Archive for March, 2013
Confused and Amazed
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 31, 2013
Luke 24:1-35 Psalm 136
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ brought wonder, joy, and bewilderment to His followers. While He lived, His teachings astonished His listeners because they had never heard such wisdom spoken with such authority. They were astonished by the miracles He performed. But the end of His life and His resurrection confused and amazed His followers.
Consider what Luke tells us about the apostles on the road to Emmaus. We first learn that as they walk they are discussing everything that had happened. They are trying to make sense of it all. How could this powerful God-Man have been sentenced to death, and been killed by the Romans? What are we left to do, now that our Master and teacher is gone? We are then told that the apostles’ faces are downcast. Of course they would be. Jesus Christ, whom they hoped would deliver Israel from Roman rule, instead was a victim of the Roman judicial system.
But there was also an element of amazement and confusion in what they were discussing. For they say that some of the women they know went to the tomb and found it empty. And as was the case with Jesus’ birth, these women had a vision of angels bringing them good tidings of great joy. That is, they told the women that Jesus is alive.
So these apostles had much to discuss indeed. Their understanding of scripture did not tell them how to interpret these happenings. Their Messiah was here, but He didn’t deliver Israel from the Romans. The Messiah had been executed, which was just wrong. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Then Mary Magdala had actually seen Jesus alive and had told the other disciples about this. Again, no Old Testament literature that they knew of talked about the death and resurrection of the Messiah. So there was much to discuss. There was much to try to figure out. The disciples were sad, amazed, and confused.
This is their state of mind when Jesus appears to them, and walks with them on the road to Emmaus. Jesus teaches them on the way. Luke tells us that, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 27). What Jesus was doing was opening to them the internal sense of scripture. When Luke says that Jesus began with Moses and all the Prophets, he means the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and all the Prophets. This means that the story of the people of Israel and the poetry in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and the visions of Daniel and the others are all about Jesus.
Having heard this long Bible exegesis, the apostles now have scripture explaining the events they have witnessed. They now understand Jesus’ birth, His miracles, His death, and His resurrection. And when Jesus breaks bread with them, as He did at the last supper, they finally recognize that this wise man on the road is none other than their beloved Jesus Christ. They now recall that as Jesus walked with them and opened the Scriptures to them, their hearts were “burning within us.”
Why did they not notice the burning of their hearts when they were walking? Why were they kept from recognizing Jesus? Why didn’t they notice that this man walking next to them knew an amazing amount about the Bible and about Jesus’ life and mission? Why did they not recognize that this stranger was the only one who seemed to know the answers to all the questions they were discussing?
Maybe they were simply too amazed, confused, and sad to lift their eyes to Jesus and to believe what Mary Magdala had said. There they were, trying to figure things out, and all the while, the man they were trying to figure out was right there, walking beside them. Jesus calls them “foolish and slow of heart.” They are foolish by their lack of understanding of the Bible, and slow of heart because they are not paying attention to the burning hearts they have inside them as Jesus walks next to them.
We can be similarly foolish and slow of heart at times, I think. The miracle of the resurrection is that Jesus and God are one as the soul and the body are one. The infinite Creator God is united fully with the Divine-Human Jesus Christ. Jesus is Very God and Very Man, the creeds say. This means that the risen Jesus can walk next to us just as he did with the apostles on the road to Emmaus.
This means that we have the potential to feel Jesus’ presence in us as the burning heart that the apostles speak of. Our hearts can burn within us as we feel the resurrected Jesus near us. This may happen as we are reading the Bible. Or perhaps, when we are in prayer. Or when we are talking with another person and we are lifted above the worries and anxieties of this world.
The truth is that Jesus is always present. Deep within the recesses of our souls, God is present. But we are not always aware of this presence. We block this God-spark with selfish anxieties and worldly concerns. These distractions drag our consciousness away from our essential nearness to God. When this happens, we do not feel that nearness to God. We do not feel that burning of our hearts within us.
The miracle of the resurrection is that God and Man are fully united. This union of God and Man in Jesus Christ happened gradually over the life of Jesus. We see union when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain top in Mark 9:2-13. In fact, the great Renaissance painter Rafael painted the transfiguration with Jesus up in the clouds–arms uplifted. At first I thought that this was a painting of Jesus’ ascension up into heaven. Another place in which Jesus’ union with God is spoken of is John 10:30, where Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” And we see Jesus’ full humanity when He prays on the Mount of Olives, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” This very human Jesus is said to be strengthened by an angel. And this very human Jesus prays even more desperately, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 42-44). And with the resurrection, full union with God occurs. So Jesus can say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:17).
