What We Do with Our Life Matters | Sermon for Wayfarers Chapel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWayfarers Chapel
Rev. Anna Woofenden
November 16th, 2014
Readings: Psalm 90, Matthew 25:14-30 and
True Christianity 527 from Emanuel Swedenborg

Audio:

This weekend I took part in the third of a three weekend series of intensive courses on public theology, taught up at Lavern University by one of my professors from seminary, Dr. Scott Holland. Looking at public theology through a number of lenses, we wrestled with issues of politics and religion. We discussed the generational shifts that are changing the face of the religious and cultural frameworks as we see the rise of the “spiritual, but not religious” and those who check the box marked “none” when asked about religion. We analyzed the marker points and turning points of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests, naming and unpacking the overt and intrinsic theological origins and narratives that shaped those movements.

We then moved forward into more recent history, exploring the analysis and prognosis offered by Van Jones of the Obama era in his work, “Rebuilding the Dream,” and the interfaith movement being propelled forward by Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Young Corps. And through each of these conversations, we kept coming back to questions of theology—of how we make meaning in our lives. How can our view of who God is, our exchanges with humanity, the way we work for the common good or against the common enemy be seen throughout history to catalyze or concretize a movement for brief or lasting change?

At about 11:30 yesterday morning, nearing the end of these hours we’d spent together over the last three months I leaned against a desk, where I had been standing to stretch my back, and I had what must have been a troubled look on my face.

“Yes Anna” Scott said to me quizzically, “Do you have a question?”

I took a deep breath, and said,
“So here’s the thing: this is all so fascinating and our study has been grounded in powerful stories of leaders and theologians, prophetic voices who shape the shared narrative, people who changed the arch of history through their reach. And we’re naming the urgent issues in our world today—the polarization and extremism in various cultures, the trauma and harm we are seeing from extremists in various religious traditions who are engaging in acts of terror, threat and war in the name of God and religion. We talked about the way racism and sexism and classism, and so many other -isms divide us from each other and feed the desire to create a barrier and a separation from each other, and we’ve read and discussed a powerful diagnosis of the past and current struggles we face in the world. We have the analysis and diagnosis, and they are profound, inspiring, concerning, and move me to action. And yet, in this moment, these conversations, they are all theoretical.

But I sit here, as I’m listening and engaging the wisdom of the public theologians and I’m thinking, ‘How does this apply to this new church that I’m planting?’ How do I interact with the man who sits outside the post office and greets me most days when I walk in to get the mail, asking for money for something to eat? Or how do I hold the fact that one of the humans I love most is growing up in a country where soon his likelihood of being judged and harmed is exponentially higher because of the color of his skin? How do I lead an entrepreneurial community that cares about social change and work for the common good? How do we bring this theory into reality for personal and collective transformation, for change—for more heaven here on earth?”

I felt myself choking up a bit as I pointed to the books spread out across my desk, “Where’s the five step for the cultural climate we are facing today, November 2014? Where’s the blue print? The one right way? The five best practices? Give me my simple clear marching orders, and I’ll do it.”

Scott looked at me and said, “Ahh…but you are doing it. And the story is being written.” 

We read a short story of Jesus this morning, the parable of the talents. This is one of many short stories that Jesus tells throughout his ministry—parables of talents and sheep, landowners and servants, parents and prodigal children, pearls of great price, and the smallest of mustard seeds. When Jesus is asked questions, even direct ones like, “Who is my neighbor?” he rarely responds with a logical scientific answer, or easy and clear three-point plans. His responses often come in the form of these parables, or a short story that de-centers the questioner and rather than answering the query with a simple “Do this. Don’t do this.” He probes and incites something more profound—an invitation into a deeper and more dynamic way of engaging life and scripture, a public theology.

So this parable… Well first, let’s talk for a minute about parables. Parables are not, contrary to popular belief, simply morality tales that Jesus told so that we know how to “be good” or what was “bad.” No, parables are much more confusing, intriguing, and exciting than that. 

Theologian John Dominic Crossan, in his book, The Power of Parable, writes about the difference between myth and parable, He describes myths as being agents of stability, while parables are agents of change. In other words, according to Crossan, Jesus wasn’t telling these stories to continue the status quo, or to tell his audience how to be “good religious people.” Jesus was telling these parables to stir things up, to give rise to healthy debate, to engage the Jewish rabbinical tradition of theological banter, and truth being discovered in the conversation, in what might be seen to us as an argument, but often resulted in collective divine understanding as scripture and ideas where thrown back and forth and questioned and wrestled with and explored.

