Archive for November, 2014

Nov 23rd, 2014

The Face of God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 23, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Matthew 25:31-46 Psalm 95:1-7

There is an Indic greeting that goes, “The god in me salutes the god in you.” Our reading from Matthew reminds me of that saying. Jesus says that when we do good to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do it to Him. To me, this means that Jesus is dwelling in each of us. It reminds me of another line from a poet I much admire named Michael Harper. In a poem called “High Modes: Vision as Ritual: Confirmation,” Harper writes the wonderful line, “A man is another man’s face.” I’d like to let that line just hover for a few minutes. But to explain what it means to me, I would say that to another man, we are but a face. And another man’s face is a man like us. The lines from Matthew tell us to honor another man or woman’s face, as if we were honoring Jesus.
I think that Swedenborg’s doctrine of the Divine Human relates to this Bible passage. When God took on a human form in Jesus, God sanctified humanity. With God as a Human, we see humanity differently. For when we do something to a human, we do something to God’s form. What we do to another human we are doing to God, since our very humanity is from God’s Divine Humanity. It is this idea that leads the poet William Blake to say,
So all must love the human form in heathen, Turk, or Jew
Where mercy, pity, peace are found, there God is dwelling, too.
We have our mortal human form from God’s Divine Humanity.
And this honor accorded to all humanity is found in the Old Testament, too. Leviticus 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus takes this to be one of the two commandments that sum up all the law and prophets. I spoke with a rabbi at the Edmonton Interfaith Centre and she told me that this command takes precedence over all the rituals devoted to God. To her, love for the neighbor is what Judaism is all about.
It’s harder to mistreat our fellows when we think that mistreating them is mistreating Jesus. When faced with a decision about how to act, we often hear it said, “What would Jesus do?” This is a good question to ask. But another way to put it would be to consider, “Would I do this to Jesus?” That is a solid rule to guide our behavior.
So we are called to do good to our fellows. And we are taught that in doing good to our fellows, we are doing good to Jesus. This unifies the two commands to love God and to love our neighbor. By doing good to our neighbor, we are loving God, as God is in our neighbor. And in doing good to our neighbor, plainly, we are loving our neighbor.
And we are called to do good to all our neighbors. This includes our near neighbors—that is, our friends, our family, our next-door-neighbors, those in our city. And it also includes distant neighbors—those who live at remote distances from us.
But Jesus singles out certain kinds of neighbors to whom we are to exercise charity in a special way. Jesus speaks of showing mercy to the hungry, the naked, prisoners, the sick, and the stranger. In other words, Jesus calls us to show mercy to those who are down and out.
This makes me think of Edmonton’s plan to end homelessness in ten years. It also makes me think of the problem of mass incarceration, or the problem of prisons and recidivism. These are issues that churches need to be sensitive to, it seems to me.
I’ve heard the damaging myths about the homeless. Some people have told me that people choose to be homeless. I have even heard someone say that some of the homeless are doctors and lawyers who simply don’t want to work. These ideas are false. When the temperatures get down to minus 30, can we actually think that people choose to be homeless? Many of the homeless have drug dependency issues. Some have mental illnesses and haven’t been helped with psychiatric care. Some are fleeing abusive homes. None choose to be homeless.
