Archive for March, 2014

Mar 30th, 2014

Now I See
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13 John 9:1-41 Psalm 23

The metaphor uniting our Old Testament reading and our New Testament reading is the sense of sight, or seeing. In 1 Samuel, we have the contrast between the way humans see and the way God sees. Human sight is represented by Samuel and God’s sight is seen in God telling Samuel who will be the next king of Israel. In 1 Samuel 16:7 we have the line, “The LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Then in John, we have the almost funny story that contrasts sight with blindness. Jesus gives a blind man sight. And the Pharisees go back and forth to the man, to his parents, and back to the man trying to get someone to denounce Jesus. It appears that the man who receives his sight actually gets exasperated with all this. When the Pharisees ask him a second time how he got his sight, he says, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again?” (John 9:27) The contrast between blindness and sight illustrates those who could see that Jesus is the Messiah, and those who stubbornly refuse to see it. They are spiritually blind.
God’s words to Samuel speak to us today. “The LORD sees not as man sees; man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” I think that it can be true that we look at the outward appearance when we look at others. We tend to measure others by the success they achieve. And we measure success by having of money, or driving expensive cars, or holding positions of power, or dressing well, or by some standard set by worldly success. Our reaction is often either to admire or to resent these examples of worldly success. And to make matters worse, we can measure our own success by these standards. We can feel inferior if we are not wealthy, or if we have an ordinary job and are not a professional or a CEO. We may feel we have failed if we are an ordinary person with an ordinary income and an ordinary job.
This is the way a human can see. But God sees quite differently. God gives us a wonderful picture of spiritual contentment in the 23rd Psalm. There we read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” When we measure our success from God’s perspective, we will not want. That means we will be contented with everything we have. We will not feel inferior if we are not rich, and we will not feel superior if we are rich. Psalm 23 goes further than to say we will not want. It goes so far as to say, “My cup overflows.” How many of us can say that we feel our cup overflows? Psalm 23 says, “I shall not want,” in fact, “my cup overflows.” We certainly need a different standard than wealth or power to say that about ourselves.
1 Samuel 16:7 tells us that God looks on the heart. When we look for success, our attention should be within. God’s kingdom is within. We can get a measure of how different and varied the conditions of spiritually healthy people are by looking at those with whom Jesus spent His time. We know that He talked with women and valued their company. We have the story of the woman at the well we heard last Sunday. There is also the story of the sisters Martha and Mary, who ministered to Jesus and who learned wisdom at His feet. Women were not usually seen as capable of receiving spiritual wisdom, yet to Jesus, they were. There is an interesting story in Luke about the kind of person whom Jesus spent time with. Luke recounts a story in which Jesus is dining with a Pharisee. So often in the New Testament we see Jesus at odds with the Pharisees, it is striking to me when we find such a story where Jesus is dining with one. We can’t say that Jesus liked only the poor and outcasts of society. Here, Jesus is dining with a powerful and presumably wealthy Pharisee. And interestingly, while Jesus is dining, a sinful woman anoints Him with perfume and washes His feet with her tears. The Pharisee finds fault with Jesus for allowing a sinful woman to touch Him. Yet Jesus is open to the affection of this sinful woman. He tells the Pharisee that her many sins are forgiven because she loves much. Here, we see that not even outward behaviors matter as much as the state of a person’s heart.
But as we look for spiritual health we need to be careful. Jesus can see into the heart, and is the only One who can see into the heart. Our understanding of spiritual fitness can’t take into account a person’s inner disposition. In fact, in the story I mentioned above, the Pharisee thought that this woman was a sinner because he measured her against his standards of ritual purity. In our story from John, the Pharisees want to denounce Jesus for not following their laws about working on the Sabbath. The Pharisee’s judgement is harsh and shallow, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath” (John 9:16). They said Jesus did not keep the Sabbath because he made clay and healed a man on the Sabbath. Their rules of behavior were so strict that even healing was considered work. And giving a blind man sight, as godly a miracle as that is, was considered work and prohibited on the Sabbath. They thought themselves capable of saying that Jesus was not of God, according to their understanding of holy rules.
