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Church of the Holy City

Archive for September, 2014

Sep 29th, 2014

Challenging God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 28, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7 Matthew 21:23-32 Psalm 25
Our readings this morning speak of putting God to the test. In our Old Testament reading this is a little hard to see. At least it is for me. The Israelites are wandering in the desert wilderness. They complain to Moses that there is no water to drink. This seems reasonable to me, because they are in the middle of the desert! But the Bible says that they were putting God to the test. Moses asks the people, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” I suppose that asking God to give the people water in the middle of the desert is a test of God’s power. The place is named Massah, which means “testing.” But there is a heartfelt spiritual question here. The place is named Massah because the Israelites asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?” In the New Testament, the theme of testing is clearer. The chief priests ask Jesus by what authority He does the things He does. This is a clear test of Jesus’ authority. The issue becomes one of authentic spirituality versus acting spirituality for show.
I think that it is a natural question to ask if God is with us. We go through trials and difficulties and at times it seems as if we are left to our own devices. In the depths of our despair, we cry out, “God, are you out there? Do you care about me?” This issue reminds me of a Frost poem entitled, THE RUNAWAY. A young colt is out in the wild in the first snowfall of the season. The young colt is terrified. Soon the narrator realizes that the colt is alone in the wild. He asks,
I doubt if even his mother could tell him, “Sakes,
It’s only weather.” He’d think she didn’t know!
Where is his mother? He can’t be out alone.’
This poem then takes on spiritual resonances. We see that it is about all those times when we seem alone in life, when innocence appears abandoned by God. In a voice filled with bitterness and judgment on life and God’s presence in life, the narrator declaims,
Whoever it is that leaves him out so late,
When other creatures have gone to stall and bin,
Ought to be told to come and take him in.
It seems as though God leaves us to our own devices. We want answers when things look desperate. And it is when answers don’t come that we put God to the test and question His divine providence. These are the times when we call out and say that whoever it is who leaves innocent creatures out in the wild affairs of life, ought to be told to protect them, and take them into shelter.
This is the despair of the Israelites. They have been liberated from Egyptian bondage. But now they despair of their present situation. “Why have you liberated us from Egypt only to let us die in the desert?” they ask. They can’t see the future, when they will live in a land of their own, governed by a confederation of their tribes. They see only the immediate present. And it doesn’t look good.
This is the place we all have experienced. We do not have a telescope into the future. We can only see where we are now. And when that is a difficult place, we question God. We may even doubt if God is out there. So in the Frost poem, we don’t hear the narrator say, “Why does God leave him out so late?” No, we get the very vague, “Whoever it is . . . ”
Perhaps that issue comes up when we look at the present state of religion in the world. It has lost influence in society. The numbers of those who go to church are falling. Church doors are closing. And this is happening across denominational lines. I spoke to a group from a Jewish synagogue. They said that in order for their Bible to be opened, they need ten people present. And they confided in me that sometimes they have difficulty getting even that ten present to open the Bible. This may make us wonder what God has in mind. This may make us wonder what the big picture is in this.
This brings me to the New Testament story. The leaders of the Jews in Jerusalem challenge Jesus. They ask Him by what authority He does the things He does. Jesus answers them with a question that exposes their hypocrisy. He asks them about John the Baptist. Was John’s baptism of heaven or merely of men? The priests think only about how they will appear if they answer in different ways. If they answer that John’s authority came from heaven, they know Jesus will ask why they didn’t believe him. Then if they say that John was only a man acting from men’s power, they feared the people. John had a huge following and the priests were afraid of how they would appear in the eyes of the people. So we see that they were afraid for their own reputation as spiritual leaders. Their concern was not for the truth, but for how they would look.
Jesus then says something shocking about the temple priests, “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). People who outwardly appear wicked are ahead of those who only outwardly appear holy like the temple priests and elders in Jerusalem. This posture of Jesus in favor of the social outcasts appears in many places in the New Testament. We can’t ignore it. In fact there is another line in Matthew that confirms this attitude of Jesus toward social outcasts.
John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” But wisdom is proved right by her actions (Matthew 11:18-19).
I think that Jesus found more humility and sincerity among the social outcasts than He did among the spiritual leaders. There is that short parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
When people are broken by life’s events, they seem more humble and open to God’s help. This is a place we all need to come to one way or another. And when we are broken, we may most question God’s presence. That is when we may put God to the test. When we emerge from these trials, we are more humane, more gentle, more forgiving of others, and more loving.
Returning to the question of the church in today’s society. People who come to church seem to really want to be here. No longer is it for show. This is because society at large doesn’t care if a person is a church-goer or not. In Swedenborg’s day, one could gain a good reputation for learning doctrines and scriptures. People would do this for show, as did the priests and elders in our New Testament story. Spirituality, I think, is more genuine now. We certainly gain no great reputation for being religious—in fact, sometimes and in some situations, quite the opposite.
And churches these days are much more tolerant and accepting of each other. Movements like the National Council of Churches and the Interfaith Centre, of which I am an enthusiastic member, see each other’s denomination and faith as fellows in the quest for God. In Swedenborg’s day the religious hostilities were pronounced. In fact, one generation before his birth Europe went through one of its most destructive wars which we call the 30 Years’ War. This horrible conflict was directly caused by religion. For good or for bad, religion has so little influence in the west today that the idea of society warring on the basis of religion is unthinkable.
We don’t have access to the grand scheme of things. There are times and there are situations when we may doubt God’s presence and power. But we will see later in life, or in the next life, just why we felt alone or abandoned by God. I can certainly assure you now, though, that God is with us, always has been with us, and will continue to be with us forever.


