October 27, 2013
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Reading from Swedenborg
In short, acting in accord with the Lord’s commandments constitutes true worship of Him, indeed constitutes true love and true faith, as may also become clear to anyone who stops to consider the matter. For there is nothing that a person who loves another, and who believes in another, would rather do than to will and to do what that other wills and thinks; his only desire is to know his will and thought, and so what is pleasing to him. It is different in the case of one who has no such love or belief. The situation is similar with love to God, as the Lord also teaches in John, “He who has My commandments and does them, he it is who loves Me. But he who does not love Me does not keep My words” (John 14:21, 24). And elsewhere in the same gospel, “If you keep My commands, you will remain in My love. This is My commandment, that you love one another” (John 15:10, 12).
(Arcana Coelestia 10143.5)
A young man named Gordon was with his parents, and they were taking refreshments in the bar at a train station when they heard a whistle. They rushed out of the bar onto the platform, only to discover that they had just missed the train.
“The next train is in one hour,” intoned the stationmaster. The three went back into the bar. The parents had another drink; Gordon had a Coke. Again they heard a whistle, rushed out, and discovered the train pulling away.
“Next one is sixty minutes from now,” grunted the stationmaster.
An hour later, Gordon, with his mum and dad, raced out onto the platform, and his parents leaped onto the train as it pulled away. The boy was left standing on the platform and began to laugh uproariously.
“Your parents just left you,” said the stationmaster. “Why are you laughing?”
The boy smiled. “They only came to see me off.” It seems funny that a couple might run after a train that was never theirs, but I would submit to you we run after trains that are not ours all the time. Not only are we captured in the “busyness” of the world, but we, in our churches and in our lives, may never know the difference between the train meant for us and the train meant for another. We live in a world of millions of trains going here and there—ideas, emotions, actions—all of them prepared to take us someplace. When Swedenborg lived, most of the information in the world could fit into the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Today, information is expanding exponentially. It’s not a bad thing, but it does require us to know who we are and where we are going at a level that we as a church and a people have never been called to before.
So . . . what does the Lord require of you?
To carry our judgment, to love mercy, and to walk with your God so you may know humility. These 37 are our trains! These are the things that will take us where the Lord would lead. But long before we get there, we find in Micah this sarcastic tone.
“Shall I come before Jehovah with burnt offerings? Will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams? He has shown you what is good; and what does Jehovah require of you but to carry out judgment, and to love mercy, and to humble yourself by walking with your God?” (Micah 6:6–8)
I mean, it almost sounds like Dr. Evil from Austin
Powers: “I want a million dollars!” What is it going to
take, Lord? Ten thousand rivers of oil?
We are the Dr. Evil of our own sphere so often—or, at least, I am. When I can’t figure things out or I come up against the pain and discomfort of my own life, I get snotty with God too. “Really, Lord, what do you want from me? What? What? What?” And, I would guess, you do too.
But the Lord’s invitation is these three: justice, mercy, and humility. In Heavenly Secrets §10143.5, Swedenborg offers us an image of a loving God and of God loving us that we all have encountered at one point or another when in love: “Whatcha thinkin’?” “There is nothing that a person who loves another, and who believes in another, would rather do than to will and to do what that other wills and thinks; his only desire is to know his will and thought, and so what is pleasing to him.” Just as people in love will offer “a penny for your thoughts” or ask, “What are you thinking?,” to worship in its truest form is to worship seeking to feel something of what God feels and think something of what God thinks and to have God bestow that on us.
Saint Teresa of Avila said that the most powerful prayer she ever prayed was to ask that she might “see as God sees.”
God sees so much rushing and running and moving, but what of all of those trains that are pointed at the eternal? What of the things of our church that are pointed toward the eternal, the lasting, and the true . . . or do we often find ourselves aboard a train worrying about stuff or scarcity or loss? . . . Let’s look now to these three trains that take us toward “seeing as God sees.”
The first is . . .
To Carry Out Judgment
If Swedenborg offers us anything that places our human status as precious and unique, it is our freedom to discern: our ability to “carry out judgment,” to discern what we will call true and make it a part of our lives. It is not that we should judge this person and that person for their transgressions, or even ourselves for our own shortcomings, but that we should decide what we discern as the greatest truth to be lived out in this world.
Let me give you an example. If you take someone with no exceptional talent, say in music or art, and you have them practice exceptionally hard to get better, they might become 200 times better than when they originally began to cultivate the talent. But if your take someone with true God-given talent and have them practice at the same intensity, they can become as much as, say, 3,200 times better.
The Gallup organization has researched this phenomenon extensively, Andy Stinson will never be as good as Yo-Yo Ma on the cello; it doesn’t matter how much I practice. But there is within me, and within you, a talent that can be cultivated to be 3,200 times better. Will I carry out judgment in my life to discern what that may be and cultivate it? Will we as a church carry out judgment in our institution and stop doing the things, stop chasing the trains, that we were never called to do or chase in the first place?