We, too, need to be careful in the way we understand our religion. We may be inclined to think that our doctrines make us the true believers. We may be inclined to view others who think differently than we do to be ungodly or sinners. We had a taste of just how destructive that can be a few weeks ago with a difficult visitor we had. But a variety of opinions on doctrinal matters does not mean one is right and the other is wrong, one is saved and the other is damned. Swedenborg tells us that a good life is what matters. He goes on to say that even falsities can accommodate a good and innocent life,
When falsities flow into good, which is the case when a person lives according to them from ignorance in which there is innocence; and when the end is to do what is good; they are regarded by the Lord, and in Heaven, as not being falsities, but as resemblances of truth; and are accepted as truths, according to the quality of the innocence (AC 7887).
I know of people in this church who accept doctrines only if they read them in Swedenborg. But Swedenborg himself, tells us that those who have a connection with God recognize truth wherever they encounter it,
If [a person] goes to the Lord and worships Him alone, he comes into the power of recognizing all truths; therefore every true worshiper of the Lord, as soon as he or she hears any truth of faith with which he or she was not before acquainted, sees, acknowledges, and receives it instantly (TCR354).
We need always keep our eyes and our ears open for truth wherever we may encounter it. Such a disposition may lead us to refine and supplement our childhood faith, and maybe even to abandon some of our childhood notions. I remember growing up in this religion. My whole world was the General Convention, its threat from the General Church, and the whole rest of the world which was the Old Church. How parochial and small a world. In graduate school, I had the privilege of meeting persons of all faiths, of learning about Christian history and the religions of the world, of deepening my knowledge of scripture, and to learn new ways of thinking about new issues of religion that weren’t in Swedenborg. What an eye-opening experience! I have not abandoned my core Swedenborgian faith, but I do live in a much larger world than the one I grew up in.
Finally, our story from John shows us the nature of belief and unbelief. It shows us the nature of seeing and being blind. And it shows us why miracles do not convince unbelievers to believe. This story is a masterpiece of literature. The metaphor of blindness versus sight is used to contrast unbelief with belief. The Pharisees go to great lengths to try to get people to denounce Jesus. They talk to the formerly blind man. He explains that Jesus gave him sight. After the Pharisees denounce Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, the people say, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” (John 9:16). Getting nowhere with the man or with the crowd, the Pharisees go to the man’s parents. The man’s parents only say what they know and basically try to get out of the whole affair,
We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself (9:20-21).
So the Pharisees go back to the man, himself and try to get out of him something they can use to convict Jesus. The man won’t confirm their prejudice against Jesus,
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:24-25).
John tells us that the Pharisees had made up their minds that anyone confessing Jesus to be the Christ would be thrown out of the synagogue (9:22). So here we have a blind man who sees, and the Pharisees who could see all their lives blinded against this miracle. They were so set against the divinity of Jesus that they refused to see this miracle so apparent to everyone in the village.
I find this to be the case today between believers and unbelievers. I see miracles everywhere I look. Unbelievers see nature and random natural selection behind the miracles of nature. And as this story makes clear, even if there were miracles today as there were in Jesus’ time, the miracles wouldn’t convince. There would be some way of explaining away even the most pronounced miracle. The blind man says, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind” (9:32). Yet the Pharisees couldn’t, wouldn’t see it.
Jesus sums up this story with a somber statement to the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains” (9:41). It reminds me of the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man, who is in hell, cries out to Abraham to send Lazarus from heaven to talk his brothers into repentance. Abraham says that they have Moses and the prophets. The rich man says that if someone from the dead talks to them, they will repent. But Abraham says, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). That is the nature of spiritual blindness. Though someone is raised from the dead, their blindness would remain. Though a blind man sees, they remain blind. John only adds that each one is responsible for their own faith journey. “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