Lord, we give you thanks for always being there for us. There are times when we doubt your presence. There are times when we doubt your governance of the affairs of this world. There are times when we cry out to you, thinking you absent. And yet you forgive us our doubts. You are always with us–in our joys and in our despair. We may not always understand your ways. We may not always understand why events unfold as they do. We may not always understand our place in the big picture. But we trust that all is under your divine care and providence. Even the hairs on our head are numbered. We trust that all is unfolding in a world you watch over and guide toward heaven on earth.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Sep 22nd, 2014

Letting Your Neighbor Be
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 21, 2014

Jonah 3:10-4:11 Matthew 20:1-16 Psalm 145:1-8

Sometimes I fantasize about the way I would run the world if I were king. What that means is all my petty resentments get played out as I correct the wrongs in this world. And when I play king, I’m not thinking about world peace, or ending world hunger, or healing the environment. No. I think about outrageous wealth, or bad drivers, or people I think should act differently. It’s when people vex me that I want to be king and set everything straight–or should I say make things the way I think they should be.
That kind of thinking is what our Bible readings are all about today. We often hear from church pulpits preachings to love your enemies, to love your neighbor, and to do good to those who persecute you. But this Sunday is the first time I’ve ever heard a sermon on letting your neighbor be. The fact that I’m preaching it means that it has occurred to me this Sunday for the first time.
What makes these Bible stories different is that they are about what one person thinks should happen to other people. When we hear the story about Jonah, we most often think about Jonah and the whale. But there is a story that leads to his encounter with the big fish. Jonah was fleeing from God’s call. Jonah is called to preach to the great city of Nineveh. But he boards a boat heading the opposite direction. He does this because he hates the people of Nineveh for their past oppression of Israel. God wants Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh so that they will repent and turn to God. But Jonah is so filled with spite that he wants them to die in their sins. He boards a boat heading for Tarshish. Scholars believe Tarshish to be in southern Spain. It was considered the ends of the earth–as far from God and Nineveh as Jonah could go. But God wants Jonah in Nineveh, so as we all know, a storm breaks out at sea. The crew find out that God sent the storm because Jonah was on the boat. They throw him into the sea and the big fish swallows Jonah and spews him up on dry land. Jonah preaches all through the streets of Nineveh. And the people of Nineveh believe Jonah. The king has everyone, including the animals, fast, put on sack clothes, cover themselves in ashes, and pray to God for mercy. God being a God of mercy, sees the humility of the people of Nineveh and forgives them.
But how does Jonah react to this? We are told that, “It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (4:1). He complains to God. He goes so far as to resent God’s grace and mercy.
“I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil” (4:2).
Jonah wants God to be mean. He wants God to destroy the people of Nineveh, whom Jonah hates. Jonah is so mad, he prays for death. His anger drives him to the point of suicidal thinking. And God gently asks Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?”
So Jonah is mad. He is mad at God for being loving and merciful. And he is mad at the people of Nineveh for their previous treatment of Israel. He tries to flee from God and from his call to preach to the Ninevites.
And we also have that interesting story from the New Testament. In our New Testament reading we have workers who are summoned at different times of day. Some are summoned in the morning, some at the third hour, some at the sixth hour, some at the ninth hour, and some at the eleventh hour. But no matter how long each worked, they are all paid the same: one denarius. The people hired in the morning resent those who were hired last. They say,
These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have born the burden of the day and the scorching heat (Matthew 20:12).
The householder says,
Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius . . . Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? (20:14, 15).
The people hired in the morning are complaining about the other workers. They want more money than them because they worked longer and harder.
