Readings: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Mark 16:1-8, Heaven and Hell #523 (see below)
See also on Youtube at youtu.be/JILRiCoPkto
I love the gospel of Mark. There are plenty of reasons to love the other gospels; mystical John, compassionate Luke, steadfast Matthew. But there is something so direct about Mark. It is the shortest of the gospels and proceeds at a sustained clip, but I wouldn’t interpret that as being haphazard or leaving things out. Actually, every piece of the narrative is carefully constructed and ordered; there is not a single extraneous thing. It is all very intentional.
Including the end. The whole of the gospel of Mark actually ends right where our reading did: Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” End of the gospel. Now I don’t blame you if you are confused; your bible might actually continue for another page, but those last verses, where Jesus appears to the disciples and then is taken up to heaven, were added by a later author. The earliest copies of the gospel of Mark do not include that final part. And I kind of love that. Of course, I didn’t at first. When I first found out I was shocked, but it actually is completely the kind of thing the author of the gospel of Mark would do.
The gospel of Mark is acutely aware of how the reader is interacting with the story, so I’m not surprised that the author’s final act would be to invite the reader in. I watched a magic show on television recently where the magician, in the middle of the show, asked for someone in the audience to volunteer, who was willing to leave and come back to the performance on the next day. He then gave them a very thick notebook and an assignment to complete after they left. They were to go the first blank page in the notebook and write out how they thought the show would end. Then at the next show, they would read out to the next day’s audience what they wrote. Each time, with each person, their imagining of how the show would end would be incorporated into the show itself. Their story became a part of the ongoing story.
In a similar way, the gospel of Mark invites us in to finish the rest of the story ourselves. The author of Mark knew the women did eventually tell someone, as there is at least one epistle that relates the occurrence in a letter historically dated earlier than Mark. But he still chose to finish where he did for a narrative purpose: to collapse the distance between us, the reader, and the characters in the story, to place us in that story ourselves and ask us what we might do.
And you might remember that I have preached this before in a previous lectionary cycle. But this year, I think we might feel the significance of this story even more intently. Something really important was revealed to those women, something they did not expect to see.
Likewise, this past year, some really important things have been revealed to us all as well. A lot of what has been revealed will be deeply personal, of course, but some of it we also share. Some of it has been hard to see. For those of us with the privilege to have not noticed it before, we have now seen the full extent of racism and white supremacy in our country; we have seen the devastating consequences of people in power not telling the truth; we have seen the tension between individualism and the common good revealed by the pandemic. We have seen how vulnerable we and our systems are: lives and livelihoods lost, supply chains disrupted, neighbors in lines at the food banks, healthcare workers exhausted, people in the brink of eviction. We have seen our work/life boundary disappear, and the mental cost to isolation and constant change.
And we have also seen amazing things: We have seen the value of slowing down, the wonder of watching an azalea bloom before our very eyes, we have seen the levels of connection that can occur within families when we stay home, we have seen our communities stepping up for each other, businesses pivoting and adapting, the scientific community pulling off a most amazing feat, building upon years accumulated science to give us vaccines at a record speed. We have seen people rise up for justice and protecting the vulnerable, we have seen voting in unbelievable numbers, we have seen that we can still find humor in the most challenging of times, that we can still find connection without physical proximity.
During this time, things have been revealed to each of us that might not otherwise have been revealed. The tomb has been opened and surprising new realizations made known. We did not expect this. We did not ask for it. But now we have all this new knowledge, this new insight. Now what?
As we stand in the same space as those women, trembling, exhausted, bewildered, afraid, we are also called to ask ourselves: what responsibility do I have to what has been revealed to me? Just like these women, we are each being invited to step into our prophetic voice. This will mean different things to different people and situations, but what has been revealed will not be going away. It can be disregarded, ignored, forgotten, but it has been revealed nonetheless…and this is our work, our burden going forward, to figure out how to discharge that new responsibility, to write that next chapter in the gospel.
But, I don’t mean to imply that all there is to be found in Easter is responsibility and burden. While to do love the gospel of Mark for stopping so provocatively at such a human moment, we also know from the other gospels that it is not the end of the story. There is more coming. There will be wonder and amazement, there will be joy, there will be tears, there will be relief, there will be resolve as the leaders of a new movement settle in to the work that is before them.
For this is the gift of the resurrection: to know that the destination is joy. The empty tomb reveals an enormous potentiality, a glimpse into a universe of new beginnings. And sometimes our first reaction to that is fear. Change, even good change, is inherently scary.
But as we step into whatever new insight we have been given, we can know that God has promised resurrection as the ultimate outcome. Maybe it will take a while. Maybe it will take a lifetime, or several. But God has shown us what is possible, for us and for our world. God has affirmed what is to be. Therein lies the joy and the peace of Easter Sunday. It is just so simple. There will be new life. Always.
Faith is sometimes characterized in believing impossible or implausible things. But there is really only this one thing to believe in, at essence one thing that requires any faith at all. That God’s inherent presence in all of creation means that there is always the possibility of more life, more growth, more openness, more love. God became a person to show us this when we forgot.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the divine design. Swedenborg writes further:
In the process of taking on a human manifestation, God followed his own divine design. …in the act of creating, God introduced his design into the universe as a whole and into each and every thing in it. Therefore in the universe and in all its parts God's omnipotence follows and works according to the laws of his own design. (1)
In the words of our theology, our God came into the world, assumed the human, and thereby saved and redeemed humankind. But this is not like saving from a flood or fire, pulling people up and out of an inherently broken world. Rather, it is a saving in and through the divine design of this world, connecting Godself ever more deeply with this world and with us, a coming alongside. Our Lord is risen, and that rising is the design. And while our Lord, as acknowledged in our reading “never does anything contrary to his design,” *we* sometimes do though. And God’s answer is not to withdraw but to double down, to unite what is human and what is divine in a way that reveals what has been true from the beginning.
Easter Sunday is not the triumph of God *over* creation, it is the revealing of the heart of creation, and therein lies the joy, therein lies the celebration, therein lies the peace. Amidst all the loss and the brokenness, and this year has shown us so much of that, the divine design endures, allowing us to hope. Not an illusive hope that promises nothing more than escape, but a grounded embedded hope that allows us to get to work, to use our prophetic voice in the here and now.
I love these women in Mark, I just want to hug them. Knowing that their hearts are the same as ours, filled with us much no as yes, filled with as much apprehension as joy, and more than enough confusion, and probably a large serving of inadequacy. But they *did* tell someone. They did find their prophetic voice. So will we all, through a trust in the wisdom of God’s Easter revealing.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #89
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. 2 Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.”
14 The LORD is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. 15 Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! 16 The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” 17 I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done. 18 The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. 19 Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. 20 This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. 21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. 22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 23 the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Heaven and Hell #523
The Lord never does anything contrary to his design because he himself is the design. The divine truth that emanates from him is what establishes the design, and divine truths are the laws of the design by which the Lord is leading us. Saving people by unmediated mercy is contrary to the divine design, and anything contrary to the divine design is contrary to the divine nature.
The divine design is heaven for us. We have distorted it by living contrary to its laws, which are divine truths. The Lord brings us back into the design out of pure mercy, through the laws of the design; and to the extent that we are brought back, we accept heaven into ourselves. Whoever accepts heaven enters heaven.
Readings: Zechariah 9:9-12, Mark 11:1-11, Secrets of Heaven 2781:8-9 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/OsLSqcX_WeUyoutu.be/OsLSqcX_WeU
Welcome to Palm Sunday, the narrative beginning to Holy Week. As we just read, Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the final time. He rides on a donkey, telling the disciples exactly where to find it. His reputation has been growing, and the people welcome him with joy and anticipation for the way that they think he will save them from their current circumstances. In the gospel of Mark, after this entry, Jesus will immediately clear the temple of merchants. He will argue a little with the religious authorities and will do some public teaching. He will be anointed by a women at a friend’s house, and he will share a final supper with the disciples. And then he will be arrested, for a ministry that centered upon those who had been excluded, and that called out those who profited from that exclusion.
What has struck me this week is the emphasis on Jesus’ “kingship.” I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time resonating with what that meant to the people in Jesus context. Like most of you, I have grown up in a democracy, not a monarchy, and even though my childhood was spent in a country that is part of the British commonwealth, my primary experience of government was one that was elected.
So the idea of a “king” (or any monarch) and what that means, feels a bit remote to me, and in case it feels that way to you too, I thought I would explore it today.
Kingship throughout time, but especially in the Jewish context, has been rather inseparable from the divine right to rule. We recall from the Old Testament that Israel’s ability to have a king was granted by God, the first two kings, Saul and David, anointed by God’s prophet Samuel. Even today, monarchs are often ritually anointed at their coronations, and in Britain for example, the monarch is also the head of the church.
Likewise, the word Christ itself, which is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, means “anointed one” and we hear the people in our text today shouting “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” The Jewish people had long looked forward to the restoration of their nation, and the coming of a great and powerful ruler who would return Israel to autonomy and prominence. And of course they did. They had suffered the indignity of being an occupied people for way too long, under a brutal and unforgiving empire. We would all feel the same way.