Swedenborgianism, as a movement, as a church, can do a better job of discerning exactly what we do better than any organization on the globe; and we can do that, cultivate that, because here is the truth of our Gospel lesson. If we are to love one another, as Jesus commands, we don’t get to leave our best selves at the station.
We don’t get to check our greatness and just let it wither; if I am going to love you, I need to do it with the best of me—because as children of God, do we not deserve that? And if you are going to love me, does not the divinity that shines through me demand that we not offer obnoxious promises of oil and rams but our greatest and best selves? When the Hindus say “Namaste,” they are not saying, “The mediocre in me salutes the mediocre in you.” They are saying, “The God in me salutes the God in you.” It is ours to do the work of carrying out judgment in our movement and in our lives, that we might shine like the angels.
To Love Mercy
Swedenborg is particular in his definition of the Lord’s mercy. In Heaven and Hell §522, he defines the Lord’s mercy as “[God’s love, which is] constant toward every individual, never withdrawing from anyone. This means that everyone who can be saved is saved.” In short, we are to love the things that bring love and save people, love the things that bring us closer to God, love the Love! The great channeling angelic spirit Abraham-Hicks constantly uses the rejoinder, “Choose the better feeling thought.” Give energy to the thing, love the thing, that brings love and that saves—and forget about the rest! If we look at the time we spend in our church and in our life, how often are we really doing this?
For example, everyone in this room has had some kind of transformational experience with Swedenborg, or at least with scripture, but do we love it? Do we cultivate it? That thing that came alive in us when we first read the Writings—do we celebrate it? Do we share it and give light to it? Do we set goals around it? Do we develop our angelic love?
We so often spend our time drunk, and we can be drunk on so many things in this world (alcohol is probably the least of them)—on ideas, on feelings; they can, in the true meaning of drunkenness, have us see the world in a skewed way.
To love our neighbor as ourselves is to offer our neighbor our greatest talent, our greatest light, our sincere and full effort of being.
To Humble Yourself by Walking with Your God
A shammes is a guy who takes care of handyman tasks around the temple and makes sure everything is in working order. He is at the bottom of the pecking order of synagogue functionaries, and there’s a joke about that:
A rabbi, to show his humility before God, cries out in the middle of a service, “Oh, Lord, I am nobody!”
The cantor, not to be bested, also cries out, “Oh, Lord, I am nobody!”
The shammes, deeply moved, follows suit and cries, “Oh, Lord, I am nobody!”
The rabbi turns to the cantor and says, “Now look who thinks he’s nobody!”
I think we often get caught up in what humility is and what we must be like in humility. Humility is not self-effacing “nobodiness”; rather, it is knowing and acting as though we are absolutely equal, no better or worse than any other person on the planet. It was said of the great Abraham Lincoln that he could talk to anyone, from cabinet ministers and foreign heads of state to illiterate woodcutters. Lincoln knew that he was not special, because every soul in creation is special.
This part of the Micah passage is often translated, “to walk humbly with your God,” which I just dislike. Translated that way, it is just another thing that I am doing wrong on the long list of things I’m doing wrong, but I don’t think that is what the Lord is trying to say. The way Swedenborg translates this phrase, it is much more about our seeking to walk with God and finding ourselves humbled by doing so. We are led into humility not through some superhuman force of will, but through the desire to follow the Lord’s leading, which is inherently a humbling act. How often in my life has following God’s call meant setting down the ideas and wants of my smallness for a greater, more wondrous good that I might not even see at this time? In following the Lord’s leading, we might discover again and again the paradoxical truth that it is not all about us, and yet without us something precious and unique and beautiful is lost.
The Way We Worship
In being led to live shoulder-to-shoulder with every soul in creation and with our very creator, we discover that it is impossible to love another from a place of subservience or mastery, and that we can only love another from a place of service. And service requires us to be in a free and equal relationship with the other—in short, grounded in the humility we gain by following God. Our exploration of Micah, in a way, is all just a prelude to remind you of the simple and glorious fact that if the truth of the resurrection and the truth of eternity tell us anything, it is that there is always another train.
It does not matter what train we think our lives, our church, our tradition are on, because there is always another train; there is always another chance to live out the vision of the Holy City. Because the fields are ripe with harvest, goodness and mercy will go with us.
I know that in my life, in your life, in your ministry, and in your churches—and in this church—there are trains we have missed. There have been moments when we have raised our voice and lost our way down a track of our own choosing, rather than the track the Lord shares with us.
And my hope for you is simple: there is another train, waiting at the station of your life and your church. There is another train waiting to take you to the new and wondrous promise of a life filled with justice, mercy, and humility. Set down your hurried lives and see, for there is another train.
Rev. Andy Stinson