Religious Post

Learn to Do Good

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20                                             Luke 12:32-40                                     Psalm 50

No time like the present.  Eternity is now.  Heaven isn’t in the future, it’s here and now.  Now is when good feelings happen.  Now is when we seek truth.  Now is when peace and joy come into our lives.

Our reading from the Old Testament talks about sacrifices.  God tells the Israelites that God takes no pleasure in sacrifice.  God even exclaims, “who has asked this of you,/this trampling of my courts?”  What God is saying is that God never told the Israelites to sacrifice animals in the temple.  Yet sacrifice became the central way to worship for Israelites.

If you look at the early parts of the Old Testament, you will see a lot of laws and moral commands.  God tells the Israelites to protect the weaker people in society.  God tells them to care for the orphan, who has no adult male to feed, clothe, and give shelter.  Likewise, God tells the Israelites to care for widows, who also need food, shelter, and clothing since they have no adult male, or husband, to do this for them.

But with the rise of kingship, and with the building of the temple in Jerusalem by Solomon, animal sacrifice became the predominant form of worship, not moral living.  Making animal sacrifice the centre of worship was a man-made idea.  It is not what God wants.  God tells the Israelites specifically that God did not teach them to sacrifice animals,

For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ (Jeremiah 7:22-23)

God wants us to live good lives.

We don’t sacrifice animals.  But the Isaiah reading makes us think about externals of worship.  Externals are the rituals we do on Sunday.  Externals are chanting the Psalms, listening to Bible readings, singing hymns, praying, hearing sermons, and taking communion.  They are called externals because they are behaviors that we do.  You can do all these things without having your heart in them.  You can just go through the motions.  You can go through the motions, and think you’re saved.  But if your heart is in them, they can have much power and meaning.

So this morning, I thought that I’d invite us to think about worship on Sunday morning.  Due to the financial issues we are dealing with it strikes me as something valuable to do.  So let’s first consider why we come to church.  Why do we take a few hours on Sunday to come here?  Let’s also think about what we like in church.  What parts of worship do we like?  Is it singing?  Is it the Bible readings?  Is it my sermons?  What do we like about church?  Another thing to think about is what happens to us in church?  Do we feel uplifted?  Do we experience a closeness to God?  Does the noise in our heads quiet?  Do we find an hour of peace?  Do we feel a connection and mutual love in the church community?  Do we come away from church different than when we arrive?

Another way to get at this subject is to ask different kinds of questions.  These may be hard to hear, but we are in a safe environment.  We can ask ourselves what we would miss if there were no church.  What aspect of our religious life would be gone without a church?  I hope that the answer to these questions would be something other than the rituals we do here.  I would hope that there is something in us that we would lose touch with without church.

Now we think about today’s Isaiah reading.  We realize that being religious isn’t only going to church.  Let’s think about what we get out of church.  What is there we can take out of church into the world?  Because if we don’t carry out into the world the spirituality we experience in church, we are like the Israelites who put all their faith in the ritual of animal sacrifice.  We would be putting our faith in the externals of worship, not what is in our hearts.  Maybe we leave church feeling inspired, and we bring that feeling of inspiration into the world.  Maybe we learn a new religious principle that we apply in our lives outside church.  Remember Swedenborg’s statement that, “All religion relates to life, and the religious life is doing good.”  In fact, real sacred space isn’t inside these walls.  Real sacred space is in the world around us where we do good to others and show our love for the neighbor.

Along these lines is another hard question.  What would we do without a Swedenborgian identity?  We can echo the words of Jeremiah in relationship to this church.  In Jeremiah, as we have heard, God says, “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  Our forefathers debated the very formation of this denomination.  Swedenborg himself never founded this church.  It was readers of Swedenborg in England who made the decision to start up a new denomination.  Many important voices said that the New Church was not meant to be a denomination.  Among these voices was Henry James, Sr. who wrote a pamphlet on that subject, titled, “The Church of Christ not an Ecclesiasticism: A Letter to a Sectarian.”  You can imagine God’s voice, maybe, saying, “I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning a new denomination.”

Where would we be without a Swedenborgian identity?  I faced this question a few weeks back.  I considered transferring my ministry to the United Church.  I wondered what it would be like not to self-identify as a Swedenborgian anymore.  What would it be like to be a United minister?  In a way it was surprisingly liberating.  I no longer would look out at the world from the small minority world of Swedenborg, who no one has heard of, and some who have heard of us think us a cult.  Being a Swedenborgian can mean an us and the other mentality.  And since everyone in the world practically isn’t a Swedenborgian, we see the whole world as the other.  If I’m not Swedenborgian, then I’m not apart from the world, but I’m among everybody else.  Put in its most extreme form, we can also think that being Swedenborgian alone means we’re saved.  But take away the label, and where are we?  It was men in 18th century England who gave us this label.  Maybe it is doing more harm than good.

