Archive for October, 2015
First Be Reconciled
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 25, 2015
Joshua 6:15-21 Matthew 5:21-26 Psalm 37
I recall an incident from when I was living in Florida. I lived in a mobile home in a nice trailer park. A hurricane had come through and blown down my car port, and I was having a hard time finding a construction company that would come out and fix it. I guess it was too small a job for them to be bothered. But that wasn’t all. I had let the grounds around my mobile home become somewhat unkempt. Furthermore, my mobile home needed to be pressure cleaned, and maybe painted. Although it was a trailer park, they had standards. Well finally, the management sent me a letter threatening legal proceedings–including possible eviction–if I didn’t clean up my lot. Eviction was an interesting threat. I owned my mobile home, and eviction meant somehow moving it somewhere else–where else and how, I couldn’t imagine.
My first reaction was to go to some friends of mine to see if the management had a legal right to do what they threatened to do. I had someone look over the terms of my lease. But more importantly, I had a friend who was a lawyer. I had him look over the letter the management had sent me. He told me something I didn’t want to hear. He told me to go in person and talk with the property manager and try to understand what they would settle for or what kind of time table I had. In short, my lawyer friend wanted me to meet face to face and settle things amicably. I asked him if the letter they sent me would hold up in court. My friend came back with his original suggestion that I talk with the management. When I pressed him further, he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Dave, this is counsel!” What he meant by that was that he had just given me real legal advice and I had best take it. He had made a very good living handling personal grievances as a lawyer. I figured I should take his advice and swallow the bitter pill. I had to reconcile myself with my adversary when I wanted to fight.
This is the message we heard from the New Testament. In our reading from Mark, we are told to work things out with our neighbor. Jesus told the Jews of His time not to offer a sacrifice in the temple if our neighbor had something against us. The temple sacrifice wouldn’t mean anything if it came from a heart filled with resentment or anger. Jesus taught further, that one should reconcile with one’s neighbor when one is on the way to the law courts. All these teachings are in a section that begins with a teaching against anger against the neighbor.
This is a teaching of peace. But it is, perhaps, a hard teaching. This teaching means that we are to face the one we have a beef with, or who has a beef against us. It means confrontation. And sometimes confrontation is hard; it is something we would rather avoid.
But those in the legal profession, the police force, and even in government favor this policy. Lawyers will counsel one to settle outside of court, as trials are difficult, costly, and uncertain. When one calls the police to complain about a neighbor, they will ask us to try to work it out between the two parties. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
But when there is no other option, then the use courts, police intervention, or armed conflict appear to be necessary. But this is only a last resort. It is only justified when all negotiation and sanctions have failed. Armed conflict is not God’s will. We heard about holy war in today’s reading from Joshua about the fall of Jericho. This is one of the earliest references to “jihad.” The passage in Joshua calls this devoting the city to God. And by devoting the city to God, the meaning is that Israelites kill everything in the city.
They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it–men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys (Joshua 6:21).
But there are some interesting things about this jihad that we need to consider. First of all, we do not find God ordering the Israelites to kill everything in the city. We don’t find this jihad commanded by God. The Bible only says, “They devoted the city to the LORD.” This is consistent with the idea that it was the Israelites themselves who declared jihad on Jericho, not God. This idea finds support from a passage earlier in the Jericho story. Before the battle with Jericho, Joshua meets an angel of God. Joshua tries to see whose side the angel is on, but the angel says he is on no one’s side.
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come” (Joshua 5:13-14).
The angel of God is not on anyone’s side. I take this to mean that God does not will that there be wars. Swedenborg writes,
It is not because of divine providence that wars happen, because wars are inseparable from murder, plunder, violence, cruelty, and other appalling evils that are diametrically opposed to Christian caring (DP 251).
Wars and other forms of violence are not God’s will. But God does allow them to happen. So Swedenborg writes, “Saying that God allows something to happen does not mean that he wants it to happen” (DP 234).
