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Shape Up!
A Lenten Sermon
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 9, 1997


Malachi 3:1-5 The Lord is a purifier of silver
Matthew 15:1-20 Clean and unclean
Apocalypse Explained #1152.2, 3 Self-compulsion from evil, not to good


For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. (Malachi 3:2, 3)

Today on the fourth Sunday in Lent we continue with the second sermon in our series on Repentance, Reformation, and Regeneration. "Reformation" is a fancy sounding word; but if you break it down into its two parts, it comes out re-formation. A Biblical image comes to mind, from the prophet Jeremiah:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. (Jeremiah 18:1-4)

Reformation is, quite literally, re-forming ourselves into a shape that we did not have before. However, we are not talking about getting our bodies in shape for the coming of spring and summer. No, we are talking about shaping up our spirits: the way we think and feel about each other, ourselves, and God.

My topic, then, is "Shape Up!" Before you start thinking I have reverted to the ways of my Evangelical brothers and sisters of the cloth, I hasten to add that I am not here to tell you to shape up. That is not my job. In fact, if there is any shaping up to be done, it is our job to tell ourselves to shape up.

This comes directly from the teachings of our church. Swedenborg says in many places that genuine and lasting spiritual change can take place in us only when we are in a state of freedom; not when we are under compulsion. If I were a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and successfully planted the fear of hell in your minds and hearts, and you shaped up to avoid that terrible punishment, would I have accomplished any real spiritual change in you? Not very likely. More likely, I would have prompted you to shape up outwardly, but the inner feelings that prompted any previous wrong actions would remain untouched. In other words, the change would be only skin deep.

Yet there is an exception to the rule that genuine spiritual change does not happen under compulsion. There is one person who can legitimately compel us to do what is right. It is not the Lord. Even the Lord cannot and will not compel us to do what is right, because the Lord knows that it would either lead to change that is only skin deep, or it would destroy us as human beings by taking away our freedom of choice. No, we ourselves are the one person who can do it. If we compel ourselves to do what is right, says Swedenborg, we are still free, because self-compulsion comes from our own freely made choice to make changes in ourselves. And because it is our own choice, if we follow through on our self-compulsion, we can make changes that will be more than skin deep.

So my purpose here this morning is not to push anyone toward change. We each have to decide for ourselves whether there is anything that needs changing, and provide our own motivation also--with the Lord's help, of course. Instead, my purpose is to give a few signposts along the way that might help any of us if we do want to make changes.

One of the major signposts for shaping ourselves up spiritually is provided in our reading from Malachi, as seen in the light of Swedenborg's writings. The Lord says through Malachi that he will come to us "like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver." Neither a refiner nor a fuller (a launderer of cloth) produces anything good that is not already there. Their task is to take away the impurities so that the good silver or cloth can emerge in a purer and more useful form.

It is the same for us in our efforts to reform ourselves spiritually. As Swedenborg points out in our reading from Apocalypse Explained, there is no need to push ourselves to do good. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Swedenborg says that if we do compel ourselves to do good things, the so-called "good" things that we do are not really good, because they have ego and materialism in them. This is true if we compel ourselves to do what is good and right without compelling ourselves not to do what is wrong and evil.

This sighnpost along the way points us in the direction of a focus for our efforts that we might not have had otherwise. If we concentrate on getting rid of the bad parts of ourselves, we will not need to push ourselves to do good things. Once we have overcome our self-centeredness and our material focus, good flows naturally (or should I say, spiritually) from the Lord.

An example might help. Let's say we have done something that hurt another person, and we know it was wrong. We also know that we should apologize, but somehow we just can't quite bring ourselves to do it. One way to go about this would be to grit our teeth, go up to the person, and apologize whether we like it or not. Perhaps in some instances this is what we will need to do. However, I fear that in most such cases of forced apologies, we really are not all that sorry for what we did.

Malachi and Swedenborg suggest a different approach. Rather than compelling ourselves to apologize, perhaps we will do better to look inside ourselves find out what is making it so difficult to apologize. Will it hurt our pride to openly admit that we were wrong? Would a sincere apology require that we stop doing something that we know is wrong but have a bad habit of . . . well . . . doing over and over? Are we afraid that the other person will "have one against us" if we admit our mistake?

