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Sermons

More than Tweezers are Needed

November 09, 2003

Bible Reading

And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways and to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord's commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

(Deuteronomy 10:12, 13)


Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

He also told them this parable: Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, "Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye," when you fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye; then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. (Luke 6:37-42)

Reading from Swedenborg

The human selfhood . . . is nothing but evil; and when it is presented to view, it is terribly deformed. But when compassion and innocence are instilled into that selfhood by the Lord, then it looks good and attractive. . . . Compassion and innocence not only excuse, but practically wipe away what is evil and false in us.

We can see this from babies. When they love each other and their parents, and their infant innocence is shining through, then even evil and false character traits are not merely inconspicuous, but are even pleasing. (Arcana Coelestia #164)

Sermon

A man went to visit a psychiatrist. He said, "I've got two problems."

The psychiatrist said, "Okay, tell me all about it."

The man began, "Well, I think I'm a Pepsi vending machine."

The shrink sat the man right down and started going through his typical repertoire, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, out of exasperation, the doctor jumped to his feet, took three quarters from his pocket, forced them into the man's throat, grabbed him by the head and shook him until he swallowed the money. Triumphantly, he said, "Okay, give me a Pepsi."

The man replied, "I can't, Doc. That's my second problem: I'm out of order."

Do you ever feel that way? Like things are out of order inside you? If so, then I applaud you. It takes strength and maturity to be able to look honestly enough within oneself to see disorderly and unhealthy thoughts and feelings when they are in there "alive and kicking," as a friend of mine used to say.

Unfortunately, now and then we come across people who are experts at seeing what is terribly wrong with others. These are people who can "blame and shame" with the best of them, yet are completely unwilling to see the "plank in their own eye" instead of the "speck of sawdust" in the eyes of others. It is sadly true that there are those who make it a way of life to see faults and disorder in others and never in themselves--which psychiatry refers to as a character disorder. But it is also true that most of us struggle at times with looking too often at the specks of wood we can see in others' eyes without concentrating on the planks disrupting our own spiritual eyesight.

The real issue here is one of order and emphasis, as well as the way in which we look upon the disorder and problems that our neighbor is dealing with.

I find it both interesting and important that the Lord calls us to care so very much for one another that we will spend some time looking at and judging carefully the specks of unhealthy affections, thoughts, and behaviors that we are capable of seeing in our friends, family, and fellow churchgoers. But we are to do this only if we first spend the time and effort to get the planks out of our own eyes. In John 7:24, our Lord says to us, "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment."

Swedenborg discovered that our marvelous and wisely loving angel companions judge others with "righteous judgment." They see and understand everything about us. Yet as they do, they always look upon us with affections of love and concern for our ultimate good. Their judgments and perceptions are never to condemn or break, but rather to help the Lord in mercifully bending us carefully toward the goodness and truth of God himself.

The angels of the higher heavens are so wise and perceptive because they first spent a lifetime on earth focusing more on their own spiritual and psychological disorders than upon those of others. In addition, they spent a lifetime on earth wanting very much to serve God's divine will, which impelled them to be useful and good to others every day.

Our divine psychiatrist, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, needs us to have spiritual eyes that are capable and ready to see with clarity within his light of love. This is a soft, supple, and compassionate light from heaven that is bathing us at all times.

There is a simple recipe in God's Word that helps us develop inward eyesight that is healthy, open, and wise: Be proactively focused on loving God and his will every day, more than on judging what is good and bad about our friends and family. And deal most of the time with the problems and struggles inside ourselves, which then enables us to look more compassionately and deeply, and with insight, into the disorderliness going on in others.

When Jesus spoke about our struggles with spiritual planks and specks, he was using words and ideas that were familiar in Jewish thought. The Rabbis of the time often warned about judging and condemnation. "He who judges his neighbor favorably," they said, "will be judged favorably by God." They listed six great works that brought a person honor in this world and the next:

  1. Study
  2. Visiting the sick
  3. Hospitality
  4. Devotion in prayer
  5. Educating the children in the Law
  6. Thinking the best of other people

The Jews knew very well that kindliness in judgment was truly a sacred duty.

However, if you have ever talked with someone who grew up in a very dysfunctional and neurotic household, or someone who is healing from abuse in a past relationship, you can certainly understand why the Lord spoke about "seeing clearly to remove the speck of dust from your bother's eye." Sometimes those specks of dust in our neighbors' eyes blind them to the their abusive actions and ways of speaking. And those "specks" of dust can create very hurtful and harsh ways of living--and very much do need to be removed.

Swedenborgian theology enters this very important subject by lifting up what the Bible declares: that only God is capable of seeing all truth, and of judging others with utter completeness and fairness. Swedenborg learned that especially here on earth, but also to some extent in heaven, we humans are dealing with what he called "appearances of truth." Only the Lord's divine eyesight can look at people and fully know their entire life experience, while knowing and understanding infinite truth itself. However, our loving Creator has given to us finite creatures the power to see greater and greater appearances of truth.

As a rocket scientist once said, "I'd rather be nearly perfect in my calculations for re-entry into the atmosphere."

What helps us to see more and more clearly every day, and to remove the large planks of wood obstructing our spiritual eyesight, is to start the day with a recommitment to following the marvelous essence of the Law given through Moses: walk with a holy and humble fear of God, "to walk in all God's ways and to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul," and to "administer justice for the fatherless and the widow, and love the stranger, giving them food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger" (Deuteronomy 10:18, 19). Or as the Lord Incarnate so aptly phrased it, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 19:19).

