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Archive for September, 2013

Sep 30th, 2013

Planting Fruit Trees
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 30, 2013

Jeremiah 17:7-13 Matthew 13:24-32 Psalm 144

There are 11 references to apples in the whole Bible but no references to planting apple trees. So in honor of Johnny Appleseed Day, I have selected Bible readings about planting. We honor Johnny Appleseed because he planted trees, not because of what it was he planted.
Johnny Appleseed didn’t only plant trees. He also planted heavenly seeds of wisdom. In his travels throughout the American west (which we now call the mid-west) he distributed chapters of Swedenborg’s works to the houses on the frontier that he came across. He would drop off a new chapter and pick up the old chapter he had left on his trip before. He did this for the houses he passed by as he went across the west planting apple trees. So Johnny Appleseed planted seeds of wisdom through the works of Swedenborg that he distributed in the American frontier.
Swedenborg talks about our spiritual growth, or our regeneration, as a kind of planting. Good things and truths are planted in us. What does it mean to have good things planted in us? These are the instructions we learn when we are young, such as at retreats like this. These are instructions in manners, in the house rules where you live, in the laws in the country where you live, and, yes, teachings about heaven and God. But these truths are only imbedded in our memory at first. Only when we love these rules and teachings and gladly do them, then they come alive. So the next step is that we want to do the things we are taught–we want to be good and we want to do good. When we come to this point, then we can say that the goods and truths have been planted in us. When we do good deeds naturally and when we love doing good things, then more and more good can flow in from God. For all good comes from God.
So the process goes like this. Good ideas are planted in us by instructions when we are young and as we grow. When we only know these ideas and they are only facts in our memory, they are in our outer person. We have an inner and an outer aspect to who we are. Our memory and our behavior are outer aspects to who we are. But there is an inner aspect to who we are. What we think and what we are feeling are inner qualities that form our inner person.
When we start to love the things we have learned, they become a part of our emotional life. Then they become internalized–part of our inner person. Our heart and our desire is to do good. It is through our inner person that we communicate with God and with heaven. Heaven is in contact with our feelings and our thoughts. When we have good feelings and true thoughts, then God and heaven are influencing our inner person.
All are perfected by the planting of faith and charity in the external or natural person; for unless these are there implanted, good and truth cannot flow in from the internal or spiritual person, that is, from the Lord through that person, for there is no reception; and if there is no reception, the influx stops and perishes, yea, the internal person is even closed. From this it is plain that the natural person must be brought into a state of accommodation in order that it may be a receptacle (AC 8452).
But I don’t think that coming to love and do what is good is natural for us. Religion sometimes works against our basic instincts for self-interest and the lust for wealth. Everything we need for survival in the world is in our outer person. Everything we need to fit us for God’s kingdom is in our internal person. Here, we run into conflict. There is a struggle between what we know is good and right, and what we want to do to serve selfish desires. This struggle is called temptation. Temptation makes our outer person willing to listen to the teachings we learned when we were young, or teachings we hear in church. This is like tilling the soil. It is like breaking up the hard ground so that seeds can be planted in it. Spiritually, this means that our outer person becomes willing to do good. The outer person listens to the inner person.
faith cannot in any wise be implanted in those who are of the spiritual church except by temptations, and thus neither can charity–for in temptations a person is in combat against falsity and evil, which flow into the external person from the hells, while good and truth flow in through the internal from the Lord–thus by combat of the internal person with the external person, which is called temptation. And so far then as the external person is reduced to obedience under the internal, so far faith and charity are planted; for the external or natural person is the receptacle of truth and good from the internal person (AC 8351).
This week end, the Edmonton Church hosted a teen retreat. In between recreation and quality “face time,” we explored some seeds of truth in educational sessions. We asked, “What are some extreme and strange things we have heard religion tell us to do or not to do?” I don’t feel that rehashing some of these distasteful teachings serves a useful purpose in a worship service. We then asked, “What kinds of things does religion ask us to do or not to do that makes sense?” These ideas, though, do bear repeating. The teens came up with the following list:
Holidays for family time
Baptism
Community
Sunday School
Prayer
Love
Believe and respect God
This church teaches that heaven consists in doing something a person loves that benefits others. So we asked, “What kinds of things do you like to do that benefits others?” The teens came up with the following list:
Being friendly
Listening
Mentoring
Volunteering
Complimenting
Sharing
One of the most important functions that a church does is to instill values. This means that churches help sort out what really matters in life. So we asked just that, “What is important in life?” The teens came up with the following list:
God
The company you keep
Happiness
Love
Respect, given and received
Your home/House
Laughter
Being the best you can be
Hope
Faith
Family
Friends
Life
What impresses me most about this list of important things is how few of the things they came up with depended on money. They identified truly spiritual qualities. We all know that money matters to survive in life. But the things that matter for ever, money can’t buy.
These are some of the seeds that were planted during our retreat this week end. It was a joint gardening project between teens and staff. We all came away with a richer garden for our time together.