As president of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre, I recently signed a document rededicating our efforts to end homelessness in ten years, supporting the Edmonton Homeless Coalition. This document was signed by faith leaders from many different traditions. This is not a pie-in-the-sky dream. To date, Edmonton has housed 2,909 homeless persons. At this signing ceremony, we heard a speech by Joe Roberts, a man who was formerly homeless, but became the CEO of a multi-million dollar company. His talk was called, “From Skid Row to CEO.” It was an illuminating talk and equally inspiring. Joe was forced to leave home at the age of 15 to escape domestic abuse. He lived on the streets of Vancouver for years and became addicted to heroin. He was about as hopeless a man as you could run into. Some might have thought him as worthless a man as you could run into. One day he heard something that started his road to recovery. Someone told him, “There’s more to you than you see.” Joe entered drug rehab and later enrolled in a university. In university he excelled, graduating with straight A’s. He entered the business world and built up a small company into a multi-million dollar company. He was now CEO. In his talk, Joe passed over the wealth he acquired rather quickly. Now he is dedicated to raising public awareness to homelessness. This worthless bum is now a millionaire.
We need to see the homeless as faces of Jesus and we need to treat them as such. There are ways to get involved. In fact, I have brochures about an excellent program that requires nothing but friendship to homeless persons who have been placed in housing. The dynamics of homelessness are complex. And finding someone a home doesn’t exhaust the needs of the individual. Support in learning to live in an apartment or home is needed. The program I’m thinking of asks only to visit homeless individuals who have been housed. It asks people to take them out for coffee, to a movie, in other words, to help orient them to living in a home. And, no surprise, this initiative is run by the Catholic Church
The second problem that comes to mind from our Matthew reading is the plight of prisoners. Society is structured so that certain ethnic and racial demographics are far more likely to end up incarcerated than others. There are certain neighborhoods that are more likely to have its residents end up incarcerated. There is an injustice built into society that unfairly targets individuals for imprisonment.
Then, once in prison, an individual is much more likely to return to the system. This is because living in prison is so unnatural that one loses normal living skills. I have a friend who ended up incarcerated. When he was released, they gave him a few dollars in his pocket and dropped him off at Claireview Station. That was it. We were able to help him get readjusted to life on the outside. But for those who don’t have family or friends to help them get set up, what alternative is left? Homelessness? Hunger? Crime and reincarceration? As a society we need to consider other ways of treating offenders. I knew of a program by a university that offered classes in prison. The inmates could continue in the university after their release and complete their degree. So they had a better chance of adjusting to society after their incarceration. This was in Ohio. But the people of Ohio complained about inmates getting degrees for free while others in the state had to pay. So they cancelled the program. The irony is that is costs several hundred thousand dollars to incarcerate someone for a year. The cost of an individual returning to prison far outweighs the cost of educating them and providing them with the means of gainful employment upon release. And to break the unbalance in the ratio of certain neighborhoods and racial groups who end up incarcerated, we need to recognize the full humanity of all sorts of different races and socio-economic groups.
Perhaps this talk today is more worldly in its topics, speaking of homelessness and incarceration. But these are situations that a prosperous society shouldn’t have in it. And we have the words of Jesus pointing to justice for the marginalized in society. We have enough food, we have enough wealth, and we have enough charity to end homeless and mass incarceration for unjust reasons.
The face we see in another is Jesus’ face. For God’s Divine Humanity dwells in everyone in the depth of their being. When we say hello to someone, the god in us is greeting the god in another. And when we act to help those less fortunate than us, we are helping Jesus. And when we show that we love our neighbor, whoever they are, or whatever racial group they come from, we are showing love to God. Thus the two great commandments are realized–love for God and love for the neighbor. “A man is another man’s face.” When you do it for the least of these brethren of mine, you do it for me.

