Photo credit: Dan Hamill
Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10. Matthew 3:1-12, True Christianity #517 (see below)
Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent. Christmas is fast approaching, and will be here before we know it. For a lot of us, Advent can be an ambivalent time. There are so many wonderful opportunities for connection and generosity but they are often accompanied by the pressures of doing things a certain way, finding just the right thing, or needing to accomplish too many things in too little time. We celebrate Christmas within a culture that attempts to commodify it, to use it to make us consume ever more. So often times, the Christmas season becomes very much about fulfilling expectations, getting what we want, or makings sure other people get what they want. It becomes about recreating celebratory spaces because of how we want to feel. We practice rituals that make us feel warm and fuzzy, we put up sparkly decorations that make us feel excited, we makes lists of gifts so that people can be sure to give us what we want.
But, of course, this is not really what the season is about. As our readings make clear, the season is about change, about reversal. What kind of God, what kind of birth, are we really celebrating here? Baby Jesus was born into poverty on the margins, what kind of God would do that? Jesus would grow up to minister to those excluded and forgotten, what kind of God would do that? Jesus died to bring a kingdom into being via sacrificial suffering, what kind of God would do that? A God who understands that the way we human beings usually do things takes us further away from love and further into fear and selfishness. A God who, lovingly, wants to help us change this tendency.
And so we begin with imagery from our Old Testament reading: the peaceable kingdom.
“The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”
This beautiful and pastoral imagery has inspired many throughout history and no surprise. In the words of one commentary, this “vision of a reordered creation is remarkable.” It tells a story of instincts transformed and reversed. Carnivorous animals will no longer kill their prey to eat but find sustenance in straw. Dangerous animals will no longer be a threat to vulnerable creatures such as children. It is a lovely, peaceful image, but it also something of a ridiculous one. We know that nature cannot change in this way. So, of course, the image is a metaphor. It casts a vision of a future in which predatory instincts do not prevail, or are not primary. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” The image is not literal but rather communicates something about the world which God wants to create for us.
But, it is not a world that God can, or will, create for us externally. God certainly could do so, but given human nature, it would not really work. Swedenborg writes:
…the Lord leaves each person in freedom, for unless a person is in freedom they cannot be reformed at all. What a person does under compulsion does not reform them because compulsion does not allow anything to take root; for anything a person does under compulsion is not an act of willing, whereas what they do in freedom is an act of willing. What is good and true, if it is to be present in a person as their own, must take root in their will. What is outside the will is not the person's own. (1)
So, as much as we might wish for it to be so, the vision of the peaceable kingdom cannot be brought about through purely external change. It is transformation that must come from within. And this is because, as Swedenborg points out, “our outer self has to be reformed by means of our inner self, and not the reverse,"(2) because the inner flows into the outer and not the other way around. But even further, this flow is not a passive one, it occurs in and through action. And I quote:
The inner self is not reformed simply by gaining knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, not, that is, simply by thinking. We are reformed inwardly by intending to do what our knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom tell us. (3)
So even though the peaceable kingdom represents an internal transformation of humankind, it is again, not something that comes into being without our active participation. We are not transformed via divine download. We are not transformed by learning the truth, nor by thinking the truth. This is not enough. Transformation happens by actually intending and doing the things dictated by transformed ways of thinking.
Which sound easy, but of course, it’s not. Even when we know about what is right and good, there are many reasons why we might not follow through, emotions or habits that get in the way. If we zoom in on the peaceable kingdom, we can see this represented by the animals included in the vision and what they are doing. In terms of Swedenborgian correspondences, animals represent our affections: how we feel and what we love.(4) In the context of the image of the peaceable kingdom, the mild, useful, friendly animals correspond to good affections, and fierce, deadly animals correspond to evil affections. And what are we looking at here in this image? Fierce, deadly, selfish affections that have been transformed, that have been stripped of their predatory nature. They are no longer killing, destroying, striking out, or preying on the vulnerable. Transformed instincts. Transformed ways of being. And so it is inside of each of us: The vision of the peaceable kingdom is a vision of our internal ways of being, the possibility of our own instincts being re-formed, away from selfish and fearful affections into useful, loving, peaceful ones.
Our reading today describes this change and how it happens:
To put it another way, the first state is a state of thought that occurs in our intellect; the second state is a state of love that occurs in our will. As the second state begins and progresses, a change takes place in our minds. There is a reversal, because then the love in our will flows into our intellect and leads and drives it to think in agreement and harmony with what we love. As good actions that come from love take on a primary role, and the truths related to faith are relegated to a secondary role, we become spiritual and are a new creation [2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15]. Then our actions come from goodwill and our words come from faith; we develop a sense of the goodness that comes from goodwill and a perception of the truth that is related to faith; and we are in the Lord and in a state of peace. In brief, we are reborn.
What an optimistic view of humanity! The more we love, the more loving we will become. And conversely, sadly, the less we love, the less loving and more selfish we will become.
This notion is directly linked to the New Church vision for the world, the coming of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. In that book, John of Patmos receives a vision of a shining city, which he called the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God to the earth. We don’t believe this literally, as if a city will plop down out of the sky like an alien spaceship. We understand it to be a metaphor for the transformation of humanity and the world we live in. But it is important to split hairs just a little bit, and point out that, even if it is a metaphor, it is not, as we have mentioned, a metaphor for an external transformation, just as the peaceable kingdom is not a metaphor for external transformation. God is working, yes God is working very hard to bring the New Jerusalem into being, but God is doing it through our hearts and minds. The coming of the New Jerusalem is an internal phenomenon; the transformation of our world through the transformation of the people in it. We are talking about transformed instincts on a global scale. Little by little, bit by bit, heart by heart.
We see this reflected in the document “The Faith and Aims of Our Church,” which can be found in our denomination’s yearly journal:
“The Swedenborgian church believes that a new epoch is opening in the spiritual life of mankind. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, as he promised to do, has come again, not indeed in a physical reappearance, but in spirit and truth; not in a single event only, but in a progressive manifestation of God’s presence among people.”(5)
This is what God is up to with Advent. Hope, yes, love, yes, beauty, yes, all of it. But also subversive change. Transformed instincts. And this is why we always seem to start Advent off with John the Baptist, preaching repentance. John the Baptist doesn’t feel like Christmas. He is not warm and fuzzy. He is not twinkle lights and soft music. He is strident, he is urgent, he is clear. He is talking about doing the work of transforming our instincts. About how we need to recognize that our instincts need transforming, and to give ourselves over to the renewal that God has in mind for us. "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The way of the Lord is change. Not change for the sake of change, but change for the sake of mutual love, for the sake of the peaceable kingdom.
And so, as we begin Advent, as we look to a season of giving and receiving, let us also make space for a little disturbing. Let us make a space for John the Baptist, cantankerous as he is, so that we might recognize that the Lord was born into our world so that we might have an opportunity to re-make ourselves. I am reminded of this prayer by Jan Richardson:
God of making and unmaking, of tearing down and re-creating, you are my home and habitation, my refuge and place of dwelling. In your hollows I am re-formed, given welcome and benediction, beckoned to rest and rise again, made ready and sent forth.(6)
It is Advent, and we are ready, Lord. Transform our instincts so that the peaceable kingdom may come into being, so that the wolf may lie down with the lamb, and be led by innocence, openness and vulnerability.
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD— 3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. 6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
True Christianity #571
There are two states that we all inevitably enter into and go through if we are to turn from an earthly person into a spiritual person. The first state is called reformation, the second is called regeneration. In the first state we look from our earthly self toward having a spiritual self; being spiritual is what we long for. In the second state we become someone who is both spiritual and earthly. The first state is brought about by truths (these have to be truths related to faith); through these truths we aim to develop goodwill. The second state is brought about by good actions that come from goodwill; through these actions we come [more deeply] into truths related to faith.
To put it another way, the first state is a state of thought that occurs in our intellect; the second state is a state of love that occurs in our will. As the second state begins and progresses, a change takes place in our minds. There is a reversal, because then the love in our will flows into our intellect and leads and drives it to think in agreement and harmony with what we love. As good actions that come from love take on a primary role, and the truths related to faith are relegated to a secondary role, we become spiritual and are a new creation. Then our actions come from goodwill and our words come from faith; we develop a sense of the goodness that comes from goodwill and a perception of the truth that is related to faith; and we are in the Lord and in a state of peace. In brief, we are reborn.
Readings: Genesis 1:28-31, 2:7-9, 15, Psalm 46, True Christianity #46:6 (see below)
Here we are on the week of Thanksgiving, when we as a nation celebrate a holiday dedicated to gratitude. There are many different ways of practicing that gratitude. Some people gather with family and friends for a homemade feast, some order in or go out, some take time alone as self-care. However it is manifested, gratitude is a healthy practice.
Many of us will lift up our blessings during this time of thanksgiving, blessings that are sometimes forgotten or taken for granted in our day to day. We might say thank you for family and friends, health, security, useful work and sturdy shelter. And one might say, most importantly, by virtue of the feast that many of us will sit down to, we say thank you for the harvest. We say thank you for abundance. We say thank you for the fecundity of the earth, and the hard work of those who steward it.
I feel we must note, however, that increasingly, our gratitude for things like abundant food and the generativity of the earth is constantly now held in tension with the knowledge of an earthly crisis that endangers our abundant harvest, our security, our livelihoods. I’m speaking, of course, of climate change. Now, this sermon will not be making an argument for or against its existence, although scientific consensus is very very clear: climate change exists, that the activity of humankind has contributed to it, and we have very little time to reverse its course. Instead, we will talk today about how we might understand our relationship to the earth theologically, through both a Christian and a Swedenborgian lens.
One popular Christian view of the relationship between humankind and the earth on which we reside, was for many centuries based upon a text in Genesis that conferred dominion upon human beings. From Genesis 1:28 we read:
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule (some translations say “have dominion”) over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
To summarize: the earth was given to humankind so that we might use it to our benefit, that we might be ruler of its resources. Ruling and dominion is the language of a monarch, and the Hebrew is pretty darned clear about it, and therefore, to many it has seemed obvious that humankind is to exercise kingship, or ultimate power, over the earth and its resources. At first, when we examine how Swedenborg talks about the natural world, it might seem as if he is supporting this dominion view. We read from his book Divine Love and Wisdom:
The physical world's sun is nothing but fire and is therefore dead; and since nature has its origin in that sun, nature is dead. In no respect whatever can creation itself be attributed to the physical world's sun: it is due entirely to the spiritual world's sun. This is because the physical world's sun is totally lifeless, while the spiritual world's sun is alive, being the first emanation of divine love and wisdom. Anything that is lifeless does not effect anything on its own, but is activated; so to attribute any aspect of creation to a lifeless sun would be to attribute the work of an artisan to the tool in the artisan's hand.
