Archive for April, 2009
Our Spiritual Home
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 19, 2009
Genesis 12:1-8 Matthew 2:13-23
I’ve just returned from a trip to the US. The occasion for my travel was a seminar in which ministers from the Mid-West region gathered together to share thoughts on ministry. I found it a stimulating seminar and very helpful. I was able to ask questions and hear insights on effective ministry from ministers who have served for much longer than myself.
After being in Canada for so long, I had the strange feeling of re-accustoming myself to my homeland. I now feel like a citizen of two nations—Canada and the US—and I feel better for living in both worlds. Even though Canada is right on the US border, there are some real differences in the cultures of the two nations. This is only to be expected about travel over great distances. Even within just the US, traveling across several states brings differences in culture. Fortunately for me, here in Canada I have Carol who can help me to present myself in a proper Canadian way. One amusing way she helps me is when I feel like speaking out when I’m upset with some experience here—be it poor service over the phone, or in a restaurant, or with the airlines. Canadians are more polite than I’m used to, and in the US it’s not at all unusual for someone to speak their mind when they’re dissatisfied. We have a saying between us about this. We call it “going American.” So when I want to take someone to task, I tell Carol, “I’m going to go all American on that guy.” She usually disassociates herself from me when I go American on someone. That TV show Corner Gas also had an episode on this. An American is visiting in Canada, and his Canadian friends are trying to help him fit in. Well he says something harsh to someone and his friends tell him he has to say he’s sorry. The American says, “Why do I have to say I’m sorry? I’m not sorry!” To which his Canadian friends say, “You don’t have to be sorry, you just have to say you’re sorry.” “Why,” the American asks. “It’s the Canadian way,” is the response.
So I picked today’s Bible readings with the idea of changing homes in mind. In our Old Testament reading we have Abram moving from Mesopotamia to Canaan. And in the New Testament reading we have Jesus and his family moving from Israel to Egypt. About Abram’s move from Mesopotamia, God tells him that he shall be a stranger in a strange land. In Canaan, Abram found different Gods and different peoples. The foreign gods that Abram encountered were associated with places such as mountains and wells. There is El Bethel, who was worshipped at Luz, El Elyon, who was worshipped at Jerusalem, El Olam, at Beer-sheba, and other gods associated with holy places. But what is striking for religion at this time is that Abram’s God traveled with him even on that great migration from Mesopotamia to Canaan. The God of the Patriarchs was not tied down to a specific place. The relocation of Jesus’ family after His birth was also a major upheaval. To move from the small town of Nazareth to the great empire of Egypt would have been a wondrous and also intimidating experience. There were Jewish communities in Egypt, so Jesus’ family would at least have some Jewish culture around them in Egypt. But there were also those huge statues and temples to the Egyptian gods and goddesses, as well as monuments to the Greek pantheon which had conquered Egypt in the time of Christ. Egypt would have felt like home, as he grew up there. We can only guess at how much of the Greek and Egyptian wisdom Jesus learned in Egypt. We only know that He astounded the teachers in the temple at the age of 12 with His wisdom.
There are advantages and disadvantages in moving from one place to another. The great advantage of moving from place to place is that one can shed ideas and beliefs that are only products of a locality. Then there are new ideas and beliefs to learn from new environments. Staying only in one place can be limiting. When I moved from Detroit to Boston, I experienced a whole new world. People acted differently, education had a high value in Boston, which it didn’t have in Detroit, and I gained an independence in Boston which was far removed from my family. But the disadvantages can be a loss of feelings of home and family. I envy people who still maintain friendships with people that they grew up with, as is the case with my parents. And I think that the place in which a person grows up will always have a feeling of home. When I drive down the roads of Detroit, it still feels like home—even after 20 years away. And I still root for the Detroit teams: the Red Wings, the Pistons, the Tigers, and unfortunately for me, the Lions, who have yet to win a Superbowl.
As we grow older in life, we are on a spiritual journey like that of Abram. We are gradually growing up spiritually as we grow older naturally. We are leaving one state of mind for another. We are exchanging early affections for more spiritually mature ones. Like a snake, we shed old skin for new skin. And as with travel, these changes are not easy. When we move from one place to another, we feel a good deal of stress and anxiety as everything which we knew and took for granted is lost; and everything we now encounter is unfamiliar. The case is similar with spiritual changes. We are actually exchanging old feelings and perceptions for new ones. We feel anxiety when our former pleasures are left behind and also we feel anxiety when from a higher place we look back on where we were, and regret our lower condition.
While man is being regenerated and conjunction is being effected of the good of the internal man with the truths of the external, a commotion takes place among the truths, for then they undergo a different arrangement. . . . The commotion then made, manifests itself by an anxiety arising from the change of the former state, namely, from a privation of the enjoyment which had been in that state. This commotion also manifests itself by anxiety concerning the past life . . . (AC 5881).