The word parable comes from a Greek word, “parabole”, meaning “to put parallel or cast alongside.” It implies a process of comparison, or two things being thrown together, some translated it “smash together.” So it’s more than saying, “this means this, that means that.”

If we assigned a little post-it-note reminder to this word in our bibles, we might put beside any reference of “parable”: “Remember! Be aware that it doesn’t usually mean what we think it means.”

We are so prone to domesticate our religious resources, our stories, to make them something that confirms what we already know, or reinforces that which makes us right. But maybe, these stories are not actually about a moralistic conclusion, but instead alive texts with deeper meanings and an invitation to interact with the question of the text and life, scripture and culture.

You, like I, may have this desire for the five-point plan, the one way of looking at right and wrong, especially if we always work it to end up right. And there’s a part of us that desires not having to wrestle with how to think, feel, respond, not having to learn new things about other people, or ourselves, or the world, just sticking with our status quo and embedding ourselves deeper into our world-view.

But um, here’s the deal. If you want to do that, I’d recommend staying away from Jesus and the parables. Because it seems that actually, never is a parable—or Jesus’ words in general—a call to status quo, but instead a call to change.

So, what does this have to do with this parable that we read from the Gospel of Matthew, this parable of the talents? I am not suggesting that there is one right way to read this parable; there are many useful interpretations of this text. What I’m inviting us into is to wonder what is it that Jesus is calling forth to wrestle with in conversation, to wonder about, to engage in a dialog with life and culture, the spiritual journey and the way of faith? 

If we read this parable as Jesus stirring things up, inciting discussion, challenging the status quo, we may get something out of it that we didn’t see before. And if we read this parable within its historical and cultural context, we also see something there that I for one, don’t read at first glance.

First, what is a “talent”? This is not, as we may first read it, referring to your ability to play golf or paint with watercolors; it’s not even referring to your surgical skills or your strength as a writer. Talents, in this context are referring to an amount of money.

A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth about 6,000 danarii—with a single denarius representing a laborer’s daily pay. In modern terms, we’re talking millions of dollars. Jesus is capturing the attention of the listeners by presenting what would have been a “fairy-tale” amount of money (Crossen, pg. 99). Like, “So there was this land-owner, and he gave his first servant three bazillion dollars.” 

So what happens in this story? The first slave gets five talents, invests it, and gets five more. The second slave gets two talents, invests it, and gets two more. The third slave gets two talents and buries them in the ground; when his master gets back, he has some words with him.

He says: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seedso I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

To which the Master was quite angry, and threw him out and took his money away and gave it to the other one.

So if this is not a simple morality tale, though certainly we can find truths in the simple story. It’s an opportunity for question, debate, to have things “smashed together” as we begin to wonder what in Jesus might have been trying to stir up in the telling of this story. 

A couple of things jump out at me; the first is this idea of interest. We hear this story in terms of our modern economics and we can say, “well look, that was the sound business decision, invest and get interest.” But at the time, this was not the whole picture. The Torah, the religious teachings of the Jewish people, brought up a lot of questions about interest and when interest was taking advantage of another person. At the time of Jesus there was mixing and division “between the Roman pro-interest tradition within the empire and the Jewish anti-interest tradition within the followers of Torah” (Crossen pg.105). If Jesus’ intention were to stir up some good conversation, this parable would have done it quickly. “Is the good/right/just thing to get interest? Or is it about following the principles of faith?” But likely this wasn’t the end of the debate, Jesus wasn’t just going for a financial integrity conversation. He was a rabbi, he cared about the spiritual aspects—the kingdom of heaven.

And so we can imagine that he was stirring up a conversation not just about interest, but about the people, the tradition, the empire, their interactions with theology and the world around them. Who benefits from interest and gain? Whose law do you follow? Do you live by the Torah or the practices of Rome? Do you live under God’s laws or Roman Customs?” The parable asks me the question; what do I live for—the things of this world or the thing that last? How do the choices I make now have an impact on eternity?

