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Sermons

When Grace Comes In

December 14, 2003

Bible Reading

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
     Because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
     To bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
     And release to the prisoners;
To proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
     And the day of vengeance of our God;
     To comfort all who mourn;
To provide for those who mourn in Zion--
     To give them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
     The mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
     The planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
     They shall raise up the former devastations;
They shall repair the ruined cities,
     The devastations of many generations. . . .

For I the Lord love justice,
     I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
     And I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
     And their offspring among the peoples;
All who see them shall acknowledge
     That they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
     My whole being shall exult in my God;
For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
     He has covered me with the robe of righteousness
As bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
     And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
     And as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
     To spring up before all the nations.

(Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

(Luke 1:39-56)

Sermon

December, 1914. The first Christmas of World War I. Trench warfare is the order of the day. The European countryside is slashed by thousands of miles of trenches--parallel lines of flooded, frozen, muddy pits in which German and English soldiers huddle and make a home for themselves. The no-man's-land in between is, in some places, only a few yards wide. The enemies can hear each other slosh, curse, cough. A bizarre sort of intimacy pervades the nightmare. One English soldier wrote, looking back, "We used to shout remarks to each other, sometimes rude ones, but generally with less venom than a couple of London cabbies after a minor collision." The war has come screaming to a halt; neither side can advance, and no one is about to retreat.

And, warfare or no, it is Christmas. As the holiday approaches, the Germans decorate a few scrawny bushes with candles and perch them atop their sandbag parapets. Gradually, a few bold soldiers on both sides poke their heads above their bulwarks, then stand up shakily, and show themselves to be unarmed. In various places up and down the lines, enemy soldiers begin to approach each other, and unofficial cease-fires are agreed to.

The soldiers celebrate together. They sing carols together. They exchange souvenirs and favorite foods: canned beef and ham for chocolate and sausage; rum for schnapps. They pledge to each other's health. And in one place, they bury their dead together. An English second lieutenant recalled that "the prayers were read first in English by our padre, and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. I think it is a sight one will never see again. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day." ("Christmastime 1914: Soldiers Paused War for a Day of No Hate," by Cynthia Crossan. The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2002.)

War puts no stock in grace. It is the last place we look for God. And yet grace comes in anyway. It enters in the form of a shabby little bush lit with candles, teetering in the wind on top of a machine gun mount. And it shines forth in the foolhardiness of soldiers who make themselves vulnerable, who stand terrified, unarmed, unsure whether they will be shot . . . or met as friends.

I went picking through the recycling bin in my dormitory kitchen to retrieve the article by Cynthia Crossan that told this story. It seems to speak to the very heart of our Scripture texts for today. These are both texts tremendous in their beauty, gripping in their power. They are stirring to hear, and satisfying to read.

But the surprising thing about today's Scripture readings is their joy. Given the circumstances in which they stand, neither Isaiah nor Mary has much cause to celebrate. There is the prophet Isaiah, who at this point speaks as one just returned from captivity, looking upon the ruins of a once-flourishing Zion. And then there is Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus, who, she is told, will become the great Messiah. Bearing in mind that she has not our benefit of hindsight, her situation doesn't exactly merit joy, either, on the face of it.

And yet, both choose exultation. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," cries Isaiah. "He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted . . . to provide for those who mourn in Zion--to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. . . . My whole being shall exult in my God." With the ruined cities of an entire realm before him, you had better believe that a faint spirit would have seemed like a much more appropriate choice than a mantle of praise.

Much later in history, and facing a similarly daunting future, there is Mary. She, too, chooses joy. "My soul magnifies the Lord," she says. "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior. . . . For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name."

Where does all this joy spring from? Whence floods this gladness in the face of such fearful circumstances?

Joy leaps forth, I believe, because Isaiah and Mary, like those soldiers, have made themselves vulnerable to grace.