Swedenborg describes this process in another place. Our growth is from an interest in the world and self out of which we journey into an interest in the neighbor and God. Make no mistake, this change is real and it affects our goals in life and our enjoyments. Such a change is not comfortable.’
. . . When a man is being purified from those lusts [self and the world], as is the case when he is being regenerated, he is in pain and anxiety, and it is the lusts which are then being wiped away, that are pained and cause anxiety (AC 4496).
While we are undergoing spiritual rebirth, and we are exchanging one emotional complex for another, we are forming a spiritual home. We don’t know it while we are in the material world, but our souls are alive in the spiritual world. We are forming company with spirits and angels who are in similar emotions as we are. The emotions that we cultivate will determine our communities in the next life. Swedenborg tells us that in the next life, we will find our way to others who share a like emotional state as our own. We will feel at home with them, because on earth we had been cultivating emotions like theirs. “Like are brought as of themselves to their like; for with their like they are as with their own and as at home, but with others they are as with strangers and abroad” (HH 44).
We feel at home with surroundings that are familiar to us. When I cam back from the US, I sat in my favorite chair and scanned the walls, looking at my favorite works of art that were hanging there, and I felt like I was home. Our best friends are friends who have been with us over the years, through different experiences. When we come to our spiritual homes in the next life, we will meet with people whom we seem to have known all our lives. This is because they are in a like love to us.
All who are in similar good also know one another, just as men in the world do their kinsmen, their near relations, and their friends, though they have never before seen them . . . This has sometimes been given me to see, when I was in the spirit, . . . and so in company with angels. Then some of them seemed as if known from childhood, but others as if not known at all. They whom I seemed to have known from childhood, were those who were in a state similar to that of my spirit; but they who seemed unknown to me, were in dissimilar state (HH 46).
I think that it is an important thought to keep in mind, that with the actions and intentions of our day to day lives, we are forming our homes in the next life. But of one thing we can be sure—it will feel like home.
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 12, 2009
Luke 24:1-11 John 20:1-31
The women ran from the tomb of Jesus, all excited, to where the Apostles were. They told the Apostles what the angels said about Jesus’ resurrection. But the Apostles did not believe them. Their words sounded like nonsense. When Thomas heard that some of the Apostles actually saw the risen Christ, he didn’t believe it. He said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:25).
Jesus’ resurrection can sound like nonsense. There is a scholarly committee that is studying the New Testament. Their mission is to try to find out what Jesus really said in the Gospels, and what was added by the church. A friend of mine talked with one of these scholars. The scholar told my friend that the stories about the resurrection were late additions to the Gospel stories. He said that he didn’t believe in the resurrection. I suppose it sounded like nonsense to him.
How many people today are like Thomas! How many today will not believe in the resurrection unless Jesus appears to them, and they can put their fingers in the nail wounds and in Jesus’ side. The claim that Jesus rose from the dead, body and soul, is quite a claim. But you know, for some reason, it isn’t hard for me to believe it. Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). That’s where we are today. And that’s where Christians were ever since the passing on of the Apostles.
In the resurrection, the infinite God of Creation merged completely with the human Jesus so that they became one person. God became fully man and man became fully God. This indeed can sound like nonsense.
But what if it were true? What would that mean to us if it were true? If this were true, then a whole new aspect of God in relationship to the world and to us in the world, would have occurred. The resurrection means that God has a material form that is united with His divine spiritual origins. It means that there is a seamless connection between God and the material world. It means that God can become present to us in this material world in whatever stage of spiritual development we are. God can come near to us in His risen material body and reach our hearts through His own Divine Humanity. It means we do not walk this world alone, but God can always be with us. To me, this is a doctrine I eagerly embrace. To me this is a comforting doctrine. And it is also a fantastic idea to ponder.
The power of Jesus’ presence on the earth and the power of his teachings transformed Western Civilization. We can forget that for the first three hundred years after Christ it was against the law to worship Jesus. The Christian martyrs suffered horrible deaths simply because they worshipped Jesus Christ. And yet, even in the threat of such a punishment, Christianity spread like wildfire. All around the early Christians there were statues and shrines and temples devoted to the gods of Classical Rome. The Roman gods had physical reminders all over the Mediterranean world. Yet the criminal Christians held fast to the words of Jesus Christ, whom they could not see nor touch as Thomas did. That historical fact sounds a bit like nonsense to me. But it’s true. What was it about Christianity that was so appealing? So appealing that Christians were willing to face criminal punishment to worship?