PRAYER

Lord, you have come to us as a human. And in doing so, you have hallowed the human form. You dwell in the depths of each one of us. So when we see the face of another human, we are seeing your image. Soften our hearts to our fellows. May we treat each other as we would treat you. You have said that when we do good to the least of your children we do good to you. May we always remember that the way we treat our fellows is the way we treat you. Give us, we pray this morning, to look upon one another with love. And may our love for you find its expression in the love we show to each other.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Nov 9th, 2014

How to Remember?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 9, 2014

Isaiah 65:17-25 Revelation 21:1-7 Psalm 18

When I thought about Remembrance Day, the present overwhelmed me. Traditionally, on Remembrance Day we think about World War I and World War II. But all I could think about when I thought about Remembrance Day was what a different world we now live in.
I thought about the recent attack in Ottawa. I thought a little further back to Montreal. And the Boston Marathon bombing. And of course the World Trade Building attack on 9/11. This led my thinking to Iraq and Afghanistan.
World War I and II were about soldiers attacking soldiers, country attacking country. Now, civilians are targets. It is no longer nation against nation. It seems more like individual against individual. Our whole understanding of who the enemy is has changed.
The modern enemy is not a country, it is more an ideology. The closest parallel to this would be in World War II. In World War II Hitler created a national mythology about the Aryan Race that he used to mobilize his country. But this mythology was closer to a fantasy, indeed, even a falsity. It certainly had no real historical grounding. But this national fantasy was sufficient to generate genocidal horrors unlike any previously seen.
Today we are seeing fighting—I don’t even know if war is the right term—for an apparently religious cause. We who know little about world religions have difficulty understanding the nature of the great religion that has become radicalized in some people. For many of us, all we know of the great Muslim religion is what we hear from radical fundamentalists who misuse the name of the Prophet. These days when we hear about civil unrest, it is all too easy and all too common to see the labels and not the persons. The danger in this is that people will be painted with broad strokes drawn from the worst examples of a given label. And moderates and caring individuals can be seen under a label that extremists claim for themselves. And we especially need to keep in mind that by far the greatest number of victims of the conflicts in the Middle East are innocent Muslims.
The kind of work I do at the Edmonton Interfaith Centre has never been more important. At the Interfaith Centre I know on a friendship basis Muslims who decry the terrible events committed in the name of their own religion in the Middle East and here in North America. At the beginning of their Muslim prayers, which I have been privileged to participate in, often they will begin, “In the name of Allah, the most Beneficent, the most Merciful.” The Allah my friends worship is good and merciful, not inclined to war. I have heard citations from the Koran about not acting in hate but in justice.
We Christians need to remember that in our own past, violence and warfare has been perpetrated in the name of our religion and our God. And some of these wars were between rival factions of the same Christian religion. It was Protestant against Catholic in the 100 Years’ War—both Christians. And there were the crusades, when over a period of several hundred years Christians waged war on Jerusalem for its wealth and in the name of religious purity. We need to remember, too, that knights who fought in the crusades were promised a place in heaven if they died in the great cause of the Christian crusades. And earlier still, Charlemagne–called “the Great”–converted much of Europe to Christianity at the point of a sword.
But war and fighting aren’t the only expressions of religion. Those who hate religion will use these examples to criticize religion one-sidedly. There are countless examples of beautiful cultural contributions of religion–from Mosques to medieval cathedrals, from paintings, mosaics, statues, to music and poetry. And good people of all religions personally embody the best qualities of their faith when they live honorable lives, justly and with love, and with kindness embrace their fellow humans.
I chose two beautiful readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures today. Their language is so close that it is clear that John borrowed from Isaiah when he wrote Revelation 21. These two parallel passages show us that the human hope for a better world lives in the Jewish Tradition and in the Christian. I think that it is a universal human hope. We all look forward to a time when God will wipe away every tear from every eye. We hope for that time and kingdom when, “Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” Perhaps we think of that kingdom where there is no more death nor mourning nor pain nor crying, perhaps we look forward with hope for the next life. But both our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures speak of a new heaven and a new earth.
I think that we do hope for a new earth when there will be no more hurt or destruction. We hope for this and we work for this. Otherwise why would we struggle and fight in distant lands? We wish to secure peace on our homeland, of course. But I think that we also feel a sense of obligation to support and protect those innocents who are unable to defend themselves. We wish for them to have the good things in life like those simple things stated in Isaiah:
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD,
and their children with them (Isaiah 65:21-23).
These are the reasons why we fight. These are the reasons why honorable men and women have given their lives on the battlefield. These are the reasons we continue to fight. And in the midst of this troubled world, we look forward to a new earth in which God will wipe away every tear from every eye and there will be no more hurt or destruction.

PRAYER

Lord, we read in your Bible about a time when you will wipe away every tear from every eye. We read about a time when the wolf will dwell with the lamb and the lion will eat straw like the ox. And yet when we look at the world, we are grieved at the violence and bloodshed we see. We long for that time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Yet we continue to strive in this world to bring about justice and peace. We pray for you to end the trouble of these times. We pray for justice and peace in these difficult time. And in the meanwhile, we hold fast to the hope of a time when there shall be no more mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things will have passed away. For it is this hope that sustains us as we struggle to bring peace to this troubled world.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Nov 2nd, 2014

The Problem of Self Love
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 2, 2014

