Scripture Readings:

Old Testament: Isaiah 40:1-5

New Testament: Matthew 17:1-8

 

Mountains & Valleys – what a contrast! One is the pinnacle on the top of the world. The other is the lowest of lows. Mountains make us think of snow, and blue sky and clouds and majesty – as in “purple mountains majesty”. They also can make us think of freedom, and joy, like the opening scene of the “Sound of Music” when Julie Andrews sings “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

Valleys can make us think of green grass and streams and animals and sometimes shadows, and often times things like death and dying, as in the 23rd Psalm and the “valley of the shadow of death”.

So why should I be trying to compare and contrast mountains and valleys today? What can we learn from looking at these two extremes of our natural world?

Lets take mountains first. There are several components to mountains – height, verticalness, mass and shape. Height makes us think of “lofty ideals” as in the mountain of God where Moses goes to communicate with the Lord. It also stands for the idea of ascent, of our spirits going up into the realm of the spirits. This unites the idea of our mass, our physical being with the idea of verticalness. By the way, this concept is common to almost all traditions: Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.

There is a mystic sense of the peak of the mountain as not only the highest point on earth, it is also the point of contact between heaven and earth, or the center through which we can all be conjoined with heaven. In general, the mountain, the hill and the mountain-top are all associated with the idea of meditation, spiritual elevation and the communion of the blessed.

Whew! What a little lessen in the symbolism of mountains! But if we look at the Holy Scripture, we soon see that mountains play a large part in our stories. There is the mountain on which Noah’s ark comes to rest after the flood. There is mention of mountains throughout the OT, usually when people needed to see the Lord, as when Moses went up into the mountains to see God, to the worshipping at the holy mountain at Jerusalem by the Israelites. And the passage of our OT scripture today where Isaiah proclaims that every mountain and hill shall be made low and all places will be made straight and plain, easy to pass through.

Then there are valleys! The valley, within the symbolism of landscapes, because it is low-lying is considered to lie at the level of the sea. This represents a neutral zone apt for the development of all creation and for all material progress in this natural world. After all, it is much easier to live in a valley, a place of water and fertile land, where good things can grow and livestock can thrive. We also can thrive in the valleys, in contrast to the desert or the ocean, both also at sea level. In short, the valley is symbolic of life itself and is the mystic abode of the shepherds and the sheep. But as we see in our OT scripture today, valleys can also be seen as places of shadows and some fear, places where the idea is that we are “down” rather that “up” as in the mountain.

It is obvious in our NT that Jesus leads us “up” into the mountains with him as we journey on our own spiritual paths.  

In Mt 5:1 he goes “up on a mountainside when he sees the crowd” to preach the Sermon on the Mount.

In Mt 14:23, he goes by himself up into the mountain to pray, just after he has done the miracle of feeding the five thousand. In this instance, he goes alone and leaves us down in the boat, wondering what just happened, being buffeted by wind and waves of uncertainty and confusion.

We see him in Mt 15:29 again going up on a mountainside and great crowds came to him to be healed, since he had compassion for them.

He goes up on a mountainside in Mark 3:13 to call those disciples to him appointing twelve as apostles that them might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.

Again in Mark 6:46 we see Jesus leaving his disciples in the boat and going up into the mountain to pray.

In Luke6:12 we also have the story of Jesus going “out to a mountainside to pray and spend the night praying to God.” After he chose the 12 apostles, “he went down with them and stood on a level place.

Again in Luke 9:28 we see Jesus taking Peter, James and John with him “and went up unto a mountain to pray.” At this time Luke repeats the story of the transfiguration. And it is at this time of white light and glory, that the 3 apostles hear the voice of God directly speaking to them! What a moment for them, for there persisted a belief that God would not talk directly to mankind, yet they heard the voice clearly.

In John 6:15, we see Jesus aware that people were coming to make him king by force after all his miracles, and he “withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

In Rev 21:10 one of the seven angels carries John “away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

How can we make use of all these mountains and valleys in our scripture in our daily lives? Our lives are often reflective of mountains and valleys, where we encounter rough going rather than the easy, straight plain. Psychologically, we talk about being “down” or “depressed” or “up” and happy. Why should we all look up to the heavens to talk to God? Is this not a version of looking up to the mountains, to the better contact with God? Jesus, when he wants to get away from the crowds and throngs of people, will often go up into the hills to be private and pray. In our NT passage, we see Jesus taking three disciples up into the mountain with him, where the Transfiguration takes place, and the white light appears. The disciples do not understand what they are seeing, and their first thought is to build a symbol for each of the three men, Moses, Elijah and Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t let them, rather he takes them back down the mountain, where the work is still to be done.

