Archive for February, 2016

Feb 21st, 2016

God’s Eternal Covenant
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 21, 2016

Genesis 15:1-11, 17-18 Luke 13:31-35 Psalm 27

The two readings this morning cover a lot of history. The reading from the Old Testament is the very first covenant made with the Israelites. It is a promise to Abraham that his descendants will be as numberless as the stars. And our reading from the New Testament is almost a final reflection on the way the Israelites have responded to God’s covenant. Jesus laments over the city of Jerusalem. He mentions how in the history of Israel, the people have turned away from God, broken His covenant, and murdered God’s prophets when they sought to bring the people back to God. Jesus wishes to bring the people of Israel under His care like a hen does her chicks, but instead He finds only rejection.
The covenant made with Abraham is the very beginning of the Israelites. It comes before Moses and the laws given on Mount Sinai. It is before the Israelites take the Holy Land and make it their own. It is before King David and King Solomon. It is before the destruction of the northern kingdom and the Babylonian Captivity. It is before the restored Israel when the nation becomes a theocracy governed by priests.
The story of the Bible reflects a person’s spiritual journey from earth to heaven. The call to Abraham represents the very first awakening of our spiritual consciousness. It represents that moment when we first realize that there is a God. Realizing that there is a God is just the beginning of spiritual life. Afterward, there follows the quest to learn spiritual truths and to govern our life by spiritual principles.
The covenant with Abraham is a very old passage in the Bible. There is an ancient covenant ritual in it. Abraham divides in two a heifer, a she-goat, and a ram. He also sacrifices a turtledove and a pigeon. Darkness falls over the sacrifice site and a mysterious fire pot and flaming torch pass between the two halves of the animal sacrifices. This constituted the covenant ritual binding Abraham and God together.
This covenant began with God’s action. Out of nowhere, God calls to Abraham and says that Abraham’s reward will be very great. The beginning of Israel’s relationship with God was totally the result of God’s activity. Abraham didn’t ask God to come to him. Abraham didn’t pray for God to come into his life. Rather, God called Abraham into covenant out of pure grace. Abraham had done nothing to earn God’s gracious covenant. Abraham had done nothing to deserve God’s favor.
This story of God coming to Abraham out of pure grace is the way God operates in our lives. God calls us into communion in the midst of our daily work-a-day lives. It is God’s effort to save us that lifts us upward from worldly cravings into heavenly joys.
The call of Abraham is like the very first day of creation. In the beginning, the earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep. Creation begins by God’s activity to bring into being the world and all living things. It begins when God says “Let there be light.” This is so like the call to Abraham because the two stories represent the very beginning of our spiritual life. The whole story of creation is a symbol for our growth into a heavenly being. This journey is also figured in the course of the whole Bible from Creation through the descent of the Holy City in the last chapter of Revelation.
But Abraham responded to God’s call. God called Abraham into relationship, and Abraham responded by performing the sacrifice confirming the covenant. So God forms us into a spiritual being when we respond to His call.
The history of Israel is a tumultuous one. This brings us to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. In the course of Israel’s history, there were many times when Israel broke this early covenant with Abraham. They broke the covenant by worshipping other gods and by breaking the laws of good will and love for the neighbor. When Israel strayed from God’s laws and His covenant, God sent prophets to the Israelites. The prophets’ mission was to preach the way of God to the Israelites and to urge them to return to God. But often the Israelites resented the words of the prophets. They told the prophets to go away, threatened them, and in some cases—as in the case of Elisha—actually tried to kill the prophet.
But in all this, God remained constant in His call to community. Though the Israelites turned their back on God, God never turned away from the Israelites. Chapter 31 of the book of Jeremiah has that lovely passage in it about God forming a new covenant with Israel and writing it on their hearts. It captures the history of Israel’s relationship with God beautifully. It begins with God stating clearly His constant, everlasting love,
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you (31:3).
God then recounts how the Israelites had turned away from Him, comparing His relationship with them to a husband-wife relationship.
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (31:31-34).
I said earlier that the story of the Bible is symbolic of our relationship with God. I don’t think that spiritual growth for most of us is straight up always. I think it spirals, circles, drifts near and far from God. Like the Israelites, we can fall away from God.
But as in the case of the Israelites, God is ever calling us back into communion. Just like the first call of God, when we begin to enter into relationship with God, so God calls us always throughout our journey. God’s love is so great that He always forgives, always works to save us.
When humanity fell desperately away from God, God Himself came to us to save and redeem us. And as happened so often in the past, humanity rejected God. In fact, humanity was so depraved that we thought we could silence God’s Word.
But we could not. Though Jesus was murdered, He rose from the grave. The Word of God cannot be silenced. The power of love cannot be squelched. We live in challenging times for organized religion. It looks like religion is fading from society.
But in these trying times we need particularly to consider the story of Abraham. When God promises Abraham a great reward, Abraham protests in desperation. He says,
“O Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Elie′zer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, thou hast given me no offspring; and a slave born in my house will be my heir” (Genesis 15:2-3).
It looks to Abraham that a great reward would do him no good, he has no heir to pass it on to. But God reassures Abraham that he will have a child of his own and that his descendants will be as numberless as the stars. God promises further that Abraham’s descendants will own land from the Euphrates River to Egypt.
And Abraham believed. They thought they could silence God’s Word when they executed Jesus. And more recently, South Africa thought they could silence dissent for Apartheid by imprisoning Nelson Mandela. But the whole world rose up against Apartheid and Mandela ended up prime minister of South Africa. Bigots in the US thought that they could silence Martin Luther King, Jr’s voice calling for freedom and justice by assassinating him. But the movement continues and opportunity and power are now part of the African-American experience. Society rebelled against religion in the ‘60’s. And now it appears that society is growing increasingly apathetic toward religion. But the voice of God cannot be silenced. Like Abraham, I believe.

