Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:26-38, Divine Providence #96:5 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Today we visit with King David, just after he has defeated the Philistines, brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and settled into his new reign as king. David finally receives a break from war, and turns his mind to how he can glorify the Lord. He decides that it is time to build a temple for God, for the ark still remains in the tabernacle as it always has, essentially in a tent.
David clearly has good intentions. He has been faithful, he has battled hard for the Lord, and surely now the time would be right to erect a monument to God, to place his people’s most cherished possession within a building that reflects its value in earthly terms.
But the Lord sends a message to David via the prophet Nathan, and asks: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? There is much contained within this one sentence of gentle chiding. God draws David away from any grandiose plans he might have had, and reminds him that God has never asked for a grand temple. God has been present through every step of the People of Israel’s journey and will continue with them. That has never been in question. God instead turns the question to David’s purpose and inclination.
Though David has a rest from battle now, throughout the rest of the book of 2 Samuel, he will be plagued with challenges, many of his own making. Part of what makes David such a relatable and beloved character is that he is both flawed and faithful; he is powerfully human. And perhaps this explains the Lord’s response. David will have plenty to contend with in the coming years. Very soon he will greatly displease the Lord by committing adultery with Bathsheba, and deliberately putting her husband in harms way. The Lord knew that David had some very different building he needed to do. David had faith already; what he needed to do was build his own ability to live according to that faith.
Swedenborg writes that a building houses in the word can metaphorically relate to the building of our own willingness and intentionality.(1) David had brought much glory to the Lord already in battle, had brought together the tribes of Israel and made them into a powerful nation. He knew what God had done for him and his people, he knew the truth of God’s power and steadfastness, and he believed in it deeply. But he had not integrated that belief with his actions in a personal way.
In the Word the good that exists with a person is compared to 'a house', and for that reason one who is governed by good is called 'the House of God’.(2)
David wanted to build a literal house for God, which was a fine idea, but he had forgotten about building a house for God out of his life. Even as he ruled, he would often govern by what was best for him, rather than being governed by what was best for others.
And this why it would be David’s son, King Solomon, who would build the temple. David had established himself as a king through war, whereas the name Solomon is derived from the Hebrew word for “peace.” An adversarial mindset cannot build a house in which God can be worshiped. David even delivered Solomon detailed plans for the temple. But goodness and peace and love must build the temple. For love followed-through-on is what builds the house, the structure, the habits, the perspectives, in which God is truly worshipped, not just our ideas about what is good. We build the temple, the temple of our lives, day by day, when we are able to focus on embodying love to those around us, leaving the world just a little better than we found it; this is how our selfhood becomes a house in which God is glorified.
It is tempting to default to a sense that David was not “good enough.” But that is not what it is about. It is not about earning our salvation, brick by brick. It is about recognizing that we are progressively transformed by the steps we take on each of our journeys. When God asked: “Are you the one who would build me a house to live in?” it is not meant to be framed as a rhetorical measurement, but rather as a reflection; did David understand what building God a house would mean? Fr. Richard Rohr writes:
We all tend to aim for the goal instead of the journey itself, but spiritually speaking, how we get there is where we arrive. The journey determines the final destination. If we manipulate our way, we end up with a manipulated, self-made god. If we allow ourselves to be drawn and chosen by love, we might just end up with the real God.(3)
And this why the temple was not important to God, why God never asked for it to be built. To God, the covenant was the thing that was important, and the covenant was just as active and relevant in a tent as in a temple. God was interested in how faithfulness to the covenant might lead each person might bring glory to God in their own hearts, minds and lives.
This will be brought into an even fuller representation by Mary, betrothed to a descendent of David himself, many hundreds of years later, when her body would actually build a space for God to dwell inside. By this time the temple David had proposed had long been built, and was the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem. Surely the Lord must have been content with that grandest of buildings? But no, this is the point, of course. It is God's intent to dwell with us, personally, in the fullest of possible ways. The Lord does automatically dwell with us, inherently, within our will and our intellect, and the freedom that exists there.(4) This is how we are all images and likeness of the Lord. But God is not content to dwell like a boarder in the guest room, but wishes to dwell as someone who shares the life of the household. The fullness of God’s dwelling with us, the efficacy of it, the realness of it, depends on our response. When God reaches out, what do we do?
This time, Mary’s answer to the question Are you the one to build me a house to live in? was a resounding yes! Her song that follows our reading for today, known as The Magnificat, makes clear that she understood what the coming of the Lord would mean, in her own life, and in the life of the whole world. She said: I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled. None of us will be called to build an actual temple, or to gestate the incarnation of God, but we are called a mystical embodiment of God’s love nonetheless. We all place a plank in our own house of God every time we try to bring some goodness into the world. This is the kind of worship that God cherishes.
God’s question to David really is the most perfect of Advent questions: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? May we receive the question as David, hearing any gentle chiding that we might need to hear, any adjustments to our perspective that need to me made, any follow-through to which we need to commit, any hypocrisy we need to abandon, any stubbornness we need to let go of, any indifference we need to relinquish.
And may we hear also the question as Mary, as one who would say yes, yes to opening our minds wide for the coming of the Lord, yes to how that will stretch and grow our hearts, yes to building a dwelling place for God deep within us, a home where our very life is worship, a house where every moment is praise. Amen.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." 3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you." 4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" 8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.
16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me ; your throne will be established forever.’ ”
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.” 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Divine Providence 96:5
The reason the Lord dwells in these abilities [our will and our intellect] in each of us is found in the inflow of the Lord's intent, an intent that wants to be accepted by us, to make its dwelling within us, and to give us the happiness of eternal life. This is the Lord's intent because it comes from his divine love. It is this intent of the Lord that makes whatever we think and say and intend and do seem to be our own.
Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20, Heaven & Hell #59 (see below)
See also on Youtube
With today’s text, we are near the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has recently been baptized by John the Baptist, and then spends some time in temptation in the wilderness. Now, as John’s time in prison is foreshadowing the price that is to be paid for challenging the powers-that-be, Jesus steps into the public domain and begins his ministry. He starts by calling two sets of brothers to follow him. They are fishermen, and they *immediately* lay down their nets and follow Jesus. The greek word euthus, translated variously as “at once” or “immediately” is a favorite of Mark’s, and he uses it often. It lends an urgent tone to his narrative overall, where things seem to happen at a rapid pace.
Let us think for moment about the disruptive nature of what these brothers did. Fishing was their livelihood; the livelihood of their families. In another 10 verses or so, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, so clearly at least Simon was married and likely had children. There would have been a clear expectation about how these brothers would fulfill their responsibility to the family business. Yet, James and John literally leave their father, Zebedee, in the boat. Certainly we can imagine his puzzled expression, trying to wrap his head around why they would leave him to follow this nobody from Nazareth, without so much as a goodbye, or an explanation.
Let us now contrast this story with that of Jonah. Our text from today is pretty much the only part of the Jonah story that goes well. Jonah is famous, not so much for proclaiming God’s word, but for running away from God’s call. It is a well-known story. God asks Jonah to go to Ninevah, a large Assyrian city, to tell them to repent or they will be destroyed. Assyria at this time, was Israel’s number one enemy. So, Jonah says “no way” and hops on a ship going in the opposite direction. But the story says that God sends a storm to threaten the ship, and so Jonah eventually comes clean and allows himself to be tossed overboard so that the storm will stop. He is then swallowed by a big fish and remains in its belly for three days and nights. When it finally spits him up on dry land, Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh. To Jonah’s dismay, the Ninevites repent immediately and are spared, as we hear in the text. And Jonah is enraged. He feels like a fool, for he suspected this would happen. He says at one point: “I am so angry I wish I were dead.” Such a drama queen. But the Lord asks him (and the story itself ends brilliantly on this question) why should God not have a concern for a city comprised of 120,000 people? Why not indeed.
So, in one story we see the brothers drop their net and stride with purpose away from the ocean. In another, Jonah ends up jumping into the ocean. One to become “fishers of men” and the other “fish food.” What else is different about these two stories? Certainly, the brothers followed God’s call right away, and Jonah did not. But neither will have an entirely straightforward path. The disciples will make many mistakes, including —a biggie—abandoning Jesus at the cross. This seems just as big a betrayal as Jonah’s reluctance, and Jonah did eventually do what God asked of him. Discipleship is clearly a winding path, with some successes and some failures. So I’m not sure it helps us to think that the brothers were perfect in their response and Jonah delinquent. Rather, I find it more interesting to explore the conditions surrounding their call. Even as much as the brothers were leaving the expectations of their context, they did not leave their context entirely. They dropped their nets and went away from social expectations but went into community. The brothers were with each other, they journeyed with Jesus in a group of disciples, and the bible tells us in the same chapter, returned to Simon’s house to heal his mother-in-law of a fever. In fact, they encamped there at Simon’s house to heal many many more people. As itinerant as this rag-tag band was, the gospels are filled with accounts of meals together in houses, of crowds gathering together to hear the good news, to be healed, to be fed. Even at the end, at the resurrection, it is Mary Magdalene and Salome, and Mary the mother of James, wife of poor puzzled Zebedee, who go together to anoint Jesus’ body. Jesus and the disciples are surrounded by layers of community, each stepping up when the other could not. Yes, they went out, they responded to the call, but not in a way that severed their connections to each other.
