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Archive for January, 2009

Jan 19th, 2009

Approaching God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 18, 2009

Isaiah 40:1-11 Matthew 11:25-30

Most of us know the familiar passage from Isaiah we heard this morning. We hear it every Christmas season about Jesus’ advent. In fact that passage is quoted by John the Baptist in the Gospel of John. Yet this is a passage about the coming of Jehovah, or more properly pronounced, Yahweh. The reason why we don’t associate this passage with Jehovah is because of an ancient Jewish custom. God’s name, Yahweh, or Jehovah in the King James translation, was considered too holy to pronounce. So instead of saying Yahweh, the ancient Jews would say Adonai, which means “Lord.” So what the King James translators did, and most every English translation did after it, was to put LORD in all capitol letters to stand for Yahweh, or Jehovah. So at Christmas time we read about the coming of the LORD, which is easy to associate with Jesus, since we call Jesus Lord.
But how does that familiar Isaiah passage sound when we put in God’s name? How does it sound, when we realize that in Isaiah, the prophet is talking about the coming of Jehovah, or Yahweh? In Handel’s Messiah, we hear the words from this Isaiah passage, “And the glory of the LORD will be revealed” (Is. 40:5). But what we should be hearing is, “And the glory of Jehovah will be revealed.” How do we reconcile the coming of Jehovah with the coming of Jesus?
The answer to these questions is simple. But it is also radical. Swedenobrg says it in one sentence: “Jehovah God the Creator of the universe descended and assumed the Human that He might redeem and save men” (TCR 82). The birth of Jesus is the Old Testament God taking on a human form. Yahweh, or Jehovah, is Jesus’ soul and Jesus is Yahweh’s body. This idea runs throughout the Isaiah passage. We read, “A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for Yahweh;” “make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God;” “You who bring good tidings to Zion . . . say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”; “See, the Sovereign Yahweh comes with power, . . . He tends his flock like a shepherd” (Is. 40: 3, 9, 10, 11). We naturally associate the shepherd tending his flock with Jesus, but here in Isaiah, it is clearly Yahweh who is tending the flock. The only way to reconcile the Isaiah passage is to acknowledge that the coming of Jesus is one and the same with the coming of Yahweh. Yahweh is the soul of Jesus. The birth of Jesus is Yahweh coming into the world in human form as baby Jesus.
And Isaiah 40 is not the only passage in the prophets where we have taken the coming of Yahweh with the coming of Jesus. The Revised Common Lectionary, used by the Anglican Church and many other Christian denominations, give the following Isaiah prophesies for the Advent season: Isaiah 2, 7, 9, 11, 35, 52, 62. You have probably heard most of these prophesies and I will spare you the tedium of quoting them now. All these Advent prophesies are about the coming of Yahweh, and Christians take them to be the coming of Jesus. We are left with the conclusion that the coming of Jesus is one and the same with the coming of Yahweh foretold by the prophets. It is a simple conclusion. And it is a radical conclusion.
There are multiple reasons why God incarnated in the form of Jesus Christ. Of course we all know He came to redeem and save the human race. But God also took on human form so that we can relate more fully to God. With God seen as the human Jesus, we can form a personal relationship with God. “. . . the one God who is invisible came into the world and assumed a Human, not only that He might redeem men, but also that He might become visible, and thus capable of conjunction” (TCR 786).
We cannot form a personal relationship with an invisible God. Our finite minds cannot grasp infinity. We can know it is there, but we can only form a finite idea about infinity. And God known only as infinity cannot enter our minds and become a part of our consciousness. But a Human God can enter our consciousness and can become a part of our personality. Seeing God as the risen and glorified Christ is what makes the New Church predicted by John different from all the churches that preceded it.
This New Church is the crown of all the churches that have hitherto existed on the earth, because it will worship one visible God in whom is the invisible, like the soul in the body. Thus and not otherwise can there be conjunction of God with man, because man is natural and hence thinks naturally, and the conjunction must be in his thought and thus in his love’s affection, which is the case when he thinks of God as a man. Conjunction with an invisible God is like that of the eye’s vision with the expanse of the universe, of which it sees no end; it is also like mid-ocean, which falls upon air and sea and is lost. But conjunction with a visible God, on the other hand, is like seeing a man in the air on the sea spreading forth his hands and inviting to his arms (TCR 787).
A human God can embrace His children and with His Divine hand wipe away every tear from every eye.
There are refinements and elaborations in Swedenborg concerning how to picture God. There are places where Swedenborg says that God is inside the brilliant sun of heaven which is His Divine power shining forth from His human. So when angels see God in human form it is an image, but not God Himself.
When, however, the Lord appears in heaven, which often occurs, He does not appear encompassed with a sun, but in the form of an angel, yet distinguished from angels by the Divine shining through from His face, since He is not there in person, for in person the Lord is constantly encompassed by the sun . . . (HH 121).
Then, apparently, sometimes God appears in a fiery form. “I have also seen the Lord . . . once in the midst of angels as a flame-like radiance” (HH 121). To some people, the image of a fiery radiance is a more comfortable image for God, since they think a Divine-Man is too limiting for God’s infinity. But how does this fit with Swedenborg’s claim that the New Church will see God as the Divine-Human embodying the invisible infinite God?
Yet seeing God as the risen Jesus Christ is not the whole story. What really matters are the qualities that Jesus embodies. When we enter into friendships, it is the personality traits that attract or repel us to others. So we pick friends who are compassionate, or smart, or caring, or funny. We pick friends according to their personality traits, not just their person. It is the same way with God. When we think of God, or when we pray to God, we pray to God’s essential attributes. “. . . Loving the Lord does not mean loving Him as to person, but loving good that is from Him; and loving good is willing and doing it from love (HH 15). Loving God is loving what is good and doing what is good. Loving God means every time we have the opportunity to do good we do it. So love for God is a very active process. It isn’t just imagining Jesus and projecting love onto that image. Since everything truly good is from God, every time we are involved in a good deed we are loving God.
. . . good proceeding from the Lord is a likeness of Him, since He is in it; and that they become likenesses of Him and are conjoined to Him who make good and truth to be of their life, by willing and doing them. To will is also to love to do (HH 16).
So we can say that our image of God is also seeing what is good and doing what is good. We approach God by being good. We see God when we see good and love.
For me, the only way I can conceive of God is as the loving Jesus I read about in the Gospels. Now risen, Christ is with me always—in my heart and beside me. So I approach God as both the human form of the risen Jesus Christ, and in the qualities of infinite love that shines forth from what Walt Whitman calls “the gentle God.” This is how I understand Christ’s words, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John14:6). And that is how I take Swedenborg when he writes,
This New Church is the crown of all the churches that have hitherto existed on the earth, because it will worship one visible God in whom is the invisible, like the soul in the body. Thus and not otherwise can there be conjunction of God with man, because man is natural and hence thinks naturally, and the conjunction must be in his thought and thus in his love’s affection, which is the case when he thinks of God as a man (TCR 787).