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Sep 22nd, 2013

What Is Innocence?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 22, 2013

Jeremiah 11:18-20 Mark 9:33-37 Psalm 54

In our Mark reading, it looks like there are several unconnected thoughts that are mashed together. But they actually connect very well when one looks at them from an internal point of view. Our reading begins with the disciples arguing about which of them would be the greatest. Jesus says the curious line, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Then he takes a little child in His arms and says, “Whoever welcome one of these little children in my name, welcomes me” (9:37). Then Jesus says that, “Whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” The greatest, the first and last, children, and then God–not a very clearly connected group of ideas. But they all do connect when we consider one idea. That idea is innocence.
Again and again, Swedenborg states that there is no love and charity without innocence. He says that innocence is the essence of the highest angels. And he says that God is innocence itself.
But the quality of innocence is a very elusive quality. I think we can recognize it when we see it, but just what it is, is hard to describe. Jesus used an apt image when he took a child and pointed to him, saying that we need to welcome the child in Jesus’ name. I take this passage to mean that we need to be childlike in order to be godly. And the child was used by Jesus as an image of innocence.
We see children as innocent due to several characteristics. One characteristic is described by Swedenborg quite accurately. Swedenborg writes that, “The affections are conspicuously presented in the face with those who are in innocence” (AC 5102). This means that innocent children show what they are feeling in their faces. Young children let you know what they think, feel, and want without any pretence. When a young child is happy, we all know it–in fact, their innocence is so touching that we become happy with them. And when a child is unhappy and sad, we all know it, too. Children cry openly, they laugh spontaneously, and they squeal with delight unabashedly. Children are spontaneous, and they are transparent with their feelings.
We adults learn social propriety, which often means stifling our emotions. We learn to smile instead of squealing with delight. We learn to frown when we are sad, instead of breaking down in tears. Sometimes, we learn to conceal our feelings altogether because we do not want others to know what we are truly feeling or thinking. I have moved around quite a bit in my life. And what I find is that it often takes years to learn how to read what a person feels in different cultures. The way people show their emotions depends on the culture they live in. And how to express oneself is a learned behavior that depends on the society around them. But children act quite the same in whatever culture we find them. That is because they haven’t learned how to mask or filter their emotional responses according to their culture.
I know only a few people who have enough self-confidence to show their true feelings and who are open with them. There is a childlike simplicity about these people that is delightful and precious. I don’t think that our society rewards this kind of character. We prize shrewd, cunning individuals who know how to work the system and get ahead. We prize successful and rich people who demonstrate social graces. We prize intelligence which often carries with it sarcasm or worse still, cutting wit.
So we return to the precious innocence of children. That childlike openness is requires a level of self-confidence that is rare in this world. But here I need to add a qualifier. There is a history of Christian literature that interprets this idea in a problematic way. They think that being childlike means to be foolish. Stulti-Christo is the Latin term for this belief, and it means to be a fool for Christ. This idea is found in 1 Corinthians 4:10, “So we are fools because of Christ.” Some Christians did unconventional things like walking around half naked, living homeless, speaking in riddles, or flouting social conventions to the point of appearing rude or even immoral. But I don’t think we need to do such behaviors to follow Christ or to be childlike.
Swedenborg describes innocence in a way that allows the individual still to function in ordinary society. In fact, for Swedenborg, the more innocent a person is, the wiser the person is. What shall we say that the essence of wisdom is? Let’s think about a person thought to be the wisest person to walk the world. I mean Socrates. He became a real pest to his society because he annoyed people with his persistent questioning. To anyone with presumed authority, Socrates submitted a rigorous drill of philosophical questions. The individual usually felt embarrassed because Socrates had poked holes in his thought and made the person look ridiculous. But Socrates defended himself by saying that he, himself, knew nothing. He asked those questions to learn, as he fully acknowledged that he didn’t know anything. Swedenborg’s idea of innocence is similar.
For Swedenborg, true innocence is the acknowledgement that all good is from the Lord, and that a person wants to be led by God. Maybe Swedenborg goes too far in saying how depraved humanity is when left to their own devices. But his basic teaching is that of ourselves, we are not capable of true good. It is only when we turn to God that we do good. This is what it means for the first to be the last. Self, which we often put in the first place, must become last. And God must be put first. Then we are like children who depend on their parents for love, support, and the things they need in this life.
In all good, that it may be good, there must be innocence. . . . For this reason innocence is the very essential of love and charity, and accordingly of good. The proprium of innocence consists in knowing, acknowledging, and believing, not with the mouth but with the heart, that nothing but evil is from one’s self, and that all good is from the Lord. . . . When a person is in this confession and belief from the heart, the Lord flows in with good and truth, and insinuates into him a heavenly proprium [self]. . . (AC 3994).
Letting God into our hearts does not mean we give up the idea of self altogether. Swedenborg tells us that we get a new self. We get a heavenly self. So we still think and decide on things as we always had. The only difference is that we think what is true and we decide on things for the good and out of heavenly love. This is what putting the first last means. It means annihilating selfishness and letting heavenly selflessness fill our lives. This is true humility. This is being innocent. This is being like a child.
No one can ever be in true humility, unless he or she is in this acknowledgement and belief from the heart; for he or she is then in annihilation of himself . . . and thus absence from himself; and in this manner he is then in a state for receiving the Divine of the Lord. It is by this means that the Lord flows in with good into a humble and contrite heart (AC 3994).
This is why Swedenborg is called a mystic. Mysticism means that a person has a personal relationship with God. And in Swedenborg’s theology, we let God fill our souls with Divine Love and Wisdom. We let God into us so that our self is God-in-us. God-in-us is a new personality that we are gifted with.
True good must be innocent. What that means is that we do not take credit for the good that we do. Some religions are very afraid of humans taking credit for the good that we do. They are so afraid that they say we are incapable of doing good. They are so afraid that they say that good deeds are not important for salvation–but rather faith alone is what is important for salvation. But it is plain to common sense that we need to do good and not to do bad. The only way to do good in a manner that saves is to do good without taking credit for it. And the only way to do good without taking credit for it is by admitting that God alone does good. Then, we do not get puffed with pride when we look at all the good we do. Then, we do not think we are better than others. Then, we see that without God, we are helpless. But when we admit from our heart that God alone is good; that God alone does good–then we can do good in a way that saves.
This is the innocence that children stand for in the Bible. This is the essence of innocence–the admission that God alone is good; that God alone does good. This is putting the first last and the last first. This is the humility that God can and does flow into with blessings of happiness, joy, and peace.

PRAYER

Lord, we thank you this morning for the opportunities you give us to serve our fellows. For you have taught us that the first shall be last and the last first. Even you, when you came to earth, did not come as an imperial ruler, but as a servant to all. Give us to see opportunities to serve every day. And fill us with your love for fulfilling uses. May we not take credit for the good we do, for it is given by you, and the capacity to do good is also from you. Strengthen our faith by the works we do by you, and in your name. May our faith and our good will always work together to bring heaven to earth.