Our centering quote from Swedenborg, the theologian and Christian mystic that the Wayfarers Chapel is a memorial to says: “Even the smallest moment of our lives involves a series of consequences extending to eternity. Each moment is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so with each and every moment of our lives.” Emmanuel Swedenborg Secrets of Heaven 4690

The choices we make, the actions we take, the way we engage the world, other people, our religion, our work, our lives, they matter. The voices we listen to matter, the questions we ask matter, the willingness to engage the complexity, the ambiguity, the dialog, the parable, they all matter.

In the willingness to engaging the unsettling nature of parables, and the de-centering way that Jesus likes to tell stories and ask questions can lead us to think of things differently. To repent—literally the Greek word, metanoia, is to change our minds—to look at the world differently and change how we think, feel and act. It is in this process that so often, we find the face of God.

We see the nature of God, not in a moralistic code, or in a three-point plan, or in one—and only one—way. No, we find God, the God who is moving and present in all things, when we allow ourselves to put our spirituality parallel, smashed together, with our experience of life, of our current culture. When we commingle the stories of scripture, with the stories of our lives, when we engage sacred scripture and Divine curiosity, seeking the desire for transformation personally and collectively. It’s in this curiosity, in this wrestling and wondering and engagement with the story of God and the story of our lives, that we find a surplus of meaning, we find the call to self-examination, to repentance/change, to a way of being that integrates the force of Divine Love and Wisdom in and through, the culture, the movement, the challenges and maybe we find the courage to keep showing up and asking the questions and engaging change internally and externally.

Because this is how change and transformation happens in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our worlds. When we can engage both. When we can put the ways of the world and the ways of heaven next to each other and question the discrepancies, and then work to change things. When we are willing to look at racism and sexism and classism and superiority and the desire to be right and the desire to have it all figured out, and have those dislodged by the startling and audacious love of God and call to compassion and action. When we’re willing to look at ourselves and be willing to turn, to be changed, to be made new.

A few years ago I was working in Washington DC, doing faith based food and hunger advocacy work. Immersed in the politics of Capital Hill I was constantly engaging this question of public theology from various angles.

One Saturday, I got up super early and got on the metro from the basement room where I was staying in Alexandria. I got off at McFerson Square stop and walked up to the lawn in front of the White House to hear a public theologian who is changing the world—his Holiness the Dali Lama. I found a few friends who I was meeting there and settled down on the blanket they had spread out on the lawn with thousands of others, awaiting the words of this wise teacher.

He talked about how world peace comes through inner peace. He talked about how every human craves for inner peace and seeks it in many ways and he reminded us of our shared humanity and that every person is part of the global solution to peace. He challenged us to look inside and think about how we are seeking peace in our own heads, in our internal dialog, and asked asked how we are treating the people who we share a home with, our spouses, children, parents, our co-workers, the people we meet on the street. And how it is in these interactions that the ripple will start and move outward, meeting other peaceful currents and sweep the nations with a tsunami of compassion and peaceful living.

His Holiness didn’t let any one path off the hook, or offer the “right” way. He spoke eloquently about the variety of religious (and non-religious) paths, the many tools and system changes that can lead to a life and word of compassion. He spoke of the importance of growing an intelligent mind and a warm heart. He spoke of teaching compassion in all contexts, sacred and secular and how embodied compassion is the way of religious life. He reminded me of one of the Swedenborgian teachings I hold dear, “All religion is of life and the life of religion is to do good.” It is the life we live from what we believe that matters. Regardless of our life circumstances, religious holdings, or stages of life, we have a part to play. His Holiness broke down any walls of excuses or “not me,” and with his raw humanity and humility called all of us to a higher place of compassion, justice, and peace.

I can’t remember the specific last words he said. I do remember his smile though, kind and wide on the big monitor and moving with the bright red of his robe that I see getting up from the chair on the stage. It was still shining as he walked down through the crowed and the music began to play. We packed up our things and rolled our blankets. A quiet fell over the crowd. I looked around and I saw the faces around me a little differently than I had a few hours before. I felt the breath of God breathing in us together, and an openness to God working in and amongst us. Open to the Spirit. Open to one another. Open to the life that is in front of us to live. May we live it. Amen.

Wrestling Vulnerability

Jacob-Wrestles-with-God

Sermon for Richmond Church of the Brethren
Richmond, Indiana

January 12th, 2013
Genesis 32:22-32
Audio:

I will love the light for it shows me the way,
yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.

