be ever ready.
Our reading from Isaiah comes from the time of the Babylonian captivity. Scholars call this section of Isaiah “Second Isaiah.” They hold that this part of Isaiah was written by students of the prophet at a later date than when Isaiah actually lived. Throughout Second Isaiah is the idea of the coming of the Lord. This is also called the Day of the Lord. These passages look forward to a great and awesome day when the Lord Himself would come down to earth and set things right.
When these prophesies were written, things were terrible for the Israelites. The Northern kingdom of Israel had been erased by Assyria. The Israelites had been dispersed and the northern kingdom had been colonized by Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah had been conquered by Babylon and the Israelites had been taken captive and deported to Babylon. You could say that the nation of Israel had ceased to exist. The land promised to Abraham way back in Israel’s beginnings had been taken away and given to foreigners. Things looked so hopeless that the prophets thought no human power could ever make things right. They thought that only the Lord Himself had sufficient power to right the terrible wrong that had happened to the Israelite nation.
This hope for the Lord to come and right things in the world was part of the Christian belief system. The prophesies in Second Isaiah about the coming of the Lord were incorporated into Christ’s birth in the world. The early Christians made sense of Christ’s birth and life on earth in terms of these Isaiah prophesies. They saw Christ’s birth as the fulfillment of these hopes. They saw Christ’s birth as the fulfillment of those hopes that the Lord would come into the world and make things right. As the fulfillment of these Isaiah prophesies, Jesus is called God. The birth of Jesus is that coming of the Lord into the world.
But a problem arose about this understanding of the prophesies. While Christians see Jesus as God incarnate, Jesus didn’t set things right in the world as the prophesies said the Lord would. Thus arose the doctrine that there would be a second coming of the Lord, when Jesus would come back and do just what the prophets said He was supposed to do. The passage we read from Mark, in fact, begins with a quotation from Isaiah that is all about the dreadful day of the Lord. The day when the Lord would come and judge the world. The Isaiah passage is as follows:
See, the day of the LORD is coming
–a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger–
to make the land desolate
and destroy the sinners within it.
The stars of heaven and their constellations
will not show their light.
The rising sun will be darkened
and the moon will not give its light (Isaiah 13:9-10)
So the great and dreadful day of the Lord was postponed from Jesus’ birth and life on earth into a time in the future when He would come back to earth and fulfill completely the Isaiah prophesies.
Both our readings this morning speak to our relationship with God and His coming. In Isaiah, we find a consciousness of sin. And in our reading from Mark, we are told to be ready for the Lord’s coming. Jesus says, “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” He compares the second coming to a homeowner who goes away and sets a guard at his front door. Jesus is the homeowner and we are the guards at the front door. So Jesus tells us,
Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back–whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch” (Mark 13:35-37).
What Jesus is telling us is to be ready spiritually for the time when we will see Him face to face.
The Israelites at the time of our reading from Isaiah, as I have said, were in captivity in Babylon. They saw the destruction of Judah and their captivity as the consequences of their sin. The prophet says,
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are as filthy rags . . . No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins (Isaiah 64:6,7).
Yet in all this despair there is hope. The prophet calls on God to come and redeem His people.
Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD; do not remember our sins forever. O look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people (64:9).
These passages from Mark and from Isaiah talk to each one of us and our relationship to God. They suggest to me Swedenborg’s three stages of spiritual growth. In this and in the next two talks, I will discuss these three stages. The three stages Swedenborg talks about are repentance, reformation, and regeneration. In Catholicism these three steps are called contrition, confession, and satisfaction. These are three doorways we walk through in preparing to be ready to meet Jesus face to face. Through these three portals, we will be ready and not asleep when the owner of the house comes home.
Today I will talk about the first doorway. That is repentance. Repentance is the beginning of our progress to new life from God. It is a death to sin and it leads to a rebirth into new life. Paul talks about this stage as a death to the flesh and to new life of the Spirit.
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. . . . For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8: 5-6, 13).
Swedenborg is right in accord with Paul’s clear statement, “If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” Swedenborg teaches that, “Acts of repentance are all such as cause one not to will and hence not to do evils which are sins against God” (TCR 510). Swedenborg gives us simple instructions as to the repentance process:
How ought a person repent? The reply is, Actually; and this is, for one to examine himself, know and acknowledge his sins, make supplication to the Lord, and begin a new life (TCR 530).
