Archive for January, 2012
Come, Follow Me
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 29, 2012
Jonah 3 Mark 1:14-28 Psalm 62
Our reading from Psalm 62 ends with a simple, and seemingly obvious statement: “You reward everyone according to what they have done.” It is self-evident that our spirituality shows in what we do, not just what we believe or think. As self-evident as this may be, there are Christian churches who think that it is faith that saves. They will argue with great conviction that good works do not contribute to our salvation. This, despite the plain sentence from Psalm 62, “You reward everyone according to what they have done.”
Our Bible readings this morning call our attention to what we do, and to what we are. They bring up the unwelcome topic of evil and of repentance. I see three steps in these Bible stories. The first is leaving our home and family to follow Jesus’ call. The second is to repent from evil by our own effort. And the third is to allow God to purify us through a recognition that everything good that we do is God acting in us. In preparing this sermon, I drew on a lecture by Rev. George Dole called, “A Four-Step Model.”
Jesus’ call to Simon, Andrew, and James represents the first of these three steps: leaving home and family to follow Jesus. On the natural level, this story speaks of the maturing process whereby a person comes into their own. In a sense, we all leave our parents when we become adults and start to think for ourselves and make life decisions for ourselves. Whether we actually leave home or not, we come to a point where we outgrow our parents as authorities in our lives, and become our own person. On a spiritual level we go through an analogous process. We outgrow what Swedenborg calls proprium. The very sense of self that we acquire upon attaining adulthood becomes a stage we need to move past. The early self is self-interested, egotistical, and filled with worldly ambition. We have drives and passions that are unhealthy. Swedenborg claims that we inherit a tendency to evil that we may or may not act upon. All these things are in the part of our personality called the proprium. We must grow out of the proprium. Nearly every world religion sees spirituality as a growth process. Some see the process as one of moving from ego and limited consciousness to all-loving compassion and expanded consciousness. I like the symbol used by Hinduism and Buddhism. They both see our spiritual development in the lotus flower. The lotus flower begins as a seed in the mud at the bottom of a pond. As it grows, it raises up through the murky water of the pond. Then it reaches the air and sunlight and becomes a beautiful flower. The Hindus and Buddhists compare our growth to enlightenment to the growth of the lotus flower up into the sunlight. It is God’s voice that calls us out of the murky depths of our proprium. When we hear His voice, we begin our spiritual journey into heavenly joy.
The story of Jonah represents the second step in our spiritual growth. The people of Nineveh are told to repent by the prophet Jonah. And they heed his word. They fast and put on sackcloth. The king even issues a proclamation for everyone and all the animals to fast and for the residents to call upon God for compassion. In this story, we have what Swedenborg calls an appearance of truth. An appearance of truth is a statement in the Bible that is not factual, even though it is in the Bible. In the story of Jonah, we are told that God planned to destroy the city of Nineveh. This is how God appeared to the writers of Jonah. But God never destroys any person, let alone any city. God is only love, and cannot do any evil thing to humans. Stories about God bringing destruction to people or cities are all appearances of truth. But let us not stray too far from the main point of our Bible stories. That is, the subject evil and repentance. When the people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s preaching they respond to him. They repent of their evil ways. We are not told exactly what is evil about them. The Bible does mention violence. And the Israelites would have considered the Ninevites idolaters. But whatever they did wrong, they repented and called on God.
I consider this a second level of repentance because it is done by human effort. The people of Nineveh act by their own power and strength. They do public displays of repentance such as fasting, wearing sackcloth, and the king, himself, sits down in the dust, calling upon God. In our early stages of repentance, we fight sin as if from our own will power. Some people do outward acts as the people of Nineveh do. Protestants as very leery of human effort in the process of salvation. They are suspicious of people who repent and who do good acts as a way to salvation. They are suspicious for good reason: they think that people who do these things believe that they have earned heaven by their good deeds. The truth is, if we do good deeds, we cannot think that we have earned heaven or deserve it in any way. When we do good, it is because we love what is good and do it for good’s own sake–not for the sake of reward. But we must by all means do good deeds. We must flee from or fight evil intentions, thoughts, and actions, and we must to good, kind, and loving things.
These considerations bring us to the third step in spiritual growth. I find this stage in the story of Jesus and the evil spirit. The man who is possessed by the evil spirit says nothing to Jesus. He does not cry out to be healed. It is all Jesus’ doing. As Jesus is preaching, an evil spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” I find the way this story develops interesting. Jesus doesn’t set out to heal the demon possessed man. Rather, He is preaching in a synagogue and suddenly the evil spirit cries out. I take this to mean that the power of Jesus’ presence was felt by the evil spirit, and he couldn’t bear being in Jesus’ presence. This is the way spiritual temptation happens to us. As God enters our souls more deeply, our own sins become more apparent in the presence of all Goodness. God is indeed always in our souls at the deepest level. But our consciousness is not always filled with God’s love and wisdom. God needs to enter all the levels of our lives from the lowest to the highest. And as God flows down into our lives, we make room for Him by removing all that would block His love.
