Archive for May, 2015

That Which Is Born of the Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 31, 2015

Isaiah 6:1-8 John 3:1-17 Psalm 29

Our Old Testament reading and our New Testament reading both talk about some kind of change taking place in a person. In Isaiah, the Prophet confesses a sense of his own sinfulness. He is then purified by a coal taken from the altar. And in John, we have a lesson about being born again. A contrast is made between flesh and Spirit. Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Making a distinction between flesh and Spirit, Jesus says that we must be born anew, born of water and the Spirit. So both passages say that we need some sort of change in our lives.
In order to inherit eternal life, we need to undergo some sort of spiritual change. In the language of John, we need to be reborn of the Spirit. And in the language of Isaiah, we need to be purified by God. Both these passages say that God needs to work on us to make us into a new person. We need to be recreated by God.
Christianity has different interpretations about what this rebirth means. John’s reference to rebirth by water and the Spirit leads some to think that baptism gives rebirth. According to this interpretation, baptism washes away sin and with baptism a person is saved. I would add, here, that there is a whole lot of good music that celebrates spiritual cleansing by baptism. Often, this baptism takes place in a river and there is a lot of music celebrating going down to the river.
Another interpretation teaches that a person needs to accept Jesus in their heart. When a person confesses that they are a sinner, and that Jesus bore their sins on the cross, they are forgiven and saved. Accepting Jesus’ forgiveness in a person’s heart is being born again.
Catholicism has a complex teaching about salvation and rebirth. They teach that original sin is taken away by baptism. Original sin was when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This original sin of disobedience resulted in their being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Their sin is said to be passed down from generation to generation with conception. According to Catholic doctrine, this original sin is washed away in baptism. But the Catholic Church also recognizes that the temptation to sin is an ongoing fact of human existence. So they teach that a person needs to attend mass and confess sin and receive absolution. By doing these things, a person receives grace that remakes a person into a spiritual being. Finally, though, even this isn’t enough. Catholics say that as a person is dying, they need to receive the Last Rites, to clean up any sin that a person still has left on their immortal soul.
Calvinism has an interesting doctrine on rebirth. They have a teaching called “sanctification.” What this means is that God shines a light on a person’s sins, and removes them over time.
This doctrine of sanctification is closest to our teaching about spiritual rebirth. Our teaching touches on all the above doctrines. We say that a person needs to accept Jesus into our hearts; we say that a person needs baptism; we say that a person needs to be aware of their sins and to do away with them. And we say that all this is done by God with our cooperation.
What we mean by spiritual rebirth is actual personality change. We need to be changed into a new and different person. This happens as we allow God’s Holy Spirit into our lives. Allowing God’s Spirit into us is a gradual process that takes place over a whole lifetime and even into the next life. The Greek Orthodox teaches a similar doctrine and calls it “theosis.”
We need to change only because we need to form a connection with God. Even if we are basically good people, being good isn’t enough. What we need is to have God’s Holy Spirit in us so that all our love and all our wise thinking are done by God’s Spirit in us. Paul says this quite well when he says,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
