Archive for November, 2015

Nov 29th, 2015

Promise and Experience
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 29, 2015

Joel 2:21-31 Matthew 6:19-34 Psalm 126

We are given a more complex message that we might think in our readings this morning. From the Gospel of Matthew are the familiar words, “do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on” (Matthew 6:25). And in Joel we find,
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the LORD your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you (Joel 2:26).
If that were the whole message, I doubt that it would be taken seriously. I doubt that it would have lasted for thousands of years. What I have quoted above is only half of the message. It is the message of hope. But there is a message of darkness associated with it.
Jesus tells us not to worry about the things of this world. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). And we at this church know only too well about thieves breaking in, as it happened to us twice in so many weeks. Instead, Jesus tells us to be concerned about heavenly things,
but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6:20-21).
And the optimistic message in Joel is set in a very dark context. In Joel 2 we have the beautiful and famous passage about Yahweh’s Spirit being poured out on the whole human race,
And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even upon the menservants and maidservants
in those days, I will pour out my spirit (Joel 2:28-29).
But listen to what follows immediately afterward,
And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes (Joel 2:30-31).
And before all this, there is a large body of text about suffering shame and destruction from some army that attacks like locusts on a grain field.
The message isn’t just, “Do not worry because God will take care of you.” Even though near the end of the Matthew passage it says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (6:33). I don’t believe that this is a promise for material well-being if we are righteous. Rather, I read this line in the light of Jesus’ words earlier, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (6:25).
I think the message here is that material things will not satisfy our soul. For that reason, we should not be anxious about what we shall eat or what we shall drink, or the clothes we wear, or any other material thing. This is why Jesus said earlier, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” The emphasis is on spiritual goods. The emphasis is on the eternal goods that stay with our souls.
We know only too well that bad things can happen to us. Bad things can happen to us even if we do “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” Perfectly honest and hard working people can lose their jobs. Righteous Christians can get sick. Churches can be broken into, vandalized, and have their computers stolen, among other things. Reflecting on the changes of fortune that happen in the world, Malory’ Sir Lancelot exclaims, “Alas, who may trust this world!”
In fact, I think Jesus is telling us that we can’t trust this world. Isn’t that what Jesus means with the words, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (6:19)? And at the same time, Jesus is telling us not to worry about the things of this world.
Only God is eternal. There is a kingdom that lasts forever. And even in this world that we may not trust, we can still feel and know the things that last forever. We are spiritual beings as much as we are material beings. Walt Whitman says, “I am a poet of the body,/And I am a poet of the soul” (Song of Myself). And the rock group The Police sing, “We are spirits in the material world.”
What are these things that last forever that we are to seek and know in this untrustworthy world? They are things that make our character good. They are things we search for, when we commit to finding out what is good. And they are things that we are resolute to practice when we discover what is good. Among those things are not taking revenge for wrongs that are done to us. This can be even in conversation or it can be in greater things. It means not bearing a grudge in our hearts. We all know the 10 Commandments. And I believe that we all try to bring them into our lives as best as we can. It means purifying our minds through discipline, so that we are not filled with anger for our neighbor. That means the other cars on the road or in parking lots.
If we are able to do these things, we will cherish love in our hearts. Love is the eternal, lasting good thing that makes life on earth heaven, and constitutes our treasure in heaven. No one can take away our loving disposition if we cultivate it as a habit. I believe that we will have to seek this forgiving love minute by minute each day. I know that there are forces that happen to us minute by minute that would drive us from our peace of mind and loving disposition. I remember talking to a booking agent in a blues club in Naples, FL, where I used to live. We asked him if the blues club made enough money to pay the bands that played there each week-end. He replied in a forceful voice, “It’s not about makin’ money. It’s about putting your soul back together. ‘Cause Lord knows there’s enough forces out there tearing it apart.”
When we have peace and love in our hearts, we will know the good things that the prophet Joel tells us about. We will know why Joel promises us,
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the LORD your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you (2:26).
The vicissitudes of this untrustworthy world will not bring us down. We will stand firm even in the face of adversity. We will be contented with whatever fate sends us.
I think about the Apostle Paul, who was thrown in jail for the sake of the Christian Gospel. How did Paul handle this? He continued to write letters to the Christian churches to encourage them. He converted one of his prison guards! Martin Luther was declared a heretic by his own Roman Catholic Church. Yet he stood resolute behind his reforms and an entirely new religion was born in the western world. Swedenborg continued to publish his theology in England after he was brought to court for heresy in his own homeland of Sweden.
Yes, we may not trust this world. Yes, there are forces tearing our souls apart. Yes, bad things will occur even to the most righteous people. But if we have the resolve that comes with commitment to truth, we will love in the face of unloving confrontation. We will hold fast to the peace we have cultivated in our hearts. We will live in contentment regardless of what the world throws at us. All this is ours if we “lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