Each one of us is capable of the kind of violence that would lead to war. I say we are capable of it, not that we act or feel like acting on violent impulses. For the process of regeneration can make each of us meek and forgiving. But I find it interesting that Swedenborg describes greater and lesser wars–greater wars are between nations and lesser wars are between individuals.
There are lesser and greater wars, the lesser ones between property owners and their neighbors and the greater ones between the rulers of nations and their neighbors. The only difference between the lesser and the greater ones is that the lesser ones are limited by national laws and the greater ones by international laws. There is also the fact that in both cases the participants want to violate the laws, and that the lesser ones cannot, but the greater ones can, though still not beyond the bonds of possibility (DP 251).
It is a sobering idea to think that our grievances are alike to the grievances that set nation against nation. It is easy to point a finger at Iran or Syria and to exclude ourselves from the same drive to have things our own way. For that is the root of almost every resentment and grievance we could have against our neighbors: they are not doing things the way we want them to do things. We want our will to be law.
It is the desire to bend others to our will that makes our neighbors into our enemies. That desire forms the wall between us and our neighbors. Robert Frost has a poem that talks about walls between people. He talks about a certain day, when he and his neighbor meet for the sole purpose of building a wall between them–or between their properties to be specific. Yet the poet says that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.” The poem, from which I here cite a few excerpts, is called The Mending Wall:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, . . .
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go. . . .
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down. . . .
This is such a case of irony! The two come together only to build a wall between them.
Who are we in this poem and in this discussion? Are we the ones who want the wall between people and nations down? Or are we the ones who allow our baser passions to erect a wall between us and our neighbors? Is our impulse to fight or to reconcile? Are we the blessed peacemakers? It requires humility, courage, and patience to confront an individual we may have something against, or who may have something against us. I like the tradition in Judaism that is observed during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During that time period, one is to go to anyone whom they may have offended and ask forgiveness. The implication is that the other will forgive, but if not, then the offence falls on the other individual. This, it seems to me, is an excellent exercise in peacemaking.
It seems to me that we have few spiritual options. We don’t want to quietly burn with rage against our neighbor. We don’t want to fight. And we certainly don’t want the court system. Jesus tells us to reconcile with our neighbor before coming to worship at the temple. And he tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Lord you have blessed the peacemakers, calling them the children of God. We pray this Sunday for guidance and insight. Give us always to see the way of peace when we find ourselves in conflict. You have commended the way of reconciliation for us, when we find ourselves in conflict with our neighbor. For we acknowledge that there are conflicts in our lives–greater conflicts between nations and lesser conflicts between neighbors. May we urge our nations always to seek the way of resolution and peace, rather than the way of armed conflict. And in our relations with our neighbors, may we seek peace and not retaliation, resentment, or ill will. Lord, I have seen a vision of heavenly harmony when all the religions of the world came together in fellowship and peace. I know that it is possible. We pray this morning for the day when the world can learn to live in harmony and peace. And when division, and war fade from memory.
Blessed Are Those Who Are Invited
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 4, 2015
Genesis 2:18-24 Mark 10:2-16 Psalm 8
The readings this morning surround the institution of marriage. Marriage can be seen on two levels: 1) the spiritual marriage between the church and God; and 2) interpersonal marriage between two people. Both marriages do make a person blessed. So in the book of Revelation, we read, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (91:9). That line is about the spiritual marriage between Jesus and the church. But it applies also to human marriages, which are among the chief blessings of this life.
Human marriage is still a vital institution in North America. Despite statistics about divorce rates, young people are still marrying. We see them come to this church in significant numbers. The institution of marriage is still going strong. People continue to hope for the sweet life that being married brings.
In our story from Genesis, God says that it is not good for the man to be alone. God says that He will make a helper fit for the man. The Hebrew for “man” is Adam. It is a neuter noun and means both man and woman. It is like our word “person.” The implication, then, is that it is not good for either man or woman to be alone. In healthy marriages, there is mutual help rendered to each other. The kind of emotional support that marriages provide make it easier to negotiate the difficulties of life.
