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Sermons

A Blessing in the Midst

November 11, 2012

Bible Reading

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun. On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them. On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

(Isaiah 19:18-25)


They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another as to who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

(Mark 9:30-37)

Reading from Swedenborg

There are people who are of the opinion that innocence is the same as infancy because when the Lord was talking about little ones, he said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven,” and said that if we do not become like little children we cannot enter the kingdom of the heavens. People who hold this opinion, though, do not know about the deeper meaning of the Word, so they do not know what “infancy” means. “Infancy” means the innocence of intelligence and wisdom, whose basic quality leads us to recognize that our life comes from the Lord alone . . . Real innocence, which is called “infancy” in the Word, never exists or dwells anywhere but in wisdom, so much so that the wiser we are the more innocent we are. The Lord, therefore, is innocence itself because he is wisdom itself.

(Secrets of Heaven 2305)

Sermon

What does our world have to be grateful for today? Much more bad news than good occupies the headlines. If we lay this text over the present situation in the Middle East, the contrast between Isaiah’s vision and the present reality could hardly be starker. Geographically, the Holy Land is little more than a bridge between Africa and Asia, and at present it is not a link but a bone of contention. The Lord’s intent, Isaiah says, is that the temple in Jerusalem become “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7), but at present no one seems to be listening, and the consequences of that deafness are tragic.

What do we have to be grateful for in these troubled times? To begin with, we have the vision. If we lose that, we are truly lost. We will spend all our energies on preventing the worst, motivated by fear, and little or none on reaching toward the best, motivated by faith, by hope, and by charity (1 Corinthians 13:13).

There is a fundamental principle involved that is applicable to all communities regardless of scale, and that is applicable to the inner dynamics of each one of us. It is quite beautifully exemplified in a statement in Swedenborg’s The Last Judgment 12, describing the ideal community: “…in the most perfect form, the more constituents there are, the more people are involved in attention and agreement and the more intimate and unanimous is the union. The agreement and consequent union increase with numbers because each individual there comes in as a congenial intermediary between two or more others, and whatever comes in strengthens and unites.”

No simple, geometrical way exists to diagram this, because one of the most obvious and significant facts about the social fabric in which we live and move and have our being is the fact that each one of us is a center. There are, of course, other relationships, many of them hierarchical. As children, we were in many ways subject to our parents, but that changes with time. In the nine-to-five segments of their lives, some people are employees and some are employers. Other relationships are truly reciprocal. I recall a case in which one woman was giving another piano lessons and was being taught Hebrew in return—particularly memorable because the pianist was in her late eighties and the Hebraist was in her early nineties. We are able to move with relative ease from one kind of relationship to another if those relationships seem appropriate. Nicodemus, an eminent elder in Israel, willingly assumed the temporary role of student when he came to Jesus (John 3).

We can be quite sure, all the same, that Nicodemus experienced himself as a center around which there were the concentric circles, so to speak, of a far larger world. Just try, for a moment, imagining what this room looks like when seen through my eyes, or the eyes of some sitting somewhere else, even of the person sitting closest to you. It is most unnatural. Basically, the views of others are just as accurate as yours, and they are all different.

If we put this fact together with the picture we are given in Last Judgment, the picture of every new individual serving to strengthen and unite, we come to the conclusion that the more witnesses we have of this particular scene, the more complete and accurate a picture could be drawn. Every witness could add something unique.

This is a challenging parable of our situations in the fabric of human thought and feeling. We affect each other by the way we treat each other, and the way we treat each other is affected by the way we see each other. To others, each of us is a representative of the rest of the world, a kind of agent—only one representative, to be sure, but when we are in conversation with someone else, we are the primary or even the only representative on the scene. Each of us is then a link with the “outside world,” a kind of conduit, and each one of us is a selective conduit.

This brings us back to our text, to the image of Israel as a highway between those longtime rivals, Egypt and Assyria. What kind of traffic do we encourage? Do we try to keep channels of communication open between the best in both lands, or do we rather highlight the rivalry and channel it toward active enmity? Do we strengthen the fabric, or do we weaken it?

In any number of places and ways, our theology advises that “the good in the neighbor” is the neighbor whom we are to love (see, for example, Secrets of Heaven 8123). We are assured that good is present within absolutely everyone. We are also assured that some of us turn away from it, at first partially and ultimately decisively. We cannot destroy it, because it is the Lord’s life flowing into the very core of our being. We can close ourselves off from it. All of us do so from time to time, when we are at our worst, and if we are honest with ourselves, we can understand how some of us can come to prefer hell to heaven.