PRAYER

Lord, at times this can be a difficult world. The things of this world are not trustworthy; and we face the possibility of loss and grief at any moment. You have counseled us not to put our trust in the things of this world. You have counseled us to seek the eternal things of your kingdom. For you are eternal and lasting, and the good things of your kingdom are sure, steadfast, and lasting. When we ask you into our lives, you shape us into an image of you and into an image of heaven. May we always seek first your kingdom, your righteousness, and your peace. The world will take care of itself.

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 15th, 2015

Grace and Human Effort
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 15, 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Mark 9:2-9 Psalm 22

In our Bible readings we have examples of God appearing to humanity. In our Genesis reading, El Shaddai appears before Abram. And in our New Testament reading, Jesus manifests His divine origins. His clothes become dazzling white, and Elijah and Moses appear and talk with Jesus. These two Old Testament characters represent the law and the prophets–Elijah as one of the greatest prophets and Moses as the giver of the law. As if this weren’t enough, a cloud envelops them and a voice thunders from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Whatever doubts Peter and James may have had about Jesus’ divinity, after this, I imagine that they were convinced that He is God incarnate.
If we take the Old Testament story literally, we come away with some worldly ideas about God’s relationship with humanity. One thing that we might take from this passage, is that God chose the children of Israel to be some special race. This would mean that modern day Jews are somehow special to God, more special than other races on the earth. And you will find that some evangelistic churches, who take the Bible literally, pay attention to the state of Israel. They do indeed think that what happens to the Jews is a measure of how close the end times are. If this be the case, it is hard to see any relevance to our own spiritual lives in the story of Abraham.
However, if we see the Bible as holy and as a story of God’s relationship to all of humanity, we would look at the story of Abraham differently. We would see it as a symbol of God’s relationship with all of humanity. We would see the dynamics of God and Abraham as dynamics that apply to all of us. We would see the relationship of God and Abraham as archetypical of humanity’s relationship with God. This is how I will be approaching the story this morning.
In this morning’s story, God appears to Abraham out of nowhere. All we are told is that, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him.” God then tells Abram that his descendants will be numerous and great; indeed that kings will come from his lineage. All this is unmerited. That is, Abram has done nothing to deserve all this. It is simply God’s will to bestow on Abram all these benefits. And to have children and descendants after one was the greatest benefit that could be bestowed on a person in Old testament society.
To be given great progeny is symbolic of the way God gives spiritual life to humanity. God takes us where we are, removes our evil tendencies and replaces them with loving and good enjoyments and delights. And God does this regardless of how bad off we may think we are, or how bad off we actually are. This is a story of God’s great mercy for all of humanity. This story symbolizes how God comes to everyone and gives all of humanity the gift of spiritual life. For God’s mercy is infinite. And God’s love is infinite.
Jehovah, or the Lord’s internal, was the very Celestial of Love, that is, Love itself, to which no other attributes are fitting than those of pure Love, thus of pure Mercy toward the whole human race; which is such that it wishes to save all and make them happy for ever, and to bestow on them all that it has; thus out of pure mercy to draw all who are willing to follow, to heaven, that is, to itself, by the strong force of love (AC 1735).
This is a lovely description of God’s nature. It talks about God’s great mercy for the whole of humanity.