PRAYER

Lord, you have given us eyes to see the splendor of your kingdom. And yet there are many distractions in this world. We are presented with so many images from the world that we can become blinded to the splendors of your kingdom. We pray that you open our eyes, when we become blind. Give us a vision of your kingdom and heaven’s glory. Let us see with your eyes. Let us view this passing world with eyes on eternity. Then we may come to value the things that truly matter. Then we may see the important things of life. And when our time comes to depart into glory, we will be ready to leave this world behind, filled with heavenly sights and affections.

Lord, we pray for those who are sick. Send your healing love to those ailing, and comfort their family and friends. Lord, we ask for the grace of your healing love for all in need.

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A Shocking Story, a Radical Truth
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 23, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7 John 4:5-42 Psalm 95

The story we heard from John is as shocking as it is radical. There are three elements in this story that make it so. First, Jesus is talking with a woman. And not only is Jesus talking with this woman, but He reveals a radical and profound teaching to her. What is shocking about all this is that women held no status in the world of the New Testament. Yet Jesus talks with this woman and it is to her that He reveals His profound teaching about worship. Second is the shocking truth about how true worshipers will worship in the spirit, not in a specific place–or even, perhaps, according to the traditions of a specific religion. Third, this woman is a Samaritan. What is shocking about this is that the Samaritans were held in contempt by orthodox Jews in Jesus’ day. Yet this woman, this Samaritan woman receives the profound truth about worshipping in the spirit. Let’s look at these points one by one.
There are very few women in the Gospels. In all four Gospels, there are about four or five women who figure in stories. I can think of only five women whose names are given: Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, the sisters Mary and Martha, and John mentions a certain Mary, the wife of Clopas who was present at the crucifixion but has no other role in the Gospels. So to have Jesus talk at length with a woman at all is remarkable. Maybe even shocking. John tells us that Jesus’ disciples, “marveled that he was talking with a woman” (John 4:27). It is remarkable that John records this story in his Gospel and that it occupies such great length. Then the story proceeds in a remarkable way. This woman carries the story of her encounter with Jesus to her fellow Samaritans. John tells us that, “Many Samaritans believed because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). So I think we can say that this woman was one of the very first Christian evangelists, or preachers.
Then there is the fact that Jesus is not only talking with this woman, but He reveals to her profound teachings. These are teachings that Jesus hasn’t yet told His own male disciples. He tells the woman about living water. Jesus says, “Whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst; the water that I give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Here Jesus is talking about truth that gives eternal life, to which water corresponds. But there is another teaching that Jesus entrusts to this remarkable woman. I mean the teaching about true worshipers. Being a Samaritan, the woman worships on Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans had their temple. Mount Gerizim was north of Jerusalem. The temple for Jews, as we know, was in Jerusalem. Jesus tells the woman a radical teaching about worship. He tells her that true worshippers will not go to Mount Gerizim nor to Jerusalem, but will worship in spirit,
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . . The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:21, 23-24).
This radical truth says that sacrifices in the temple do not matter as much as our spiritual disposition toward God. Jesus, here, is liberating the Jews and the Samaritans both from temple sacrifices. God is not in a place, but as a Spirit is present everywhere. But I think that there is a further and even more radical teaching in these words. Isn’t Jesus here saying that distinctions like Samaritan and Jew no longer matter? Isn’t this implied by saying that on neither Mount Gerizim nor in Jerusalem is God to be worshiped, but in spirit. The distinction of orthodoxy that the Jews claimed against the heresy they thought the Samaritans represented dissolves. This is certainly what Paul has in mind when he says,
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).
And to underscore the idea that in Jesus all are one, John tells us that the Samaritans, too, believe in Jesus–making them equal to the believing Jews.
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony . . . So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:39, 40-42).
Finally, to emphasize the dissolution of lines between orthodoxy and heresy, this story takes place in Samaria. And the woman whom the Jewish Jesus talks to is a Samaritan. Orthodox Jews held the Samaritans in contempt as foreigners and as heretics. This was a time when Jews were extremely strict about their bloodlines. They prided themselves on being descendents from Abraham and from the tribes that returned from the Babylonian exile. So when Paul wants to brag (satirically) about being a Jew, he says he is, “Of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew or Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). The book of Nehemiah tells us to what great extent foreigners were actually forbidden in Israel’s pure society. Reflecting on Israel’s past sins, the prophet emphasizes the sin of marrying foreign women,
In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but the language of each people. I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. . . . Shall we listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?” Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign (Nehemiah 13:23-24, 25, 27, 30).
So we can see how precious to the ancient Jews purity of bloodline was. The Samaritans were foreigners, transplanted from Assyria and other places, who colonized northern Israel after the ten northern tribes were wiped out. They had a different Bible than the Jews used. And they worshiped on Mount Gerizim. In fact, to attack and denounce Jesus, the Pharisees accuse Him of having a devil and being a Samaritan, “The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’” (John 8:48). And yet, despite all these prejudices, John praises the Samaritans for believing in Jesus. And Jesus gives the teachings about universal worship in spirit to a Samaritan woman.
What does this say to us? Jesus dissolved the distinction between Jew and Samaritan. Paul also preached equality between foreigners and Jews, and even between different religions–”There is neither Jew nor Greek.” Jesus speaks of a universal worship in spirit and in truth. I take this to mean that the distinctions we make between differing forms of Christianity are false. Paul said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, which is a radical teaching and inflamed James and the Jerusalem Christians against him. Today, shall we say, “In Christ there is no Anglican nor Catholic, but we are all one.” Shall we also say, “In Christ there is neither Swedenborgian nor United, but we are all one in Christ?” I would go further. In this passage, Jesus uses the most inclusive and general language, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The language used here is not Jesus’ name, not the Father, but the broadest word, God. It is God who must be worshipped in spirit and truth. To me, this opens the door for all the world’s religions. In God there is neither Christian nor Hindu. There is no Jew nor Muslim. We are all one in God. This idea follows well the passage from Revelation 5 that I cited last Sunday. The brother and sisterhood of all believers are one under God’s loving wing. Let the words of Revelation conclude this talk,
I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth . . . the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song: . . .
“with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. . They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:6, 8, 9, 11-13)