The physical world's sun is nothing but fire, with all its life removed. The spiritual world's sun is a fire that has divine life within it.(1)
So, one way to look at this is that if nature is dead, surely it cannot have any true value, and we may exploit it. If nature is dead, nothing we do to it matters; we can’t hurt something that is already dead, or has no life in it. Surely the tool in the artisan’s hand may be used however the artisan desires? However, I don’t believe that this is what Swedenborg means when we calls the natural world inherently dead. He does so to make a larger point: all life comes from the spiritual sun, the first emanation of Divine Love and Wisdom, all life comes from God. Life cannot arise from anything that is not-God, and to make this point Swedenborg calls that which is not-God “dead,” as in, something within which life cannot arise on its own. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the natural world is therefore worthless, and to be despised or pillaged. It doesn’t follow that humankind has a mandate to abuse it. God is the artisan, not humankind. The natural world might be lifeless on its own, but it functions as a container for the spirit, and its reason for being is that it might be activated by the spirit. Swedenborg also writes as we heard in our reading today:
The universe is something to which God could extend his love and in which he could put his love into action and so find rest.
“…into which he could put his love into action and so find rest.” The natural world, then, is an extremely important container into which God’s love can flow, finding both action and rest.
As an analogy, we might think of this in terms of our own skin. Technically, the outer layer of our skin is entirely dead. It is composed of dead skin cells. When we venture further into our epidermis we will find layers that are connected to our blood stream and our nervous system, but our outer layer is not so. The outer layers of our bodies, the part of us that can be seen by everyone around us, is not actually alive. Honestly, that fact is kind of fascinating and weird.
Now, how do we feel about our skin? Do we despise it because it is dead? Do we exploit it or excavate it for our personal gain? Do we think about it as a lesser part of our body? Do we renounce our skin because we prefer the brain? No, of course not. We understand that it provides an extremely important barrier, it protects us and gives a form, and the ability to be whole and to have agency. Because of our skin, we can be a body in the world, we can exist and do the things we want to do.
Our skin allows us the fullness of our existence and just as the outer layer of our skin is constantly being renewed from the inside, such it is with the natural world, constantly being renewed by the inflow of spirit. From our reading:
The three essentials of God's love are the reason the universe is maintained as well, because maintaining is an ongoing creation, just as continuing to exist is the same as perpetually coming into being.
So, now then, with this new understanding, how shall we characterize our relationship to the natural world, a world that is perpetually coming into being via the spirit? What does it mean that the world should be a container for this spirit? Often times, I ask rhetorical questions in my sermons, but this time, I will admit, I don’t fully know the answer, or at least, that I think my answer is still developing. What does it mean that the world should be a container for spirit?
Well, to begin with, I believe there are a few implications involved in seeing the world this way:
First, it means there is a purpose to the world that is beyond what we can see. That the world has value not only because of what it is, but because of what flows into it. What follows from this idea is that the world has value then, beyond what we can extract from it on a natural level. It has a value that we cannot see or quantify in earthly natural terms.
Second, it means that the world is connected to spirit. Just as our skin is intimately connected to what goes on inside our bodies, so the natural world is maintained, sustained and affected by what happens in the spirit. And also, this means what we do in the world affects spirit. To continue the analogy, what we eat, or our general health, can affect the quality of our skin, just as how we treat our skin, as in exposure to excessive sunlight or chemicals, can affect the rest of our body. The natural world, and the world of spirit, are in a co-responding relationship.
Third, it means that we, human beings, are not a part of the natural world in a way that is different to the rest of creation. We too, are a container for the spirit, we too are activated by the spirit that flows into us. We are a part of the natural world, we exist in solidarity with it, not apart from it. We participate in God’s perpetual creation of the universe, we too take life from the spirit as the rest of the universe does.
With this last observation, I will mention another Genesis text: 2:15
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
The Hebrew words here meaning “to work” and “to take care” can also mean “to serve” and “to guard.” This is a very different tone and meaning compared to the Genesis text from just a chapter before. Clearly, in this second text, humankind is to steward the earth and its resources rather than subdue them. How are we to understand this difference, how are we to balance them? For it is true, humankind has evolved a consciousness that can see itself, abilities that can allow us as a species to take to the lead, to dominate certain aspects of the trajectory of this planet. And so the question is: should we? Should we dominate and subdue? Or should we take the gift of our abilities, intelligence, technology, and ingenuity, and use them to serve and to guard a world that is is a container for spirit, just as we are? And now I am asking a rhetorical question, for clearly, I believe that we should. That humankind should desist from extracting the earth’s resources for personal gain, and use our ingenuity to figure out how to exist in this world in a way that respects the natural systems and the natural beauty of creation. We have been put in the Garden to Eden to work it, yes, but also to take care of it.
We read in our psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The whole world is a temple to our God, the whole world was created to give glory to the Divine Love and Wisdom that made it, and not to us. May we always be cognizant of that fact, and may we always be worshipful toward God’s universe.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom #157
Genesis 1:28-31, 2:7-9, 15
1:28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
2:7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. 5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. 6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. 7 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. 8 Come and see what the LORD has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. 10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” 11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
True Christianity #46:6
These essentials of divine love were the reason the universe was created, and they are the reason it is maintained. By examining and scrutinizing the three essentials of divine love, one can come to see that they were the reason for creation. The first essential, loving others outside of himself, was a reason for creation in that the universe is outside God (just as the world is outside the sun). The universe is something to which God could extend his love and in which he could put his love into action and so find rest. We read that after God had created heaven and earth he rested; and that he made the Sabbath day for that reason (Genesis 2:23)
You can see that the second essential, God's wanting to be one with others, was also a reason for creation from the fact that people were created in the image and likeness of God. The "image" and the "likeness" mean that we were made as forms that are receptive to love and wisdom from God - forms that God could be one with, and on whose account he could be one with all the other things in the universe, which are all nothing but means. A connection with the final cause is also a connection with the intermediate causes. Genesis, the Book of Creation, makes it clear that all things were created for the sake of humankind (Genesis 1:28-30).
That the third essential, God's blessing others from himself, is a reason for creation you can see from the fact that the angelic heaven was provided for everyone who has let God's love in, a place where the blessings of all come from God alone.
The three essentials of God's love are the reason the universe is maintained as well, because maintaining is an ongoing creation, just as continuing to exist is the same as perpetually coming into being. Divine love is the same from eternity to eternity. The nature God's love has now, and will have in the future, is the same nature it had when creating the world.
Readings: Isaiah 1:10-18, Luke 19:1-9, Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
Today our gospel reading is a short (pun-intended) anecdote but it really does have so much contained within it. It articulates themes such as economic justice, repentance, social inclusion, salvation, jealousy, and stereotyping. And in a larger sense, I believe that its most basic and important message is about community.
We already last week established just how suspiciously tax collectors were viewed by the Judeans in Jesus time. The tax collectors were local Jews who worked for the Roman empire to gather the taxes owed by the local population, and often, they collected more than necessary so as to line their own pockets. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, meaning that he oversaw all the other tax collectors. He was someone who had benefited from a corrupt system, had gotten wealthy on the backs of ordinary people. Even though he is described in a quirky and amusing way in this story, running and climbing a tree as he does, when we remember how it is that he has succeeded in the world, it is hard to have sympathy for someone who has enriched themselves in such an unethical way.
And yet. The whole of the story hinges on this sense of “and yet….”
Zacchaeus had worldly wealth. He had wholeheartedly bought into a corrupt system and taken advantage of it. And still, he clearly yearned for something. Something felt off. Something drew him to Jesus. Something drew him so strongly that he indulged in the quite undignified behavior of running through a crowd and climbing a tree. Remember, this was wealthy person, with reputation and status. Sitting in a tree trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
Now Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem for the final time. He was about to triumphantly enter Jerusalem in the manner in which we celebrate for Palm Sunday. He is about to drive the sellers from the temple, he is about to clash with the chief priests, he is about to celebrate the Last Supper with the disciples and be betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane. What is the last thing that he does before this final descent? What is the final act of his public ministry before the march to the cross is begun? He looks up in a tree and notices someone, someone reviled, and probably deservedly so, someone hesitantly peering around a corner, someone in a liminal space, someone everyone else thought was beyond redemption.
And Jesus resolutely, whether Zacchaeus felt ready for it or not, invites himself to stay at his house. Jesus final act of public ministry in the gospel of Luke is an act of inclusion and community. It was an act of faith. And the people around him grumbled about it. But it was an act that ultimately culminated in repentance and justice. Zacchaeus was given the space and the opportunity to change and grow, to do something bold and unexpected. Why and how did this happen? Because Jesus brought him into community, acted from an ethic of inclusion and possibility, and engaged him.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the nature of heaven, about how no one there can have any life at all apart from community. And I quote: “for one person’s life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others.” Swedenborg speaks of a universe that is held together by the connectedness of its parts. Angels connected to each other through community in heaven, heaven connected to the world through our communion with angels. Indeed, Swedenborg writes that without that connection to spirit, a person in the world “cannot go on living any longer.” This connectedness is integral to our life, our being, our existence. Now Swedenborg focused mostly on his spiritual and mystical experience, and didn’t always have much to say about human sociology but, we can extrapolate. For, that which drives spirit also drives the world, because spirit flows into and animates the world. If community is integral to heaven, and is integral to the relationship between heaven and earth, then earthly community is probably pretty important as well. From our reading again: “No one’s life is ever isolated from the life of others.”
So, the very foundation of spiritual reality is based upon the deep connection of people to each other. Community is necessary, integral, fundamental, to the way that God has brought creation into being. Science bears this out as well. A quick google search will deliver multiple examples of studies that describe the negative health effects of social isolation and loneliness. We need community to be emotionally, mentally and physically healthy.
We learn from mystical revelation that community is important. We know from science that community is important. I think we know from our own personal intuition that community is important. So Here are some things that I am noticing about community today, prompted by the Zaccheaus story. Community has some essential elements, among them: the act of noticing, invitation, engagement, vulnerability and forgiveness.
First, the noticing. This was something that Jesus was often doing, in this gospel and the others. Jesus would notice the people that were going unnoticed for various reasons: the mentally ill and the possessed, the sick, the paralyzed, tax collectors and other “sinners”, women, widows, Samaritans. This noticing and including was one of the main reasons Jesus had a scandalous reputation. His ministry was to ordinary people like his disciples, but also to the forgotten, and this was unusual. In our story today, Jesus had something he was doing, he was on a journey to somewhere, he had somewhere to be. But he still noticed Zacchaeus. Community is made through noticing each other, including each other, valuing each other, especially when we don’t really think we deserve it or need it.
Then there is the Invitation. Jesus took a risk. He noticed Zacchaeus, but he also acted further. He opened up a space for interaction. Zacchaeus could have said no thank you, or another time my house is not ready, or a number of other excuses. but instead, an invitation was given, and it opened a space, without which nothing would have happened. Our reading points out that it is through community with heaven that we are moved to will what is good and think what is true. Our movement though and in life, happens within the matrix of community, happens because of the space created by community.