–Og Mandino

Og Mandino’s words echo with me as I ponder our text for today. I wonder if Jacob would have had the self-reflection to speak these words the night he stood by the ford of Jabbok after wrestling all night? I wonder how he framed the feelings that churned inside him as he prepared to face his estranged brother, the brother that he had so much to apologize for; the brother who he feared would meet him with retaliation and violence?

Oh Jacob the “grabber,” or the “supplanter” the one who had tried to seize his twin brother Esau and pull him back into the womb as they were being born so that he could be the first-born and all that would offer him. Teen-age Jacob, who having failed at his pre-birth acquisition of inheritance and power, tricks his twin by taking advantage of him as he returned famished at the end of a long day, by offering the immediacy of a meal in exchange for Esau’s claim on the family inheritance. A trade which Esau later responded to with the vow to kill Jacob, which understandably sent Jacob fleeing far away to his Uncle Laban’s home, where he met his wife, Rebecca, and lived and grew his family for many years far away from his brother and from the retribution that seemed inevitable.

It is at this moment in time that we pick up the text this morning. Jacob is now returning to his family land and preparing to meet this brother that he had wronged so many years ago.

I picture Jacob, sitting surrounded by scrubby grass, on a rocky shore, near the edge of the Jabbok River. He has sent his family across ahead of him, where they are camped safely on the other side. But he hung back, and as the night fell he was left alone on the side of the river. I see him—a thick garment wrapped around his shoulders, his knees pulled up by body, head in his hands, wondering what the next day would bring. Not knowing what the future holds, fearing for his life, the life of his family, and the world he knew. What faced him that night with the dark sky encasing him, as he looked straight into the fear or guilt, shame, and utter vulnerability.

Wrestling in the Dark

The extreme cold this past week has brought vulnerability in front of us. As the polar vortex swept through the country, we know that many struggled, and the already vulnerable become even more so. In this community, many of us were extremely blessed to have warm houses, woodstoves, electric blankets, and heating vents to cuddle up next to. Even with a warm house, there’s a tension and tentativeness I’ve heard expressed by many this week as we’ve navigated the cold. I heard tell of the exhaustion after a normally “easy drive,” taking hours longer on icy roads, the stories of broken pipes and flooded floors, the care for keeping children, aging parents, pets, and ourselves protected from temperatures where any period of exposure would bring frostbite. I have watched, and participated, in the “icy sidewalk shuffle,” as we do everything in our power not to come crashing down onto the ground. We are reminded how we are not in control, we don’t know what is going to happen next—we are vulnerable.

Brene Brown, a researcher-storyteller whose TED Talk on Vulnerability captured many addresses this topic head-on. Because she believes, from her extensive research, that vulnerability is a key ingredient in people who are whole-hearted, who experience themselves as worthy, loved, and belonging—people who are alive and awake and whole. The whole-hearted, she says, are the ones who are willing to walk into the vulnerability, to be with the feelings, to have the courage to wrestle in the dark, rather than numbing the feelings when they arise.

She offers the idea that we cannot selectively numb emotion. We can’t numb our grief, our shame, our fear, or our vulnerability and still expect to be able to feel joy and delight, purpose, meaning, and happiness. The path to whole-heartedness, to living a authentic life is not to numb the pain and feelings with whatever our favorite coping mechanism is, it’s not to explain them away with a false grasping for certainty, it’s not to turn and go the other way and avoid the struggle. Instead, this is a call to enter into an honest conversation with our vulnerability, to be willing to walk knowingly into the dark and wrestle until daybreak.

Demand a Blessing

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. Then Jacob asked him, “Please, tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, (the face of God) saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:23-32)

Can you picture this all-night wrestling match? The physicality of legs and arms, the ebb and flow as one person rises and leans into control, the other trapped, until that twist, and move, and flip, and coming out on top again. The anguish and struggle, the desire to give up and lie, exhausted on the ground, and the determination and strength to keep going.

This all-night wrestling partner later referenced as an “angel” by Hosea (12:4), and a “man” according to many Hebrew translators, or a “water demon” according to ancient tradition stuck with Jacob through the night, and Jacob would not let go until he demanded a blessing. Whatever the being Jacob encountered that dark night, he experience that he had, “seen the face of God and lived” (32:20).