PRAYER

Lord, this city is made up of many different races and religions. And this world is made up of many different races and religions. We are taught that your heavenly kingdom is made of countless different societies and people. We pray for understanding, so that we may see the fellow humanity we share with others of different races and different religions. Sometimes in our own lives we draw a circle around our friends and around the people we consider proper and good. But may we see with increasing wisdom how others can fit into our circle. May we draw our circles with increasingly wider circumferences to include more and more of your people, be they similar to us or appear different. May we see with your eyes, who included Samaritan, Roman, and Jew among your children while you were here on earth.

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Mar 16th, 2014

With Healing in Its Wings
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 16, 2014

Malachi 4:1-6 Matthew 17:1-13 Psalm 121

The passages we heard this morning concern the power of God to heal and regenerate us. In our reading from Malachi we heard the following lines,
For you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from their stall (4:2)
Then in Matthew, we see an image of the power of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up onto a high mountain. On the mountaintop Jesus is transfigured. His face becomes bright as the sun and His clothes become white as the light. It is no accident that they are on a mountain when this happens. Mountains symbolize the presence of God and the angels. In the Old Testament there are many mountains where God’s presence is particularly found. And in Swedenborg’s system of symbolism, mountains correspond to God and heavenly love. Then Moses and Elijah appear to be talking with Jesus. There is powerful symbolism here too. Moses symbolizes the Law, and Elijah symbolizes the prophets. So we have all the Law and prophets associated with Jesus. The symbolism here means that Jesus is the Law and Prophets in the flesh, or the Word made flesh as John 1:14 states.
So on the mountaintop we have an image of our Savior, Jesus Christ in all the power of the Word made flesh. And the transfiguration of Jesus is a foreshadowing of His resurrection. Jesus even predicts His glorification and resurrection by saying to the apostles, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 17:9).
Then there is the issue of the “great and dreadful Day of the Lord.” This is a prediction of the end of days when the final judgement is to come to the earth. It is a day in which the whole created world–that is, the earth and all the people in it–the whole created world will be purified and things will be set into order. Malachi prophesies,
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them” (Malachi 4:1).
John the Baptist implies that this great and dreadful day is at hand. He says,
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12).
And Luke has John the Baptist saying more about the great and dreadful day of the LORD,
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:9).
Luke reinforces the immediacy of the great and dreadful day of the LORD with a passage from Isaiah about the restoration of the whole world,
A voice of one calling in the desert,
“Prepare a way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
Every mountain shall be made low,
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God’s salvation (Luke 3:4-6).
Before that great and dreadful day, God will send the prophet Elijah. So Malachi says, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.” Jesus affirms that Elijah will precede the great and dreadful day of the LORD. He tells the apostles, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things.” With all this in mind, the priests come to John the Baptist, and their first question is, “Are you Elijah?” (John 1:21).
However, there is a mystery about all this. Jesus affirms that the great and dreadful day of the LORD is at hand. He says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). He also affirms that Elijah has already come, “But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him” (Matthew 17:12). So Jesus states that Elijah will come and restore all things, and that Elijah has already come. But things hadn’t been restored. How are we to understand this prophesy about the coming day of the LORD?
It seems to me that Jesus gives us the means for understanding this mystery. In John, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. . . But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). And earlier in His ministry, Jesus says, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). That is, we will not see the kingdom of God come physically on the earth. All these things that are prophesied–the imagery of the furnace, the burning of the arrogant and evil, the threshing floor and the burning of the chaff, the restoration of all things such as the levelling of mountains and the raising up of valleys–all these things will happen within, not visibly on the earth. So Jesus says, “The kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is’” (Luke 17:20-21).
The power of Jesus that was manifested on the mountaintop is at hand to transform our hearts and minds. That is the heavenly kingdom that Jesus rules. There hasn’t been yet, and won’t be a tumultuous upheaval in the world when the last days come. The last days already have come. It happened when God came to earth in the flesh. And it happened when heaven was reordered for the New Age. On a personal level, the last days happen every moment of every day. Every time we make a choice for good over evil, the prophesies are transpiring. The fire is burning the chaff when we turn from unhealthy passions. We leap like calves released from their stalls every time we are released from the bondage of sin. This is what is meant by the sun of righteousness rising with healing on its wings. The healing referred to is the healing of our soul. And our soul is healed by the risen and glorified Jesus Christ.
We now, in this New Age, have the power of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ to come to us and deliver us from the bondage of hell. No one is truly free when hell has power over him or her. Only when we choose freely do we have freedom. And only when we are living in accord with God’s love do we have the freedom to choose. It is the power of the risen Jesus Christ that gives us that choice. A beautiful image of Jesus’ power is given us in the book of Revelation. And this vision of the risen and glorified Jesus’ power extends to all peoples of every tribe and language and race and nation.
See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. . . . the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song: . . .
“with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. . They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:5, 8, 9, 11-13)
This is an image of Jesus’ power to heal our souls and lift us into heaven with the elders, the living creatures and the myriads of angels. This glorious vision is available to everyone on earth who practices their religion as best they know how. I would like to think that the world will eventually come to see the wisdom of peace and the glory of God. But whether this will happen or not, I will not speculate. I will affirm the words of Jesus: “My kingdom is not of this world. The kingdom of God is within.” And for me, it is enough that my soul find healing from the risen Jesus Christ so that I may be an agent of peace in this broken world.