Walking through the day like this and living in a life of charity affects our spiritual eyesight in drastic ways. Instead of looking out upon others with a starting point of fear and worry, we begin more often, and deep down, being connected to an infinite Source of love, who is also passionately concerned with seeing into the truth.

There are other things that help our spiritual eyes to see more clearly. One of the big ones in my experience deals with my openness to sensing and feeling the divine Lord's presence around and within me. The essence of the Mosaic Law goes on to emphasize, "Indeed heaven and the highest heavens belong to the Lord your God, also the earth with all that is in it" (Deuteronomy 10:14).

The ancient Jewish spiritual perspective saw that not only is there only one almighty, omniscient, and omnipresent God, but also that this Divine Being is transcendently beyond us, while also dwelling invisibly among us here. Their view was focused more on the premise that the almighty, infinite God of all life is forever invisible and above his mortal children, yet still caring and loving from his throne beyond. There was room in ancient Hebrew theology for God to be an invisible dweller here on earth. Yet even the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, where the divine was said to dwell, was mostly an empty space. There were a few sparse furnishings within it, but essentially God dwelled there as an invisible presence, still set apart, lacking a sense of intimacy.

Christianity blends the theology of infiniteness with one of immanence. The almighty and omnipotent God of heaven, who deserves tremendous reverence, or holy fear at all times, came down into the world he created, within our very flesh and bones, in the person of Jesus Christ. He came and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14), helping spiritual people to see with their eyes and feel with their hearts that the Divine is deeply inside of everyone, and not only way up in the sky above.

The immanent power and presence of God, which was the very soul of Christ, fully glorified and impacted every least cell and fiber of Jesus' personhood. By choice, the Lord made sure that every thought and affection and behavior was joined with the infinite love and wisdom from which he came. This brings us back to our recipe for enjoying spiritual and natural eyes of clarity. It is vital that we open all of our six senses to the immanent presence of the Divine all around and inside of us.

Feeling this infinitely loving Being, the Lord God, inhabiting every space within us and around us--even the tiny little spaces between the particles within the molecules that make up the cells of our body--helps us to begin truly loving ourselves, as a foundation upon which we can begin the lifelong and sometimes very difficult journey of removing the prejudices, the selfishness, and the many kinds of fear that the shallow part of our mind finds quite comfortable, if not downright enjoyable. Fear, hatred, prejudice, selfishness, judgmentalism, low self-esteem, and other hellish affections that the external level of the human mind inclines to from birth are what create those large, obstructing planks that can get lodged in our spiritual eyes. The only beginning of a cure is to find the Lord for real for ourselves, for the sake of truly loving others as well as ourselves.

If I am willing to believe and feel inside that the Lord is intimately at work making a vast array of spiritual affections and thoughts grow and live and multiply within me, then I am much more able to perceive and believe in the same kinds of lovely and inspiring growth going on inside of others--even if someone else's growth is different from my own in many ways.

The Lord is helping us to understand, through this powerful symbolism (or more accurately, this correspondential imagery) of a large board being lodged in our eyes, that we each have a lot of work to do on ourselves. By using God's power of love and insight; by using our will to choose good over evil; by learning and using the Lord's Word, we are blessed with an immense amount of power of love and light to work wonders within ourselves. Christ understood that you and I aren't able to know and understand the entire person of someone else. That's God's department!

In one set of circumstances, for example, a certain person may be unlovely and graceless. In another, that same person may be a paragon of virtue and strength. The Christian scholar and author William Barclay tells a story that illustrates this:

In one of his novels, Mark Rutherford tells of a man who married for the second time. His wife had also been married before, and she had a daughter in her teens. The daughter seemed a sullen and unlovely creature, without a grain of attractiveness in her. The man could make nothing of her. Then, unexpectedly, the mother fell ill. At once the daughter was transformed. She became the perfect nurse, the embodiment of service and tireless devotion. Her sullenness was lit by a sudden radiance, and there appeared in her a person no one would ever have dreamed was there.

Before we truly become angels, we struggle greatly with partiality of judgment. Often we are affected by instinctive and irrational reactions to people. Our judgments come not from truly righteous judgments, but from appearances and from unregenerate impulses. At times others may need us to help them see aspects of their own blindness, their own serious spiritual or psychological issues that deplete them spiritually. If my major attention in life is upon my own personal and spiritual growth, then I might have the ability to offer help and insight. Yet even then, there is only a very little that I can see.

May the wise humbleness of concentrating primarily upon our own spiritual issues, while focusing each day on feeling God's presence everywhere and serving his will, at all times be our road of choice. Amen.

Prayer

Loving Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who taught us by words and by example the beauty and compassion of your divine ways, open us deeply today to your wonderful, life-giving presence within. Fill our hearts to overflowing with such a joy of being in your arms that our inner joy spills out into everything we say, everything we do, everything we experience each day.

As your love and compassion fills us from within, O Lord, may that divine presence drive out every wrong in us: every small and mean impulse, every deceptive and belittling thought, every movement toward judging others harshly and condemning them for the very things that we need to purge from our own soul.

Clarify our spiritual vision as well, so that we may help others who are in need of our compassionate discernment. Help us to remove the planks from our own eyes, so that we can see clearly to help others remove the specks that obscure their eyesight. Amen.

Rev. Kit Billings