Archive for June, 2013

Jun 16th, 2013

A Father’s Love
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 16, 2013

Genesis 28:10-17 Luke 8:40-56 Psalm 103

When I search for hymns about mothers for Mothers’ Day, it is hard to find any from our Book of Worship. And also, when I look for Bible passages about significant mothers I am only able to find a few. I would have expected the opposite when it comes to fathers. And indeed, I had no trouble finding hymns. And in the Old Testament, there are many stories about significant fathers. But when it comes to the New Testament, the passages about fathers are just as few as are those about mothers. I mean passages about human fathers, not the passages that mention Jesus and His heavenly Father. I don’t want to use those passages because they are not about what ordinary mortal fatherhood is about. But I did find that passage about Jairus and his daughter. That reading shows to some degree a father’s love for his daughter.
Of course there are many, many Bible passages that point to God as Father. For instance, in the reading for this morning about Jacob God says that He is the God of Jacob’s fathers, Abraham and Isaac. This suggests that in early Israel ancestor worship may have been practiced. And in the New Testament, God is referred to as our Heavenly Father, as in the Lord’s Prayer.
I chose the Old Testament passage about Jacob because Jacob himself is the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. Although Israelites often refer to themselves as children of Abraham, I think equally so the 12 tribes of Jacob are a more specific way of identifying oneself. The Apostle Paul identifies himself in both ways. He calls Abraham his forefather, and when he talks about himself personally he says he is of the tribe of Benjamin.
It is fair to say that Judaism and Christianity are religions dominated by men. So fathers are prominent in the stories, and God Himself is considered our Father. Then we have the male figure of Jesus. But we do not think of Jesus as a Father figure. But nevertheless, Jesus reinforces the male dominance of Christianity. This creates an imbalance in our religious thinking. We are hard pressed to come up with images of a Feminine Divine. Catholics revere Mary almost to the point of divinity. But Mary is not God. This Judeo-Christian dominance of men has led to a predominance of men in the religious practice of those religions. For a long time, in Judaism only men were allowed to study the holy texts. And, as well, only men could become rabbis. And in Catholicism today, while Mary is revered, only men can become priests. Protestant women fought hard to open the way for women ministers–including in this church, too. Now, however, even in Reformed Judaism and in Protestant Christianity, women can become rabbis and ministers.
We have touched on the role of fathers and men in religion. Now we ask, “What about family life?” There are passages in Paul in which the Apostle teaches that men are to be the head of the household as Jesus is head of the church (Ephesians 5). And further, Paul teaches submission for women in 1 Timothy 2:9-14. In evangelical churches, this doctrine is taught to Christian women and families.
But in our culture’s celebrations, I think that Mother’s Day eclipses Father’s Day. I don’t think that fathers receive as much celebration as do mothers. Yet fathers provide an important contribution to families, too. The ideal household is one that has a father and a mother and their power is balanced.
We saw in our story from the New testament, that Jairus was deeply concerned for his daughter’s wellbeing. He falls at Jesus’ feet, pleading for his daughter. When Jesus reaches their house, he allows only his closest Apostles to enter, along with the girl’s father and mother. Here we have that ideal family unit: mother, father, and God.
We speak of a mother’s love and support, but there are a number of virtues that my father taught me. One was discipline. Another was clear writing and speech. I remember reading a not my father sent me when I was in Virginia and in my 30′s. For the first time, I saw how well and clearly my father wrote. This came to me as I grew up around him. Another thing my father taught me was to think quickly. As a disciplinarian, my father would threaten me with punishment often. But if I could think of a plausible excuse quickly he couldn’t act on his threats. This gift, learned under duress, has helped me to no end in my academic career. Finally, my father taught me the strength of my own convictions. He was a domineering presence in my family, and to stand up to him took strength and courage. When I believed in myself, I did just that. This virtue has served me well in the challenges life put before me.