PRAYER

Dear Lord, we are grateful that you do not judge us according to justice, but by love. And your love for us is so great that you came to us, and walked in the way we walk. You brought your divine love to us here on earth. And you yielded to the complete human condition. Your love for us was so great that you even allowed men to persecute you and take your life. Yet your love for us did not end in death. You rose from the dead and are still present to heal men and women through your risen and glorified Divine Human. With your power, we can overcome spiritual death. With your power we can be reborn in your image. And with your power, we may be united with You forever in heaven.

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Mar 9th, 2014

And Was Tempted
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 9, 2014

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11 Psalm 32

This Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent. It follows Ash Wednesday and leads up to Good Friday and Easter. Lent is 46 days long. It is actually based on the number 40, which is a number for temptation. Noah’s Ark was tossed on the waters for 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert. Jesus was tempted by the devil for 40 days. But Lent is 46 days because there are 6 Sundays in Lent. In Lent, you fast during the week, but on Sundays you feast. So in order to get 40 days of fasting, you need a total of 46 days.
In the Season of Lent, one is to be conscious of sin. So the Common Lectionary, or the book that tells Christians which Bible readings to use for Sunday Service, the Lectionary chooses passages about sin for this first week of Lent.. In Genesis we heard about original sin, when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. And interestingly, in our reading from Matthew, we heard about Jesus Himself undergoing temptation. The idea of sin and temptation really imply spiritual transformation. The idea of spiritual transformation follows last Sunday’s talk about the proprium very well. Last Sunday we talked about the problem of the proprium. This Sunday we will talk about breaking up the proprium and changing our souls into an image and likeness of God. Another way to phrase this is to say we will look at sin and its destruction. This happens through temptations.
Jesus says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 17:35). This short statement contains the whole process of regeneration., or of destroying proprium and receiving a new self from God. Jesus first says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it.” To save your life means to save the proprium. or all those selfish and worldly drives that vex the soul and come between us and God’s inflowing love. In this sense, to save yourself means to hold on to the things we are accustomed to in this world. It means to hold onto self-interest and to worldly ambition. This is why we lose our lives when we try to save it. We lose our lives, or die spiritually, when we try to save the things of this world we are accustomed to. But notice the second part of this profound statement. Jesus talks about losing our lives. But He says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” This means to dedicate our lives to the teachings of Jesus, which are the same as the gospels. If we dedicate our lives to Jesus, and if we lose our life of self-interest and proprium, we will save our lives spiritually. This is another way to talk about spiritual rebirth, or regeneration.
For Swedenborg, being reborn is a process. Some churches teach that being reborn comes in an instant when a person accepts Jesus into their heart. Though they say this, if pressed a little bit, they will inevitably say that a person still needs to be aware of the reality of sin. They will admit that combating sin is still part of the spiritual life, even though they are saved. Methodists and Lutherans do indeed talk about purification from sin. Even though Lutherans will insist that faith in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice saves a person, they still speak of the process of purification from sin. They and the Methodists call this “Sanctifying Grace.” They are careful to call it an act of grace, because they want the process to be all God’s doing. Calvinists have a similar notion. For them, the process is called “Sanctification.” I heard a Presbyterian minister say it is like God shining a flashlight on our soul. For Swedenborg, it is called regeneration. The process of regeneration involves the spiritual conflict of temptation.
Temptations are mortal struggles. They are conflicts between the life we used to live and the things we used to love–the life that must die–and the new life we are progressively growing into. The process is like this. Temptations begin with knowledge. We learn the ways of God and heaven. We then examine our lives and see if it matches up with what we know of spiritual life. We look at what we love. We look at our priorities. We look at our relationship to the world. We see if the life we live fits with the life of heaven. As we are doing this, God flows into our souls and minds, filling us with His love. Then, when God’s love meets our worldly loves, a conflict takes place. We want to tenaciously hold onto the way of life we know. We want to hold onto our comfortable life in the world. We want to hold onto our self-interest and all the drives and desires that come with it. We are torn between our old ways and the new life flowing into us from God. It is our old loves and life that must die in order to let in the new life from God. This is why Jesus says, “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Swedenborg’s description of this process is almost a paraphrase of Jesus’ words,