So when they started to hear about Jesus and the amazing things he was doing, of course they got their hopes up. Of course their yearning and anticipatory joy caused them to gather in the streets. And of course, they wanted to welcome and praise this new king, one that would uphold their history and restore their people, and so they did what had always been done for kings: they spread garments and tree branches to make a pathway.
Jesus had never asked for this though. He *had* told his disciples that he was the Messiah but coupled it with a warning of his suffering to come, attempting to reframe for them what being the Messiah really meant. He was anointed, chosen, to usher in a new kingdom but it would nothing like what the people expected. He was focused on a spiritual fulfillment, not an earthly one.
So, he let the crowds signal his royal identity. But here is what he didn’t do: he didn’t lean into their admiration, he didn’t manipulate their feelings, he didn’t work them up. Instead, he intentionally subverted that worshipful energy. Instead of coming in on a warhorse, as royals in the past would do, with much fanfare, he comes in on the lowliest of animals, in an allusion to our Zechariah text. To quote one of my commentaries: “…Mark wants us to view Jesus as a king, but only by helping us re-imagine the very concept of king in accordance with Jesus’ mission.”(1)
This is really important for us to remember. As we re-enact this day, as we wave our palms, we have an opportunity to be actively conscious of what we are celebrating. When we signal our praise of the Lord’s kingship, what are we signaling? Certainly, some good and wonderful things: Godly power, omnipotence, providence and love, and our offering of loyalty, trust and joy.
But as we do this, it is also important for us to remain cognizant of the irony that Jesus was enacting. Recent history in this country, and indeed the length and breadth of human history throughout the world, has shown us that human beings are very susceptible to the worship of power and dominion. We need to be careful not to swallow imperialism, and the worship of dominion itself, whole without moving on to the deconstruction of earthly imperialism that Jesus was doing. Because, we could very easily just substitute Jesus for Caesar and leave everything else the same. We could pray for the coming of a kingdom that elevates us and those like us and forget the tenor of Jesus’ entire ministry. But Jesus would never step into hierarchical earthly power structures as they are. He has been trying to tell us all along that we can’t happily wave the palm, craving power and influence, all the while ignoring the donkey.
The truth is, Jesus was heading toward a painful and humiliating execution, which would serve to continue the subversion of what we are to consider strong, how we are to understand power. Yet, we can persist in making the Easter story about mastery over death instead of sacrifice, about the salvation of a few by grace instead of all by love, about the creation rather than the critique of religious power.
But Jesus had literally just schooled the disciples on this topic before entering Jerusalem:
10:42 … “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
And this is why it is such a beautiful tradition in the many churches that the palms that we wave today become the ashes used in the following Ash Wednesday. Our adoration must be anchored in reflection and relinquishment. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that the spiritual meaning of the Lord riding the donkey is to demonstrate the correct order of subordination of our human nature. Our earthly desires need to serve our spiritual desires and not the other way around.
Even though we do live in a democracy, where the people elect their leaders rather than being ruled by a king, it is also true that there has always been a strong strain of people and movements trying to co-opt legitimacy and power through claiming or implying a divine right, that God is on their side, that they are doing God’s will. I can only imagine what an addictive feeling it is, to be so sure that we are serving a higher power that we can disregard kindness, empathy, ethics or the rule of law.
The people shouted, as we do today, “Hosanna,” a word that is complicated to translate but contains a sense of giving honor to one who will save us. But that saving cannot mean that only *we* are saved, and that we are saved because someone will allow us to climb to the top of the heap, only to turn around the crucify those behind us. Jesus' entire ministry was founded on the ethos that salvation (not to mention loving concern) must include everyone.
So while the structures and the trappings of kingship are not something with which I can personally resonate, all the ways that human beings interact with the power of leadership certainly *is* recognizable in myself, my fellow human beings, and in our current context. As we shout Hosanna today, let us recognize then that one of the most fundamental salvation opportunities that Jesus offers to us is that we might be lovingly saved from ourselves.
(1) Ira Brent Driggers, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/49620
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. 12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ” 4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna! ” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” 10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
Secrets of Heaven #2781:8-9
 'Riding on an ass' served to indicate that the natural was subordinate, and 'riding on a colt, the foal of a she-ass' that the rational was so; From this - the spiritual meaning of these animals - … so that He might fulfill the representatives of the Church, the Lord was pleased to ride in this way.
 From this it may now be clear that every single thing in the Church of that period was representative of the Lord, and consequently of the celestial and spiritual things that are in His kingdom; even the she-ass and the colt of the she-ass were so, which represented the natural man as regards good and truth. The reason for the representation was that the natural man ought to serve the rational, and the rational to serve the spiritual; but the spiritual ought to serve the celestial, and the celestial to serve the Lord. This is the order in which one is subordinated to another.
Readings: Isaiah 56:1-8, John 12:20-33, Secrets of Heaven #679 (see below)
See also on YouTube at https://youtu.be/AWOyCgVZY_U
During the past year, one particular thing has not been available to us as it once had been: gathering together. We willingly relinquished this pleasure out of a concern for our fellow human beings; we sacrificed something important to us for the sake of love. Though very hard, it was and continues to be, a beautiful offering.
Now, as vaccination numbers increase, we are starting to be able to see each other in person again, albeit in small and careful ways. We are starting to entertain plans for the future that have been on hold. We are anticipating being able to gather again. For The Church of the Holy City, we will do our best to be thoughtful and diligent with any plans to return in person, including the question of how our folks who live at a distance might continue to join our worship.
How appropriate then, that this week’s lectionary speaks of Jesus drawing people together towards himself. The gospel text harkens back to the prophets, such as Isaiah in chapter 56, who would often speak of the nations gathering in Jerusalem. So, as we imagine our future togetherness, I thought it might be appropriate to think about gathering in theological terms.
In many places, the Old Testament is clear that, even though it is primarily the story of God’s relationship with one people, the Children of Israel, that God’s provision and concern extends beyond that relationship to the whole world. We see examples of God being on speaking terms with kings of other nations, references to what seems to be a pre-existing relationships with people of other nations, and most prominently, prophecies of a future time when people of all nations would stream into Jerusalem.
Isaiah 56 joins that tradition, and as well as specifically speaking into the post-exilic world of Israel. At the time of its writing, many of those who were in exile in Babylon have returned to their homeland. Many of those who stayed in Israel have intermarried with people of other nations. And now both groups are grappling with how to define themselves as a community and a people once they are all back together. They are wondering: Who is included? What marks inclusion? Of particular interest is the mention of eunuchs. We might wonder how they fit in to this particular context. Some scholars think that to become a eunuch furthered advancement in the Persian and Babylonian courts.(1) Now, eunuchs returning to Israel might worry about how they fit into the covenant, the narrative anchored as it has always been so firmly in the language of progeny and descendants. Additionally, those who have inter-married are also wondering how they might fit in. Into this anxiety, God speaks inclusion. All those who value and hold fast to the covenant will be included. Israel’s God is a gathering god.
As we fast forward to gospel of John, we find that Jesus fulfills the spirit of God’s promises spoken in Isaiah 56. Our text today begins with outsiders, Greeks, coming to see Jesus and Jesus sharing his essential mission with them. Indeed, it was becoming quite the concern to the authorities, to quote the verse right before our text (12:19) “So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” Jesus continued a tradition of inclusion throughout his ministry. When viewed with a broad lens, the upshot is this: those we think shouldn’t be included, and those who believe themselves unworthy of being included, always are.
Now, as we turn to our Swedenborgian lens, I’m sure you can guess that we will be exploring a more internal level. As we heard in our reading, in a deeper sense, gathering also refers to the goods and truths that are gathered within our hearts and minds. As we go through our lives, we pick things up and we squirrel them away. A new piece of information or a new perspective. A truism with which we resonate. The joy of making a difference. The memory of a kindness. A story that communicates something hopeful, truthful, or poignant. We gather true things and good things that stay with us, and start to coalesce into a worldview, an approach to life. God uses these things to regenerate us, to help us grow and mature spiritually on our journey.
But of course, the quality and character of those things that we have gathered in our hearts and minds affects how effectively God *can* regenerate us. What if we have gathered to ourselves the conviction that we are superior to others? That power and money make us worthy? What if we have never experienced the satisfaction of making a difference in someone else’s life, or have been taught that such an effort is weakness? What if we have experienced nothing but derision or lack of safety? What if all we’ve been able to gather for ourselves is fear, or ambition or grievance? This makes it much more difficult for God to lead and guide us.
Clearly, what we have gathered unto ourselves during our lives is a complex mix of what we choose to see and confirm, what have been exposed to, and what we are willing to learn. A complex mix of what we choose to open ourselves to and what has been offered to us.