The message is pretty clear, we cannot stay on the mountain all the time, for even Jesus’ work took him down into the valleys, and the natural world where his work was. We have to be in our lives, fully committed to this world as well as our spirituality, in order to be true to ourselves, to progress in learning and spirituality in order to be ready to be “taken up into the mountain”.

In each of our lives, we experience mountains and valleys, and the Lord is with us in each place, just as he was with the disciples. He can take us up into the world of the spirits, or he can be with us in the valleys of our despair and hard times. No matter where we are, he is with us, and we can count on him to lift us up, and keep us from stumbling, for as Isaiah said “every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level and the rugged places a plain.” In other words, a straight highway in the midst of our desert for the Lord to reach out to us and for us to receive him.

“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind will see it together.”

 

Let us pray:

O Lord, give us the serenity to walk in the mountains and valleys of our lives and accept what they represent. Give us the courage to level the mountains and raise up the valleys of our lives to make a straight plain highway to reach out to you. And most of all, O Lord, give us the wisdom to let you come to us, and teach us and heal us with your love and peace. Amen

 

Why I Am A Swedenborgian

Sermon: “Why I Am A Swedenborgian” By the Rev. Dr. Donna Keane

Given March 5, 2000 at the Bridgewater New Jerusalem Church, Bridgewater, MA

Scripture Readings:

Deuteronomy 6:5

Luke 12:22-34

Sermon:

The Swedenborgian Church was begun by several English people who, having read Swedenborg and felt affinity for his writings, were unable to continue to worship in the Church of England or the Methodist Church, and who decided they needed to begin a church of their own.

This was some years after Swedenborg’s death. And Swedenborg very seldom went to a Sunday organized religious service, as far as I know. I do not believe he anticipated that his writings would create a new and separate denomination. I do not remember that he was that interested in organization. Rather, I seem to recall that his emphasis was on personal spiritual experience, on study of the inner sense of the Word, and on living a life of purpose and usefulness according to our loves.

I believe I was attracted to the Swedenborgian Church because I, too, am concerned not so much with the organizational structure of religious belief or churches, but with the inner dynamic of faith, hope, love, and spiritual growth. I found in this church the ability to interact with other people on the same kind of journey and that was attractive to me.

Of course, I am committed to the organizational denomination. The workings of the church have changed mightily in some ways since I first approached it almost twenty years ago. In other ways, it has remained comfortably consistent and never wavered from its purpose and mission.

Paul Tillich, in his book “Dynamics of Faith,” describes the character of genuine faith as the “demand of total surrender to the object of ultimate concern.” What Tillich is describing is the ultimate concern of every pious person, to “love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Tillich continues to say, “The life of faith is life in the community of faith, not only in its communal activities and institutions, but also in the inner life its members.”

Both of these ideas presented by Tillich, that genuine faith is the total surrender to God, and that a life of faith is both communal and individual, resonate with me as describing pretty well how Swedenborg encountered his own journey and responded to the revelations made to him.

Certainly, Swedenborg committed himself completely to the call he heard when Christ told him he was now permitted to take his massive intelligence and enter into the mysteries of heaven and hell, to bring them back to this world with him, and to write them down for all others who were interested. I am impressed by his journey, his spiritual diary, his search for the connection between the soul and body, his massive intellectual research, and the fact that, in the end, it was an emotional, spiritual experience that allowed him to surrender and to devote the rest of his life to elucidating God’s will and understanding.

This coincides nicely with the journey I have been on, and I am sure many of you have been on. The early years of Bible stories, Sunday School, youth groups and Sunday services that I experienced in the Methodist Church gave me much intellectual awareness and some small understanding of the immensity of the story of Christ.

However, it was not until I read Swedenborg and discovered the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of the teachings, that I was _moved_ emotionally and found revelatory experiences happening for me. The standard issue of literalness and concrete belief in the literal words and stories never made any sense to me until Swedenborg opened my eyes and heart to the inner meaning–the spiritual and celestial levels of the Word.

