Sunday, November 11, 1994

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Psalm 92
Matthew 92:20-36

O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.

Psalm 107:1

This morning, I should like to put this text together with another, "It is a good thing to

give thanks to the Lord," and to begin by looking at one of the perils of "counting our

blessings." We tend quite naturally to look at all the things and all the people who make

us feel better. There needs to be more to it than that.

All of us, I suspect, can remember some teacher who expected more of us than we really

wanted to give, a teacher whose demands we resented at the time, but whom we later came to

appreciate. Now, years after the fact, we are grateful, and in a sense the gratitude is

all the more genuine because it has proved so enduring. We may feel some regret or guilt

because the teacher does not know how our attitude has changed. We may feel that if we are

remembered at all, it is as that reluctant kid who always seemed to want to be somewhere

else. Sometimes we do get a chance to convey our thanks, but more often than not, the

occasion does not arise. Basically, it is too late.

It is almost a truism, though, that the only complete failure is the failure from which we

do not learn anything. The obvious lesson this experience is for us is that when we "count

our blessings," we should not just list all the things and all the people who give us

immediate pleasure. We should look at the things and the people that discomfort us as

well, and check out the nature and the actual source of our discomfort. If it is wounded

ego, for example, it may be a good thing that someone is not letting us keep up a false

front. It can be a good thing that someone does not buy into our rationalizations, that

someone seems to see through us.

We are dealing with some potent forces. Something else in us fears being known. There is a

voice arguing that if people saw what we are like at our worst they would turn away from

us in horror or disgust. That is not the whole story, though. One of the deep needs that

drives us is a need for intimacy. Something within us really wants to be understood--wants

our joys and pains to be known and shared, wants to reach out beyond a kind of inner

loneliness to a sense of trust and companionship.

Simply put, this is our longing for heaven. Heaven is the community of mutual love and

mutual understanding, the community where there is no pretense, where we have nothing to

fear because we are transparent to each other. There are no hidden booby traps, no mine

fields, no false fronts. We can live in the constant realization that we are known and

loved. In this kind of community, and only in this kind of community, we can blossom,

because every joy we discover is shared. Nothing is gained at the expense of anyone else.

It is a marvelous and beautiful arrangement--to borrow a concept from the physical

sciences, it is an "elegant" design. Imagine an economic system in which every dollar

anyone earned paid immediate interest to everyone else. If a team of economists were to

come up with such a system that actually worked, they would be hailed as brilliant. The

system would spread like wildfire. Everyone would have reason to rejoice in the success of

everyone else. Everyone would know that his or her own success was not a threat to anyone.

It is as though my car would run better if you got yours fixed, as if your garden would

flourish if I took care of mine.

It is a pipe dream as far as money is concerned, but it is the way "spiritual economics"

works. There is a chapter in Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell on heavenly joy and happiness.

At one point (¶ 399) it says, "We can tell how great heaven's joy is simply from the fact

for everyone there it is delightful to share any blessing and joy with others. Since this

is true of everyone in heaven, we can see how limitless heaven's joy is."

Again, if a team of economists were to come up with a monetary system that worked like

this, they would be hailed as brilliant. We would also have every reason to be profoundly

grateful to them. That is, we would not assume that the system somehow invented itself.

We would know that there was extraordinary intelligence behind it, coupled with a genuine

concern for human welfare. Someone really searched out a way to make our lives more


Do we, I wonder, take the same step in our thoughts about the nature of heavenly

community? Are we aware that the elegance of its design is due to the love and wisdom of

its creator? Our theology makes this point very clearly. To quote Heaven and Hell again (¶


Heaven is intrinsically like this--so full of joy that in its own right it is totally

blessed and joyful--because the divine good that emanates from the Lord's divine love

makes heaven--overall and in every single individual there; and divine love is to will

salvation to everyone and happiness to everyone--happiness from the very depths and in all


The first verse of the one hundred and seventh Psalm is one of the most familiar in the

Bible: "O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endures for ever." It

is hard to know how deeply the Psalmist intended these words to be understood, but they

can be taken to go to the heart of the matter. The ultimate focus of all our gratitude,

what we have most to be thankful for, is that the Lord is good. Omnipotence would be

tyranny, omniscience would be terrifying, if it were not for this. The brilliance that

designed the heavenly economy would be turned to our enslavement.

But it is not so. The simple, central law of heavenly economy flows inevitably from the

nature of divine love itself--there is joy in self-giving. There may be temporary delight

in simply acquiring, there may be a kind of fierce pleasure in victory over others, but

there is none of the peace of mind that lets joy well up from within and spread to all

within reach. There is none of the openness that brings warmth to our own hearts out of an

awareness of the happiness of others.

