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Archive for November, 2013

Nov 24th, 2013

Hallowed Be Thy Name
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 24, 2013

1 Kings 8:27-30, 41-43 John 17:1-13 Psalm 87

This Sunday we continue to delve deep into the Ten Commandments. Swedenborg tells us that the Ten Commandments are the sum total of all that religion teaches. He writes,
they were in brief summary an aggregate of all things of religion, by which conjunction of God with man and of man with God is given, therefore they were so holy that there is nothing holier (TCR 283).
Swedenborg claims that this is the way the Jews have felt about them, and continue to feel about them. In True Christian Religion, Swedenborg asserts that “In the Israelitish Church the Decalogue was holiness itself” (283). Last Sunday we considered the first commandment, “No other gods before Me.” This Sunday we look at the second commandment, “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.” As with all the commandments, there are three levels of meaning to this commandment.
The first level of meaning is in the very words themselves, as we find them in the Bible. It tells us not to use the name of God lightly or frivolously. And I think that this commandment is easy to violate. I say further that it is violated all the time.
It doesn’t seem as bad to violate this commandment. It is only words, isn’t it? When you measure using the Lord’s name in vain against other commandments like murder or theft or adultery, it just doesn’t seem as bad.
So we hear all kinds of abuses, almost every day. I don’t even mean that obscenity by which one damns someone or something using God’s name. The name God is used so often that there is even a text-messaging abbreviation that people use, OMG. This expression is used all the time for nothing greater than a form of exclamation. Then in casual conversation when one is trying to emphasize their truthfulness they will swear by God’s name. The name Jesus is also commonly abused. It is used in moments of anger, frustration, and almost any time a person is upset.
But damage is done by casually using God’s name. There is a real power in the name of God. When spoken reverently, God’s name brings God’s presence. Swedenborg writes, “God is in all things of religion; and when He is religiously invoked, He is present through His name and hears” (TCR 297). God’s name and the name Jesus must be reserved for religious purposes. If one keeps God’s name sacred, and uses it only for holy purposes, then God’s presence will accompany His name. We affirm this every time we say the Lord’s prayer. We say, “Hallowed be thy Name.” But when we use God’s name casually, when we are not intending to invoke God, then there is a certain callousness about His Name. It loses its power to bring God’s presence when we use it for all sorts of other purposes that are not holy.
I should say a few words about God’s presence in His Name. Of course God is present with everyone all the time. But it is we who let our consciousness and our heart stray from God’s presence and ways. We can fill our minds and intentions with selfish concerns that cloud over the clear light and heat of God in us. So it takes different kinds of disciplines to bring our consciousness and heart back to God. That is why there are buildings like this one. Here, we can still–even if for only one hour–let go of our worldly needs and cravings and open ourselves up to God’s influx. Of course, it is better if we can always walk with God in our day-to-day living. But that may be asking a lot of us while we are here in this world.
This brings us to a second level of meaning for God’s name. By God’s name we also mean “all that the church teaches from the Word, and by which the Lord is invoked and worshipped” (TCR 298). So as I was suggesting above, this building and the images and furnishings in it, as well as the service that we all go through each Sunday–all these things are meant by God’s name. It also means the ideas and doctrines we have learned. It means the Bible and the teachings and stories in it. These all come from or relate to God. They are the ways we come to God. So they are all included in His name.