Here we find the notion of gathering to be a powerful nexus point. In body, when we gather, we have an opportunity to model God’s compassion and inclusion and care, which then contributes powerfully to the gathering of spiritual good and truth in the hearts and minds of those gathered and included. As always in the Swedenborgian worldview, we find multiple levels operating simultaneously in an interconnected way. When we gather together in body, we multiply and intensify the gathering of internal goods and truths in each individual, the sum of us creating an opportunity that is not available to us on our own. This can be incredibly joyful, healing and connective. But we see conversely how the opposite can work as well. On one hand, how powerfully exclusion communicates and intensifies unworthiness to those on the outside, and on the other hand, how it communicates superiority to those on the inside.
For certainly, we can gather in a nefarious ways. In our own hearts and minds, we can gather knowledge and experience and information for selfish purposes. In the body, we can gather in ways that serve to create exclusion, group think, dominance, violence. Any time there is a gate keeper, power and supremacy are at play.
But we must remember that Jesus makes a crucial distinction in our text. The way that he would draw people to himself, the way the in-gathering of the world was to occur, was through his death, through sacrifice. He could have located the significance and promise of “gathering” with his triumphal entry just accomplished, with people waving palms and yelling praise, for there certainly was a crowd. But the promise inherent in drawing the world to himself is more than just a question of numbers, more than the power such numbers suggest to the earthly mind. Instead, he talks of a seed shedding its own limited existence in order to create many more seeds, to create fruit. “…unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (12:24) The in-gathering must be anchored in sacrifice, for that is the only thing that can make fertile soil for the growth that is to come.
So, what that means for us, as we consider the theme of gathering? It is the opportunity to ask ourselves question like:
For what do we gather, either internally or in-person? Are we gathering to serve our own selfhood? Or, are we focused on gathering to ourselves good things that will make a fertile soil for a growing heart and mind? A fertile soil for expansive and welcoming spaces? What motivates us? The inherent generativity of God’s heavenly kingdom or the way gathering bolsters our identity? Are we willing to sacrifice the single seed of our selfhood, so that the new open space might produce a living plant with leaves, flowers, fruit and many many more seeds? Asking these questions can help us clear away what needs to be cleared away, so that new growth can occur, much like the spring garden clean-ups we might be doing now that the weather has started to warm.
So, even as we have been prevented this year from gathering in-person, let us meditate upon what has been gathered within us due to the sacrifice we have made. Resilience, new skills, compassion, care and concern, gratitude. These things came out of giving up what we didn’t want to give up. And as we imagine our return to in-person community, in all kinds of ways, let us meditate upon how our physical spaces, our houses of worship and other places, can be more than just wood and stone and glass, but can be spaces that honor the way being present to one another supports everyone’s spiritual growth, that gathering in body supports what is gathered to our hearts and minds.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible, p513.
1 This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. 2 Blessed is the one who does this— the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.” 3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. 6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
Secrets of Heaven #679
'He was to gather them for himself' means truths. This is clear from what has been stated above, for 'gathering' has reference to the things that are in a person's memory, where they have been gathered together. It embodies in addition the point that the former and the latter - goods and truths - need to be gathered together in [a person] before regeneration takes place. Indeed unless goods and truths have been gathered together to serve as means through which the Lord may do His work, a person cannot possibly be regenerated…
Photo credit: Mike Chai
Readings: Psalm 69:5-13, 16-17, John 2:13-22, Heaven and Hell #187 and Apocalypse Revealed #918.
See also on YouTube at
Today’s text relates the famous anecdote of Jesus clearing the temple of the sellers and money-changers. Familiar as it is, it still retains its power to shock us though, I think, especially when juxtaposed with the teaching and healing that occupied Jesus in the rest of the gospel account. This is one of the only times that we see Jesus so worked up. But it certainly makes sense when we understand historically how the merchants were taking advantage of faithful, impoverished people.
All four gospels mention Jesus clearing the temple courts in this way. Matthew, Mark and Luke use similar phrases and so are likely from a similar earlier source. The account in John is slightly different, and is the only one that links it to a prediction about Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is perhaps because the the author of the gospel of John places the story early in his narrative in order to create some foreshadowing for the events to come later on. The other three gospels place this event towards the end of the story, after Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem.
John’s account of this occurrence also intentionally refers back to Psalm 69: “His disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me.” This psalm, which we heard this morning, is one attributed to King David, and while probably not actually authored by him, intentionally represents aspects of what we might imagine his experience to have been. One of my commentaries reminds us that “the psalms grew out of concrete historical situations in which real people sought to live their lives under God.” (1)
As we journey in this season on Lent, and this season of history, we may well be resonating with either the sense of being run down and despairing, like King David, or the righteous, sad anger of Jesus, or the simple chaos and uproar of the temple courts themselves. As we work to confront our own shortcomings, as we work to clear out craven and selfish tendencies, as we work to figure out how we can have purpose in a broken world, this scene of disarray in the temple, things scattered and overturned, animals bleeting and sellers protesting, may well be an accurate picture of our internal selves and the chaos that often accompanies necessary change.
What is really interesting though, even as we acknowledge this state, are the words that are spoken into that chaos. Jesus, using metaphorical language as he often does, spoke of his body as a temple, predicting life would come out of destruction. What is even stranger is that he gives this as an answer about authority, about why he felt he had the authority to clear the temple at all.
Why did he make the explicit connection between his body and the temple here, implying that his body was the location of God’s presence with the people? Why would he say this especially after the temple cleansing, and in answer to why he had the authority to do it?
Swedenborg writes that in the highest spiritual sense, the temple represents God’s Divine Humanity. Swedenborg writes a lot about what he calls the “Divine Human", and how important it is that we believe in a God who is Human (with a capital H). And what that capital H means of course, is not that God is fallible in the way that human beings are fallible, but rather, that God is the pattern upon which our human life is based. It implies that there should be a natural resonance, and a natural understanding, between God and us because we are made in God’s image and likeness. God is not “other" to us, but inherently relatable to us.
The Divine Human is God’s pre-existing pattern of humanness that formed us, and continues to form us. And then eventually, the Divine Human found a unique form in Jesus, a new way for us to see God’s Divine Humanity. Certainly, we always have the experience of our own humanness to see, but Jesus brought the Divine Human before our eyes in a particularly powerful way, a way grounded in love, sacrifice and new life.
What do we see in Jesus? We see God’s Divine Humanity healing people who are suffering, feeding people who are hungry, blessing people who are oppressed and reviled. We see God’s Divine Humanity upholding the word of the ancient prophets who criticized those who would use power to afflict the downtrodden. We see God’s Divine Humanity reframing the kin-dom to include all those who would approach with genuine faith and love.
This is the pattern. And in seeing it, we recognize that God is not located in one specific temple, one specific tradition, one specific understanding but rather, that God is located in the Divine Humanity, in all the ways that the Divine Human is with us. God’s presence is in every body, every created body. God’s presence is in the pattern of each person trying to become more human, and the temporary chaos that this creates. And most importantly, God is present in the way that this chaos is resolved, in the burgeoning of new life, of resurrection.
This God is so deeply intertwined with us and this world, and cannot be separate. This is why Swedenborg would talk so passionately about the need to believe in a God that is Human, as opposed to a God who is some kind of disembodied force. While at times I think it is possible he overstates the necessity of it, his main gist is that as a disembodied force, such a God is necessarily disconnected, far away, and inherently other. But God will never actually be these things to us. And Swedenborg uses the term Divine Human to express the fact that God is the pattern out of which we are manifested, and so never can be inherently other, can only be inherently related and relational.
When we deeply understand that God is not inherently other, this can help us in two important ways, which are especially useful to remember during Lent. As we are in the tension, in the David struggle, or the temple chaos, we can remember that God understands the struggle, and that God experienced the struggle, and God has planned for it. Notice the For. God didn’t plan our struggle, but planned for our struggle, creating a universe with resurrection built in, so that there is always the potential to come out the other side with greater love, greater understanding, and greater resilience.
Second, as we remember the Divine Humanity, and we remember that God is not other, then hopefully the natural extension of this recognition is that no one we encounter will be other to us as well. If God’s Divine Humanity is the pattern upon which all life is based, then it must extend to all, no matter the many illusions of hierarchy that our egos manufacture. The gift of being birthed and held within God’s Divine Humanity only truly works for us, for one, if it works for all.
All trials target the love we feel. The severity of the trial matches the nobility of the love. If love is not the target, there is no trial….The Lord’s life was love for the whole human race, a love so great and good that it was pure, unalloyed love. He allowed this life of his to be attacked continuously, from the dawn of his youth until his final moments in the world.(2)
"Zeal for your house will consume me.” (Psalm 69:9) Jesus’ zeal was proportional to his love. There can be no one who has more zeal for us and for our journey than God. And sometimes that will look like zeal for clearing our what needs to be cleared and that’s not fun. But that zeal is anchored in the reality of the Divine Humanity, the reality of God’s closeness and likeness and love for us, all of us. If we must use the word “authority” then this is where God’s authority to clear the temple of our selfhood comes from. When we ask why Lent, why we should open ourselves to any struggle at all, the answer is not so much found in what we will gain, but how God is with us. The deeper we go into God’s presence, the greater the invitation to let go of what needs to be let go. Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days. That’s a promise.