Then, there is good faith engagement, coupled with curiousity and respect. Jesus sat at the table of a “sinner” and the people grumbled, either out of jealousy or a misguided sense of what was proper. But God will always engage us if there is opportunity; it is part of God’s inexhaustible love for us. And we see God’s invitation and engagement for us in our Isaiah reading for today: even after the Lord complains of meaningless ritual and indicts the Israelites for their lack of attention to the responsibilities of community, God says: Come now, let us settle the matter. Other translations say, Come, let us argue it out. Let us sit together and come to a resolution, an understanding. God never tires of engagement. God never gives up on us.
Likewise, when people sit at a table together, they talk to each other, they share their ideas and their viewpoints. Good faith engagement means people not giving up on each other, recognizing that they belong to each other. Yes, this sometimes might mean communicating and setting boundaries for each other but this is the give and take of community. It is how we move forward and it is how we learn.
And finally, we come to the meat of the issue, the height of what community, at its best, can offer us: vulnerability and forgiveness.
There are times that community can offer us an amazing gift: the safety to be able to be vulnerable. To be who we are. To speak our truth and our experience, and to be held in safety and love while doing that. When we have been noticed, invited and engaged with love and respect, community can be a place that is home to us. And I believe that is what God wants for us: to feel at home in our body, our life, our experience, our journey. And this is why community is so important and integral to spiritual life and reality, because it creates a spiritual home for us, a gift of love to each other through God.
Vulnerability works wonders in many ways. As much as it can be important and affirming to be vulnerable in admitting who are, the ability to be vulnerable is also an integral practice in creating a space where we can change. This is where the Zacchaeus story ultimately takes us. Zacchaeus had some repenting to do. Admitting that we are wrong about something and need to change can be a most terrifying thing. Our survival instincts kick in, and our lizard brain worries we will be booted out of the group. So we cling to our rightness. But we must remember, what is it that allowed Zacchaeus to repent? Jesus affirmed him in community, he felt safe enough to be vulnerable and make restitution. The moral absolutists among us (myself included) might certainly have wished that Zacchaeus had recognized the wrongness of his ways and repented before Jesus came to him, because it was right not because it was safe. But, it takes a very special kind of moral courage to act this way, and while we shouldn’t necessarily let go our expectation that such moral courage is good and should exist, we also need to recognize what kind of creatures humans beings really are: fallible, scared, limited.
And so, what we see is that Jesus is pragmatic. God knows us. God knows that we need prompting, nudging, safety, and reassurance. In the difficult work of spiritual progress, God knows that we need each other, that we need to provide safety and encouragement and forgiveness for each other. We hold each other up, draw each other toward our better selves, providing inspiration and honesty as needed. We provide for each other the space to grow and change and be wrong and change our minds. Community forgives because community knows that we all need forgiveness, in one way or another.
We must not take advantage of community, however. Community can be, and often is, used as a bias bubble, an echo chamber, an emotional prop; community of the inward-looking kind can foster complacency, can foster systemic and ongoing injustice. Some, in this country, who would rightly have us recognize, for example, white privilege or economic inequality would argue that this is what American society has been for many years now…a place where we have forgotten how to be wrong, a place where we have forgotten about the necessity of repentance, a place where we cannot bear to imagine thriving for all because it threatens the few. And the marginalized are understandably tired, tired of educating the majority about the reality of their lives, tired of patiently waiting for us to repent for systems that keep them oppressed generation after generation. We human beings take what God has given for good and we twist it into something that serves the self. That’s what we do. And our spiritual work is to stop doing that. God believes that we can; Zacchaeus showed us that we can.
What we see in this story, is what can happen when community is extended beyond where we think it “ought” to go. Whether that means extending community towards particular people or groups of people, or whether that means allowing community into our own life in ways that makes us nervous, we can know that God built the universe on the gift of community and connectedness. And because if that fact, that one very simple fact, then we can know that no one is beyond redemption.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! 16 Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. 17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. 18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
This being the nature of heaven, no angel or spirit can possibly have any life unless he lives in some community, and in so doing in a harmonious relationship of many people. A community is nothing else than the harmonious relationship of many, for one person's life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others. Indeed no angel, spirit, or community can possibly have any life, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, if he is not joined to heaven and to the world of spirits through the many in his own community. The same applies to the human race. No one whatever, no matter who, can possibly live, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, unless he has in like manner been joined to heaven through the angels residing with him, and to the world of spirits, and even to hell through the spirits residing with him.
 For everyone during his lifetime is dwelling in some community of spirits or angels, although he is not conscious of doing so. And if he is not joined to heaven or the world of spirits by means of the community in which he lives, he cannot go on living one moment longer. It is like the parts of the human body. Any part of it which is not joined to the rest by means of fibres and vessels, and so by means of various functions, is not part of the body. It is instantly removed and expelled as that which has no life.
Photo credit: Ric Rodrigues
Readings: Psalm 51:1-4, 7-13, 16-17, Luke 18:9-14, Secrets of Heaven #874 (see below)
This is as parable that is going to get a little meta: Jesus cautions us against making judgements based on stereotypes and caricatures by using…you guessed it, stereotypes and caricatures.
As we consider this parable, it is really important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the story is about the characters in it. The parable really isn’t about a Pharisee and a tax collector, per se. We aren’t supposed to draw conclusions about either of those groups of people in general. The characters, and the assumptions that the original hearers would have had about them, are there to help us to come to a recognition of the ways in which our own tribalism and self-absorption can lead us to make assumptions about others that are not accurate.
So, the parable works by starting in one place, and then bringing us full circle around to interrogate the assumptions with which we began. Like many of Jesus parables, this one would definitely have shocked the original hearers, for he subverts their expectations on multiple levels.
Jerusalem was very sectarian in Jesus’ time. There were various groups and movements within Judaism that were in conversation with each other around the optimal way to practice being a Jew. Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, describes Pharisaism this way: that it was a movement that “emphasized obedience to the law as a way of making God’s benefits visible to God’s people”, and “adherence to religious ritual as a way to encounter holiness in the everyday.” (1) These topics were of great interest to Jesus and his own ministry, so it makes sense that Jesus would find himself in conversation (and to a certain extent, in competition) with the Pharisees. Like any movement though, within Pharisaism there would have had some who were practicing with integrity, and others who were not.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus delivering a multi-level critique, not only of religious practice, but about how religion becomes allied with power and commerce and politics. So, Jesus had a very complicated relationship with the Pharisees. There were some who actually agreed with him, and some who argued with him. When Jesus saw that some of them were upholding external ritual but being internally corrupt, he critiqued them and called them hypocrites. I’m sure Jesus, if speaking to us today, would have equally harsh words for any of us who would show up to church, sing hymns and take communion, and then go home and treat our loved ones badly or go to work and act dishonestly. The general point that Jesus was often making—don’t be a hypocrite, and external ritual can’t buy salvation—applies to us now just as much as to the Pharisee then. And just to be clear, it doesn’t apply more to the Pharisees then than it does to us now. They were just the ones who happened to be in conversation with Jesus about it in his day. Over time, as the early Christian movement grew out of Judaism, and then found itself in conflict with Judaism, the gospel writers would often use Pharisee “as a cipher for villain.” (2) Christianity ran with this, and Pharisee became short-hand for “hypocrite” or “legalist trying to earn God’s favor.” Worse still, Christians have often assumed that the gospel depiction of Pharisees is historically accurate overall and a useful education on the nature, practice and motivation of Judaism today, which has contributed to anti-Judaism. We should be very careful not to fall into this trap, or to further this mistaken practice. Religion allied with power was the movement that was in conflict with Jesus, not Pharisaism per se, and definitely not Judaism, and we are just as vulnerable to the excesses and overreach of religion allied with power today as then.
The point that Jesus was trying to make here, is not that Pharisees would naturally be arrogant, but that the cultural understanding of the time, that learning and ritual purity would make someone more likely to receive God’s mercy, was not correct. The common person has just as much access to God’s mercy as the learned and elite and powerful.
And the reason that this was so very surprising in the context of the parable, is that Jesus heightened the contrast between the two characters. The second pray-er was not a figure like the beleaguered widow from last week, nor a common fisherman like the disciples, but the worst person that the hearers could imagine. A tax collector. These days, we might not much enjoy paying our taxes or doing our tax returns, but the whole process is rather automated and bureaucratic, and certainly lawful. We don’t hate the good folks at H&R Block. In Jesus day however, the Jewish people were being taxed by an occupying power, not their own monarch and certainly not a democratically elected government. So already, they were resentful, understandably so. To make matters worse, the Roman empire would usually contract with local people to collect the taxes owed, and these people would often collect more than necessary to line their own pockets. In that context, the tax collectors were turncoats and collaborators and mobsters. You can imagine how reviled they were, by ordinary people just trying to get by.
So imagine then the surprise, when it is the tax collector who is lifted up as the model in this parable. In one fell swoop, Jesus indicts the Pharisee for arrogantly assuming the internal state fo the tax collector, and indicts the hearers for assuming likewise. The point being, that we cannot assume that we know where God’s mercy should go. That is not for us to know, nor for us to have an opinion about. And, just as the original hearers might well have thought “There is no way that God will the hear the prayers of that tax collector”, so too if any of us now are looking at the parable and saying to ourselves “typical Pharisee, how arrogant and legalistic” we are doing exactly the same thing as the character of the Pharisee is doing towards the tax collector. And we should probably stop it. The thing is, it is not exactly wrong for the Pharisee to pray in thanksgiving for his benefits. The problem was in how the recognition of those benefits led him to look down on others. Let’s now take a look at this through a Swedenborgian lens. These characters represent our spiritual process, and the fact is that we are all in process, and God’s mercy present to us wherever we are in that process. The nature of our experience in that process however, has a lot to do with how aligned our lower external self is with our higher internal self. Swedenborg writes:
And as a person has an internal spiritual and an external natural, and the internal is conjoined with heaven and the external with the world, it follows that whatever a person does from that internal through the external they do from heaven, that is, through heaven from the Lord; but anything that a person does by the external without the internal, this they do from self. (3)
Our inner spirit connects us to heaven and to God. But often times, our inner spirit and our external desires are not in sync. So, the first leg of our spiritual journey towards heaven is to recognize what external behaviors are helpful, healthy, and good. We come to believe they are good, we understand why they are good, so we decide to do them. We might open the door for other people, we might give to charitable causes, we might march in a protest, we might try to listen without interrupting. And this is totally great. But of course, the why and how we are doing them are very important. Swedenborg contrasts the good we do from our selfhood and the good we do from the Lord. From our reading:
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration following trial for the people of this church, a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
So, the first step on the journey is being like the Pharisee; acting in certain external ways because we believe that we should, that it is right, that it is what God wants for us. This is totally appropriate, in fact, very necessary. The problem is that this initial step relies very much on our own selfhood, and the pleasure and gratification that our selfhood/goodness relays to us.