But is it their concern what the others earn? You know, when I read this story, I can’t but sympathize with those guys who were hired first. It’s just not right for all to get the same pay.
If I were king, things wouldn’t be that way. You know when I’m driving, there are any number of cars I want to pull over give tickets to because they are driving how I don’t think they should be driving. And you know, I get even madder if the car is a Lexus or a Mercedes. Isn’t this silly?! There are police to give out tickets. And my job in life is only to drive my own car the best I can on the road.
And why shouldn’t someone who can afford it drive a Mercedes or a Lexus? In fact, I have friends who drive Mercedes and they even have a servant in their house. Since they are my friend, I overlook my prejudice against Mercedes drivers. But I don’t for strangers on the road whom I don’t know. I heard of a popular TV comedian who has 60 Porches. He rents an airplane hangar to store them in. When I want to be king, I get to thinking that this is wrong. I remember cruising in my friend’s boat off the shores of Miami. We saw magnificent mansions with yachts moored next to them all along the coastline. I told my friend that this is a sin. he thought that it was envy on my part. I used to say that if I were king, no one could make more than five million a year. I figured that anyone could be happy with five million a year, and any more than that was just wrong. You hear about the football commissioner making what is it $44.2 million a year. And I recall Michael Jordan in the 80′s being worth $75 million. These people wouldn’t be making that much if I were king.
But isn’t this that New testament story about the workers? Is the salary of Roger Goodell of any concern to me? Are Seinfeld’s 60 Porches any concern of mine? Or Michael Jordan’s net worth? These instances exemplify today’s lesson: Letting Your Neighbor Be. What they make is not my concern. And I am not, alas, the king.
I think the real issue is that of contentment. We run into trouble when we think of a reward for doing what we do. And if we have our minds set on getting a reward, our reward will never be enough–materially or spiritually. Swedenborg teaches us to do good for as love of what is good, not for any compensation we get for doing so. It is harmful to do good with the thought of merit or reward. We will never have enough then.
As to those who desire a reward for the work which they perform, it is to be known that they are never contented, but are indignant if they have not a greater reward than others; and if they see others more blessed than themselves, they are sad and find fault with them (AC 6393).
We are taught that doing good for its own sake is truly heavenly. Then a person finds joy and contentment in their good deeds.
The recompense . . . is internal happiness from doing well without recompense, which they receive from the Lord when they perform uses; and they who love to serve without recompense, the more they love it, the more noble are the uses to which they are appointed . . . (AC 6393).
Angels, and angelic people on earth, love what they do because they love doing what is good. This is God-in-us. And from this love flows all peace and contentment. Swedenborg writes,
They live contented with their own, whether it be little or much, because they know that they receive just as much as is profitable for them–little, they for whom little is profitable, and much, they for whom much is profitable; and that they do not themselves know what is profitable for them, but the Lord only, to Whom all things which He provides are for eternity (HH 278).
So when angels and angelic earthlings do their work and their good deeds, it is from a love of service and a love of the good they are doing. Their recompense is the inner enjoyment from doing what is good. This is a never-ending delight. And it doesn’t matter what other people do, or why they do it, or how much money they make for doing it.


Lord, we give you thanks for taking to yourself your great power and for reigning. You hold the entire universe in place. You rule over the affairs of humans. We do not always heed your gentle voice. We do not always follow your ways. But you unceasingly call us back toward you. And you guide us always ever upward. The world is not under our control, but under yours. We give you thanks that you take upon yourself the burden of governance. For we are small and we are weak. Difficult it is for us to manage our own tiny world, let alone the governance of the world. We thank you for enlightening us to govern ourselves and whatever small part of the world around us is given us to manage.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Sep 15th, 2014