Do we need God’s gift of spiritual life? When we look at ourselves, what do we see? Some people are hard on themselves and see themselves as all selfishness and ego. I have a friend who thinks that we need to be honest about who we are and be aware of our fallen nature. He cited that Psalm, “I am a worm and not a man,” to capture just how far from Godliness we are and how much we need God’s mercy and redemption. He used the Swedenborgian term proprium to say that he was utterly consumed with selfhood and in desperate need for God’s salvation. Then, on the opposite side of the issue, are those who are self-satisfied and completely comfortable in who they are. They do not need God, do not need spirituality, and are just fine, thank you. One of my professors in divinity school told us that a minister’s job is, “To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
The truth is, we all do need God. We don’t need God because we are too weak. We don’t need God because we are unable to face hard facts of existence and need a crutch. We need God because God is the source of all spiritual life. Without God we are just animals. But with God, we are living beings whose soul and mind is in heaven–whether in this world or in our final home in the next. We need God in order to be filled with the heavenly loves and good enjoyments and delights that God alone can give us. The heavenly joys that Abraham’s children and descendents signify.
God is heaven–heaven is God. To the extent that God is in us, we can say that heaven is in us. This is where Swedenborg’s unique teaching about heaven comes in. Swedenborg claims that heaven is not a place. It is not a realm that has a wall around it. It is not a place one enters through a gate where Peter stands guard. For Swedenborg, heaven is a state of mind and heart. Heaven is a disposition. Heaven is a condition of psyche in which a person feels love and thinks truly.
One can only feel spiritual love and think spiritual truth from God. These divine qualities are offered to everyone. And whoever accepts these qualities, is in heaven. So Swedenborg writes,
it is the Divine proceeding from the Lord, which flows in with angels and is received by them, that makes heaven in general and in particular. The Divine proceeding from the Lord is the good of love and the truth of faith. In the degree, therefore, in which they receive good and truth from the Lord, they are angels and are in heaven (HH 7).
This passage makes clear how much we need God. We need God’s love in us and we need God’s truth in us for us to be “in” heaven. We need God in us in order for our spiritual descendents to multiply.
Now we confront a paradox in Swedenborg. We need God’s love and wisdom in us to be whole spiritual beings. We have seen above that God wants to give everybody all that God has, and God wants to make everybody as happy as we can be. Then comes the tricky line. It is from the passage I quoted a little bit back. We saw that “out of pure mercy” God wishes “to draw all who are willing to follow, to heaven, that is, to itself.” God draws everybody to Himself, regardless of where the individual is or thinks that he or she is. But we have to be willing to follow.
In the Abraham story, God tells Abraham all the things that He is going to do for Abraham. Abraham gets all these things as a free gift. Passages like this make some churches think that humans can play no part in our own salvation. They are suspicious of all human effort in our own salvation. They support this belief with Isaiah 64:6, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” And also by quotes from Paul, such as Ephesians 2:8-9,
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God–not by works , so that no one can boast.
This teaching is a cornerstone of many Protestant churches.
But with Swedenborg, as in so many other issues, it’s not a matter of either-or. It is so often a matter of both-and. So it is with the issue of salvation. Indeed it is all God’s work. But consider that one line, “all who are willing to follow.” God draws everyone to Himself and into joy, love, and peace. But we have to do the things we need to do to be filled with God’s Holy Spirit. We have to ask God into our lives. And we have to remove the obstacles to God’s inflowing Spirit. The way it is put in Revelation is that God knocks at the door; we have to open the door. Then God will come in and eat supper with us.
Gregory of Nyssa, the great Catholic Father, compared this to climbing Mount Sinai. At the top is the glory of the Lord. We see this, and we know where to head. But we are doing the climbing. Perhaps this story is too works oriented. Perhaps this story looks like we are doing too much work to get to God. Maybe we should use an image from a trip Carol and I took to Jasper. There are mountains in Jasper, too. We went up to the top of one. But we didn’t climb. We entered a cable car and were lifted up to the mountain top effortlessly. But we did have to enter the cable car!