We live, of course, in a very mixed world. It can sometimes seem more like hell than like

heaven, especially if we come to believe that everyone is like the people who make the

headlines. My wife, incidentally, has a kind of antidote to this--reading the obituary

notices. Day after day, you read little articles about ordinary people who have not made

the headlines. All they have done is spend their lives as teachers or mechanics or nurses,

as brothers and sisters, as parents and grandparents. We may assume that they had their

faults, as we all do, but they seem by and large to have spent their lives well and to be

fondly remembered.

If we do not simply let our emotions dictate a conclusion, we must confess that we simply

are not capable of passing judgment on our world. We do not have the data to know whether

the good outweighs the evil or vice versa. All we know is that they are both very much

with us and that day after day, we ourselves are faced with choices that are not of our

own making. In a real sense, the miracle is that there is what we might call a style or

direction of choice that at the most significant level benefits everyone. Why is real

"good" so wonderfully good for everyone? It just plain is, and that is the central fact of

human life, the most important lesson we can learn, the substance of all genuine truth.

Evil is evil not just because it is "against the law," not even just because it hurts

others, but because it hurts those who espouse it. It is the law of "more for me means

less for you" under which we all wind up losing.

The command to "give thanks to the Lord because he is good," then, can call us to

recognize both the beauty of goodness, which is love, and its elegance, which is truth.

It is a call to stop taking this miracle for granted and to let a sense of wonder deepen

our gratitude.

This is what brings us to the second text that I mentioned at the very outset of this

sermon. "It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord." In a way, this is an

understatement. If anything is more vital to us than our sense of what is good, it is our

convictions concerning the source of goodness. One of the almost incredible features of

Russian Marxism was the extent to which it succeeded in convincing millions of people that

there was no higher authority than the state--or perhaps more precisely, the party. The

present ethical chaos in that country reflects a kind of feeling that there are no

inherent laws. Given the sensitivity and generosity that seem endemic to Russian culture,

we may expect that this chaos will ultimately be resolved, but the effects of some eighty

years of one massive ideology will not vanish overnight.

No, it is good to give thanks to the Lord because this and this alone provides us with a

kind of spiritual anchor in a very ambiguous world. Some years ago, it struck me that we

have a choice in our attitude toward our theology. We can believe that certain things are

true because Swedenborg said so, or we can believe that Swedenborg said certain things

because they are true. The former attitude nurtures a dogmatic attitude, a rigidity of

mind that cuts us off from significant conversation with each other. The latter attitude

simply says that our theology is describing something that is really there and opens us to

look at that something for ourselves, and together. We behave in certain ways not simply

because we are told to by our doctrines but because those doctrines have enabled us to see

the nature of the choice that lies before us.

It is good for us to see that a heavenly way of life is a no-lose way and that a hellish

way of life is a no-win way. It is good for us to see that this is not simply the way we

want things to be or the way the church decrees them to be--it is the way they actually

are. No matter who passes what laws or propounds what ethical theories, generosity of soul

will go right on enlarging and enriching, and meanness of soul will go right on

constricting and impoverishing. This is because no one can pass laws or propound theories

that change the nature of divine love and wisdom.

This, I believe, is what the apostle Paul was driving at in his letter to the Romans. He

wrote of "the law of the spirit of life of Christ Jesus" (8:2) that made him "free from

the law of sin and death," and at the close of that section (8:38f.) found words that

still ring loud and clear:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor

powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other

creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our


Nothing abrogates the law of love. It cannot be amended, which is a good thing, because it

cannot be improved. In its essence, it is more like the law of gravity than like the ten

commandments--inherent in the nature of things because it is the essence of the divine

nature. There is no corner of creation where it does not apply. Nothing can conceivably

"separate us" from it.

What we can do, though, is ignore and deny it. The people that make the headlines are very

real, and if we are candid with ourselves, we recognize in our own hearts the tendencies

to grasp and to hide and to strike out. Swedenborg "told it like it is" when he said that

we call "good" whatever we love--I am reminded of Jonas sulking under the gourd and

saying, "I do well to be angry, even unto death." We can enjoy our self-pity and our

self-righteous resentment.

There is no way, though, that we can make it truly good, though, which is why our two

texts go together so well. It is good for us to give thanks to the Lord because the Lord

is good for us. We may not always like it that way, but that's the way it is.


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