In this deep night of wrestling, we can imagine that Jacob comes face to face with himself, his God, and his own vulnerabilities. The possible consequences of his past choices are looming in front of him, and he is unsure what is next and whether he will survive it. In all that he brings to the tangled match—all the questions, the fear, the shame—he does not give in. He continues to grapple, to be present with the fight, to feel the feelings, to be in the vulnerability. And, then he demands a blessing. He will not leave this wrestling match until he has found the blessing, and has claimed the conversion that comes out of confronting and working with our deepest vulnerabilities.

A number of years ago, I spent an extended period of time dealing with a life threatening and life-altering illness. It was certainly a season that I could compare to this dark night on the Jabbok River bank. It was a time of profound vulnerability, unknowing, and fear of what might be coming next. At some point early on, I remember saying out loud, “If I have to go through this, I damn well better come out stronger, wiser, more loving, and more compassionate on the other side.” The struggle and grappling didn’t magically dissipate; there was no escape from the all- consuming vulnerability of body, mind, and spirit. But there was a determination, an intention, and a reason to keep going through the struggle. And so I wrestled and I demanded a blessing. That journey was too painful and difficult to waste and not come out on the other side transformed.

Now I do not believe that God ever gives us struggles or challenges as a test, a punishment, or to teach us a lesson. This is not the God I know. The God I know walks with us through struggles, changes, transformations—a God that accompanies us. Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Christian Mystic of my spiritual heritages writes: “Nothing, not the least thing shall occur that some good cannot come out of it.” I have often found encouragement and challenge in that notion. It’s not that good will necessarily come out of our challenges and hard times, but that it can come out of it. The God of wisdom and transformation is always drawing us towards goodness and love, walking with us through the challenges and struggles. But how we emerge? This depends on how we wrestle, how we engage, and if we demand a blessing. When we can, in the midst of our darkest nights, name a good that God is drawing us to, and put our stake in the ground that we will come out the other side renamed and changed forever.

We can demand a blessing when our communities, our families, our churches are going through transition and challenge. Because these seasons of questioning, change, and struggle seem to be an inevitable part of the individual and collective experience of being human, transition, and the vulnerability that comes with it, being an integral part of the life and movement of community. As you—my Richmond Church of the Brethren friends—know so well right now.

The process of transformation is not easy, and embracing vulnerability and change—I would posit—is often more difficult in our collected communities than it is in our individual lives. These times when everything is stirred up and we’re offered the opportunities to look at our past, present, and future with new eyes. In so many denominations and churches we find story after story about the change in the church. The way we’ve always done church is not how church is happening. We are walking through the night of wrestling and vulnerability when we see budgets decreasing, upcoming generations not expressing interest in church the way it’s been done, and congregations across the country closing at a rapid rate. It can leave us wondering what is next for us and bring up whatever our individual and collective coping mechanisms and numbing techniques are. We grasp harder at how it’s always been. We go into hyper-gear to raise the funds, find the volunteers, overcome the challenge. Anything we can do to avoid entering into the water, engaging the night of vulnerable wrestling. Until we land exhausted on the riverbank and name the gift of entering the vulnerability, the transformation that can come from the wrestling.

Renamed

When we face ourselves, our present reality, our vulnerability, our collective transformations, it is often uncomfortable. And it often makes for uncomfortable conversations. But, maybe being comfortable is not the point of spiritual life or church or being human. Maybe the church really isn’t about what our needs are and having our needs met. Being the church is about following the movement of God and community. Being the church is about being a gathered embodiment of the two great commandments—loving God and loving the neighbor. The church is about collectively being willing to tussle with what it means to be faithful to God and to our community in this season. The church is about being willing to be together, in the beauty and joy, and in the vulnerability and wrestling.

Go Out With a Limp

When we face these seasons in life with the demand to become, “stronger, wiser, more loving, and more compassionate” on the other side, we are forever changed. We are not the same person we were before the illness, the loss, the change, the struggle. When we face the changes in our churches, communities, and denominations with the God of change and transformation, the belief in death and rebirth on our lips, then we are not the same churches and communities that we always have been. We are transformed and re-imagined, changed and reborn. And we can imagine, as our it was with Jacob, being re-named as Israel, the one who prevails with God, moving forward in the morning light to meet his brother who would be awaiting him, awaiting him, as it turns out with an embrace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Friends, we stand on the edge of the Jabbok River, looking out towards the unknown that will greet us in the morning. The call is in front of us, to live in the way of Jacob, with the willingness and courage to wrestle all night, to persevere through the vulnerability, to demand a blessing, receiving our new name and identity, and walk forward into the journey forever changed. Knowing that the God who met our ancestors face-to-face, the God of Rachel and Leah and Jacob, the God of Israel, is the God who walks with us into the dark, and the God who shows us the stars. And that we walk forward together with community, naming God’s work with, pointing out to each other the stars that guide us forward into the hope and transformation, sharing the conversations of curiosity, honesty, and reconciliation, and celebrating together the strength, creativity, and vitality that comes after the night of wrestling, with the morning dawn.