When we get in touch with the best in others, we form a little link between the best in them and the best in us, and through us, with the best in others. When we arouse the worst, we do just the opposite. We strengthen the conviction that the world is essentially hostile and that survival is a matter of defeating it. There is enough evidence for both views to make them both quite plausible.

Something else is happening, too. By the way we look at and treat others, we are associating ourselves with those of like attitudes. We cannot avoid being centers, but in ultimate terms, in terms of heaven and hell, we are choosing where that center will be, what our own center will be. If we choose Isaiah’s course, if we choose to be “a blessing in the midst of the earth,” we are centering ourselves in that community; and on the principle that we are accepted into heaven when we accept heaven into ourselves, that is becoming our own internal center.

With that in mind, then, let us take a fresh look at our New Testament reading. His disciples were embarrassed because they had been arguing about which of them was greatest. Jesus did not settle the argument or scold them. The first thing he did was to present them with a paradox: “If you want to be first, you need to be last.” Then, Mark tells us, he placed a child in their midst (Mark 9:36).

Put that “midst” together with the “midst” of Isaiah’s vision, the one the midst of a small group of disciples and the other, Isaiah says, “the midst of the earth.” Geometrically, it is the same midst. Wherever we are centered, that is, we can envision ourselves as surrounded by one concentric circle after another. For the Israelite of Isaiah’s day who was looking for the best in some local environment, those concentric circles would reach out to include like-minded individuals in Egypt and Assyria. For the Jew in modern Israel, they would reach out to include likeminded Palestinians, Egyptians, and Iraqis. That is the point of contemporary efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian young people together in small numbers, so that each can experience the humanity of the “other.” You may have seen in a recent newspaper the photograph of a “Friends Forever” group, teens from Catholic and Protestant families in Ireland spending two weeks here, lifted out of the atmosphere of blind hostility that has had such tragic consequences for so long.

It is, I think, a true instinct that led to the focus of these efforts on the young. It reflects a longing to protect their innocence by forming ties with the innocent, strengthening the fabric of those who want to seek out the best in others rather than to be “the greatest” at the expense of others.

In that sense, each one of us is asked to find the little child within and center ourselves there. This brings us to our reading from Swedenborg, which tells us how to identify that child within. “Real innocence, which is called ‘infancy’ in the Word, never exists or dwells anywhere but in wisdom, so much so that the wiser we are the more innocent we are. The Lord, therefore, is innocence itself because he is wisdom itself.”

If innocence “never exists or dwells anywhere but in wisdom,” though, how can we equate it with infancy? Babies certainly are not wise. They have everything yet to learn. The key lies as much in what they do not have as in what they have. They do not have any sense that they know anything. They are sponges for learning. In doctrinal terms, they are “willing to be led by the Lord.” If the boundaries of innocence are also the boundaries of wisdom, they are squarely within those boundaries—not covering much territory, but rightly centered.

That is where we all started. That is the true center of each one of us now and forever, because the center of our being is that “inmost” where the love-andwisdom, the life of the Lord, is constantly flowing in. When our third reading tells us that the basic quality of intelligence and wisdom “leads us to recognize that our life comes from the Lord alone,” it is not just straightening out our theology. It is pointing us straight into the unsearchable depths of our own being. It is giving those depths a name—”the blessing, the little child in our midst.”

What do we have to be grateful for?

Everything that we are. Absolutely everything.

Amen.

Meditations

He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and I thought, “What can this be?” And answer came, “It is all that is made.” I marveled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind, “It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.” And all things have being through the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three truths. The first is that God made it. The second is that God loves it. The third thing is that God looks after it.

What is he, indeed, that is maker and lover and keeper? I cannot find words to tell. For until I am one with him I can never have true rest nor peace. I can never know it until I am held so close to him that there is nothing in between.

- Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Divine Showings


God is the still point at the center. There is no doer but he.

All this he showed me with great joy, saying, “See, I am God. See, I am in all things. See, I do all things. See, I never take my hands from my work, nor ever shall, through all eternity. See, I lead all things to the end I have prepared for them. I do this by the same wisdom and love and power through which I made them. How can anything be done that is not well done?”

God wants us to know that he keeps us safe through good and ill.

We shall see God face to face, simply and wholly.

- Julian of Norwich, Divine Showings


The very act of sacred knowledge teaches us that the natural sense of the soul is single, but that it has been divided into two by Adam’s disobedience. It will become single and simple again when the Holy Spirit comes into it . . .

- Diadochus of Photike (mid-fifth century)


God of love, give us love; love in our thinking and our speaking; love in our doing and in the hidden places of our souls; love of our neighbors far and near; love of those we find it hard to bear and of those who find it hard to bear with us; love in joy, love in sorrow; love in life and love in death.

- Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944)

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole