Archive for June, 2009
And They Left Their Father
Genesis 17:1-22 Matthew 4:18-25
The Judeo-Christian scriptures are filled with father imagery. In our Old Testament reading today, we heard about Abraham being the father of a great nation. And the Jews are often referred to as the children of Abraham. The story we heard also mentions Ishmael, who will also be the father of a great nation. Biblical tradition makes Ishmael the father of the Arab race.
And in the Christian tradition, God is seen as the Father, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday. Jesus Himself refers to God as His Father. Swedenborg tells us that in heaven, everyone is seen as children of the one Heavenly Father.
Today we honor the contribution that fathers make to our lives. Fathers are often overlooked in families, while mothers receive much of the attention. A generation ago, fathers often went off to work, brought in the family income, and rested after supper. For this reason, their influence on the family was less pronounced than mothers. Though even in this role distribution, often fathers were the head of the family and often set the tone for the household.
Fathers, too, were often the disciplinarians of the family. I remember my mother threatening us when we were misbehaving, “Just wait till your father gets home!” My father was a strict and harsh man. I never confided in him. In fact, I rarely talked with him. He barked out orders and yelled at us when we needed to quiet down or when we were doing something he didn’t like. He was very critical, and found fault with almost everything I did. I was not close to my father, nor were any others of my siblings. I even found it hard to believe that he loved me. This role was almost expected of fathers in that generation. My friends talked similarly of their fathers, and some of their fathers were even more severe than my own father. I think of popular movies of the time, and the father was depicted in the manner I’m describing. The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins both had distant, severe fathers who were transformed into loving tender fathers under the influence of Julie Andrews’ feminine influence.
In the generation in which I grew up, the roles of men and women were much more fixed than they are now. Since my father was so critical and distant to me, my primary bond growing up was with my mother. I developed sensitive, artistic qualities that were not considered manly qualities. As I came into adulthood, I confronted some of these deficiencies. I tried to make myself more masculine. I worked construction. I tried to get tough. I tried to be the kind of man that I thought our society said I should be. I did like construction work, but the rest of this identity was a pose I took on like an actor would take on a role.
My relationship with my father affected how I relate to other men, as well. Until late in my life, I found myself often uncomfortable around men. And men in authority positions were even harder for me to relate to. There were some of my friends who went on hunting or fishing trips with their fathers, and I noticed that they were comfortable around men—certainly more comfortable than I was.
I think the image we have of our fathers can influence our image of God. I knew that God is loving, but when I would pray, my father’s personality came through. I saw God just as critical as my own father was. All my sins and wrongs came to the fore when I prayed. I found it hard to feel the love that I knew God has for me. Rather, the judging, lawgiver God of the Old Testament was often how God seemed to me. I know children of overbearing fathers who have even abandoned the imagery of Jesus and a Father God. While they have never told me so, I guess that it was the hard image of their own father than led them to such a theology.
But even in my childhood, there were men who became my spiritual fathers. I met some of them at church camps. They brought religion to me and showed me that being sensitive and religious and artistic could also be a part of manhood. As I went on in life I met more spiritual fathers. My teachers at the Swedenborg School of Religion were much more approachable. I could talk with them openly. I could confide in them. I could safely show them my feelings. They manifestly showed compassion and love for me. They showed me that a male authority figure could be gentle and friendly. Also some of my professors in graduate school were men more like me. I expanded my idea of what it means to be a man, and how men can relate to one another through these intellectual and caring men.
My relationship with my own father grew over time. Dad softened, and he did some really caring acts that showed me how much he really loved me. I was able in his later years to bond better with him. But the image of fathers from childhood still have a strong influence on us. To this day, I have to consciously remember my spiritual fathers when I pray, and consciously try to integrate their personalities into my conceptions of God. I have to consciously apply the characterization of Jesus that I find in the Bible, whom Walt Whitman calls, “the gentle God.”
Theologically, though, outgrowing our family notions of reality is part of our spiritual journey. I will now come back to the story from the New Testament. When Jesus calls James and John, the Bible tells us that they left their father and their boat and followed Him. I take this to be a symbol of spiritual rebirth. We receive what Swedenborg calls our natural degree of life from our parents. He even says that our soul comes from the father, and our body comes from the mother. I don’t know if this is true, but that’s how he sees it. The natural degree of life needs to be reworked in order to allow spirit to flow through it. This natural degree of life Swedenborg also calls proprium. The proprium is the life that comes from self. In the proprium are all the tendancies to evil that come from our heredity and our environment. The very idea of self, or ego, is born from our father and mother. Like James and John, we need to leave this level of our personality in order to come into spiritual life. Our paternal conceptions of how things should be, and our innate desires can be a real obstacle to our spiritual life. We can really grate against society if we expect everything we do to be the way it went in our families. In spiritual growth, we learn to adapt to things that may go differently than they did in our family life. We open up our minds to a greater world, and embrace the world as it is, not the way it went in our upbringing. Spiritually, we need to leave the self-interest we are born with in order to open up to the higher degrees of spiritual life. In Swedenborg’s system, we are born into the natural degree. Religion teaches us to open up the higher degrees, which are called spiritual and celestial. If we fail to open up these higher degrees of the self, we are left with our biological self, and self interest—an image of the natural world. We let go of ego in order to open up to the neighbor and to God. We need to leave our fathers in order to follow Christ.
Today, roles of fathers and of men and women both are changing. Men are becoming more openly caring and loving. Men don’t have to be the harsh, overbearing critical parent that they were a generation ago. They don’t need to be tough. Men today can even cry. And many women, maybe most women, are now out in the workforce as men are. In some households, men are even staying home and mothering their children while the women are at work. I received some interesting responses to the Mothers’ Day sermon I gave last Mothers’ Day. One person said that there were many people who played the role of mothers to her father in his upbringing, and that they deserved to be recognized. I also received a call from a friend who wanted to be mentioned because of the mothering he had been doing for his daughter. I told him to wait for Fathers’ Day. So I can now mention him, and all the other men who are acting in the role of loving caregiver to their children.
Unfortunately, in society today there are many fathers who neglect their responsibilities. They abandon their lovers when they get pregnant, and force women to bear the whole responsibility of raising children. The number of single parent families, which almost always means single mother families, is high today. Men need to step up to the plate and share the responsibility of raising their children. Not only is it an obligation, but it would do so much for them to be involved in the care and nurturing that comes with parenting.
It seems to me to be a step forward to have the kind of balance that we see in some households today. Fathers and mothers both working, and men and women both showing love and care openly for their children. The sad drawback, though. Is that with both parents working the kind of care I’m talking about is very hard to achieve. Though roles are becoming more balanced, is the kind of deep loving bond between parent and child available in these households? I don’t think society has yet found a good answer to this problem. Nevertheless, I still see it as a good sign that fathers are becoming more integrated into family life, into the decision-making processes about their children, and are contributing masculine love to their children as they grow up. These are great steps forward in social life. So today, we honor the modern father. And we thank him for all he does in family life.
Rejoicing Comes in the Morning
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 7, 2009
Genesis 28:10-22 John 21:1-14
The two Bible passages I selected for this morning both relate to morning. When Jacob awakes in the morning, He makes an altar and dedicates his life to Yahweh. And in the New Testament passage, Jesus appears to the disciples in the morning and shows them where to catch a huge amount of fish.
In Swedenborg’s correspondences, morning symbolizes God Himself. In the morning, the sun rises in the east. So the east also symbolizes God and God’s presence. In heaven, God appears to the angels always in the east. And in many Bible passages, God’s presence is in the east. When God separates the waters of the Red Sea, it is by an east wind. The altar of Solomon’s temple faces east. When the glory of the Lord fills the temple in Ezekiel, it comes from the east. This is the reason our Swedenborgian churches all have their altars in the east, as is the case with this church. Morning also symbolizes a state we experience in which our spiritual affections are keenly felt. So it is appropriate that in both these passages about morning, we have a direct experience of God’s presence. Jacob sees God at the top of the stairway ascending to heaven, and the Apostles see Jesus in the morning after a night of fishing.