But Jonah, throughout his story, seems entirely alone. Entirely alone in his truancy, in his distress, in his proclamation, and in his anger. There was no brother to assist him in his preaching, no family to help him countenance his reluctance, or process his anger. The belly of a fish held him fast as he repented of his desertion, but it is a poor substitute for the arms of a community. And it is true that a prophet and a disciple are called to different things. There is an aloneness to the prophetic voice that is perhaps unavoidable. But, we can also sense that Jonah’s pouting and his anger made him more alone than he needed to be. And sometimes, isn’t that how our challenging emotions make us feel? Our shame, our regret, our anger, our resistance gives us a kind of tunnel vision. We are reduced to nothing but that feeling and it is hard to see anything more. I’m sure we can all think of times when this has been he case for us, when our overwhelming feelings have led to a sense of social isolation.
But what if it doesn’t need to be that way for Jonah or for us? What if Jonah had had community surrounding him? What might that have looked like? How do *we* make community for the Jonah parts of ourselves, for the times when Jonah rises up within us? When we want to run, when we want to hide, when we doubt, when we rage, when we cry. How do we enfold the disruption of God’s call, of God’s challenge to our status quo, within the structure of community?
I read a quote this week from Professor Karoline Lewis, a quote that I know I really needed to hear:
“Sometimes, I think we forget that being saved by Jesus, to follow Jesus, means that you have others around to save you on a daily basis. To remind you of who you are and who you are called to be. To see you and appreciate you and celebrate you. To tell you how far you have come and where God still needs you to go. To come alongside you so that you realize you are not alone.
She continues: When Jesus calls the disciples in Mark, notice what’s absent -- no individualism, no being left on your own, no pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. No, “you can handle this, so, buck up, buttercup.” No, “follow me and good luck with that.” Rather, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That is, follow me and more followers are to come. Follow me and you will never be by yourself. Notice -- Jesus calls them together, not separately. Andrew and Simon. Then James and John. Discipleship is not an autonomous profession.”(1)
In discipleship, God calls us into community. And this is really important because to do what Jesus asks, as in verse 14, Repent and believe the good news, we need other people. As I preach over and over, spiritual work can be hard, scary, exhilarating, exhausting….and changing the way we think, trusting in the goodness of the world, all of these thing are harder done alone than with companions. God calls us into community, so that when we are asked to do the things that are difficult, and the Jonah parts of us rise up, we can stay with it. We might feel like we deserve to be in the belly of a fish, but we have a community to tell us differently. Being in a community doesn’t protect us from failing; from pouting like Jonah or constantly not understanding what the kingdom is about like the disciples. But the resurrection, God’s ultimate statement about the existence of a universe that stands for life, and growth and transformation, this brought the disciples back into community, and they went on to form christian community around the world, and through the ages.
Now, Swedenborg doesn’t really tell us a lot about the phenomenon and practice of Christian fellowship. He writes a little bit about how a church should function ecclesiastically and about the responsibilities of its leaders, but not so much about walking together in Christian community, about “doing life together” in modern Christian parlance. What he does write about, a lot, is of course, heavenly communities. In Swedenborg’s worldview, heaven consists of countless communities of the heart, people joined together in fellowship because of the similar loves that they share. All these communities have different roles and functions, and they fit together in a cooperative and inter-related manner like a human body. Swedenborg calls this the Grand Human. The greater Christian world has a similar idea applied to the church: the body of Christ.
Community and inter-relatedness are part of the divine design. The theologian Brian McLaren writes: Although you can learn beliefs in isolation, you can't learn love apart from a community.(1) Whether it is through communities of family, work, church or other, we need other people in order to learn how to love, to challenge us, to hold space for us, to trust us, to believe in us. The God of Divine Love would have it no other way. And as we stand on the precipice of a holiday devoted to gathering for the purpose of thanksgiving, let’s us praise a God who made us for each other.
(2) Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, p56
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
Mark 1: 14-20
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Heaven and Hell #59
The Whole Heaven, Grasped as a Single Entity, Reflects a Single Individual
It is a secret not yet known in this world that heaven, taken in a single all-inclusive grasp, reflects a single individual. In heaven, though, nothing is better known. Knowing this, knowing particulars and details about it, is the hallmark of angelic intelligence there. In fact, many other things follow from it and do not come clearly and distinctly to mind without this as their general principle. Since angels do know that all the heavens, like their communities, reflect a single individual, they refer to heaven as the universal and divine human -"divine" because the Lord's divine nature constitutes heaven.
Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-46, Matthew 25:31-46, The Doctrine of Faith #68, Divine Providence #101:3 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Magda Ehlers
In the gospel of Matthew, this story of the sheep and the goats will be the very last teaching that Jesus delivers before the plot against his life is put into motion and the march toward the cross begins. One imagines then that it is a pretty important teaching. We start out with a depiction of the coming of God’s kingdom, where there will be separation between kinds of people, pictured as the work of a shepherd. The sheep are those who ministered to others, not as a way to receive reward, but because it was the right thing to do. The goats are those to whom such ministry did not even occur. Both are surprised that their action, or lack of action, would mean something to God…but God reveals that God is present with those in need, with the “least of these,” and that how we act has relationship to who we become.
Technically, this story is less of a parable, than it is an apocalyptic drama. In a parable, we begin with a familiar setting which is then tweaked a little in order to bring a new understanding, to demonstrate something about the nature of God’s kingdom. In this case, we first start with a description of what is going to happen in God’s kingdom, and then it is revealed by what means this will come to pass, through the grounded and familiar acts of caring for one another. This is actually what the word apocalypto in greek means: to reveal. In modern use the term has become associated with an idea of endings, but really, an apocalypse is simply a revealing, a lifting of the veil. What makes this lifting of the veil so powerful is that what we see behind the curtain is not otherworldly but decidedly earthly, the intersection of need and brokenness with compassion.
Now, understandably, the Matthew passage will lead us to focus on our actions, our process, as we imagine ourselves as either sheep or goat. But first, I’d like a step back and recognize how this parable is a larger picture of God’s work in the world. I would like to dwell for a moment on the king in the story, the one who recalls the image of shepherd in Ezekiel, the one who reveals his own solidarity with those who are in need.
From our reading today, indeed from the whole of scripture, we learn that loving God is inseparable from loving others. This is because we cannot love God without loving the character, the nature of God; and the nature of God is pure love. In Ezekiel, we see this nature pictured in God as a shepherd, a God who cares about his flock. In this picture, we learn that God notices and identifies with those who suffer. God is with us, among us, traveling with us. God is affected by our suffering, doesn’t want it to continue. God wants healing, wholeness, blessedness, plenty…and not for God but for US. We must remember again, that this was a very new concept in antiquity, that such a God could exist. Yet this is every human’s story: We find ourselves in exile or in need, we are lost sheep, yet God seeks for us, looks for us, bring us out of what is enslaving us, feeds us and cares for us. The exile might be due to our own sin, or it might not, but God’s presence does not depend upon the genesis of the suffering. God’s action may well change in response to different conditions, for a sheep wandering into a ravine on it’s own will require a different response to a sheep falling prey to a wolf, but the response of God’s heart is the same regardless; to reach out and to save.
And so as we begin to approach the Advent season, we can see that the incarnation we will soon be celebrating is grounded in this kind of God, this shepherd God who tends and guides and protects. We are about to learn just how far this God would go. How far God would go for the hungry, the thirsty, the estranged, the entrapped, the vulnerable, for us. God would go as far as it took. God embodied, quite literally, this parable and calls us to do the same.
And how easy it sounds, how poetic, these well known verses. How peaceful and pastoral this shepherd image might seem. But anyone with a knowledge of farming will understand how messy shepherding really is. How down and dirty one must become. How acquainted with mud, and food and weather and birthing and physical exertion. And this is when everything goes right! How difficult shepherding becomes, how difficult caring becomes, when we are afraid of each others brokenness.
What struck me today, though, was the fact that both the goats and the sheep were surprised. This surprise is important, narratively. It’s purpose is to communicate that the sheep were not calculating - they did not care for others in order to get into heaven, they cared because they were moved by suffering. And for the goats, it is to communicate that thoughtlessness and self-absorption is not protective. Just because the goats did not cause the suffering of the least, does not mean their inaction was morally neutral. To quote the author Charles M. Blow: One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.
And yet, of course, no one is purely sheep or purely goat. We all have sheep-y and goat-y tendencies, habits and impulses mixed up together. And now that the gospel has been proclaimed, now that we see this reality of what could be, we are called to exercise a ongoing separation of the sheep and the goats within ourselves. We are called to recognize the times we do not want to see the least, the times we shut our eyes, the times we justify our blindness, the times we argue that some people and things are just too hopeless to be resurrected. And, we are likewise called to recognize the times we *do* see with God’s eyes, the times we are moved to feed, house, bind, connect, the times we recognize God in the least, God connected to the world. And hopefully, in recognition of the king who acts like a shepherd, of a God who would get down in the mud, we call on our goat-y-ness to be transformed, and we do the work that would make it so.