Wise Forgiveness
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 14, 2014

Genesis 50:15-21 Matthew 18:21-35 Psalm 103

Our Bible readings today are all about forgiveness. They speak to Randy’s question last Sunday. Last Sunday we saw that our past sins don’t count against us, if we turn from them and embrace God’s ways. Randy asked about the case of murder. He asked about the victims of murder and their families and friends. I said that the murderer’s sins don’t count against him if he gives up his rage and bloodlust. Randy asked, “What about the families of the victim? They can’t bring back their beloved.” Now we turn to a consideration of the victims. Now we look at the issue of forgiveness.
There are two issues in this topic. There is God’s forgiveness of us. And there is our forgiveness of our neighbor. Both these issues come up in our New Testament reading. In our Matthew story, a king wants to settle his accounts. One servant owes him ten thousand talents. That would amount to several million dollars today. Obviously it is an amount that a servant would never be able to come up with. Out of mercy, the king forgives this servant all his debt. That is a metaphor of God forgiving us our sins. This same servant tries to collect the debts owed him, personally. Another servant owed him a hundred denarii. A few dollars. He grabs this poor servant and chokes him and finally throws him in jail until he pays him back. While the king forgave the servant several millions in debts, this servant wouldn’t let a few dollars go that was owed him. He doesn’t forgive. The story about the debt owed the servant is a metaphor for our forgiving our neighbors. The story begins with Jesus telling Peter that we are to forgive our neighbor seventy seven times.
The issue of forgiveness plunges us deep into the heart of Swedenborg’s mysticism. And it also is as practical as our day-to-day relations with each other. I will begin by talking about Swedenborgian mysticism.
To talk about God’s forgiveness of us, I will draw on the psalm we read this morning. In the opening verses, it says that God forgives all our iniquity. And then immediately following, it says that God heals all our diseases (Vs. 3). It suggests that forgiveness and healing are part of the same process. The psalm goes on to say that God does not deal with us according to our sins, but that He removes our transgressions from us (Vss. 10, 12). Those few lines contain the whole process of regeneration. And they tell us about the process of God’s forgiveness and His redemption of the whole human race.
God’s greatest wish is that humanity will be united with Him in a mutual love relationship. Out of love, God does not deal with us according to our sins, but according to love and forgiveness. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 says that love does not keep a record of wrongs. And if we think about people we love, whom we wish to be close to, don’t we put up with a lot of trouble and grief in order to maintain our relationship with them? So it is with God, only more loving than we can possibly imagine.
God is continually approaching us, desiring our love and friendship. And when we let God into our hearts and turn toward God, then the relationship is mutual. This mutual joining together of God and humans is a process. God takes us where we are, and as He approaches us, He removes away the sins that come between us and Him. So the Psalmist says that God removes our transgressions from us. As God enters our hearts, so sin is pushed to the sides and periphery of our consciousness.
Then comes the greatest gift and miracle God works. In place of our twisted cravings, God gives us His own good feelings. He makes us feel happy doing good. And this pleasure in doing good is God in us. Swedenborg says that “People who believe that goodness comes from the Lord turn their faces toward Him and find a pleasure and bliss in what is good” (DP 93). Our very ability to feel pleasure in what is good and our very ability to think what is true is a gift from God. Swedenborg tells us,