I think that one answer to this question is in Jesus’ message of love. It is a message still vital in this world today. Jesus’ message of love. As materialistic as this world can get, I think we still carry the belief that love is the way we are meant to live. I went to a Lester Quitzau concert a few weeks ago. And as with a previous concert, I left feeling better than when I arrived. At this concert, the power of Lester’s personality transformed the venue. I felt overtaken by a gentle power of love. He turned the club into a church of sorts, as the spirit he poured out was poured back from the crowd. Lester doesn’t strike me as someone who is religious in the traditional sense. Yet he lives a life of love. This comes through in his songs. In one of his songs, the lyrics go, “One thing I know for sure, loving one another is the only cure.” In another, he sings, “There’s a light that shines, it shines so true. It’s the same light in me, in you. Like a smile, or the touch of hearts, it’s the light of love holds us up through. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” And it seemed to me that Lester’s message of love touched the hearts of everyone in the house. This sick and ailing society still values Christ’s message of love. We hunger for words of love. There’s an inner conviction that we are meant to live a life of love. That is why, it seems to me, that is why Christianity flourished under the most direful conditions.
There is much in the world today that begs for transformation in love. The new technology created to advance society is in danger of becoming a sacred cow. Material toys are chased after with an insatiable greed. Cars, advanced video equipment, iPods, computer games, GPS’s, Blue Ray disks—the list goes on. We are a society that craves material possessions as the measure of self worth, and as the measure of how we judge others. We are still much in need of Jesus’ message of love. The media flood us with images of shooting, explosions, and violence. Computer games that the young play are too often games of killing. We see the callous indifference of the wealthy toward the working poor who are just trying to make ends meet. The fracture between the Muslim world and the Western world begs to be transformed by Jesus’ message of love. I heard an interview on TV with one of the world leaders. He came to the realization that war will not solve the problems in the Middle East. He spoke of opening diplomatic channels with moderate groups in the Taliban. We are sick with war. As in so many areas in this sick society, it seems that here, too, “loving one another is the only cure.” Yes, there is still a great need today for the transforming power of love.
Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are both a testimony to the power of love. Even on the cross, Christ’s words were words of forgiveness. And in His resurrection, He showed that love cannot be stopped. Jesus rose in the spring, when all of nature bursts forth with new life. And the joy we all feel in the spring can be redoubled when we think of the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. It is as if all of nature celebrates the risen Christ. And the joy of spring and the resurrection is a call to each of us who call ourselves Christians. Are we a messenger of love? Do we fill our world with love? Does our light shine?
The resurrection means that the God of love is alive. Jesus is alive now. But it also means that Jesus is alive in our hearts. The resurrection is a call to us all. Is Jesus alive in us, too? Is Jesus’ message of forgiveness and love alive in our hearts? Is the joy of springtime, and Easter in us? Do we bring Easter, and springtime, and joy to the world we touch? Because if the resurrection is not in us, then Jesus’ life was to no avail. Jesus came to show us the way of love. And He calls us to follow Him in the way of love.
The message of love was powerful enough to cause Christians to risk their very lives to worship the Source of love. And in this world we live in, the message of love is still dearly needed. Some call this society a “Post Christian Society.” They point to the diminished role of the church in people’s lives. They point to falling numbers in churches across denominational lines. While these statistics are true, I still have faith in the power of love. Capitol punishment didn’t deter Christians from responding to Jesus’ call to love. And materialism, violence in the media, fractured relations with the Middle East, and all the other ills of this society will not stop the power of love today. If the church’s role in society is dwindling, then I have faith that from some new voice Jesus’ message of love will be proclaimed. And wherever it comes from, I believe that humanity will respond to it today, as it did 2,000 years ago. On this Easter Sunday, let us all rejoice in the growing warmth of spring and in the conviction that love will not be silenced. That is what the resurrection means to me. And it is not nonsense.
It Didn’t Happen
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 5, 2009
Zechariah 9:9-17 Matthew 21:1-11
Many of the Jews in Jesus’ time did not accept Him as the Messiah. And many today, in fact most Jews don’t see Him as the Messiah. Why is this? The reason is, Jesus did not come as the Messiah that they were expecting. I’d like to take you back about 2,000 years and talk about the expectations that were in the air at the coming of Christ.
The coming of the Messiah was going to be a cosmic event. It was going to be a judgment on the whole earth. At Christmas we listen to the prophesies in Isaiah about the mountains being leveled, and the valleys raised up, and the rough places made smooth. This was taken literally as what would happen to planet earth when the Messiah came. There were also prophesies about the Day of the LORD. On this dreadful day the whole earth would be judged. Yahweh Himself would come down to earth and set things straight. The Dead Sea Scrolls talk about a cosmic battle. In it, angels of light would fight against angels of darkness. The residents of the Qumran were waiting for this battle to take place. They observed celibacy according to the Biblical prescriptions about holy war. They were literally going to fight with swords on the side of the angels of light.