Where then is the surprise? Is there still room for surprise in the ongoing work of regeneration? In spiritual work, driven as it is by reflection and self-knowledge, surprise seems impossible. If we are trying to become like the sheep, it will not surprise us if we do become so. The thing about having a progressive theology of salvation, about recognizing that the sheep and goats are parts of all of us, is that the simple and instant judgment of the text today is revealed as a snapshot…the whole point is for the goats to become sheep-in-training, just as we strive to become angels-in-training. And so the surprise becomes less a pre-requisite for a sheep-nature, but rather the reward. To quote Helen Keller “there is joy in self-forgetfulness.”
If heaven is a state of mind, a state of being, then perhaps the surprise is the peace and freedom that comes from not calculating anymore, from being able to finally forget our selfishness and fear. If heaven is a state of mind, then we must accept that, to get there, our goat-like minds will change over time, and we are an ongoing construction project. We heard in our Swedenborg reading today “life constructs a belief system for itself and constructs a faith for itself.” To me this sounds a lot like neuroplasticity, a term meaning the ability of the adult brain to change over time, that our experiences and actions can contribute to the alteration of the synaptic structure of the brain.
Our life over time constructs the way we understand things. The sheep were surprised because their actions had re-made them. They had acted their way into a new way of thinking. When the veil is lifted on the kingdom, we will see that we cannot escape the imperative toward action through right or pure belief, for the answer does not begin thought at all. The answer is compassion, literally “feeling together,” the answer is connection, first and foremost.
Transformation of the self is possible. What an amazing, simple, breath-taking hope…a hope and a faith that leads us straight into Advent, where a God believed in us so strongly that God would reach so far, straight into the heart of our vulnerability, our need, our blindness. Because the fact is, as we are now, sometimes we are the sheep, sometimes we are goats, many times we ourselves are the least, in body or spirit. We find ourselves on all sides of the equation, mired in suffering and need. And so was God. God was, and is, both shepherd and lamb, redeemer and sufferer, teacher and baby, both the king and the least. And for this we are grateful. Amen.
11 “ ‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. 17 “ ‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet? 20 “ ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The failure of caring in the people described in Matthew shows that goats mean people who are devoted to a faith divorced from caring…A neglect of deeds is characteristic of people who are devoted to a faith divorced from caring because of their refusal to believe that deeds have anything to do with salvation or the church. When people so set aside caring—which consists of deeds—then faith fails as well, because faith comes out of caring…
Divine Providence #101:3
In the spiritual world where we all arrive after death, no one asks what our faith has been or what our beliefs have been, only what our life has been, whether we are one kind of person or another. They know that the quality of our faith and the quality of our beliefs depend on the quality of our life, because life constructs a belief system for itself and constructs a faith for itself.
Sermon by Ministry Student Tirah Keal
Readings: Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18, Matthew 22: 34-46, Secrets of Heaven #2023, Divine Providence #94 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Jamez Picard on Unsplash
These passages told us about the Two Great Commandments: Love the Lord and Love the neighbor, which means basically, Be nice to people. While you can dig really deep into these passages that we read, you can spend hours studying them, all the same, they are as simple as they sound. If You’re Loving the Lord, you will be loving the neighbor. If you're loving your neighbor, that is loving the Lord. Best two for one deal ever.
I don't know about you but I often get in my head way too much about it, thinking that it can't be that simple, it can't be that easy. Especially if I am trying to be a good citizen of the world and I'm reading the news, It's kinda bleak. In fact the news is usually the bad news. That’s what we see in the Headlines - what's wrong with the world today? So then I go okay how about I just look at national news that'll be less right? Nope, still bad, still hard, still frustrating and scary. How about local news? Even local news is overwhelmingly sad. I feel this sense that if I'm loving my neighbor I should be helping fix these problems. And Suddenly I’m exhausted and overwhelmed and very quickly pretty depressed. And now not only am I not fixing the world, I'm not even doing the dishes or taking a shower or showing up for my kids when they're upset.
Sometimes loving the neighbor looks an awful lot like self-care. That's weird for me, it's a relatively new thing to encounter the concept that the following list of things - in no particular order - can fall under the heading Loving the Neighbor:
Getting a good night's sleep
Doing the laundry
Taking a Shower
Putting on deodorant
Washing the dishes
Brushing my Teeth - How is that love for the neighbor? Because now I don’t have bad breath!
If I get a good night’s sleep, then I get up on time, then I leave for work on time, then as I’m driving I'm not stressed out and hanging on to the wheel for dear life and cutting people off in traffic. No. Instead, I'm relaxed and I can peacefully enjoy my commute. Then when I get to work I'm calm and centered so that if other people are distressed I can be like "it's okay, welcome how can I help?" So it's love for the neighbor to get a good night’s sleep because that can lead to a lovely interaction in my workplace.
We fall into a trap very easily of thinking that little actions aren't big enough. For a little while I worked as a cashier at a grocery store. When people came to the checkout with their piles of groceries, I would say “How are you?” and very often the response was just “I’m fine.” But more often than you might think someone would say “actually I'm feeling sad, I just lost my sister” or “my family is coming to town I'm so excited!” They would share genuinely from their heart how they were doing in that moment. It was such a gift to be able to celebrate with them, or grieve with them. It was such a gift for me to be able to turn to someone who just told me a tragedy and say “I'm so sorry, I lost my mom when I was young I know how that feels” and it made both of us lighter.
Love to the neighbor doesn't have to be big and showy, in fact for most of us it's never going to be big and showy. It's going to be the little things, but don’t underestimate those little things because we never know the ripple effect that they're having. Let’s say a person in a really sad mood came to the grocery store and I checked them out, and as I checked them out, hopefully I rang up their groceries correctly, but in the meantime, we talked and as they left maybe they felt a little lighter. Maybe that meant that when they went home that night they could prepare dinner for their family with love and lightness in their heart. Maybe that made it a little easier to make dinner. Maybe that meant that as their family sat around the dinner table they could have a heart-to-heart conversation rather than sit sullenly in silence or argue with each other. These are little tiny gifts we give each other, and they do exactly what these readings were telling us - that the Lord's love is flowing into all of us all the time. To follow these two great Commandments all we have to do is share.
But we're not always the ones giving, sometimes we're the ones receiving. Sometimes we're the ones that are low. Sometimes I'm the one that's depressed and I need to go to somebody and say I”'m not okay and I need help.” I'm not failing to follow the two great Commandments if I need help. Failing to follow the two great Commandments would be refusing help if it's offered, or not asking for help when I know I need it. I've been guilty of that, there are times that I get mad and then I get kind of stubborn. Somebody who knows me well will be aware that I’m upset, and they'll come and to me and ask “are you OK”? and I respond “I'm fine” but I'm not fine at all! By refusing to engage, by refusing to say “yeah I'm not I'm not okay” I’ve shut them off and I don't accept their help. That is breaking the two Great Commandments, that's shutting off the flow of Love from the Lord.
Sometimes following the two great Commandments can even look pretty confrontational. If I'm overloaded and I'm not going to be able to accomplish important things that need to get done, following the two great Commandments can be standing my ground and saying “No I can't.” Sometimes people don't like that answer. I'm a mom, I spend a lot of time taking care of my kids - doing the things that other people in the house didn't notice needed to get done. If I'm sick or depressed, or just really busy, and can’t do things things I normally do, then my family suddenly notices the things that didn't get done - the dishes are piled high,the laundry is all dirty etc. I could think I'm a failure, that I’m not loving my neighbor, but actually in that moment loving the neighbor can be me saying “how about you guys wash some dishes.” That's still loving the neighbor.
Hopefully we take these lessons into our lives and live these teachings, so here's the challenge for us this week: Don't underestimate the little kindnesses, they're a bigger deal than you think, and be willing to ask for help when you need it.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
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.
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,
35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.
36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
38 This is the greatest and first commandment.
39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Secrets of Heaven #2023
The divine presence among people who believe in the Lord is love and charity. Love means love for the Lord. Charity means love for our neighbor. Love for the Lord cannot possibly be separated from love for our neighbor, because the Lord's own love goes out to the entire human race. He wants to save all of us forever and to attach us tightly to himself so that not one of us will perish. So anyone who loves the Lord has the Lord's own love and consequently cannot help loving others.
Divine Providence #94
The Lord's union with us and our mutual union with the Lord are accomplished through our loving our neighbor as ourselves and loving the Lord above all. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is simply not dealing dishonestly or unfairly with people, not harboring hatred or burning with revenge against them, not speaking ill of them or slandering them …. people who do not do such things because they are both bad for their neighbor and sins against God treat their neighbor honestly, fairly, cordially, and faithfully. Since the Lord acts in the same way, a mutual union results. When there is a mutual union, then whatever we do for our neighbor we do from the Lord, and whatever we do from the Lord is good.
Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7, Matthew 22:15-22, Divine Love & Wisdom #326 (see below)
See also on Youtube
For the last several weeks, we are have been following the lectionary in Matthew, and Jesus’ occupation of the temple in Jerusalem, where he has been using parables to criticize the powers that be: the high priests and the Pharisees for forgetting about the everyday people, and using their high religious and political positions for their own gain. The priests and Pharisees have been spending their time conspiring and trying to discredit Jesus, trying to get him to say something that will get him in trouble and end the stand-off. And this is what the text is about today, a question from them about taxes that is supposed to be a trap.