This quote says that our will, that is what we wish to do, and our actions are both God willing and acting in us.
But for this to happen, we need to ask God into our hearts. And we need to remove any blockage that would keep God from entering into us. That means getting rid of selfishness and self-driven desires. Selfishness has a thousand ways of manifesting. We think of ourselves as better than others, or we want to be better than others. We want people to honor us. We want to show off our possessions. We crave possessions that will make others admire us or envy us. These are only a few of the many ways that self comes between us and our neighbor—and ultimately God. For God alone deserves honor, God alone is the greatest, the whole world is God’s.
For Swedenborg, sin is anything that blocks love for our neighbor and love for God. Swedenborg grew up in a Lutheran Church. He grew up with the idea that our desires are corrupt and evil from birth. This teaching was in the air in the Lutheran Church of his day. We also find it in Catholic doctrine, notably in Augustine. So we find statements in Swedenborg like this one,
From birth, each of us is like a little hell in constant conflict with heaven. The Lord cannot rescue any of us from our hell unless we see that we are in it and want to be rescued (DP 251).
For Swedenborg, spiritual rebirth is seeing sin in ourselves and desiring to cease doing it. It is actual character transformation. It is seeing clearly aspects of us that we need to get rid of, and then taking action to get rid of those defects of character.
While we are taking action to do all this, at the same time we acknowledge that the insight into our sins and the power to remove them are all from God. This is how we let God into us. It is by cooperating with God’s efforts to transform us that we abide in God and God abides in us, according to Jesus’ words in John 14.
As we work to remove our spiritual shortcomings, we find new feelings flowing into us. As we get self out of the way, we find new love for others flowing into our hearts. We are becoming new people. We are being reborn. What we used to enjoy, is now not pleasurable. The aims and goals we used to strive for blindly, as if our lives depended upon them, no longer seem important. In somewhat archaic language, Swedenborg describes this process,
All affections have their delights; but such as are the affections, such are the delights. The affections of evil and falsity also have their delights; and before a man begins to be regenerated, and to receive from the Lord the affections of truth and good, these delights appear to be the only ones; so much so that men believe that no other delights exist; and consequently that if they were deprived of these, they would utterly perish. But they who receive from the Lord the delights of the affections of truth and good, gradually see and feel the nature of the delights of their former life, which they had believed to be the only delights, that they are relatively vile, and indeed filthy. And the further a man advances into the delight of the affections of truth and good, the more does he begin to regard the delights of evil and falsity as vile; and at last to hold them in aversion (AC 3938).
We are made new, we are reborn, to the extent that we remove sin and allow love from God into our hearts. Rebirth is actual character transformation. It is a psychic change. From loving ourselves first and craving to rise in power and prestige in the world, we seek to walk together with our brothers and sisters and to make the world a better place. This we do, because God is now in us. And God loves each person in the world equally. And God’s love knows no bounds. The delight that this life knows is far greater than any delight the world has to offer. Now we are living by the Spirit. And God’s Spirit gives us love and joy beyond words. Being born of water and the Spirit means joy, love, and peace that passes understanding.