There are three important aspects to both of these Bible readings. First, it is God who comes to the people in these stories—they don’t come to Him. In the Old Testament story, Jacob is on a journey and goes to sleep. He isn’t expecting anything special—it is an ordinary night and he goes to sleep at the day’s end. In the New Testament story, the Apostles are at work, fishing in the Sea of Tiberias, or as it is traditionally called, the Sea of Galilee. Second, God comes to these people in the midst of troubles. Things don’t look good when God comes to these people. And third, when God appears, abundance and prosperity result.
Let’s begin by looking at the story of Jacob. Jacob is on a journey when God comes to him. And Jacob is on that journey because his brother Esau is so mad at him that he plans to murder him. Acting on his mother Rebecca’s advice, Jacob travels to Haram to lay low until his brother cools off. So Jacob is fleeing for his life.
In the New Testament story, the Apostles aren’t having much luck with their work. They have been fishing all night and haven’t caught anything. They must have felt disappointed and, maybe, frustrated.
So in both these stories, things are going badly for the people in them. And in these spells of trouble, God comes and lifts up His people with His presence and abundance. Let’s go over the stories in a little more depth.
Jacob goes to sleep on his journey, and sees the vision of a stairway reaching up to heaven. Angels are ascending and descending on it. And at the top of the stairway, God Himself stands and speaks to Jacob. He promises Jacob that He will always be with him. “I am with you,” God tells him, “and will watch over you wherever you go” (28:15). Jacob’s response is very significant. He says, “Surely Yahweh is in this place and I was not aware of it” (28:16). In the midst of his anxieties, Jacob was not aware of God’s presence. He then realizes that this place is the gate to heaven and the house of God. So he builds an altar there, and names the place Bethel, which means “House of God.” He then makes a commitment to turn his life over to God. He says, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey . . . then Yahweh will be my God” (20, 21). And in God’s appearance to Jacob, God promises abundance and prosperity to Jacob. God tells him that, “I will give you and your descendents the land on which you are lying. Your descendents will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and the east, to the north and the south. All peoples of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (13-14).
In our New Testament passage, the events follow a similar outline. The Apostles have had a disappointing night. They fished all night and hadn’t caught anything. Then, through no effort of their own, Jesus appears to them in the morning. Like Jacob, they don’t realize that they are in the presence of God. The Bible tells us that, “the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus” (21:4). Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat and their nets are filled so full they couldn’t bring them into the boat. Then John realizes that it is Jesus who is talking to them. They have been given more than an abundant catch of fish with Jesus’ appearance, but there is more. There is a fire burning on the shore and they eat bread and fish in Jesus presence.
The main point I take from these stories is how elusive God’s presence with us can be. More often than not, I think we can identify with Jacob, when he said, “Surely God is in this place and I was not aware of it.” How often do we take time to raise our consciousness to God. We fret about our bills, we go to work, we go about our daily affairs, and more often than not, our minds are not on our inner states. Even if that morning state comes to us in which our spiritual affections are clearly perceived, would we take the time to notice?
But all the while this is going on, God still comes to us. While our minds are filled with the mater of fact things of our daily lives, God is with us. Even in times when we feel lost and abandoned; when things are not going our way; God is with us. God is with us as He was with Jacob, when he was fleeing for his life, and as He was with the Apostles after a disappointing night of fishing with nothing to show for it. And in coming to us, God gives us continually of His great abundance. God gives us the great catch of fish. God gives us descendants that reach from the east to the west and from the north to the south. Some church interpret these teachings about abundance to mean material wealth. They teach that God will give us lots of money. I’ve heard these preachers on TV and wondered how they can get away with it. I wondered about the people in their congregations who never do end up getting a lot of money, and why they keep coming back.
My way of reading God’s abundance is in spiritual terms. The abundance God gives us is clear truths, more and more truths that we learn along our journey in this world. If we are open to it, we will find our minds progressively more and more illuminated with clarity in the things that relate to spiritual life. We see into the workings of God’s Providence. We learn better how the world operates. We see more vividly our purpose in life. These truths lead us into ever deeply felt affection for one another and for God. Our feelings of union and communion with each other and with heaven grow ever more deep in our spirit. And a loving community, which is what God gives us, is wealth beyond measure. These things are the abundance that God’s presence brings to us.