And if is we don’t keep moving in the process, moving towards a recognition that it is by the Lord’s power that we can do what is good and not our own, the more we will be tempted to identify with how our own selfhood and ego makes us feel. We will be more tempted towards behaviors that increase our perceived superiority. This is why Jesus lifted up the tax collector’s prayer, an honest acknowledgement of where our ego will naturally take us. Biblical language calls that being a sinner, other traditions might call it being in delusion. The reality is though, that all goodness, power and love flows into from God; it does not originate in us. We can choose to open ourselves up to, or close ourselves off from, that inflow. And the main thing that closes us off from God’s inflow is believing that it doesn’t exist, thinking that goodness arises from ourselves. The inflow will always continue to flow toward us, but we have placed ourselves out of alignment with it. So the tax collector’s prayer was good, it acknowledged the mercy of God, and how dependent we really are on God.
But we have to realize that this prayer was not perfect either, or at least, not complete. Did the tax collector promise to change? No, actually he didn’t, though maybe it was implied. Was he afraid to? Unsure how to? Perhaps, we don’t know. All we do know, is that recognition of our sins, our habits and tendencies, and the recognition of our reliance on God is a very good and necessary starting place.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are both pictures of us in different places in our spiritual process, both a little stalled in their own unique ways. At every phase in our journey, there are places where we can get stuck. We definitely need to be able to be humble and recognize the nature of our selfhood, but we can’t let that be all we do, or let that become an impediment to change. We need to act. This is the tax collector’s work to do, what he needs to find the courage to attend to.
And in the beginning, when we do act, it will always be out of our own selfhood. This is necessary, this is good. We try to do the right thing, the right external actions, and we receive feedback on these actions that bolster our sense of ego and our sense of “doing it right.” Positive feedback is important. The temptation at this point though, is to really double down our own goodness, to think that we deserve merit for “doing it right.” The key here is not to get puffed up in our righteousness as the Pharisee does, or to start thinking that we are better than someone else in some other place in the process.
We can sort of think of the Pharisee and the tax collector as two halves making a whole, or two sides of a coin, and we may find ourselves resonating with either one of them at different times in our life. God lets us be where we need to be in order to take our next step. But let us be sure to always try to see the wholeness of each person’s journey, and not fall into stereotyping. Caricatures can be helpful to make a point, but they are not real. People are real.
(1) Matt Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4206
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained #794
Psalm 51: 1-4, 7-13, 16-17
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Secrets of Heaven #874
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration following trial for the people of this church, a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
Still, none of the good we do and none of the truth we contemplate while holding this opinion (a mistaken one) is the kind of goodness or truth that makes a part of faith. Nothing that we produce from ourselves can be good, because it is from ourselves — an impure and very unclean source. From an impure and unclean source nothing good can spring, because we are always thinking about how deserving and righteous we are. Some people, as the Lord teaches in Luke 18:9-14, go further and despise others in comparison with themselves. Others do other things just as bad. Self-centered desires add themselves to the mixture, making the exterior look good, although the interior is filthy.
As a consequence, the good that we do at this stage is not the good that belongs to faith. It is the same with the truth that we think. Even if the idea we adopt is absolutely true and is in itself a valid religious concept, nonetheless as long as we adopt it for selfish reasons, it has no religious good within it. Any truth, in order to be theologically true, has to have the good of faith from the Lord within it. That is when it first becomes good and true.
Readings: Amos 2:6, 15-16, Luke 18:1-8, Marriage Love #365:5 (see below)
As is very common with biblical parables, we might find ourselves a little confused upon reading this one, asking “What is the point of this parable?” Understandably. There are not one, but several points to this parable. Among them, the utility of persistent prayer, the responsibility of society toward the vulnerable, the responsiveness of God towards our need, and reflection on the quality of faith. It can be a little hard to figure out where to place our attention.
We are first introduced to the unjust judge. Certainly to us even now, he reads as callous and potentially corrupt. Additionally, to the Jewish hearers of this parable, he would also have immediately appeared religiously bankrupt as well. The Jewish scriptures repeatedly advocate for the care of widows and orphans and foreigners, people who are easily forgotten, who have no obvious recourse for survival amid patriarchal structures. In this context, The judge did not revere God and God’s commands, and so of course, did not feel any responsibility towards the vulnerable.
Then we are introduced to the figure of the widow. Now, when I read this parable, my internal image of the widow is someone who is meek. Persistent yes, but diminutive. This is totally my own baggage but I imagine her in the the way that I might advocate for my own self in real life. (knock knock) “Um, excuse me, I’m so sorry to be bothering you, but I have this problem, can you help me? (knock knock) I know that you are terribly busy but if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at my case? (knock knock) Yes, I know, its me again, but I really could use your help…” etc etc.
This picture of the widow is not supported by the text, though it is hard for us to tell this by the English. What is often translated as “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will vindicate her, or in the end she will wear me out by her continual coming,” in the original greek, is actually a boxing metaphor. Its literal usage means to beat someone black and blue. I’m not saying the language was meant to imply that the judge thought the widow was really going to get violent, but rather, that the use of such a metaphor creates a very different picture to the deferential one I instinctively created in my mind. The widow was being a nuisance in such a way that caused the judge to use language that evoked being under attack.
And we see that, even so, this widow is lifted up as a faithful example. So while the parable is framed as being about prayer, I think we could also draw some lessons about persistence in relation to injustice in general, and about how we might approach eradicating injustice.
From the widow’s example then, clearly, we are to be people who notice injustice. And, we are to be people who are troubled and concerned about injustice. And, we are to be people who are persistent about correcting injustice, who are not content with allowing corrupt institutions or people (ie the judge) to go about business-as-usual. If our situation is unjust, we are empowered to resist it, not just once, but over and over again, until justice is restored.
What is more, we are empowered to resist with passion. The widow was clearly passionate enough in her entreaties to the judge that he employed a fighting metaphor to characterize her. In a real situation, we cannot know how much the judge’s own paranoia, or guilty conscience, might be projecting on to her. But, I do think a reflection upon the utility of righteous anger is appropriate here.
We heard in our reading today about what Swedenborg called zeal, that is, the condition under which we are moved to act passionately out of love. He points out that zeal often looks very much like anger, in that it can appear strident, or bristly. However, what is key is not so much what the zeal looks like to an observer, but what is motivating it internally. He writes:
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different…
The point being that what matters is the internal motivation. Righteous zeal or anger is trying to protect something good and just. It can certainly be working for something that is good and just for the self —the widow was advocating for herself and her own situation; it is not that zeal is must always completely self-less or purely altruistic in order to be motivated by something good. But ultimately, righteous anger is advocating for a just principle that serves more than the self. An example is the Civil rights movement: each person of color involved in this movement was certainly advocating for themselves and their own inherent right to be treated justly, but also in a larger sense, they were fighting for the principle that all people have a right to be treated justly, as much of MLKs soaring rhetoric demonstrated.
Whereas, zeal or anger that comes from a wellspring of hatred and vengeance might take upon it any number of external justifications, even might look like it is working for the greater good, but its ultimate root is the perverse satisfaction of seeing others suffer under its zeal. Again from our reading, Swedenborg writes:
...[its] internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions…. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash.
We are cautioned here against anger for the sake of anger, anger makes us feel powerful and potent and superior, as opposed to anger roused for the sake of justice itself, for the sake of how justice might be realized for all. Due to its emotional potency, anger can be seductive, even if we start out with good motivations, we can become addicted to how it makes us feel. Even more so if our anger has always burned for selfish reasons, smoldering in wait for a reason to lash out.
So it can be easy to imagine that anger is always a bad thing, and this can be confusing when we contemplate how often God is characterize as angry and wrathful in the bible. In the Old Testament, the prophets portrayed God as extremely angry when the Israelites consistently worshiped idols and ignored the vulnerable among them. From Amos we hear:
This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.(2:6) “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.” (6:8)
Swedenborg makes the important point however, that even with God, how it might have appeared to the prophets, how they interpreted their visions in their context, is different from the reality. He writes:
So it is that the Lord's zeal, which in itself is love and compassion, is seen by them as anger…in fact there is no anger whatever in the Divine, nor any evil whatever, only pure forbearance and mercy. (1)
If God’s love and compassion are infinite, certainly God’s zeal, God’s passion, for us is beyond imagining. Love and compassion demand justice for all who are loved, demand that each beloved child of God be able to experience conditions of safety and contentment. Systems, like patriarchy for example, often serve some and not others, and can lead to some people, through no fault of their own, to be forgotten. But where injustice prevails, God sees those who are forgotten and lifts them up. Thus God’s zeal works for justice, for access for all to what they need to survive and thrive.
So how does God work to see that the forgotten, like the widow in the parable, be brought into community, into thriving? One way is through just systems and institutions instead of unjust ones. God gave a system of laws to a community, in the Old Testament this was the Israelites, and this community set up systems of justice so that they might be able to hold each other accountable to a shared mission for the greater good. And thus we see the widow appealing to the judge in the parable.
Such institutions are not infallible of course. People like the unjust judge rise up into power. People motivated by winning, by profit, supremacy, reputation, and glory. This is why we see in this parable a contrasting comparison between God and the judge. Even though this judge was associated with a system of justice, his heart was not in it. But God’s heart is always in it for us. God’s spirit moves along with those seeking for, working for, and creating justice. God’s spirit responds to this work and this desire. Our shared institutions, our shared vision for our communities need not be co-opted by selfishness. God will work with us to create and support a just world.
And so this widow is lifted up, that we might all seek the realization of a world in which she does not need to supplicate, did not need persistence, a world that sees her and values her automatically. For this we might pray, yes, in our minds and hearts, but we also pray with our feet, our letters, our compassionate and open conversation, our service, and our persistent protest.
Of course, when we talk about good zeal and bad zeal, righteous anger and unrighteous anger, we separate something in concept that is much more complicated in reality. We all act from mixed motivations. We all act from fear and self-centeredness sometimes, and altruism and love other times. We are simply human. So, if we are to take on the full import of this parable, to assimilate the necessity of persistent prayer towards a just world, we must recognize that our own hearts are a part of that world. Our persistent prayer cannot be for God’s intercession separate from our own engagement, for we know that God doesn’t work like that, our persistent prayer must be for justice to prevail in each and every heart, ours included.
For, righteous anger is powerful, and it is a very good thing in so far as it motivates us, gives us courage, gives us hope, gives us resilience, gives us the fortitude to do something difficult over and over again. But we cannot allow ourselves to get caught up in that power. Swedenborg writes:
The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
Let us watch ourselves then, with both compassion and accountability, watch when our anger dissipates and when it does not, and ask ourselves what we holding on to and why. Zeal for justice is borne out of love, and when justice is achieved, love is what remains. It can be a cautious love, a wise love, a love with boundaries, a love born of clarity, but it holds possibility within it, not vengeance. A possibility that brings us all forward together, if we allow for it.