The miracle of Christ’s union with God, so that God is Man and Man is God, has special meaning for each one of us. For Just as Jesus grew closer and closer to God and God to Him over the course of His life on earth, so we follow a similar pattern in our life on earth. We will find periods of closeness to God and periods of obscurity from God. And as we are refined as in an alchemist’s crucible, we grow more and more intimately united with Jesus. Our hearts grow more fiery with God’s Holy Spirit and our minds understand truth more accurately with God’s illuminating light. The worldly distractions that dim our feeling of God’s presence break apart and we are filled with the sunlight of the soul.
God united fully with the Divine Humanity of Jesus Christ. We unite with Jesus. Even as God is in Jesus, so Jesus is in us. Jesus says, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20). This one line sums up the glorification of Jesus and our regeneration. The glorification of Jesus is the process by which He is filled with the Father. And our regeneration is the process by which we are filled with Jesus. The Greek Orthodox Church calls this process theosis, or divinization. It is an ancient tradition that speaks about our ascent to God and God’s descent into our souls. Regeneration, theosis, or divinization, the result is the same, summed up in that one line from John, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
As we drop the anxieties and worries of life in the world, and trust in God’s love and care for each one of us, we will feel our hearts burn within us as the apostles did on the road to Emmaus. They did not realize that they felt the heat of Christ’s love as they walked because they were too confused, bewildered, sad, and anxious. But when they calmed down and broke bread with Jesus, they saw the risen Christ for the first time. Having listened to Jesus open the Scriptures to them, they then understood. Their confusion was dispersed. They were left in amazement and joy. So may we be, when our hearts burn within us as we open our hearts to Jesus.
Lord, we are overflowing with joy this Sunday morning when we contemplate your glorious resurrection. You lived a fully human life. You knew birth, you grew into manhood, and you died, as every human will. And yet unlike any human, you rose from the dead body and soul. And in your risen divinity, you can come to each one of us as a human and as our God. You came to the earth when the earth had forgotten about you. You suffered at the hands of evil and sin. And you forgave. Come to each of us, as we pray to you this morning and every day. Walk with us as you walked with the apostles in ancient days. And lead us in the pathway that will bring us home, to your eternal and heavenly home.
And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. And may warring factions find their way to peace.
Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth.
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 31, 2013
Luke 23:1-49 Psalm 22
Falsely accused, hanging on the cross and suffering excruciating pain, enduring mockery from Jews and from Romans alike, some of Jesus final words were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus’ final thoughts were on the human race which his whole life was dedicated to save, heal, and bring back to God. Jesus came to rescue the lost sheep, to show us how to love, and to bring God’s love and power down to an earth that had forgotten Him. Swedenborg captures the nature of God’s love nicely,
Jehovah, or the Lord’s internal, was the very Celestial of Love, that is, Love itself, to which no other attributes are fitting than those of pure Love, thus of pure Mercy toward the whole human race; which is such that it wishes to save all and make them happy for ever, and to bestow on them all that it has; thus out of pure mercy to draw all who are willing to follow, to heaven, that is, to itself, by the strong force of love (AC 1735).
Jesus did not judge humanity. He did not reward us according to what we deserved. If we were rewarded according to what we deserved, none would be saved. No, Jesus says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Jesus did not judge the people who brought false charges against Him. He did not judge those who mocked Him as He was dying on the cross. He did not judge the whole human race who allowed these terrible events to fall upon the innocent head of God in the flesh.
The story of the crucifixion is the epitome of love. It is the kind of love we see in parents. Parents may scold their children, but they never take their love from their children. And soon they are reconciled and will do anything they can to make their children’s life better.
It is also the kind of love we see in close friendships. I think of an event that went on in my own lifetime during my college years. In my senior year in university, I had been elected class president by majority vote of the student body. However, as can be the case in such offices, political rivalry developed between me and a student named Melanie. Melanie seemed bent on taking my position away from me and putting herself there. And this, despite the fact that I had the mandate of the student body. Well, things came to a head. Melanie had created a divisive faction among the officers of the student government. The officers of the student body called a vote to decide on my continued presence as class president. There were many students present at this meeting, as it was our tradition to hold open meetings. They spoke up on my behalf, stating that it was their will that I remain their president, as they had elected me. The officers then expelled the students from the government meeting, which caused one officer to break down in tears over the drama of the event and caused the exiting students to jeer and complain that this meeting was a farce. On the student government were two friends of mine, Kent and Chuck. When the vote came, I lost. The student government wanted me to stay on, but not as president. But I left the government altogether, and Church walked out with me as did his wife and other members of the student government. But Kent stayed on. After the meeting was over, Kent came back to Chuck’s room where we were all sitting around talking Melanie down and consoling me. We found out easily enough that Kent had voted against me–my own friend. I was mad at the time, but Kent was a good friend of mine. I had to decide whether this betrayal meant more than the years we had been friends. Ultimately, I decided not to hold Kent’s political decision against him, and we had many more years of friendship following. Kent said that had I stayed on as president, the rivalry between Melanie and me would have persisted and the student government would never have accomplished anything. So he voted me out to keep the peace. I saw that he had his reasons, and that they said something about his character. But we were able to enjoy happy years as friends. And when I ultimately left Ohio for Boston, Kent put together a surprise party for me and invited friends of mine that I didn’t even know Kent knew about.