Psalm 69:5-13, 16-17
5 You, God, know my folly; my guilt is not hidden from you. 6 Lord, the LORD Almighty, may those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me; God of Israel, may those who seek you not be put to shame because of me. 7 For I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face. 8 I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children; 9 for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me. 10 When I weep and fast, I must endure scorn; 11 when I put on sackcloth, people make sport of me. 12 Those who sit at the gate mock me, and I am the song of the drunkards. 13 But I pray to you, LORD, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.
16 Answer me, LORD, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. 17 Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Heaven and Hell 187
So I could see why the Lord calls himself the temple that is in Jerusalem (John 2:19, 21). I could also see why the New Jerusalem appeared as a city of pure gold, with gates of pearl and foundations of precious gems (Revelation 21): it is because a temple offers an image of the Lord's divine human; the New Jerusalem refers to the church that was going to be founded; and the twelve gates are the truths that lead to what is good, and the foundations are the truths on which it is based.
Apocalypse Revealed 918.
Revelation 21:22 But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. This symbolically means that the New Church will have no external element divorced from an internal one, because it turns to the Lord Himself in His Divine humanity, from whom comes everything connected with the church, and worships and adores Him alone.
Photo by Kun Fotografi from Pexels
Readings: Genesis 12:1-5, Mark 8:31-37, Secrets of Heaven #1407 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/KmuCHRCpxGM
Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
These are the first words that God says to Abram, the words that will begin the story of the Children of Israel, a story that gave birth to three worldwide religious traditions, that connects millions together in spiritual ancestry.
Go from your country to the land I will show you. I’m not sure there could be a more simple but appropriate command for the Lenten season. The Lord told Abram to pick himself up from all that he knew and valued and head out into an unknown country and an unknown future. I’m sure many of us have experienced similar upheavals. I myself took a journey from my own homeland of Australia, into an unknown future which has brought me here with all of you. Many of us might have moved from where we grew up, or moved to go to college, or find a job. It takes faith, fortitude, optimism and trust to make big moves like that.
But of course, we read the bible not only in a literal physical way, but in a spiritual way as well. We can see that such a command has an internal meaning, signifying an emotional journey, a journey of the spirit.
Swedenborg writes (as we heard in our reading today):
Go away from your land' means the bodily and worldly things from which [Jesus] was to depart. 'And from the place of your nativity' means bodily and worldly things that were more exterior. 'And from your father's house' means such as were more interior. 'To the land which I will cause you to see' means the spiritual and celestial things that were to be brought to view.
Swedenborg unfolds the meaning of Genesis in terms of the spiritual journey that Jesus took while here in the world with us. And he also makes clear that Jesus’ process mirrors our own, that we are on a corresponding track, just with slightly different destinations: glorification and regeneration, two sides of the same coin, two manifestations of the same process. In our text, “your country, your people, your fathers household” signify the things, situations, thoughts, and perspectives in which we are invested, both external and internal. They are our emotional home. They are the place where we feel comfortable, they are our default. From resources we own, food we like, clothes we wear, to our habits and ingrained ways of doing things, to our sense of competence and control, identity, privilege, reputation, and more. In so far as these things do not serve our growing in love and wisdom, the Lord says “Go.” The Lord says to leave them behind.
And what is so powerful about this command is that it is not a rebuke, it is an invitation and a promise. The promise of, as the Lord says, a land that I will show you. A land that will be seen but first we must be willing to leave wherever we are. This is not so much a test of faith, or a test of our willingness to suffer, for which we will be eventually rewarded. God does not desire for us to be performative; God hopes that we will be open to transformation. Abram couldn’t see the land yet, not because God was withholding, but because he hadn’t yet taken the journey to get within seeing distance.
So it is the same for us. We can’t always see the shape of things that we are heading towards, we can’t always appreciate the freedom, or the expansion or the effectiveness, or the satisfaction that will be available to us once we have jettisoned our old ways of thinking and being.
The truth is we often need to get rid of something before there is enough space for a new way of thinking and being to bloom. This is why Swedenborg so very often emphasizes that we need to, in his words, shun evils before we can do good. (1) This is not meant to mean that we are to wait until we are perfect before we can have any positive effect on our world. It means that we can’t necessarily expect that our old and new selves, old and new lives, old and new habits can co-exist, at least, not long-term. Abram couldn’t physically be in both Harran and the new land the Lord would show him. It certainly makes sense if we want to avoid the middle space of the journey, the uncertainty of knowing what we are going toward while also having left what we know. And so sometimes we might try to have it both ways, hanging on to old habits while also trying to bring in the new. This doesn’t usually work very well. And to be clear, this is not the same thing as working diligently on some improvement and sometimes slipping into old patterns. This is more like not wanting to recognize the downsides of old patterns, and still valuing and desiring the old patterns, and then somehow still expecting a new result, when there is just no space for a new result. Like expecting our lungs to be healthy while still smoking, or expecting a relationship to improve while still engaging in a behavior that is hurting it.
Now let us fast forward to Jesus and our text from Mark. Jesus has just confirmed to his disciples his identity as the Messiah, and begins to tell them what kind of challenges the future holds. Jesus, in his own life, has taken the Lord’s command to Abram quite seriously, and has departed from his own metaphorical country, and his own actual family and comfort. He has stepped out on to a mission and a journey to a land, to an ending, that will be unfolded and revealed in the gospels over the next weeks.
As Abram would find, as Jesus would find, the journey is difficult at times. There is nothing particularly pleasant about facing adversaries, whether that is the powers-that-be in the real world, or the adversarial states of our own being, and our own habits. But Jesus tells his disciples and followers that they must suffer many things, must deny themselves and take up their cross. It is basically non-negotiable but again not because God demands suffering as a sacrifice either on Jesus’ part or our part, a terrible appeasement to God’s sense of justice. God is not so needy as that. Suffering and tension and conflict are simply what happens when we commit to making space and giving voice to our intention of becoming more; more whole, more loving, more inclusive, more open. Suffering and tension and conflict happened for Jesus because, in the words of one of my commentaries “powerful humans opposed both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brought to established law and order.” (2) The journey disrupts things, things that need to be disrupted.
Of course we want to save our lives, to save our emotional lives in our day to day. In the moment, the easiest way to do this seems like staying the same, digging in our heels, making sure we are always right, creating justifications, looking after our own. This feels like saving our lives. It is intuitive, it is automatic, it is the first thing we are moved to do, as humans. It is survival instinct. But this kind of strategy is like closing off our ears to the Lord’s command and staying in Harran. It is like Peter, so threatened and afraid and incredulous, that he forcefully contradicts his beloved teacher. We close down, we lash out, anything to avoid taking the journey.
But the journey was the very first command of God. The journey was the very thing that began it all. The willingness of Abram to leave behind what was comfortable and known and set out for a land that Lord would show him. This willingness is so central to the practice of the spiritual life that Jesus called Peter satan, when he persisted in denying it. And then Jesus gathered his followers around him to drive the point home.
For whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. There is the losing and then there is the saving, and this fundamental spiritual reality is what Jesus enacted, and the story we tell in the gospels today. When we lose our preoccupation with worldly things, when we lose our grasping for power, when we lose our self-serving defensiveness, we are rescued from all the ways that these things keep us small and judgmental and fearful. We are saved from the tyranny of our selfhood and this is the good news that we will celebrate in a few weeks.
For now, if we are choosing to ground ourselves in Lent, we are in the middle of the journey. We are finding our way, learning new things, seeing new landmarks, maybe being homesick, maybe being lost, maybe feeling overwhelmed but knowing that the Lord means to show us a new land, if we are willing to keep on walking. Keep on walking, my friends.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #330 (and others)
(2) Ira Brent Driggers, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5
1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
Secrets of Heaven #1407
Verse 1 And Jehovah said to Abram, Go away from your land, and from the place of your nativity and from your father's house, to the land which I will cause you to see.
The events described here and in what follows took place in history as they are recorded; yet the historical events as described are representative, and every word carries a spiritual meaning. 'Abram' is used to mean in the internal sense the Lord, as stated already. 'Jehovah said to Abram' means a first awareness of all things. 'Go away from your land' means the bodily and worldly things from which He was to depart. 'And from the place of your nativity' means bodily and worldly things that were more exterior. 'And from your father's house' means such as were more interior. 'To the land which I will cause you to see' means the spiritual and celestial things that were to be brought to view.
Photo by Designecologist from Pexels
Readings: Psalm 25:1-10, Mark 1:9-13, Secrets of Heaven #1049 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/MC3IzhW2fus
Welcome to the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which we observed with a litany today, the purpose of which is to remember our fragility and our earthiness. And from there, Lent invites us into a consideration of our shortcomings and our failures, and how we might be able to do better and be more loving in the future. Sometimes, this reflection might be usefully spurred by a spiritual discipline of some kind: the excision of something we have relied upon, or the adopting of something we don’t usually do. Either of these acts are not so much virtuous in and of themselves, but rather, can help create fertile ground for seeing things differently. Seeing things differently can lead to both to insight and action, moving us along on our spiritual path. The Swedenborgian tradition does not emphasize Lent quite as much as others might do, as we value the opportunity and responsibility to enter into repentance and reflection all year round, and whenever our circumstances and relationships suggest it is necessary. But also, there can be much value in taking a season each year to revisit long-term questions, habits, thinking, and perspectives. And, so I offer these reflections today.