(1) Secrets of Heaven #8875
Amos 2:6, 14-16
6 This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.
14 The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life. 15 The archer will not stand his ground, the fleet-footed soldier will not get away, and the horseman will not save his life. 16 Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,” declares the LORD.
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Marriage Love #365:5
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different; and the differences are as follows:
1. The zeal of a good love is like a heavenly flame, which never leaps out to attack another, but only defends itself - defending itself against an evil assailant in much the same way as when such a one rushes at fire and is burned; whereas the zeal of an evil love is like a hellish flame, which spontaneously leaps out and rushes upon another and tries to devour him.
2. The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
3. The reason for this is that the internal element in one who is prompted by a love of good, is, in itself, gentle, mild, friendly and kind. Consequently, even when, to protect itself, the external element hardens, stiffens, bristles, and so acts harshly, still it is tempered by the goodness which moves its internal element. Not so in evil people. In them the internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash; and if these fires do not break out in the world, nevertheless they do after death.
Photo credit: Marcus Wöckel
Readings: Psalm 111:1-10, Luke 17:11-19, Heaven and Hell #404 (see below)
Well, it is just the beginning of October, but let’s get a jump on Thanksgiving shall we? Because, the story that we have heard from the bible today is all about gratitude. Jesus is traveling along the border between Samaria and Galilee. He meets ten lepers and heals them. It is interesting how it happens. They are not healed in Jesus’ presence; he sends them to see the priest and it says “as they went, they were cleansed.” They suddenly found themselves healed when they didn’t quite expect it. Yet, nine of them continued on their way, only one turned around and returned to Jesus to thank him. Jesus feigns surprise, and makes sure to point out that the one practicing gratitude is a Samaritan, an enemy of his fellow Judeans. Jesus has already told the story of the Good Samaritan a few chapters earlier, and this story drives home his point: we should be wary of the walls we erect between ourselves and others, for if we pay attention it is the Samaritan, the one the Judeans call “enemy” who is actually loving God and loving the neighbor as Jesus is teaching. This Samaritan’s gratitude is lifted up as a model.
Now, I did not grow up with a Thanksgiving holiday, and I’ve very much come to appreciate the tradition of setting a day aside to give thanks for our blessings in community. Perhaps the practice is as simple as saying grace at a feast, perhaps it is the practice of going around a table to say one thing we are grateful for, perhaps it is a yearly inventory of our blessings. Gratefulness is an important practice.
I do want to dive a little deeper and ask: Why though? Why is Thanksgiving so many people’s favorite holiday? Why is the practice of gratitude often so restorative? Why do we teach our children to say “thank you” when someone does something for them?
Certainly, it is a nice thing to do, it seems the right thing to do—but why is that? Because it is an acknowledgment that we exist in community, that we rely upon each other. It is the acknowledgement of the existence of someone else whose action made an impact upon us in some way, it is an acknowledgment that we are not islands but strands of a grand and beautiful web. Gratitude connects us to each other and to reverence.
Reverence, in the words of philosopher Paul Woodruff, is the recognition of something greater than the self.(1) Gratitude is one of the easiest and most important ways we enter into the experience of reverence. When we say thank you, we bring ourselves into the recognition of someone apart from the self, recognition of a need that we could not fulfill on our own, and therefore, a recognition that the self is not all-important or all-capable.
Or in the words of Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor “reverence stands in awe of something—something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits—so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.” (2)
This is essentially what we are doing here in church. God does not need our praise. God does not desire it. We heard that in our Swedenborg reading. We are here however, to be reverent, meaning to willingly let go of the primacy of self, and to consciously look outside of ourselves to see what else there might be, whether that be God, or community, or beauty, or insight or countless other things.
And when we notice and/or receive these things, these gifts, we fall on our knees in thankfulness that we are not alone in an empty world. Into this space of gratitude, we speak aloud an acknowledgement of our limits, our indebtedness, and our wonder. This is the push and pull of worship: to open our eyes to what God would have us see in ourselves and others, to take our awareness outside of our selfhood, to lay down our anxieties in front of someone who cares, to sing and pray and listen and speak ourselves into community with each other and God.
In Taylor’s words, “reverence [is] the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience.”(3) Humility and curiosity are key, for Jesus warned us in the text for today that our preconceptions about who we should be in community with, who we should be open to and grateful for, can get in the way of true reverence.
But our preconceptions of people are not the only things that get in the way. We often erect many obstacles to gratitude and reverence in our daily lives. As Taylor points out:
“The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings be come not more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. (note) We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable. Meanwhile, none of them meets the first criterion for reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods. If anything these devices sustain the illusion that we might yet be gods—if only we could find some way to do more faster.”(4)
What is it that reminds us that we are not gods? Simple awareness. We remain so caught up in our own competence, our own opinions, our own delusions, but a simple autumn leaf and the awareness that we had nothing to do with its beauty and process and life, this can bring us around to our place in the order of things.
We hear this in the words of Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, who recounted a vision she had one day:
And in this [God] showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I look at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: what can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. (5)
The ten lepers were healed “as they went.” And so we also go about our lives, to and fro. As we go, will we notice our various healings, small and large alike, and will they remind us to praise, to be grateful, to see that everything has being through the love of God? In Taylor’s words, can we trust “that something as small as a hazelnut can become an altar in this world.”(6)
And so, as we explore for ourselves gratitude and praise in this season of Thanksgiving, as we meditate upon the ways gratitude shows that we belong to each other, let us hear this blessing from John O’Donohue:
May you listen to your longing to be free
May the frames of your belonging be generous enough for your dreams
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart
May you find a harmony between your soul and your life
May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted
May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within
May you never place walls between the light and yourself
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you, mind you, and embrace you in belonging.
1 Praise the LORD. I will extol the LORD with all my heart in the council of the upright and in the assembly. 2 Great are the works of the LORD; they are pondered by all who delight in them. 3 Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever. 4 He has caused his wonders to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and compassionate. 5 He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. 6 He has shown his people the power of his works, giving them the lands of other nations. 7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. 8 They are established for ever and ever, enacted in faithfulness and uprightness. 9 He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever— holy and awesome is his name. 10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. 15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Heaven and Hell #404
Some spirits who thought themselves better informed than others claimed that in the world they had held to the belief that heavenly joy consisted solely in praising and glorifying God, and that this was an active life. They have been told, though, that praising and glorifying God is not an appropriate kind of active life, since God has no need of praise and glorification. Rather, God wants us to be useful to each other, to do the worthwhile things that are called works of charity. However, they could not connect any notion of heavenly joy with thoughtful good deeds, only a notion of servitude. The angels, though, bore witness that it was the freest life of all because it stemmed from a deep affection and was invariably accompanied by an indescribable pleasure.
Readings: Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4, Secrets of Heaven #3854:2-3 (see below)
This morning we are going to spend some time with the prophet Habakkuk. You’d be forgiven for asking: Who? Habakkuk is only included once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary and is not usually a go-to for other bible readings. And though the common invocation “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth by silent before him,” does come from Habakkuk, we might not have heard much more from him.
We don’t know a lot about Habakkuk. He does not provide us with much information about himself, nor is there much opportunity: the book itself is a scant three chapters long. We can surmise a few things. Since he prophecies about an immanent defeat for Judah by the Babylonians, he was probably active during the reign of King Jehoiakim, which was 609-598 BCE. This would make him a contemporary of the more well-known Jeremiah.
As obscure as Habakkuk may be, however, I think that even now we can resonate with his writings. We might know something of the world Habakkuk describes. He writes:
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong-doing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and conflict abounds. Therefore, the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. (1:2-4)
How familiar this sounds! Human beings, then and now, make choices that lead to corruption and violence, choices that seem to actively prevent justice from being manifested in the world. Those who love justice, who value integrity, see evil prospering and it is perplexing, it is discouraging. Habakkuk, too, sees the prevalence of such forces and it pains him, distresses him, not only because they exist, but that their existence might imply that God tolerates these evils.
So he makes a complaint to God, lays out his case for his reasonable and rational distress, and asks for God’s reply. He asks: why does injustice prevail? and desires for God to answer for the state of the world. God’s initial reply, as characterized by Habakkuk, complicates matters. God says that he is sending the Babylonians to lay waste to the Israelites as payment for their crimes. This is how ancient peoples of all kinds understood the relationship between the divine and human history. They saw the divine as interceding directly in human affairs. That human history could be interpreted to reveal God’s acts of justice on a worldwide scale. Modern religion has, in many sectors, re-evaluated and evolved this relationship between God and human history. Even so, we see elements of evangelical religion stating that God has sent hurricanes or epidemics to punish certain groups of people whom they call sinners. So, we are not so far removed from this perspective as we might imagine.
Habakkuk though, pushes back. For as much as the Jewish tradition contained a strand of covenant thinking (ie God would give reward to those who followed the law, and punish those who didn’t), there was also a tradition such that we see in the book of Job, that grapples with a reality much less simple. For Habakkuk, God’s answer raised more questions on the topic of justice than it answered. How can it be just, Habakkuk asks, that even good people be destroyed wholesale by divine retribution. He asks God:
“Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13)
It does not add up for him. How can God’s ends be met by the wicked and vicious Babylonians? Yes, the Israelites (or anyone else for that matter) should receive punishment for their misdeeds but by the Babylonians? This divine act would perform a retributive purpose but not a restorative one, and Habakkuk knew God to be deeply and steadfastly restorative. How can God answer injustice with more injustice, and still be considered divinely loving?
Habakkuk decides to wait upon the Lord once more, to press God for a different, better answer. He says:
“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” (2:1)
This time God’s answer is different.
“Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it. It will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is puffed up in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” (2:2-3)
This is an answer that transcends Habakkuk’s original question. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “It is an answer… not in terms of thought, but in terms of existence.” (1) For still the vision awaits its time…and the righteous shall live by their faith. God opens up the realm of justice so that it is no longer about retribution in the short-term but rather restoration in God’s time. God turns the question back to us: What will you do, Habakkuk? What kind of vision will you write? What kind of vision will you live by? If you were truly to believe in the justice that forms the heart of God, how would you live differently?
Habakkuk had already given a clue that he was ready to hear such a word. He had written: I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” God’s answer and humankind’s response are linked. In the words of Heschel: the first is the meaningless without the second. (2) He says further: “The universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history.” (3)
The “greater masterpiece” still to be finished, is the story of our choices, the history that we make. We recall from our Swedenborg reading:
The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom…
Evil and injustice are travesties, but they exist because we are given the gift, the respect, the mercy, of freedom. We are given the agency to craft an internal life of choices that reflects the divine, or reflects the lack of it. Swedenborg continues:
For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.