This means that it is incumbent on us to learn what sin is. Some people I have talked to say that conscience is an inborn thing, and that everyone can feel whether a thing is right or wrong, good or bad. That may be true. Some also say that God gives us a feeling of love and goodness and that we can feel when we are straying from that intuitive feeling. I think that there is merit in this too. I also think that some form of moral education is needed–whether it be from upbringing, religious instruction, philosophy, or social formation. Acts of repentance are all based on what we think is evil or sin. Swedenborg tells us that, “if a person, according to his knowledge of what sin is, examines himself, finds something in himself, and says to himself, ‘this is a sin,’ and abstains from it” then he or she has repented truly (TCR 525). Notice Swedenborg’s wording, “according to his knowledge of what sin is.” Repentance is a very individual thing. And it all depends on what we think evil is.
Our understanding of what evil is grows, deepens and changes over time. Our conscience is continually forming and expanding as we understand more and more about God’s kingdom, and as we acquire new truths. As our conscience expands, we become more responsible for our actions. We have a better grasp on God’s kingdom and we know more keenly when we are straying from it.
But repentance is not to be seen as a terrible and overly difficult process. We have the power to do it from God. And our main task is to align our lives with what we understand to be good–even as we turn away from what we understand to be bad. Sin is not something that we blunder into. It is a deliberate and purposeful act. Swedenborg writes,
he who from purpose and determination acts contrary to one precept [of the Decalogue], acts contrary to the rest; because to act from purpose and determination is wholly to deny that it is a sin . . . and he who denies and rejects sin in this way, thinks nothing of all that is called sin (TCR 523).
The other side of this coin is that if we, from purpose and determination, try to act according to what we know to be good, then we are on the heaven-bound path. Again on this point, Swedenborg writes,
they who by repentance have removed some evils that are sins come into the purpose of believing in the Lord and loving the neighbor; these . . . are kept by the Lord in the purpose to abstain from other evils; therefore, if they commit sin from ignorance or some overpowering lust, this is not imputed to them, because they did not intend it (TCR 523).
Well, this has been a lot of talk about sin–a subject no one likes to hear about. But I think it appropriate when we are preparing for Christmas, the time of Jesus’ birth in the world. I think that this is what Jesus means when He tells us to be ready and to keep watch. We don’t want to be caught sleeping when we see Jesus face to face. And as Paul says so plainly, ” but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” Repentance is like a maintenance program. It keeps us honest. It keeps us humble. It reminds us that human potential is limitless. Repentance keeps us in the intention to do good, to love our neighbor, and to love God above all else.
He Shall Tend His Flock
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 20, 2011-11
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-27a Matthew 25:31-45 Psalms 95, 100
Through the image of the lamb, the Bible teaches about God’s love for us and also our response to God’s love. In our reading from Ezekiel, we heard about how God will call everyone to Himself and care for us as a shepherd does his lost sheep. We have the promise that no matter where we stray, or how far we wander from God, God will always be with us, and call us back to Himself. In Ezekiel we read, “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (34:12). It is God who forms His church from the outpouring of His love and wisdom. But it is up to us to remain open to God’s call and to respond. When we accept God’s love in our hearts, we are lifted up into heavenly joy. This is the symbolism of the mountains on which the flocks will feed. Ezekiel says that God’s flock, “shall feed on rich pastures on the mountains of Israel” (34:14). The mountains are high places in our spiritual life. They are those times when we feel particularly close to God. The mountains also symbolize a final state in our regeneration. The mountains are when we are elevated up into heaven and we are acting out of love for God and love for our neighbour. When we are acting from God, we are in a state of rest. When we respond to God’s call, we will rest on His bosom, and find peace. So the prophet tells us, “The mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good pasture land” (34: 14). We can summarize our reading from Ezekiel as being about our relationship to God and God’s relations with us.
Our reading from Matthew is about how we integrate our union with God in our lives. It is about our relations with each other. We are called to show care to each other. Our spiritual relations are not only between God and ourselves. Our spiritual life is also about how we relate to each other. In fact the two—our relations with God, and our relations with each other—these two are intimately related. The one is the measure of the other. When Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats, the deciding criterion is how we relate to each other. The sheep, who will go to God’s kingdom, are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, who welcomed the stranger, who clothed the naked, who took care of the sick, and who visited those in prison. Jesus tells these good people, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). This is a clear statement about the relationship between God and our relations with each other. When we do good to each other, we do good to God. And when God is in us, we care for each other.
These two passages are all about the two great laws that Jesus gives us. There are no greater commands than love to God and love to our neighbour. These two commands are actually one. God is in each one of us. What we do to each other, we do to the God who is in each of us. We are each created in God’s image and likeness. And as images of God, we are creatures of God. And further, since all the life we have is from God, God is inside each one of us at our deepest and most profound level. God’s Divine Human gives us our humanity. Seeing each other as a finite image of God’s divine humanity makes us treat each other with great care and respect. Since God’s image and likeness is in us, we are to treat each other as we would Jesus Christ. I do not mean that we would worship each other. That would be carrying this point to an absurd conclusion. What I mean is that we regard each other with the same reverence that we would Jesus. For when we see one another, we are seeing the Divine Human; we are seeing Jesus’ face. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).
Swedenborg distinguishes between God’s image and God’s likeness in us. God’s image is the truth that we know. But we are not a likeness of God until we act upon this knowledge. God’s likeness is the love that we embody. We can be an image of God without being a likeness of God. This would be the case if we only know about spirituality. We can elevate our consciousness into the light of heaven and learn deep truths. But knowledge alone is dead without life based upon this knowledge. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” says the Apostle James (2:17). And our passage from Matthew is clear. We are the sheep that Jesus gives His kingdom to when we treat each other well and with caring. When we act on our spiritual knowledge, we become likenesses of God. When we put into practice all we know about God’s love, then we are both an image and also a likeness of God. In different words, the image and likeness of God is the union of truth and good, or wisdom and love.
We are formed into God’s image and likeness over time. This process is done by God with our cooperation. God calls to us wherever we are in our faith journey. Our reading from Ezekiel is comforting and reassuring. Wherever we are, we can never stray beyond God’s voice. He calls to us wherever we have been “scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (34:12). The darkness that can oppress us in our lives will not have the final say. Wherever we have been scattered by worldliness, self will or other distractions of this world, God will call us into rich pastures and lead us to the mountain top. It is God’s will that everyone, everyone be joined in ecstatic love with Himself. Swedenborg tells us that, “the Lord wills the salvation of all” (TCR 142). God wishes to give joy to all through Himself. Swedenborg writes,
The third essential of God’s love, which is making them happy from itself, is known from the eternal life, which is blessedness, joy, and happiness without end, which God gives to those who receive His love in themselves; for God, as He is love itself, is also blessedness itself; for every love breathes forth from itself enjoyment, and the Divine love breathes forth blessing, joy, and happiness itself to eternity (TCR 43).
Through our lives, through struggles and setbacks; through uplifting and inspired moments, God is calling, calling, to bring us into His spiritual home, to our spiritual home. As we respond to God’s voice, we are formed into an image of heaven, and our whole personality becomes gentle, meek, and innocent. We truly become the lambs whom Jesus brings into His kingdom. We become the sheep who rest in Israel’s mountains. This innocence and meekness was caught beautifully by the poet William Blake. He was influenced by Swedenborg, and read some of Swedenborg’s works. I can’t help but think he had some of these ideas of heavenly progress mind when he wrote his poem THE LAMB:
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, & bid thee feed
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, & he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
As we respond to God’s call, we acquire that tender voice of the lamb. We become meek and mild. And like the Holy One who is called the Lamb of God, we become like Jesus, who is in each of us with His innocence, peace, and loving joy.
Thy Kingdom Come
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 13, 2011
Exodus 19:3-6 Luke 17:20-21; Matthew 13:31-32 Psalm 145
This past week I was immersed in the business of our denomination, followed by the business of the National Council of Churches of Christ Governing Board and then I attended the Ecclesiology Summit of the National Council of Churches. These meetings led me to contemplate what God’s kingdom is. I see three aspects to God’s kingdom. First, God’s kingdom involves the individual. Second, God’s kingdom involves the church–this includes each individual church community, the different denominations, and also the church universal including all the denominations taken together. Third, God’s kingdom involves the transformation of the world.
I was privileged to enjoy two magnificent worship services at the National Council of Churches. The first was a service hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The second was one hosted by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Lutheran service was what we would call “high church.” There were responses, prayers, standing and sitting, as well as an invitation for all the Christian denominations to partake in the Holy Supper. The minister gave a stirring and moving sermon. Also for those denominations who forbad members to receive the Holy Supper in any other church tradition than their own, the Lutheran Church invited them to come up and receive a blessing. I also attended a Greek Orthodox service which was spectacular. The church had a large dome over the congregation with images of Christ and the saints painted around the inside. There were icons standing in front of the gate which led into the inner sanctuary. And there was a large mosaic of Mary and Jesus on the wall behind the altar. All the priests wore black robes and had capes and gowns put on over them. The bishop’s cape was so long that an acolyte had to hold up the train. A priest swung an incense censor with bells on it, and the Bishop came in with a beautiful staff. Chants were sung by five priests.
At the Ecclesiology Summit, we considered the very nature of the National Council of Churches. The question was raised as to whether the NCC could be considered a church. We all agreed that we are defined as a covenant of communions. We asked if the NCC was a super church, consisting of all its member bodies. Could the NCC define our identity as a church? The general opinion was that our identity as a church was defined by our separate denominations. But the question was a good one, looking to a time when all our brothers and sisters in the differing churches could all come together in the name of Jesus Christ.
The different denominations define the church differently. In the Lutheran tradition, the church is defined as an institution in which the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered. In the Orthodox tradition, the church is characterized by community, the sacraments, and worship administered by the priests. The Quaker tradition is not identified as a church, but rather as a fellowship. They do not ordain ministers nor do they perform the sacraments. In one of our meetings, we had a discussion about whether the church could sin, or whether only the individuals in the church could sin. This question was raised because some denominations say that the church is holy, created by God, and sinless. But the recognition was there, that humans do sin. So this distinction became one of how to define the church. Is it that perfect organization called by God? Or is it a collection of individuals who constitute the church?
Our definition of the church is twofold. It involves what Swedenborg would call externals and internals. Of primary importance is the internal of worship. The internal of worship is what goes on in the hearts and minds of us all. The internal of the church is love in our hearts and truth in our minds
Internal worship, which is from love and caring, is real worship; and that external worship without this internal worship is no worship (AC 1175).
So we think of the church primarily as what goes on inside the heart and mind of all the individuals of the church. The church as a whole, is the collection of individuals who embody God’s love and wisdom in their hearts and minds. So when we are individually in good and truth, we are a church in its smallest form. And when we all come together collectively, we are the church as a body.
Whatever is said of the church is said of each individual of the church, who unless he were a church, could not be part of the church (AC 82).
So far I have been talking about the internal of the church. But the church has an external component as well. These are the rituals and symbols that we call the church. The external of the church is this building in which we come together. It is the cross in stained glass above the altar. It is the hymns we sing, and the psalms we chant. It is the faith we recite together. The external church is all the things we see and do together in this church building. Swedenborg says that the externals are important, too. The relationship between the internal church and the external church is like the relationship between the soul and the body. The internal of the church is the soul; the external is the body. So the internal of the church is a caring heart and the external of the church is our collective worship together. We need both to be whole people. We need the external rituals of worship to ground our internals. Furthermore, the externals of worship excite and stimulate our internals. A feeling of reverence and holy love filled me at that Orthodox service, with its beautiful symbols. The external rituals of church open up our hearts to receive God and then give us an opportunity to express these feelings.
But a person, while he is in the world, ought not to be without external worship also. For by external worship internal things are called forth, and by means of external worship the external things are kept in a holy state, so that the internal things can flow in (AC 1618).
God’s kingdom, then, is what exists in the hearts of each one of us when we feel love and think truly. This is the aspect of God’s kingdom that Jesus means when He says, “The Kingdom of God is with.” But God’s kingdom is also what happens in the world. God’s kingdom is a powerful force that is operating on the world to transform it into heaven on earth. The book of Revelation describes violent wars and calamities. There are earthquakes and plagues. Angels pouring our bowls of God’s wrath. There are mythic symbols of dragons and horsemen flying through the heavens. But these calamities end with a beautiful picture of the heavenly city descending from heaven like a bride prepared for her groom. In this city there is no sun or temple, for God Himself will be the sun and the temple. Trees grow beside the river of life that heal the nations. This is God’s promise to us. This is the kingdom of God that will, I say that will come. This is the image of the mustard tree. God’s kingdom is advancing. It may be just a seed now, or a sprout. But it will grow into a great tree in which the birds of the air can make nests.
When we look out at the world, what do we see? Certainly, we see the calamities described by John in Revelation. But do we see God’s Spirit transforming the world? We can if we have eyes. There are peace initiatives going on in the United Nations and by groups like Amnesty International. There are the peace, justice, and hunger initiatives put forth in the National Council of Churches. There are philanthropists like Bill Gates who works to bring God’s kingdom on earth.
In our time, we see both the promise that God’s kingdom is coming like the bride, as well as the struggles like those described in the earlier parts of the book of Revelation. But the real question for us is this: Are we bringing God’s kingdom to earth? The power of God’s loving Spirit works through humans. And it is up to us to bring heaven to earth. So I ask again, are we agents of God’s kingdom? Are we transforming the little world that exists all around us? Are we a church in least form? Are we one of a kingdom of priests? God’s kingdom in us is a heart of love. Are we accepting God’s love in our lives? Are we showing God’s love in caring deeds to those around us? Are we giving of ourselves to make the world we know God’s church on earth? These are the questions that matter to us. These are the questions that make us a church in least form. And together we become a church collectively. Then all the churches together can call God’s power and presence into a troubled world. We can together call and give birth to a better tomorrow than we know today. When we pray “Thy kingdom come!” it is up to us to work with God to fulfill our petition and to participate with God in the coming kingdom which will not fail.