PRAYER

Lord, you are the light that guides our way. You show us the direction we are to walk in. You illuminate our path so we know the pitfalls we are to avoid. You show us our souls, as we are ready to see. You shine your light on those areas in us that we need to overcome and put away. You give us the power to do all this. For without you, we can do nothing. Self-directed ambition, even spiritual ambition will only fall in upon itself and we will not benefit. But when we act by your grace and power, we can overcome any obstacle; we can remove any spiritual shortcoming; and we will grow more and more pure. And as we grow in our spiritual perfection, we come nearer and nearer to you, in love, in obedience, and in solidarity with 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. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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May 24th, 2015

Life in the Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 24, 2015

Numbers 11:24-30 Acts 2:1-21 Psalm 104

This Sunday is Pentecost. On this Sunday we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. In a way, it can be considered the beginning of Christianity as a church.
I was talking about our church once to a friend of mine. She asked me, “Does it have the Spirit?” I was caught off guard for several reasons. One was, that we don’t usually talk much about the Spirit. My friend was a member of a Pentecostal Church, and those churches do emphasize the Spirit. Their worship services are very emotional and literally, Spirited. Our services, however, tend to be quiet, contemplative, and subdued. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t have the Spirit. It is simply a question of style.
We talk a good deal about truth. For us, truth and the understanding of truth is one way we talk about the Spirit. John pretty much equates the Holy Spirit with truth. In John 14, we read,
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth . . . you know him, for he dwells within you, and will be with you (14:15-16, 17).
So in this passage from John, the Comforter is called the Spirit of truth. Just a little later in the same passage, the Comforter is called the Holy Spirit.
These things I have spoken to you, while I am with you. But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (John 14:25-26).
So this Comforter, who will be sent, is the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, and it will teach us all things, and call to remembrance all the words Jesus had said. John’s interpretation of the Holy Spirit is truth oriented.
But the way Acts presents the Holy Spirit is different. It is a much more lively portrayal of the Spirit. The Apostles are gathered together in a room. There is a sound like the rush of a mighty wind. Tongues of fire appear above the heads of those gather there. This is a scene of awe and eeriness. But it becomes an impassioned scene of liveliness. Everyone starts speaking in foreign languages. A whole room of preachers all exclaiming in a foreign language. The witnesses gather around and wonder at this, for everyone one can understand what the Apostles are preaching in their own native tongue. The miracle is that those who are preaching are uneducated fishermen all from Galilee, who had never learned foreign languages. But Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, those from Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphyilia, Egypt and Libya all hear the messages of the Apostles in their own language. There are scoffers nearby, who denounce this miracle by saying that the Apostles are drunk. But Peter defends them all by saying that they aren’t drunk because it is only morning.
This passage is the primary source for Pentecostal Churches when they claim that speaking in tongues is a sign of the Holy Spirit. But when congregants of these Pentecostal churches speak in tongues, it is not foreign languages they speak in, as did the Apostles. They simply babble sounds that mean nothing to anyone.
I see the main image here as one of enthusiasm for Jesus. So I return to the question my friend asked me. Do we have the Spirit? Do we have enthusiasm for Jesus? For of the many Christian churches there are out there, I think that we put Jesus most powerfully in the centre. For us. Jesus is the embodiment of All that God is. I say embodiment because for us, Jesus is God’s body. When Jesus ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of God, we understand this to mean that Jesus’ human flesh, now glorified, is the very power that God works through to regenerate us. The Old Testament Yahweh, or Jehovah God as the King James Bible translates Him, God came down to earth, took on human flesh and became Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is God in the flesh, God has a glorified body in the risen Jesus Christ. Talk about truth, this is certainly a truth to get behind and celebrate! We of all churches should have enthusiasm for Jesus.
Often, I think we hide our message under a bushel. We can be shy about our teachings. We can fear what other Christians would say when we make our statement of God’s unity of person. We can quench the Spirit in us that testifies to the reasonableness and intuitive soundness of our beliefs. There is one God and that God is embodied in Jesus Christ. There aren’t three gods. There aren’t a god and a half. There is only one God and that God is embodied in the One Person of Jesus Christ.
I’m not suggesting, though, that we push our beliefs on others. It can be an annoying experience when someone comes up to me and preaches their doctrines at me. I have mine; I respect yours; let’s find our way home in our own ways.
But there is another way to let our light shine that isn’t pushing our ideas on others. That is the example we live. When we had the service here after the teen retreat, one teen made a bold and challenging statement. He said that he thought it was hypocrisy when adults tell him, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I think that the way we live is the most clear and powerful statement of what we believe. Swedenborg writes, “All religion is of life; and a religious life is doing good” (Doctrine of Life 1). Being filled with the Spirit is doing good. That is another way to think of the question, “Do we have the Spirit?” Does our life reflect the way of Jesus? Are we living by the Spirit or by the flesh?
Paul gives us a clear list of what it means to live by the Spirit versus living by the flesh. We find this in Galatians 5:19-25.
19 Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, 21 envy,[b] drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
We can preach our gospel by the deeds we demonstrate. Jesus is pretty strong about calling on His name but not doing the things He commands. This issue occasions the story about the wise man building his house on the rock.
46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? 47 Every one who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built.[c] 49 But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6: 46-49).
Our faith will fall if it is not built on the firm foundation of a good life. All those golden teachings of this beautiful church will be swept away over time if they are not grounded in our lives. For it is our lives that anchor our beliefs. It is the natural degree that is called a container, or a vessel that holds the higher degrees in it. Nobody wants someone coming up to them and trying to convert them to their belief system. But someone may come up to us, having observed the way we live, and ask us what we believe. They will see that we are filled with the Spirit.

PRAYER

Lord, on the first Pentecost long ago, you gave your Holy Spirit to the Apostles. That occasion was attended by miracles and signs of wonder. Today, we ask that you send your Holy Spirit to this church and its people. Perhaps in a more quiet way, but just as strong, we ask for your Spirit to fill our hearts. May it enlighten our minds, and fill our hearts with love for you and for one another. May your Spirit inspire us to do all manner of good deed. May your Spirit inspire us to think true and healthy thoughts. And may your Spirit inspire us with useful, positive, and heavenly feelings.

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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God Is Local and Universal
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 17, 2015

Isaiah 25:6-9 Luke 24:44-53 Psalm 47

Deciding on the title for this sermon was hard for me. It went through several versions before I decided, reluctantly, on the final version: God Is Local and Universal. One version that I liked was phrased as a challenge. It was going to be, “Is Your God Local or Universal?” There was so much in the readings for this Sunday that suggested that God is universal and not local. I wanted that to be the main idea. But careful reading and re-reading would not let me settle there. Finally, the readings suggested that God is both local and universal. Let’s walk through the Bible readings for this morning and see what they say about whether God is universal and/or local.
My thinking began with our reading from the New Testament. In it, Jesus tells the disiples that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. “Wow!” I said. “The message of repentance and forgiveness of sins is for all nations all over the world. It begins in Jerusalem and extends to the whole world!”
Then I looked at the Psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 47. It’s about God being God over the whole world. Then I noticed something very interesting. I noticed the word for God that Psalm 47 uses. Mostly, it isn’t Yahweh, the specific name for God that was given to Moses. Yahweh is translated as Jehovah in the King James Bible. Here is why I am so interested in the name for God: the name Yahweh is tied specifically to the Israelites. Yahweh is their God. The first commandment goes, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). These words tell the story of God’s name quite well. God is speaking to the Israelites specifically. He has delivered them from slavery in Egypt. God says, “I am Yahweh your God.” So by and large, the name Yahweh is associated with the Israelites specifically. He is their God. I had an “Aha” moment when I read Psalm 47. In the whole Psalm, Yahweh is mentioned only twice. Yet the Psalm talks about God a lot. God is mentioned 10 times. But only twice is God called Yahweh. The other 8 times the Psalm uses the old, universal term for God, Elohiym. This word for God is not tied to the history of the Israelites in the same way that Yahweh is. It simply means God, not the God of the Israelites. So Elohiym can be anyone’s God. This is the God who is God over the whole earth. The Bible translators use the word LORD in all capital letters when they translate the word Yahweh. Elohiym is simply translated as God. Listen to the Psalmist! (I invite you to follow along with this talk by referring to the Psalm as it is printed in your bulletin.)
Clap your hands, all peoples!
Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
7 For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm!
8 God reigns over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted!
The Psalmist is bidding all people to clap their hands and shout to God with loud songs of joy. Loud songs remind me of the bands at Blues on Whyte. But it is all people who are being addressed, not just the Israelites. And the God who is to be praised is not the God of the Israelites. It is Elohiym, God. I was really glad when I saw that all the shields of the earth belong to Elohiym, not to Israel’s God. It is the Universal God who is king of all the earth; it is the Universal God who reigns over the nations; it is the Universal God who sits on his holy throne. This song isn’t exalting Israel or Israel’s God. It is exalting God. If I was really glad at all this, I was really, really glad when I read verse 9.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham (9).
This verse brings all the world under God’s care. It says that the princes of the peoples—that is, those who aren’t Israelites—gather as if they are the people of the God of Abraham. We all know about the God of Abraham, how God led Abraham to a new land, how God made Abraham the father of the Israelite race, how God nurtured the Israelites all through their history. Now that same God is the God of the peoples outside the Israelite race. They are as the people of the God of Abraham—God will nurture other peoples as God did the Israelites.
. This idea of a universal God is reaffirmed in the remarkable passage we read from Isaiah 25. In this passage, Israel’s God is the subject. But in this passage we find that Israel’s God is now a God for the whole world. Consider the following words,
On this mountain Yahweh of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined (Isaiah 25:6).
This is clearly Israel’s God, Yahweh. But Isaiah says that Yahweh will prepare a feast for all peoples. Now Israel’s God is a God for everyone. This same God will destroy the shroud over the whole earth, God will wipe away tears from every one’s eye; God will swallow up death for ever. These things are for everyone. Then, the concluding lines are,
It will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is Yahweh; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:9).
When the people say, “Lo, this is our God” who are the people saying it? Whose God is “our God?” I think that by the time we get to that part of Isaiah 25 it is all people, everywhere, who are saying that. “Our God” means everyone’s God. Although it says finally, “This is Yahweh,” we now know that Yahweh is bringing Salvation to all the people.
This is exactly what I mean when I say that God is local and universal. In Psalm 47, God wasn’t attached very closely with the people of Israel. In Psalm 47, God is universal. But in Isaiah 25, it is Israel’s God who is universal. True, God is bringing salvation to all the world, but it is Israel’s God, Yahweh, who is doing it. God is acting universally, but the God who is acting is the local God of the Israelites.
This brings me back to my disappointment in the title of this talk. Yes, in Luke, Jesus sends out his disciples to the whole world to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins. This makes it look like Jesus’ message is universal. But when I read the passage more carefully, I saw that it wasn’t as universal as I had thought. The actual quote goes like this, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations” (24:47). So Jesus’ real teaching is that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be preached in Jesus’ name. The universal nature of Jesus’ message is tied to His specific name. It is not repentance and forgiveness alone that is the message. It is repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. Jesus is for the whole world. But it is Jesus’ name. Further, the passage ends with the disciples filled with joy and blessing God. But they are doing all this in the Temple. They are still worshipping God as good Jews would, in the Temple in Jerusalem. Their joy may spread out to the whole world, but now they are expressing it locally, in the Temple, within the context of their Jewish heritage.
So where am I going with all this? I started out going with an interfaith message. God is universal like the God of Psalm 47 and we can affirm God by any name. But then I was reined in by my careful reading of the texts. I think my message now is that we know God only by our own tradition. We worship locally. While we affirm our fellow believers of different faiths, we, ourselves, practice according to our own faith.
Finally, though, we live in a big world. We cannot afford to stay within the confines of our own church and our own traditions alone. We need to know what’s going on outside the walls of our church. What questions are being asked in our society? What issues are current? What are people talking about? For if we don’t know these things, we will be isolated from the world. And I think we can imagine the consequences of isolation.
So religion is both local and universal. We worship according to the God we understand. But the God we know is universal—for the whole world. And I’ll say further, that the God we don’t know is for the whole world and for us, too. For no one religion, and no one person understands God fully. I think what I’m finally trying to say is that we ought to worship according to our best understanding of God, while remaining open to growing our understanding of God. We grow in our understanding of God in many ways. One way is by listening to the many voices of revealers across the globe. Our world is too large for us to remain only local. God is local and universal.