The idea that the whole religious complex is included in God’s name can be seen in our reading from 1 Kings. Solomon is praying about the temple that had just been built in Jerusalem. Solomon says of the temple that God’s Name dwells there. Notice the language in this. He is not saying that this temple is named after Yahweh. No. Solomon says that God’s name lives there. What can it mean for a name to live somewhere? Wouldn’t it be that all the name represents and stands for is what is living in the place? Also, wouldn’t it be that the person named would live there? So the temple is a structure in which God’s qualities are invoked and in which God’s presence is sought.
The notion that all the elements of religion are contained in God’s name may be the origin of some of the tendencies of fundamentalism. If the teachings that a person has learned about God are like God’s name, then there is a tendency to hang onto them tenaciously and guard against their violation or contradiction. But how will a person grow in their faith, if one closes one’s mind to any new or challenging ideas? Our faith is perfected by the multitude and inner coherence of all we know about God. As we grow up, it is perfectly natural to let go of religious ideas that no longer fit with life as we experience it. And our experiences and studies of other sources of meaning may add to our picture of God and His Kingdom. So we will want to hold onto truths we have learned, but we will also want to test our beliefs against experience and other systems of truth.
The highest meaning of the second commandment is controversial in Swedenborg. It has the do with God’s Divine Humanity. Swedenborg’s claim is that all who deny the Divinity of Jesus Christ violate the second commandment. I think that this teaching needs to be read in context. When Swedenborg wrote, he was in a Christian society. He was a Christian writing to Christians. And in that society, I think it would be a form of blaspheme for a Christian to think Jesus a mere man, and not a God. There were atheists in that world and even learned Christians who couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of a Man being Divine. It is much easier for a historian to see Jesus as a remarkable man, than to see Him as God. Even today, this idea causes many to stumble.
We find language of Jesus’ divinity in our reading from John. There, the name of God is used interchangeable with that of Jesus. It is said repeatedly in many ways. Jesus says, “I have manifested your name” (John 17″6). if Jesus manifests the name of God, that means that Jesus manifests all the qualities of God. Jesus claims that God has given Him God’s own Name, “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me” (17:11-12). It is passages like this that teach Jesus’ divinity and His oneness with God. I think that for Christians, the divinity of Jesus is a central teaching, and very important.
But our world is much different than Swedenborg’s. We live in an intercultural society that includes many different world religions. Furthermore there are many in our society who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. For many of them, some of the old, bad ideas of religion have turned them off to the institution of religion altogether. I don’t think that Swedenborg means to say to believers of other world religions that they must worship Jesus. Nor do I think Swedenborg is saying that spirituality without religion is damnable. A person has so many options to choose from today. One may find the mystical poetry of the Muslim Rumi to be highly satisfying. One may find that the Buddhist world view of self-perfection to be satisfying. Or one may want to invoke one of the semi-divine Buddhist savior bodhisattvas. And by the way, I know of a Buddhist guru who teaches that Jesus was one of these savior bodhisattvas. There are many ways to practice spirituality today. I choose Christianity. I think it to be true. But at the same time, I allow for others to worship in the way that seems best for them.
So let us keep the ways we worship close to our hearts. Let us guard against the easy slips, that violate the second commandment by using God’s name lightly. Let us meditate and worship using God’s name, or Names, reserving the holiest place in our hearts for them.