PRAYER

Lord, you call to us out of your infinite love, to come to you and into heavenly joy. Help us to hear your call. And give us the grace to respond when we hear your sweet call. We have times when it is difficult to hear your divine voice. We have times when responding to you seems hard. But we know that you never cease in your saving works. You never turn your love away from us. You always call to us, you always lift our hearts upward, you always lead us into heavenly delight. We thank you for your unfailing love. Come, Savior, come.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. We pray for Linda, and for John, and for Irene, and for Vera, and for Erik. 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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Feb 14th, 2016

States of Love
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 14, 2016

Genesis 24:42-58 Revelation 19:4-9 Psalm 91

On this Valentine’s Day what other topic could I choose to talk about than love? Today is a celebration for those who are in love, a celebration of the memory for those who have been in love, and a day of hope for those looking forward to love. In my reflections I will be referring to couples as partners. In the past, I would only be talking about marriages, engagements, and those who are dating on Valentine’s Day. But in our society, love has become so broadly understood and expressed that our language needs to reflect that breadth.
I chose Bible passages that talk about love for our readings this morning. Both of our readings are about marriages. In our reading from Genesis, we have the story of Rebekah consenting to the marriage proposal offered by Isaac’s servant. And in Revelation we have the invitation to the marriage supper of the Lamb. This is a marriage feast to which the whole human race is invited. The Lamb is Jesus and the bride represents all the faithful who hear the call of Jesus. The Bible readings are about marriage because marriage is the only ritual in the Bible for lovers, the only proper result of love in the Bible.
But in our world, today, people love and express love in many ways that the writers 3,500 years ago or 2,000 years ago didn’t witness. I don’t think it is reasonable today only to follow the norms from so long ago. People always have loved. And people still love today. The institutions that governed love in the past have been challenged by society, and love today does not always find expression in the time honored traditions of Biblical religion. But that doesn’t mean that people no longer hold love as sacred. And it means, too, that the time honored traditions can also still have meaning.
I think that the story of Rebekah stands out in the whole Bible. It is a love story, a timeless love story. But what makes the story stand out for me is that in this love story, the woman has a voice. Isaac sends his servant to Mesopotamia to find a wife for himself. The servant prays to God to help him find a wife for Isaac. He waits at a spring, and he asks God to give him a sign as to who a proper woman would be for Isaac. He decides that when he asks a woman to draw water for him, if she also says she will draw water for his camels, that will be the woman. It turns out that Rebekah comes to the well, and does just that. Isaac’s servant has found a bride for Isaac. The servant asks Rebekah’s brother and mother for their consent on the betrothal and they give it. But the story doesn’t end with Rebekah’s family giving her away. In many stories in the Bible, women are given to men and have no say in the arrangement. But in the story of Rebekah, she is asked whether she wants to go with Isaac’s servant. Genesis 24:57-58 reads,
They said, “We will call the maiden, and ask her.” And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will go.”
I have to wonder if all the jewelry, clothing, and other signs of Isaac’s wealth may not have figured in Rebekah’s consent.
This story is so important because the essence of love is mutual consent. Both parties must love each other; both parties must agree to join together. Love is something that can’t be coerced. It may be possible to force someone to marry—and indeed, it has been done through the ages and is still done today—but no one can be forced to love. In the 60’s we talked about free love. The fact is, all love is free.
Swedenborg says some beautiful things about love. There is one quote that I have come back to again and again over the years. It seems to capture the nature of love so well, in the language of a theologian.