It would have been easy for me to write Kent off and say to myself that his betrayal was unforgivable. And, indeed, there are certain betrayals that I would not forgive. But consider all the betrayals and disappointments that fallen humanity can present us with. And measure them against that ultimate betrayal, in which God Himself was cruelly and innocently murdered. And think about God’s way of responding to humanity at its worst. Jesus responded with understanding and compassion in his dying words. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
This is the message I would like to leave you with this evening: The message of divine forgiveness. The message of divine love. The message of divine understanding. In the throes of a terrible death, Jesus’ only thought was one of love and forgiveness for the human race. This is one of the purest examples of Godliness that I can think of. And in the way Jesus died, we can see His ultimate grasp of the divinity in His soul. So that His final words would be words of full union with His Heavenly Father, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
This is the gentle God we worship. This is the way God will always look at us. And in this glorious death, we still have a lesson of God-human relations. The criminal crucified on one side of Jesus prays to Him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” May we also pray daily, “Jesus, remember me.” And God will always answer our prayers as Jesus did on the cross, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” For when we are with Jesus, in this world or the next, we are in paradise.
Leaving Our Comfort Zone
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 10, 2013
Numbers 21:4-9 John 3:14-21 Psalm 107
Today’s Bible passages are all about leaving your comfort zone and living a higher life. God is infinite goodness, infinite love, and infinite wisdom. We are always finite in our goodness, love and wisdom. And the ratio of any finite number to infinity is infinity. That means that there is no end to our growth potential. We can grow better in goodness, deeper in love, and more profound in our wisdom forever. Our spiritual life is one of moving constantly from evening to morning. That is, from a state less holy to one more holy. From less love and wisdom into greater love and wisdom. And this to eternity.
Anyone who has undergone some spiritual growth or change in their life knows that change is not easy. Moving from a state of less goodness into one of more goodness means leaving our comfort zone. It means letting go of behaviors and emotions that we were accustomed to, and taking on new, unfamiliar, and maybe uncomfortable ways of life. The temptation is always there to revert back to old, accustomed ways. The temptation is there to backslide from the new life we have been led into, and to return to our old ways.
This is what we find in both our Old Testament story and our New Testament passage. In our story from Numbers, the Israelites grumble against God. They are sick of eating the same food. They look back with longing on the food in Egypt, which was richer and of greater variety.
If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna! (Numbers 11:4-6)
The Israelites seem to have forgotten that in Egypt they were slaves. And the food they now ate was manna that came down from heaven itself! All this rebellion and wistful recollection of Egypt was brought on by food. Just food!
The Bible tells us that God sent the Israelites venomous snakes to punish them. Here we are dealing with what Swedenborg calls an “appearance of truth.” Appearances are not wholly true. They are how a person interprets things. They are how a person imagines things to be. Actual truth, truth that is really true, is beyond any person’s mind. We cannot know absolute truth. We can only know what is true for us. But we believe that there is an Absolute Truth. And we believe further that we can approach this Absolute Truth closer and closer. That is, our appearances become truer and truer.
When the Bible says that God sent snakes to punish the Israelites, this is not Absolute Truth. This is how the Israelites interpreted the sudden appearance of venomous snakes. The idea that God punishes is an appearance of truth. And the Bible in its literal sense has many appearances in it. The literal reading of the Bible is called by Swedenborg “the sense of the letter.” The real truth is, God does not punish. God can only do what is good, and inflicting harm on anyone is contrary to God’s nature.
that in the Word it is frequently said that God is angry, takes vengeance, hates, damns, punishes, casts into hell, and tempts, all of which pertain to evil, and therefore are evils. But . . . the sense of the letter of the Word is composed of such things as are called appearances and correspondences . . . when such things are read these very appearances of truth, while they are passing from a person to heaven, are changed into genuine truths, which are, that the Lord is never angry, never takes vengeance, never hates, damns, punishes, casts into hell, or tempts, consequently does evil to a person (TCR 650).