Heschel says it this way: But God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in temples, in space, but only in history, in time. (4)
What he is saying here is that God’s desire for mercy and righteousness cannot be satisfied in any other way than in the still quiet moment of human decision, pure only in its freedom. Every small fraction of a moment contains a new beginning that might become resonant with the desire of God, and along with Habakkuk, we mourn, bitterly, desperately, when that desire goes unfulfilled, when that moment of human decision decides to give birth to in-justice, to imbalance, to oppression.
And yet still the tension remains. Can any appeal to the ultimate value of freedom justify the worst of what humanity has wrought? How can it be that the freedom of one can be allowed to harm another? How can we bear to speak of the “greater masterpiece” while things are falling apart, while real suffering is happening in the here and now. It hurts. We cry out. We lament. And well we should. It is not a sign of a lack of faith to protest the existence of injustice, and of suffering, even to God. It is a sign we are taking seriously the desire of God, the vision of God, that would bring all people into thriving. It means, as Heschel says, we understand that “Justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern.”(5)
And so it remains something of a divine mystery, a bewilderment, that God would, in any way, cede to us something so freighted with divine concern, something so important. What was God thinking? God was thinking that the only way for our choice for justice to mean something is if we have the opportunity not to make it.
This is where faith and hope come into the picture. Our brains don’t really help us out with this predicament. In the words of science writer Erik Vance, the human brain is a prediction machine.(6) Its job is to take what has happened in the past, apply it to the present in order to make a prediction about the future. This helps us survive in the world, to learn what we need to learn.
And yet, in this way of looking at the world, we are acutely vulnerable to Habakkuk’s lament. When we observe rampant and persistent injustice, oppression and suffering, when we recognize how long it has been a part of human history, a good prediction machine would say it will always be so. And this can completely overwhelm us, it can debilitate us.
But there is a part of the picture that is outside of our history, outside of our neurology, outside of reason and prediction, and this is God’s promise of ultimate restoration. We have no real reason to believe it, except that each of us have experienced it, a small moment of blooming, of joy, of healing, growing up through the cracks of this world, somehow, someway. And if we do believe in it, against all odds, if we believe that justice is possible in the future, we are free to act for it in the present. We are free to make it indispensable and spontaneous, as close to us as our breath. For Heschel writes: Justice is just as much a necessity as breathing is, and a constant occupation.” (7)
The last word of course, should go to Habakkuk. He writes: Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman? Or an image that teaches lies? For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, “Come to life!” Or to lifeless stone, “Wake up!” Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it.” (2:18-19)
If justice is just as much a necessity as breathing, indeed, let us look to where we find the breath of God, and may it be our own breath and life.
(1) Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, An Introduction, 143
(2) Ibid, 142
(3) Ibid, 198
(6) On Being with Krista Tippett, Interview with Erik Vance, The Drugs Inside Your Head, September 19, 2019
(7) Heschel, The Prophets, 199
Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4
1 The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.
2 How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
The Lord's Answer
5 “Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6 I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.
Habakkuk's Second Complaint
12 LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
2:1 I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
The Lord's Answer
2 Then the LORD replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. 3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. 4 “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.
Secrets of Heaven #3854
 …The Lord foresaw from eternity what the human race was going to be like in the future and what every member of it was going to be like, and that evil was going to increase all the time, so that at length humankind, of themselves, would [wish to] rush headlong into hell. That being so, the Lord has provided not only the means by which He makes it possible for human beings to be diverted from hell and led towards heaven, but also does in His providence divert and lead us all the time. The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom, for that which does not take root in freedom is dispelled at the first sign of evil and of temptation.
 From this it may be seen how far someone errs who believes that the Lord has not foreseen and does not see the smallest individual thing with a person, or that within the smallest individual thing He does not foresee and lead, when in fact the Lord's foresight and providence are present within the tiniest details of all the smallest individual things with us, and in details so tiny that it is impossible to comprehend in any manner of thought one in many millions of them. For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.
Photo credit: Noelle Otto
Readings: Amos 6:1, 4-7, Luke 16:19-31, Secrets of Heaven #997:1 (see below)
I listen to a podcast on the lectionary texts each week, to get me going on sermon writing. One of the commentators pointed out that if last week’s parable about the dishonest steward was too confusing and/or impenetrable, this one runs the risk of being too simple(1). It is pretty darned clear what Jesus is getting at with this story.
We first hear about a rich man who reveled in his financial means while he lived on earth. We are told he was clothed in purple and fine linen. The color purple was a rare and expensive color in ancient times, and so traditionally indicated royalty and wealth. Lazarus, a poor beggar laid at his gate, clearly suffering due to lack of nutrition and care, covered in sores. I’m sure he was a sight to behold. Sadly, we can imagine the rich man holding his nose as he steps over Lazarus each day to go about his business.
After both have died the situation is flipped. Lazarus finds himself by Abraham’s side, safe in the heavenly company of the patriarch of their faith, and the rich man is tormented in hell, with a wide chasm in between. Even then though, in the midst of his suffering, the rich man treats Lazarus as someone who should serve him, asking that he first be sent to bring him some water, and then be sent to warn the rich man’s still living relatives.
The purpose of this parable is not to paint a literal picture of the afterlife. The purpose is to bring our attention to what kind of life we are creating and enacting right now on earth. The consequence is not so much that we will find ourselves cast into hell, but rather, that we will become the kind of people who in the afterlife still think that we ought to be served, rather than being willing to serve others. The discomfort for this week is not so much in trying to interpret what the parable is trying to say, but in trying to figure out how to deal with its implications in our real lives.
On one level, it’s pretty simple. When we see people in need, we should help them. Obviously, we each cannot solve suffering of the world but as Martin Luther apparently once said: You cannot feed every beggar in the world, but you can feed the one at your gate(2). We should do what we can. We believe in a God who loves us and wants us to extend and grow that love forward into the world, into the lives of people right in front of us, not only because God loves all people but because God knows that doing so, stretching us to do so, will help us become infinitely more loving. For this reason, Jesus speaks voluminously about the need to care for the vulnerable among us, especially in the gospel of Luke, and he doesn’t mince words about it. The kingdom of God necessarily includes the least, the last, the lost and the left behind.
We have all failed on this count, one way or another. We have all walked by someone on the street asking for money and not given it, we have all missed opportunities to give help when we could have. And, this is not the sermon where we analyze the complicated nature of homelessness, or the breakdown of our mental health infrastructure, or the efficiencies of charitable giving. Yes, the economy of need is very complicated, but that is not what this parable is about. This parable is about making sure we are the kind of people who see need when it is in front of us. It is so easy, feels almost necessary, when we (for example) pass person after person asking for money on the street, to steel ourselves, to close ourselves off, to learn how to habitually ignore them. This parable is warning against this tendency. Whether and how we choose to give in order to alleviate the world’s problems is not the point here, the point is rather, to ask: does it still pain us to see them, day after day. Or have we shut our hearts down because that is easier than having empathy for their suffering and grappling with the existence of need.
We heard in our reading today that Swedenborg’s vision of heaven is one that is based not in the notion of heavenly peace, joy, and satisfaction but on useful service out of which those blessings come. And I quote:
For with good spirits and angels useful service is the source of their delight; and the services they perform determine the amount and the essential nature of the delight they receive(3)…Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses.(4)
This is a beautiful vision, of a heaven that is built upon the freedom and joy that comes from giving: giving love, giving hope, giving presence, giving knowledge, giving nurture. But what goes almost unsaid within this vision is the necessity that undergirds being able to give in the first place, and that is being able to see need. We cannot perform useful service unless we can identify where that useful service is required. And this means we have to be able to see and identify need. Help that is given indiscriminately, without any attention to need, certainly may well be called service, but can it be called useful? I’m not sure it can.
There are plenty of things that get in the way of us seeing and responding to need. Sometimes for myself, I’m not able to see what my children might need because of my desire to control their path and their outcomes. Sometimes I am not able to see my spouse’s needs because I am preoccupied with being right. Perhaps we might choose not see the need of some people, like with homelessness, or with climate change, because we feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to help in a substantive way. Or we might not see the need of some people because it makes us feel superior to blame them for their own circumstances. Or we might not see a real deeper need because it is covered up by other socially unacceptable behaviors. Or, like the rich man, we might just be so wrapped up and invested in our own worth, that the needs of others don’t matter to us.
And as unfortunate as it may be, our current administration has recently provided a clear example of such behavior. After expressing concern about the number of homeless people in Los Angeles and San Francisco, our president explained that the problem was ruining the “prestige” of those cities. He said in an interview that he had “personally heard complaints from tenants in the state, some of them foreigners. He expressed sympathy for real estate investors…whose property values or quality of life are threatened.”(5). In his own words: “In many cases, they came from other countries and they moved to Los Angeles….because of the prestige of the city and all of a sudden they have tents. Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office building. And they want to leave…people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.”(6)
As much as it pains me to have to bring up this example, to see our most important elected official characterize the problem in such a way, it so singularly relevant to this parable that I cannot ignore it. Yes, of course something must be done if hundreds of people are homeless and living in tents in our urban areas, but it is the why we choose to do something that is instructive. The important question becomes: In seeing the desperate circumstances of so many people, do we see their underlying need, do we have empathy for their suffering, or do we simply wish that they were gone because of how they desecrate our things of value?
You see, the enormous chasm between heaven and hell that we hear about in the parable is not so much a revelation about the spiritual architecture of the afterlife, but a symbol of the kind of life that the rich man had constructed in the world. He had literally put a gate between himself and Lazarus, and figuratively put a gate between his heart and the need of those around him. If heaven is a realm of useful service, how else would the rich man experience his relationship to such a realm after he died? He would experience it as something far away and incomprehensible; unsurmountable even, because he had never tried to reach past it, had never wished to reach past it, during his life.
He had forgotten a very fundamental truth, that we all are made in God’s image and likeness, and so all are worthy and deserving of love, even if figuring out how to show that love and care is difficult or inconvenient. That is what we are here for. Not to enrich ourselves but to expand in love, to learn that giving connects us more closely to God and each other than having. And we will never be able to appreciate that fundamental truth if we continually erect a wall or a gate around our hearts, if we continue to convince ourselves that we are separate and different and more deserving that other people.
Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, wrote of stopping at a busy intersection in the center of the busy shopping district in the city of Louisville. He said:
…I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers. . . . If only we could see each other that way all the time. . . .(7)
Which leads us to the final level, the final necessity, the final acknowledgement that lies fundamental to even the seeing of need. When we are able to identify a need and fulfill it, when we are able to give what is needed when it is needed; what an amazing feeling! It is the joy and fulfillment we were created for. But, even this purposefulness can have its dark side. We can become overly invested in being the savior. We can become expectant and reliant on the ego-fulfillment that “solving problems” gives us. We can begin to think that we know better about what is needed than those experiencing the need. We can over-identify with a selfhood that is shored-up by being useful. And so finally, beneath the seeing of need we find that there must also be humility. We must be willing to listen. Need sometimes shows up in ways that we are blind to, in ways that we weren’t prepared for, in ways that we don’t feel ready for. And so we recognize how much a heaven of useful service requires not only activity but also sacrifice, the constant sacrifice of our sense of separateness, of believing that we are the one to know what is needed, so that we can truly be present to what is actually needed. So that we can be present to what each moment is calling us to, without our need to overlay our expectations upon it.
As Merton puts it: My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity.(8)
When we recover our original unity, then the distance between is reduced, and we have nothing to gain from our selfhood. We can serve purely, simply, humbly, and freely. And this is heaven, wherever we are.
(7) Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday: 1968), 156-158.
(8) Thomas Merton, Address to International Summit of Monks, Calcutta, India (October 19-27, 1968), published in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1975), 51.
Amos 6:1, 4-7
1 Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!
4 You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. 5 You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. 6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. 7 Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30 “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
Secrets of Heaven 997:1
…People who are governed by charity, that is, who dwell in love towards the neighbor - from which love the living delight contained in pleasures derives - have no regard for the enjoyment of pleasures except on account of the use that is served; for charity does not exist if there are no works of charity. It is in the exercise of it, that is, in use, that charity consists. Someone who loves the neighbor as themselves never experiences the delight of charity except in the exercise of it, or in use. Consequently the life of charity is a life of uses. Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses. Every pleasure therefore that springs from charity finds its delight in use, and the more pre-eminent the use the greater the delight. For this reason it is the very being and nature of a use which determines the happiness that angels have from the Lord.
Photo credit: Lisa Fotios
Readings: Luke 16:1-13, Divine Providence 250:5, Secrets of Heaven #4063:3 (see below)
So, remember the show Breaking Bad? It was quite the phenomenon a few years ago, garnering critical acclaim and devotion, many awards and more than one spin-off. It tells the story of a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who is diagnosed with incurable cancer and decides to become a drug dealer as a way to secure his family’s financial future. It chronicles his descent into a life of crime and the subsequent darkening of his soul. Now, as much as I appreciate the brilliance of the lead actor, I’ve chosen not to watch it. It’s not that I don’t value complex, nuanced stories, or that I cannot handle realistic depictions of violence. It is rather that I don’t like having to root for an antagonist. It makes me feel uncomfortable, compromised somehow. And so I avoid having to do it.
Which is a bit of a problem for me as a preacher though, because the bible is full of complicated characters that make me feel the same way. There is Jacob for example, a patriarch of Israel, who deceived his father and cheated his brother out of his inheritance. I squirm and wonder: Does God implicitly condone what Jacob did by making him the patriarch of a nation? Or there is Sarah, Jacob’s grandmother, cruelly casting out her maidservant Hagar, Jesus’ disciples acting stupidly and arrogantly, and Paul upholding patriarchy and slavery within his ancient context. The dishonest steward joins a long list. What are we to make of him and the fact that he is praised here? The fact that the clever trickster is prominent in Jewish folklore(1) doesn’t make me feel much better, nor the fact that is was his ingeniousness that was clearly valued, not his dishonesty. I still don’t like it.
I personally much prefer the Josephs, Daniels and Marys of the bible. Perfect, uncomplicated figures who are faithful and dutiful. It makes me feel more confident and safe to exist in a black and white narrative world, where everything makes sense and is put in a reasonable order. But of course, that is not what the real world is like. The world is full of complicated people, ourselves included. A black-and-white perspective is comforting but it is not reflective of reality. The bible is telling us stories about real people who defy our easy categorization, including this dishonest steward who clearly acted selfishly but who was then praised for his shrewdness. And if we are feeling uncomfortable, then it means the parable is doing its job; we are questioning. So then, how do we make sense of this text?
Well, in his own particular context, the steward’s actions are somewhat understandable. As a steward, a manager of an estate, his world was transactional, relationships were mediated by money. That’s how everyone got what they wanted. Even the master’s loyalty itself was dependent on how well the steward did his job, and it seems he wasn’t doing it well at all. And so when thrust into crisis, he continued to act according to his context, his story about the world, which was: Money not only buys goods but buys influence. Relationship, cordiality, good standing, these things are created through transaction. With no resources of his own, he nonetheless manages to purchase good will through a financial transaction, the abatement of debt, borrowing the power to do so from his master. It is a desperate but clever plan, and the master recognizes it as such, seemingly unconcerned about the money that will no longer be paid to him.
And this is where it becomes so confusing. Because it is not so much that we are surprised at what the steward did. The parable is called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward after all, and he acted very consistently. The surprise, and the discomfort, comes from the fact that the master praises him, and that in the interpretation, Jesus lifts him up as a positive example. Seriously, what is up with that?
Much scholarship around this text, wonders about the steward’s motivations and what exactly he meant to accomplish. I think it is also important to ask, what did he believe were his options? What other story about his life and potential did he have recourse to? In a culture where social and economic standing was remarkably fixed and intractable, what other option was available to him?
We all have our own stories that mediate our identity, our options, our decisions. Many times, these stories, these meta-narratives, operate unconsciously unless we have had reason to try and notice them. And we operate within these realities, everyday. It is completely unavoidable. There are many different stories that people have about themselves, we can change stories if we want to, but not having an operating story is not an option, it is just part of being human. I believe that one of the things we are hearing in this parable is that God understands this about us, that God can work with us, and our stories. We start wherever we are, and God starts there with us.
Sometimes we might be led to imagine that God is separate from us and our contexts. And in a way, God must be, for God cannot be limited by *our* stories about ourselves and the world. But that doesn’t mean that God disdains our stories, that God refrains from entering into our stories. The incarnation itself is the ultimate example of how deeply God is willing to enter into our stories and our contexts. God is not afraid of our incompleteness. God does not condescend to simply tolerate the ways in which we all endeavor to create meaning, God instead uses them, without a moment’s hesitation. For, “God so loved the world…”(John 3:16) and indeed, still loves it, both for what it is now and for what it could be.
And so, we get Jesus’ advice to us at the end of the parable. He tells us to “use worldly wealth”, or as the King James Version says: “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.” And perhaps we might want to pretend that we are above all of that. Well, its a bit too late for all of us really. Money, and its value, is a predominant human story, one of many, but one of the most prevalent and powerful. Maybe we personally have a different main story, for we all are shaped by our different experiences. But what Jesus is telling us is to make friends with our story, whatever it is, and to use it as far as it can do some good.
For example: There are many times that I am find myself striving to get my children to their various activities on time, not only because of my love for them but because I want to appear as if I have it all together. It’s not great that I’m motivated by appearance but still, on time is better than late. Or many times that having guests in my home will prompt a grand cleaning up that might otherwise never have happened, because I care about seeming like a moderately competent housekeeper. Better the stress of frantically tidying up first, so to later provide a space where my guests and I feel relaxed and can actually enjoy each other. Our less than heavenly concerns can help us conform to the basic civility that keeps us all in relationship with each other, that keeps the world moving.
Another way to illustrate the idea of making friends with our story comes from the Buddhist faith. The story goes that one day, the Buddha is meditating under a tree, and the demon Mara approaches, hoping to distract Buddha from his enlightenment, to lure Buddha into battle with him. But the Buddha sees Mara coming, and simply says “I see you, Mara.” And rather than taking a defensive stance, the Buddha invites Mara to sit down and have some tea.
I believe this is what we are being invited into with this parable. We cannot separate ourselves from our context, from the effect of our experiences on the formation of our identity, from telling ourselves a story about “the way things are.” But we can learn how to see these influences and these stories for what they are. We can say, “I see you, Mara,” and not be drawn into battle that distracts us from sitting under the tree, that distracts us from enlightenment.
And thus we heard in our Swedenborg reading about the mercy of “intermediate good.” Our spiritual journeys cannot be instantaneous; they must be incremental and sustainable if we are to truly transform our earthly natures. God works with and within this reality, which means that sometimes our intentions are mixed. This is okay. God invites us to make friends with what-is, instead of denying what-is, so that then we might truly see the stories we are telling ourselves with clarity.
But we also receive a warning. We are told to remember that we cannot serve two masters, prompting us to consider who we really want to serve overall. We need to be super clear: The Buddha may have been serving Mara tea, but that does not mean he was serving Mara’s agenda. We should make friends with our stories, and with the dominant stories of the world we live in, because they have real effects upon us, but we don’t want to end up serving those narratives instead of God. There is a necessary tension here. For example, I might want my children to buy into the cultural norms of appearance enough so that they look presentable, but not so much that they learn to hate their bodies. Or have a fulfilling forward motion in their careers, but not at the expense of their mental health.
We all need to exist both inside and outside of our stories. This is what we are taught in the cross: God entered into our story, all of our stories, not only in an act of radical solidarity with our experience, but as an act of revelation, to wake us up to our dominant narratives. And with the crucifixion, we saw humanity choosing to serve our own stories instead of serving God and God’s story for us, leading to the ultimate in human over-reach: the death of the incarnate God. Conversely, serving God means seeing Mara, being unafraid, calm, and clear in Mara’s presence, and then subverting Mara’s expectations and agenda. We are to make friends with unrighteous mammon, with the worldly ideas by which the world is run, but we are not to serve them. And this is really really hard to do, which is one of the reasons I know that I prefer the simple, perfect bible characters. That black-and-white world seems much easier…even as it asks for perfection, that seems less to ask than dealing with balancing the world of grey.
Another way of expressing this whole idea is that we shouldn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Now, it is only by the most generous of assessments that we can call what the steward did “good” but to the folks who benefitted from his debt abatement, objectively it was. He could have done something much worse. What I believe that we are hearing in this parable, is that God doesn’t make the possible the enemy of the actual. God does not love who we are becoming more than who we are.
God sees us. Seeing us in terms of who we are right now does not inherently compromise God, or condone us and whatever we might be doing. Nor does it mean that God cannot be against evil either. But it does mean that God can uncynically, unreservedly, root for the antagonist, because those categories of protagonist and antagonist, of good guy and bad guy, are not God’s story, they are ours. God is for all of us.
(1) The New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, p256.
The Parable of the Dishonest Steward
1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ 3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ 5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ 7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ 8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? 13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Divine Providence 250:5
In its spiritual meaning, though, the mammon of unrighteousness [or worldly wealth] means those insights into what is true and good that evil people have and that they use solely for gaining rank and wealth for themselves. It is these insights with which good people or children of light make friends, and which accept them into eternal tents.