There have been statements to the contrary. Powerful statements. The Great Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “A man must stand upright, and not be kept upright by others” (Meditations). And the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a whole essay called, “On Self-Reliance.” These philosophers taught that a man or woman must stand on their own two feet. They must stand up for what they think is good and proper. They taught a doctrine of individuality.
I grew up under the influence of ideas like this. We were taught to be our own person, to be individual, not to follow the crowd, not to keep up with the Joneses. Those ideas will take a person far. And I think that only when people are true to themselves are they fit for relationships.
On the other side of this coin are people who can’t stand to be single. These are people who jump from one relationship to another and never do find out who they are as individuals. You could say that they lose themselves in other people.
However, one can go too far with individuality. I did. Being my own person and being free were my two leading moral principles when I was a young man. I did my own thing, at times to my own destruction. When a person wants to be free and be true to their own principles, it is hard to form relationships with other people. I remember one of my friends at school asking me if I was comfortable being alone. I said, “Yes, I can be by myself.” She replied, “That’s good! Then you are at peace with yourself.” I replied, “Yes, that’s true. It’s just the rest of the world I have trouble with.” That made her kind of nervous about me.
In interpersonal relationships we can’t be totally free and complete individuals. In relationships we learn the blessing of communal life. Swedenborg has some profound words to say about relationships. He says that loving someone else is not feeling our own joy in the other. That is loving self. Rather, loving someone else means to feel happy in the happiness of the other. And it is furthermore, the desire to make the other person happy from self.
In the 1970’s there were some terrible teachings from psychology. Psychologists taught us to express ourselves, to get our own needs met. They preached against what they called, “please me” efforts. “Please me” meant that we weren’t supposed to try to please others. We were to find self-fulfillment, and not to try to please others.
Like all pop fads, these ideas faded to some degree. I think they’re still with us to some extent. But from a theological point of view, I have issues with the doctrine of pleasing self and not at the same time trying to please other people.
I think that this is where the mystical marriage of God with the Church comes in. For the relationship of God with humanity is called a mystical marriage. Paul talks about this in Ephesians 5,
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, . . . Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; . . . (Ephesians 5:25-32).
It is in other places in the New Testament, such as Revelation19, which I used for the title of this sermon,
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying,
“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
8 it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:6-9).
Our union with God is an intimate love relationship. And Swedenborg claims that our marriage with God is the very source for the love we feel in human marriages.
When we are married to God, we are filled with God’s love and wisdom. And there is no relationship on earth that requires love and wisdom like the marriage relationship. It is obvious that marriages are all about love. But what about wisdom? Isn’t it true that in marriages it is crucial to know when to hold one’s tongue, when and how to bring up issues at the right time in the right way; how to understand what is going on in the other person’s mind and heart—even when they are silent, and often because they are silent! And in marriages it is important to show love wisely, in a way that the other person understands as love. These are just a couple instances that illustrate that wisdom is of paramount importance in relationships.
When a person is united with God and has their heart warmed by divine love and their mind illuminated by divine wisdom, then he or she is in a much better place to love other people. Then a person is in a much better place to love his or her beloved. Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Lord, we thank you for your love for the whole human race. You are our best friend and companion. Through all the difficulties in our life, you remain with us. In all our joys, you celebrate with us. You lift us into deeper love for you and for our fellows. You continually enlighten our minds with wisdom. You regenerate us and bring us into heaven. And you do this all because of your love for us. We thank you also for the gift of our fellows. We thank you for this congregation, for our friends, and for our families. May we ever strive to draw the circle of our friends wider and wider and to reach out to the stranger and to those different from us. Your heaven and this world is made of many different peoples, may we grow to see them as you do–as our sisters and brothers under your divine parentage.
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.