There are certainly enough reasons for me to complain about my father. I think everyone could. But as we become adults, we realize that our parents were only human and that they raised us the best they knew how. We will not harbor resentments about our parents. We will see the many ways they showed their love for us, or we will know that they loved us even if they didn’t know how to show it.
Fathers do care deeply about their children. They may not show it in the same way that mothers do, but their love is deep and strong. There were a few very important events in my life in which my father showed his love for me.
One such story was way back in my early 20′s. I had decided that I was on my own. It was going to be me against the world, and I didn’t need my family. In fact, in my young rebellion, I had sort of disowned my family. I was on my own two feet. I moved out to Connecticut and applied to music school there. Then, for Christmas holiday, I decided to visit my parents. I drove from Connecticut to Detroit in a beat-up old van. While I was enroute, a massive snowstorm fell. The roads were terrible. And about an hour outside of Detroit, the battery on my van died. I was stranded in the blizzard. My friend and I tried hitch-hiking the rest of the way, but no one stopped to pick us up. In the cold and snow, we seriously began to question whether we would make it out of this situation alive–and the city just an hour down the road. Finally, we got a ride to the bus station in Detroit. It was about 3:00 in the morning. What do you suppose that this independent, self-sufficient young man who had disowned his family and stood on his own two feet, what do you suppose I did? I phoned home. My father answered the phone. I choked up and could hardly talk. I stammered out that I was at the bus station, could I get a ride home? Without a second thought, at 3AM, my father drove the 45 minute ride to the Detroit bus station and picked me up, and brought me back to a warm home. It was my father who did this. The next day, dad drove me to my van, jumped the battery, and followed me as I drove the van back to home.
Another example of my father’s love was when I was having problems with this denomination–again when I was in my twenties. Although I had attend our divinity school for 5 years, the Committee on Admission to the Ministry had their doubts about me. They opted not to recommend me for ordination. I appealed their decision to the Council of Ministers. A meeting was held of the entire Council of Ministers to decide my fate. I was told to wait outside the room. The meeting lasted two hours. And the whole while, my father sat next to me, as we awaited their decision. We didn’t say much. He offered a few words of consolation. But what mattered to me was just that he sat there with me.
These are a few examples of how my father showed his love for me. Examples I could see and feel. Unfortunately, my father belonged to a generation in which fathers were often the disciplinarians of the family. And my father was no different in this regard. Fathers were not encouraged to show their feelings. And my father was no different in this regard. I think that is why those examples I narrated meant so much at the time. They showed me that my father did care about me, and that he did love me.
Today we honor our fathers. We recognize that they were an essential part of our family life. And we acknowledge that they loved us too, perhaps, probably, as much as did our mothers.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, we offer up this prayer of gratitude for our earthly fathers. We thank you for the guidance and love our fathers have provided for us. We thank you for the homes we grew up in. And Father, we thank you for always looking upon us with your heavenly love. We thank you for the care you lavish upon us, your children. For we are all children of one heavenly Father. We pray that you continue to lead us in all the ways of goodness, that we may come into our true eternal home with you.