PRAYER

Dear Lord, you have given us 10 clear rules to follow in order to inherit eternal life. Keep us ever mindful of them as we seek to order our lives according to your 10 commandments. Lord, keep us in your name, for all we know of goodness and truth are in your most holy name. Your name stands for everything that pertains to religion and all of religion is in your holy name. May we treasure your name and keep it close to our hearts. let us not use your name lightly, for when we need you we will call you by your most holy name. We ask you blessing on this church. For it is here that we come to forget the demands of this world and to lift our thoughts upward toward you. May we love this place of worship and may we treasure your holy name. For by both do we come to you and you come to us.

And lord, we ask that you watch over those who are struggling and enduring hardship, be it sickness, poverty, or national unrest. Send your peaceful spirit to turmoil. We ask you to continue to watch over those in the Philippines who have been so devastated by the typhoon. May aid come to those in need and may all the nations of the world come together in good will to help the survivors of that terrible catastrophe.

And lord, we ask that you watch over those who are struggling and enduring hardship, be it sickness, poverty, or national unrest. Send your peaceful spirit to turmoil. Send the power of your healing love to those who are sick. We know on faith that in every trying situation, good can come. May we find the good in trouble, and healing where there is sickness.

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All the Law and the Prophets
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 17, 2013

Exodus 20:1-21 Luke 10:25-28 Psalm 119

Today I would like to consider the catechism. Formally speaking, a catechism is a compilation of knowledge about spirituality that a person needs to know to be confirmed into a church. In the Catholic Church one needs to attend confirmation class and be taught the catechism in order to be confirmed. The catechism for this is a set of questions that the priest asks and the initiate needs to answer them to be confirmed into the church. Some of our older children’s hymnals had a catechism in them. But Swedenborg himself only identified one set of propositions for the catechism of the New Church. In his book True Christian Religion, Swedenborg identifies the Ten Commandments as the catechism for the New Church. So for this Sunday I will be looking at the Ten Commandments.
Swedenborg tells us that the Ten Commandments are the sum total of all that religion teaches. He writes,
they were in brief summary an aggregate of all things of religion, by which conjunction of God with man and of man with God is given, therefore they were so holy that there is nothing holier (TCR 283).
He divides the Ten Commandments into two tablets–one tablet contains commands that relate to love of God, and the other contains commands that relate to love of the neighbor. We heard in our Luke reading that all the law comes down to love of God and love of the neighbor. Since the Ten Commandments contain a list telling us how to put into practice these two commands, they contain the whole essence of all the law and the prophets. By the law and the prophets are meant the whole Bible. So Swedenborg holds that the Ten Commandments contain all that is of doctrines and life.
Now because love to God and love toward the neighbor are the all of the Word, and the Decalogue in the first tablet contains a summary of all things of love to God, and in the second table all things of love toward the neighbor, it follows that the Decalogue contains all things which are of doctrine and of life (TCR 287).
This is a grand claim. And from a literal reading of the Ten Commandments it may not look like they contain “all things which are of doctrine and life.” But in Swedenborg’s Bible interpretation, there are three levels of meaning. There is the literal level–which is the text taken at face value. But there are also two internal levels of meaning. There is the spiritual level which relates to the church. And there is the celestial level which relates to God. When considered in its fullness–when all three levels are considered–one can see that the Ten Commandments contain all the law and the prophets. This Sunday we will consider the first commandment.
The First commandments is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” On the literal level, this command forbids idolatry. Today, I know of no one who worships a figure carved out of wood or stone, as they did in the time of Moses. But this commandment also forbids the worship of any human as a god. As a child of the Reformation, Swedenborg took issue with the veneration of saints. For him, the saints were humans–albeit very, very good humans–but humans nevertheless. They may be excellent models of life to follow, but to hold that they have some special spiritual power and can intercede for us between God and man would be a violation of the first commandment for Swedenborg. I recently visited a Coptic Orthodox church. There were many icons there and the smell of incense and vivid colors. I don’t think I could be brought to venerate the martyrs and saints as part of my worship, but I did respect their piety and I found their beautiful worship space enticing. Then there are some who value humans in another way. A friend of mine said to me once that everything he needed in life could be found in the works of William Shakespeare. The man Shakespeare became a god for him, and Shakespeare’s work his sacred text. This is a form of idolatry. Finally, anything a person values above God is a form of idolatry. This is a very real issue in our world today. If a person values money and what money can bring above all things, then he is holding money up as a god. This can lead to all kinds of evil. When the unbridled lust for wealth is given free reign, humanity can be trampled over heedlessly. Our media also portray images that they would like us to take for gods. I think of rock stars who have so much promotion, wild videos, and light and stage effects that make them appear greater than human. Then there are all those commercial products who are held up as godlike, like anti-aging lotions, certain colognes who promise a new world order if you use them, and even automobiles who will transform your world if you drive them.