PRAYER

Lord God, you are known by many names throughout the world. We know you as Jesus Christ. And we know that you love us as children. We know also, that you love each person in the whole wide world as you love us. We worship you according to the precepts of our religion. We know you from what we read in the Bible. And at the same time, we know that other peoples in the world also call on you. Other peoples use different names for you. Other peoples use different scriptures to learn about you. As we practice our own religion, may we also hear the voices of our brothers and sisters across the world. May we hear with respect. And may we also learn from what we hear. For you are an infinite God, and no single human or religion understands you completely. Though you are called by many names, you are One God. Praise be to you!

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. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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May 10th, 2015

I Have Called You Friends
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 10, 2015

Leviticus 19:9-18 John 15:9-17 Psalm 98

Jesus calls us friends. I just can’t wrap my head around that. I can’t think of another religion that makes such a bold statement of a person’s relationship with God. Ancient religions had gods living way up on Mount Olympus, far above the affairs of puny mortals. So the poet Wallace Stevens writes,
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
But in Christianity, we do have a God who had a mother who suckled Him, and a land that gave motions to his Human mind. How often do we hear that we are to fear God, not to approach God, that God is above humanity in the clouds, that God is to be held in awe. But none of these things seem to fit with these words of Jesus. “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Wow! We sing a hymn every now and then that goes, “Jesus is my best of friends.” It was Swedenborg’s favorite hymn, and he used to sing it to himself when he was troubled of spirit and in temptations. But can it be? Can we say that we are friends with God?
We know that God loves us. But God can love us at a distance. I think the idea of friendship connotes a God who is near, always near as a good friend is. And I also think that the idea of friendship puts God emotionally near us. The King James Bible uses the words, “thou, thee, and thy” quite a bit. Since we no longer speak King James Language, we can get confused about what these words are supposed to convey. Obviously, they mean some form of the word “you.” But these words were written when we had a familiar form of the word you and an intimate word for you. Lovers would use the intimate form of you. Parents and children would use the intimate form of you. In French, the intimate form of you is “tu.” The formal word for you is “vous.” So what form of the word you do you think thou is? Would we use thou when we are talking to a king? Is thou a formal form of address? In fact, thou is the intimate form of you that a mother would use with her child. We could hear a 17th-century mother saying to her baby, “Mama loves thee.” Well it is this same intimate form of the word you that King James uses to speak to God. We say, “Hallowed be thy name.” It is as if we are addressing a dear friend, not a divine king. King James uses the familiar form of you to talk to God. In French, you don’t even address your teachers with the familiar word for you. It is always the formal form, “vous.” So the translators of the Bible want us to think of God in familiar terms. They want us to think of God as a dear friend. Someone we are intimate with.
Maybe we can think of Jesus as a dear friend. But Jesus asks us to do something that may be harder. He asks us to love one another. That is Jesus’ real command. In fact, Jesus says that the whole Bible is summed up in two laws, love God and love the neighbor (Mark 12:28-34). Paul says the same thing,
he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
And again in Galatians 5:14, “ For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus emphasizes this idea in Matthew 25:31-46. That is the story about separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep come into heaven and the goats are sent to hell. The sheep are metaphors for people who have done good to God. These people ask when they did good things to God. Jesus replies that when they do good to the least of His brothers and sisters, they do good to God. That means that everyone around us is our brother and sister. We can view everyone we see, in a crowd, small group, or one on one—stranger or friend, as a friend. We can view everyone we encounter, in a crowd, in a small group, or one on one—stranger or friend as our brother or sister.
Is this hard? Is it hard to see a stranger and feel friendliness for them? Is it hard to see strangers and think of them as a brother and sister, as our comrade in this thing called life? Is it crazy to think that way? If so, why? When we are stuck in traffic, can’t we imagine that everyone else stuck with us is our friend and comrade? We’re all together as brothers and sisters. I don’t mean that we can presume to enjoy the same social relations as we do with actual friends. People would thing we were creepy if we came up to strangers and started talking or put our arm around them. But in our mind, the possibility of friendship can be there, and we can certainly view them as fellows.
Maybe you have wondered, “Why are there so many different people?” Or maybe you are wondering, “Why are there so many different religions?” And even more to the point, “Why are there people so different from me?” It is indeed true that there are no two people who are exactly alike. There are always differences between people, there are always differences in thinking, there are always differences in beliefs. You put two people together in a room—even people of the same family and the same religion—and you’ll have two different perspectives on life and belief. This is because God is infinite and we are finite. We each reflect one aspect of God. When we think of the whole world and all the different people in it, we can begin to see how infinite God is.
We are called to love people who are different from us. Even people of different religions. Jesus teaches this quite clearly in the story of the good Samaritan. The Samaritans were a different religion that the Jews. The story goes that a man is beaten and robbed by thieves. He is left for dead. Two Jewish priests walk by and cross the road to the other side to avoid the beaten man. It is a Samaritan, a member of a despised race and creed, who takes the man to an inn to heal and even pays the innkeeper for the beaten man’s lodging. Jesus uses the example of a foreigner and a member of a hated religion to teach the Jews that we are to love everyone, even people different from us.
But that’s not all! We are even called to love our enemies. Everyone who is honest will admit that it is hard to love people who seem set against us. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Love everyone but you don’t have to love your enemies.” No, He says the exact opposite,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
Jesus showed us how to love. And he showed us how to love everyone—people who are different, people of different religions, even His enemies. This is His one command to us, to love each other. Every human is our fellow, our brother or sister, a potential friend. This is because what we do to our neighbor, we do to God. For Jesus is our best of friends.