PRAYER

Lord, you call to us every moment of every day. You call us home to you and to your kingdom. You lift us upward into heaven’s joys and delights sometimes without our even knowing it. Help us to hear your voice calling. Help us to listen for your voice. Help us to follow in the way you wish for us to walk. We pray for the power to turn toward you and away from selfish gain and dominance. Grant us the willingness to do your will, and not the will of our own ego-driven tendencies. Lead us, Lord, in the paths of righteousness. And bring us home finally to live with you for eternity.

And Lord, we pray for the victims of the Paris bombing. Be with their families and loved ones. Lord, comfort us all as we try to live in these difficult times. Lord help us to understand that these are not religious actions, but the actions of hate, which has no place in any religion. Send your peace and understanding to this world of violence. Come, Savior, come.

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 1st, 2015

All We Like Sheep
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 1, 2015

Isaiah 53:4-12 Mark 10:35-45 Psalm 91

The passage from Isaiah that we heard this morning is one place where churches find the doctrine called the atonement. This church does not hold the doctrine of the atonement. In fact, Swedenborg in many places makes a point of refuting this doctrine–a doctrine he was brought up with. Our reading from Mark puts a different emphasis on the doctrine of the atonement, although it, too, appears to reinforce the doctrine.
The great composer Handel set Isaiah 53 to music in his Messiah. Handel took the words, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” These words are in accord with the Swedenborgian teaching about why Jesus came to earth. It is the teaching of this church that humanity had strayed far, far from the ways of God. We had gone astray. In fact, things were so bad that heaven could no longer flow into people’s hearts because of all the evil blocking heaven’s influence. All we like sheep had gone astray. What was needed was that God Himself come down to earth and establish the channel of influx through His own Person.
Can you imagine the spiritual heat we would feel standing right next to God on earth? In fact, there is a tradition in the Coptic Orthodox Church that Mary was protected from the burning embers inside her that constituted the fetal God in her womb. And after the resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, the disciples walking next to Jesus later reflect on how their hearts were burning inside them when the resurrected Jesus talked with them.
In order to bring this spiritual heat to the world while He was on the earth, and in order to reopen heaven so it could flow into the world again, was why Jesus came to earth. This is why Jesus says in Mark, “The Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve.” Accepting the human condition, walking upon the dust of this earth, and bringing God to man is the service Jesus underwent on behalf of the human race. Jesus’ whole life was one of service: teaching us, healing the sick, and allowing humans to touch, embrace, and anoint His holy Person. Jesus’ sole purpose was to bring us back to God, as we like sheep had gone astray.
As we know, Jesus’ life had suffering and anguish in it. He was beaten and whipped by the agents of Pilate. And he suffered the horrors of crucifixion by an angry mob. But this church does not emphasize the suffering Jesus. We acknowledge that Jesus’ life was one of nearly continual temptations by the hells. And we acknowledge that Jesus constantly overcame the hells and reordered heaven and hell. But it is the glorification that we emphasize. The final result of Jesus’ temptations and His life on earth was complete union with God. So human was completely Divine and the Divine was completely Human.
Other churches emphasize Jesus suffering. They see Jesus’ suffering and death as a sacrifice like the animals that the Jews sacrificed. In Leviticus the mechanism of the sin offering is explained. It reads,
If a member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, he is guilty. When he is made aware of the sin he committed, he must bring as his offering for the sin he committed a female goat without defect. He is to lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it at the place of the sin offering. . . . and the priest shall burn it on the altar as an aroma pleasing to the Lord. In this way the priest will make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven (Leviticus 4:27-31).
So if a person in ancient Israel sins, his sins can be erased by sacrificing a goat. Leviticus also says that a lamb can be used also as a sin offering. So by bringing a goat or a lamb to the temple to be slaughtered, one’s sins can be taken away. Many Christian churches see Jesus’ suffering and death as a sacrifice. Jesus, to them, is the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sins of the whole human race.
