Sunday, November 11, 1995

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - 1 Samuel 3:19-4:11
Matthew 3:16-24

If your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light. - Matthew 6:22

Our Old Testament reading signals the beginning of a new era in the history of Israel. We have been told how this people came out of Egypt, spend forty years in the wilderness, fought their way to a partial occupation of the Promised Land, and then drifted into a period of disorganization. Moses had been a leader with virtually divine authority. Joshua had been a military commander with the kind of absolute control that implies. Joshua had no successor, and the transition from authoritarian leadership to no leadership is an invitation to chaos.

The book of Judges reflects that chaos. It describes a pattern of complacency leading to crisis, of the Lord’s raising up leaders to meet the crisis, after which there would be another lapse into complacency. Now, though, things are beginning to change, and this morning’s reading describes the two major factors in this change.

The first is the little note that “all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord.” Dan marks the northernmost boundary of the twelve tribes, and Beersheba is the southernmost town, on the edge of the wilderness. The other judges had been local figures only, rallying a few of the tribes to meet local problems. At the end of the book of Judges we do find a larger gathering, but it is a gathering of representatives of eleven tribes to punish the twelfth, Benjamin. This was a matter of internal division, and no leader is mentioned.

At the same time that Samuel is widely recognized as the Lord’s spokesman, though, there is an external threat of a whole new order of magnitude. The Philistines do not just threaten one or two tribes. They actually capture the ark, the one thing to which all the tribes acknowledge allegiance, the one thing that has held them together. Now it is not just their prosperity that is at stake, it is their independence, their survival as a distinct people.

What we have, then, is a kind of intersection of two factors--a national crisis occurring just as a national figure emerges. The crisis alone would end in disaster if there were no center of unity. The national figure might be respected, but he would not be granted unusual authority unless there were an urgent need. It is an utterly credible scenario, one that has been repeated time after time in other places. What the Philistines did for Samuel, Hitler did for Churchill, and Pearl Harbor did for FDR. In contrast, the Balkans have been caught up in intertribal war, with more local leaders granted extraordinary power because of real or perceived threats or to redress past injustices. The centralization of power needs both--the attraction of a center, and the threat from the outside.

This same story plays itself out in our own individual lives as well. We can drift along from crisis to crisis as long as things don’t get too bad. We may even pride ourselves on our ability to pull the chestnuts out of the fire at the last moment. “I always seem to come through in the end.” But then let’s say that there is a problem of a different magnitude--say there is an actual loss of employment, the sudden death of someone very close, or a diagnosis of cancer. There is no quick solution.

What pulls us through? Well first of all, there is no guarantee that we will pull through. Some people wind up defeated, by which I mean they surrender to bitterness and self-pity. They may see themselves simply as victims and find that there are some benefits to that role. Alternatively, they may see themselves as heroes or heroines or martyrs and milk such roles for all the gratification they can yield.

The essence of defeat, spiritually, is not winding up penniless on the street. It is winding up totally wrapped up in oneself. If the eye is evil, the whole body is full of darkness. In such states, we cannot see anything without distortion. We cannot see the actual sympathy of others. We cannot see the opportunities for mutual understanding that are present whenever two people are together. To use an image of Helen Keller’s, we stare so fixedly at the door that has closed for us that we are totally oblivious to the one--or the ones--that have opened, and it is worth remembering that Helen Keller knew what closed doors were like.

In other words, the threat alone will not bring us to a new level of unity and effectiveness. The other element that is needed is some internal Samuel, some recognized voice of God.

Swedenborg has disappointingly little to say about Samuel, the only substantive comment being one in which he is linked with Moses as representing “the Word.” In a way, though, that is enough, if we take “the Word” to mean not just the Bible as we store it in our external memories but the messages from it that really get through to us with prophetic force. Surely that is implicit in the image of Samuel being recognized nationwide as a prophet. He is not just someone whose voice is broadcast everywhere, he is someone whose voice is respected everywhere, someone whose words have an impact.

What do we rally around when things really go wrong? Do we have a vision of the purpose of our being, a call from the Lord that we recognize from head to toe, from Dan to Beersheba? What is of supreme value to us? What, in traditional Swedenborgian terms, is the “use” that makes our lives worthwhile?

It may be something relatively external. Whatever happens, it is my job to make sure that I am not a financial burden to my children, for example. This can keep me focused day after day. It gives me a criterion to make decisions by, but perhaps even more than that, it gives significance to the decisions themselves. It says that they matter.

It may be something more internal. Whatever happens, I will not be a psychological burden to those I love. I will not follow some of the examples I have seen of people who used their misfortunes to milk others for sympathy or to contaminate my good fortune with guilt for their misfortune. Again we may turn to Helen Keller, to one who has “been there”:

Sometimes, it is true, a sense of isolation enfolds me like a cold mist as I sit alone and wait at life’s shut gate. Beyond there is light, and music, and sweet companionship; but I may not enter. Fate, silent, pitiless, bars the way. Fain would I question his imperious decree; for my heart is still undisciplined and passionate; but my tongue will not utter the bitter, futile words that rise to my lips, and they fall back into my heart like unshed tears. Silence sits immense upon my soul. Then comes hope with a smile and whispers, “There is joy in self-forgetfulness.” So I try to make the light in other’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness. (The Open Door, p. 51)

Deepest of all, and surely underlying everything more external, is the resolve not to lose our trust in the Lord’s love and care for us. We may very well be angry with God, we may argue passionately, but we do so with an underlying sense that the Lord understands our anger, that we are not putting ourselves at risk by arguing. This is the essence of “the Word.” This is what the Bible, from cover to cover, is trying to tell us. The Lord wants to bless us. Through all the wars, through all the unfaithfulness, through all the complaint and rebellion, this same Lord works to lead us toward the promised land. The Divine has a way of using an unethical Jacob as well as a saintly Joseph, an arrogant Rehoboam as well as a humble David, all to the same end--to bring us to the vibrant, radiantly beautiful community of heaven.

This is the vision we see with the “single eye,” with the eye that fills our whole body with light. We “see” that we ourselves are known and loved, are transparent and precious in the Lord’s sight, and that there is a perfect providence in everything that happens to us. By the same token, we see that everyone is known and loved, is transparent and precious in the Lord’s sight, and that in some way or other, there is something in every circumstance that can lead us toward heaven. Some events may thwart us, may stop us in our tracks. Some may raise troubling questions. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. We may need to stop, and we are not likely to find the answers to troubling questions if we insist on avoiding them.

In this connection, it is not enough to believe that the Lord has a loving disposition toward us. We must also have the sense that it is really us whom the Lord loves--that is, that there is nothing hidden away in us that might later be discovered that would interrupt that love. No, the Lord knows exactly what we are like, and does not have to put on rose-colored glasses in order to love us. To put it another way, we cannot be full of light, we cannot let in that light, except as we learn that we have nothing to fear from that light. It is, as Cardinal Newman knew, a “kindly light” that would lead us.

We have two very different images, then, that are saying much the same thing. There is the image of Samuel recognized throughout the land as the voice of God, and there is the image of the single eye that lets the whole body be full of light. Can that voice and that light be anything as simple as the message of the Lord’s divine love and wisdom? If we doubt it, we might look at the reality and power of conversion experiences, of the immense impact it has when someone who has been struggling against feelings of guilt and worthlessness experiences “the forgiveness of sins.” No doubt sometimes this is a temporary emotional high, but other lives have been turned around. “I once was blind, but now I see,” and what he saw was simply “amazing grace.”


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