Micah 3:5-8 Matthew 23:1-12 Psalm 43

Our readings this morning bring up the problem of self-love. I call it a problem because self-love can be interpreted two ways. Our society commends self-love. We hear it often said that one can’t love someone else unless one loves one’s self. This gives self-love positive connotations. But in the history of Christianity, and in Swedenborg’s theology in particular, self-love almost always has negative connotations. In Christianity, self-love is usually contrasted with love for God, or love for the neighbor. Self-love is the opposite of love for God, or love for the neighbor. In this understanding of self-love, self-love is seen as selfishness and ego. So self-love is a problem. It is seen as both something positive and as something negative.
I must confess that I don’t understand the idea of loving self in a positive way. I don’t understand how thinking about myself and loving myself wouldn’t spill into self-absorption. It seems to me that it would make a person full of themselves. I think of a psychologist in the 20th century named Leo Buscaglia. He was a champion for love and for self-love. I remember reading one of his books, I don’t remember which one. But it started out like this, “Hi! I’m Leo Buscaglia–isn’t that great!” I remember thinking at the time, “What’s so great about that?” But Dr. Buscaglia was affirming himself, embodying that idea of self-love in a positive way. But it seemed like a thin philosophy to me at the time, and does to this day.
I don’t know what to make of the idea that we need to love ourselves in order to love others. I suppose that there is some merit in the idea that we need to feel worthy of love. If we think we are unlovable, or somehow deficient, we will not see others reaching out to us. We will not know how to respond to love because we will be convinced that no one is showing us love. But if we do think ourselves lovable, we will be able to see when others are being friendly or loving to us. The shield of negative self-image that blocked offers of friendliness and love would be broken up.
I think that it is necessary to have some kind of healthy self-image. I remember one person in a 12-step program saying that he thought himself a “Sorry SOB.” A young person then spoke up. He said that he is a valuable person. He is not a waste. That he is lovable, that he is made by God and God doesn’t make junk. The idea here, is that if a person thinks themself worthless it is easier to let themself go to pot through substances or alcohol. I’m no good, anyway, I night as well drink. So I think that a healthy self-image is necessary for individuals who have been given destructive ideas about who they are.
But over-emphasis on self can have the same effect as that of under-valuing self. If we are always thinking how wonderful we are, we will not be open to others either. I wonder how the average person would respond if I greeted them, “Hi, I’m Pastor Dave! Isn’t that great?!” So I can confess that I don’t know what to make of self-love in a positive way.
So I’m not sure how to take the current idea that self-love in a positive sense is necessary in order for us to love others. I’m a lot clearer about self-love as a religious problem. I can pose the issue this way, “What about the person who loves themself but never makes the bridge to loving other people–who remains with self-love alone?” Here we are dealing with self-love in a negative sense. This is the self love we call selfishness. These are people who think only about themselves in everything they do. These are people who qualify everything they do with the question, “What’s in it for me?” When we think of self in this way, it becomes a religious problem. Then self-love does oppose love for God and for our neighbor.
People who have self-love in a negative sense do things with an eye to their own gain. They are friendly to others only when others show them favor. And when others don’t revere them or treat them as special, they are angry and spiteful. These are the bad prophets in our Micah reading from this morning. It is stated very plainly in the Bible,
Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against him
who puts nothing into their mouths (Micah 3:5).
These false prophets are peaceful to people who give them food offerings. But they declare war against those who don’t bring them offerings. By this metaphor, the Bible teaches us about self-love in a negative sense. People filled with negative self-love appear friendly to those who pay them court, but turn against whoever doesn’t treat them as someone special. Swedenborg speaks to self-love in a negative sense.
the impulses that arise from that love are urges to wound people who do not offer respect and deference and reverence. To the extent that rage takes charge, and the hatred and vengefulness that come from rage, people are driven to attack others viciously (HH 573).
There are other aspects to self-love. There is the issue of status and prestige. People who have self-love in a negative sense want honor, prestige, and status. Their interest is in the titles and honors they have–not in the job or function itself. These are like politicians who want to be Prime Minister not because they want to make their country a better place, but for the sake of the title, alone. We see this in party-spirit. When people want their party to be in office at all costs. This leads to political gridlock. Nothing gets done because both parties are not concerned with the actual issues and the good of the country. They care only for what makes their own party more powerful. Swedenborg describes these people in stark language. He, himself, must have seen a lot of this because he held a seat in his country’s house of nobles most of his life. So he tells it like it is,
people whose self-love leads them to take power intend good to no one but themselves. Any services they perform for others are actually for their own esteem and renown, since only this is of any use to them. Helping others is for them simply a means to being waited on and respected and deferred to. They strive for high office not for the good they ought to do for their country and their church but to be prominent and praised and therefore in their heart’s delight (HH 564).
These are the scribes and Pharisees from our Matthew reading,
5 They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men (23:5-7).
But there is also a positive way to be in power. For Swedenborg, when a person’s heart is on the good he or she is doing, then status and power are good things. They want to do good, and they are happy when opportunities arise for them to do good. So when they are promoted to high positions, and receive important titles, their mind is only on the notion that now they have more opportunity to good to their city, country, or church. We have seen what the quest for power and status looks like for those who are caught up in self-love in a negative sense. It now remains for us to consider what status looks like for those who use it to do greater good. Swedenborg describes this as well,
There are two ways of being in power. One comes from love for our neighbor and the other from love for ourselves. In essence, these two kinds of power are exact opposites. People who are empowered by love for their neighbor intend the good of everyone and love nothing more than being useful—that is, serving others (serving others means willing well and helping others, whether that is one’s church, country, community, or fellow citizen). This is their love and the delight of their hearts. As such people are raised to high positions they are delighted; but the de-light is not because of the honor but because of the constructive things they can now do more abundantly and at a higher level. This is what empowerment is like in the heavens (HH 564).
High office and honorable titles for these people are ways of doing good to their country, their city, or their church. The status and titles they are given are means to their end, which is service. There was a time when politicians were called public servants. I don’t know if we still call them that. But these two ways of finding status–from self-love and from a love of service–are not only for politicians. We all have ways of being more or less useful and there are many ways of being given titles and honors. But if we are Christians, we are interested in the service we can do to others. We can serve personally to individuals, or collectively through organizations. And if service is our main intention, we can accept any position or title that comes our way. For Jesus has said, “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12).

PRAYER

Lord, you have created us in your own image and likeness. That means that we have the capacity to grow forever in wisdom and in love. We are all made with the same needs and wants–that is, to be loved, not to feel pain, and to be happy. Help us to see our fellows as just like we are. That our neighbors want the same things that we do, to be loved, not to feel pain, and to be happy. Give us the humility to see our neighbors as fellows–not better than us, not below us. May we feel like one among others, not looking down upon our neighbor; not looking up to him or her. And just as you accept and love us, so give us to accept and love our neighbor.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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