The states of this love are innocence, peace, tranquillity, inmost friendship, full trust, a desire in mind and heart to do the other every good; and from all these blessedness, satisfaction, joy, pleasure, and in eternal fruition of these, heavenly happiness. These states are all in marital love and issue from it, because marital love has its origin in the marriage of good and truth, and this marriage is from the Lord. Love wishes to share its gladnesses with another whom it loves from the heart, indeed, to bestow them on him, and in turn to find its own. Infinitely more does the Divine Love of the Lord bear itself so toward the human being. The Lord created man a receptacle of both the love and the wisdom proceeding from Him, and having created him so (the man to receive wisdom, and the woman to receive love for man’s wisdom), He has infused in them from the inmosts a marital love, on which He can bestow all things blessed, happy, joyous and pleasant, proceeding and flowing in from the Divine love by the Divine wisdom along with life into those who are in true marital love, for these alone are receptive of them. Innocence, peace, tranquillity, inmost friendship, full trust, and the mutual desire in mind and heart to do each other every good are severally named, because innocence and peace are of the soul, tranquillity is of the mind, inmost friendship of the bosom, full trust of the heart, and the mutual desire in mind and heart to do each other every good is of the body from them (Marital Love 180).
The first thing I would like to call attention to in this passage is that love between partners is given by God. And love relationships are given to humanity as a way of giving them delight and heavenly joy.
Giving joy and delight to others is the essence of love. So Swedenborg says,
Love wishes to share its gladnesses with another whom it loves from the heart, indeed, to bestow them on him, and in turn to find its own. Infinitely more does the Divine Love of the Lord bear itself so toward the human being.
To give gladness to someone else and to find one’s own joy in doing so is the nature of love.
This can be said of God. God loves humanity immeasurably. And like everyone who loves, God wants to give us gladness, to give us delight. And if Swedenborg can be believed, God gives us our supreme joy by giving us loving partners. It is in the love relationship that humans find their greatest happiness, or at least in loving relationships one finds one of our greatest delights.
With a loving partner, all our joys are redoubled. I love playing and composing music and recording my music. But it means all the more when I can play this music for Carol. I love public speaking and giving lectures. But it means all the more when Carol comes to hear me speak. With Carol in my life, everything is happier, more blessed, more meaningful. One of the songs I wrote about Carol goes, “Everything’s better with you.” And I try to give Carol support in every way I am able, and share in the things that she loves. It is no wonder that Aristotle wrote that friendship is among the chief of virtues.
Another remarkable consideration in the Swedenborg passage I quoted is that love is called “inmost friendship.” We think of love as a giddy feeling that causes us to swoon with bliss. But Swedenborg calls our attention to the trust and deep inner friendship that makes for lasting love. From couples who have lived together for many years I often hear it said that they are best friends. The flutter of early romance doesn’t last. But when that early flame is solidified with friendship, then love is lasting. Swedenborg touches on this.
With those in true marital love conjunction of minds increases, and friendship with it; but both of these decrease with those not ‘in marital love. In the chapter (nn. 156-181) in which we considered the “Conjunction of Souls and Minds by Marriage, meant by the Lord’s words, ‘they are no longer two but one flesh,’” we have already shown that conjunction of minds increases with those in true marital love. [2] The conjunction increases as friendship is joined to love, because friendship is as it were the face of the love, and also its garment, adjoining itself to the love as a garment, and conjoining itself to it as a face. The love preceding friendship resembles love for the sex, and wanes after the marriage vow, whereas love with friendship adjoined, remains and is steadfast. For it enters deeply into the breast, where friendship introduces it, making it truly marital, and then the love in turn makes this its friendship marital, differing markedly from the friendship of any other love, so full is it (Marital Love 214).
I’m not sure I understand the process Swedenborg is describing here. But what I take from this quote is that friendship makes love lasting and true. Love is joined to friendship and friendship is joined to love. Early infatuation fades. But the early infatuation lasts and grows when friendship is united with love.
Are these idealistic words? I think not. No easier way is there to learn the joy of giving than in loving relationships. But relationships can be difficult because of all that is contained in these words. In order to truly love and give in a relationship, one needs to confront ego selfishness. No more powerful way is there to come to terms with ego than in love relationships. Losing ego and the joy of giving are what heaven is all about. Losing ego and the joy of giving are the essence of love and spirituality. That is why all lovers are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb. For love between partners and love for the whole human race is the heavenly marriage to which all humanity is invited.
Well, I’m all out of time and space in this talk. And I’m just getting started.