All this talk of grace! What, you may ask, is grace? Swedenborg doesn't talk much about it--at least not in so many words. What he does talk about quite frequently is "divine influx," and a part of the self that he calls "the inmost." Swedenborg tells us that each person is formed of layers, moving from our most inward, heavenly part to our most outward, natural, earthly part. He says:

Each individual has a central or highest plane of life into which the Lord's Divine flows first and directly. From this point of entry, the Divine organizes all the other inner processes of both the spiritual and the physical person. . . . This central or highest level is the Lord's gateway to us, and his true home within us. This is what makes us human. This is why we can rise up inwardly, can be lifted in mind and spirit by the Lord to himself. It is why we can believe in him, be moved by love for him, receive intelligence and wisdom. (The Last Judgment #25)

When we let the Lord arrange the surrounding things in ourselves so that they are responsive to the inmost ones, then we are in a state in which we can be accepted into heaven; and then the inmost, the relatively outward, and the outward aspects of our being act as one. (Arcana Coelestia #2973.4)

Swedenborg points out that the inmost is the deepest, most eternal part of our soul. No matter what we may confront or how we may behave, this inmost remains intact, undisturbed, undefiled. It is a precious inner world: God's palace within us. The Lord's essence can flow forth from this jeweled center, and nothing--not even the powers of hell--can destroy it.

It is when we allow the Lord to flow forth from this inmost, perfect core of being, when we allow him to arrange every layer of our self as its reflection and make heaven within ourselves . . . it is then that we know grace.

Such a beautiful image. I confess that I am still surprised when I find such obvious tenderness in the writings of a scientist. But this idea challenges us. And the stakes are very, very high. In order to let God come forth from the center of our soul by unlocking the gates to this inner palace and letting his divine love rule us, we have to step back. We must be willing to question the worthiness in all that we know and love of ourselves. To be heavenly, to know grace, we have to give up the reins to God.

We do not live in a world that values vulnerability. To most of us, vulnerability has come to mean weakness. Every one of us, I would guess, has been in a situation in which someone had to back down--and no one ever wants it to be himself. Corporately and individually, we hunger for power, for money, for attention--anything to keep us on top. We want to determine the course of life's events for good or for ill--just as long as we can be the one who calls the shots. We have all, at some point, conducted "trench warfare" of a sort during a disagreement with another person. Lines are drawn, our mental forces are hunkered down, and no one is willing to stand on the bulwark, in the line of fire, unarmed. No individual wants to be vulnerable, because in doing so, we might lose ourselves.

God, being divine love and wisdom, has only our best interests at heart, and desires only to strip away what is false from our souls, and arrange the truest and best parts in heavenly order. But we, as humans, are firmly convinced that we are our own best creators. To believe that surrendering ourselves to anyone could strengthen us rather than undermine us, that it could make us more ourselves rather than less, looks like a ridiculous leap of faith. And yet, it is a leap of faith that the Lord calls us to make.

This is what is so troubling about Mary's story. She seems so powerless to steer her own course in the flood of events that surrounds Jesus' birth. And Mary herself makes no pretense of self-determination. She does not see herself as God's equal. To the contrary: she is his "servant," his handmaiden. This is not acceptable language in our egalitarian times. Most of us would stoutly insist that no one should be anybody's servant. Still, there is the unfathomable fact of her joy.

Mary's Magnificat comes at an odd time. She could have turned away, refused the angel's annunciation, laughed in Elizabeth's face and told her that the child leaping in her womb was merely indigestion. But she did not. Instead, she launched into song. "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior," she said.

Her Savior?

God must not have seemed much like a savior at first consideration. She was, after all, fourteen (give or take), still technically single, not entirely sure that she wouldn't be stoned for adultery and fornication. She was probably nauseated with morning sickness. These conditions are not exactly grounds for a song of praise--unless we do what Mary apparently did, and look "further up and farther in" (as C.S. Lewis put it in his book The Last Battle), and gaze upon the God that dwells at the center of our being. Mary looked farther in and sang, I believe, from her inmost--from the core of her soul.

I have been listening to a very beautiful Renaissance motet recently, a setting of the "Hail Mary." Yesterday a phrase caught my ear as if for the first time--a phrase that describes Mary as "solemni plena gaudio": "full of solemn joy."