And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. Lord, we especially ask that you be with the people of Egypt and of Syria. May the way of peace and diplomacy prevail over force. May all warring factions find their way to peace.

Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.

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Sep 16th, 2013

So Human a God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 15, 2013

Isaiah 50:4-9 Mark 8:27-38 Psalm 116

Once again, we see how Jesus fulfills prophesies found in Old Testament writings. Once again, we see that Jesus is God, that Jesus is the God that the Old Testament wrote of. The reading from Isaiah 50 is almost bone-chilling in the way it prophesies what will happen to Jesus. In this reading, we see the persecution that Jesus underwent in the final hours of His ministry on earth. Isaiah reads,
I gave my back to the smiters,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I hid not my face from shame and spitting (50:6).
In Isaiah, we see that the Messiah will be smitten on the back and that his face will be shamed and spat upon. This is what happens to Jesus. In Mark, we read,
And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to strike him . . . And the guards received him with blows (Mark 14:65).
And just a little later in Mark, we are told that Pilate scourges Jesus with a whip, that is, smites Him on the back, as predicted in Isaiah. Jesus told His disciples that all this was going to happen. In Mark 8:31, Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” So in this combination of readings, we see that Jesus fulfilled what the prophet Isaiah said the Messiah would suffer when He came to earth. We see in this combination of readings, again, that Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the prophets.
Last Sunday, we saw Jesus as the Divine Human. We saw the power and divinity of Jesus in the great and wondrous miracles He wrought. This Sunday we see a much different Jesus. We see Jesus as the Suffering Servant that the Psalms and parts of Isaiah talk about. In this picture of Jesus, we see Jesus not as a wondrous miracle worker. Instead, we see Jesus as the very human person. This is Jesus the Human–so Human that He can suffer, be stricken, spit upon, and finally killed. This is the Jesus who conforms to the complete human condition, even the condition of death.
This is an extraordinary image of God. God is all-powerful. God created the whole universe and everything in it. God knows our every thought and deed. God is above everything mortal. At least some images of God make Him like that.
But in Jesus we have a God who walks with dust on His feet. We have a God who weeps. We have a God whose feet are anointed by a sinful woman. We have a God who is spat upon, struck, and finally killed. Say it isn’t so!
Peter, and Jesus’ followers couldn’t understand how these things could happen to Jesus the wonder-worker. Jesus predicted that these things would befall Him. Mark tells us that, “He said this plainly” (Mark 8:32). But Peter couldn’t understand how these events could happen to the Messiah. Peter had just confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. He confesses this in a dramatic series of questions asked by Jesus.
Jesus went on with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
So Peter recognizes that Jesus in no mere mortal. Jesus is not just a wise rabbi, nor is He just a great prophet. Peter see that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of by the prophets, God in the flesh. For the high priest himself knew that the Messiah was supposed to be God in the flesh. During Jesus’ trial, he asks Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” This combination of terms–Messiah, Son of the Blessed–indicates that the Messiah is God in the flesh. All this is contained in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah.
But what’s this about rejection by the Jewish leaders, about suffering many things, and finally being killed?! That’s not what anyone knew about the Messiah! So Peter, confused by Jesus’ plain statements about His coming rejection and suffering, takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him. We can almost hear Peter saying, “No, not you, Jesus.”
As is so often the case in the Gospels, Jesus has to explain Himself over and over again to disciples that appear not to be the sharpest tool in the shed. This time, he corrects Peter rather sharply, “Get behind me Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Just a little later, Jesus would tell the crowds,
Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8:28).
What was Peter’s mistake that elicited such a strong response from Jesus? I think that Peter wanted Jesus to be a king on the worldly plane. Peter wanted a Messiah that would take charge of the Jewish religion, would drive out the hated Romans, and issue in a period of world peace. The Messiah that Peter wanted would make Israel the centre of world power. The Messiah would make Israel a light to the other nations. These are some of the worldly hopes that Peter probably cherished for Jesus. These are the things of men that Jesus accused Peter of cherishing.
But Jesus was a much, much different Messiah than the one that the Jews hoped for. Jesus was a king of the spiritual world. And in the suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus showed the world a new kind of dignity and power.
Let’s return to the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah speaks of a kind of dignity that comes from God. He speaks of a kind of honor that comes from being at one with the Most High. If one is in right relations with God, who can attack one, demean one, or accuse one with guilt of any kind? Isaiah says,
For the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been confounded;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty? (Isaiah 50:7-9)
Jesus lived out these words. He was accused of many things, falsely. And yet he said not a word. This amazed Pilate. He said, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” And Jesus’ profound silence, Mark tells us, caused Pilate to wonder. And finally, the way Jesus bore his suffering and death moved a pagan soldier to acknowledge Jesus’ divinity. Mark tells us, “When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’” (Mark 15:39).
This so Human God gives us a picture of God that is remarkable in world religions. Yes, this God is powerful and wonderful. This God heals, drives out demons, and calms stormy seas. But this powerful wonder-worker also allows sinful women to cleanse His feet. He allows envious elitists to spit on Him, flog Him, and finally to kill Him. This God is very Human. This powerful wonder-worker lives like an ordinary Human being. From His birth, as a helpless baby in need of a mother’s love and protection, to His death by shameful men, as a man of honor and dignity, this God is fully Human. The Athanasian Creed tells us that Jesus is “Fully God and Fully Man.” This is a God that can be touched, embraced, and loved. This is so Human a God.