Since all our intending stems from love and all our discerning stems from wisdom, it follows that our ability to intend stems from divine love and our ability to discern stems from divine wisdom. This means that both come from the Lord, who is divine love itself and divine wisdom itself (DP 89).
This union with God is only possible because God doesn’t keep a record of our wrongs, but always approaches us with the desire to be joined in love. Like the king in our Matthew story, God forgives our many debts and remains in loving relationship with us. He wants only for us to love Him back in return.
If we love our neighbors in a similar manner, we will not cherish resentments against our neighbor. As Paul says, “Love does not keep a record of wrongs.” Forgiving those who slight us will ultimately make us feel better. And it will also allow God’s love into our hearts. For love for our neighbor is also God’s love in us. He loves our neighbors as much as He loves us.
Like everyone, in my life I have been slighted by people. The memory of these offences sometimes remains in the back of my mind. On a bad day, I can relive these slights and fill myself with bitter resentment. If we look at the very word “resentment” we see that the stem is “sentiment”–feeling. Re-sentiment is literally re-feeling that slight. This does me no good. Resentment is an uncomfortable feeling. And it jeopardizes my positive relations with others. You know, sometimes when i am in a worship service–particularly during a communion service–these feelings of resentment dissolve. As a diving love permeates me, the pettiness of my little mind disappears. I am filled with God and God loves everyone always. I begin to see that everyone has their own way of living and thinking. I may not understand it, but I trust that God does, and they do, and my appraisal of their relationship with me needs to be seen in that light. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says this very well,
True compassion does not stem from the pleasure of feeling close to one person or another; but from the conviction that other people are just like me and want not to suffer but to be happy, and from a commitment to help them overcome what causes them to suffer (My Spiritual Journey, p. 20).
But the title of this talk is wise forgiveness. I do not mean to suggest that we allow people to harm us again and again in the same way. There are people that I hold at arm’s length. I am open to friendship and good relations, but also aware that I have been harmed by them and may be harmed again if I am not circumspect about my relations. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” And yet even in these rather cool relationships, I need to keep my mind clear from enmity and resentment. Sometimes, a forgiving attitude and a mild disposition will seem to invite hostility. But we can be mild and firm at the same time. Again from the Dalai Lama,
If your calm seems to encourage unfair aggression, be firm, but with compassion. If it turns out to be necessary for you to prove your point by severe countermeasures, do so without resentment or bad intentions (Ibid, 22).
We do well to recall Jesus’ words. He tells us to forgive our neighbor seventy seven times. Consider the story from Genesis. Joseph forgave his brothers. This is the same Joseph who was stripped of his coat of many colors, thrown into a well, and sold to the Egyptians as a slave by these same brothers! And yet there is a tearful reunion and forgiveness later in life. Consider, too the great Apostle Paul. He persecuted and, in fact, killed Christians before his conversion. But when he converted to Christianity, the early church did not forbid his membership. They forgave his past. And as a Christian, Paul did immense deeds to further the early church. And we do well to remember Jesus’ words on the cross. When the Romans and the mob blindly cried out for His death, Jesus forgives them for they do not know what they are doing. I guess that’s what Alexander Pope means when he writes, “To err is humane; to forgive, divine.”