So we ask, what is meaningful in church?  Why do we come to church?  What would we miss if there were no church?  And finally, who would we be without the label of Swedenborg?  Challenging questions indeed.  But good questions to ask as we consider the future of this church.  And more importantly, good questions to ask in relation to our spiritual process.

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SOME WORDS I GREW UP WITH

Vietnam, establishment, protest, revolution, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., assassination, J. Edgar Hoover, Twiggy,

Woodstock, Buffalo Springfield, Richie Havens, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Crosby, stills, Nash, and Young, Janis Joplin, Cream, Ravi Shankar, Jefferson Airplane, Melanie, Ten Years After, Mountain, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

mind expansion, weed, LSD, hash, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau

The Man, tear gas, mod, freaks, hippies, bikers, jocks, counter-culture, mini-skirt, long hair, crew-cut, bell-bottoms, Spock, freedom, riots, tie-dye, Motown

peace, Nature, love

Religious Blog

Who Is My Neighbor?

Amos 7:7-17                                       Luke 10:25-37                                     Psalm 82

I think we all know that we need to love the neighbor.  The question is very real, though, as to just how our neighbor is.  That was the question of the expert in Jewish law.

The question of the expert in Jewish law is valid.  When Jesus asks him what he reads in the Jewish law, the expert refers to Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  For this talk, the passage from Leviticus is our special interest.  The expert in the law had real grounds for asking who the neighbor is.  Leviticus seems to say that only the people of Israel are the neighbor.  That is, the neighbor is the same tribe that you live in.  Let’s look at the Leviticus passage.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:17-18).

See the wording.  The first line says not to hate your own kin, your relatives.  The next line says not to take revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people.  Then it says to love your neighbor as yourself.  So the context in which the command to love your neighbor appears is one of family and tribe.  The expert in the law knows this, and legitimately asks just who the neighbor is.

Jesus frames His answer in stark terms.  In His answer, Jesus shows that the neighbor is everyone.  He shows this in His story by making Orthodox Jews look uncompassionate and by making a member of a hated foreign tribe—the Samaritans—the example of love for the neighbor. In Jesus’ story, a man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, in the nation of Israel.  He is robbed, beaten and left for dead.  A Jewish priest not only passes the man by, but he crosses the street to avoid him.  Then a Levite, from the priestly tribe in Israel, does the same thing—he crosses the street to avoid the beaten and robbed man.  What is striking in this story, and ironic, is that the priest and Levite cross the street because of their Jewish religion.  According to Jewish law, contact with a dead body rendered the individual ritually unclean.  Leviticus 22:4-7 dictates that coming in contact with a corpse renders a person unclean, and a priest cannot perform rites and sacraments in the Temple while unclean.  In fact, a priest cannot even eat the food in the Temple, which they lived on, while ritually unclean.  They would remain unclean until sunset and after they had washed in water.  So to prevent ritual uncleanness, the priest and the Levite cross to the other side of the road to avoid contact with what they took to be a dead man.  So the leaders of the Jewish religion avoid the beaten and robbed man.  But a foreigner, from a heretical tribe, who were hated by the Jews, shows compassion and becomes the example of love for the neighbor.  By the end of the story, it is not the religion of the Jews that is the example of love for the neighbor, it is not even the status of a foreigner that is the example of love for the neighbor, but it is the capacity of compassion, which everyone can possess.

This is a uniquely religious message.  I think that most people show compassion to their friends and family.  This is a kind of self-love.  One’s friends and family belong to them.  They are extensions of self.  They exchange love for each other and they care for each other’s welfare.  But what about other people whom one has no special connection to?

Ethics philosophers have written much about this.  They talk about care for “near and distant” neighbors.  Who deserves our care most?  Is it our friends and family first?  Is it the people of our city?  Is it our Province?  Do we take care of our Country first?  Those would be considered near neighbors.  They are close to us.

But what are we to do with distant neighbors?  That is, people with whom we have no special connection.  Strangers.  People of different countries.  People we don’t know.

I would like to tell two stories about these issues.  One story is about me a long time ago at Urbana University.  The other is about an experience Carol and I had in Chicago, not even a week ago.