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The Music of the Ten-Stringed Lyre
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 11, 2009

Zechariah 8:3-23 Matthew 25:14-29

Last Sunday I talked about sin and got that out of the way. Today I have a beautiful topic to talk about. I want to talk about God’s special dwelling in the hearts of each one of us. Both the Old Testament reading and the New Testament reading point to this. In the passage from Zechariah, there is a prophesy about the remnant of dispersed Jews returning to Jerusalem. This prophesy was written after Assyria had wiped out and dispersed the entire Northern Kingdom. And then Babylon had conquered and deported the Southern Kingdom. The Jews were displaced from their homeland. The Zechariah prophesy talks about them returning home to a beautiful, prosperous, peaceful kingdom. Mount Zion will be called “The Holy Mountain.” Old and young will play in the streets of Jerusalem.
There are some important words from the Bible that we need to pay heed to. One is the word remnant. The remnant is those Jews who were dispersed throughout the near east who remained faithful to their God Yahweh. Then there is that beautiful line, “In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the edge of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you’” (8:23). There is special significance in the number ten and it is no accident that the prophesy talks about ten men taking hold of the Jew’s robe. Likewise in our reading from Matthew, the servant who had ten talents was given the one talent from the servant with one. And right after the servant with ten talents is given the other one comes the phrase, “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance” (25:29).
When Jesus says that those who have will be given more, he is not talking about monetary wealth. Remember the rich Jew who was told to sell all he had and give to the poor. That is how Jesus felt about monetary wealth. In this passage from Matthew, the servant who had ten talents has spiritual riches. The meaning is that those who have a good heart and who have a connection with God will increase in their spiritual gifts. Those who have spiritual life will be given more and more blessings. Those who have some love for God and their neighbor will be given deeper and more pure love as they develop spiritually.
In Swedenborg’s Bible interpretation, the number ten and the faithful remnant spoken of in the prophets signify a quality of our souls called “remains.” Remains are the basic truths about God we learn as children and the states of mind associated with them. Remains are feelings of love for parents, brothers and sisters, nurses and teachers that children feel. It is also the feelings of innocence that children have. All these childhood feelings of innocence and love stay with us. They are impressed upon our memory. The delightful innocence of babies fades as we grow up. But that innocence and the states of love we feel then remain in our memories. And being impressed on our memory, they influence our adult emotional and intellectual life.
Remains are . . . all the states of affection for good and truth with which a man is gifted by the Lord, from earliest infancy even to the end of life . . . The more therefore he has received of remains in the life of the body . . . the more delightful and beautiful do the rest of his states appear when they return. . . . all that is good flows in, as loving his parents, his nurses, his companions; and this from innocence. Such are the things that flow in from the Lord through the heaven of innocence and peace, which is the inmost heaven, and thus a man is imbued with them in his infancy. Afterwards, when he grows up, this good, innocent, and peaceful state of infancy recedes little by little; and so far as he is introduced into the world, he comes into its pleasures, and into desires, and thus into evils; and so far the celestial or good things of the age of infancy begin to be dispersed; but still they remain, and the states which the man afterward puts on or acquires, are tempered by them (AC 1906).
Let me tell you what I think of when I read about remains in Swedenborg. I think about church camp at Almont Michigan, which I went to all through my childhood up into my adult life. I can still picture myself as a very young child sitting on the altar in the chapel there with a group of other children. An elderly lady named Dora Pfister was our teacher then, and she loved children. Everyone called her Anti Dora. I can still see myself sitting there, with amber light filtering into the chapel from the tinted windows. One that day, Anti Dora told us that there are trees and leaves and flowers in heaven and that they are more real than the trees and leaves and flowers we see in the world. I remember asking her how they could be more real; it didn’t seem possible. I don’t remember her answer, and I didn’t understand it at the time, anyway. But the main point was that whole experience. Sitting on the chapel altar with the amber light filtering in talking about heaven with Auntie Dora. That is one of my remains. Each year I attended church camp it was like going up to heaven for a week. And I was always sad to come home because it felt like I was leaving the mountain top. Likewise I think about a teen retreat I participated in as the youth Chaplain. On the last night of the retreat I talked with a teen girl. She said she was sad. When I asked her why, she said, “Because I think I won’t feel as close to God when I go home.” That remark made me think about remains, too.