In the internal meanings of this commandment, Swedenborg becomes doctrinal in a way that doesn’t appear in other of his writings. In fact, he seems to change his mind even in his consideration of other commandments. In the spiritual and celestial levels, Swedenborg claims that Jesus alone is to be worshipped as God incarnate. As he puts it, “the Lord our Savior is Jehovah Himself, who is at once Creator, Redeemer, and Regenerator” (TCR 294). All who acknowledge and worship any other God than the Lord the Savior Jesus Christ, who is Himself Jehovah God in human form, sin against this commandment” (TCR 295). Swedenborg then goes on to argue against the doctrine of the Trinity.
This narrow view of who God is doesn’t gibe with Swedenborg’s liberal attitude in other places in his writings. In discussing the same commandment, Swedenborg opens up his description of God to a more general characteristic:
Jehovah the Lord is infinite, immeasurable, and eternal; He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent; He is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End; who was, is, and will be; He is love itself, and wisdom itself, or good itself and truth itself; consequently, life itself; thus the only One, from whom are all things (TCR 295).
Seeing God as “the only One, from whom are all things” is a pretty broad understanding of God. And in fact, when Swedenborg discusses the command to honor one’s father and mother, he applies this command to the whole community of saints spread all over the world. He writes, “In the celestial sense, by father is meant our Lord Jesus Christ; and by mother, the communion of saints, that is, His church, spread all over the world” (TCR 307). I take this to mean that Swedenborg affirms all who worship God according to the teachings of their church. This would include all the world religions. He goes on to speak about God as father in extremely inclusive language.
It is to be kept in mind that there continually proceeds from the Lord a Divine celestial sphere of love toward all who embrace the teachings of His church, and who obey Him as little children in the world obey their father and mother, apply themselves to Him, and wish to be nourished, that is, instructed by Him (TCR 308).
Clearly, Swedenborg isn’t referring here only to Christians in Europe and Christian missionaries in other parts of the world. And we also know that Swedenborg holds up the Africans in particular as being especially favored in heaven. In Heaven and Hell we find, “Among the Gentiles in heaven, the Africans are most beloved, for they receive the goods and truths of heaven more easily than others” (326). The celestial sphere proceeding from the Lord reaches even into nature, where the sun is called father and the earth mother:
This is most universal, and affects not only men, but also birds and animals, even to serpents; nor animate things only, but also inanimate. But that the Lord might operate into these, even as into spiritual things, He created the sun, to be in the natural world as a father, and the earth to be as a mother. For the sun is as a common father, and the earth as a common mother, from whose marriage arises all the germination that adorns the surface of our planet. From the influx of that celestial sphere into the natural world arise the wonderful progression of vegetation, from seed to fruit and to new seed. It is from this also, that many kinds of plants turn as it were their faces to the sun during the day, and turn them away when the sun sets; it is from this also that there are flowers which open at the rising of the sun, and close at his setting; and from this it is that song birds carol sweetly at early dawn, and likewise after they have been fed by their mother earth (TCR 308).
We see here an early articulation of the kind of reverence for mother earth as a holy creation that is popular today. This reverence was illustrated fantastically in the movie Avatar. And it seems to me from these passages, that Swedenborg is affirming God’s outpouring of holiness into the whole world and everyone in it.
What I take from the first commandment is reverence for God as God is seen all over the world. For me, God is indeed the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. But it isn’t Christians alone who “wish to be nourished, that is, instructed by Him” (TCR 308). We have many different religions in the world and many different names for God. But there is still only one God. And whether we find God in a Catholic church, or a United Church, or in a synagogue, or a mosque, we will find the same one God who is Father to us all.
This commandment urges us to hold God sacred and God alone. Though society may offer us seductive alternatives in the form of man-made inventions–including the economic structure of the world economy–we need to remember that a loving God is at the centre of everything. No other gods before the one true God. Not ourselves, not money, not prestige, not power;–no other gods. And for us, this God is all love married to all wisdom.