Then there is the issue of the Messiah Himself. The Hebrew word “Messiah” literally means “anointed.” It refers to the anointing of a king when he assumed office. So the Messiah that the Jews were expecting was to be an earthly king. But this was to be no ordinary king. The Messiah was to be from King David’s lineage. A promise was made to King David that one of his descendants would rule Israel forever. In 2 Samuel 7:16 God says to King David, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” But this is not what happened. First Babylon conquered Judah, deposed its king and took the Israelites into captivity. They were restored under the Persian King Cyrus, but they were not allowed to have their own king, as Cyrus was the king. Then Alexander the Great came and conquered Judah and imposed Greek ways. Then Rome conquered Israel and it was under Roman rule that Jesus came. What does all this have to do with the Messiah? Well, there was no king from David’s lineage as promised by God, none since Babylon conquered Israel in 597 BC. But the prophets prophesied that a descendant of David would come and conquer the foreign rulers and sit on the throne in Jerusalem. This coming of the king would usher in a period of world peace. We heard one of these prophesies in Zechariah today. The passage reads:
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gently and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the foal of an ass.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
And the war-horses from Jerusalem,
And the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
And from the River [the Euphrates] to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:9-10).
The king would rule from sea to sea and he would bring peace to all the nations. This is what the Jews expected Jesus to do. But it didn’t happen.
We who grow up Christian hear the Isaiah prophesies and we immediately apply them to Jesus. We don’t associate the cosmic battle with Jesus’ first coming, nor do we think about a king from David’s lineage ruling from sea to sea. We think of Jesus and we see His kingdom as a spiritual kingdom—“the kingdom is within.” So it is hard for us to imagine what was going on in the minds of the first-century Jews, or of Jews today, for that matter. It is hard for us to imagine why they don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah.
But are Christians so different from the Jews in Jesus’ time? Many Christians today are expecting just the same thing that the Jews of the first-century were expecting. Most Christians today are expecting a great cosmic event to take place on the material earth. They are expecting Jesus to appear in the clouds and to execute judgment on the whole earth. There will be plagues and earthquakes and a final war called Armageddon to take place right down here in this material world on this physical earth. And in this both Christians and Jews are in agreement. Both faiths are expecting this great Day of Judgment enacted right here on this physical earth. As a witty rabbi once told my class, when the Messiah comes, all we need to do is ask him, “Have you been here before?” The answer would tell us of it was the second coming or the first coming of the Messiah.
But what about Jesus’ words in Luke 17:20-21, “The Kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” Or what of Jesus’ response to Pilate’s questions, when Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). If Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and if Jesus’ kingdom is within you and me, why are Christians expecting some kind of great battle on planet earth outside you and me? It seems to me that Christians today are missing the point in the same way that Jews in Jesus day missed the point. And I’m here to tell you that just as the first coming of the Messiah didn’t result in a global conflagration, neither will the second coming.
The cosmic battle spoken of in the Prophets, the Gospels, and the book of Revelation takes place within you and me. Jesus’ kingdom is within you and me, and that is where the battle takes place. Here on earth we live in a middle world. Angels of light and angels of darkness are fighting within our souls every moment of every day. Sometimes we may be aware of this inner conflict; at other times, our absorption with work and mundane affairs dull the sensitivity of our spirit. The great Day of Judgment occurs every time we make a choice for good or evil. Ultimately, we will have formed a character that is in harmony with God and heaven, or a character that is separated from God and heaven. The final judgment will occur in the next plane of existence when we are free to follow our heart’s desire. We will then either find a place in heaven or in hell. But the judgment will be self-judgment. The spiritual community we find a place in will be the spiritual community in which we have placed our souls in this life. If our souls are filled with God’s love and wisdom, we will be free to grow and expand in love and wisdom to eternity. But if we have deliberately and consciously rejected God and love; if we have deliberately and consciously chosen hate, selfishness, and ego, we will have our heart’s desire in a kingdom separate from God and love.
The coming of the Messiah didn’t happen the way the Jews expected it to happen. And the second coming of the Messiah won’t happen the way traditional Christians are expecting it to come. My message today is to recognize that the Day of Judgment is something that we experience in each choice we make in this world. And the coming of the Messiah, the second coming of Jesus Christ is when we admit the Christ light into our hearts. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. . . . The kingdom of God is within you” (John 18:36, Luke 17:21). When Jesus comes to you in the midst of your day-to-day affairs, will you recognize Him? Or will you be expecting some other Christ, some other time, some other place?