PRAYER

Lord, you have given us one simple command–to love one another. This command sounds simple. Why, then, do we find it hard? Is it because our own self-will can come between us and our neighbors? Is it because other people can be different from us? Is it because of disagreements? Why, Lord, do we find loving one another hard sometimes? Lord, this morning, we pray that you show us why we may find it hard to love our neighbor. We would celebrate the good fortune of our neighbors. We would laugh with them and weep with them. We pray that you lead us into harmony and joy with our fellows.

And this morning, we especially pray for our mothers. We thank them for the love and support they have given us, and continue to give us. You have given us mothers to act your helpers on this earth. The love of our mothers may be the closest love we know to your own divine love. This day, let us remember our mothers and thank them for all they have given us.

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. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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May 3rd, 2015

To Be Holy to Your God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 3, 2015

Numbers 15:37-41 John 15:1-12 Psalm 22

Jesus is in our hearts. It is the love of Jesus that gives us life. When we accept Jesus’ love, then we are in Jesus. Jesus loves us and when we love Jesus back, then the circle of love is complete. Then, to use Jesus’ words, “Abide in me, and I in you” (15:4). We will be in Jesus and Jesus will be in us.
When we have Jesus in our hearts, everywhere we go will be holy. It will be blessed by the love that we have for Jesus. And it will be blessed by the love of Jesus which will be with us wherever we go.
We have Jesus in our hearts when we do Jesus’ commands. They are not hard to understand. They sound quite simple, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12). There is a story recorded about the Apostle John. John was so old that he couldn’t walk anymore and had to have people carry him around. He was often asked to speak at the banquets Christians would hold together, since John knew Jesus personally. The story goes that at this particular banquet he was again asked to speak. John said, “Little children, love one another.” That was all. Someone complained. He said, “That’s all you ever say. Isn’t there something else you can tell us that you remember Jesus saying?” John replied, “That’s all I remember the Lord saying, as I would rest my head on his heart. And if you do that, it is enough.”
When we love one another, then we do good to one another. So Jesus also tells us to do good. “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples” (15:8).
We do good to our neighbor directly and indirectly. We do good to our neighbor directly when we are kind and do things to our neighbor that benefit their souls. We don’t just do anything our neighbor wants. Rather, we do what we think is good for our neighbor. We do good to our neighbor indirectly when we perform useful deeds in the world. Poets who write poems that stir the heart to feel and stimulate the mind to think are doing good to their neighbor. Composers who write music that melts the heart or storms and rages in passionate tones are doing good to the neighbor. Artists who paint beautiful pictures are doing good to their neighbor. Merchants who sell products that consumers need in life are doing good to their neighbor. A mother and father who raises a family and so contributes to the welfare of the community is doing good to the neighbor. There are as many ways of doing good as there are of people who do it.
The artist who paints because she or he loves to paint is loving their neighbor. The actual feeling does not have to have people in mind. When we act from a love of what we do, we are loving our neighbor, too. If, however, the artist paints so that they can become famous and make a fortune, then I would question their motives. I actually saw a so-called “painting,” like that. It was by an artist named Jonathon Borofsky. I like a lot of Borofsky’s art, such as a gigantic silhouette of a “Hammering Man.” But I was disturbed by a plain white canvas that had some words written on it in black paint that went, “I want to be great.” There were other words, like “I want to do something different,” or something to that effect. But the main content of that painting was that Borofsky wanted to be great. I was with a photographer at that exhibit, and he had been attending our New York Swedenborgian church. He paused at that painting, and called it to my attention with a knowing nod of his head. Neither of us said what we were thinking. But we did question that painting and the mental space of the artist who painted it. Perhaps it was a confession. Perhaps it was only one aspect of what drove Borofsky to paint. He certainly is successful, anyway.