PRAYER

Lord, this Valentine’s Day we thank you for the gift of your unfailing love. Your love for the whole human race never ceases. You love us always. You always reach out to us to lift us upward and to save us. You continually work to bring us into purer delights and gladness. You send us friends and loved ones to make our lives more full and joyful. We thank you for the many loves you send our way in people, deeds of kindness, and useful activities. We pray that you give us to treasure the dear people in our lives. Let us not take for granted anyone we come in contact with–whether we see them often or seldom. May we not let commonness make us complacent with the people we see often. And may we not let casual encounters seem unimportant. Love is everywhere to be found for those who have eyes to see it and hearts to feel it. And every gift of love is a gift from you, our dear Lord.

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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Feb 7th, 2016

Does Your Face Shine?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 7, 2016

Exodus 34:29-35 Luke 9:28-36 Psalm 99

Our readings this morning are about transcendental states. Transcendental states are when God feels particularly close to us and we are filled with God.
This happened to Moses when he approached God. When he came down from Mount Sinai, bringing with him the Ten Commandments, his face shined. It was so bright and startling that the people of Israel were scared. Whenever Moses came into God’s presence, his face shined. So much so that he wore a veil when speaking God’s words to the people.
Jesus’ whole person shone bright white when He was on the mountain top with Peter and John. His face was transfigured and His clothes shined brighter white than any ordinary fabric. Also Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets, appeared with Jesus and the three were talking together. Like the Israelites who were scared when Moses’ face shined, so John and Peter were scared to witness Jesus’ transfiguration. Not knowing what else to do, they asked Jesus if they should build three altars for Moses, Elijah, and for Jesus.
Both Moses and Jesus shined brightly because they encountered God. Moses first shined when he came down from Mount Sinai, when God spoke the words of the law directly to Moses. And Jesus shined brightly because at the time of the transfiguration He was filled with God’s power and presence. We talk about this in our statement of faith every Sunday. We say that Jesus, “united His humanity with the divine depths of His origins.” This means that Jesus united Himself with God who always was and is still. Jesus and God have become one in the person of Jesus Christ. And the infinite and eternal God who always was and is now is as the soul of the person Jesus Christ.
This process of union with God went on throughout the life of Jesus. Jesus was born with a human body the same way we are born with a human body. This human body was given Him by His mother Mary. Throughout His life on earth, Jesus made this mortal body divine. That meant putting off what is finite and earthly in this body and putting on what is infinite and divine. This was the process by which Jesus became God and God became Jesus. The ancient Christian creeds state this clearly. They say that Jesus is “Fully God and Fully Man.”
I say that this process was a gradual process. Jesus didn’t become united fully with God immediately. Rather, Jesus progressed gradually in coming to God and letting God into His humanity. Swedenborg teaches that there were two kinds of states that Jesus went through in becoming divine. There was the process of emptying, when His humanity was left to struggle with His inherited tendencies to evil. For yes, Jesus’ human body had human tendencies toward evil as we all do too. But with us, and with Jesus, these are only tendencies. These tendencies to sin were what allowed hell to tempt Jesus. The Gospels tell us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, He went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil for forty days. The Gospels also tell us that after the 40 days, the devil departed for a spell. They don’t say that the devil went away for good. They say that the devil went away for a spell. Luke 4:13 reads, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Jesus went through periods of temptation throughout His life.
But Jesus also had states of union with God. One of these states is recorded in the Gospels which we heard this morning. Jesus is on the mountain and He becomes fully filled with divinity. Along with periods of temptation, Jesus also knew periods when He was filled with God. Since God was Jesus’ origin, being filled with God is union with Jesus’ origins.
My theology professor at Harvard told us that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain was actually an Easter event put back into the story of Jesus life on earth. That is, this is a story of an event that happened after Jesus’ resurrection that the Gospel writer stuck back into an earlier part of the Gospel story. I think that he said this because of the supernatural aspect of this story. Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white and His face was transfigured. I think that my professor thought that these things couldn’t happen to an earthly human being. This must have been a supernatural being that didn’t have real a real, physical body.