So many facets of my life came together and finally made sense. All of the questions and searching I had done with so few satisfactory answers ever coming forth were finally consummated in the brilliance of the total concept of the Word and the nature of God and the relationship between God and God’s creation. Here were the ideas I had always had, but had never had the words to express them. Here were the struggles and successes of a seeker of truth and light that made sense to me.

For all of us come to Swedenborg’s writings with all of the baggage of our previous learning, understanding, needs, and prejudices. Some people may not resonate with his writings, some people may not be open to the inner sense of the Word, and only be comfortable with the literal meaning. But for me, the reading of J. Howard Spalding’s synopsis of Swedenborg’s teachings, “An Introduction to Swedenborg’s Religious Thought”, was the very first indication I experienced that here was the doorway into heaven that fit me to a T.

One of the first passages I read in the New Testament with different eyes is the one I selected for this morning’s reading. The reassurance that it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom has meant everything to me. It became the cornerstone on which the rest of my journey has rested. For the belief that we are meant to be with God in heaven, that it gives God “good pleasure” to give us good things had escaped me in my previous journey. For some reason, Swedenborg created the same sense of reassurance and relief from worry and angst when I read about his descriptions of heaven and hell and how much we are needed by God to complete the nature of love: to love others than self. For God’s very nature demands that we exist, that we are objects of God’s love, and that we are left in freedom to love God back or not.

And if we decide to “surrender” to this image of God, if we decide to love God back from the wellspring of love that God showers on us in the very spirit of our existence, then we have closed the circle, made the connection, and can feel the love and wisdom of God in us, through us, and connecting us with the same love and wisdom in God’s other beings.

Often in my counseling practice I may be tired or distracted or just plain bored. But one day, I was sitting with a client who was greatly agitated and in much emotional and spiritual pain. We had been over and over the situation and I had used every tool in my toolbag to help this person come to some sort of breakthrough. It didn’t happen. I was discouraged and feeling so unhelpful when I discovered that I had started to pray. It was a simple prayer. I don’t remember the exact words but it went something like “O God, I’ve exhausted my skills and tools. I don’t know any more to do. Please be with this person in their pain, confusion, and searching for answers. I don’t have for them. Give them your peace and your love.”

I said nothing to the client about my prayer and the session ended without much change happening. But a few weeks later, the client told me animatedly, “Dr. Keane, I want to thank you so much for your wonderful advice and help a few weeks ago. That was the best session we’ve ever had and I have been much clearer and more able to understand my situation since then. Something really changed for me that day.”

Now, I know that I wasn’t the author of any of that significant change. The best session we ever had was best because I got out of the way, prayed for God to do the work, and let it happen. It is this understanding of the will of God working through people that I have learned from Swedenborg. It is this awareness of the spiritual connection and the sense of correspondence between worlds that has allowed me to believe in prayer, God’s working in all of our lives, and the connectedness of every human being on a level far more powerful than the natural.

God works from the celestial, through the spiritual, into the natural. And the source of all of our power is God. But Swedenborg also said that the power to change, the power to heal, the power to effect movement lies in the natural world.

So the connection of me sitting in my office with the client, being a living human being in relation with the client and allowing the spirit of God to work through me is my proof positive that I am a Swedenborgian because I believe in what Swedenborg teaches. I believe in his revelatory experiences, his psychic abilities, his connectedness to the spiritual world and the natural world at the same time. And I believe in his counsel that each of us has the potential to experience our own journey to faith and belief just as he did. Ours will not be his, for we are not independently wealthy noblemen living when he lived. But the journey is the same whether we are sitting in front of a computer, or on top of a mountain, or in some form of physical exertion in the wilderness.

I am a Swedenborgian because, having read Swedenborg’s writings, I cannot be otherwise. I cannot go back to shade my eyes from the truths I have found in my journey, nor would I want to. Sometimes it is hard to try to explain all of this to others when they ask me why I am in this church. But the most important thing is that I know why I am here, and here I will stay.

May your journeys be lit with light from the Word, be sustained by faith in the ultimate God, and be nurtured by the love and nurturing God gives to us all.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”