Since this abundance is all internal, we may not see it happening. I was recently at a youth retreat in the US. There were Bible lessons that we on staff gave, and there was recreation time in between. We all ate our meals together. There was sharing and dialogue and talking about life. Without my knowing it, the whole camp opened up with a level of caring and mutual love between teens, between staff, and between teens and staff. Without my knowing it, I was lifted up into one of those God experiences that we heard about in the Bible readings this morning. I didn’t notice it at the time. I only noticed it when I had to deal with the world after the retreat ended. How harsh and grating everything felt. How callous and unfeeling the encounters I ran into after the retreat. Only by contrast could I realize that I had been lifted up into one of those morning states in which love, joy, and spiritual delight were keenly felt.
Hopefully, there are times and places when we do have that feeling that God is with us and will watch over us wherever we go, as He tells Jacob. Hopefully there are those times when we feel God’s presence and its corresponding delight and spiritual joy. Maybe we find it in church. Maybe we find it especially during Holy Communion, when we eat and drink in Jesus’ presence, as the disciples did that morning. Maybe we find it in prayer. Or maybe, as in the stories we heard this morning, it comes to us out of the blue, without our looking for it.
Abraham Maslow calls these experiences “peak experiences.” They can transform and reorder a person’s whole life. When we feel these peak experiences of God’s presence, we want to live in such a way that we open the door for them to recur. They become the holy center of everything we strive for in life. We, like Jacob, make a vow and a commitment that the God who has manifested Himself to us will be our God. And our lives will fulfill that commitment.
So I ask you this morning to open yourselves up to God, as we partake in Holy Communion. Let us recognize that communion is a feast in Jesus’ presence. And in this sacrament, God can truly appear and be present with us. And when we leave the church this morning, let us remain open to God. God is coming to us continually. He will appear in the midst of our work and ordinary life’s activities as He did to Jacob and to the disciples. And instead of saying, “Surely God is in this place and I was not aware of it,” maybe we will be as the disciples when they ate their morning meal in the presence of the Lord.
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 31, 2009
Forgiveness is one of the sweetest aspects of Christianity. God is all mercy and forgiveness, and asks the same of us. Both our Bible readings this morning treat the subject of forgiveness. In Jeremiah, God says, “I will cleanse them from all the sins they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me” (33:8). The subject of the Jeremiah passage is the attack of the Babylonians. The prophet Jeremiah interprets the Babylonian attack as a sign of divine punishment for the sins of the Israelites. God says that he will slay the inhabitants of Jerusalem in His anger and wrath. Our church takes this to be an appearance of truth. We know that God can never be angry or kill people in wrath. We see this as an appearance of truth, according to the mindset of the people living in 6th century BC Israel. But even in this tale of anger and destruction, God’s forgiveness and mercy shines through. God will heal His people and bring peace and security to Jerusalem. Before all nations of the earth, Jerusalem will be filled with God’s joy, praise, and honor. People around the world will be filled with awe because of the prosperity and peace God gives Jerusalem. This is all to show God’s mercy and forgiveness.
And in John, we heard the beautiful story of the woman caught in adultery. According to Jewish law, punishment for adultery was stoning to death. But Jesus asks the Israelites to search their hearts. “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one they dropped their stones and left. When all her accusers have left, Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you” (8:11). God on earth does not condemn the woman caught in adultery.
God is all goodness and love, and so does not remember our wrongdoing. “The Lord imputes good to every person and evil to none, consequently that He does not condemn any one to hell, but so far as a person follows raises all to heaven, . . .” Swedenborg tells us in TCR 652. God looks upon the whole human race from love and views only goodness in us, and wants to give us every good thing,
The appropriation of the life of the Lord comes from His love and mercy toward the universal human race, in that He wills to give Himself, and what is His, to every one, and that He actually gives, so far as they receive . . . (AC 3742).
But we have a role to play as far as God’s love for us is concerned. In the passage I just cited, Swedenborg says that God gives Himself to everyone “so far as they receive”. So we need to respond to God’s call. God calls us constantly into heaven and into heavenly joy, but we need to respond and live in accordance with God’s infinite love and mercy,
There is actually a sphere proceeding continually from the Lord and filling the entire spiritual and natural worlds which raises all towards heaven. It is like a strong current in the ocean which unobservedly draws a vessel. All who believe in the Lord and live according to His precepts enter that sphere or current and are elevated . . . (TCR 652).