Lord, we thank you for your gift of forgiveness. And we thank you for giving us of yourself. For we acknowledge that all the good we enjoy, and all the truth we think are gifts from you. We acknowledge that the good and truth in us are your presence in our souls. For you are good Itself and Truth Itself. And apart from you, we can do nothing. We ask that you come into our hearts and that you enlighten our minds. And as you enter us, you drive out all that is evil, even while you forgive us our sins. You stand at the door and knock. May we hear your knock, and open the door.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Sep 8th, 2014

A Positive View of Sin
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 7, 2014

Ezekiel 33:10-16 Matthew 18:15-20 Psalm 119:33-41

Our Bible readings today bring up the topic of sin. In Ezekiel, God tells the Israelites to turn from their “evil ways” and live. And in our reading from Matthew we have the awkward situation of a person reproving their friend for a sin they have committed against him or her. The subject of sin is not a popular one. No one likes to hear about it. But all through the Bible the subject comes up. And most theologians have something to say about sin. So it’s not a subject we can just ignore.
But neither do we want to become obsessed with it. People have told me that when we pay attention to something we give it power. And dwelling on the subject of sin gives sin power. Better, they say, to dwell on good things and give them power.
And, in fact, there is a positive side to sin. The subject of sin is actually the subject of change. Change for the better. And I think that changing for the better is a positive thing to give our efforts to.
Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I take this to mean that if we don’t examine our lives, we will continue to make the same mistakes and continue to get the same unhappy results. And by the same token, if we don’t examine our lives, we will not see the good things that we do, and make an effort to stay the course on these things. If we don’t examine our lives, we will blunder along doing what we learned in early life whether it is healthy or unhealthy.
The real issue here is love. Are we giving love and are we receiving love? Are we receiving love from God? Are we feeling love from our neighbors? Are we showing love? And are we loving effectively? My understanding of sin is this: Sin is what blocks the giving and receiving of love. Put that way, who wouldn’t want to be concerned with the subject of sin?
Today we have different words for sin. Psychology has a language of its own to talk about positive change. Some 12-step groups talk about coping mechanisms that a person learns in childhood that are no longer effective in adulthood. These groups talk about undergoing a rigorous moral inventory of unhealthy coping strategies and healthy ones. They talk about doing this with another person so that we don’t overburden ourselves with guilt and so that we find reasonable ways to make change. The goal of these programs is loving effectively. The goal is discarding or outgrowing ways of living that are manipulative, self-defeating, and neurotic. Upon outgrowing these maladaptive ways of living, one grows into healthy ways of relating to one’s neighbors. One lives a loving and sane way of life.
These programs wisely speak of real change taking a long time. They speak of progress, not perfection. As one friend put it to me, “I didn’t get sick over night, and I won’t get well over night.” This understanding of rebirth, or well-being is in accord with the teachings of this church. For us, salvation is nothing other than growing into deeper and deeper love. And we understand this process as occurring by overcoming whatever blocks the inflow of love from God. What blocks the inflow of love from God is called sin. And reprogramming ourselves to receive God’s love is called reformation and regeneration. Another way of saying this is being re-born and made anew.
As with 12-step programs, this church sees regeneration as happening over a long period of time. Over a whole lifetime and even into the next life. The person we have become through our upbringing and adaption to this world needs to be rebuilt and reformed through spiritual education and discipline. Swedenborg compares this process to the building, the tearing down, and the rebuilding of a house:
Who that yet has sound understanding, cannot conclude from this that such things cannot be done in a moment, but successively, as a person is conceived, carried in the womb, born and educated . . .? For the things of the flesh or the old man are inherent in him from birth, and they build the first habitation of his mind, in which lusts abide . . . , and they dwell first in the outer courts, and by turns they steal as it were into the the lower rooms of that house, and afterward make their way up by ladders, and form chambers for themselves; and this is done successively, as the infant grows, reaches childhood, then youth, and then begins to think from his own understanding, and to act from his own will. Who does not see that this house which has been thus far built in the mind, in which lusts dance with joined hands . . . cannot be destroyed in a moment, and a new house built in place of it? Must not the lusts . . . be themselves first removed, and new desires which are of good and truth be introduced in the place of the lusts of evil and falsity? (TCR 611).
Paul agrees. He speaks of putting to death the sins of the flesh and living by the Spirit. So in Romans 8:12-13, Paul writes,
So then brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh–for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.
Paul expands this idea in Galatians, linking life in the Spirit to love. Living in Christ’s Spirit is living in love. And as we said above, sin, lust, and living according to the flesh are what interfere with the life of Christ’s love:
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” . . . But i say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. . . . Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:13-24).
So the whole notion of sin turns around loving. The whole process of recognition of sin and turning from it is to become more loving. It’s all about the kind of person we are. It’s not about God writing a book and checking it twice as to what bad we have done and what good we have done and seeing how the two balance out. No it’s only about who we are now. We don’t get points for being good in the past. And we don’t get demerits for being bad in the past. I think Ezekiel is remarkable in this and really progressive. He says,
If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; . . . And if I say to the wicked man, “You will surely die,” but he turns away from his sin and does what is just and right . . . follows the decrees that give life, and does no evil, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he will surely live (Ezekiel 33:13, 14, 15-16).
This isn’t too hard to do. God tells us in Deuteronomy that choosing what is good is not beyond us, and not a far off ideal beyond our abilities
“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
And Swedenborg concurs. He tells us,
It is not so difficult to live the life that leads to heaven as it is believed. . . . That it is not so difficult to live the life of heaven as is believed, is evident from this, that it is only necessary for a person to think, when anything presents itself to him which he knows to be insincere and unjust and to which he is inclined, that it ought not to be done because it is contrary to Divine precepts. If a person accustoms himself to so think, and from so accustoming himself acquires a habit, he then by degrees is conjoined with heaven; and so far as he is conjoined with heaven, the higher regions of his mind are opened; and so far as these are opened, he sees what is insincere and unjust; and so far as he sees these evils, so far they can be shaken off–for no evil can be shaken off until it is seen. . . . But when he has a beginning, then the Lord quickens all that is good in him, and causes him not only to see evils as evils, but also not to will them, and finally to be averse to them. This is meant by the Lord’s words, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matt. xi. 30) (HH 533).
We will be better off, more loving, and happier as we grow spiritually. I think that is a positive view of sin.