PRAYER

And Lord, we pray to you as our One True God. Many are the temptations that the world presents to us that would lure us away from you. Wealth and control seek to become gods in our lives, and they threaten our relations with our neighbors. But You are the One true God, and our lives and worship are directed to You alone. You have shown us the way to live in order to become your children. You have given us 10 clear commands to guide us. And you have also shown us two great commands to which we can orient our lives. Lord, You are the One we love, we follow and we worship. Thanks be to You.

And lord, we ask that you watch over those who are struggling and enduring hardship, be it sickness, poverty, or national unrest. Send your peaceful spirit to turmoil. We especially ask you to watch over those in the Philippines who have been so devastated by the typhoon. May aid come to those in need and may all the nations of the world come together in good will to help the survivors of that terrible catastrophe.

And lord, we ask that you watch over those who are struggling and enduring hardship, be it sickness, poverty, or national unrest. Send your peaceful spirit to turmoil. Send the power of your healing love to those who are sick. We know on faith that in every trying situation, good can come. May we find the good in trouble, and healing where there is sickness.

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Nov 11th, 2013

First Be Reconciled
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 10, 2013

Joshua 6:15-21 Matthew 5:21-26 Psalm 37

I recall an incident from when I was living in Florida. I lived in a mobile home in a nice trailer park. A hurricane had come through and blown down my car port, and I was having a hard time finding a construction company that would come out and fix it. I guess it was too small a job for them to be bothered. But that wasn’t all. I had let the grounds around my mobile home become somewhat unkempt. Furthermore, my mobile home needed to be pressure cleaned, and maybe painted. Although it was a trailer park, they had standards. Well finally, the management sent me a letter threatening legal proceedings–including possible eviction–if I didn’t clean up my lot. Eviction was an interesting threat. I owned my mobile home, and eviction meant somehow moving it somewhere else–where else and how, I couldn’t imagine.
My first reaction was to go to some friends of mine to see if the management had a legal right to do what they threatened to do. I had someone look over the terms of my lease. But more importantly, I had a friend who was a lawyer. I had him look over the letter the management had sent me. He told me something I didn’t want to hear. He told me to go in person and talk with the property manager and try to understand what they would settle for or what kind of time table I had. In short, my lawyer friend wanted me to meet face to face and settle things amicably. I asked him if the letter they sent me would hold up in court. My friend came back with his original suggestion that I talk with the management. When I pressed him further, he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Dave, this is counsel!” What he meant by that was that he had just given me real legal advice and I had best take it. He had made a very good living handling personal grievances as a lawyer. I figured I should take his advice and swallow the bitter pill. I had to reconcile myself with my adversary when I wanted to fight.
This is the message we heard from the New Testament. In our reading from Mark, we are told to work things out with our neighbor. Jesus told the Jews of His time not to offer a sacrifice in the temple if our neighbor had something against us. The temple sacrifice wouldn’t mean anything if it came from a heart filled with resentment or anger. Jesus taught further, that one should reconcile with one’s neighbor when one is on the way to the law courts. All these teachings are in a section that begins with a teaching against anger against the neighbor.
This is a teaching of peace. But it is, perhaps, a hard teaching. This teaching means that we are to face the one we have a beef with, or who has a beef against us. It means confrontation. And sometimes confrontation is hard; it is something we would rather avoid.
But those in the legal profession, the police force, and even in government favor this policy. Lawyers will counsel one to settle outside of court, as trials are difficult, costly, and uncertain. When one calls the police to complain about a neighbor, they will ask us to try to work it out between the two parties. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.
But when there is no other option, then the use courts, police intervention, or armed conflict appear to be necessary. But this is only a last resort. It is only justified when all negotiation and sanctions have failed. Armed conflict is not God’s will. We heard about holy war in today’s reading from Joshua about the fall of Jericho. This is one of the earliest references to “jihad.” The passage in Joshua calls this devoting the city to God. And by devoting the city to God, the meaning is that Israelites kill everything in the city.
They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it–men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys (Joshua 6:21).