God gives us the power to remove any and all obstacles to His love and life. Swedenborg tells us that,
a person must purify himself from evils and not wait for the Lord to do this immediately; otherwise he may be compared to a servant with face and clothes fouled with soot and dung, who comes up to his master and says, “Wash me, my lord.” Would not the master say to him, “You foolish servant, what are you saying? See; there are water, soap, and towel. Have you not hands, and power in them? Wash yourself.” And the Lord God will say, “The means of purification are from Me; and from Me are your intentions and ability; therefore use these My gifts and endowments as your own, and you will be purified (TCR 436).
So God gives us the insight to see what we need to work on, and God gives us the power to make changes in our lives. But I cannot stress how important it is for us to realize that the power to make changes in our lives is from God. If we try to battle the evils in our proprium with our own strength it is like one of those Chinese handcuffs. You know, those woven tubes that you can easily put your fingers into, but when you go to pull them out, the tube tightens around your fingers and you can’t pull your fingers out. Our very effort is what makes the tube tighten up. Or it’s like the story of “Tar Baby” by Uncle Remus. Tar Baby was a doll made of tar. When Br’er Rabbit gets mad at Tar Baby and punches him, his fist gets stuck in the tar. Then Br’er Rabbit punches Tar Baby with his other fist and it gets stuck. So both Br’er Rabbit’s hands are now stuck to Tar Baby, which makes him even madder. He kicks Tar Baby with his foot and it gets stuck. Finally, Br’er Rabbit kicks tar Baby with the other foot and now all Br’er Rabbit’s hands and feet are stuck to Tar Baby. The more he tried to overcome Tar Baby, the more Br’er Rabbit became stuck to him. Or it’s like that joke where a person says, “Whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant.” What is the first thing that will come into our minds? When we dwell on our shortcomings and try to fight them by our own power, spiritual progress will be a never-ending struggle. We need to consciously realize that God gave us the illumination to see where our lives need amendment, and we need to realize that God can lift us up out of the murky waters into the light.
This is all contrary to appearance. It looks like we are doing the good work. It looks like we have decided to follow Christ’s call. But what we are actually doing is allowing God into our lives and minds. In Divine Providence #191, Swedenborg writes, “Our own prudence is nothing. It only seems to be something, as it should. Divine Providence, since it involves the smallest details, covers everything.” Our own prudence is nothing. Everything we direct ourselves to do; every choice we make, every evil we recognize, every prayer to God for help, none of this is done by our own power. It is all God acting in us. This is the meaning of Swedenborg’s statement that human prudence is nothing. All those little choices we make in our lives; all those little decisions we make moment by moment, all our best decisions are God working in our minds to lead us out of proprium and into heaven. When we look back on our lives, and see where we have come in our development, we are at a loss to say just how we got to where we are. It was the sum total of all those small decisions–God working in us–that brought us to where we are today, and made us who we are today. Swedenborg compares this process to the shooting of an arrow. If the arrow was just slightly off when it leaves the bow, it will miss a target meters away. God watches over these small increments of our spiritual direction and corrects us when we veer from the mark. In Divine Providence, Swedenborg writes,
What else can the Divine Providence have for its end than the reformation of the human race, ans its salvation? And no one can be reformed by himself, by means of his own prudence, but by the Lord, by means of His Divine Providence. It thus follows that unless the Lord leads a person every moment, even every part of a moment, the person falls back from the way of reformation and perishes. . . . It is like an arrow shot from a bow, which if it missed the direction of the mark in the least when leaving the bow, at a distance of a thousand paces or more, would miss it immensely. So would it be if the Lord did not lead the states of human minds every part of a moment. The Lord does this according to the laws of His Divine Providence; and it ids in accordance with these laws for it to appear to a person as if he led himself; but the Lord foresees how he leads himself, and continually provides accordingly (DP 202).
This is how I see the miracle of Jesus casting out the demons in our Mark story. Jesus saw the sickness, and acted to purify the demon-possessed man. So God sees what we need, purifies us, and brings us into ever more clear heavenly light–without our even knowing it.
When we realize and accept that it is God that is giving us the insight and power to change, the Chinese handcuffs magically fall off and we are delivered. When we recognize and accept that it is God that is giving us the insight and power to change, we don’t get angry at Tar Baby and end up stuck in its sticky tar. When we recognize and accept that it is God that is giving us the insight and power to change, we won’t conjure up the pink elephant. We will see heaven’s beautiful sunbeams. We are lifted up into the light. As we approach God, God approaches us. I have heard it said that when we take one small step toward God, God takes three giant steps toward us. Let us, then, make room in our souls for the descent of the Holy Spirit, which begins when we hear the call of God, of His prophets, and when we make room for His divine love in our hearts.
The Call of God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 22, 2012
1Samuel 3:1-10 John 1:43-51 Psalm 139
The theme connecting our Old Testament reading and our New Testament reading is God’s call. In these Bible stories, I identify a series of four different responses to God’s call. First, ignorance and maybe even skepticism. Second, openness to God’s voice. Third, realization that God knows us intimately and knows what is good for us. And fourth, when we follow God’s voice, a greater and greater revelation of God’s glory and power comes to us through our partnership in God’s work.
Both Samuel and Nathanael initially respond with ignorance. 1 Samuel 3:7 tells us that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” Samuel heard God’s voice, but did not know that it was the voice of God. He thought that it was the voice of Eli. It was the prophet Eli who told Samuel that God was calling to him, and to respond to God next time He calls. We are told that the next time God calls, the Lord stood before Samuel, and then Samuel understands that it is God calling. Samuel then says, “Speak, for your servant hears.” In our New Testament reading, Nathanael did not know Jesus. In fact, you could say that Nathanael’s response was somewhat contemptuous. Philip runs up to Nathanael all excited and says, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was located in Galilee, and Galilee was looked down upon by the inhabitants of Judah. The Galileans were thought to be crude, uncultured, and backward. This actually fits with Jesus’ ministry. He was often in the presence of people whom society looked down upon. He is accused of befriending thieves, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners (cf. Matthew 11:19). So at first, Nathanael responds with skepticism about just who this Jesus of Nazareth is.
Now we are into the second response to God’s call. Samuel is open to hear what God has to say. And although skeptical, Nathanael keeps an open mind. In response to Nathanael’s skepticism, Philip says, “Come and see.” Come and see. Nathanael is open minded enough to at least go to see Jesus.
The third aspect of God’s call is full knowledge of humanity. When Nathanael sees Jesus, Jesus tells him that He knows him. We see that Nathanael is honest, as Jesus says, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” Nathanael is surprised. He asks Jesus how He could know that about him. Jesus replies that He saw Nathanael when he was under the fig tree, before Philip called him. Nathanael then sees and openly confesses that Jesus is the Son of God.
Recognition of God brings us to the fourth aspect of God’s call. We see the power and greatness of God when we respond to God’s call. Jesus tells Nathanael that he will, “see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man.” When Nathanael sees that Jesus is God incarnate, and when he follows Jesus, more and more of God’s nature is revealed to him. The same is true of the prophet Samuel. The Bible tells us,
The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel’s word came to all Israel (1 Samuel 3:19-21).
So we can identify a series of four different responses to God’s call. First, ignorance and maybe even skepticism. Second, openness to God’s voice. Third, realization that God knows us intimately and what is good for us. And fourth, when we follow God’s voice, a greater and greater revelation of God’s glory and power comes to us through our partnership in God’s work.
God does call to us. God calls us into partnership with Himself. We are agents of God’s will on earth. God works through us in bringing His kingdom to earth. And as we work with God, we come to know more about His kingdom and about His Divine nature. We learn what it means to love and what God’s love is like. And ultimately, by working together with God to bring His kingdom on earth, we ourselves are transformed into an image and likeness of God.
Although God calls to us, we may not hear His voice, or understand the nature of His call. God may call us into a service that seems contrary to the purposes we have set for ourselves. I think of the prophet Jonah. God called to Jonah asking the prophet to go to Nineveh and preach to them to change their ways. But Jonah actually rebelled against God’s call. We are told that Jonah, “ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish” (Jonah 1:3). But there was no running away. God caused a great wind to rise up at sea, and the frightened sailors asked Jonah what was wrong. Jonah told them about God and the sailors worshipped. Jonah then tells them that he is the reason for the tempest and tells them to throw him overboard. When they do so, the sea becomes calm. A whale swallows Jonah up and brings him to Nineveh after all. Even after Jonah preaches to the people of Nineveh, and even after the people of Nineveh repent, Jonah wants God to destroy the city, rather than save it.
My own life followed a pattern like that of Jonah. I think of my life immediately after graduating from my Ph.D. program at the University of Virginia. I had no work lined up in Virginia and I needed to live with my parents temporarily until I found work. So I moved down to Naples, Florida. The culture of Naples was very different from what I was used to in Virginia. In Virginia I was in a college town and had a lot of opportunity to exercise my intellect. But when I got down to Florida, I found that there were no major universities in the town. I could find no opportunities to expand my mind, as I had in Virginia. At first, I was very much upset. I missed the academic climate I had grown used to in 13 years of graduate study.
But God had other plans for me. God knew me and knew what was best for me. In school, I had studied so many world religions that I had lost my own faith. I was lost in all the intellect I had been exposed to. I was almost too smart for God. I was like Nathanael, thinking, “Can there be any good thing in Naples?”
I took work in a mental health facility. There, I worked with persons who had cognitive and affective disorders. Here, again, my intellect was of no use to me. I had to relate to my clients through my heart. My work was all emotional. I had to cut off my head. By the way, this was exactly what my AA sponsor had told me earlier. “Cut off your head,” he used to say. It was as if God were saying to me, “Your intellect has had enough of a work-out for now. But where is your heart?”
In doing my work, my own emotional life got richer and richer. I discovered that too much mind could be a handicap. I also saw that too much knowledge about religions could be a hindrance to my own faith life. Living in Florida and working in the mental health facility changed me. Doing the work that God called me to do, in the place that God called me to, made me into a different person. I found faith. My soul sifted through all the information I learned about religion in school. And I discovered what I considered most true and most reasonable from what I had learned. Out of all that information, God led me into a faith of my own. I saw that through my life in Florida and through my work with cognitive and affective disorders, God was calling me back to Himself.
As with all of us, I discovered that when I found room for God in my heart, God revealed more and more of His Divine nature to me. We never work alone. God is working with us in all our affairs. And as God and I worked together, I came to understand what Divine Love is like. I understood Divine Love because I, myself, was becoming more loving. God was forming me into an image of Himself as I did His work.
God works through each and every one of us to bring His kingdom to earth. In great and small ways, we are God’s hands in this world. We may partner with God in an occupation, or in individual interrelations with the people in our little world. If we hear God’s voice–or if we are but open to hearing God’s voice–God will come into our lives and show us where and how we can bear witness to His glory. Jesus tells us, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Let us, then, listen for Jesus’ voice. Let us be open to His call. Let us see where and how we can be an agent to help bring His kingdom to earth.
I’ll close the lyrics to a song. The song was called to my attention by a teen at this Christmas’ youth retreat at Almont. She recited these lyrics in our closing worship service. The song is by Marie Cain & Steve Schalchlin and can be found on an album called THE BONUS ROUND SESSIONS:
Did you see Sally Struthers on TV the other night?
All concerned and bothered by the starving children’s plight?
It seems to me like Sally could have spared them all a bite
But she didn’t. She stood there asking Where Is God
The Channel Seven newsteam did a special live report
‘Bout how cold the homeless man was in his corrugated fort
I bet that cozy newsroom would have seemed like a resort
They didn’t take him there. They asked him Where Is God
My grandmother told me just before she passed away
She said she had the answer to the question of the day
She said the saints and sages have been telling us for years
But no one wants to listen
No one seems to have the ears
Then she turned to me and said,
“If God has hands they’re our hands
If God has eyes they’re our eyes
And if God has love, it’s our love.”
Your smallest or greatest free-will offering would be greatly appreciated for this important work. Cheques may be made out to The Edmonton New Church Society, and mailed to:
Church of the Holy City
Edmonton, AB T5E 0J6, Canada
The Voice of God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 15, 2011
Genesis 1:1-5 Mark 1:4-13 Psalm 29
There is a wonderful coherence in the two Bible passages we heard this morning. The controlling metaphor is the voice of God. In the beginning of the creation story, light is created when God speaks the words, “Let there be light.” In our New Testament story, when Jesus is baptized the heaven are torn open and God’s voice speaks, saying, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Both of these passages treat the new creation of a person, or, in other words, a person’s regeneration.
The whole creation story in Genesis is about the stages a person goes through as he or she is formed into an angel. For us, the creation story is not about how the physical world came into being. It is now scientific fact that the world is billions of years old, and could not have been created in seven days. In our understanding of the Bible, this is not a problem. We do not think of the creation story as a history of how the world came into being. We understand the creation story symbolically. The imagery in the seven days of creation represent aspects of a person’s regeneration. And in our reading this morning, we heard about the first light that God created. This light, in general, is the very beginning of a person’s regeneration. It is when a person realizes that there is more to life than what the world can offer us. The first light is when it dawns on a person that there are higher things to strive for than what the world has to offer. It is when a person takes seriously spiritual realities. It is when we begin to think about being loving, rather than acquiring wealth, status, and power. So Swedenborg writes, “The first step is when a person begins to know that good and truth are something higher” (AC 20). So the first day of creation is when a person begins his or her spiritual journey. The light of the first day is when we realize that there is a God and that God is the source of every good thing.
Baptism also symbolizes regeneration. And this morning we heard about the baptism of Jesus. The water of baptism symbolized the spiritual cleansing that regeneration is. Regeneration is a process whereby what is spiritually impure is cleansed from our souls and we are filled with the pure love and wisdom that comes from God. So regeneration is indeed a spiritual washing. Seen from the perspective of regeneration, our Bible readings both point to the process of spiritual rebirth.
In both readings, we are dealing with a process. When the first words of God are spoken, “Let there be light,” what follows is the whole process of regeneration. So when the light dawns, it is a beginning of the work of spiritual regeneration. So, too, when Jesus is baptised, the heavens open and God speaks of His love for Jesus. This is a moment of connection between Jesus and His higher Self who is called the Father. But as with the creation story, Jesus’ baptism is not the end of His spiritual journey to save us. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism he goes into the wilderness and is tempted by the devil.
So these readings point to processes. Even though the first day of creation is the beginning of regeneration, it is also a beginning that happens again and again over a person’s life and into eternity. When Swedenborg talks about regeneration in his interpretation of Genesis 1, he talks about two processes. First, the light of the first day is the beginning of regeneration. It is when a person realizes that there is more to life than the goods of this world. But then, Swedenborg says some intriguing things. He indicates that the first day is a continuing process. The first day is not just a hoop we jump through on our way to the 7th day. It is with us all our lives. We are continually evolving in our spiritual development. And so we are continually coming into brighter and brighter light. This means that we are always moving from relative shade into relative brightness. We are always living through God’s words, “Let there be light,” because God is continually enlightening us. So throughout our lives, there is evening and there is morning, a new day. Swedenborg describes this process,
Evening is every preceding state, because it is a state of shade, or of falsity and no faith. Morning is every succeeding state, because it is a state of light, or of truth, and of knowledges of faith (AC 22).
It is he voice of God that moves us into greater light. The voice of God means the truths that shine light on our path. Some of these truths we acquire externally. That is, by reading, by conversation, by the arts and literature, or by experience. But we also discover truths internally. We can perceive within our minds and hearts what is good for us. This is the voice of God speaking to us through the heavens. It is also God coming to us through His Divine Human. Swedenborg writes,
they who are in good and thence in truth, and especially they who are in the good of love to the Lord, have revelation from perception; . . . Angels, especially the celestial, have revelation from perception, as also had the people of the Most Ancient Church, . . . For genuine perception comes through heaven from the Lord, and affects the intellect spiritually, and leads it perceptibly to think as the thing really is, with an internal assent, the source of which it is ignorant of. It supposes that it is in itself, and that it flows from the connection of things; whereas it is a dictate through heaven from the Lord, flowing into the interiors of the thought, concerning such things as are above the natural and sensual, that is, concerning such things as are of the spiritual world or of heaven (AC 5121).
Now this is a difficult and clumsily written passage. But what I take from it is that they who are in good discover truths intuitively. We think about things as they really are and when we are on the right track, there is an inner feeling that a thing is so. This inner voice may be a truth that we heard a long time ago, but had no meaning for us at the time. But when the time is right in our spiritual journey, this truth suddenly becomes filled with meaning and power and comes alive. We say, “So that’s what that statement means!” I think that this is one of the things meant by the inner perception of truth.
Another way to consider this is that we will feel that a certain aspect of our lives is a failing or wrong, or maladaptive. We realize that coping skills we have been living with are no longer useful in our lives. They are getting in the way of healthier ways of living. Of more loving ways of living. This is when temptations come in. When we feel that something we had previously enjoyed is a debased pleasure, our inner voice tells us that we need to destroy our inclination to indulge in it. Removing debased pleasures is a long and tumultuous process. It involves struggle; it involves effort; and can cause despair. In this process, Swedenborg talks about a condition called “vastation.” I’m not aware of any other theologians who use the term vastation and we need to talk about it briefly. In fact, it is such a strange word, that my computer tells me that it is a misspelling! Vastation is also part of the first day of creation. It is a time when our former pleasures no longer please us. Or we feel the old pleasures we are trying to move past with pain and regret. We want to move beyond them, but we still cling to them as part of our life. When we are brought to a condition when the old pleasures no longer rule in our emotional life, and they are dead, then we are then vastated; our old feeling are laid waste. Vastations make me think about something my grandmother told me once. She said, “When you get older you find out you can’t have things your way so you give up trying.” I take this to mean that after banging your head against the way the world works for so long, you give in and cooperate with things more. This strikes me as a king of vastation. Your self-will is broken and you become more compliant. In my AA program they call this accepting life on life’s terms. Giving up a life based on self will to one that accommodates others is a form of vastation. This is what is meant in the creation story by the darkness that precedes light in the first day.
The same words involve, in general, the vastation of a person which precedes regeneration–of which many things are said in the prophets; for before a person can know what is true and be affected by good, the things must be removed which hinder and oppose. Thus the old man must die before the new can be conceived (AC 18).
I don’t think that this is a once-for-all process. I don’t think that we are vastated for everything all at once. I think that this process happens to us as one by one the various falsities and evils in us are separated from us and truths and good flow in in their place. Swedenborg suggest this in AC 1917,
In temptations there are vastations and desolations, and there are states of despair, and thence grief and indignation, besides other painful emotions; and this with variety and alternation, according to the states of evil and falsity which are excited by evil genii and spirits, and against which there is combat (AC 1917).
Here, Swedenborg uses the term vastation in the plural–vastations–as if there are many vastations we go through. He also says that there is variety in these processes, and that there is alternation of our states.
Through all this turmoil, God gives us hope. We know that God has all power. And our inner voice tells us that God is leading us toward the truth and into good. We have been called into spiritual combat by God’s mighty voice. This is the voice we heard about in Psalm 29 this morning.
The God of glory thunders,
the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is majestic.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
The mighty power of God’s voice calls us into spiritual battle, gives us hope for victory, and shakes up our complacent world. This spiritual battle is what the Poet William Blake sings about in his poem Jerusalem. Blake was one of those great literati who were influenced by Swedenborg. It is clear to me that Blake means the combat of temptations and vastations when he writes the following,
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
I don’t think that Blake is talking only about social reform in England. He talks about arrows of desire and mental fight. The Jerusalem he means is the heavenly city brought into his own life. When we hear God’s thunderous voice, it may be a call to mental fight. But along with the struggle and turmoil that can occur in our spiritual life, there is that hope that Jerusalem will be built ultimately in the pleasant land of our soul.
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 8, 2012
Isaiah 60:1-6 Matthew 2:1-12 Psalm 72
We seek out Jesus for different reasons. This Sunday is called Epiphany, and on it we celebrate the arrival of the wise men to the manger. When the wise men found baby Jesus, they were overjoyed and gave Him expensive gifts. But they had to search for Jesus. They had to seek out where Jesus was. When they arrived in Jerusalem from the east, they had to ask where Jesus was. This Matthew tells us in 2:1-2, “Behold, wise men came from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’” Acting on the counsel from the chief priests and teachers of the law, Herod told them to go to Bethlehem. They then followed the star to the manger. When they saw baby Jesus they were overjoyed. They worshipped and gave Jesus precious gifts.
The story of the wise men plays out in our lives. We, too, have to seek out Jesus in order to bring Him into our lives. We cry out for Jesus to come to us from different places in our lives. There are times when we seek him out to give thanks for all the joy that has come our way. These are the times when we are filled with a holy happiness from God and we thank God from the bottom of our hearts. This is what the wise men represent in our lives. Then we also cry out to Jesus sometimes when we are in darkness and want to be brought into the light. In our Isaiah passage for this morning, we heard about a time of darkness. Isaiah 60:2 reads, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” This is our condition when we feel distant from God. Yes, there are times in our life when the heavenly joys of God’s kingdom seem distant. There are times when we seem to be sinking into darkness, and we need God’s loving hand to lift us up. As the Psalmist says,
Rescue me from the mire,
do not let me sink;
Do not let the floodwaters engulf me
or the depths swallow me up
or the pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, LORD, out of the goodness of your love;
in your great mercy turn to me.
Do not hide your face from your servant;
answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.
Come near and rescue me (Psalm 69:14, 15, 16, 17, 18).
But we have God’s assurance that when we do call out to Him, He will come. Isaiah 60:2 reads, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” When we hear that darkness covered the earth, we think about the time of Jesus’ birth. Then the world was in great darkness then, and needed Jesus to come and show humanity the way back to God. On a personal level, we think about those times when we seem distant from God. We may feel lost or overcome with problems. In the midst of our distress, we seek God. In the darkness we look for that guiding star. We say with the Psalmist, “Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love; . . . answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.”
There are times indeed darker than this, when we question our very spirituality. I have known times when the world closes around me, and I become immersed in my own selfish desires. I almost feel like Herod. He sought out Jesus, too, but with a different motive than that of the wise men. He wanted to find Jesus in order to get rid of Him. Now in the depths of my heart, I am fully committed to Jesus. But I do admit that there are times when I don’t want Jesus to disturb my worldly pleasures. Or I may be taking credit for the achievements in my life and do not want to acknowledge that it was all God’s work. During these times, I don’t even cry out, “Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble” (Psalm 69:16-17). For when I am too involved with the world, Jesus and His heavenly kingdom are a threat. Jesus was a threat to King Herod because He was called the King of the Jews. Herod took this literally, and saw Jesus as a threat to his rule. When the world is too much with me, Jesus is a threat. I know that He will break up the pleasures I am enjoying.
But no matter where we are in our hearts, God is always with us. God is always close to us, no matter how we feel and no matter what state of mind we are in. Though we may reject God–perish the thought!– God will never reject us. Though we may try to escape God’s love, God will love us still. Psalm 139 speaks about this in lovely poetry:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139:7-12).
When I was mad at the church years ago, I deliberately tried to rebel against the teachings I grew up with. In my AA program, they told me to make a list of people and institutions I could forgive, people and institutions I could forgive but it would be hard, and people and institutions I would never forgive as long as I lived. At that time in my life, I was so angry with the church that I put it on the list of people and institutions I would never forgive as long as I lived. And look at me now! An ordained minister in the church I said I would never forgive as long as I lived! My life is an example of our reading from Isaiah 60:2, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” God came to me in my thick darkness and His glory arose upon me. He brought me home as a good shepherd does a wandering sheep.
Now my life is like the wise men. Now I give thanks to God with every breath I breathe. I am so grateful that God did not leave me in the pit. I am so grateful that God did not leave me to wallow in my self pity and bitterness. He lifted me out of the pit. He made his light shine upon me. In my night, God shone like the day.