As we continue our sermon together:

Where do you see yourself in this story?
Where do you see this community in this story?
What resonates in you with Jacob’s night of wrestling? What blessing will you demand?

May we walk forward into the dark of the starry night, to wrestle, demand a blessing, to be changed and renamed, when in dawn we will again walk forward, but this time with a sacred limp. 

Judge Not

Sermon for Swedenborg Chapel
Cambridge, MA
May 26, 2013

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Readings:
1Samuel 16:1-13
Matthew 7:1-6

The Lord never judges anyone except from good; for God desires to raise all into heaven, however many they may be, and indeed, if it were possible; even to Godself; for The Lord is mercy itself and good itself. Mercy itself and good itself can never condemn anyone but as humans, we condemn ourselves when we reject the good.

On this account no person is ever allowed to judge concerning the quality of the spiritual life of another, for The Lord alone, as before said, knows this; but everyone may judge of another in regard to the quality of his moral and civil life, for this concerns society.
–Emmanuel Swedenborg (Secrets of Heaven 2335.32 and 2284.3)

Last Sunday was my first ride on the T during my time here in Boston. Riding up from Quincy to Harvard Square for church. There was construction on the way so at the JFK stop we got off, took and a bus up to UMass station where we spilled off of the busses into the parking lot, up the stairs, over the tracks, down the stairs, and onto the platform to wait for the next train.

I’m a fan of public transit for a number of reasons, not the least being the fabulous variety of people watching that one can encounter. As three bus-loads of people crammed simultaneously onto the platform, there was no shortage of faces and voices and conversations to observe.

The mother and daughter heading out for a shopping trip, the group of college students discussing graduation, the out of country tourists complete with cameras and languages that I could only understand the tones of. Amongst the hum of these crowds, two voices rose above, loud and insistent, abrasive in a tone that I heard before the costic words began to sink in.

The two older men moved closer to the pillar I was standing by and I began to listen to the words. Within the three to five minutes we stood waiting for the train, I witnessed a stream of judgment flowing from their lips. Judgment of women and Muslims, school teachers and Jews, educated and those who educate them, immigrants of all kinds (well, except, as I would learn later in this diatribe, those early waves of Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants), Quincy elementary school’s weekly schedule and Harvard’s willingness to accept non-Bostonians into the school and city. I wondered what group would be condemned next, who else they could think of to judge.

Judge not and you shall not be judged.

In your worship time together here at the chapel, for the last few weeks, you have been looking at the sermon on the mount, this series of teaching from Jesus that we find early on in the Gospel of Matthew.

The fact that they were giving on a mountain, the mount, is striking if you think about the spiritual context of such an image. In the language of correspondences that Emanuel Swedenborg opens up for us through his writing, a mountain represents a high plane of thought and feeling. A place where we feel near to the Divine and can gain perspective and then look at our everyday life and maybe interact a little differently with ourselves, God and the people around us.

These mountain moments, these high places, can be times where we can remember that we’re all made in the image of God and we are called to see theDivine working in everyone, the call to love God and love our neighbor.

It’s in this body of gospel teachings that we find these words, “Judge not.” One of the many messages in the Sermon on the Mount, and the message I hope to wrestle with together in this sermon.

As titles were added to the Bible, the term “the sermon on the mount” emerged, but according to my preaching professor, one would not be an effective preacher if we attempted to pack all that Jesus does in these three chapters into one sermon. In fact, as I’ve been mulling and researching these six verses over the past week, I have found a number of sermons in the richness of the text. But today, in honor of my profs words of, “focus in on one idea per sermon Anna”, we’ll focus here. Chapter seven, verse one: Judge not and you shall not be judged.” Seeing the image of God in all people.

Judge not.