First, what is this tax that they are referencing? It was called the census tax, and it was instituted when Judea became a Roman province. So, it was a tax levied just on Jewish citizens, not Roman ones. Not surprisingly, the Jewish people hated it. and it’s institution triggered the development of a nationalist movement called the Zealots, who later fomented rebellion against Rome themselves. Now, this tax was really not at all like the taxes that we pay in a democratic society, where, at least in theory, taxes are used for the betterment of all citizens, and where we have the option to vote out our representatives if we don’t like the way they are using our tax money. To the Jews, the payment of this tax was a constant reminder of their occupied and defeated state as a people, and it went directly towards the perpetuation of their oppression. So, of course, they were incredibly resentful about it. They would have been very happy to hear Jesus say that the tax should not be paid. Jesus would then be fulfilling many of their collective dreams about the coming Messiah who would return them to independence and finally throw off Roman rule. And the pharisees knew that, that it would disappoint Jesus followers to hear him say the tax was lawful.
But the Pharisees also knew that saying what the people wanted to hear would raise the ire of Rome. The empire was relentless about putting down rebellion, and in fact, this is what the practice of crucifixion was all about - the public display of an extremely shameful, slow and painful death as a deterrent to anyone who would even think about challenging the empire. The Zealot movement would learn this painful lesson about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when they rebelled against Rome and Rome completely ravaged Jerusalem, destroying the temple, which would never be rebuilt, even to this day. So the Pharisees were trying to put Jesus in between a rock and a hard place. What is fascinating is the hypocrisy involved, which Jesus calls out. As experts and scholars in the law, their question to Jesus, “is it lawful” was a question about the Torah, not about the lawfulness of taxes in general. And as scholars of the Torah themselves, of course they had an opinion about it, which was, that in principle the tax was not lawful. They just did not publicly say that and resist it. So, they were trying to get Jesus into trouble for an opinion that they actually agreed with, but did not choose to act upon.
So obviously, the question is a trap. If Jesus answers that the tax should be paid, then the people would be disappointed (and disappointed people often get angry). If Jesus answered that it should not be paid, then he would anger the Roman authorities for fomenting rebellion. Jesus’ answer though, is one of his typical non-answers, vague enough that he could not be trapped either way. Though it might look like just a clever evasion, it contains much more than meets the eye.
The most common interpretation of this episode is that it represents an argument for the modern conception of the separation of church and state. There is a secular realm (Caesar’s realm) and a religious realm (God’s realm), and they should be compartmentalized separately. While certainly, there are lots of good arguments for the separation of church and state, it is not likely that this was intended to be one of them in Jesus time because the modern notion of the separation of church and state is just that: modern. Ancient readers would not likely have understood this verse in that way. The way that religion and politics interacted then was very different then to the way it does now, in the democracies and constitutional monarchies of the modern world.
How else then, did Jesus mean it? Well, at first, it sounds like we are getting an indirect yes on the face of it. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Ok sure, pay the tax that is due to Caesar. Simple right? Except, then he goes on: “give to God what is God’s.” What *is* God’s then? Oh, everything. And so what seems like a simple answer actually becomes a subversion of the phenomenon of empire as a whole, empire that would try to claim territory, treasure and people as its own. Nothing can actually be the empire’s own. We heard in the Isaiah reading about a God whose presence is in everything, who was even in the actions of a foreign monarch, Cyrus without his acknowledgement, who formed light and darkness and who created all things. “I am the Lord and there is no other.” Or from our responsive reading, Psalm 24 “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.”
In Jesus’ answer, we see an affirmation of the fact that a separation of the secular and religious is ultimately impossible. Now, by this, I don’t mean that the modern separation of church and state in political systems is useless or ill-advised; on the contrary, within a human system such as politics, the separation of realms is an important safeguard. But as a philosophical and theological matter, we see that the presence and the imprint of God in the world and in our lives is much larger than a human system can contain or express. God is the source of all life, all creativity, all love, all wisdom…so all our decisions, all our striving has relationship to God.
This becomes even more intriguing when we consider what the inscription is on the coin Jesus asked them to bring: “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” The emperors of Rome routinely made the claim to be divine, to be the Son of God and the High Priest of the Roman empire. To the Jewish people, to those who believed in the “I am the Lord and there is no other,” this was an entirely blasphemous claim. So, it was not just the image of the emperor on the coin that prevented the use of Roman money in the temple, which is why Jesus famously expelled the money changers, but also the explicit claim that the image served to express: that there was some other divine being apart from the Lord to which people should give allegiance.
And in drawing attention to the image of the emperor, Jesus also draws attention to all that empire stood for and all the ways the Pharisees were complicit. In asking the Pharisees to give him the coin from their own hand, he was also showing how they played a part in the essential usurping of God’s divinity for the purposes of empire, for the purposes of the consolidation of power, and the perpetuation of injustice that power demands. Because imagine if the emperor really did have divine power - what would it be dedicated to? It’s own preservation on the backs of marginalized and occupied people. Whereas the power of God is dedicated to the renewal and restoration of *all people*, enacted and embodied through God’s steadfastness and loyalty to the Jewish people of that time. The image of God is dedicated to a heaven from the human race, dedicated to the regeneration and growth of all people, dedicated to the reconciliation of the whole world.
So, the image of Caesar exists only to serve itself, whereas the image of God exists to love, to serve, to create. It is not surprising then that the image of Caesar was imprinted on money, a proxy for power and accumulation. Conversely, God’s image is imprinted in the whole world, in the way that the universe is made to be useful, and in the capacity for every human being to receive love and wisdom.
So, the driving question left behind by Jesus enigmatic answer is: where do we see the image of God? Caesar and empire sees the image of God in the self, and the things that serve the self. Whereas where does Jesus want us we see the image of God? Everywhere. Everyone.
It is one of Jesus’ clearest teachings. Yet somehow, we still fail. Somehow we still forget. We try to take the image of God and like Caesar, claim it’s definition, so that we might feel like we are okay, safe, certain, superior. The most extreme form is Caesar claiming to BE God, but the much more common, less extreme form, is saying that we are LIKE God, or God is LIKE me, …like my gender, like my racial group, like my religious group, and this is how we end up with all kinds of war and oppression.
The only thing preventing any one person from embodying the image of God is idolatry, the inversion of God’s gift of love and wisdom towards the self, or a selfish ideal, not any of the outward characteristics by which we usually try to judge people. How ironic then, that Caesar’s very act of claiming God’s image for himself was the very act that proved that he wasn’t in that image at all. So, let us then give back to Caesar all the things that cause us to turn our own backs on the image of God, that cause us to despise, dismiss or disparage others. Let us subvert the reach of empire by refusing to act by the rule of power and gain. Let us instead give glory and gratitude to God for a universe that bears God’s image, for an divine order that supports life, growth and resurrection.
1 “This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: 2 I will go before you and will level the mountains ; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. 3 I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. 4 For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, 6 so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. 8 “You heavens above, rain down my righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness flourish with it; I, the LORD, have created it.
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
Divine Love &Wisdom #326
We can tell from all this, then, that if we focus on functions, there is a human image to everything in the universe. We can also tell that this testifies to the fact that God is human, because the things just listed do not come into being around angelic people from themselves, but from the Lord through them. They actually arise from the flow of divine love and wisdom into the angels, who are recipients, and are brought forth to their sight the way the universe is created. So people there know that God is human and that the created universe, functionally viewed, is an image of God.
Readings: Isaiah 25:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14, True Christianity #371
See also on Youtube
Photo by Rachel Claire: https://www.pexels.com/photo/banquet-table-with-candles-and-plates-4992827/
We heard two weeks ago about a God who is constantly reaching out to us. Divine Love cannot do anything else. So, it is not a surprise to hear this week that God is constantly inviting us to a banquet, as we heard in Isaiah, constantly calling for our presence, for the presence of all people. This invitation comes to us in many different ways and surely we are incredibly blessed that God loves us all so deeply. And if last week was about God’s invitation, then this week centers our response. For the story of God’s great love is only half the story. Is this love of God’s requited? What does it mean to reciprocate God’s love? What does God require of us?
We enter into the text today in the same place we have been for several weeks. Jesus is occupying the temple, and the chief priests and Pharisees are trying to discredit him. Jesus does not back down however, and levels increasingly pointed criticism of the priest’s conduct with a series of parables, of which this one is the culmination. We see from the language used, the phrase “Jesus spoke to them again,” that the narrative tension is continuing to mount, and thus everything in the parable is heightened as well. There are some familiar aspects, certainly, like the form of a wedding banquet but as is usual for a parable, there are out-of-the-ordinary and disproportionate aspects. This time armies are marching and cities are burned, while supposedly dinner is still on the table, and a man is thrown into the outer darkness for not having the right clothes. We are again uncomfortable, which is good, because now we are listening.
It was the custom in that time for invitations to an event to be issued in a two-fold way. The first invitation was issued in advance, and a general day given, to which people would indicate their acceptance. Then, on the day itself, when the food and the household had been prepared, then people would be notified that it was time to attend. It is actually this second invitation that we are witnessing in the text. So, it is not just a situation of people not being free to attend. Rather, these are people who had already agreed to attend, and who were now refusing to come. We don’t need to understand much of ancient custom to relate…this is socially unacceptable in any time. It is an upsetting upheaval of the guest/host relationship. In Matthew’s particular context, writing as he is to a primarily Jewish audience, the first half of the invitation would have been understood as Israel’s original covenant with the Lord, and the second invitation, the reminder, would have been understood as Jesus and his subsequent Christian missionaries.
