Hearts Wide Open to the River
January 29, 2012
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the
wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in
the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his
law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, which
yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do
not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Is it just me, or is there anyone else here who wants to throw something when they hear, “If you just believe in God, prosperity will come your way,” or “God gives us exactly what we deserve,” or “Poor, hungry, suffering people should feel blessed, not angry”?
I especially hate hearing those things when I’m feeling like a dead old bush in a salt land. You cannot convince me by any theological argument that Jesus is calling us to feel like our faith is faulty, or to feel doomed if we ate breakfast or managed to get all our bills paid this month. I don’t always know what God’s message to us through Jesus was exactly, but it wasn’t “if bad things happen to you, you are being rewarded according to your conduct.” And it certainly wasn’t “suffering is a real gift from God.”
Swedenborgian Christianity inspired me to reach far beyond the words in the Bible, far beyond the surface of scripture. Beyond the history, beyond the language. Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenthcentury mystical Christian theologian and scientist whose writings inspired the creation of the Swedenborgian denomination, wrote that the literal words of the Bible are a container, a shell, a vessel for the truth, much as our bodies are containers for our souls. Swedenborg wrote about “the inner” or “spiritual” sense of the Bible—the soul of the Bible, if you will. The images in the Bible represent different spiritual states, different experiences we go through on an eternal path of spiritual growth, cycles of regeneration and re-formation that bring us closer and closer to the divine love and wisdom that is the God we know by many names—closer and closer to divine love and wisdom, farther and farther from the illusion of our own separateness. The Bible, beyond its morality and judgment, beyond its historical constraints, is a dreamscape of images of individual and collective human spiritual life. It bears us away from the experiences of our limited, individual, separate selves and toward the infinite, expansive, eternal life in which we all participate—away from separateness and into love.
How do the images in today’s scripture move us away from separateness and into love?
Swedenborg saw Jeremiah as representing the spiritual state in which God is not visible to us, those times in life when we simply cannot perceive the divine presence that we know to be there. And in that state, we lament, we moan, we try to make sense of the injustices in the world; we strain to control them, to get a hold of things. We rail against ourselves, against our world. Do you ever do that? Do you ever “go Jeremiah” when you read the newspaper or struggle in your own spiritual life?
There’s an image of water that runs through all these texts. This water is Divine Truth. Rivers are a fundamental source of life—an image of God, if you will, flowing into us at every moment. It appears to us that we reach out and connect to God, that we come to church or meditate or sing or pray or do yoga, in order to achieve a union with the Divine, but really, the river of God flows into us all the time. God is not something we achieve, accomplish, or strive for. God is something we remember—something we stop and remember. We put ourselves aside and remember. Worship is whatever opens your heart to the awareness of the river of light. God flowing in. A river nourishing the roots of our beliefs, allowing the trees of our minds to flourish in due season and stay alive even in seasons of drought, even when the heat is on. This is an image of how the spiritual principles that guide our lives, the truths we choose to live by, bring our divine and loving natures to fruition, even when everything around us seems dead. The river flows in; it brings the seeds, waters them. The tree doesn’t decide to grow of its own accord; it is fed, fed by the river. And it feeds back into the river when it sheds its leaves and when it finally falls.
The word used in the Psalm and Jeremiah, and in the Luke passage too, for “blessed” means “happy.” It doesn’t mean “favored over others in God’s sight” or “saved.” It means “happy.” It refers to well-being. There is a poetry in these images that tells us that happiness doesn’t come from making things happen the way we want, from getting a grasp on things, or even from figuring them out. Happiness comes from opening our hearts to the river and allowing it to flow through us and out into the world. Blessed are we when we let go of what we think we need to do in order to make ourselves happy and simply acknowledge the life-affirming energy flowing in. And Jeremiah and Jesus both warn us: depend on our own sense of control, our own certainty and security, and we’re headed for the emotional rocks. Close our hearts to the divine river, and our spirits will wither, parched, weeping, hungry. Hungry for life. Comparing the inflowing of God to the water of truth that we can create—well, it’s like comparing the Grand Canyon or the mighty Columbia to a plastic backyard swimming pool.
It struck me that in Luke, the people come to Jesus to be healed of illnesses, to drive out demons, and he responds with “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you.” Within this outward message of social justice is a deeper call. It is a call to consider what we make our own in life. When the author of Luke writes “yours is the Kingdom of God,” he (or she) uses words that mean “make God’s universe your own.” Songwriter Tom Waits expresses a Swedenborgian view of this in a line from one of his songs: “All that you love is all that you own.” What you love is what you own. Jesus calls us to be careful about what we love. He calls us to make God’s values, not the world’s values, our own. He calls us to make compassion our own. He calls us to make justice our own. He calls us to make peace our own. He calls us away from the ways in which we make security our own. Away from making accomplishment our own. Away from making winning our own. Away from our separateness and into the river of life.
Scholar Neil Douglass-Klotz translates the Beatitudes from the Aramaic that Jesus spoke in a way that conveys the soul of the scripture. Let us take a moment before we hear these words to breathe, to center ourselves in God’s presence, to be aware of divine life flowing into us. In our heartbeats. In each breath.
“Tuned to the Source are those who live by breathing Unity; their ‘I can’ is included in God’s. Healthy are those who devotedly hold fast to the spirit of life; holding them is the cosmic Ruler of all that shines and rises.
“Healed are those who persistently feel inside: ‘If only I could find new strength and a clear purpose on which to base my life;’ they shall be embraced by birthing power.
“Healed are those in emotional turmoil who weep for their frustrated desire; they shall see the face of fulfillment in a new form…they shall feel their inner flow of strength return.
“Blessings to those who are dislocated for the cause of justice; their new home is the province of the universe.
“Then, feel at the peak of everything and be extremely moved, for your natural abundance, already in the cosmos, has multiplied all around you. Drink a drop or drench yourself; no matter where you turn you will find the Name inscribed in light. Let your ego disappear, for this is the secret of claiming your expanded home in the universe.”
God, Spirit of Creative Transformation, Source and Creator,
We come together today to celebrate the gift of life. We see your life-giving presence in the emerging spring, the lengthening days, and in the other lives around us. We are grateful for all the ways you sustain our bodies and spirits, through cycles of fullness and hunger and fullness again. We praise your name.
Help us to remember and recognize you, Spirit Eternal. Help us to see and feel the river of life and love that flows into us at every moment. Help us to surrender to the divine, deep current that nourishes our roots, allowing us to stand and grow just where we need to be; help us to surrender to the rushing stream that uproots us as though we were boulders when we need to be shaken loose and moved from a place where we are stuck. Help us to join together in the ever-changing yet constant stream of your love, buoyed aloft on your strong but gentle surface. Nourish us, move us, carry us.
O God, you are the light of our world. Fill our minds with your peace, our hearts with your love, and our hands with your mercy.
Rev. Kathy Speas