But we must acknowledge that taking the opportunity to delve into our shortcomings, to feel the reality of our own nature and imperfection, and to develop clarity around where we need to improve, takes focus and courage. This year especially, when so many are struggling in so many ways, we may not feel we have the stamina for this work right now. That is totally reasonable. It is okay to set modest goals. But also, this year may have revealed to us things that we can longer ignore, that we can no longer put aside. It is important to give voice to both the urgency and the exhaustion that we are all feeling.
So before we begin, the practice of Lenten reflection needs to be grounded in the fact that we are beloved. Judgment, even righteous judgment, can rather easily morph into unhealthy shame and unworthiness. The pangs of conscience, appropriate regret and guilt, are essential to our process of repentance; they spur us forward into repairing what needs to be repaired. But shame, the sense that we ourselves are somehow bad and unworthy, this is can be corrosive. The engine of self-reflection, the true efficacy of the Lenten season, cannot be found in how awful we are, it must be found in love. From a solid place of security and worthiness, we can then look with courage and clarity at our shortcomings and not be overwhelmed by the work that is before us. Our Psalm for today speaks to this.
It begins with: To you Lord, I lift up my soul (NKJV). The word here translated as soul is nephesh, meaning soul, yes, and also selfhood, life, and all the activity of our being. It is incredibly vulnerable, to lift up such a thing. To bear forth our very being and life, to hold it outward for inspection like a child might lift up a precious stone or shell that they have found. Just talking about it feels very tender, let alone doing it. Interestingly though, other translations render this sentence as “In you Lord, I put my trust” (NIV). And this translation is important too, because it frames the vulnerability of what is happening. We lift up the tenderness of our soul to God, and we are able do it because we trust God. Why?
Because of raham and hesed. In verse six of the psalm we hear: remember Lord your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Raham—translated as great mercy or compassion—and hesed—translated as steadfast love—are two words that occur again and again throughout the psalms and the whole Hebrew bible. They mark out the shape and character of God’s relationship with God’s people, as one of safety, continuity and community.
The word Raham, as well as meaning mercy, also can be used to mean womb, and the yearning and care that a parent has for their child. How different does it feel then, to lift up our naphesh, our tender selfhood, when we are doing so within the safety of the womb of God, within the care and concern of our heavenly parent, warm, contained, and nourished. It evokes for me a sense of the safety and joy of childhood blanket forts; in the womb of God we are held and protected.
The word Hesed is such a complicated one to translate because it contains so much within it. It means love, yes, but an ongoing love in a covenantal relationship. For this reason it is sometimes translated as lovingkindness, because that word has ongoing aspect to it—love expressed in continual acts of kindness in relationship. And again, how differently do we feel about lifting up our nephesh, within this context, one in which any revelation about ourselves and our shortcomings occurs within a relationship with one who is committed to showing us kindness and compassion, who knows how to do that and will always do that.
Which brings us to our Mark text, because Jesus was the ultimate act of hesed (1), the ultimate act of fulfilling the promise of relationship. God doing what God had to in order to stay in connected with us. This involved reaching out, involved entering deeply into our experience. And before the experience of temptation in the wilderness, before the experience of being broken down, of questioning what he thought he knew, and coming to the clarity of knowing his mission…before all of that, Jesus heard that he was beloved, and we get to see him being told he was beloved, so that we might also know that we are beloved.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today:
Having mercy, though, is something [God] can be said to do, because [God] realizes what we humans are like.
God know who and what we are, and as we lift up our nephesh in trust, God sees us more clearly than anyone else can. And yet God will still always, as the reading says, “draw us to heaven with a powerful force.” We might not always feel this force but it is always there.
And it is so important for us to choose to partner with this force as much as we can. These pandemic times, these social and political times, have uncovered so much worth thinking about, have thrown into relief how urgently we need to be our best selves for each other and our world. There are times in the bible that God’s judgment is spoken of in terrifying ways, for the experience of seeing the brokenness of ourselves and our world can be heartbreaking, and demoralizing, and scary. But we need to see what is wrong and broken and sinful within ourselves and our world, or otherwise we will never be able to change it for the better. We need to see it. But we also need to be able to see it and withstand seeing it. We need to be able to see and not flee from it. We need to be able to see it and stay with the long process of dealing with it. And I really don’t believe that any kind of stamina for spiritual work can come from a place of unworthiness and shame. It has to come from love. It has to come from knowing that we are beloved and knowing that everyone else is beloved too. It has to come from raham and hesed.
This year in particular, we might need an extra dose of contemplating our belovedness before we can get to the business of examining ourselves. Heck, take twenty doses, there is more than enough. God needs us and wants us in the game, whatever that looks like for us. And so for today, let us settle and steep in the truth of our belovedness, with this blessing from Jan Richardson, entitled “Beloved is Where We Begin.”
If you would enter
into the wilderness
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
Named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
(1) Commentary by Nancy deClaisse-Walford, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-251-10-13
(2) Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O Lord! 8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Secrets of Heaven #1049
The symbolism of and I will remember my pact, which is between me and you, as the Lord's mercy, specifically toward people who have been and people who can be reborn, also follows from all this, since remembering, for the Lord, is having mercy. The Lord cannot be said to remember, because he knows absolutely everything from eternity. Having mercy, though, is something he can be said to do, because he realizes what we humans are like. He knows that our self-centeredness reflects hell and is our actual hell, because our self-will keeps us in touch with hell. Self-will is such, on its own and by hell's inspiration, that its strongest, keenest wish is to throw itself headlong into hell; and it is not content with this but wants to drag everyone else in the universe along with it. Because this is the kind of devils we are on our own, and the Lord knows it, remembering the pact is consequently the same as showing mercy, using divine means to regenerate us, and drawing us to heaven with a powerful force, so far as our nature allows him to.
Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, Matthew 6:9-13 and Secrets of Heaven #1692 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
The Lord’s Prayer once again brings us to another really big topic: temptation and God’s deliverance. There’s so much here we can only scratch the surface.
First, if the phrasing “Lead us not into temptation” gives you pause, know that you are not alone. The idea that God might actually *lead* us into conflict and has to be petitioned not to do so, has bothered Christians from the very beginning of the movement. There is evidence that early Christian liturgies even modified the wording of the prayer to deal with this. Some scholars believe that the phrasing speaks to a kind of apocalyptic mindset that was prevalent in Jesus’ day, one that understood history to be heading toward a great battle between the faithful and cosmic forces of evil. The prayer spoke to a hope that, in following God, the faithful might not be led into a conflict that would ultimately overwhelm them (1). I think that we can resonate with those kind of existential anxieties even today, whenever we hope that we will be up to the challenges life throws at us.
But of course, all of this exposes some natural and fundamental questioning that we might well have around how Divine Providence works ie how God actually affects and shapes our lives. How does God lead us? Why does temptation exist? What is its purpose? And where is God during times of temptation?
Swedenborg speaks to all of these questions many times in his works. First, in regard to the phrasing “lead us not in to temptation” he points out that these words are what he calls an appearance. In the Swedenborgian worldview, there is an internal spiritual metaphorical meaning contained within the literal outward meaning of the words on the bible page. God’s Divine Truth emanates out toward us and goes through successive accomodations to human understanding, finally coming to rest in the outward “clothing” of the words spoken to and by the people of the time the Bible was written. Sometimes that outward clothing feels pretty similar to the spiritual meaning, (for example “love our neighbor”) and sometimes it almost totally obscures it (for example, God is angry and vengeful). To illustrate the difference in meaning, Swedenborg uses the example of the sun appearing to rise and set around a still earth, according to our vantage point, when the actual reality is that the earth moves around the sun. What appears to our eyes in that circumstance doesn’t represent the ultimate truth. Likewise for God’s nature; there were times when circumstances were interpreted by people to conclude that God was angry and vengeful and the Bible reflects that conclusion. However, the reality is that God is entirely loving.(2)
It is a similar case with the phrasing of the prayer. God never takes the tough love approach, leading us into trials or temptations, “for our own good.” When we want someone to blame it can sometimes feel like that. But God’s leading doesn’t actually happen that way. God has the utmost respect for our freedom, and so God’s leading is subtle and internal and individually crafted according to our needs and mindset. God does not create circumstances out in the world for us to experience, but rather, as we do experience them, guides our response and reflection and our meaning-making.
But this does prompt the question of what temptations are and why they happen. Culturally, the word temptation has taken on a kind of salacious tenor, which is why some of the most recent translations of Swedenborg’s works simply use the word “crisis” instead. We all know what it feels like to be in crisis, both large and small. Crisis means: a time of upheaval, often in which various elements are in opposition to each other, and/or turning point decisions will be made. After a crisis, we usually see things differently, and act differently with intention, because the crisis has changed us. A simple communal example is our current pandemic crisis. How is it changing what we value? What is it bringing into relief? How will we act differently afterward? Once things return to normal, might we still wear masks sometimes to make sure someone doesn’t catch our cold? Might we pause in gratitude for the simple things like a hug? Might we prioritize down time, or helping our neighbor, or scientific development?
So Swedenborg uses temptation in this way, not so much as something that has the potential to make us stray from the right path, but rather, as an experience that has the potential to change us: that clarifies our thinking, strengthens what we value and opens the path toward transformation. Why is this kind of experience necessary? We heard in our Swedenborg reading that temptations or crises are the means by which evils and falsities are broken up and dispersed within us. We all have unhealthy tendencies and false ideas to which we cling. This doesn’t make us bad people, it just makes us people. People born into a natural earthly world, faced with a natural earthly life. Many times, we are happy to just chug along, not paying attention to our unhealthy tendencies or false ideas until we are forced to, until we are thrust into a crisis. The crisis *makes* us pay attention. And just like forgiveness, it is another holy threshold, where we get to decide what we value. We get to decide if we will keep trying to put our head back in the sand, or if we will face the crisis process with courage, and be open to what it will reveal to us.
In personal terms, a crisis can be precipitated by any number of different outward events, but the nature, quality and outcome of the crisis will be dictated by *our* internal processes and constitution: what and who we love and value, what we understand to be true, how willing we are to reflect and repent if necessary, and how willing we are to change.
But, even though our own personal makeup determines the nature and shape of our crises, and it sure does feel like a lot of work to make it through them, and this brings into relief another appearance at play. Swedenborg emphasizes that the Lord is fighting fiercely for our benefit during our crises, and it is by the Lord’s power alone that our crises are resolved, even as we are “allowed” to feel the full blooming of our own efforts. We have to feel like we are doing our own work in order for it to have any real meaning for us. The experience of overcoming or working through our crises changes us fundamentally, and we get to hold on to that, it becomes part of us. But it is key for us, as we look back upon our temptation times, to recognize it was the Lord’s power that brought us through, not our own. Making it through a crisis should indeed make us feel confident, and it is worth celebrating, but it is a confidence that should be grounded in faith and gratitude rather than self-satisfaction.
And this circles us back around to what is appearing as an unintentional sub-theme of our Lord’s Prayer series. Many times we are asking for things in the prayer that are already happening. In the sentence we are focusing on today, we ask that we might be delivered from evil, but that is not something that God needs to be prompted to do. Just as in the giving of the daily bread, just as with forgiving our sins, so it is the same with our constant deliverance. God is already giving us internal sustenance, already forgiving us, and already fighting on our behalf all the time. We don’t have to prove that we are good enough to receive God’s care. It happens no matter what.
So why do we pray for these things if they are already happening? Well, just because they are already happening, doesn’t mean that they have nothing to do with us, or that their meaning, efficacy or potential to change us is not affected by our conscious awareness and partnership. We ask for things that we know are already given or already happening so that we might remember them, so that we might give our consent to partner with them, so that we might remain open to them. I know that when I pray The Lord’s Prayer each morning, that my silent addition is “Please don’t let me forget.” Don’t let me forget in the middle of the day, when I’m hungry and grumpy and overwhelmed and trying to power through my to do list. Don’t let me forget when I’m trying to go so sleep but my mind is swirling. Don’t let me be so distracted by my own selfhood, that I forget that God is with me.
We construct a life for ourselves through endless sensual pleasures, through love for the material world and for ourselves…This demonstrates how large a gap separates mortal life from heavenly life, which is the reason the Lord uses adversity to regenerate us and bend us into harmony. (3)
I love this imagery, that we might be “bent into harmony” through our crises. There is nothing more human than the struggle we all share in trying to live this life, and this acknowledgment is the foundation of empathy. As Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem stated: That even as we grieved we grew, that even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried..(4)
God is so deeply present in those words “even as.” Even as we grieved we grew. They are not to be skipped over, those two words are what bend us into harmony.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol VII, p133.
(2) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #3425
(3) Ibid #760
1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
Secrets of Heaven #1692
Hardly anyone can see what the battles of spiritual crisis accomplish. They are the means for dissolving and shaking off evil and falsity. They are also the means by which we develop a horror for evil and falsity, and gain not only conscience but strength of conscience; and this is the way we are reborn. For that reason, people who are regenerating are thrust into combat and undergo terrible trials — if not during their physical lives, then in the other life, assuming they can regenerate. In consequence, the Lord's church is called the church militant…
 It is the Lord alone who does the fighting in people facing their own spiritual battles, and who conquers. By our own power, we cannot accomplish anything at all against evil, hellish spirits, because they band together with the hells in such a way that if one hell were overcome the next would rush in to fill the void. This would continue forever. They are like the ocean beating on the individual stones in a jetty. If it managed to open a chink or a tiny crack in the jetty, it would never stop until it had broken down and overflowed the entire structure, leaving not a trace. That is how it would be if the Lord did not bear our battles by himself.
Photo credit: Mimi Moromisato
Readings: Psalm 130, Matthew 6:9-15, Divine Providence #280 (see below)
Forgiveness is one of those topics that seems like it simple on the outside, but actually contains multitudes within it. I believe this is partly because forgiveness is such an emotional topic. To countenance forgiveness, we have to come face to face with the fact that human beings mess up so much and hurt each other all the time. Thinking deeply about forgiveness means we have to acknowledge that these hurts have ongoing consequences, that they are sometimes held deep within us for a long time. We have to embrace accountability and admit how difficult that is for the human ego, and that many times we will avoid it. And we have to acknowledge the fragility of human relationship, how dependent it is upon our ability to forgive each other.
So, it makes sense that forgiveness would be part of the Lord’s prayer; it is an important spiritual and transformational practice. And clearly, in the biblical context, in was important to Jesus as well, for in our Matthew text, he expounds upon the notion of forgiveness even after he finished telling them how to pray, as part of his famous Sermon on the Mount.
The first important thing to acknowledge about forgiveness as notion, is that forgiveness is a function of relationship; it always occurs *within* relationship, and it doesn’t have any meaning except *as* a function of relationship. This certainly can include our relationship with ourselves, or even our higher and lower selves, but ultimately forgiveness only comes into play because there is a disconnection between two things in relationship. It a holy threshold, an essential recognition of our infallibility but also a declaration of hope that relationship can exist and thrive in the face of imperfection. Imagine if forgiveness didn’t exist; how alone and isolated, how rigid yet fractured we would be.
But even though forgiveness represents a moving forward of relationship through the process of dealing with disagreement and tension, that doesn’t always mean the moving forward is the same thing as the continuance of the relationship, as it was. The outcome of forgiveness is many times the repairing of relationship, but sometimes it also is the letting go of relationship. Let’s consider these in turn.
As human beings, as the Lord’s Prayer shows us, we incur debts to one another. Debts of empathy, understanding, care, concern, and dignity. There are so many ways that we hurt and disappoint one another, and we often feel the pain of this deeply. Many times, this debt or disconnect is created because of an imbalance between how we expected to be treated and how we were actually treated. And this disconnect threatens or prevents relationship.
Enter, forgiveness. Disconnection of relationship is not necessarily a terminal condition, thank the Lord. Forgiveness is the process by which relationship is restored. But because it is a function of relationship, it requires engagement on the part of all who are in the relationship. Forgiveness requires accountability, what Swedenborg calls repentance, on the part of the one who was hurtful, and grace on the part of the one who was hurt. Both sacrifice ego; one sacrifices rightness, the other invulnerability.
Relationship depends upon empathy, upon caring about the wellbeing of another. Part of that caring, must include accountability when it is warranted. Without accountability, without repentance, forgiveness as a function of relationship repair is not possible, because refusing accountability is a fundamental abdication of empathy, (of putting oneself in another’s shoes and imagining their point of view) and how can relationship survive without empathy? This is part of what is making our national talk of unity so fraught right now. We yearn for true relationship with our fellow citizens but worry that papering over differences without an effort toward reparation just perpetuates existing cycles of injustice. I recall this challenge as a parent: that we teach our children to say “I’m sorry” from a very young age, but at some point we also need to teach them how to “be sorry,” we need to teach them the value of empathy and accountability. We need to teach them that empty words cannot carry relationship, and that to be sorry means to act differently in future.
We see from our reading today that Swedenborg was very critical of religious traditions that tried to circumvent true repentance, that offered what he called instantaneous salvation, a wiping away of our transgressions no matter how we regard them. Other theologians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer have called that “cheap grace.” The work of repentance must cost us something, must cause a re-evaluation of our ego and identity, so that an actual new and different future for the relationship in question can be brought into being.
But just because something is costly doesn’t make it a punishment. We often think about relationship in terms of give and take, but I’m not sure that works here very well, as it invites a sense that repentance is something we “take” or “exact” from each other. Forgiveness is really more about give and give. One gives repentance, another gives grace, and a new future gets to be written in relationship. This is what Jesus was referring to in the Matthew text. A lot of the time, Jesus speaks of forgiveness in terms of pride and hypocrisy. He cautions his disciples against holding grudges, or about withholding forgiveness in exchange for power. And it is in this context we hear the end of our Matthew text, which on the face of it sounds rather transactional, but really is about cultivating a compassionate state of mind. The refusal of either accountability or grace for selfish reasons just compounds sin upon sin, and will close our hearts way down every time. God always forgives, and always will, but that can’t have any functional reality for us until we open our minds to what we need to be forgiven for, and then extend that humble mindset to our interactions with others.