Swedenborg talks to us about what this invitation means in a more personal way, how the invitation plays out in our spiritual psychology. The two-fold invitation can also be a picture of how the Lord invites us to engage with the spiritual life; how divine truth presents itself to us, and how we are invited by the Lord to interact with it. The first invitation is to our intellect, our thinking mind. We are presented with true ideas to which we might feel positively disposed. Yes, we say to ourselves, these things are true, and I assent to them, in a general way. Such as, God is love, or God loves all people and wants them to thrive, or God intends all people to heaven, or it matters to our spiritual state how we live our life. These things are universally and generally true; we believe them. This is like agreeing to come to the banquet when the invitation is still aways off. The second invitation, however, is to our will. Now the invitation is not somewhere off in the far off future, the invitation is now, today, asking us to attend when we said that we would. This invitation is asking us to take the generally true ideas that we have assented to, and to actually live them, to actually act as if they are true.
And what the people in the text did, well, isn’t that often the same thing that what we do? We make excuses. The text says “they paid no attention and went off — one to his field and another to his business.” There is a story similar to this one in the book of Luke, in which the invited make even more detailed excuses. In that version, The first says, I have bought a field and I must go see it, the second says I have bought some oxen that I must go see, and the third says I have married a wife, so I cannot come. At least they sound somewhat apologetic.
Honestly, these excuses sound fairly reasonable, as I am sure all our our own justifications sound to ourselves. But the excuses prevent them from attending the banquet; prevent them from seeing their promises through. We RSVP’d to God’s invitation. Now we should come. But, as I said, this second invitation is to our will. What if we don’t *want* to come? What if we are afraid to? The demands of divine truth, the demands of attending the banquet that we said we would attend - this can be scary. Actually living according the truths that we have assented to in our intellect means that we might have to sacrifice something, something of our own making, our own wants and desires. And it means we might have to spend something, something of our own time, focus, energy. The people in the text don’t want to leave their own pursuits, didn’t want to leave their own priorities and goals…their field, their business, their oxen, their wife. And it is okay to have things of our own that we care about. Our sense of self, our sense that we can build and create and sustain things on our own is an important gift from the Lord. Without it, reciprocation of the Lord’s love would not be possible. But sometimes we can become too enamored with our own sense of accomplishment. Like the screens we are surrounded with these days, it can be hard to tear ourselves away from our incessant drive to accumulate, either goods or social currency. This is understandable - in this culture our sense of self-worth is closely tied to our performance and our accomplishments. Yet, in the midst of this reality, God calls us to a banquet, calls us to a magnificent meal that, as we hear in Isaiah text, is set in the midst of chaos, set in the midst of our troubles, our shame, our challenges, our distractions. How audacious. How inconvenient. How divinely patient and loving.
This tension of whether or not to attend this banquet, whether or not to follow-through, whether or not to show up and how to show up, is continued in the depiction of the guest without the wedding garment. On the face of it, this man is treated terribly unfairly. How could someone invited on the spur of the moment, someone without means, be expected to have the proper clothing? Why does the host not understand this? It seems really harsh. There are several ways to try to understand what the gospel writer is getting at here. In early Christian thought, the new identity of conversion was often pictured as putting on a new set of clothes. It is a powerful image. In addition, some scholars believe there is evidence that a wealthy host in antiquity might have had a store of clothing that that he would provide to guests, that the guest is therefore deliberately choosing not to take advantage of the host’s hospitality and is therefore communicating disrespect. While there isn’t full agreement on this point, what is clear is that in that ancient setting, the proper *exchange* of hospitality was extremely important. There is still a sense that those showing up would have a certain obligation to the host, even if they didn’t expect that they would be attending. We can argue about whether the expectations of the host were reasonable, but at least in the allegorical sense that Jesus has been presenting so far, we begin to understand that while God extends the invitation far and wide, to all people, our response to the invitation is also important. We shouldn’t excuse ourselves from attending the party, and neither should we should we show up without the intent to be a good guest, as far as we possibly can.
Because, the Lord is interested in a *reciprocal* relationship with us. Imagine that, we are so important to God that our response not only matters, but is integral to the quality of our relationship with God. As we heard in the reading for today, the Lord is seeking a partnership with us, a conjunction that involves engagement, that involves giving and receiving, that involves awareness of where we stand, and a willingness to listen and learn.
What an amazing honor this is, it really seems incredible, even more incredible that this invitation should be offered to every single living being. Really accepting the invitation though, means more than being a body in the room. This is a wedding banquet. In the Swedenborgian sense, a marriage represents union many different levels, and ultimately it represents the heavenly marriage, which is the marriage of love and wisdom within God. To show up to a wedding banquet means to show up and be ready to celebrate this union of love and wisdom and to work to effect their conjunction in our lives and in the world. For what is love, but the soul of what is wise, and what is wisdom but the understanding of how to effectively, consistently and bravely love? When we show up to the banquet ready commit ourselves to the beauty and the usefulness of the heavenly marriage, we must show up clothed in the readiness to explore the elusive balance of this principle. We must show up clothed in awareness, humility, courage, and in a willingness to ground our truths in real life.
Because it is surely not *easy* to love wisely, as we are finding in these turbulent times. We lean too far into the pursuit of wisdom and it becomes an excuse for judgment, coldness and self-satisfaction. We lean too far into the pursuit of love and it becomes an mechanism by which we indulge our own neediness and prop up our own lack of self-worth. Wisdom gives form to love, and love gives life to wisdom, and they cannot exist one without the other.
So showing up to the banquet of the heavenly marriage requires something of us. It means working to be conjoined with the Lord. It means taking the things we may believe in our intellect, and putting them into practice, it means showing up clothed in an awareness of how much work that is going to be, and also how important it is! But it also means a celebration of a God that is constantly inviting, constantly laying out a banquet for all people, a God dedicated to enacting the marriage of love and wisdom for the purpose of creating blessedness, happiness, fullness, peace and joy, through providence and through us.
So let us clothe ourselves in our wedding garments everyday. Let us be dressed and ready in heart and mind, to attend the banquet of the Lord. Amen.
1 LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name, for in perfect faithfulness you have done wonderful things, things planned long ago. 2 You have made the city a heap of rubble, the fortified town a ruin, the strangers’ stronghold a city no more; it will never be rebuilt. 3 Therefore strong peoples will honor you; cities of ruthless nations will revere you. 4 You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a
shade from the heat. For the breath of the ruthless is like a storm driving against a wall 5 and like the heat of the desert. You silence the uproar of strangers; as heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is stilled. 6 On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. 7 On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. 9 In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”
1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. 4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. 13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
True Christianity #371
Our partnership with the Lord is reciprocal: the Lord is in us and we are in the Lord…
…Because the partnership is reciprocal, it obviously follows that we have to unite ourselves to the Lord so that the Lord will unite himself to us. Otherwise there will be a parting and a separation rather than a partnership - not on the Lord's initiative but on our own.
…It is a mutual partnership that is brought about by cooperation rather than action and reaction. The Lord acts. We receive the Lord's action. We then function as if we were on our own. In fact, we function on our own from the Lord…since the Lord continually keeps us in free choice…The Lord gives us this freedom so that we can forge a reciprocal partnership and be granted life and eternal blessedness as a result - something that would be impossible without a reciprocal partnership.
Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46, Secrets of Heaven #4599 (see below)
Photo by Tim Mossholder: https://www.pexels.com/photo/macro-shot-of-leaves-3895185/
The parable from Matthew today is pretty brutal. It’s gratuitously violent, and we automatically shrink from its telling. We don’t want these words coming out of Jesus’ mouth, just as we don’t want terrible things to happen in God’s creation. But they do happen. Evil sometimes appears to prevail, we countenance loss and trauma, we find ourselves in lament, grappling and wrestling with the devastating reality that we are fragile, limited, and not in control. We might wonder: where is God in all of this? As our hearts are breaking from all our various losses, where is God? God is right beside us, meeting us where we are, right in the midst of the carnage, right in the midst of the loss and fear and anger and pain, God meets us there, heart-breaking in tandem with us, and whispers a love story. A love story? How can this be? How can our terrible, brutal realities, like the parable from the text today, have anything to do with a love story? Well, let’s start with looking at Isaiah.
The reading for Isaiah 5 begins as if it were a love poem. “I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard.” Such songs were common in ancient times; often Hebrew love poetry would refer to the beloved as a vineyard. But as soon as we hear verse 2, the tone begins to change and by the end of verse 2 we understand that things are not going well: the vineyard is not producing fruit. In verse 3 the speaker changes, and we hear imaginatively from the owner, asking the people of Jerusalem to judge what more he could possibly have done. Again, this is a familiar form…the prophets would often style their writings in the form of a trial, with God presenting all the evidence of God’s people turning away. Finally in verse 7, the prophet speaks as himself again, revealing the vineyard to be the people of Israel and Judah. That verse ends with the poignancy of dashed expectations, rendered with wordplay that we cannot hear in translation. “And he looked for justice but saw bloodshed, for righteousness but heard cries of distress.” In Hebrew, the word couplets sound very similar…he looked for justice (מִשְׁפָּט mishpâṭ) but saw bloodshed (מִשְׂפָּח mispâch), for righteousness (צְדָקָה tsᵉdâqâh) but heard a cry (צַעֲקָה tsaʻăqâh).”