I was very rule-oriented when I was young.  I had principles I followed.  I had strict interpretations of Christianity and ethics.  One of my principles was that I treated everyone equally.  I had no room for particular recipients of good.  I showed good-will to everyone equally.  At least that is what I tried to do.  Well after I had been at Urbana University for a year, at the start of the next new semester a Swedenborgian student enrolled.  One of the Swedenborgian professors who knew her and her family, asked me to take her under my wing, and show her the ropes in order to make her feel at home at this new school, new place.  Well, due to my philosophy, I said that I would treat Debbie the way I treated everyone else at the University.  I had no room in my ethics to give Debbie special attention.  Kind of heartless; but that was how I saw things back then.  Distant neighbors deserved the same kindness as near neighbors.  The professor and everyone else didn’t get my ethics.  And, of course, now I would do things much differently.

Fast-forward 40 years.  Carol and I are schlepping our big suitcases down a sidewalk of downtown Chicago.  We were trying to get to the subway, to catch a train to the airport.  In Chicago, almost all the doors are revolving doors.  We tried to get into an office building because they had an elevator down to the subway and we didn’t fancy lugging our heavy suitcases down a flight of stairs.  Well the particular office building we were going into had one of those revolving doors.  I stumbled and lurched in the revolving door, trying to get me and my suitcase around in the narrow partition of the revolving door.  A security guard in the office building saw my difficulty.  I managed to get through, but he saw what a struggle it was.  Carol was still outside.  He told her to hold on a minute, and he opened another door—a regular door—with his keys, and got her into the building through a secure door which he opened for her.  Then he used his key to access the elevator for us.  We didn’t know that the elevators weren’t for the general public!  This was amazing for us.  He didn’t know us.  It was obvious that we didn’t have business in the building.  We were clearly tourists from distant parts.  Yet this security guard went out of his way to help us get into the building.  He was being a real neighbor to us.  Distant neighbors.

We got into the elevator and down to the subway turnstile.  The attendant there helped us use the handicap doorway to get our luggage through to the train.  Then we looked at the tracks and saw a long stairway down to the train tracks.  We weren’t ready for this.  Well as it happened, a Latino man and his daughter were going down to the tracks, too.  And the man stopped Carol, took up her suitcase and carried it down the stairs for her.  He didn’t know us, would never see us again, and he helped us, anyway.  And Carol wanted me to add that he and his daughter earned a hug from her for this.

The security guard and the Latino man were good neighbors to us.  I wasn’t much of a good neighbor to Debbie at Urbana University.  Situations to be good neighbors present themselves to us all the time.  We help our friends and families without a second thought.  But when we help someone who isn’t friend or family, it is entirely that they will become friends.  There is a man in my condo complex whom I have seen in the halls.  I say, “Hi,” and sometimes get a, “Hi,” back.  But recently someone had jammed some paper in the door lock into the complex to keep the door unlocked.  The guy I had met in the hallways was picking at the paper with a key, trying to get it out of the door.  I went back to my car and got out a dart I kept there for when Carol and I used to play darts.  The dart worked well, and the man got out all the paper.  That one moment bonded us a bit.  We now have a closer connection that we had before.

The neighbor is everyone, everywhere we can do good to.  Do you know who the closest neighbor is?  It is God.  God is the greatest neighbor.  Whenever we do good, we are doing good for God.  Jesus said, “When you have done it to the least of these brothers of mine, you have done it to me” (Matthew 25:40).  With God as our spiritual parent, we are all children of God.  So from a spiritual perspective, everyone is a near neighbor.  Care for distant neighbors doesn’t prohibit us from care for near neighbors, too.  Our friends and family are natural neighbors.  God and the people around us are spiritual neighbors.  Let’s keep our eyes open for the privilege of doing good whenever it presents itself to us, to everyone to whom we can do good.

 

GOOD LOVE

You know me in my higher aspirations

And when I’m in a trying, troubling mood

In either you maintain loving relations

For which I feel eternal gratitude

 

The love we know and our fidelity,

The good life our love creates together

Gives us each a place of stability

In a world of inconsistent weather

 

I am pledged to you and you to me

In joy, in trials, and in confidence

We’ll be together to eternity

And live the timeless now as lovers and as friends

A CIRCUIT OF CONNECTIONS

Love

Connection

Support, community

Parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents

Home

When it all works

 

And then

 

Vocation, relocation, isolation

Alone, unknown in a strange town

The whole wide world

Strangers, business associates

Stabs at connection

Church, gyms, bars, gangs, the streets

Alcohol and drugs and one-night stands

Unaware

Screams at connection

 

And then

 

Incredibly good fortune,

or Providence

“O Lord thou pluckest me out”

Intimacy, soulmate, conjunction

Love

Mutual

Family again

Support

Connection

Home

After so much

A friend to the whole wide world

THE SUPPORT YOUR LOVE GIVES ME

With you—your support—I can handle anything

If it feels, and it does at times, like the world is at me

In frustrations, failures, and yes, attacks enemies bring

In it all, your constant support holds me steady

 

As in Tristan and Isolde’s sacred Love Grotto, living on bliss

So our bliss blesses the world which our love weaves of times and dates

And the outside world whirls way away from our kiss

The world into which our love radiates and action penetrates

 

And when I err, and I do, and wander awry

You turn me back and straighten my direction

You move me to what I ought, and to all the projects I love to try

And in weakness and apathy your own will gives power to my motivation

 

In my life, what matters most is us

We are solidity and salvation in a world of change and sin

An anchor in uncertain seas that can turn tempestuous

When I became we, then did my life begin

 

It is a holy gift to have a love like you to care

In a world too often marked by indifference

Having you in my life is an answer to prayer

And having you in my life has made all the difference

Moderating Rage: Trump’s Antics

I am appalled and galled at Trump’s antics.  Lately, I am sad that 800,000 government workers are facing life issues because Trump won’t pay them.  I am worried that the US government is closed for business.  And there’s so much to do.  And, finally, I am troubled at how many people still support Trump, and that those people are fellow Americans, citizens of my own country.  (However, I am somewhat relieved that lately only 34% of Americans support him, meaning that 66% don’t.)

So shall I pass my time galled, appalled, worried, and troubled?  If I do, Trump is getting me.  He’s pushing my buttons from his luxury resort in Florida or in the White House–way, way far away from where I live.  So I have a dilemma.  Shall I go about my business and not care about my home country’s problems?  That kind of callous disregard strikes me as un-Christian, and unbecoming.  I care for my fellows.  Yet, I’m not strong enough to stretch my concern to the whole world.  I have sufficient concerns in my personal life, and in the world I touch.

I’m re-thinking Voltaire’s concluding line from Candide.  “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”–“We must cultivate our garden.”  In Voltaire’s novel, after innumerable calamities which were explained away with a metaphysics that said we live in the best of all possible worlds and all things work out to the best that they can, the small group we follow through the story finally ends up tending a garden they collectively own.  When the metaphysician tries to explain why ending up tending a garden is the best possible outcome in the best of all possible worlds, then we get that line, “We must cultivate our garden.”  What that means, I think, is that we have enough to handle with the immediate problems we tend to in our lives.  Whether we live in the best of times or the worst of times, all that really matters is what we can manage in the life we live in and the lives we touch.  I did act with passion in my 2018 vote, in absentia, reading the instructions, printing up the ballot from the emailed copy sent me, mailing it snail mail to the district in which I vote.  And that is all I can see that I can actually do about the troubling matters in my home country.

There’s another quote relevant to this issue.  “Turn it over.”  While I have limited power to care about the whole, wide world, there is One who does have the power to care about it.  I do wonder, at times, what that One is up to in this world.  But that One does know what He/She/It is up to.  Where does that leave me?

What I am finding is that I need to come to terms with my own passions.  I didn’t like George W. Bush.  I couldn’t watch him on TV.  I didn’t, however, feel outraged and appalled as I do now.  So am I going to ruin my present getting mad at politicians I don’t agree with?  The real issue is how I come to terms with those things I disagree with.  I have come to a decision.  I will no longer watch MSNBC and wallow in gall, and drive around town perseverating about all the bad things Trump is doing to the US.  My heart and soul matters more than that.

My own heart and soul is the garden I must cultivate.  How I spend my now, my eternity, matters to me.  I have cultivated peace in relation to my personal enemies.  I now need to do that in regard to my disagreement with Trump’s antics.  There were people appalled with Obama, too.  I can remain in the ready in relation to my vote; I can stay informed about the political development in my home country; I can act in my immediate environment for the good of the world I touch; and I can remain personally at peace.  There are heights I can ascend to in my soul–joy, peace and love.  There are broken individuals I can buy a sandwich for at the convenience store near where I live.  And these things matter more to me than going about my business appalled at Trump.  “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

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