Swedenborg even waxes zealous in a tirade against persons who preach a damning, punishing God,
as He wills only what is good he can do nothing but what is good. . . . From these few statements it can be seen how deluded those are who think, and still more those who believe, and still more those who teach, that God can damn any one, curse any one, send any one to hell, predestine any soul to eternal death, avenge wrongs, be angry, or punish. He cannot even turn Himself away from humanity, nor look upon anyone with a stern countenance (TCR 56).
The case is similar with a line in the Lord’s Prayer. In it, we are dealing with an appearance of truth. When we recite it, we say, “Lead us not into temptation.” This line would seem to be saying that God leads us into temptation. But God never brings on temptations. It is we who bring them on ourselves. Why? This is for the same reason that we find the Israelites longing to return to Egypt.
The sad truth is, we are accustomed to doing things the way we were brought up. We begin our adult life by learning how to succeed in the world. In itself, this is not wrong or bad. In fact, it is necessary. But what kind of mindset do we need to succeed in the world? I have heard it said that a person can’t become rich without stepping on someone’s toes. Does this mean stepping on someone’s head? Does this mean beating down all opposition? Does this mean thinking only about what benefits us? Maybe for some. But for all of us, we have to begin life thinking about worldly ambition. I suggest that we, in fact, love worldly activities and ambitions. We orient our lives to these aims. Perhaps we must orient our lives to these aims in order to succeed.
We learn from spirituality that we need to consider other people. We learn to act in harmony with others. We learn to care for others. We learn to love others as much as we love ourselves and our worldly ambitions.
This requires a change in our perspective. We change from a “me first” attitude to an “I-Thou” attitude. And all the things we started out loving from a me-first attitude need to be shrugged off like a snake’s old skin. But those loves were a part of our life. Those loves formed who we were. And they continue to reside in our memory. Thus there is always the temptation to fall back into those old loves; into those old ways of doing things.
New spiritual life is almost contrary to worldly life. It may feel very uncomfortable at first. Living gently instead of aggressively may be hard for a business man driven to succeed and profit. Living contentedly may be difficult in a society that plasters images of wealth and sensuality everywhere we look–television, billboards, radio, social media. It is as if the world is continually telling us that we don’t have enough. It is as if the world is telling us to forget the lilies of the field and birds of the air.
So the temptation is always there to slip back from new spiritual life into our old, ego-driven and world-oriented pleasures and ambitions. This is like the Israelites wanting to return to Egyptian slavery even after tasting the freedom of their wilderness life. This is what John means in the passage we heard this morning from chapter 3, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (3:19).
In our spiritual development, there is always the lower self threatening to drag us down and back into old ways of living. But once we have tasted the nectar from the gods, once we have lived on manna that came down from heaven, we will find that living our old lives feels uncomfortable. We will feel pain in the distractions of ego and the world. And when we are hurting too much, we will turn to God. We will turn from the world toward heaven. When the serpents bite us, we will see where we have fallen short, where we have fallen, and we will turn, we will return.
Then John’s statement will resound in our hearts, “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (3:21). “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” God will deliver us from evil when we call upon Him to do so. When the people of Israel lifted up their eyes to God, they saw the bronze serpent Moses had made, and they were healed.
Such is our journey in this world. We are ever moving from evening into morning. We are ever moving from less light into more light. We are ever moving from the world to heaven.
Blake says this well in his poem The Little Black Boy:
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love
May the Lord bless our going out and our coming in from this time forth, and even for ever more.
Lord, we give you thanks for lifting us up out of the mire of worldly concern. Everywhere we turn in this world, we see images of wealth, power, and sensuality. And yet you have shown us that all these glimmering images are but vanity, and empty. Help us to turn from these vane seductions. Help us to see where true life resides. Help us to find contentment in the disposition of your divine providence. Help us to seek for riches the last into eternity. May we find your pearl of great price, and trade all the vane offerings of this world for that one great gift. May we find you, and may we find peace in your heavenly world of everlasting joys.
Lord, we ask for your peace to descend upon this troubled world. Where there is conflict and war, let there be understanding and peace. Where there is famine and thirst, may good hearted aid come and satisfy the needs of those who want. Where there are natural disasters, may help come from good neighbors and from compassionate governments. Where there is hardship and unemployment, lend your patience and hope.
Lord, send your healing love to all those suffering in body and soul. We ask you to give the gift of health to all in need.
The Precepts of the Lord
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 3, 2013
Exodus 20:1-17 John 2:13-22 Psalm 19
Psalm 19, which we read this morning, makes us mindful of what God’s laws are like. We also heard the Ten Commandments. We are familiar with them, and they sound like laws. But contained in them are all the beauties that Psalm 19 brings out.