We need to examine our lives and to take action. We need to remove obstacles to receiving God’s inflowing love and forgiveness. In traditional Christian language, this is called repentance.
The Lord forgives to everyone his sins, and never takes vengeance, nor even imputes sin, because He is love itself and good itself; nevertheless, sins are not thereby washed away, for this can be done only by repentance. For when He told Peter to forgive until seventy times seven, what will not the Lord do? (TCR 409)
What will not the Lord do? If we put ourselves in the stream of God’s strong, upward flowing current, we will be drawn into heaven and company with our Maker. As we remove the limitations that block God’s life, then God’s forgiveness can be a reality. We need to see ourselves through God’s eyes. We need to see the good qualities God has given us. We need to walk in the light. Then God’s forgiveness means communion and mutual joy in God and God in us.
But God also asks us to forgive our neighbor. In the story from the Gospel of John, Jesus asks the Jews to look at themselves before condemning the woman. What started out as judgment against her becomes forgiveness. It is nice to think that God forgives. Meditating on God can lift us into ecstasy. But then we have to deal with the real world. We run into people who rub us the wrong way. We get resentful. We carry grudges. We form dislikes. And the forgiveness God so freely gives us becomes a very hard task for us to do to others.
Forgiveness works on two levels. There is the forgiveness between us and God. Then there is the forgiveness between us and our neighbors. We find forgiveness from God when we repent, and let go of vices. Then God shines through us and fills us with everything He has. Shall I say this is easier than the forgiveness that we confront in other people? We are all fallen and broken people. We are finite, and we all have character flaws. By the same token, we all have God’s image and likeness in us. I see God as an infinite human being. And I think that this is an important image of God because it makes me see other humans as reflections of God. When I see others as sparks of God, or when I reflect that God’s humanity is in others, it hallows my relations with other people. When I reflect that what I do to others, I do to God, then how I relate to other people matters all the more.
God sees us from goodness. We need to see each other in the same way. Our view of others can take two forms. We can become indignant when we find something we don’t like in our neighbor. Or, we can overlook the issue and look for the positive qualities in others. When I take offence, it seems that inevitably my own wants and ego has been challenged. When I look at my part in the encounter, and take ownership for my part in the difficulties I feel, then relationships work much better for me. This requires the courage to fully admit that I have my own shortcomings, as others do, and if I expect forgiveness then I need to show forgiveness. It was the recognition of sin in themselves that made the Jews forgive the adulterous woman. I’m not saying that we need to go around feeling terrible about ourselves. I guess what I’m saying is that we only be honest about ourselves. And the kind of honesty that will heal relationships is an honest recognition of our own part in personality conflicts
I don’t mean to say that we need to be a door mat. We need to establish boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in our personal relations. This is most evident in abusive relationships. If we find ourselves being treated in demeaning ways, we need to confront the other. It is not healthy for us, nor is it healthy for the other to remain in an abusive relationship. Sometimes the fear of confrontation is so great that people will remain in abusive relationships rather than stand up for their personal integrity. Or if we find ourselves in a relationship in which we are continually giving and sacrificing while the other is only taking, again the relationship is not healthy for either party. Again, we need to confront the other. Jesus frequently confronted the Pharisees and teachers of the law for twisting God’s laws for their own ends. And if confrontation does not work, then it may be necessary to terminate the relationship.
As we go through life, we grow and develop in our capacity to relate to others. The destruction of Jerusalem described in Jeremiah symbolizes the wearing down of our selfish orientation. Only when our personality has been softened by trials and temptations are we in a place to receive the glorious promises God will give to Jerusalem. Then we are more compassionate. Then we are better able to understand others. Then the wants of our ego matter less than peaceful relations with others. Then we are better able to forgive. Then, as Jeremiah writes, “there will be sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of the bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD, saying,
Give thanks to the LORD Almighty,
For the LORD is good;
His love endures forever” (33:10-11).