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. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.

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The New Church Is Coming and Is Come
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 9, 2013

Daniel 7:9-14 Revelation 21:1-5, 22-27; 22:1-7 Psalm 33 TCR 791

Swedenborg claims that a new Christian church has been formed in heaven, and that it is even now descending onto the earth. It is a new way of thinking about God, and a new way of living. It is a movement among all of humanity, so by a church, Swedenborg does not mean a denomination.
The New Church is predicted in various parts of the Bible. It is especially predicted in the beautiful concluding passage in the book of Revelation. There, the New Church is compared to a bride adorned for her groom, and it is said to be descending from heaven. It is also in the prophet Daniel. There, the New Church is said to be looked after by the son of man, and that his rule will be,
an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will ever be destroyed (Daniel 7:14).
This New Church will be the crown of all the churches that have existed in the past. There have been four churches in the past.
Four churches in general have existed on this earth from the beginning, one before the flood, another after it, the Israelitish Church third, and that called Christian fourth (TCR 786).
The New Church will be the final, the last, and the eternal church. It will be distinguished by the way it envisions God. The New Church will see God as the Divine Human whose soul is the Infinite Creator God.
This New Church is the crown of all the churches which have hitherto existed on earth, because it will worship one visible God in whom is the invisible, like the soul in the body (TCR 787).
Worshipping a visible God in whom is the Infinite Invisible God is crucial in Swedenborg. It is at the very heart of his theology. The whole reason for creation itself was so that God could have someone to love and who would love God back. So the purpose of creation is to form a mutual relationship between God and humans. Swedenborg claims that humans can be conjoined only with a visible God. He states,
Thus and not otherwise can there be conjunction of God with man, because man is natural and hence thinks naturally, and the conjunction must be in his thought and thus in his love’s affection, which is the case when he thinks of God as a man. Conjunction with an invisible God is like that of the eye’s vision with the expanse of the universe, of which it sees no end; it is also like vision in mid ocean, which falls upon air and sea and is lost. But conjunction with a visible God, on the other hand, is like seeing a man in the air on the sea, spreading forth his hands and inviting into his arms. For all conjunction of God with man must also be reciprocally of man with God, and there cannot be this reciprocation on the other part except with a visible God (TCR 787).
Swedenborg makes the unique claim that the very incarnation of God in the form of Jesus Christ was so that we could visualize the Human God in Jesus. So not only did Jesus come to save us, He also came to give us an image of God we could relate to in love.
the one God who is invisible came into the world and assumed the Human, not only that He might redeem men, but also that He might become visible, and thus capable of conjunction (TCR 786).
This New Church worships the one Human Christ in whom is the invisible Creator God. That form of worship allows for conjunction.
That is Swedenborg’s claim. Is it ours? For me, the image of the Divine Human stretching out His arms for an embrace is beautiful. It certainly gives me a God with whom I can relate in love. But when I pray, I can’t say that I form a mental picture of God. It is more a kind of communication of my heart to God’s loving presence. I know of some Swedenborgians who even think that God can’t fit into a Human form. They think God is too big for that. As for that, I find no particular difficulty. Then there are Swedenborgians who think that this is all so much theological niceties, and that how a person pictures God doesn’t much matter–just so they believe. Here, I respectfully disagree. I do think it matters how a person pictures God. A person’s concept of God fills their whole mind and orients their theology. It forms their consciousness. I think it does matter.
Swedenborg wrote much about how the people of the New Church believe. Much of his book The Apocalypse Revealed is about the doctrines of the New Church and how the doctrines of the Old Church differ. Primarily, two basic doctrines distinguish the Old Church from the New Church. The first is the nature of God. The New Church worships the One Divine Human in whom is the Infinite Invisible God. The Old Church worships the God called the trinity. There are various ways to understand the trinity. But the Nicene Creed, by far the most universally applied creed throughout Christianity, states that God is three persons who have one essence. The understanding of the trinity from the Nicene Creed is as follows:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. . . . And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; . . . And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.