So, on the face of it, this chapter in Isaiah is more like a country song than a love poem: the story of love gone wrong. It is God’s immense love, though, that begins it all. It begins in the assumption of love that God has for God’s people, the work and care and nurture that God has put/does put into us, and comparing this to the work that an owner might put into caring for a vineyard. The ancient Israelites understood how much work this was on the land of the Middle East, rocky, hilly, difficult land, which takes a lot of work to cultivate. But work that God is clearly willing to do. We see the Genesis of this love story right where the bible begins with God creatively and lovingly bringing forth the world and all its abundant blessings, again called “work” which God rested from on the Sabbath. This is picture of a God who loves, and works to make that love known.
What else becomes possible, though, when we are invested in something? The possibility of disappointment. In Isaiah, we see the prophets' picture of God’s disappointment, as imagined by a prophet who is disappointed too, disappointed on God’s behalf, angry on God’s behalf, desperate to see a people bear the fruits that he knows they are capable of. Why all these feelings? Because of love. God loves God’s people, and a prophet always loves their people too. We hear in Jeremiah chapter 9: “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.” Love is imaginative and optimistic. Love sees the potential for good and wants to make it a reality. And thus Love also mourns for this reality delayed, destroyed, or ignored.
The disappointment in the writings of the prophets has an even deeper quality, in that many times evil is not an accident, and not a mistake. The rich and powerful of Israel and Judah were consciously ignoring God’s will for justice, and they knew better. And thus the disappointment is coupled with bewilderment; what more can God do? Perhaps we can relate to that sense of bewilderment and sadness and powerlessness as we contemplate the tragedies of this world, like war or climate change. How long, oh Lord, how long?
Taking the next step, and broadening our lens, we see the love story that is begun in Genesis, continued in Isaiah, is continued in the gospels as well. In the temple context, the rich and elite are still ignoring God’s vision for the thriving of all people, the same problem as always. What is God to do? Does God punish? Does God give up? No, this God doubles down in what might be the most powerful gesture of love, care and nurture possible: the incarnation. God reaches forth God’s nature so completely as to be one of us, to root God’s self in our ground, to experience our experience, and our suffering. This is what God did for us; a powerful ministry of presence and solidarity. And it is in this sense, that the parable from Matthew speaks to us as the continuation of God’s love song. Jesus birth, life and death, and presence, as the ultimate expression of love.
Because, even the scholars who most adamantly oppose automatically allegorical readings of the parables, admit that such a reading is impossible to ignore in our Matthew text. Jesus is calling forth the whole history of the Jewish people by telling this particular tale. The image of the nation of Israel as a vineyard is used often in the Old Testament - there would be no confusion at all about what Jesus was saying. He was calling the priests and the Pharisees out for being like those evil tenants, of being like the recalcitrant Israel of old, enriching themselves and forgetting about the least among them. The parables’s servants are God’s prophets throughout time, like Isaiah, who spoke on behalf of God, often with negative outcomes for themselves. And, of course, the beloved son, Jesus, is the ultimate, intimate reaching forth of God’s presence. Now, the owner acts pretty uncharacteristically for that time, for any time. Seriously, one murder-y episode would have been plenty enough to otherwise have convinced a man of clear financial means to rally some forces and rout those awful tenants. But what looks like naive patience in the parable, in allegory becomes the all-encompassing nature of God’s divine love…we all get way more chances than we deserve because humanity is often pretty horrible. But God still reaches out, even in the hell that we make for ourselves, God waits for an opportunity to reach us.
We often make it pretty difficult to be reached. Even with all the things that make the vineyard work, and produce fruit, we often decide to twist them and use for our own purposes. From Swedenborg, we learn that the machinery of the vineyard represent ways that God sets us up to be fruitful. In particular, as we heard in our reading, the watchtower, which in earthly ways works for the purpose of the safety and security of the vineyard, in the spirit represents interior things, internal aspects of truth, principles, ideas, which stand above our everyday life and oversee our work and our actions. From the tower, with the benefit of a larger survey, a larger sight, we see how our life is organized, how it might need to be organized. Another way to say this is: what do we make “high” in our lives, what do we put “above” all else as the most important things by which we will be guided? It might be something like, the golden rule, the doctrine of use, all people are created equal, all people should have access to food and shelter, freedom of speech, or respect for the rule of law. The tower will represent things that we consider to be integral to us being able to produce “good fruit.”
The contrary representative sense of tower is the worship of self.(1) Remember the story of the tower of Babel? When we place ourselves and our own needs as the ultimate, as the one “highest” and most integral thing that organizes our lives, then it is no surprise if we produce “bad” grapes, grapes which do not reflect the love of God in the world. When the “tower” is ourselves and our own benefit, then that will be all we can see, the servants approaching from the owner will represent material impediments to our own agenda, and we will do whatever we can to destroy them. This can be a simple as closing our eyes to the truth; thinking that if we don’t acknowledge the truth, then it doesn’t have to exist. And when we make the tower ourselves, even in the smallest or most ordinary of ways, the outcome will always be to destroy the sweet, life-giving nourishment of the grapes.
The fruitfulness of the vineyard is God’s main purpose, for God’s love to be known and felt, for God’s love to transform and lift up and inspire. The good news is that we may *feel* broken, we may feel irredeemable, we may feel discouraged, but God keeps on sending those servants, keeps on sending that inspiration, some words, a hug, an intervention, a just law, a sunset, a flower, a wake-up call, a song, a revolution, a baby in a manger. Because God will go as far as God possibly can to be near us, to be with us. Isn’t that what we do when we love someone?
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #1306
1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. 3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? 5 Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. 6 I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” 7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “ ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Secrets of Heaven 4599
The reason 'beyond the tower' means towards more interior aspects is that things which are more interior are expressed as objects that are lofty and high - as mountains, hills, towers, housetops, and the like…
 That 'towers' means interior things may also be seen from other places in the Word, as in Isaiah,
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill…planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it. Isaiah 5:1, 2.
Readings: Matthew 20:1-16, Divine Love & Wisdom 47 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Today we have our second parable in a row from the lectionary, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. At this point, we find ourselves almost three quarters of the way through the gospel of Matthew, where several chapters are devoted to Jesus teachings. In a few more chapters, Jesus will sit down to the Last Supper, and the events will play out that lead to his death and resurrection. But for now, he has a lot to say about the kingdom of heaven.
The imagery in this story is one that the disciples and their contemporaries would be very familiar with. It is common in the Old Testament for the nation of Israel to be described as a vineyard with the owner of that vineyard being God, and harvest time or the collecting of wages as a time of judgement. So, ancient hearers were primed to think about this story in transcendent terms, and to wonder what it means for the kingdom of heaven to be made manifest here in this world.
Like all the parables, there is a “surface plausibility” that draws us in. We recognize and understand this world of hiring people and working for pay, we understand that grapes need to be harvested, and it is the owner who must make that happen. Last week we were talking about “talents” being the most valuable kind of coin in those days, and now today we are talking about a denarius, one of the smallest. A denarius was the basic wage for a manual laborer, but even so, it was barely enough to support a family. So, in the beginning, the landowner was acting as one might expect - fair according to custom, but not particularly generous. But then suddenly, the landowner starts acting a little differently. He keeps looking for workers even though he hired some already. Huh, we might wonder, why is that? Is there a bumper crop this year? He hires more people, and then still more people, and then even at 5o'clock in the evening, when there is only one hour left in the day, he hires more people. Whatever, we might shrug, it’s his vineyard.
But then, it gets even more strange. He pays everyone an equal amount, no matter how long they have worked. Obviously, we expect the workers hired later to get a commensurately smaller amount of money. We don’t have any expectation that landowner would stiff them, he seems like a good guy, but one twelfth of the work should equal one twelfth of the money, right? And so, the folks who have been working all day long are a bit perplexed. Well, they think, if the last workers get a denarius, then we should get more…Surely, if the landowner has enough money to pay the last workers extra, then surely he has enough to pay us extra too. When he doesn’t pay them more, it seems unfair. We may well relate to these workers, as it understandable to want to look for symmetry in things; fairness and equality and consistency are often ways that we all make sense of the world.
But instead of things going in the normal way, the landowner starts acting different from our expectations. Certainly, he has a right to do what he wants with his money. But what does that mean for the way that *we* understand the world? The way in which we understand who deserves what? Because surely we are not supposed to run our businesses in this way? We can’t just pay people whatever we want, whenever we want? Can we?
As we talked about last week, the purpose of parable is so that we might question our systems, question the way we look at the world. Parables help us remember the limits of our systems, and remind us they are human systems not divine systems. In this parable, we are being shown that the economy of work, and the economy of love are two different but inter-related things.
I recall from seminary that one of my professors came to an understanding about this parable through his own experience of parenthood. He spoke of the joy and love he felt at the birth of his son, and that upon learning eventually that they were pregnant again (with twins even) he worried that he could never love them as deeply and as fully as his first child. But of course, we know the end of this story, we know that miraculously, when his twins were born, his ability to love expanded, and he loved them just as much, and in ways he couldn’t have imagined. We sometimes underestimate the expansiveness and the resilience of love. We love more and more according to our willingness to be opened up.
