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Sermons

With Great Affection

May 27, 2012

Bible Reading

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one— and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

Luke 15:11-24

Reading from Swedenborg

It often says in the Bible that when the Lord God comes it causes a huge effect with things like the earth quaking and mountains collapsing and people quivering. What it means basically is that the presence of God shakes everything up because the nature of God is such that no one can bear this presence unless he or she is in some way protected and able to encounter God’s presence. Divinity is like the fire inside the sun; if it were to fall on people directly it would devour them in an instant, so it has to be with people in a way that is safe for them to have that presence, and this is most of all, in the good that people have and feel and use in their lives.

Arcana Coelestia 8816

Sermon

Let’s say that each of us knows about thirty people very well—so well that we know what they are like as far as we can ever know that: we know what they enjoy, what they don’t like, what rubs them the wrong way, what they love doing and what they struggle with, and so on. In fact, we know them pretty well, so well that we have really deep, strong feelings about them and for them. If they are happy and life is sweet, we are delighted to hear it, and if they are upset or ill or going through it, well, we want to just reach out and give them a hug. These wonderful people we’re particularly close to like that are in our hearts, and we have such a lot of affection for them!

It’s that word “affection” that we’re going to stay with for a bit. This affection, and having it and feeling it and giving it, is undoubtedly the most important thing we ever have, as people and as people with other people. Have it, and you can be a walking disaster in many other ways and that’s OK, you’ve got the one thing that really matters: affection. Don’t have it, and you can have the best house and garden, win the lottery every time, be a supermodel, know Chinese like you were born speaking it, and what have you got? It is that serious!

Affection is so big, and so important, that I can’t tell you how much. Arthur Stace famously went round Sydney for years with his chalk, writing the word “Eternity” on pavements and walls wherever he could, to keep it right there in people’s attention. I sort of feel I would want to do that, but do it with the word “affection” instead. And my logic tells me that if I’ve got genuine affection, then eternity is kind of going to look after itself.

Well, here I am preaching, which is my version of chalking the pavements—but rather than just jumping up and down about how important affection is, I want to fill in some of the cracks and take you into the idea properly. Go back to those thirty people or so that each of us knows very well, and keep hold of the idea that you have a lot of affection for each one of them. These thirty people are of course amazingly different: some are very relaxed and easy to be with, some are a bit awkward, some of them you would like to shake up and down at times, some are sociable, some are shy, some breeze through life, and some just seem to walk on eggshells. But they all have this one thing in common: they have your undying affection. When you think about them, you smile.

So why are we like that? How is it possible? Well, of course, the real answer is that it’s because of God. But while that says everything, it doesn’t really explain everything to us very well. But with this affection that we have and give, we are relaying something of God through us and back out to people.

I want to emphasize very carefully that our affection is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling. That can certainly be one part of it, of course, and I am sure that, at the deepest-down level, a wonderfully warm feeling towards a particular person or towards people generally is driving the bus. But true affection is not warm-fuzzy in the slightest, because warmfuzzy usually means you are in it for something you are getting from it, and that’s neither affection nor God. The other worrying thing about warm-fuzzy is that it’s basically pure gloss and come what may, and it’s us making out that everything’s all right really. Technically, it’s love without a scrap of wisdom.

But don’t ditch the word “warm,” for goodness’ sake, or else you may go to the other extreme and be truth without a scrap of love! Jesus often talks about dealing with your neighbour’s faults—he even uses the word “rebuke.” Listen to this: “It is impossible that no offences should come, but woe to him through whom they do come. [Note the way that is being put!] It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents and turns from the sin, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in one day and seven times in one day returns to you, you shall forgive him” (Luke 17.1-4).

If you look at that statement very carefully, you will recognize that underneath the rebuke or the issue, there is something far, far greater still: the warm feeling we’re calling affection. You are speaking out, stating your case for sure, but it’s coming from the affection you have in your heart—and the imperative thing is that any rebuke we give must convey something of the affection we’re feeling. Otherwise, we are just clubbing somebody with a baseball bat.

The ancient Greeks had a word that basically meant all the vital organs in your body, but particularly your heart, your lungs, your stomach, and your intestines. They believed—quite rightly—that a very close link exists between your vital organs and your strongest emotions, especially anger, worry, fear, and love. They believed that these strong emotions were right there in those physical organs. We get a bit of that idea when we talk about “deep within my breast” and “not being able to stomach something”—but the point is that this word they used gradually developed to become the idea of our being moved with compassion to the very depths of our being. Notice the obvious link with vital organs!

The gospels use this same word to express things like “and Jesus, seeing the multitude, was moved with compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” He wasn’t annoyed with them, or angry; he was sorry for them, sorry about how it was for them, and yearned from the very depths of his being that it might be so different. It was the same with a leper and a man with an epileptic son and a woman with her dead son. The Pharisees tended to claim that people like that had brought their troubles on themselves, in the same way that today some people say physical problems are all due to wrong attitudes and that if you’ve got a bad back you should take a very good look at why (an attitude I would put in the ghastly basket!). But Jesus felt enormous pity and never disgust. And he did something about each case, but it always came from this affection in the very depths of his being.

But our affection is not only to be there in the very depths of our being. That’s fine for us, of course, but it doesn’t help someone else who may be left guessing. In some way it’s got to show itself— remember, Jesus acted and demonstrated his pity—and while we can’t go round and make blind people see and dead people come back to life, we have something. We have faces! Faces, and especially eyes, are windows into our soul. You can’t help what your face looks like, but the look on your face is a different matter. Learn to read a face well—forget the words and the lipstick and the chiseled or not-so-chiseled jaw—and get into the look of longing on a face, the tenderness, and when you see it, say, “Aha, that’s beautiful. That is affection coming from the very depths of their being.” What you’re doing is seeing God—and God can make the blind see and the dead come back to life. Let it be the same with you, and let affection allow God to sculpt you into a work of art, so that you look with visible tenderness at whatever else might be going on.

I am going to finish with the Aaronic blessing because it fits everything I’ve said: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Amen indeed.

Rev. Julian Duckworth