Exhibit A I thought, as I listened to the judgement flowing out of this man’s lips as we waited for the train. Is not this man the one Jesus would have used this passage with? In response to the flow of characters and judgements that were being spewed from his mouth would Jesus have dived in and proclaimed these words to this man? “Judge not!” Silencing him and cutting off the diatribe?

There was part of me that wanted to. Each venomous word, directed at some “them” or “they”, reinforcing the “us” that he stood for. The harsh worlds about groups and people stirred up something inside me. Should I, could I, step in and say: “Judge not!”

Was it fear that held me back? Or wisdom? Or some of both? I don’t know. But I did not say anything. I did keep listening though. And breathing and began praying. Judge not and you shall not be judged. See all people as lovingly made in the image of God. Breathing in and out with that prayer enough times to crack open a willingness to attempt to see how The Lord might be looking at this grumpy old man on the T.

Throughout scriptures, sacred texts, in the words of theologians and mystics, people across the ages, have asked the question: Does God judge us? How does God judge us?

Throughout Swedenborg’s teachings we can hear a refrain about who God is and God’s engagement with judgement. We read it this morning from Secrets of Heaven, “The Lord never judges anyone except from good; for God desires to raise all into heaven…
The Lord is mercy itself and goodness itself. Mercy itself and goodness itself can never condemn”
(Secrets of Heaven 2335.3).

Swedenborg describes this image of God–a God who is overflowing with goodness and mercy, unable to condemn or turn the Divine face away from the beloved creation, always drawing us to Godself and to connection with the goodness and love within our hearts and wills. God calls us to this well known phrase we heard in our scripture reading from 1st Samuel this morning: “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

And so, judge not and ye shall not be judged.

If we work from the premise that it is not the Divine who does the judging, as the Divine is mercy and goodness itself, which are incapable of judgment, then it turns the lens on humanity, on each of us, to engage the question.

If judgement is not a Divine attribute, then is it a human one. “The Lord can never condemn anyone but as humans we condemn ourselves when we reject good.” (Secrets of Heaven 2335).

Ah-ha–the crux of the matter, humans having the choice to accept or reject the good from the Divine. This is the place that we live as humans, receiving influence from heaven and influence from hell, as we live in the place of freedom, the place of tension between.

As many of you discussed the very end of the book Heaven and Hell at Thursday evening book group, this topic of spiritual freedom is central to this conversation. The freedom that comes in living between these heavenly and hellish influences. The influences of God, endless love and mercy and the influences of evil, selfishness greed and insecurity pulling us towards hell.

And God, out of love, holding us in the suspension between, giving us choice, the freedom, the spiritual space to build our loves over time, and choose our collective orientation towards heaven or hell.

And so, in this place of suspension that is the human experience, we can choose. Not a one time choice that we are then eternally judged on. And not a choice that is arbitrarily made by a judgmental deity. The choice of heaven or hell, both in our daily experience in in our eventual eternal state, is built on, multiple choices, time after time, choice after choice as we encounter ourselves and others and as we encounter our judgements.

Now before we go any further, I think it would be useful to wrestle with this term “judgment” for a minute. At first glance, we can hear this word in various ways. Judgment. Judgmental, critical, abrasive, crude. The man on the T spewing judgment for all to hear. Our passage implies something of this definition when we’re told “judge not.”

But there is another side to this word. We talk about having good judgment, we strive to “judge fairly” be it in court or in a child’s dispute over the favorite toy truck. We extol those who “judge well.”

How do we reconcile these two diametrically opposed definitions of this same word, and what is The Lord talking about in this passage? Judge not and you will not be judged, the standard you use in judging others is the standard by which you will be judged. So there’s some relation here to the judgment, there’s some place for it, but what is the standard we hold?

Here is where I turn again to a Swedenborgian concept to diagram this judgment chart. Swedenborg sketches out two types of judgement, internal judgment and external judgment. God interacts with each human, not looking at the external, but looking at the heart. We as humans on the other hand, cannot see someone else’s insides, we do not know another person’s story.

It is not our job, let alone our possible ability, to judge another person’s internal state. And it is never our job to deem someone less human, less a beloved child of God, less our neighbor to be loved, on any external expression, characteristic, or definition.

External states, actions, reactions, and interactions bring forth the opportunity for a different sort of judgment. This could be called reason, public judgment, street smarts, or wise choices. The ways that we make observations, choices and actions based on our experience, knowledge and, well, judgement. Or as Swedenborg says, “Everyone is allowed to judge concerning another as to the quality, as to the moral and civil life, for this is of import to society” (Secrets of Heaven 2284).