As we grow into adulthood, we become immersed in worldly interests. We have to. We need to find a job; we need to earn an income; perhaps we also need to make a name for ourself. As our ego develops—what Swedenborg calls the proprium—these remains are displaced from our consciousness and move into the inner depths of our personality—what Swedenborg calls “the inner man.” Perhaps this inner man is what modern psychology calls our unconscious.
But that it may be known what remains are—they are not only the goods and truths which a man has learned from the Word of the Lord from childhood up, and which are thus impressed on his memory, but they are also all the states springing therefrom; such as states of innocence from infancy; states of love toward parents, brothers, teachers, friends; states of charity toward the neighbor, and also of pity for the poor and needy; in a word, all the states of good and truth. These states, with the goods and truths impressed on the memory, are called remains; which are preserved in man by the Lord and are stored up, quite without his knowledge, in his internal man; and are separated entirely from the things which are of man’s proprium. . . . (AC 561).
These remains are God’s special dwelling place with us. The angels and God are connected with us through these states of love and innocence. While our childhood experiences of love and innocence are probably some of the deepest seated remains, Swedenborg tells us that we continue acquiring remains all our lives.
These states are given to man from infancy, but less by degrees as the man advances into adult age. But when a man is being reborn he then receives new remains also, besides the former, thus new life (AC 1738).
This is what Jesus means when he says, “To those who have, more shall be given.”
Swedenborg claims that everyone is gifted with remains. As we say in our faith every Sunday, God is “present to save all people, everywhere whose lives affirm the best they know.” It is easy to think our religion is the only one true faith. And we see this everywhere. We see it in this church and in other denominations. But God is so all-encompassing that He can find a way into everyone’s heart. He gifts everyone of all faiths with remains.
It is very common for those who have conceived an opinion respecting any truth of faith, to judge others that they cannot be saved, unless they believe as they do—a judgment which the Lord has forbidden (Matt. 7:1,2). On the other hand, I have learned from much experience that persons of every religion are saved, provided they have by a life of charity received remains of good and of apparent truth. . . . The life of charity is to think kindly of another, to wish well to him, and to feel in one’s self joy that others also are saved. But those have not the life of charity who wish that none should be saved but those who believe as they do (AC 2284).
I had an unforgettable experience when I was in my Ph.D. program in Virginia. I had been learning about the Hindu God Shiva. At a social function, I happened upon a group of East Indian students. I started talking about Shiva as an intellectual topic I was interested in. Then, as they started talking with me, emotions from my childhood Sunday school days started welling up in me. It dawned on me that these Hindus grew up as children learning stories about Shiva, and what struck me was that we shared similar feelings of holiness from our childhoods—even though we learned about different Gods. What began as intellectual curiosity in me became an experience of shared remains as I listened to these Hindus talk to me about their God. I stood on holy ground and treated our discussion with reverence and respect.
Let me be clear, though. I am Christian and the God I follow is Jesus Christ. All my childhood remains are associated with stories from the Bible. But in my adulthood, I believe new remains have been given me as I learn about other religions. My affection for learning and the emotions associated with the intellectual truths I acquired in grad school have opened my heart to beliefs and peoples of all faiths. I continue to discuss differences in belief with others just as much as I remain committed to my own Christian tradition. But I know in my heart that in peoples all over the world, God has a special place in the innocence and love of their childhood. And that God continues to multiply the blessings he gave in childhood all through a person’s life. “To him that has, more shall be given.” “In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the edge of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you’”