The wise men brought gifts to Jesus. They were expensive gifts–gold, incense, and myrrh. How can we bring gifts to Jesus? What would we do that would be like bringing these gifts to baby Jesus? I suggest that the answer to this question is your very self. I suggest that you, yourself, are the gift. Each one of us is a unique individual. Each one of us has a personality that is like no other. Each one of us has a gift, a talent that we do best. I minister to this church first and foremost and then in every other opportunity I have to do so. Sometimes it is with the youth, sometimes it is with the members of the interfaith centre, sometimes it is with a couple I marry. I minister wherever God calls me to do so. Some people are plumbers. They keep the water systems running in our houses so we can shower, keep our home clean, and in many homes it is the plumbers work that keeps our homes warm in the winter. Some of us work with people in need. Some give care to people with special needs. Some work in hospitals. Some work with mental illnesses. Some people are construction workers. They build the houses we live in or the buildings we shop in or where businesses have offices. Some people give off their love for God through their personal interrelations. They make the people they know feel better. They give off the love that God has for us all. The poet Walt Whitman tried to capture the vastness and diversity of each individual in the world in a poem called “Leaves of Grass.” The poem goes on at great length and the sheer number of verses makes the impression that the world and its individuals are infinite. No one of the few vocations I have mentioned is more valuable to society than another. No one of these vocations is more valuable to God. Was gold more precious than myrrh? Not at all. Was the worship of the wise men more pleasing to God than that of the shepherds? Of course not. It was the humble shepherds who saw the angel Gabriel, and it was the humble shepherds who heard the angelic choir praising God.
Let your light shine, Jesus tells us. Let your light shine in whatever way is uniquely yours. Jesus tells us that whatever we do for the least of His children we do to Him. However we treat our neighbor, whatever good we do him or her is our gift to Jesus. When we seek Jesus to bring Him a gift, we are also seeking out who we are. Take stock of who you are. Consider the goods that you bring to the world. Thank Jesus for every opportunity He gives you to serve. Thank Jesus for the gifts you can give to the world. Thank Jesus for who you are. For only you can be the person you are. Only you can bring forth the gifts you do. You, and only you, manifest the image of God that you do. We each one of us are one shining spark showering forth from the Sun that gives life to heaven and earth.
Why Is Holy Communion a Sacrament
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 1, 2012
Exodus 24:3-11 Luke 22:7-20 Psalm 104
We are beginning our New Year in an appropriate manner. The first day of the New Year is a Sunday, and this Sunday is one on which we will celebrate Holy Communion. So we are welcoming in the New Year by welcoming the Lord into our hearts by the Holy Sacrament of Communion. But what does Communion mean. Why do we do what we do? How does Communion bring God into our hearts in a special way?
First, let us consider communion from a Biblical perspective. We heard in Exodus about blood being sprinkled upon the children of Israel in order to consummate the covenant between them and God. It was called blood of the covenant. After this ritual, there was a sacred feast in which Moses and the elders of Israel ate in God’s presence. Then, in the New Testament reading Jesus talks about blood of the new covenant. He broke bread and served wine and called it the blood of the new covenant. The language used in the New Testament referred to Jesus passion on the cross. He refers to the bread as his flesh broken for humanity, and He refers to the wine as blood that he sheds for humankind. So the Biblical imagery of the Holy Supper is a remembrance of Christ’s passion on the cross.
Traditional Christianity teaches that by Jesus’ crucifixion we are redeemed from sin. They see the crucifixion as a sacrifice of atonement. The atonement sacrifice comes from the book of Leviticus. The Jews thought that if a person had committed a sin, they could sacrifice a lamb and the sacrifice would take away their sin. So traditional Christians see Christ’s crucifixion as a sacrifice for the sins of all humanity. If one believes that Christ was sacrificed for our sins, then one is saved.
But Swedenborg’s theology differs greatly from traditional Christianity. We do believe that Christ saves us, but we emphasize the risen, glorified Christ. It is Christ resurrected that fills us with His spirit of love and wisdom. To the extent that we receive Christ’s love and wisdom, we are in Christ and Christ is in us. This is salvation because the very atmosphere of heaven is God’s Spirit emanating from Himself. We are in that Divine atmosphere when we let God into our hearts and minds. So for us, salvation is not a matter of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but rather a matter of us allowing Christ’s spirit into us.
This brings us to a consideration of Holy Communion. Holy Communion derives its power from the power of symbols. Here on earth, we have both a material body and a spiritual body. Our material body takes care of our earthly needs. We are not conscious of our spiritual body, but it is living in the spiritual world all the while we are on earth. The spiritual world is connected to the material world. Our material bodies have life because they are filled with life from the spiritual world. The connection between the spiritual world and the material world takes place through symbols. The symbols that particularly bring spiritual life to us are the symbols in the Bible.