Notice the triple use of the word “and.” What I mean is the passages that say “we believe in the one God, the Father . . . and in the Lord Jesus Christ . . . and in the Holy Ghost.” This triple use of the word “and” leads some to think of three beings. Notice, too, that the Holy Ghost is worshipped “with the Father and the Son together.” Language like this implies three persons. I think it is fair to say that many Christians think of three gods when they think of the trinity. It takes a supremely subtle reasoning to hold the idea of one God along with the statements from the Nicene Creed that sound like three persons.
Another doctrine that Swedenborg says the New Church will not hold as true is that of faith alone. The doctrine of faith alone says that no good works matter in our salvation. All that matters is faith, or belief, that Jesus died for our sins. In the New Church faith and charity are united. This perfect union of faith and charity is symbolized by the Holy City being in the shape of a square–as long as it is wide (Revelation 21:16). The length signifies charity, or good works, and the width signified faith, or truth.
When Swedenborg wrote, the New Church was just being born. Since then, I see many examples of its presence here on earth. One such example is the utter separation of church and state in the Christian world. Think of it! In Swedenborg’s day, a person could be brought to trial for the beliefs they held. Swedenborg himself was brought to trial in Sweden, and convicted of heresy. The ruling Lutheran Church forbad him to publish in the country of Sweden. Worse still might have happened, had not Swedenborg been friends with the Queen. Today, we can think and speak as we please without fear of religious persecution. As far as faith alone goes, I spoke with a Lutheran minister at the last Faith and Order commission. She told me that today, the official Lutheran doctrines speak not of faith alone, but of faith leading to good works. This in the Church that invented the doctrine of faith alone. And in the National Council of Churches I find a moving spirit of charity, love and mutual acceptance among different religions. These are religions that in the past have spawned wars and separation. Now we are sharing common meals and we relate to each other as friends. This is remarkable progress.
Some of the old ways of thinking are fading. And, unfortunately, so are many of the old institutions that held them. I mean the churches themselves. Maybe the passing of organized religion is a stage in the New Church and its new way of viewing the life of faith. Maybe it is how the old doctrines will be erased. Maybe the old ways need to disappear before the new ways of the New Church can descend to earth.
One final note about this denomination. There was a time when we thought that our denomination was that New Church. If you look at the wooden sign beside the church, it reads, “The New Church.” I grew up being told that my religion was, “The Church of the New Jerusalem”–that we were actually named after that vision in Revelation and actually were that New Jerusalem descending from heaven. It was in the late sixties, I believe, that we came to our senses, and realized that it was presumptuous to claim to be that New Church. As we are based on the writings of Swedenborg, we decided it made more sense to name ourselves after his theology. We are now Swedenborgians, with all the inconveniences that that clumsy name brings with it. But I think it is still easier to deal with than Church of the New Jerusalem, and all that that name implies.
I don’t know what the future holds for the churches we now know. But I firmly believe that the New Church described in Revelation and that Swedenborg speaks of is a fact. I have complete trust that this New Church is descending and is here in many ways even now. When we look out at the world we can see many things. Depending on how we wake up, I think, we can see either glorious progress in the world, or dismal decadence. It can very well be both. It is a central teaching that evil can only be dealt with and eradicated when it is seen. We should not be surprised to see cultural decay as we see great progress.
The Christian Bible ends with that beautiful image of the Holy City descending from heaven as a bride prepared for her groom. In this Holy City, God himself dwells so there is no need even for an altar. In it is the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of nations. This is a beautiful vision of the way things will be in the end of time. I suggest that it is also a vision of the way things are now and are becoming for those who have eyes.