a man when he is in temptations is in vastation as to all things that are of his proprium, and of the body–for the things that are his proprium and of the body must die, and [this] through combats and temptations, before he is born again a new man, or is made spiritual and heavenly (AC 730).
Swedenborg grew up a Lutheran. His father was a Lutheran bishop. And there is much of Lutheranism in Swedenborg, such as Luther’s dependence on Paul in his sermons and theology. I think that Swedenborg had Paul in mind when he wrote passages like the one I just cited. Paul, too, talks about dying to the flesh and living by the Spirit. In Galatians, Paul writes,
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5: 16-25).
There is a question about temptations, though. It is a question I’ve been pondering over the years. The question I’m thinking about is how tumultuous and difficult they have to be. The question I have in mind, is how much old life needs to die. There is no doubt that we need spiritual rebirth. Last Sunday, I referenced Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. Jesus told Nicodemus,
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again” (John 3:3, 5-6).
We all need to be born again of water and the Spirit. We all need to remove blockage that shuts out the sunlight of the soul. But how tumultuous a process this is, is an open question. It all hinges on the question of how attached to the world and to our own selfish gain we have become. If we are dearly attached to self and world, our transformation into a person oriented to God and the neighbor will be difficult. Those are the things that need to change. We need to become God-and-neighbor oriented from starting out self-and-world oriented. Swedenborg describes just how mortal a conflict this can be.
By continual sensuous pleasures and by loves of the self and the world . . . a person has acquired a life for himself of such sort that his life is nothing but a life of such things. This life cannot accord at all with heavenly life. For no one can love worldly and at the same time heavenly things. To love worldly things is to look downward; to love heavenly things is to look upward. Much less can a person love himself and at the same time the neighbor, and still less the Lord. He who loves himself hates all that do not render him service; so that the man who loves himself is very far from heavenly love and charity, which is to love the neighbor more than one’s self, and the Lord above all things. From this it is evident how far removed the life of a person is from heavenly life. And for that reason he is regenerated by the Lord by means of temptations, and so turned as to bring him into agreement. This is why such temptation is severe, for it touches a person’s very life, assailing, destroying, and transforming it (AC 759).
Temptations, then, touch our very life. Temptations assail our complacency and break up our old ways of living. Our very life must change. And this won’t be easy.
The open question I have been pondering over the years, though, is this. Does it have to be that hard? In the quote just above, Swedenborg says, “By continual sensuous pleasures and by loves of the self and the world . . . a person has acquired a life for himself of such sort that his life is nothing but a life of such things.” But what if a person hasn’t indulged in “continual sensuous pleasures” and “loves of the self and the world?” What if a person has been essentially good, gone to Sunday school and learned about God and tried to live according to what they learned? Is it possible that such a person would just naturally grow oriented to God, the neighbor, and heaven? It’s a point worth considering, and I don’t have an answer just yet. Swedenborg even says that it is not so difficult to live the life that leads to heaven. I’ll close with his words on this from Heaven and Hell,
It is not so difficult to live the life that leads to heaven as is believed. Some believe that to live the life that leads to heaven, which is called spiritual life, is difficult, because they have been told that a person must renounce the world, divest himself of lusts called lusts of the body and the flesh, and live spiritually. And by this they understand that they must reject worldly things, which consist chiefly in riches and honors; that they must walk continually in pious meditation about God, about salvation, and about eternal life; and that they must pass their life in prayers, and in reading the Word and pious books. . . . That it is not so difficult as is believed to live the life which leads to heaven may be seen from what now follows. Who cannot live a civil and moral life, since everyone from childhood is initiated in it, and from life in the world is acquainted with it? . . . Almost all practice sincerity and justice outwardly, so as to appear as if they were sincere and just in heart . . . The spiritual person should live in like manner–which he or she can do as easily as the natural person–but with this difference only, that he or she believes in the Divine, and acts sincerely and justly not merely because it is according to civil and moral laws, but also because it is according to Divine laws. For the spiritual person, because he or she thinks about Divine things when he or she acts, communicates with the angels of heaven, and so far as he or she does this, is conjoined with them . . . (HH 528, 530).
This passage suggests that it is possible to start out life good, and stay there.