But there are some interesting things about this jihad that we need to consider. First of all, we do not find God ordering the Israelites to kill everything in the city. We don’t find this jihad commanded by God. The Bible only says, “They devoted the city to the LORD.” This is consistent with the idea that it was the Israelites themselves who declared jihad on Jericho, not God. This idea finds support from a passage earlier in the Jericho story. Before the battle with Jericho, Joshua meets an angel of God. Joshua tries to see whose side the angel is on, but the angel says he is on no one’s side.
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come” (Joshua 5:13-14).
The angel of God is not on anyone’s side. I take this to mean that God does not will that there be wars. Swedenborg writes,
It is not because of divine providence that wars happen, because wars are inseparable from murder, plunder, violence, cruelty, and other appalling evils that are diametrically opposed to Christian caring (DP 251).
Wars and other forms of violence are not God’s will. But God does allow them to happen. So Swedenborg writes, “Saying that God allows something to happen does not mean that he wants it to happen” (DP 234).
Each one of us is capable of the kind of violence that would lead to war. I say we are capable of it, not that we act or feel like acting on violent impulses. For the process of regeneration can make each of us meek and forgiving. But I find it interesting that Swedenborg describes greater and lesser wars–greater wars are between nations and lesser wars are between individuals.
There are lesser and greater wars, the lesser ones between property owners and their neighbors and the greater ones between the rulers of nations and their neighbors. The only difference between the lesser and the greater ones is that the lesser ones are limited by national laws and the greater ones by international laws. There is also the fact that in both cases the participants want to violate the laws, and that the lesser ones cannot, but the greater ones can, though still not beyond the bonds of possibility (DP 251).
It is a sobering idea to think that our grievances are alike to the grievances that set nation against nation. It is easy to point a finger at Iran or Syria and to exclude ourselves from the same drive to have things our own way. For that is the root of almost every resentment and grievance we could have against our neighbors: they are not doing things the way we want them to do things. We want our will to be law.
It is the desire to bend others to our will that makes our neighbors into our enemies. That desire forms the wall between us and our neighbors. Robert Frost has a poem that talks about walls between people. He talks about a certain day, when he and his neighbor meet for the sole purpose of building a wall between them–or between their properties to be specific. Yet the poet says that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.” The poem, from which I here cite a few excerpts, is called The Mending Wall:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, . . .
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go. . . .
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down. . . .
This is such a case of irony! The two come together only to build a wall between them.
Who are we in this poem and in this discussion? Are we the ones who want the wall between people and nations down? Or are we the ones who allow our baser passions to erect a wall between us and our neighbors? Is our impulse to fight or to reconcile? Are we the blessed peacemakers? It requires humility, courage, and patience to confront an individual we may have something against, or who may have something against us. I like the tradition in Judaism that is observed during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During that time period, one is to go to anyone whom they may have offended and ask forgiveness. The implication is that the other will forgive, but if not, then the offence falls on the other individual. This, it seems to me, is an excellent exercise in peacemaking.
It seems to me that we have few spiritual options. We don’t want to quietly burn with rage against our neighbor. We don’t want to fight. And we certainly don’t want the court system. Jesus tells us to reconcile with our neighbor before coming to worship at the temple. And he tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

PRAYER

Lord you have blessed the peacemakers, calling them the children of God. We pray this Remembrance Day Sunday for guidance and insight. Give us always to see the way of peace when we find ourselves in conflict. You have commended the way of reconciliation for us, when we find ourselves in conflict with our neighbor. For we acknowledge that there are conflicts in our lives–greater conflicts between nations and lesser conflicts between neighbors. May we urge our nations always to seek the way of resolution and peace, rather than the way of armed conflict. And in our relations with our neighbors, may we seek peace and not retaliation, resentment, or ill will. Yet we know that sometimes the way of peace is not heeded. We know that there are times when our words of peace need support from armed power. This Sunday we honor those who have served in wars and who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. For their efforts were necessary to ensure the peace for the greatest number in the long run. We ask that you comfort their families, friends, and loved ones. We ask for your special care for those returning from wars. Help mend their troubled minds and show them the way back to civil life. May we welcome our service men and women when they return home, after such a great sacrifice for us and our nation. And Lord, we ask for you to watch over our world, and to lead us all into goodness and peace.

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