Monday, March 26, 2012

The Covenant of Authentic Being

The following is a sermon that I heard delivered this past Sunday by Rev. John Maine. This sermon brought up both positive and negative emotions for me, but ultimately it made me think and it challenged me.  In a nutshell, Rev. Maine talks about Jeremiah and how he thought that each of has a heart of darkness and that we need an outside power to redeem us. Then he speaks of the billion-dollar self-help industry which says that we have a heart of light, that we're beautiful inside. Then he ties the two together for an interesting ending. Thanks, John, for permitting me to re-post this!

Church of the Good Shepherd (Swedenborgian)
Kitchener, Ontario

Rev. John Maine

Message for the Fifth Sunday in Lent   --   March 25, 2012

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

“The Covenant of Authentic Being"

You know, I don’t imagine it’s an easy thing to be a prophet, held captive to visions and inner voices, speaking on behalf of God – saying “thus says the Lord!” – and proclaiming difficult truths that people mostly don’t want to hear.  It must have been hard for the men and women God chose for this role and I think especially for one in particular, namely, Jeremiah.

Jeremiah, who lived about five centuries before Jesus, was given a particularly difficult task.  He was to warn the people that, unless they mended their ways and soon, total disaster would befall them.  The enemies of Israel would triumph and the unthinkable would happen.  Jerusalem, the holy city, would be burned to the ground.  The people would lose their beloved Promised Land. 

Of course nobody wanted to hear stuff like this.  They nicknamed Jeremiah “Hagor Mishabebh”, Hebrew for “Death and Destruction”.  They’d see him a ways off and say, “Well, here comes old Death and Destruction.”  They mocked him, threatened him, nearly killed him a number of times.

But if the hostility and contempt of his fellow Israelites was hard for Jeremiah to bear, much harder was the fact that nothing he said could get them to change their ways.  Even when the storm clouds of invasion gathered, when the signs were everywhere that terrible things were indeed about to happen, the people still persisted in their evil ways.  Idolatry flourished, as did social injustice in every form, cruelty to the widow and orphan, you name it – every law of God they could break, they broke, over and over.

For a deeply frustrated prophet, it was a bitter lesson in human nature.  Now to be sure, the view that we human beings, when left to ourselves, are prey to every evil under the sun is one which can be found throughout the scriptures.  But Jeremiah’s take on this was especially bleak.  For him, at the heart of us was a heart of darkness.  Human beings do terrible things and just can’t seem to stop.

Nothing had been able to change this either, to reign in this inclination to every kind of wrong.  Deliverance from a land of bondage hadn’t done it; commandments given on a mountaintop hadn’t done it; miracles and signs, a great temple, none of those things had made any lasting difference.  It came to Jeremiah that they were all too external, they didn’t get at the root of the problem, inside, in our minds and hearts.

So he delivers the prophecy we heard this morning.  Speaking the words of God, he declared that the days are surely coming when there would be a new covenant, a new way for human and divine to come together at last.  God will put his law “inside” us, he said.  God will “write it on our hearts”.  No longer will our deepest self be a heart of darkness but a heart of light.  Our willing and our wanting will be transformed.  Henceforth we’ll only do the things that are loving and good because, once God has done this, loving and good will simply be who we are inside, our “true self”.

No more will we debate what is or isn’t the right thing to do, no more will we need to be taught about God.  Instead we will all know what is right because we will know God, in the depths of our hearts, present in our truest selves.  Of course, being human, we may still make mistakes but, with what we know inside, we’ll recognize those mistakes right away.  We’ll be seeking pardon and we’ll be pardoned, and love will reign supreme amongst us all, forever.

It’s a wonderful vision but exactly how it’s all supposed to happen, Jeremiah doesn’t say.  All he knows is that it must – and it will.  After all, given our own nature, we can’t do the job.  What’s broke can’t fix what’s broken.  But the power of a Love and Wisdom beyond all our imagining can graciously reach in and change us forever.

That’s how Jeremiah sees it, as does the Bible generally and indeed, in one form or another, so do all the world’s great religions.  Yes, we’re part of something incalculably great but to realize, to grow into it, we must also somehow deal with, and move beyond, that small, fearful, unpredictable self inside.

Which brings us to the focus of our reflections today, this new covenant being offered to us through Jeremiah, what we might call the “covenant of authentic being”, God’s commitment to help you become “the real you”.  Only, is this a covenant we can accept?  Is it really true about our human nature being so dark and that only a Higher Power can help us change?

It’s important to ask this question because the world we live in says no, absolutely not.  Today, in our modern, secular society, there are new prophets abroad in the land and, quite unlike Jeremiah, what they have to say is very pleasing to hear.  In fact, not un-coincidentally, some of these prophets have made huge fortunes from their work, in books and tapes, seminars and TV shows, and so forth.  They’re all part of the very aptly-named “self-help” industry and it’s an industry worth billions.