PRAYER

Lord, we thank you for the gift of the church. For in the church we find community. In the church we find spiritual guidance. And in the church we worship you. We give you thanks for the heavens that flow into us and fill our minds with truth and fill our hearts with love and every good feeling. We realize that you are the very soul of heaven, and we realize that you are the very foundation of the church. We give you thanks for coming to us in your Divine Humanity, and building the church in our souls.

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.

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Jun 2nd, 2013

What Is the Sabbath?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 2, 2013

1 Samuel 3:1-10 Mark 2:23-3:6 Psalm 139

What is the Sabbath? Is it a certain day of the week like Sunday? Is it a day of rest? Is it a holy day? Is it a holy frame of mind? Is it a holy act? Perhaps it is all these things.
The Hebrew word for Sabbath means “rest.” The creation story hallows the Sabbath by saying that God rested on it after creating the world. The holiness of the Sabbath is also captured in the Ten Commandments. The third commandment says, “Honor the Sabbath to keep it holy.”
We see stories about the Sabbath in both our Old Testament reading and our New Testament reading. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us that the Sabbath is for man. And he also says that doing good, and saving life is appropriate for the Sabbath. In the Old Testament, God calls the young Samuel, and the prophet responds with the words, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” This may not sound like a reference to the Sabbath. But when we consider the inner sense of what the Sabbath means, it is a powerful statement of the holiness of the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is indeed for man because it symbolizes regeneration. The Sabbath is the rest and peace a person comes into when his or her struggles against hell subside and we have God’s law written on our hearts. Swedenborg writes,
By this commandment in the spiritual sense is signified the reformation and regeneration of man by the Lord; by the six days of labor the combat against the flesh and its lusts, and at the same time against the evils and falsities which are form hell; and by the seventh day his conjunction with the Lord, and regeneration thereby. That as long as that combat continues man has spiritual labor, and that when he is regenerated he has rest, will be evident from what will be said hereafter (TCR 302).
This is why Jesus says that the Sabbath is for man. The Sabbath is the rest we have when our temptations are over and we are conjoined with the Lord. The Sabbath is for man in the sense that regeneration and salvation are for man.
So we see how our Old Testament story now relates to the Sabbath. For it is God’s call that brings us into the peace of regeneration. God calls us into relationship with Himself. And when we are conjoined with the Lord, we can be said to be regenerated and at peace. On our part, we need to respond to God’s call. We need to say, as did Samuel, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The Sabbath is a holy day, because it symbolizes regeneration, or our salvation. In its highest sense, the Sabbath is the Lord Himself. It is the Lord in His Divine Humanity that saves and regenerates us all. And as the Sabbath symbolizes the Lord Himself, it is pre-eminently holy.
So we set aside one special day we call the Sabbath. We structure that day to be as holy as is possible. We take time off our work; we hold church services on it; we visit with family. We think about God and God’s love for us and our love for our neighbors.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had a long list of regulations that stated what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. There were rules about how far you could walk, what deeds constituted work–which was forbidden–and even food had to be prepared the night before because cooking was work and forbidden on the Sabbath. Neither could a person’s servants or animals work on the Sabbath.
In our New Testament reading, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees about how to observe the Sabbath. Jesus and His disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, which the Pharisees consider work. But the climax of this story about the Sabbath is Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. The Pharisees had so many restrictions about what one could or could not do on the Sabbath that even healing was considered work. Jesus confronts the Pharisees on this issue. He asks them outright, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” The Pharisees refuse to commit, and remain silent. They know that it is good for Jesus to heal the man, but they also know that their codes of behavior on the Sabbath would prevent working, and healing could be considered work. Jesus is incensed at their stubbornness. In fact, the Bible tells us that Jesus is actually mad. We read, “And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). I was amazed that the Bible said Jesus was angry. In fact, I was so amazed that I looked at three different translations: The NIV, the RSV, and King James’ Version. They all said anger. This couldn’t be right, I thought, so I checked the Greek. The word “orge” usually means anger, indeed. But it can also mean “indignation.” Maybe Jesus was more indignant than angry. Still, the dictionary I used preferred the word anger for this passage in Mark.
Jesus is angry because the Pharisees have forgotten the meaning of the Sabbath. They want people to conform to man-made rules of behavior. They have forgotten that God, and all God stands for, is what the Sabbath is all about. And what God is and what God stands for is love for the human race and salvation for all.
So we are not saved only by the rituals we have created for the Sabbath. We are not saved by the outward ceremonies we observe, any more than the ancient Jews were by observing their rituals. We are saved by listening for God’s call. This is where the Old Testament story of Samuel is relevant. Samuel heard God, and responded by saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
More than just a voice is meant by this story. God calls to us every moment of every day. God calls to us in the affairs of this world. God calls us to act well, to show kindness, and to do what is good in our lives. When we pull down our vanity, as Ezra Pound writes, when we are loving in our relations, when we thank God for our bounty, then we are observing the Sabbath. These are the deeds that God calls us into. And wherever there is goodness motivated by love for God and the neighbor, there God is dwelling. There dwells holiness. There is the Sabbath. There is regeneration and salvation.
Without this regard for God and our neighbor, our holy rituals are empty. Communion, worship services, the rites and sacraments all are empty rituals. But when we have God with us, when we respond to God’s call, then we bring to holy rituals the holy things of love and fill them with spiritual meaning. Then our ceremonies come alive with spiritual life and heaven is on earth. Then the church lives. Then our religion is living faith seeking charity. Then the Sabbath works its healing on our souls, and we are united with our Maker in peace.

PRAYER

Lord, speak, for your servant is listening. Lord, we listen for your voice guiding us into what is good, and steering us away from what is evil and false. We confess before you our shortcomings and imperfections, and we know that you forgive and see only good in us. You lead us out of darkness and discord, and into the light and harmony. It is you who call to us. Give us ears to hear your still, small voice calling to us in the midst of the turmoil of this world.’

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. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.

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