PRAYER

Lord, you have told us that your yoke is easy and your burden is light. You have told us that your law is not far off, so that we need to ascend to heaven to learn it. You have told us that your law and your ways are written on our hearts. Help us to find your laws as we turn within or learn your ways from without. For you come to us in our souls and you come to us in the words of the people around us, the writings we encounter and through teachers of all kinds. In this Lenten season, we pray for forgiveness through repentance. During this Lenten season, we are aware of the ways in which we fall short of your kingdom and your glory. And yet, despite our mortal failings you continue to remain with us, sanctifying, uplifting, and bringing us ever into deeper union with yourself.

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Born of Water and the Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 2, 2014

Genesis 9:8-17 Mark 1:9-15 Psalm 25

Our Bible readings this morning touch on a topic that I’d like to revisit, which I haven’t talked about for some time. It involves a strange Swedenborgian word that is unique to his theology. That word is the proprium. The meaning of this word is “what is a person’s own.” You may notice its relationship to our English word, “proper.” In this case, it means “what is proper to a person.” So it means the self. In general, the proprium has negative connotations. It is often used to mean the self in its lowest sense. This would be self-interest, selfishness, and inflated self-aggrandizement. But it does have positive connotations, too. Remember, its primary meaning is the self, or what is a person’s own. And after spiritual rebirth a person’s self is transformed into a lovely image and likeness of God. Then, we have a heavenly proprium. Our self is really not our own anymore. It is God in us. But we still have a sense of self. We all have our own ways of receiving God. And even when we are filled with God’s love and wisdom, we have a self that receives these qualities in our own unique way. This is proprium in a good sense. This is our heavenly proprium. You could say that the whole process of regeneration is a process of lifting us out of proprium in a bad sense and gifting us with a proprium in a heavenly sense. Another way to put this is to change from a self that is only inflated self-interested to a self that is humble and God and neighbor-interested.
There seems to be no way out of the idea that we need to grow up spiritually. There seems to be no way out of the idea that we need spiritual transformation to find heavenly joy. This is clear from our reading from Mark. Jesus travels to Galilee to proclaim the good news. I think that the good news is a mixed blessing. Jesus says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.” This sounds pretty good. But then He adds, “Repent and believe.” So the coming of God’s kingdom also carries with it a charge to repent. And John the Baptist’s message was the same. Mark tells us that, “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” We see here that the forgiveness of sins is dependent on repentance. Finally, Jesus tells Nicodemus a message that applies to us all: we all need to be spiritually transformed, or reborn:
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again” (John 3:3, 5-6).
Swedenborg talks about spiritual rebirth in the context of the proprium. It is the proprium that is self-interested, egotistical, and world interested only. When we are acting from our proprium, our attitude is only, “What’s in it for me?” Or, “I am the centre of the world.” We are only interested in what benefits us. And what doesn’t favor us we care nothing about. Furthermore, when we are self-interested, anyone that comes in our way is an enemy. Anyone who threatens our self-interest is our foe. So Swedenborg defines the proprium as follows:
To make known what proprium is:–proprium is all the evil and falsity springing from the love of self and of the world; and from not believing in the Lord or in the Word, but in self (AC 210).
And Swedenborg also talks about the consequences of this view on life.
The love of self is nothing else than the proprium; . . . From self-love, that is, the love of self, or from the proprium, all evils flow, such as hatreds, revenges, cruelties, adulteries, frauds, hypocrisies, impiety (AC 1326).
The Buddhists have a similar idea about the self. They claim, too, that from the idea of the self arise all human evils. The Buddhists, like Swedenborg, believe that the self is an illusion. Someone once challenged the Buddha about whether there is a self. The Buddha’s answer was very practical. He said that wherever you have the self, you have greed, violence, lust, and hatred. “Show me an idea of the self in which there are none of these things,” he said, “and I will agree that there is a self.”
One of the problems of self-interest is that it is based on falsity. When proprium dominates a person’s life, a person thinks that he or she is self-made. A person thinks that they are independent and self-sustaining. In short, a person thinks that they live by their own power. they think that the life they live and the deeds they do are all done by themselves. But this is an illusion. The life we have is given us by God. God alone is life itself. We are mere vessels of life. And furthermore, our very thoughts and emotions are all influenced by influx from heaven’s grand human form. Angels and demons inspire thoughts and feelings in us. There is very little of us that is actually our own. The real idea of self is only what we choose to let into our minds and hearts. So our true self is only the choices we make. Thus the idea that we are living by our own power is an illusion. The Hindus call this illusion Maya. Maya is the illusion that we are independent poles of life and not connected to the One Source of everything, or God, or Brahman. This illusion of self-independance is Swedenborg’s proprium. And Swedenborg says that when proprium rules, we are in a deep sleep.
