Readings: Mark 1:1-15, True Christianity 530 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Luke Barky from Pexels
We are not usually in church on July 4th, on this exact day. But, being as Independence Day falls on a Sunday this year, and a communion Sunday at that, I thought this might be a good opportunity to think about the intersection of celebration and reflection.
Now, at first it probably doesn’t really seem like celebration and reflection go together at all. Most of the time, when we celebrate something, like a birthday, we are celebrating what actually is, as opposed to what could be. Certainly, the intersection of celebration and reflection is at the center of some hot cultural debates, specifically in relationship to July 4th, the question of whether it is possible for someone to be patriotic, to love and be loyal to the United States, while still being clear-eyed and honest about the shortcomings of their nation? Often times, any critique at all of the United States and its history is pilloried as being anti-American. But that does seem unnecessarily defensive and reductive. In our personal lives, when we offer a critique of a spouse, or a friend, or a child, someone we love, are we *immediately* that person’s antagonist or enemy? Are we fundamentally “against” them? No, of course not. We know that, when critique is offered with improvement as the goal, when it is done in a loving way, it is possible to critique and love at the same time. Critique can be offered as a gift and a hope, as a way for important things that are unseen to be seen. And conversely, it is not always a gift to be silent about the ways someone that we love can develop, nor is it a blessing to be willfully blind about their shortcomings.
And I’m sure that many of us are grappling with this tension, on this Independence Day, of critiquing and loving at the same time, in regards to our beautiful but flawed nation. Because, boy, what a year and a half! Layer upon layer has been revealed to us, things that many of us should have been able to see long ago perhaps: the pervasiveness of systemic inequalities, the fragility of democracy and our economies, the urgency of climate change, and much more. What is the reaction to this revealing? Sometimes it is denial, a defensiveness that seeks to preserve a righteous and comfortable identity. And sometimes it is also wanting to speak up, to raise awareness, to create useful change. Certainly both these reactions seem like they come from love, but the heart of the question is: what are we loving? In either case, the key is whether or not we are loving the Lord and loving the neighbor, as opposed to loving power or loving ourselves. In church, in a place dedicated to spiritual practice and spiritual questioning, I think we are led today to ask: how appropriate is a celebration that does not attend to this important question?
So, what does this have to do with communion? Well, it seems to me that the sacrament of communion embodies this holy tension between reflection and celebration. Someone coming to receive communion is called a celebrant. During communion, we commemorate the Lord’s presence with us in this world, we lift up and praise what God offers to us, accomplishes for us. We perform a joyful remembrance of a holy meal; we *celebrate* communion.
But, the point of communion is not just remembrance and praise. The point of communion, and of the remembrance, is to translate the effectiveness of the Lord’s Holy Supper with the disciples all those years ago into something that has efficacy in the here and now, in our lives. And how do we do that? By reflecting upon how *we* can be a conduit for God’s love and truth in this world, by reflecting upon the places where this love and truth are not yet fully embodied, by reflecting on how we might change. When there is a concrete effect in our personal realm, some realization, some transformation…then God’s work and effective presence continues in the present. The celebration is no longer pure enactment; the Holy Supper has become reality. The celebration is internalized; it is no longer about remembering what someone else did but about what we are doing.
And so we see that celebration is only half of the story; that without accompanying reflection, it is a mere shadow of something that once was. For, in Swedenborgian theology, communion is just as much excavation as it is remembrance, just as much integration as it is celebration. We take the wine and the bread, ordinary elements, and we see them deeply, correspondentially, see them for the way that they connect us to spirit, to the love and wisdom of God. But we don’t just *look* upon them, we don’t just try to understand their meaning, we ingest them, we take them into ourselves as a representation of accepting and integrating God’s goodness and truth into our daily living. This acceptance, this integration, can only occur through reflection, repentance, re-formation, *trans*formation. It is an active practice, it is ongoing, it is showing up with our full selves, and our full willingness and surrender to where God is leading us.
And I think perhaps the way that communion embodies both celebration and reflection can be instructive for us in other parts of our lives. Already on important days such as birthdays or anniversaries, we might both celebrate and reflect. We lift up in gratitude what has gone before and we think about who we would like to be and what we would like to see going forward, both in our own lives and in relationship. Perhaps this dynamic can be brought forward usefully into the way we celebrate July 4th.
The birth of American democracy was a new and hopeful thing. It changed the world for the better. *And* it was a historical event enfolded within its own time, bearing the inevitable markers of that time, that ushered various injustices forward. We can see both of these things as true at the same time. We can hold the clarity of truth within the boundaries of love. We can, as communion does, infill an important remembrance with the holy offering of reflection in a way that makes the reality of our nation more whole, and even more beautiful.
Reflection isn’t always comfortable, in fact, most the time it isn’t. But a commitment to the spiritual life is a commitment to the truth that reflective discomfort can be a good thing, that it can be productive, that it is giving birth to something. If we don’t believe the truth of this, if we believe that the purpose of religion and/or patriotism is to make us feel righteous and powerful and happy all the time, then I believe we have missed the point.
And this is why in our reading today, we hear Jesus say “Repent *and* believe the good news!” Our belief, our perspective, our celebration of the goodness of the news of the ways that God shows up for us, needs to be coupled with a healthy humility, with a willingness to see where we are throwing up obstacles to God’s partnership with us.
And even though we read those two things in a particular order, repent and then believe, we also know that life is a little more messy than that, that as in communion, we can hold both at the same time. As we heard in our Swedenborg reading, “repentance becomes effective if we practice it regularly.” It is not a one and done thing, so that we can finally, really, believe. It is a practice and a discipline that encourages the ongoing refinement and expansion of our belief and our perspectives. Each feeds into the other, as we learn more about ourselves and others and God and relationship and service.
And so, as we mark this Independence Day, I hope that we might be moved to both celebrate and reflect, that we might come to inhabit that holy tension of critique and love with calmness and hope and determination. That we might recognize that as each angel is perfected to eternity, so might our world be. There is still so much work to do; may it be both joyful and reflective in perfect measure. Amen.
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.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
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!”
True Christianity 530
The question then is, How are we to repent? The answer is, we are to do so actively. That is, we are to examine ourselves, recognize and admit to our sins, pray to the Lord, and begin a new life.
 Repentance becomes effective if we practice it regularly - that is, every time we prepare ourselves to take the Communion of the Holy Supper. Afterward, if we abstain from one sin or another that we have discovered in ourselves, this is enough to make our repentance real. When we reach this point, we are on the pathway to heaven, because we then begin to turn from an earthly person into a spiritual person and to be born anew with the help of the Lord.