And this is because the love doesn’t come from us. All love comes from God, a constant inflow according to our willingness to accept it. Last week we spoke about the infinity of God’s forgiveness…and of course that forgiveness is simply a function of the infinity of God’s divine love. Human systems are often run on the assumption of scarcity, but the economy of love is built on the opposite - love’s abundance.
How then, are we understand this parable, where we see the apparent collision of two economies based on very different assumptions. (Here I use the words economy not in a strict financial sense, but in a more archaic way, to express the way something is organized and thought about). There is the economy of work, the arithmetic of fair-minded give and take. We do this, we get that. But love doesn’t work that way; it can’t fit into a budget or a business plan, and it is way more expansive than one kind of system can express. And additionally, Swedenborg tells us that in the spirit, “uses, or ends, reign,” (1) by which he means that the spirit not only looks to what might be good or right in any given moment, but also looks towards the end goal, and is always striving for the best possible outcome that supports human thriving, loving and growing long term.
So, the gift of this parable is that for a moment, the veil was drawn back and the economy of love was revealed. For the workers who were hired last…there was no indication they were not working due to any fault of their own. When asked why they were not working they replied “No one has hired us.” The parable doesn’t tell us why this was the case, but we know from this world there are plenty of reasons why work cannot be found that are out of a person’s control. Perhaps by this time, these workers were starting to panic, for the day was almost done and they would not have the money they need to support their households. What a difficult and stressful life is the life of day laborer. But in the last moment, someone *did* hire them. Okay, they think, at least I’ll make a little bit. Imagine their relief then, to get a whole days wage, a wage they had given up on. Sometimes what is *fair* isn’t the same as what is *just.* It was not fair that the last workers should get a whole day’s wage, I think even they would agree. But was it not also unjust that their families should not have food to put on the table? The economy of love was looking for more than the economy of work that day could provide. It was looking to fill hungry bellies, to help the downtrodden feel like they were seen and they mattered.
But even so, all the talk of love doesn’t necessarily make it feel better when you have been working hard, and you see someone else rewarded for less work. Years ago, my daughter’s response to this text was “Ugh, I hate that parable.” I opened my mouth to expound but she stopped me: “Don’t try to tell me the moral - its just not fair!” Believe me, I get it. On the face of it, lack of equality can sometimes feel extremely discouraging and diminishing. We must note that the structure of the parable is key. This is not a situation where all the workers were all hired at the same time, and some worked hard and some did not and the owner decided to be generous to all anyway, maybe not even paying attention to who was working the hardest. This is not what happened in this parable. The parable is instead asking about what should happen to those who are left behind by our *systems*, and the instructive part, the lesson, is in how the first workers chose to view the situation. They were certainly justified on grounds of fairness. But were they viewing the situation with eyes of justice? What the text translates as “Or are you envious because I am generous?” is literally in the Greek “is your eye evil because I am good?” What kind of eyes were these first workers using? What were the ultimate outcomes were they looking for? Were they looking with an eye of love?
The first servants were wanting equality and they were seeing equity. These are similar but not identical ideas. The first is about equal treatment but the second is concerned with equality of outcome. The first workers were looking for equality of hourly wage, and let us not forget, with good reason. Equality is important. We are lucky the owner seemed to be a good person. He could have been cruel and erratic, could have decided to pay all of them differently hourly wages just because he didn’t like some of them. Principles like equality of hourly wage are very good when they counter things like racism and sexism. They express love in their own way, through order, and the inherent value of each person and each person’s work. But, equality or sameness is not the *only* way to serve the principle of love, because love also looks to ultimate outcome, to the end goal. The first workers were clearly not thinking in this way, being only concerned with themselves. Did they have in mind the families of the last workers? Probably not. Sadly, we are all human, and often times, we only want fairness and equality when it serves our own needs. Economies based on scarcity do have a downside. They induce us to live into the insecurity of constant comparison and how can we not find ourselves self-centered in that context. We forget that, as we heard in our Swedenborg reading, the nature of true love is to see something from another’s perspective, to be happy when others are happy. And so we are reminded, God’s love is calling us to look above and beyond human systems, and to look at them clearly, in order to see whether they are helping or hindering love becoming manifest.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, The New Jerusalem and it's Heavenly Doctrines #48
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’
5 So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.
6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.
10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?
14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.
15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Divine Love & Wisdom 47
Divine love and wisdom cannot fail to be and to be manifested in others that it has created. The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves but loving others and being united to them through love. The hallmark of love is also being loved by others because this is how we are united. Truly, the essence of all love is to be found in union, in the life of love that we call joy, delight, pleasure, sweetness, blessedness, contentment, and happiness.
The essence of love is that what is ours should belong to someone else. Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves--that is loving. Feeling our joy in others, though, and not theirs in ourselves is not loving. That is loving ourselves, while the former is loving our neighbor. These two kinds of love are exact opposites. True, they both unite us; and it does not seem as though loving what belongs to us, or loving ourselves in the other, is divisive. Yet it is so divisive that to the extent that we love others in this way we later harbor hatred for them. Step by step our union with them dissolves, and the love becomes hatred of corresponding intensity.
Readings: Matthew 18: 21-35, True Christianity #490, Divine Providence #280 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Engin Akyurt: https://www.pexels.com/photo/green-leafed-plant-on-sand-1438404/
The gospel text for today speaks to us about forgiveness, both directly and in parable form. But before we launch in that, let’s first talk about parables in general. The lectionary is going to give us a few in a row in these coming weeks, so I think it might be helpful to talk about them a little. Often times, we look at parables as if they are simple prescriptions, examples of how we are supposed to live. This is mostly how they are taught in Sunday school. Jesus is giving us advice, which we would do well to follow. And to some extent, this works.
Unless we actually read the parable. And then we might notice some things that make us feel really uncomfortable. This is okay. Parables are not actually straight-forward moral tales which we can transfer wholesale onto the events of our own lives. Parables are meant to be disruptive to our way of thinking. They are meant to be slightly uncomfortable so that we might generate reflective questions about the assumptions we bring to the story. So it is okay to relax into any ambiguity we might feel and allow ourselves to take a curious stance.
The story today begins with a question from Peter to Jesus. How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Seven times? Peter probably thinks he is being extremely generous. Just to be clear, this is not just forgiving anyone who offends you seven times in your life overall, but seven times for the same person, possibly for the same thing, with no indication that there is repentance involved. That does seem pretty generous. But Jesus explodes Peter’s notion of generosity. Not seven but seventy times seven times, he replies….four hundred and ninety times….essentially infinity times. Jesus is implying, as one of my commentaries wrote:….“Whoever counts has not forgiven at all but is only biding his or her time.” (1)
Jesus then launches into the parable about the unforgiving servant. The first hint that the parable is a little fantastic is the unrealistic amount of money. Our reading calls it ten thousand bags of gold….in the original greek it is ten thousand “Talents.” A talent is the largest possible denomination in those ancient times. One single talent was equal to the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. Ten thousand of those was meant to signify the largest possible amount of money. It is supposed to make for a crazy comparison with the comparatively paltry but still significant amount the second servant owes and we very reasonably feel outrage over the first servant’s lack of gratitude in the face of such mercy.
As we continue though, some uncomfortable-ness might arise from how the parable ends. The king goes back on his forgiveness and throws the servant in jail to be tortured. As happy as we are to see the villain get his comeuppance, we might wonder, was it right for the king to do so? Was it justified? Can one *withdraw* forgiveness, even in the face of extreme hard-heartedness? These are challenging questions. And further, there is verse 35 ”this is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” YIKES. Does *God* go back on God’s forgiveness? Surely, the withdrawal of forgiveness ruins the whole idea?
Many scholars believe that verse 35 is an addition by the gospel writer, clearly meant to allegorize the parable so that the king is God and the debts are our sins. Both the parable itself, and Matthew’s interpretation seem uncomfortably transactional though. Forgiveness seems to be given and received like an object, one that must be asked for before it can come into being, and it is taken away if one is not deserving.
This seems at odds with the kind of God we learn about from Swedenborgian theology, a God who is constantly forgiving, constantly loving. Jesus hints about this kind of God right at the beginning of the text. The framing of this whole interaction, the seventy times seven, is telling us about the infinity of God’s forgiveness. Seven has long been held as an auspicious, powerful number, and from Swedenborg’s tells us(2) that the number seven signifies that which is holy and inviolable. Seventy times seven, then, indicates something that has no limits, something timeless, eternal, a holy and enduring principle. As we heard in our Swedenborg readings today, God’s forgiveness and mercy is so expansive as to have no limits, and is an sacred aspect of God’s nature.
So, if God’s forgiveness is naturalized, pre-existing, constant, and assumed to be a natural function of God’s love, how does this change how we view the parable? On the one hand, we see forgiveness embodied as a transaction by both the king and the servant and by the whole economic system in which they participate. On the other, we see that contrasted with the infinity of God’s forgiveness. This is what a parable does, it reveals to us the inadequacy of certain ways of looking at things. We first rejoice over the unexpected mercy of the king, we experience outrage over servant’s obviously bad behavior, we are cheering when the other servants turn him in. Quite right, quite right, we think. But then maybe the king’s withdrawal of forgiveness makes us squirm, and we start to question….We don’t doubt that the servant deserves to be corrected, but maybe we intuitively feel that there is something wrong with the withdrawal of forgiveness, as if we were just taking back something to the store that was defective. And perhaps we are moved to recognize that forgiveness, when it is really lived, is not really a give and take at all.