"Full of solemn joy," indeed. Not happiness, but solemn joy, heavy with heaven and the weight of the coming years, dark with the already looming shadow of the cross. In her song, Mary reveals that she has chosen to make herself vulnerable to grace. She is resolved to magnify God, to see him as her Savior, as the creator of her truest self. In Swedenborgian terms, she has chosen to let the Lord govern the whole of her being, according to the heavenly order of her inmost. For her, this order manifests on the most physical of levels: in pregnancy. Christ literally comes to birth within her, just as he is spiritually born within every one of us who allows the Lord to govern our whole self in heaven's image. Mary embodies the incarnation that occurs every time we accept God's grace.

The gravity of Mary's joy, the fact that she chose to exult, reveals something else about grace: Making ourselves vulnerable to heaven does not guarantee us peace. In fact, it ensures that we will experience grief. Swedenborg tells us:

Before anything is brought back into order it is quite normal for it to be brought first into a kind of confusion, a virtual chaos. In this way, things that fit together badly are severed from each other, and when they have been severed, the Lord then arranges them in order. (Arcana Coelestia #842.3)

Giving ourselves over to God's new order is painful at first, because we are guaranteed to lose parts of ourselves that we hold very tightly. Our compass will be shattered from within.

Swedenborg tells us that at the time of Jesus' death, when he had completed his journey from human to divine, Mary ceased to see him as her son, and she now worships him solely as her Lord (Continuation of the Last Judgment #66). But I cannot think that the transition is as clean as it sounds. There seems no point to his humanity without the love in which Mary bore him. Christ's birth, after all, is also Jesus' death. She may worship him as her Lord; but when her son, her Jeshua, hangs dying on the cross, there is no place for abstract worship. There is love, and perhaps even solemn joy at the fulfillment of a half-forgotten prophecy. But first there is the death. She allows herself to be touched by grace; she allows the Lord to arrange her in the heavenly form of her inmost self, and it brings her to the foot of a cross--to public shame, to agony. Where is the goodness in this? How can this make heaven?

Someone once wrote that "the way of the cross is, day by day, to bear the burden of becoming who we really are--the person God creates. This is a process of dying to whatever blocks us from transforming love" (Susan Mangam, "Sing to the Lord a New Song"). It is true: we take up this "way of the cross" whenever we allow our inmost to arrange our whole self. To create new life, we must be willing to empty ourselves out and begin anew. Being vulnerable to grace can be our undoing. It makes us strangers in our own land. God's ways, after all, are not our ways. When the Lord makes a home in us, we may feel temporarily that we have lost our hold in this world.

But it never ends there. After the cross, after the agony, there is always the resurrection. We die to our old, earthly selves, and arise transfigured, heavenly. And if only we let God make a home in us, if only we let him radiate his light from the center of our souls, heaven will always prevail. After all, if soldiers can stand unarmed amidst the trenches and receive grace, if heaven can surface in the hell that is war, then we can welcome the Lord within ourselves.

Mary's song and Isaiah's declaration are beautiful. And they are fearsome. Their joy cries out to us to have courage, that we also might be brave enough to be vulnerable to God's transforming grace. Their exultation demands that we stand on the bulwark, unarmed before the no-man's-land of our own soul, and have courage to say to the Lord, "Not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).

Not my will, but yours.

Only when we have courage to surrender to grace, to welcome the Divine within us, only then can we be reborn for heaven as our true selves. Only then do we truly live the Incarnation.

Hear again, with hearts open, Mary's words--the song of one who has made herself vulnerable to heaven:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

Grace always comes in. Grace always has been within. And if we let it--if we, like the pregnant, wondering Mary, rejoice in God our Savior; if, like Isaiah, we take on the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit, that grace will turn our world upside down.

If we allow ourselves to live from our inmost, if we walk the terrain of our own inner heaven, we will find that, as Joan Sauro puts it in her book Whole Earth Meditation, "God has been there before us. God's name is written on every layer. Go to the place called barren. Stand in the place called empty. And you will find God there."

Prayer

Beloved Lord, you bless us with our very life, and for that we give you thanks. We ask for strength, that we might find courage to face your light; for trust, that we might let ourselves be flooded with heaven; for joy, that we might be delighted by your grace. Amen.

Leah Grace Goodwin