It is true that in several places scattered through the New Testament, Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. One such instance is when Jesus comes to be baptized by John the Baptist. Upon seeing Jesus, John exclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36). There are other places, particularly in Revelation where Jesus is seen as a sacrificial lamb. In Revelation 5, Jesus is seen as a lamb that is slain, and we also find the words of sacrifice in this vision, “for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God” (5:9). In Revelation 21 and 22, God and “the Lamb” are used interchangeably.
The sacrificial lamb that atones for humanity’s sins is how the early Christians made sense out of the crucifixion. To make sense of it, they drew on Hebrew scriptures from Leviticus, as we saw above, and from the prophets such as the Isaiah 53 passage we heard today. This passage emphasizes the suffering of Jesus. So there are lines like,
He was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities . . .
He was oppressed, and while he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter . . . (Isaiah 53:5, 7).
And in this same passage are numerous lines that speak of the suffering servant taking upon himself the sins of the people.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed
The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all . . .
Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him;
he has been put to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin . . .
Yet he bore the sins of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors (53:5, 6, 10, 12).
So by means of sacrificial language, borrowed from the priestly laws of atonement, early Christians made sense of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.
But this passage in Isaiah is just one of 66 chapters. And the language of the sacrificial lamb is only scattered through the New Testament. I think that an enterprise that takes one passage from all the prophets and turns that into a central interpretative doctrine is suspect.
As nice as it might sound; as appealing as it might be for those smitten with pangs of conscience; it is not possible for my sins to be put on someone else. Each person is responsible for their own sins. So it is not possible for Jesus to take my sins onto Himself. All through the Gospels, Jesus teaches that each person is responsible for their own good and evil. It is a real strain of the text to try to force the whole Gospel message into one idea that can’t stand on its own logic–namely, that my sins can be borne by someone else. We are taught by Jesus to learn to do good, and to flee from evils.
Jesus’ life on earth and His resurrection make it possible for us to do good, to allow heaven’s influx to flow into us, and to find God. That is how Jesus is the servant of all. Jesus gave His life to save us–that is true, if truly understood. He gave His life to the teaching, healing, and salvation of humans. But He did not take away our sins on the cross, like a sacrificial lamb. That idea strains the integrity of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Jesus did suffer because of human sin. But it is the love that Jesus teaches and brings to us that really matters. By taking on the human form, and by living a human life, Jesus shows us how much God loves us and Jesus shows us how to love each other and God. The life of Jesus is a testament to love and service, not to cruelty, suffering, and passion. So Jesus teaches His apostles and us as well, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43).

PRAYER

Lord, all we like sheep have gone astray. And yet no matter how far we stray from you and your precepts, you come to us, and bring us back. We turn to our own ways, and yet you always lead us back to your ways. You never turn from us; you always love us; you continually raise us upward into heaven’s joy and into communion with yourself. Ages ago, you came to us in a material form, and took on our human nature. You suffered at the hands of humans. And yet you still did not turn from us, but you forgave, you forgive, and you come to us even still. We thank you for your unfailing love for the whole human race.

And lord, we ask that you watch over those who are struggling and enduring hardship, be it sickness, poverty, or national unrest. Send your peaceful spirit to turmoil. Send the power of your healing love to those who are sick. We know on faith that in every trying situation, good can come. May we find the good in trouble, and healing where there is sickness.

Thank you, Lord, for your gift of life. Thank you for another day. May we treasure this day and this moment as the heavenly gift that it is. We are taught that in heaven there is no time. May we learn to see this life as the one continuous moment that it is, now and forever. May we look only for your will for us, and may we find the power to carry out that will.

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