The Bible is God’s Word. As such, God is present in the words of the Bible. We don’t see the Bible as a historical document. Instead, we see it as a set of symbols. The imagery we read in the Bible conjoins us with the angels in heaven, and ultimately with God Himself. So when we read about heat in the Bible, for instance, the angels understand love. And when we read about light, the angels understand truth. So the spiritual world is connected with our material life here in this world according to symbols.
The power of Holy Communion is based upon this symbolic connection between the spiritual world and the material world. Like the words of the Bible, the symbols in communion connect our material world with the spiritual world. The bread of Holy Communion symbolizes God’s love, and the wine symbolizes God’s wisdom. When we live a life of love, and when our minds are perfected by truths of wisdom, then we are conjoined with God. When this is our nature, the symbols of the Holy Communion come alive. God is actually present in the symbols of Communion, and the ritual serves to bring us into God’s presence.
Perhaps I can make this clearer by a consideration of how symbols function in our lives. We have various rituals in our society that have symbolic power. Rituals are physical acts that stimulate spiritual states. By spiritual I mean the psychological part of our makeup, the emotional and mental aspects of our persons.
If you think about our social symbols, you can see that physical acts play an important role in our emotional life. Consider the handshake, for instance. When we want to express affection, or to let another know that we are glad to see them, we shake their hand. This physical act forms a bond between two people. We could just say, “Hi, it’s great to see you,” and leave it at that. But in our soul, or in our internalized social symbols, we want to shake hands to signify our friendship. Meeting someone has greater significance when we shake their hand. The physical act of shaking someone’s hand evokes an emotional response of friendliness.
Or consider the act of holding a door open for someone. As we look back at the person we are holding the door for, there is exchanged a brief pleasantry; there is an exchange of affection. By holding the door open, we are affirming the humanity of the other person. We are, in fact saying, “I care about you.” The physical act of holding open a door, communicates a brotherly love for another person.
Then there are symbols that communicate anger or rage. When people get into a serious argument they almost inevitably resort to symbolic language. When people have shouted at each other enough, and the argument concludes with a remark like, “I hate you.” Then they slam the door. Closing a door separates the two people from each other, even as their anger has thrown a wedge between them. But just closing the door, doesn’t contain the same symbolic power of slamming the door. Slamming the door behind a person says so much more than the mere words, “I hate you!” It is a symbol that contains all the emotion of the whole argument and finishes off communication with a powerful emphasis.
So physical acts can elicit emotional responses. Certain signs stimulate our psychological states. I have been discussing social symbols, and we all can see the power they have. But if social symbols have so much power, how much more do religious symbols have! Religious symbols, or rituals, bring out deep spiritual states in us. Spiritual symbols open up our souls and the religious affections we have cultivated over the years. But the power religious rituals possess depend on our spiritual condition. Religious rituals only work if we bring the internal mindset and heart to them. Religious rituals depend on whether we have been taught to respond to them by our religious upbringing and our life.
Eating a meal with someone is an intimate act. When we eat dinner with someone, we are sharing their home, their food, and their company. We are taking in nutrition that will feed our bodies. Eating the food of Communion is dining with God. It is like that sacred feast we heard about in Exodus, and it is like the feast of Passover that Jesus ate with His disciples. When we taste the bread and wine, our bodies respond to the sensual stimulation. Our souls also respond to the stimulation from our bodies. If we are conscious of God’s inflowning life, then God can flow into us through this particular set of symbols. But the bread and wine don’t plant God in us through magic. It is the way we live that gives the physical act of eating and drinking their symbolic power. If we are hateful and deny religious truth, then the bread is just bread and the wine is just wine. Eating the bread and drinking the wine doesn’t give us God’s love and wisdom. Rather, the ritual awakens the love and wisdom we have incorporated into our lives. And eating and drinking also brings our consciousness into God’s presence. The communion opens our souls, and stimulates these spiritual powers. If our life has been an encounter with God, then the material symbols of Communion bring God to us through our souls. Communion is a complete joining of our bodies and our souls. Our bodies take in the bread and wine, and the spiritual world that is running parallel to the material world fills our soul with God’s presence.
The physical act of eating the bread and drinking the wine has the power to bring God’s presence for those who have asked God into their lives. As with all ritual, the power of the sacramental symbols of the Holy Supper are only available if we approach the Lord’s Table with the proper internal mindset. But ritual does have spiritual power. The physical act we do in communion brings heavenly communion and actually brings God’s presence to us. If we approach holy communion with a holy life, then God is present as He was to the Israelites when the blood of the covenant was sprinkled on them and they ate the sacred feast in God’s presence. If we approach communion with a holy life, then God is present as he was with the Apostles at the last supper. Ritual is powerful. Doing a symbolic physical act brings to bear our whole emotional complex in a special moment. As with a handshake, a smile, or a wedding vow, taking the Holy Communion opens our souls to heaven, to God. When approached with the proper mindset and heart, communion brings God to us.