PRAYER

Dear Lord, we give you thanks this morning. We thank you for all the things we take for granted. We thank you for this church and our spiritual friends. This church is as a family,, and in it we find nurture for our souls and a place of refuge when we are hurting. Lord, we give you thanks for the good things we have enjoyed over the years. We give you thanks for the accomplishments you have gifted us with, and the uses we have been able to perform in this world. And, when we think of you and your life on earth, we have so many things to thank you for. We especially thank you for coming to us not as a conquering Emperor, but as a human being, as a helpless baby. Lord, we thank you that you came in a way that we could touch. We thank you that you were so human that you did not turn your cheek from the pain inflicted by humanity at its worst. You call forth from us a love and devotion from your humanity. You invite us to dine with you. And Lord, give us to respond and live with you forever.

And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. Lord, we especially ask that you be with the people of Egypt and of Syria. May the way of peace and diplomacy prevail instead of force. May all warring factions find their way to peace.

Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.

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Sep 8th, 2013

He Will Come to Save You
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 8, 2013

Isaiah 35:4-7 Mark 7:24-37 Psalm 146

This morning’s combination of Bible readings is another example of how the early Christians used Old Testament passages to help them understand who Jesus was. Two Sundays ago, I talked about the Old Testament term “The Holy One.” In many passages from the prophets this term means Yahweh God Himself. Luke and John make use of this term to indicate that Jesus was that God in the flesh. That is, they assert that Jesus is the God that the Old Testament speaks of. Jesus is The Holy One. Our Bible readings this morning do a similar thing to make the same point. In Isaiah 35, we hear about the coming of God. When God comes, Isaiah tells us,
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy (35:5-6).
Jesus does just those things that God will do when He comes. That is, Jesus opens the eyes of the blind, He unstops the ears of the deaf, He makes the lame walk, and the tongue of the dumb speaks. In Mark, the people are amazed at these things. They say, “He even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak” (Mark 7:37). John the Baptist wondered about who Jesus was. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus doesn’t give John a simple “yes” or “no.” But Jesus does point to that Isaiah passage. Jesus says,
Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor (Matthew 11:4-5).
This should have been sufficient to tell John the Baptist who Jesus was. The passage from Isaiah said that all these things would happen when God came. This was the fulfillment of the age and Jesus was and is God in the flesh. Jesus is the Holy One of the prophets and Jesus is God who will come in the fulfillment of time.
There are two ways I view the miracles of Jesus. One way is as evidence of Jesus’ identity. That is, the miracles tell us who Jesus was and is: God in the flesh. The second way I view the miracles is how Jesus cares for the whole human race. In this case I do not think about healing the body as much as I think about the symbolism of spiritual healing. The miracles of healing are symbolic of how Jesus heals our souls and drives out demons from us.
A friend of mine recently asked me if I believed that Jesus did the miracles that the Bible says He did. In thinking about this question several thoughts went through my head. The first one was how little I paid attention to Jesus’ miracles. I think that the Gospel of Mark relies heavily on the miracles to make the case that Jesus was a Divine Man. The wonders that Jesus performed made Him greater than ordinary mortals. But my faith that Jesus is God is so intrinsic to my whole belief system that I don’t need Jesus’ miracles as evidence for His Divinity. My answer to my friend’s question would have been, put bluntly, “Yes I believe that Jesus performed the miracles–so what?” Of course I didn’t say that. I said that I believe that Jesus is God and so I believe that He did perform those miracles. For me, it’s almost backwards. Because Jesus is God, he could do the miracles. Not, Jesus did the miracles therefore He is God.