As for what they have to say, I think it’s all fairly similar so I’ll choose just one such prophet to consider today, the American psychologist Dr. Phillip C. McGraw, better known to us all as “Dr. Phil”.  In his mega-bestseller, “Self Matters – Creating Your Life from the Inside Out”, Dr. Phil basically tells us that Jeremiah’s got it all wrong.  Forget that “heart of darkness” stuff.  Inside, what he calls our “authentic self” is actually beautiful.  It’s that core of us, he says, that’s not defined by our job or our role in society.  It’s the composite of all our unique gifts and skills, our strengths and values, our natural joys.  It’s all there, says Dr. Phil but . . . but it’s just been programmed out of us, by false messages we’ve internalized from others, from society, not to be who we really are.

So for Dr. Phil, and for many others, if we can just decide to break free of all those artificial constraints, our authentic self can come forth in all its uniqueness and glory.  In other words, what we’re faced with is not a hopelessly broken self but the false notions that hold back our true self.  So it’s not about reaching up to a Higher Power for help but freeing our own highest power that’s already there, inside us.

Now how we do that, according to our modern day prophets, usually takes the form of some kind of dynamically-named action plan, often of just a few steps, perhaps because, in our fast food world, we all want results instantly.  And so we have titles like “The Five Steps to Total Wellness”, “The Four Paths of Personal Power”, “Be the New You Now!” and so on and so forth.

These plans all pretty much feature the same strategy and, not surprisingly, the basic idea is not to get beyond yourself but to get more into yourself.  We’re told that first we need to practice getting more in touch with that beautiful me inside.  Then we need to express that me in everything we do, over and over – practice letting out that authentic self so we can become it.  No more games, no more masks, we’ll just truly be ourselves at last with the freed-up personal power to realize all our potential.

Well okay, what are we to make of this?  Both Jeremiah and Dr. Phil agree that the need for some kind of personal transformation is the key to our fulfillment and happiness.  Both agree that we have the potential, one way or another, to get to where we’re much more than what we are now.  But one says, given who you are, you’re helpless to change, to make it happen, unless plugged into a Higher Power while the other says you already have what you need to change yourself, if you take the right steps.

So which is it?  Well, maybe it’s both!  In that regard, let’s consider Swedenborg’s position on this.  Which side does he come down on?  Well you might say that he comes down on the side of Jesus.  In our gospel reading today, Jesus says that unless a seed dies to itself, it cannot grow into something greater and bear much fruit.  In other words, along with Jeremiah and the whole biblical tradition, Jesus declares that our human nature is always a challenge for us.  We need a way to die to our small, noisy self – that demanding voice inside forever shouting “me!; me first!; me only!” – if we’re ever to rise to a larger, freer and more loving life.

Swedenborg says the same.  He loved the great things human beings are capable of but he also, in anticipation of Freud and other later on, recognized the powerful, subconscious drives, the primitive needs and terrors, that are the legacy of our animal inheritance.  Without some notion of a higher love and wisdom to guide us, he says, we’d be blindly tearing ourselves apart in no time; humanity would cease to exist.

At this point, we can almost hear Jeremiah in the background, saying “Yeah, that’s it, go Swedenborg, right on!”  But Swedenborg is no Jeremiah and for the very good reason that Jeremiah didn’t know how God was going to change us so wonderfully inside but Swedenborg did.  For Jeremiah, it was to be some kind of miracle event in the future sometime and that left him still feeling pretty pessimistic about the here and now.  Swedenborg, on the other hand, knew how the change would happen inside – that’s what God’s revelation to him is all about – so Swedenborg was always very optimistic about us and our future.

What he says was that the way out of our struggles is not to wait passively for a miracle, for God to do something that’ll make us be better people.  Instead, Swedenborg learned that God has “hard-wired” us, you might say, always to receive his power when we turn to it.  Then, together in God, we can learn to live in a way such that  we write the law of love on our own hearts and on the hearts of others.  We practice our daily walk with Jesus, making the decisions for love and, as we do, the darkness in us is steadily replaced by the light.  Inside, we’re actually building up the kind of person we’re meant to be.  Over the years, that “real me” gradually emerges, beautiful, loving and free.  Now I can almost hear Dr. Phil in the background, going “Yeah, exactly, go Swedenborg!”

The fact is, all by ourselves, making change – real change – stick is very hard.  We need all the love and support of others just to do whatever we can.  But if we also open ourselves to Love itself, if we focus on its grace and purpose for us and lift it up as our highest truth , then we allow a Power into us that will transform our lives.

This is the covenant of authentic being.  It’s like the famous line in the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”  God is saying that if you commit with me to this steady building-up of your true self, then one day an angel will come, so radiant and beautiful, and you will look and see, that the angel is you.  Amen.