Lord, we are aware of our fallenness. We know that we sometimes stray from your precepts. And yet we know that you are always with us, leading us back to you. We thank you for your constant love. We thank you for your constant efforts to save, to bring to you, and into heaven’s joys. We know that you do not keep a record of wrongs. We know that you see only the good in us. And you nurture that good while always planting new good and higher love in our souls. Thank you for your everlasting salvation.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Sep 1st, 2014

Winding Our Way to God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
August 31, 2014

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Matthew 14:22-33 Psalm 105

The story of Joseph is a striking example of God’s Divine Providence. While Joseph goes through severe trials, the result of his journey is beneficial for all the players in his life–including himself. The way we journey as pilgrims in this life may be similar to Joseph. We may go through difficult times, we may appear lost at times, but for those who have a faith in God’s Providence, in retrospect, we can see that all the winding ways of our lives have resulted in spiritual growth for us.
In our Bible reading, things do not look good for Joseph. Hated by his own brothers, he is sold into slavery to the Midianites, who sell him to the Egyptians. In Egypt, other tragedies befall him. He is thrown into prison on false charges. But ultimately, Joseph rises to a position of power in Egypt. He rules as the Pharaoh’s right hand man. All of Egypt is under his command, except the Pharaoh’s own throne. Later, when the land of Israel experiences famine, Joseph gives food to his family, who travel to Egypt for aid. There is a tearful reunion of Joseph and his family. And in his position of power in Egypt, he is able to give his family the food they need. The very tragedy he experienced in his young years ended up with Joseph prospering immensely.
For many of us, life is a winding pathway through times of happiness and also times of sorrow and even despair. But all the while, God is leading us to heaven and heavenly joy and happiness. In every turn of our life’s direction God is leading us into greater love for Himself and for our neighbors, which is the same thing as saying that God is leading us to salvation. Swedenborg writes,
Providence continually regards what is eternal, and continually leads unto salvation, and this through various states, now glad, now sorrowful, which man cannot possibly comprehend, but still all are conducive to his eternal life (AC 8560).
When we look back on our lives, we see that the path we have followed has made us who we are. When we are in the depths of despair, and things look overclouded with sorrow, it is hard to maintain faith that God is still with us. There is that famous poem that we have on the wall downstairs called, “Footprints.” In that poem there are two sets of footprints on the beach. Then, for a time, there is only one set of footprints. The writer says to God, “Where where you when there were only one set of footprints,” thinking that those were his own footprints in a time of grief. God’s response is, “Those footprints were mine, when I was carrying you.” We can’t see Divine Providence working in our lives in the moment. But we can see Divine Providence when we look back on our lives. Swedenborg tells us,
It is granted to see the Divine Providence in the back and not in the face; also in a spiritual state and not in his natural state. To see the Divine Providence in the back and not in the face, is to see after the Providence and not before it; and to see it from a spiritual but not a natural state is to see it from heaven and not from the world. All who receive influx from heaven and acknowledge the Divine Providence, and especially those who by reformation have become spiritual, while they see events in some wonderful series, from interior acknowledgement they as it were see the Divine Providence, and they confess it (DP 187).
I know that when I look back on my own life, I can see that wonderful series of events that Swedenborg speaks of. And in my own life, I have experienced dark times, times when there were only one set of footprints on the beach. And as I look back, sometimes I wonder why God was carrying me, considering how angry I had become with Him. It is a measure of just how all loving God is. When I was in my twenties, I was preparing for ministry. I fully intended to become a Swedenborgian minister when I was thinking about my career at the age of twenty-three. So I enrolled in our church’s college, Urbana College. Urbana College isn’t a very well-known college in the US. But for Swedenborgian ministry, it is the best place to prepare for divinity school. From Urbana College, I went to our divinity school, the Swedenborg School of Religion. I was in our divinity school for five years when the church decided that it wouldn’t ordain me. That decision was reached in a three-hour-long meeting of the Council of Ministers while I awaited their decision outside the room. Since it was a closed meeting, to this day, I don’t know the whole story as to why they decided not to ordain me. I do know that I was an active alcoholic, and quite a loose cannon personally. When I heard the decision, I was enraged. From the time of my college years at Urbana College through my years in divinity school, I had put seven years of my life towards Swedenborgian ministry. I felt I had given my youth to the church, and it was all for nought. Furthermore, with only a degree from the unexceptional Urbana College and an unaccredited diploma from the Swedenborg School of Religion, I wasn’t in a very good position career-wise. While I was wallowing in gloom, one of the students said to me, “Oh, David, this may turn into something wonderful in time!” I didn’t want to hear this, and didn’t receive it very well. But it turns out he was right.