So, what about the other side of things: forgiveness as relinquishment. What about when there is no accountability or repentance on offer? Forgiveness still has a role to play here but it is less about repair and more about freedom. When an emotional debt has caused a disconnect in relationship and the one who has hurt us refuses accountability, it is very difficult to continue forward. And even if the relationship is severed, that doesn’t mean we might not still be tethered to it in an emotional way. There is no world in which it is God’s intention for us to remain in that hurt forever. Forgiveness can release us.
But it can be very hard. The way in which we culturally, unconsciously, understand forgiveness can make us feel like forgiving a hurt means somehow we are condoning it. Think about the common words: “It’s okay, I forgive you.” These words are usually offered in the context of relationship repair, but take on a whole different tone when repentance is not offered. The words “It’s okay” will often times hover over any contemplation of forgiveness, whether we realize it or not.
So it is important to remember that forgiveness is not a statement of right or wrong. Forgiveness is an action that intentionally heals a wound. Whatever hurts we have endured, our pain is a declaration of the wrongness of what has happened to us, and that declaration will always stand. But still the potential of that holy threshold remains unresolved, and forgiveness practiced on our own part, can release us from that lack of resolution. This kind of forgiveness will necessarily contain some measure of grief and a recognition that it is God’s work to reform other people, not ours. Like I said, hard spiritual work that takes the time it takes. But of course a God of love would wish this kind of release for us, and help us to make it so.
Now I know, I’ve simplified things a little here, perhaps even a lot. It certainly is possible to feel hurt based on our sense of ego or entitlement, or false assumptions. There is such a thing as selfish pain, and not all hurt means that someone else did something wrong. And it is also true, that it is possible to hurt someone unintentionally, and the associated repentance in that case will feel different to when hurt is actually intended. And I’ve said nothing at all on the topic of consequences, which are often an important part of accountability, or healthy boundaries, which are an important part of healing. Forgiveness tugs on a multitude of strings because the restoration of relationship is complicated and contextual and individual.
But the ultimate goal is wholeness, however it can be found. The psalm from our readings said “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” (Psalm 130:4) Our God models an unrelenting forgiveness not because of some hazy idealism, but because it is the only way to stay in relationship with us, God’s fallible creation. And God wants that more than anything else.
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD; 2 Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. 3 If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? 4 But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. 5 I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. 6 I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. 7 Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. 8 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Divine Providence #280
Another popular misconception is that when sins have been forgiven they are also set aside. This misconception is characteristic of people who believe that their sins are forgiven through the sacrament of the Holy Supper even though they have not set them aside by repenting from them. It is characteristic also of people who believe they are saved by faith alone or by papal dispensations. They all believe in direct mercy and instant salvation.
When the sequence is reversed, though, it is true: when sins have been set aside, they are forgiven. Repentance must precede forgiveness, and apart from repentance there is no forgiveness. That is why the Lord told his disciples to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:27) and why John preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3).
The Lord forgives everyone's sins. He does not accuse us or keep score. However, he cannot take our sins away except by the laws of his divine providence; for when Peter asked him how many times he should forgive someone who had sinned against him, whether seven was enough, he said that Peter should forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). What does this tell us about the Lord, who is mercy itself?
Photo credit: Kate Remmer
Readings: Exodus 16:13-18, John 6:25-35, Secrets of Heaven #2493 (see below)
See also on Youtube at: https://youtu.be/FrqSEMKJN9I
Today we are going to consider the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread.” There is a give and take in all prayer: we praise God and reach out to God, and we speak of what we wish might come to pass, we speak of what we want and need. This section of the prayer is about our well-being. One of our most basic needs is nourishment, and in these words, we ask that this nourishment be provided.
And of course, we recognize that nourishment comes on several different levels. There is physical nourishment; the literal bread that of which the prayer speaks. Physical nourishment is a constant need, something that we require daily. So, we pray for the ongoing fulfillment of this need. But we also know that spiritual nourishment is just as vital as physical nourishment. There are many things that feed us at a deeper level, and the list of those things is long and individual.
But these nourishing things, either from food we imbibe or activities that uplift, are still things that come to us from the outside. Swedenborg offers us to a slightly different view. He indicates that in the bible, “bread” represents the “good of love,”(1) or what I tend to call the “goodness of love” because that phrasing makes a little more sense to me that way.
What is the goodness of love? Well, it is simply the way that love is good, the way that love produces goodness. And in what way is love good? Well, Swedenborg sometimes calls the “good of love” the “good of mutual love.” Love is inherently connective. Swedenborg writes that the main goal of love as a force is the “joining [of things] together.”(2) Love wants to join things together, and the mutuality that occurs as a result is good, is the very being of goodness.
And it is God, of course, who is the source of all love; whose inmost being is composed of this primal force. Divine Love is evermore reaching out. Secrets of Heaven tells us that the goodness of love flows into our internal selves from God.(3) It is constantly happening, it is how we are alive. Moreover, since measures of time in the bible always correspond to states of being, the words daily and this day, correspond to the state of having this provision in every moment, forevermore. We read from Swedenborg:
In heaven, the Lord imparts this food to angels moment by moment, thus perpetually and eternally. (4)
Thus we see another reframing: that the petition “Give us this day our daily bread” is not actually transactional, it is not that we have to ask for it to get it, or that we won’t get it if we don’t ask for it. We are already receiving it, for it is against God’s nature to be withholding. So the question becomes, rather, how might become more aware of what we are already receiving, or what is already available to us? Give us this day our daily bread might be usefully paraphrased as: Help us to feel and experience your love that is constantly flowing into us.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about how angels experience this reality. That their center of happiness comes from the provision of the Lord’s inflow, and so they therefore are not consumed by thoughts of the past or the future. I found the last part the most interesting:
But although angels have no care about things of the past and are not worried about those of the future they nevertheless have a most perfect recollection of things of the past and a most perfect insight into those of the future, because their entire present includes both the past and future within it.
Our reception of our daily bread, God’s good of love, does not bring us into a hazy blissfulness that no longer perceives the past or future. Rather, as we more fully inhabit God’s inflow, we more perfectly comprehend the past and future because we recognize how fully both are connected to our present. That the past brought us to our present, and that the present will give birth to our future. In receiving God’s inflow, in working to become aware of it and to make space for it, we become more deeply grounded in the present moment. What a beautiful gift this is, and yet, I think there is something still more powerful to be excavated from this verse.
Just as last week, where we found that a statement about God’s will necessarily leads us into the practice and discipline of the submission of our own will, today Give us this day our daily bread invites us into a contemplation of giving and receiving, and how that places us at the center of a powerful nexus point.
We read in Divine Providence #220 that: The union of temporal and eternal matters in us is the Lord's divine providence, [and that] the Lord unites spiritual and eternal things to physical and time-bound things, doing so according to acts of service. What this means is the way that God’s divine providence is active in this world, is real and concrete and operative in this world, is through the process of joining together what is earthly and what is spiritual IN US. And how to does that joining together happen? Through acts of service.
Essentially, the temporal and eternal are conjoined, spirit and earth conjoined, by the actions that *we* take, the service that we give to one another. In the Lord’s prayer, we ask that God give us something, and God does, but doesn’t let that be it. The giving both sustains us and summons us. God works both inside and outside of us, reaching us directly through our internal depths and reaching us indirectly through what we experience from others. Our daily bread is given in these two ways, nourishment from within, nourishment from without, placing us firmly at a sacred threshold, looking both inward and outward all at once, and taking our part in the way God’s providence is extended.
You may have already heard the poet laureate Amanda Gorman recite her amazing poem “This Hill We Climb” at this week’s inauguration. (I promise you, you will get tired of me quoting this poem so much but...) It begins thus:
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We've braved the belly of the beast
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished…
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it…
This is the hidden truth that is held within the asking for our daily bread. The dawn is ours before we knew it, the bread is ours before we asked for it. But once we do ask for it, and we accept it, we take our place in a web of connection, a web of nourishment from both within and without; in receiving we recognize the flow and how the flow must continue ever outward. We recognize that God is in the business of uniting things through love, uniting spirit to earth, uniting the eternal to the time-bound, uniting people one to another, and doing it through the ways we care for each other.
In this way our daily bread becomes the spiritual nourishment that which will quicken and support and enliven us as we all work to further the presence of spirit in the world, when we move what is unfinished one step further towards wholeness, when we move what “just is” one step further towards justice. This is God’s divine providence: this is bread from heaven that gives life to the world, this is our manna in the wilderness, given in holy remembrance and gathered side by side.
Next week, we will consider forgiveness, and that will feel thorny and complicated and maybe also like freedom, like shaking off the chains and soaring in the vast blue sky.