First of all, Psalm 19 tells us that God’s laws are grounded in the universe. They are not just for human behavior. God’s laws cause the sun to rise and bring glory to the skies. And the same laws govern human society. God’s power reaches from the heights of heaven, in fact higher even than heaven, down to human souls and outward into the whole created order. The same laws that make galaxies spiral give joy to human hearts and illuminate the mind,
The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
God’s precepts are not for theologians and scholars only. In fact, perhaps the opposite. In Matthew 11:25 Jesus declaims the wise who don’t seem to get his message but innocent children do.
At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
And not only innocent children hear God’s precepts with joy, but they come to persons with simplicity,
The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
Lines like this remind me of my grandmother. She never attended an institution of higher learning. But she understood life and living. And knowing how to live is the essence of wisdom, and it is the essence of the law. In her later years, she lived all by herself up in a mobile home we had on 8 acres up in northern Michigan. She would work outside on the grounds. She would rest and sip black coffee. She would entertain herself by reading novels, even though she said that they were just junk. She would cook and clean and do other domestic chores. And she was perfectly content. In fact, she reminded me of a passage in Heaven and Hell. After talking about heavenly societies, Swedenborg talks about those who live alone, apart from other societies,
It was said above that in the heavens there are societies, larger and smaller . . . There are also those who dwell apart, as it were house by house, family by family . . . They are more immediately under the Divine auspices of the Lord, and are the very best of the angels (HH 50).
Whether she actually was of the very best of angels or not I cannot judge. But she always seemed that way to me. I always felt intense love and simplicity whenever I would visit her. And her wisdom spilled over to me. I remember one day when I was mowing the lawn. (We used to kid Nana, because we thought she was trying to clean nature. In fact, there wasn’t a lawn, we had simply cleared the brush and trees from around the mobile home.) Well I don’t know how long I was at the mowing. But all I could see was how much I needed to do and set my mind to the job. After some time, Nana came out and shouted at me, “David, you can’t keep going. You have to come in and take a break.” I looked at what I hadn’t finished yet. But I never argued with Nana, so I did come in and have some ice tea and a rest. Then I went back out and finished the job. But I would never have thought of easing my labor and making it lighter by taking some time away. I would have pushed myself to get it done and it would have been a job and a chore and not easy, light, in fact, enjoyable outdoor summer work. That’s what I mean by knowing how to live.
We tend to think of spirituality as meditation and prayer. We tend to think of it as listening to sermons and reading spiritual books. But isn’t spirituality also living wisely? Isn’t spirituality learning to live with moderation in all things? Learning when to enjoy a sweet or a chocolate, but not to overindulge? Isn’t spirituality taking a walk during sunset or sunrise? Isn’t spirituality taking a holiday at some time during the year to refresh one’s self and have special time to simply enjoy one’s self?
I think that these ways of living wisely are summed up in the Psalmist’s praise for God’s laws. God’s laws, practiced correctly are not burdensome. As I have been suggesting, they teach us how to live pleasantly. So the Psalmist can say, “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul.” Who thinks of God’s laws as refreshing? The Psalmist also says that God’s laws are sweet, “They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.” God’s laws are sweet and refreshing. So we can see why the Psalmist sums up the law by saying, “In keeping them there is great reward.” In living wisely, there is indeed great reward.
I think that by following the Ten Commandments, according to the spirit of the law, the refreshing joy that the Psalmist talks about will follow. Putting God first calms the spirit. There is then no rage that comes when selfish demands are frustrated. One has peace when God is first. Living in harmony with one’s neighbor makes life pleasant. And when one lives in harmony with one’s neighbor, one won’t steal, murder, commit adultery, and scheme against one’s neighbor. Coveting what we don’t or can’t have makes us unhappy and envious. So when we don’t covet, we find contentment with what we do have. Contentment, too, is a calming, peaceful easy feeling.
So keeping the law isn’t a drudgery. It refreshes the soul. It brings joy to the heart. It brings light to the eyes. It makes wise the simple. In keeping the law there is great reward.
Lord, we ask you to teach us your way, your laws. For in them is life. In your ways there is joy. And in your ways there is refreshment for our souls. You have given us guides to your kingdom: ten simple rules that give everlasting life. Your prophets have taught us what is pleasing to you: to love mercy, do act justly, and to walk humbly with you. To follow your ways is to walk with you. And we wish to have you as our companion through all our days on earth, and into eternity. And you have given us two great rules: to love you above all, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Inspire us to love these guides to heavenly living. And in following them, may we come to peace, joy, and eternal life with you.