The truth is forgiveness can take many shapes. Forgiveness can be a solitary thing, a way to retain our own humanity and reclaim our own liberation and release. Forgiveness can involve connection, a recognition of shared humanity and loss. Forgiveness is can be a gift of grace, an impossible kind of thing that creates space where none was before. Forgiveness can allow for repairing something that was broken. There are as many shapes for forgiveness as there are people. When the parable causes us to question whether forgiveness can ever be transactional, we only need to return to the beginning of our text to see that, indeed, the infinity of God’s forgiveness transcends the all easy equations we are trying to do; it is calculus to our algebra. God is working in the realm of multiplication, while we are still counting on our fingers.
But, there is one last thing to consider. Swedenborg insists that repentance must be part of the forgiveness equation. At first that might seem like it thrusts us back into the transactional realm, an exchange of forgiveness for the appropriate repentance. On the contrary though, I think it deepens the complexity and the variability of the forgiveness equation. For repentance does not limit whether forgiveness can exist or be given, but rather, repentance is simply integral to the experience of being forgiven. The servant in our text wanted to return to business as usual, return to extracting all he could from those below him. He had no interest in thinking about what it meant to be a recipient of such mercy, what it meant to examine his actions or experience regret. To the servant, it seemed like the king’s forgiveness did vanish…but it was his lack of repentance that prevented it from having any kind of reality for him in the first place.
Repentance fundamentally changes us, and that change, that openness is what lets the forgiveness in, that creates space for healing to happen. It is like taking a deep lungful of air after holding our breath for a long time. Asking to be forgiven is not about begging, or making the most fervent supplication, rather, it is hinges upon whether the forgiveness can become real and enfleshed in the person asking. Repentance opens the door and creates the space for forgiveness to be felt, for forgiveness to transform. It is one part of a holy dance, though the steps vary for every person and every situation.
There is not one way things are supposed to go with forgiveness. Sometimes repentance brings forgiveness forth, sometimes forgiveness kick-starts repentance, sometimes both occur independently or not at all. Forgiveness takes its own time and its own path. This is what the infinity of God’s forgiveness also means, infinity of times forgiven, but an infinity of experience, opportunity and providence as well. And thank goodness for that. There are so many ways to make mistakes, so I’m glad that forgiveness is such a feisty, miraculous and expansive thing. Amen.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.
25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
True Christianity 490
In Matthew the Lord teaches that we are to do good to our adversaries and enemies and have goodwill toward them…
I have also heard from heaven that the Lord forgives everyone's sins and never takes revenge or even assigns spiritual credit or blame, because he is love and goodness itself. Yet for all that, our sins are not washed away. Nothing washes our sins away except repentance. Since the Lord told Peter to forgive up to seventy times seven instances of sin, at what point would the Lord stop forgiving us?
Divine Providence 280
The Lord forgives everyone's sins. He does not accuse us or keep score. However, he cannot take our sins away except by the laws of his divine providence; for when Peter asked him how many times he should forgive someone who had sinned against him, whether seven was enough, he said that Peter should forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21, 22). What does this tell us about the Lord, who is mercy itself?
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11, Mark 1:1-8, Secrets of Heaven #220, True Christianity #457:3 (see below)
Photo by Johannes Plenio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/bright-sunbeams-illuminating-forest-path-at-dawn-4084699/
Welcome back everyone, to our fall season at the Church of the Holy City!
Back in July before our hiatus, when I was thinking ahead about how to start off the new church year, I decided to just read through the gospel of Mark, to see if there was anything that spoke to me, needing to be preached.
I didn’t get past the first eight verses.
There is something so straight forward and powerful about the way Mark starts off his gospel. Matthew starts with a long linage, Luke starts off with an elaborate birth narrative, and John starts off with a poetic rumination on light and darkness. But Mark just starts with: Hey, I’ve got some amazing news! The meaning of the greek word that we translate as gospel, is of course, good news or glad tidings, and Mark gets right to it.
Well, almost. We are first introduced to John the Baptist, one who is preparing the ground for the work of Jesus. We may well be very familiar with these verses, as some version of them comes around in the lectionary every year at the beginning of Advent. But, narratively, John the Baptist often feels a little out of place in Advent. He is placed there because he is “preparing the way for the Lord”, and at Christmas we celebrate the birth of that Lord. But in reality, John’s words were a preamble to the ministry of the adult Jesus, not the birth of the baby Jesus, so this year, I’m pulling John out and placing him right at the beginning, where we could argue he is supposed to be.
What is John doing? We are told he was preaching that people should engage in a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A symbolic act in an ordinary river to mark and support each person’s regret for harms caused, and a desire to do better in the future. Without getting into an analysis of how this compared to contemporary religious practices, one important nugget to be gleaned here is the idea that *we* can play an important role in our own spiritual life, in our own spiritual transformation. That there are things we can do to repair harm, grow our edges, and move ourselves forward spiritually.
This is pretty good news on its own for anyone who is feeling stuck. But John wasn’t finished. He said further: “After me comes the one more powerful than I…I baptize you with water but he will baptize you with the holy spirit.”
There is one coming…
As a community, we certainly find ourselves in a time of grief, my dear friends, grappling with the sudden loss of a beloved church member. In the midst of this, how can anything feel like good news? And yet, we Christians call the Friday before Easter “Good,” a day marked by betrayal, violence and loss. We are so used to the name Good Friday that perhaps sometimes we forget what an enormous act of absurdity it is to call it so, what an enormous act of faith it is to name God’s intentional presence and solidarity in the midst of such chaos and brokenness.
But today John the Baptist stands before us and declares: There is one coming…There is one coming who is deeply invested in your journey, one who identifies so deeply with human suffering that they would willingly suffer too, for us and with us. And this one is our God, a God of Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, of humility, compassion, and action. In grief, when all turns to grey, and the word “good” feels like ashes, one thing we can be sure of is that God comes alongside, and walks with us and supports us, a deep companionship that tells us “It hurts, I know.” Because our God does know.
What else would John the Baptist have us know today? Two more things, I think: a hope and a call.
First, we are introduced to the hope that the one coming will baptize us with the holy spirit. This tells us that God’s presence is not only marked by companionship and solidarity but also is active and generative. Even in the most difficult of times, our smallest willingness, our smallest surrender, our smallest faithfulness, is held and cherished by God, and is protected by God, and when we are ready God will blow on the embers to create a flame. God will multiply our hope, our courage, our love, with God’s holy action. We may not always feel this work happening, but it is always happening nonetheless.
And second, we note *The Call* contained within the text, the implication that we all have a role to play in preparing the way for the Lord. John the Baptist was a “voice of one in the wilderness,” speaking of a way forward and through a symbolic wasteland. We all have wilderness times of the heart and soul. And we all see the ways in which our modern world manages to find new and innovative ways of being a wilderness to us, in our disconnection to each other, in the places where we witness the disappearance of empathy and compassion, in the times where self-interest seems to reign supreme.
And the antidote to wilderness is to forge community together. John wasn’t the “voice of one” just to hear himself speak into the nothingness. He was the “voice of one” in order to become more than one, to reach out to others, to gather, to reassure, to invigorate and to connect. Just as the gospel writer Mark was doing by writing all of it down and sending his gospel out into the world. The text tells us that people came to John and confessed their sins, spoke their truth and made a connection to someone who would listen, allowing them to believe they could truly come up anew from the water.
So, what can we do, then, to prepare the way of the Lord for each other?
Just like John we can speak the truth of the one who is coming - a continual baptism of water quenching the thirst of our aloneness - reminding us of the the truth of God’s loving and giving nature. And, we can make God’s presence known though loving action, the making and holding of compassionate space, the giving of care and concern - a continual baptism by the holy spirit which unites us into an image of heavenly community. We hear of these dual tasks in our Swedenborg readings this morning, and note that they are a mirror of the heavenly marriage at the center of all creation, the union of Divine Wisdom with Divine Love.
And so Mark starts out his gospel with the assurance that God is coming to assist us in our journeys. With the assurance that God is invested in the process of spiritual growth, in the process of repentance and repair, in the ways we can all shake off the cycles and the voices and the fears that would keep us contracted and afraid and cruel. With the assurance that God is so invested that God is coming in person in order to baptize us all continually, to provide a baptism not dependent on one special river but on God’s essential connection to each of us: the Holy Spirit.
And today we receive this news from Mark, news of a God who loves us, a God who comes to us, a God who knows our suffering and yet speaks to us of a hope beyond it. If we cannot call that good today, at least perhaps we can call it enough.
Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed…
3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD ; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart…
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,
2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” --
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Secrets of Heaven 220
…The voice of one shouting stands for a proclamation of the Lord's Coming; and in general for every time his coming is proclaimed, as for instance in the case of regenerate people, who hear an inner call.
True Christianity 457:3
God loves every one of us but cannot directly benefit us; he can benefit us only indirectly through each other. For this reason he inspires us with his love, just as he inspires parents with love for their children. If we receive this love, we become connected to God and we love our neighbor out of love for God. Then we have love for God inside our love for our neighbor. Our love for God makes us willing and able to love our neighbor.