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)
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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)
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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
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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.