Listening to our intuition, proactive planning, locking doors, being aware of risks, using good judgment, this is a gift. A gift from The Lord as we navigate this word in which we are all left in freedom, suspended between heaven and hell and encounter a mix of heavenly acts and hellish acts. There is a time, a place, and a use in good judgement in terms of the external actions of individuals and collective forces.

The invitation I hear in this sermon from Christ, this mountaintop call, is to not stop with the act of external judgment. Instead, this call not to judge is an invitation to open ourselves up to seeing something deeper in the hearts of those around us, to look for the glimpses of God, to see all created in God’s image.

To ask questions such as: What is the story of this man on the T? Where are the glimpses of the Divine in and amongst the hurt and anger? Where has he been wounded and shut down, how are the words coming from his mouth asking for something that he is not getting? Crying out to be heard and valued as a beloved child of God, seen as a respected member of the human race. How are his critiques of others a reaching and a grasping for creating his own sense of identity by distancing himself from the many “others,” the “them’s,” the “those people,” that are not him?

Before coming to Cambridge last week, I was in Nashville at a preaching conference, the Festival of Homiletics. Brian McLaren, a favorite writer, preacher and theologian, was there and during his talk he engaged this idea of judgement and how often as humans we work to form our identity by defining ourselves by all the things we are not in other people or groups.

He was looking at this phenomena specifically in terms of groups of people, such as religious gatherings, churches, movements and denominations. I would posit that we could both identify with that and that the some principles occur in us as individuals.

McLaren offered the idea that groups tend to build an identity around something good initially. A mission, a sacred text, a shared culture, land, or a space. There is one thing they all have in common. But then quickly it seems to be the human condition, or something, that if the group starts to question their identity, rather than returning to the center, there’s a tendency to look outside of the group and begin to create a strong sense of collective “us”, by creating a “them” out there to dislike, be hostile towards and differentiate from. James Alison puts it this way, “Give people a common enemy and you will give them a common identity.”

We see this phenomena throughout history, in our neighborhoods, churches, families, interactions in the word, in our personal development of identity of who we are, and yes, as we ride the T.

Each time we cover over the image of God in others based on externals, be it race or gender, opinion, physical appearance, culture, ideology, religion, or dress, we engage in what I hear The Lord speaking against in our text today. It is not our place to judge. It is not our place to quantify another persons worth. And in judging not, we then are not judged. By the same measure we judge others, we will judge ourselves.

Rather than building up our own self worth by defining ourselves by all that we are not, we’re invite to see ourselves as beloved children, formed in God’s image, and from that place, to see the image of God in all people.

As we look for God’s image in others, compassion can arise and the desire to dig deeper and imagine what might be going on in another’s life, or in a collective of people, that has led to actions that display in ways that are abrasive to our sensibilities.

We can be called to imagine what it might look like to develop a strong and benevolent identity, as we individually and collectivity move towards those that we have labeled as “them” or “other” in the past and see them as neighbor and fellow child of God.

Naming, as the prophet did, the choice we each have to follow our own flawed judgement (as Saul did) or to follow the Lord’s judgement, as the prophet Samuel called for. To look at others as The Lord looks, with mercy and goodness, wisdom and humility.

When I began to breath and pray as we settled in on the train, sitting a few seats over and down from our loud friend, I began to wonder about his life and mine and see the places of hypocrisy in my reactions. Yes, he was spewing judgement out loud in public in ways that we can easily deem as inappropriate and harmful. But what was I building in the judgements inside me about his words?

I happen to have enough filter, or fear of what others may think, not to be exposing my judgements and thoughts to our fellow passengers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have judgments. And I am blessed to have safe, healthy places where people listen to my sorting out and to be seen and heard by others. I don’t feel need to vent loudly on the T to all that will listen in order to feel heard.

But maybe this man doesn’t. Maybe he isn’t privileged to be surrounded by people who listen to him, who see him, who hold up and remind him of his preciousness as a child of God. Is each word that escapes his lips a reaching and grasping to be seen–to have it reflected back to him that he, he too, is a beloved child of God, created in the image of the one who does not judge, the one who is mercy itself, goodness itself and who loves us all, eternally.

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