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Jan 5th, 2009

One Up-manship
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 4, 2009

2 Samuel 15:1-12 Matthew 2:13-18

The New Year has arrived. For some of us, this means choosing resolutions for the next year. It is a time for examining ourselves and looking for areas we want to be better at. It’s a time for letting go of limiting behaviors. In this light, I’ve chosen a topic this morning in keeping with Swedenborg’s concept of repentance. That is, self-examination and choosing to let go of sins that may be blocking our reception of our love for God and for our neighbor. But don’t be alarmed—I don’t intend to spend the whole new year talking about sin. Love and joy are as much a part of the Christian experience as is sin. And, in fact, this very sermon will conclude with a discussion of mutual love, and heavenly joy and happiness. That is the nature of repentance—to the extent that we let go of spiritual baggage—sin—then we come into the love and joy of God.
Today I’ve picked a particularly nasty sin. Swedenborg claims that it runs deep within the hearts of the whole human race. He says further that it is the source of all other sins. So if we can get a handle on this sin, the rest will fall away like leaves from a fall tree. The sin I am referring to is self-love.
This is a tricky sin to talk about today. Most everyone today has been taught by the media and by psychology to love themselves. We are told that unless we love ourselves we cannot love others. I’m not exactly sure what this means. In order to distinguish between healthy self-love and destructive self-love, Swedenborg gives us some symptoms to look for. Destructive self-love shows itself by contempt for others compared with self. That phrase runs all though Swedenbrog’s theology. Along with contempt for others compared with self, is a dislike for people who don’t favor us.
They are in a love of self who despise others in comparison with themselves, and hate those who do not favor, serve, and pay a kind of worship to them; and who find a cruel enjoyment in revenge and in depriving others of honor, reputation, wealth and life (AC 2057).
There are many ways to look down on other people. We can think we are smarter than others. We can think we are richer than others. We can think we have a better job than others. We can think we are more sophisticated than others. We have a better education than others. We can think we have better taste than others. We work harder than others. We can think we have better clothes than others. Our children are better than other children—yes, your own children can be an extension of your self-image. You fill in the blanks. But the long and the short of it is that we think we are better than other people.
Along with this feeling of superiority over others comes a desire to top them. In the work place, it can show itself as a desire to advance in the office. We may want to become manager, or foreman, or supervisor. In the bad sense, we want only the title of manager and we don’t care about the work we would do as manager. In the worst case, we will tear down those who we perceive as above us, or better than us. We sabotage their position by any means. We smear their character. We look for dirt on them. We spread damaging rumors about them. We do everything we can to make them look bad and to make ourselves look good.
The most obvious example of this kind of behavior is in politics. There, we almost expect politicians to be power hungry. There is even a phrase that is used for the kind of destructive self-love I’ve been talking about. The press calls it “negative campaigning.” This is when one party finds all the dirt they can about another party and makes a public display of it. In negative campaigning the party doesn’t have a platform of its own—it doesn’t have policies or plans for bettering the state—it spends all its energy on knocking down the other party. And the sad fact is, polling shows that negative campaigning works.
So politics is a good and clear teacher of self-love in its destructive sense. But it isn’t only politicians who have this self-love. Swedenborg claims that it lies in the heart of each and every one of us.
. . . the whole of his life which he derives from his parents by inheritance, and everything which he himself superadds of his own, is of love for self and for the world—not of love to the neighbor, and still less of love to God. And inasmuch as the whole of man’s life from proprium is love for self and for the world, it is thus a life of contempt of others in comparison with himself, and of hatred and revenge against all who do not favor himself (AC 5993).
What Swedenborg is talking about here is ego. It is an exaggerated sense of our own importance compared with others. We need only ask ourselves how we feel when people don’t show us the respect we think we deserve. Or how we feel about people who we think have more than us, look better than us, drive better cars, or wear better clothes. I’ve had people resent me just because I have a Ph. D. Hatred and revenge are strong words, and I doubt if many of us would feel that extremely. But we may well bear a grudge against people who don’t show us the respect we think we deserve. We may wish to take them down a peg, which is a soft form of revenge.