Our story from the Old Testament tells us to align our hearts with God’s commands. There is a command to make tassels to affix on the corners of their garments. The Israelites were to look at these tassels to remind them to follow God’s commands. They are told, “not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes.” Our own heart can lead us away from following God. The world is seductive, as are our own egos. When we follow our own hearts, we can end up hurt or entangled in destructive behaviors. We can follow our own hearts away from our neighbor and into ego gratification. When we want to gratify our own egos, we can run roughshod over our neighbor, should they get in our way. This is why Jesus tells us to abide in Him and to allow Him to abide in us. For it is only when we have Jesus in us that we are able to get out of our own head. It is only when we abide in Jesus and Jesus abides in us that we can love others besides ourselves.
I am reminded of the story of Faust by Goethe. Faust makes a deal with the devil so that he can have anything he wants on earth. Faust ends up with a kingdom and riches beyond anyone’s imagination. But as he stands in his castle, surveying his lands, there is one single thing that irritates Faust to no end. He hears the bells of a small chapel. These church bells annoy Faust to the extent that he sends out some thugs to get rid of them. The thugs burn down the chapel, and in doing so, murder the simple couple who maintain the chapel. Faust is grief-stricken because he didn’t mean for things to go that far. He only wanted the church bells silenced. Those bells annoyed Faust. They were reminders that despite Faust’s power and money, there was still God in his world. This story is clearly a metaphor for what can happen to us when we let our greed and worldly passions rule in our lives. Then, suggestions of God are hateful. We hate to be reminded that we are not the masters of the life we have created. We hate the feeling of humility, by which we recognize a power greater than ourselves. And when we try to silence God, we are capable of any sin. When we forget God’s ordinances, especially God’s command to love, we are capable of doing anything.
But when we are mindful of God’s ordinances; when we have Jesus in our hearts; then we are filled with neighbor love. Other people do not annoy us because we see them as fellows. The thought of God does not annoy us, because we love God. Everywhere we go is holy ground because we carry God with us in our hearts and in our minds.
There is a final verse in today’s reading that makes living with Jesus attractive. Jesus gives us a reason for following Him and holding His commands in our hearts.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (John 15:10-11).
If we have love for God and love for our neighbor in us—that is, if we abide in Jesus and Jesus abides in us—then our joy is full. Loving fills us with joy. There is no end to the joy that love brings.
And, on the other hand, there is no greater frustration than when we try to be self-directed and to follow our own ego. We can’t make the world go our way, which is what we want when ego drives us. There are too many other people. And there is God, who is really making things go the way they are going. We will always live under frustration if we want to do away with God.
So let’s not even try. Let’s surrender to the One who has our best interests at stake. Jesus came to earth and taught us so that we can know heavenly joy. Jesus taught us the way of love because that will make us happy. Heaven is a kingdom filled with souls who want to render kind services to everyone else. That is the nature of Jesus’ love. That will be our nature, when we abide in Him and He abides in us. Then Jesus’ joy will be in us, and our joy will be full.

PRAYER

Lord, this morning we pray that you come into our hearts. Fill us with your love. For apart from you we can do nothing. Drive out selfish motives and deeds. Give us a heart that is dedicated to you and to our neighbors. Lead us away from the promptings of our own desires. Fill us instead with direction from you. Fill us with heavenly loves instead of worldly passions. Inspire our minds to think about our neighbor and how we can make our neighbor happy from our own resources. Give us to think of distant neighbors in foreign countries and also to think of our neighbor who is right at hand. May we always seek to hear your voice calling and when we hear you, may we follow in the ways you ask of us.

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. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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