But today it is preceded by a basic acknowledgement: we need, and in needing we look to another, first God and then by God’s gentle direction, to those who are beside us. “Give us this day our daily bread” is not just petition; it is also prophecy. Even as we ask for our daily bread, we know that it is given, even as we ask for our daily bread, we find ourselves woven into a larger tapestry of giving and receiving, enfolded into God’s plans for the way heaven and earth are to be connected and strengthened.
Our wellbeing, tied up in everyone else’s wellbeing, just the way God intended it. Whoever comes to me shall never go hungry (John 6:35)…Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #7966
(2) Ibid #4351
(3) Ibid #4352
(4) Ibid #2838
13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat. 16 This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’ ” 17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” 26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” 28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” 30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” 35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Secrets of Heaven 2493
I have spoken to angels about the memory of things of the past and about consequent anxiety concerning things of the future, and I have been informed that the more interior and perfect angels are the less do they care about things of the past or think about those of the future, and that this is also the origin of their happiness. They have said that the Lord provides them every moment with what to think, accompanied by blessing and happiness, and that this being so they have no cares and no worries. This also is what is meant in the internal sense by the manna being received 'day by day' from heaven, and by the 'daily [provision] of bread' in the Lord's Prayer, as well as by the statement that they must not worry about what they are to eat and drink, or what clothes they are to put on. But although angels have no care about things of the past and are not worried about those of the future they nevertheless have a most perfect recollection of things of the past and a most perfect insight into those of the future, because their entire present includes both the past and future within it. Thus they possess a more perfect memory than can possibly be imagined or put into words.
Readings: I Chronicles 29:10-18, Luke 11:1-4, Divine Providence #58 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/xNVweQpWrE0
Welcome to this sermon series in which we examine a prayer that we have likely said many hundreds of times: The Lord’s Prayer. It is called thus because it is based upon two passages in the gospels when Jesus’ disciples ask him how they should pray and he gives them a model. The Lord’s prayer as we know it contains themes of holiness, God’s will, God’s kingdom, God’s provision for us, forgiveness and indebtedness, and temptation. Additionally, a doxology was added to the end in the early days of the Christian church, most likely based on our reading from I Chronicles, a reminder of whence comes all power and glory. To this day, we find that some Christian practices include this doxology and some do not.
Today, we will focus on the beginning phrases: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The prayer starts out by using a metaphor that speaks of intimate relationship; we do not just say “Father” but “Our Father.” It is interesting to note that in the gospel of Mark (14:36), when Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane in his most challenging moments, he qualifies his use of the word “Father” with the Aramaic term “Abba,” which is best understood by us as “Papa,” a word used not to indicate fatherhood in a general detached sense, but a word used everyday in familial contexts. So whatever word we use for our own fathers, that is the word that would express the closeness with which we are addressing God in this prayer.
Next, we speak of hallowing. This is a kind of archaic word to us now, but it means to make holy, or to honor with holiness. And specifically, we hallow, or make holy, the name of God. On the surface, this might seem a simple matter of external praise. But Swedenborg indicates that in the bible, the word “name” represents the essential nature of something, its entire character, or essential being. (1)
To illustrate this, I want to tell you about the very first thing that I ever bought as a child with my own money. It was a homemade stuffed seal at a flea market. I loved that stuffy so much. Can you guess what I called it? Seal. Not very original, I know. But when I think back to that time, and about why I didn’t choose a different name, I think it is because I loved that seal for exactly what it was. This would have been in the early 80’s, so the variety of available toys pales in comparison to today, and basically in a landscape of mostly teddy bears and dolls, I had never seen a stuffy quite like it. So I didn’t see a reason to name it anything other than it was, because I loved seals, and I loved this stuffy because it was a seal. I called it the name that best reflected its essential character, which was its most valuable trait to me.
And thus in a similar way, when we invoke and hallow God’s name, we do not simply hallow the word that we call God, but rather, the whole of God’s being that we are using that word to signify. Sometimes that word might be Father, Lord, God, Creator, or something else but regardless of the actual word, when we hallow God’s name, we are lifting up and honoring the whole of what God stands for, the whole of God’s intent and mission and providence. And as we heard in our Swedenborg reading, God’s intent is to save the whole human race, no exceptions.
Next, we begin to speak of how we would like God’s presence to be known by us and by the world. This prayer, like much of the bible, uses a royal metaphor to express this. We ask that God’s kingdom might come, essentially that God’s “reign” might be extended from heaven onto the earth. The assumption embedded here is that heaven is a realm, or a vision even, where God’s intent comes to pass more completely than on earth.
How are we to understand what it means for God’s kingdom to come on earth? It might help us to understand how that metaphor is employed in the gospel at large. Most of the time, it is done in a kind of subversive way, in that it co-opts that familiar royal language, but then reframes what such a reign would be, reframes what such a kingdom would look like, and contrasts it with what we know of earthly kings and kingdoms. If we might otherwise describe kingdoms in terms of power, strength, authority and dominance, the bible describes God’s kingdom as a place where the least will be first, belonging to people who are poor in spirit, or who are like little children. He compares it to a party to which everyone is invited, a seed sown in a field, yeast leavening bread, a tiny mustard seed, a treasure hidden in a field for which we would give everything we own. Because of the way that God’s kingdom is actually described in the bible, many preachers now slightly change the word to “kin-dom” to better reflect its true nature, one in which relationship, equity, respect and worthiness are paramount.
Finally, as as extension of the notion of bringing God’s kingdom to earth, we ask in the prayer that God’s will be done. Inherent in this request is the idea that our will must be surrendered to God’s will. In so far as prayers are calling forth what might not yet be, we pray that even as our own will remains primary before our eyes (we are human after all and it cannot be otherwise) that we might remember that God’s will ultimately has a broader view; in essence, we surrender our view to God’s view and practice the discipline of putting our will into eternal perspective. Jesus himself models this prayer, once again in Gethsemane, as he countenanced the ultimate sacrifice of his own will and his own life, saying: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)
While we will generally, thankfully, not be facing Jesus’ particular gauntlet in our own lives, we recognize that the dynamic itself plays out in smaller ways over and over. I’m sure we all find our own will, our own desires, thwarted time and time again in this life. And the purpose of our submission to God’s will in the prayer, is not to make us inherently suspicious of our own will in every circumstance. It is not that are to become emotional martyrs but rather to submit to the discipline of curiosity, the discipline of holding our own will lightly enough, that when it does need re-evaluating, we are open to doing it. This is how regeneration happens. This is what salvation actually is.
There is such a powerful progression within these initial lines of the prayer. We first proclaim as holy not only God’s being but God’s intent and providence; and in the hallowing of God’s name we declare our allegiance to God’s intent, and our belief in God’s trustworthiness. This then leads us to ask that God’s vision, what we call God’s kin-dom, might become manifest in our world. We see the value of the kin-dom and wish for it to be the way of things. But even as these opening lines speak mostly of God, they begin to mark out our responsibility as well. Many upcoming parts of the prayer, which we will explore in the coming weeks, explicitly lay out important ways that we can help the kin-dom come, though faithfulness, forgiveness, and courage. But these start, in these early sentences, with the surrender of our own will. Many times, our desires will be contrary to the coming of God’s kin-dom, and in our prayer we make this essential recognition and commitment: when our will is contrary to the kin-dom, may God’s will be primary.
The purpose of prayer in general is to center us in our relationship with God. As we navigate our own lives, as we navigate an increasingly difficult time with the pandemic and with politics, how might this prayer be of help to us? Everyone will have their own individual responses but here’s what I see:
That God remains present with us, and as God ever was. God’s being, intent and vision are steadfast and available; when we lift them up as holy we place them at the center of our lives, and they become our compass and our guide. When we have questions about the meaning of things, we have something fundamental to turn to. Then, when we declare that God’s kin-dom might come, we issue an invitation to our own selves to step into the birthing of that vision, to partner with what God is already doing. We have an answer to the question, what should we do? We have the hope of God’s kin-dom to look forward to and to guide our work. And then we start to get an answer about how; we declare that God’s will be done, setting in motion a foundational discipline of reflection that is an opening for personal spiritual growth. And thus, a power invocation is given, and a powerful prayer is begun:
Our Father, who are in heaven, hallow be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #300.
I Chronicles 29:10-20
10 David praised the LORD in the presence of the whole assembly, saying, “Praise be to you, LORD, the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. 11 Yours, LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. 12 Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. 13 Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. 14 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. 16 LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. 17 I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. 18 LORD, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.
1 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “ ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’ ”
Divine Providence #58
The reason divine providence focuses on what is infinite and eternal particularly in its intent to save the human race is that the goal of divine providence is a heaven from the human race…Since this is the goal, it follows that the main focus of divine providence is reforming and regenerating us, that is, saving us, since heaven is made up of people who have been reformed and regenerated.
Since regenerating us is a matter of uniting what is good and what is true, or love and wisdom, within us the way they are united in divinity that emanates from the Lord, divine providence focuses primarily on this in its intent to save the human race. The image of the Infinite and Eternal One can be found in us only in the marriage of what is good and what is true.