The course of my life proceeded into accredited graduate schools. First, my Master’s Degree at Harvard, and the my Ph. D. program at the university of Virginia. In these programs, my mind grew and expanded as I studied great works of literature and of the world’s religions. I became much more open minded. Before this, all I saw and knew was through the lens of Swedenborg. I judged everything by Swedenborgian doctrines. I was very narrow minded and parochial. Graduate study in religions of the world opened me up to people of other faiths, and taught me the interesting beliefs of other traditions and respect for people of other faiths. My graduate study in religion has proved invaluable in my capacity as president of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre. Then after all that intellectual work, I ended up in the mental health field in which my intellect was cut off as I worked with people’s moods. This looked like another setback, but it was another growing experience. My heart grew. I became more compassionate and my counselling skills improved. Then there was the gift of sobriety, without which I wouldn’t be able to receive any of these other gifts. There were also unexpected treats from God, like the gift of playing in a rock and jazz band. In the long run, I did become the Swedenborgian minister I wanted to be in my twenties, but I had so much more to bring to the ministry. I am now a much different minister than I would have been had I been ordained back then. Furthermore, by being kicked around by life, I grew more humble and my pride ameliorated. I’m actually glad for the way things turned out.
This narration exemplifies the passage from Swedenborg that I read at the beginning of this talk,
Providence continually regards what is eternal, and continually leads unto salvation, and this through various states, now glad, now sorrowful, which man cannot possibly comprehend, but still all are conducive to his eternal life (AC 8560).
Through all this, I became open to my neighbor. I saw that the immediate needs I thought I had to have, I could get along without. This is what is symbolized by the passage we heard from the New Testament. Jesus’ disciples are in a boat and a storm breaks out all around them. They are fighting against the wind. Waves and the turbulent sea symbolize temptations. They symbolize the despair a person goes through from time to time in life, and especially in one’s spiritual life. In the midst of this storm, Jesus comes to the disciples, walking on water and stills the storm. This signifies the state of peace that comes when temptations are quieted and new good has been insinuated into our minds and hearts. This would be like the compassion and open-mindedness that came to me through the trials in my life.
Temptations are not just allurements of the forbidden fruit. They are soul-stirring trials when we can’t see our way back to God and it seems we are on a course heading nowhere and lost. We can even despair of our salvation, and think ourselves bereft of the light of God’s love. These are the times when there are only one set of footprints on the sand. These periods break up our pride and teach us that we need God every hour and that all the blessings we have are gifts from God. Swedenborg speaks of,
a state of desolation caused by the privation of truth, the last stage of which state is despair. That despair is the last stage of that state, is because the thereby the enjoyment of the love of self and of the world is removed, and the enjoyment of the love of good and of truth instilled in its place; for in the case of those to be regenerated, despair has reference to spiritual life, and consequently to the privation of truth and good, since when they are deprived of truth and good, they despair of spiritual life; hence they have a sweet and blessed joy when they come out of their despair (AC 5279).
Would we humble ourselves and turn to God without such trials, I ask? There is a lyric from a song written by a friend of mine in Florida that goes, “Without those desperate times would we ever turn to you, and recognize our weakness?” I need to be clear, here, though. God does not send us these trials. It is we ourselves who bring them upon ourselves. It was my drinking and wild behavior that gave the Council of Ministers their doubts about me. God moderates these periods and guides them so that good will come of them and we will become more heavenly as a result.
So the path we take in this world is not necessarily an easy one. As Swedenborg tells us, “now glad, now sorrowful.” But Divine Providence does not let anything happen to us that does not conduce to our salvation and to greater conjunction with God and with heaven. Furthermore, all these trials bring us into greater love and this means into greater happiness. Through these temptations, Swedenborg tells us,
the Lord enters with affections of the love of the neighbor, and opens the window of his roof, and then the side windows, and makes him see that there is a heaven, a life after death, and eternal happiness; and by the spiritual light and at the same time by the spiritual love then flowing in, He makes him acknowledge that God governs all things by His Divine Providence (DP 201).
Those who trust in God can see this happening in their own lives. Whether we are now in a good state or whether we are now in a difficult state, we need to trust that God is with us, that God never gives up on us, and that God will bring us safely home to port. We need keep in mind the story of Joseph, and what looks bad now may turn into something wonderful down the road.


Lord, this morning, and every day, we ask for your guidance. You know our hearts and our deepest inclinations. And you lead us by means of our best reasoning and by means of our heartfelt loves. We trust that you will continue to guide us in that pathway that leads toward you and into heaven’s joys, and delights. Be with us in our sorrows. Be with us in our rejoicing. For we know that whatever happens to us will bring us into closer harmony with you and into deeper humility and heavenly joy.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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