Secrets of Heaven 4063:3
So that a person may be led from the state of the old person into that of the new, worldly passions have to be cast aside and heavenly affections assumed. This is effected by countless means known to the Lord alone, many of which the Lord has made known to angels but few if any to humanity…When therefore a person is converted from an old person into a new one, that is, when they are regenerated, it does not take place in an instant as some people believe, but over many years. Indeed the process is taking place throughout the person's whole life right to its end. For their [selfish] passions have to be rooted out and heavenly affections implanted, and they have to have a life conferred on them which they did not possess previously, and of which in fact they scarcely had any knowledge previously. Since therefore their states of life have to be changed so drastically they are inevitably maintained for a long time in an intermediate kind of good which partakes both of worldly affections and of heavenly ones. And unless they are maintained in that intermediate good, they in no way allow heavenly goods and truths into themselves.
Photo credit: Joey Kyber
Readings: Psalm 119:1-10, Luke 15:1-10, Secrets of Heaven #3142:1 (see below)
We are back this week in the gospel of Luke. Chapter 15 is comprised of three stories: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, which we heard today, along with the parable of the prodigal son, which we heard back in Lent. All three of the stories are about something seemingly insignificant becoming lost: one wayward sheep, one tiny coin, the youngest son in the family, and how much they matter to the one who has lost them. As we understandably place God in the metaphorical position of the shepherd, the woman, and the welcoming father, we come to understand how far God would go to find those who are lost, and how much joy God feels to welcome home the bereft. This is a balm to all of us, because who hasn’t felt lost at some point? Who hasn’t wandered off the path they thought they were on, who hasn’t made a regrettable decision? What a relief to picture a God of infinite welcoming love, who considers no one irredeemably lost, or not worth seeking for, who would put so much effort into finding us.
I consider this interpretation to be the foundational interpretation of these parables and such a valuable one. And, as this interpretation sinks in, as we really assimilate it and come to believe and rest in the expansive, forgiving, protective love of God, I believe that we also can move on to a more personally challenging reading. Typically, in reading this text, God is placed in the role of the shepherd and the woman and we ourselves in the role of the lost. What happens when we place ourselves in the role of shepherd or woman and other people in the role of the lost? How does that change how we read this story?
This reading is a little more complicated. There is a downside to seeing ourselves as the implied hero of the story. We might be tempted to self-aggrandize and point a finger of accusation toward the lost, or at the very least, adopt an attitude of superior condescension. Poor things! If only they had made better decisions! Perhaps they deserve what they have got. How lucky they are to have such people as us to forgive them!
To avoid this, we must do two things. First, we must ground ourselves in the first interpretation and bring it forward into the second. There is no judgment, no superiority to be found in these parables; there is only sadness at the loss and then celebration in being found. I was reminded by one of my commentaries this week that each of us bears the imprint of God, we are God’s image-bearer, and when any of us are lost, a piece of God is lost as well.(1) This imprint of God remains as part of us, even within our lostness, and so always carries with it an inherent dignity and worthiness. A strong allegiance to this truth, as well as the universal experience of being lost, prevents us from othering people, keeps before us the primacy of empathy.
Second, we must interrogate our motivations for assuming the latter interpretation. What is the usefulness of metaphorically placing ourselves in the role of the shepherd or woman? Why are we looking around for the lost? Hopefully, it is because we believe that our job is to partner with God for the sake of the betterment of the world, as we spoke of last week. That our job as people of faith is to humbly emulate the type of love that we see described in these parables. So then the question becomes: How do we do that? How do we emulate the love of God?
Because this is where it gets complicated. Obviously, we are not God. We can do our best to be loving and kind and open and forgiving to the people we encounter in our lives; this is very important. But we also need to acknowledge that we are on the field in a different way, that what we do affects the rules of the game to begin with, not just the final outcome. God has granted us the freedom to shape our world, to create societies and institutions and cultural understandings that actually affect the likelihood of people experiencing some kind of lostness. For example, let’s think about the lostness of addiction. Who made the substances that addict us? Humanity did. We discovered them, purified them, trafficked them for profit, both legally and illegally. God is only ever on the side of good; we human beings sometimes shift around a bit. Which makes it extremely important for us to ask: How did the sheep or the coin become lost? Perhaps it was not our fault at all. Perhaps. Or perhaps we had something to do with it.
Because a coin doesn’t become lost on its own. In the parable, we are not told it is stolen. For a coin to become lost there would usually be some kind of negligence or distraction on the part of the owner. Maybe it fell off the counter as we breezed by. Maybe it fell in between the couch cushions when we weren’t paying attention. But why weren’t we paying attention? This is an important question. Is there something about our culture or the structure of our institutions that makes it so we don’t notice people becoming lost? Was the coin too small or worthless to be cared about? Did we think at all about how “between the couch cushions” is the barest of inconveniences to our backsides, but is a deep dark chasm to tiny coin?
There is nuance to be explored with the shepherd parable as well. A sheep, unlike a coin, certainly does have two legs and so could wander away on its own. It would be easy to blame the sheep, to say they are simple or distracted. But what about the terrain around Jerusalem? It is hilly and dangerous with some parts quite inaccessable. It is possible that a very small miscalculation could lead a sheep to suddenly be unreachable and far away. Sometimes the nature of our environment is a large factor in whether or not we are lost, can magnify small decisions that might not otherwise be a problem in other environments.
And so we recognize that each of the three parables can teach us different things about why someone might be lost. In parable of the prodigal son, the son makes some really questionable decisions about what to do with his inheritance. His behavior leads to some undesirable consequences, and sometimes part of our journey of lostness is to ask forgiveness of those we have hurt. But in the other two parables, can we really place blame on the sheep and the coin? The environment of the sheep was challenging to say the least and the coin is an inanimate object, with no agency of its own. As we place ourselves it the role of shepherd and woman with the coin, as we attempt to emulate the love of God in the world, sometimes we find that it is we ourselves who need undergo some reflection and repentance. It is our responsibility to ask: How did the sheep and the coin become lost? How can we find them again, and prevent them from getting lost again in the future?
There are two articles that I read this week that helped illuminate this principle for me. The first is an article from a mother of a black child in a majority white school, and the second is an article in the New York Times about the challenges that first generation college students meet in their transition to university. In the first, the author pointed out that black students are often discriminated against as early as kindergarten, that black students are perceived as “less innocent” and “more mature” than white students of the same age.(2) And these perceptions lead to the behavior of black students being watched more closely and being punished more often than for white students.(3) And so the mother in this article talked about having to explain to her seven year old son that he will need always need to behave twice as well as his other classmates because of the systemic racism of our society. What a difficult burden to put upon a child so young!
The second article spoke of the experience of a first-generation university student, attending school away from home, having grown up in poverty.(4) Their scholarship took care of room and board during the school term, but they could not afford to go home on breaks and had to stay in the dorm. They described the hunger they experienced during these times, with the school cafeteria closed, very little money, and no access to grocery stores. They described trying to balance classes with trying to work as many hours as possible during the school year, to provide not only for their own needs, but for their family back home. They described how the insecurity and vulnerability of their family’s situation weighed upon them emotionally, even at a distance. The attention and awareness of the university stopped at the diversity of admissions and didn’t extend to how much more such students would have to juggle overall.
And so we must ask, how is it that people became lost, overlooked, unseen, misunderstood? How is it that a normal black child might become the object of unnecessarily remedial behavior interventions? How is it that a student from a poor background might become hungry during school breaks, and over-scheduled during the year? Not from overt or explicit discrimination but from unexamined bias. From the color of a child’s skin causing teachers to make unconscious assumptions about their motivations and behaviors, or an administration not thinking to take into account how poverty impacts a student’s ability to do well in the university environment. Are these things maliciously done? No, of course not, but they are done none the less, without consciousness.
So, what do we learn about this from the parable? What does the woman who lost the coins do? She lights a candle and she sweeps the house until they are found. In the Swedenborgian worldview the woman represents an affection for truth, which means a desire and love for seeing the truth of a situation; the lighting of the candle is the self-examination that results from that desire to see the truth, and the sweeping of the house is the practice of going over one’s whole mind in reflection.(5) The woman doesn’t just say “oh, well” and wait for the coin to show up again. She is active and motivated to find out where it has gone, thinks about what she must to do find it, makes space to learn new information. And this is not a token effort. The shepherd illuminates the determined and steadfast commitment that is required in the seeking, for the shepherd does not give up when it becomes hard or uncomfortable, but does whatever it takes to bring the sheep back to the fold.
Likewise, we all bear responsibility to do the work of figuring out why and how our human neighbors are being disadvantaged by the society that we have built together but that sometimes doesn’t serve all equally. First, to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed, we remember that the lost coin is still in the house. We know that everyone remains within the realm of God’s love, no matter how lost. And sometimes that is very reassuring. How many times have we reassured ourselves about our missing car keys: the car is in the driveway, so the keys must be somewhere in the house. We breathe; the keys are accessible, they will be found eventually. But that does not absolve us from actually doing the work of finding them. We must stop and really think about where they were last, and what we were doing, and why they might not be where we thought. And if we keep on losing them, we have to be willing think about what we are doing wrong. Do I not have the right system in place? Is the lack of a key hook that is the problem, or maybe there is a hole in my pocket?
So, there are things that we can do. The mother from the first article asks parents of white children to speak up about unconscious bias in schools (for often white voices are heard more readily than minority voices, as unfair as that might be) and also to advocate for diverse resources and a culture that values and celebrate difference. The student in the second article went to the university administration and made his case. They listened, and made changes to their policies to support students in his position; he went on to become a professor. And still of course, there is always more to be done.
“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Sometimes, even or especially when we don’t realize it, that sinner is us. Thanks be to God, for the chances we receive every day to repent, to sweep out our house, and to be cause of angels rejoicing.
(1) Amanda Brobst-Renaud, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4165
(2) Center on Poverty and Inequality, https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/school-age/black-girls-face-discrimination-as-young-as-five-years-old-says-new-study/
(3) Kearie Daniel, https://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/heres-my-challenge-to-white-parents-this-schoolyear/fbclid=IwAR1HJmGXdZZPq1NunaLtobwOe7TU-TPPOuAKS1GJUpwncc_hNZfvLMgd6CU
(5) Apocalypse Explained 675:10
Psalm 119: 1-10
1 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. 2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart— 3 they do no wrong but follow his ways. 4 You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. 5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! 6 Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. 7 I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. 8 I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me. 9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. 10 I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Secrets of Heaven #3142:1
3142. 'And I have swept the house' means all things had been prepared and filled with goods. This is clear from the meaning of 'sweeping' as preparing and being filled…and from the meaning of 'a house' as good…And a person themself, from the good which governs them, is called a house. The reason why 'sweeping' means preparing and being filled is that nothing else is asked of anyone except to 'sweep their house', that is, to reject evil desires and resulting false persuasions. If they do this they are filled with all forms of good, for good from the Lord is constantly flowing in. It flows into 'the house', that is, into the person who has been cleansed of such things as hinder influx, that is, which turn away, or pervert, or stifle inflowing good.