What matters to me most is the example that Jesus set for us to follow as to how to live. Jesus’ life of love and compassion and wisdom are the Divine qualities that the Gentle God show us. And I suppose that the miracles do get my attention. They tell me that Jesus was more than just a wise teacher; that Jesus is more than an extremely enlightened rabbi. They show me that Jesus is in a class other than ordinary humanity. That makes me more committed to the life Jesus led. It pushes me over the edge of belief and tells me, “This is God on earth, showing you how to live.”
Which brings me to the second point about the miracles. The miracles show us how much God loves the human race. Jesus’ whole life was one of service. He eased the hardships of the people He encountered. He healed, took away suffering, and drove out demons. To me, these healings symbolize the way Jesus drives out the evils from humanity and leads us into spiritual health. When Isaiah talks about the coming of God he says that, “He will come to save you” (35:4). This salvation is not just bodily health. To me, salvation means spiritual health. And Jesus’ healings symbolize the health that God leads us all into. Swedenborg describes this as a process:
The Lord remits to everyone his or her sins, since God is mercy itself. Nevertheless they are not thereby remitted, unless a person performs serious repentance, and desists from evils, and afterward lives a life of faith and charity, and this even to the end of his life. When this is done, then a person receives from the Lord spiritual life, which is called new life. When from this new life he views the evils of his former life and turns away from them and regards them with horror, then first are the evils remitted, for then the person is held in truths and goods by the Lord and is withheld from evils (AC 9014).
To me, this passage from Swedenborg is filled with metaphors of healing and life. The process here is one of cleansing from evil and of being gifted with life. Just as Jesus drove out unclean spirits, so He now drives out the evils in us by means of our cooperation. Then just as Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead, so Jesus lifts us up and out of our deadly sins into new life of charity and faith. That is how this church understands salvation. And that is what Jesus does for every human being who asks Jesus for healing.
All this is done by Jesus. Though it looks sometimes like we are personally struggling to the depths of despair, it is God working in us who does this. Paul put it beautifully and so succinctly in Philippians 2:12-13,
Therefore, my dear friends, . . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
This is and always was the message of religion. It was the message of Moses; it was the message of the prophets; and it is the message of Jesus. It is a message that had been forgotten, which Jesus came to remind the world of.
Jesus lived out a Godly life, and showed us the way to worship that had been forgotten. And Jesus brought God to an earth that had lost touch with God. Jesus reminded us of the teachings of Moses and of the prophets. There is no New Covenant, no New Testament, no New Law that differs from the Old Testament. Rather, there is continuity. That is why Isaiah could say that God would come to save, and the writers of the Gospels could say that the same God Isaiah wrote of was Jesus Christ.
As we struggle to live the life Jesus showed us, we have the power of the Divine Human to work with us. As the miracles show, Jesus was and is the Divine Human. And as the healings show, Jesus can and will cleanse us of our evils, heal our souls, and give us life. Jesus will raise us from the dead into heaven’s glory and joy. This is God’s promise in Isaiah and Jesus’ promise through the healing miracles.