But our church teaches that Jesus’ earthly body had God as its soul. When God and Man was united, then divinity could shine through the body of Jesus. The spiritual sight of the Apostles were opened and they could see the spiritual world. They could see the light shining from God’s body and they could see the spirits of Moses and Elijah. To many people, the thought of seeing spirits seems hard to accept. However, we belong to a spiritual path that teaches that spirits are everywhere around us and when the thin veil of matter is lifted, we see what is immaterial.
This has never happened to me. I have never seen into the spiritual world. Except maybe once. Halfway between sleep and wakefulness I saw a brightly colored chariot. The colors were so vivid and the image was so clear that it was beyond anything that I have ever seen in the material world—asleep or awake. However, other than being an interesting vision, it didn’t do anything for me spiritually. And it changed my life in no substantial way.
But I suggest that there are times in our lives in which divinity is a very real presence. These are moments that do change our lives substantially. These are moments when we feel God in our hearts and in our thoughts as present and real. Sometimes the feeling is so strong that we feel only God, and we can lose our selfhood in these moments of ecstasy. Mystics have written about these states.
Maybe these states come to us in special places. For me, often when I am at church camp I can feel these states. It is the spiritual atmosphere, the morning and evening chapel services. And especially when I am around children when worship is taking place. Children are close to God and I feel that atmosphere when I come around them in God’s name. Usually at church I am lifted out of my worldly thoughts and I find an uplifting spiritual feeling come over me an elevate my consciousness. Usually when I am involved in study of John’s Gospel for the commentary I am writing on it, the words of the Apostle lift my whole spirit up into a transcendental state. For this reason many religions recommend daily reading and meditation on the Bible or their own sacred scriptures.
But also, usually, these states don’t last. They come and go. This is true even for yogis who meditate often. These peak spiritual states do not stay with us all the time. One could say that one of the goals of religion is to make these states come more often and to last longer. We are told that even in the next life, these transcendental states wax and wane. Even in the highest heaven, angels find themselves at times filled with God’s heat and light and at other times less so.
For us on earth, the difference can be dramatic. We can feel profoundly in touch with God and painfully distant from God. I think that as we progress spiritually, the highs and lows level out to some degree. The prophet Isaiah said that every valley shall be raised up and every mountain be made low and the rough places made level. Just as the seasons change from winter through spring and summer, so our connection with God goes through cycles of deep union like the joys of spring, and distance like the cold of winter.
As we progress in our growth into angelhood, we will know God more dearly. And we will fall away less often and less distantly. And we will find higher and more loving closeness. Swedenborg tells us that the highest angels go through spiritual seasons also. But for them the seasons are like those in more tropical climates when winters are mild and summers are pleasant. Maybe the mountain regions of Mexico. The point is that our faces can and do shine at times when we feel close to God. Maybe we only perceive this in a person’s eyes. Maybe in their tone of voice. Those of us more attuned to psychic realities can pick up a vibe from people. I think that most of us do not actually see a face shining with its own light. But we can expect to feel closer and more distant from God as we walk our pilgrimage into the Holy City. Jesus’ face and clothes shined on the mountain top. But He and the Apostles came down from the mountain, too.

PRAYER

Lord, we thank you for those blessed times when we feel you near to us. We praise you for filling us with your love and lifting us up out of the mire of the world and its vanities. Those blessed times are never forgotten. They make up the dearest part of our soul. We remember our childhood and the early feelings for love we knew from our parents and teachers. And as we progress spiritually, we know our love for you through meditation and loving service in the world. But we also lament those times when you feel distant. Times when we let self and selfish desires drag us away from you, your kingdom, and your love. We pray that you abide with us in those dark times, and that you reach down to us and lift us up, that you always come to us and save.

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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