All of these reasons, and many more like them, point to impurities in ourselves that need to be refined away. Whatever blocks our apology--whether it is pride or stubbornness or lack of consideration for others or any other personal flaw--must be the focus of our efforts at self-reform. If we make the apology without confronting the fault within ourselves that led us to hurt the other person in the first place, then we are only covering over what is really inside. Sooner or later, it will come out again.

But if we do face and push away from ourselves the self-centered and materialistic impulses that led us to act wrongly, then we accomplish a deep and real purification. If we let go of the ego that prevents us from making the apology, then we will not have to push ourselves to apologize. The apology will come spontaneously. Once we stop looking at ourselves long enough to see how we have affected another person, we truly will be sorry, and we will wish to make amends for what we have done. There is no need to force ourselves to make an apology; the only need is to remove our inner obstacles to caring about the other person as much as we care about ourselves. When we clear away those impurities, the pure silver of thoughtfulness can emerge.

All of this leads us to another signpost on the road of shaping ourselves up spiritually. It is a signpost that Jesus plants very forcefully in our reading from Matthew. In Jesus' day as in ours, there were many religious people who focused mainly on outward acts of ritual and piety. Some of these came to Jesus challenging him with questions about why his disciples did not wash their hands before eating.

We know that washing our hands before eating is a good idea. It helps to keep our bodies healthy by keeping dirt and germs out of our bodies. But the Pharisees washed their hands before eating, not primarily as a matter of personal hygiene, but as a religious observance. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we have a spiritual view of the meaning of washing. But these particular Pharisees were being quite literal about washing as a religious necessity, and they were condemning Jesus and his disciples for not observing that ritual.

Jesus' reply to them can help us get our own priorities straight. We can spend lots of time and energy trying to get our physical appearance, habits, and actions just right. But these are not the things that make us clean or dirty spiritually. No, it is not what we put on or in our bodies that makes us clean or dirty spiritually. It is what comes out of our hearts. If evil intentions of either a gross or a subtle nature come out of our hearts, then our lives are impure no matter how scrupulous we are about personal hygiene. But if we focus on cleaning the inside of the cup--the wrong thoughts and feelings that lead us to say and do things that hurt others--then we can become clean from within outward.

There are certainly many other signposts along the road of personal reformation. There are also rough and slippery parts of the road. We struggle within ourselves and with our friends and loved ones whenever we attempt to make any real change. This is to be expected. Our bad habits are not going to roll over and play dead just because we decide we want to break them. No, when we make this decision, that is exactly when we realize that we have been a slave to these "sins," as Jesus calls them. However, that realization also is a signpost along the way. When we realize that we have been held captive by our self-centered and worldly desires, then we have a clearer picture of what our lives are really like--and what they could be if, with the Lord's help, we broke that damaging power over our lives.

We cannot hope to cover all the ins and outs of personal reformation in one sermon or even in a whole series of sermons. Shaping ourselves up spiritually is a lifelong process. It is a road leading to territory that we have never seen before. Every curve in the road brings a new challenge. To meet those new challenges, we need new understanding of the Lord's ways and new strength from the Lord every day.

The signposts we have considered this morning can help us along the way. Perhaps they are more like the white lines along the side of the road, always helping us to keep our direction, or focus, on the road instead of straying off into rough terrain that leads us nowhere except into an accident. If we can remember to focus on removing the wrong parts of ourselves rather than struggling to force ourselves to do what is right, we will avoid a lot of rocky, off-road traveling. And if we can remember to focus not just on what we say and do, but on the thoughts and feelings that prompt us toward those words and actions, we will stay on the right side of the road and avoid many collisions.

Now I have hopelessly mixed the metaphors of shaping clay, refining silver, and driving on instead of off the road. So I can cheerfully close by saying that perhaps this Lenten season is a good time to do some shaping up so that we can ship out to the deeper and more loving life of the spirit that the Lord is calling us to. Amen.

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