PRAYER

Lord, we know that you are the long awaited God that the prophets said would come to earth. We know that you are The Holy One. We know that you are the one who would open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and lift up the lame so they could walk. You did all these things on earth. You drove out unclean spirits, and we know that you still cleanse us from our sins. You raise us up from deadly sin and lift us into spiritual life. We give you thanks for your saving grace. We give you thanks for your care for the whole human race. Thanks be to you for all that you do to bring the human race into eternal happiness in your home, with you.

And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. Lord, we especially ask that you be with the people of Egypt and of Syria. Comfort those who have been harmed, and pacify the hard hearts of those who use violence to obtain their own will. Lend your wisdom to the United States and the world community to make a compassionate and wise decision in regard to Syria. May all warring factions find their way to peace.

Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.

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Sep 2nd, 2013

A God so Near
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 1, 2013

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Psalm 15

In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses says a touching line to the Israelites. He says, “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him” (Deuteronomy 4:7). God is intimately present when we call upon God’s name. This idea can lead us into a theological tangle that we should sort out before going any further with this doctrine. The complication I’m thinking of is God’s omnipresence. The word “omnipresence” means that God is present everywhere. This means that God is always present to us, whether we are calling on God or not.
But the notion that God is always present can be understood as presence from God’s point of view. From God’s point of view, God is always present. But there is also our point of view. For our relationship with God is two-way. There is God’s relationship with us, and there is our relationship with God. In the depths of our souls, and wherever we are, God is present. That is the matter from God’s point of view. But where are we in relation to how we see God? Is our mind centered on God? Are we approaching God? In order for there to be a genuine relationship, there is movement from both parties. There is movement of God to us and there is movement of us to God.
While God is ever present with us, we may be distant in our own minds and hearts. There are things that come between us and God. When we are obsessed with control and the pursuit of wealth we may not have a love for our neighbor in our hearts. We may thus not have a feeling of love for God, either. If we are not filled with love for God, how can we say we are near God? God is always coming to us, but it is we who can turn away. Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Jesus is knocking at the door, but He doesn’t come and eat with us unless we hear His voice and open the door. Likewise in John, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (15:10); and also “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (15:14). To be in God’s love, we need to do the things God asks. That constitutes our movement to God.
When we call upon God, and God comes near, it is not so much God coming near us, as it is us coming near to God. When we read the Bible especially, God comes near us. But this too, is a matter of us bringing our hearts and minds to and toward God. So Moses is right when he says that God is near to us when we call on Him. On God’s part, God is always near. But on our part, we need to come to God in prayer and by doing the things God asks.
There are some historical considerations that make this passage from Deuteronomy especially interesting. All around Israel at this time were religions of the Ancient Near East. They shared some similar components of worship. First of all, the gods for them were actually distant. The gods lived in the sky, and did not care much about the race of humans. In fact, in the Babylonian flood story, the gods flood the earth because humans are making too much noise and we are disturbing the peace of the high, sky gods. Second, people did not have direct access to the gods. The king was the intermediary between the gods and humans. In fact, the king was semi-divine. It was up to the king to perform certain rituals and sacrifices in order to ensure peace in the land and prosperity in the field. So the people followed the laws of the king and the king followed the laws of the gods. The gods were very distant to the average person in the Ancient Near East.
Consider how different things were for the ancient Israelites. Consider the tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them as they wandered in the desert. This was a simple tent–not a magnificent temple. Actually, it was a pretty elaborate tent–but a tent nevertheless. God actually lived in the tent, and so travelled in the very heart of the Israelite community wherever they went. And God was with every Israelite personally, even those low on the social scale. For instance, God hears the cry of poor people. In Exodus 22, we read,