It is up to each of us to ask him or herself how much we have contempt for others compared with ourselves. Is Swedenborg right when he says we have such an inclination from birth and our upbringing? If so, then we need religious practice to break up this destructive self-love. And as much as Swedenborg claims that we all suffer from destructive self-love, he also says that God works ceaselessly to break up our contempt for others. This takes the form of temptations. Temptations aren’t just competing desires like choosing between a Granola bar and a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Temptations are mortal struggles. They are disruptions in the order of our lives that break down our ego. Often they take the form of misfortune and sorrows and tragedies. As Eckhart Tolles writes,
It is precisely through the onset of old age, through loss or personal tragedy, that the spiritual dimension would traditionally come into people’s lives. This is to say, their inner purpose would emerge only as their outer purpose collapsed and the shell of ego would begin to crack open (A New World p. 285).
This is almost exactly what Swedenborg says about the breakup of our ego, or in his Latin, the proprium,
The second state is when a distinction is made between the things which are the Lord’s, and those that are man’s own. Those that are the Lord’s are called in the Word remains . . . These are stored up, and not manifested until he comes into this state; which is a state rarely attained at this day without temptation, misfortune, and sorrow, that cause the things of the body and the world, and thus of man’s proprium, to become quiescent, and as it were dead. The things of the external man are thus separated from those of the internal (AC 8).
So we are not left with our ego. We are not left with destructive self-love. I can hardly think of anyone I know who has lived a little, that hasn’t been through some of these hard knocks. And that beautiful confidence we witness in adolescents soon can become a destructive pride in young adults. So we say that youth is wasted on the young. And often we see in those of more mature years an acceptance and toleration with life and with others. As my grandmother put it, “Well, you grow up and you see that you can’t have things your way.”
This talk wouldn’t be complete without discussing the flip-side of destructive self-love. When our ego is broken up by hard knocks, we begin to learn love for our neighbor. We learn love for our neighbor when we get out of the way. Love for the neighbor is shown by a love for giving to others. It is a heartfelt desire to share our joys with others and to receive the joys others wish to share with us. Imagine a place where everyone wants to give and receive joy. Imagine a place where happiness flows from one to another in an unbroken synergy. That place is heaven. Swedenborg devotes a long passage to this dynamic in the Arcana Coelestia. He wants us all to know the nature of neighborly love just as much as he warns us against destructive self love. So while he cautions us against evil, he also gives us a vision of heavenly good.
Mutual love with those in heaven consists in loving the neighbor more than themselves. Hence the whole heaven represents one person; for all are consociated by mutual love from the Lord, and thus the blessings of all are communicated to each one, and those of each one to all. Consequently the heavenly form is such that every one is as it were a certain center, thus a center of communications, and accordingly of blessings from all; and this in accordance with all the differences of mutual love, which are innumerable. And because those who are in that love perceive the highest happiness in being able to communicate with others that which flows into them, and this from the heart, hence the communication becomes perpetual and eternal; and on this account, as the Lord’s kingdom increases, so the happiness of each one increases (AC 2057).
What I like about this passage is how each person is the center of all the blessings of heaven. All the blessings of everyone in heaven flow into you as if you were the center of it all. And like a hologram, each person is the center of it all. All the blessings of heaven flow into you and you pass it on to everyone else. We experience something like this on earth. I think of Christmas dinners, when everyone is full of the holiday spirit. At table good cheer is in everyone and everyone is talking with each other and the spirit of the room builds and builds all together. Everyone is happy and everyone wants to spread good cheer. That is what humans are capable of when we get out of the way. That is the heavenly image we all are born for. That is the place God is leading us all toward. It may be a road of misfortune and sorrow at times. But we can trust in God’s providence that wherever we are led, by whatever means, it is toward that mutual love and happiness that makes up heaven—either in this world or the next.

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