Man’s state when he is in his proprium or when he thinks that he lives of himself, is compared to a deep sleep . . . The man who thinks he lives of himself is therefore in a false persuasion (AC 150).
The illusion of self and all the evils that stem from it is a powerful illusion. To be spiritually reborn we need to have that illusion broken up. Our proprium, and all the evils that come with selfishness and worldliness, need to be destroyed. Then we become open to God’s inflowing love and wisdom. Breaking up the illusion of self, and subduing the evils that come with it, is called temptation. Temptations are “the heartache thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” to use Shakespeare’s words. Temptations are all those calamities, and frustrations that break up our self-interest and make us realize that we aren’t in control and that we need God. And finally, temptations make us want God and they soften us so that we see our neighbors as friends, not means to self-interest.
Through the process of temptation, self is broken up and love and truth flow into our consciousness. These glowing qualities make our self shine with heavenly rays. Through temptations we are gifted with heavenly virtues that radically change our proprium. It is as if we are lifted up out of proprium. Or it is as if we are given a new proprium from God. Swedenborg says,
Man’s proprium is all evil and falsity. So long as this continues the person is dead; but when he comes into temptations it is broken up, that is loosened and tempered by truths and goods from the Lord, and thus is vivified and appears as if it were not present (AC 731).
We are actually born again. We become different people. We are given a heavenly proprium. We are given a sense of self that regards God and the nrighbor in everything we do, not only what’s in it for me. Swedenborg describes this radical transformation.
As regards the heavenly proprium, it exists from the new will which is given by the Lord, and differs from man’s proprium in this, that they who have it no longer regard themselves in each and every thing they do . . . but they then have regard to the neighbor, the public, the church, the Lord’s kingdom, and so to the Lord Himself. It is the aims of life that are changed. The aims that are fixed on lower things, that is, on self and the world, are removed, and aims that look to higher things are substituted in their place. . . . He to whom the heavenly proprium is given is also serene and full of peace; for he trusts in the Lord, believing that no evil will befall him, and knowing that lusts will not infest him. . . . From this it may be evident that they are in blessedness and happiness, inasmuch as there is nothing to disturb them, nothing of self-love, and consequently nothing of enmity, hatred, and revenge; nor is there any love for the world, consequently no insincerity, fear, or anxiety (AC 5660).
This, finally, brings in our Old Testament reading–believe it or not. The rainbow that God put in the clouds symbolizes a regenerated person. And Swedenborg says that such regenerated people actually are surrounded by rainbows. I think that this is a description of what some people see as auras around people. Swedenborg tells us,
Spiritual angels who have all been regenerated men of the spiritual church, when presented to sight as such in the other life, appear with as it were a rainbow about the head. . . . These angels are those who those who are said to be born again, of water and the spirit . . . There is in the regenerate spiritual man an intellectual proprium in which the Lord instills innocence, charity, and mercy. According to the reception of these gifts by man is the appearance of his rainbow when presented to view–the more beautiful as the proprium of the man’s will is removed, subdued, and reduced to obedience (AC 1042).
Well, I know that this is a difficult subject. Perhaps one of Swedenborg’s most elusive concepts. But I think I can sum it up in a short sentence that I heard from an AA speaker. “There is a God, and you’re not it.”

PRAYER

Lord, We thank you for all the gifts you have given us today, and in our lives. We thank you for your unceasing efforts to lift us out of our self and raise us up into heaven. Your have told us that we need to be born of water and the spirit in order to come into your kingdom. And you have made plain the way for us to go. You have told us about repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You shine a light on our souls, Lord. And in that light we see where we fall short of glory. And, Lord, you give us the power to refrain from harmful thoughts, feelings, and actions. By all these means, and by the power of your unfailing love, you bring us to you and into eternal happiness. We give you thanks, Lord, for shaping this clay into a vessel of your love.

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