If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him. If you ever take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering, it is his mantle for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate (25-27).
Not only does God hear each individual when we call to God, but God even hears the poor when they call out to God. This is not a God of kings and nobles only. Yahweh is a God of even the poor, of widows, and of foreigners.
The idea that God hears everyone, and that God is compassionate is at the heart of the Old Testament. It is this picture of God that Jesus seeks to revive. I say that Jesus seeks to revive this image of God because I think that this image of God had been lost in Roman times. The many rules and rituals of the Pharisees and rabbis of the first century AD buried the teachings about God’s love and compassion. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2). Yet it appears that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time had done just that. Our story begins with a challenge to Jesus. The Pharisees ask him why his disciples do not wash their hands according to the ceremonial purity rituals of the ancient Jews. There is a very important line here. The Pharisees call this “the tradition of the elders.” That is, the ceremonial washing was a tradition, not God’s law. Jesus accuses them on this very issue. He accuses them by saying, “You leave the commandment of God and hold fast to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). He also, among many other issues, declares all food to be ritually clean. In doing this, Jesus lifts the rules about keeping kosher.
Jesus declares all food clean by pointing to personal morality. He says that what comes out from a person’s heart is what renders a person unclean, not what goes into a person’s stomach. Since the issue is eating with ritually impure hands, Jesus counters with what makes a person morally impure. That occasions the list of personal evils,
What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within, and they defile a man (Mark 7:20-23).
I don’t think that even the worst of people could be all these things. But think of being caught up in a few of them. Does it make sense to say that God is near to one who se heart is obsessed with, say, theft, murder, envy and pride? Yes, we can say that God is always near a person. But is such a person near God in his or her heart and mind? A love relationship is always two-way. And I would suggest that such a person is turning away from God, who is approaching this fictional person. In Deuteronomy, we read that God is near to those who call upon Him. I doubt that our fictional wicked person is calling upon God.
On the flip side, let’s consider a person who is chaste, generous, loving, honest, affirming of others, humble, and wise. I would venture to say that such a person approaches God and the relationship is mutual. God comes to such a person and the person comes to God. This is the relationship we hear of in Deuteronomy. This is a relationship in which God is near to those who call upon God. This person is calling on God, and God hears and the two mutually approach each other.
One final note. God is always approaching everyone. God is always acting to turn individuals toward God and away from selfish and worldly obsessions. This is to say that God is drawing everyone to heaven and to eternal happiness. Even in the case of our fictional wicked person, God would continually try to lead this individual from their evils toward good feelings and acts.
God is always present in the depths of our souls. The real issue for us, is where we are in relation to God where our mind and heart is in the present moment. God is a God who hears and is near to those who call on Him. Let us be those who call upon God and who complete the circle of love.

PRAYER

Lord, we know that you are always with us. You are with us when we are happy. And you are with us when we are sad. You are with us when we wander away from your holy ways. And you always seek to bring us back to you, and you are with us when we return. Lord, you have said that you stand at the door and knock. May our ears be open to hear you, and may we open the door to let you in and eat with us. Lord, you are truly a God who is near to us. May we direct our steps so that we may come near to you.

And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. Lord, we especially ask that you be with the people of Egypt and of Syria. Comfort those who have been harmed, and pacify the hard hearts of those who use violence to obtain their own will. M may all warring factions find their way to peace.

Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.

10-Week On-Line Course in Paul taught by Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 30-December 8: Tuition only $55!
The Apostle Paul isn’t all that bad! In fact, he’s fantastic! Some of the things he says you wouldn’t believe. I think Swedenborgians are prejudiced against Paul. I was. But with an open mind, we will find Paul’s letters inspiring, beautiful, and in places quite in accord with Swedenborg. This 10-week course is a topical survey of Paul’s letters in the light of Swedenborg’s theology, as Protestant Christianity sees him, and as we find him in the letters themselves. For more information, or to enroll, please email Rev. Dr. Fekete at: revdrfekete@gmail.com. Deadline for enrollment is September 25. The course is limited to 15 students.

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