Readings: Nehemiah 8: 1-2, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21, Secrets of Heaven 4735:2 (see below)
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I have a real soft spot for this story from Nehemiah. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra tell the story of the Jews returning from exile to Jerusalem. A quick history recap: after the people of Judah were conquered by the Babylonians, many of them were taken into exile in Babylon. This exile from their homeland lasted for about sixty years, and we hear the stories of the Judeans in exile in the books of Esther and Daniel. Eventually, though, the Babylonians were conquered by Persia, and the Persian ruler, Cyrus, allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem. Now, this didn’t mean they were entirely free and independent; Judea remained under the rule of Persia, but still, it was what the Jews had been hoping and dreaming for; they would get to return home. But, of course, they were, after all, still a conquered people. The reality is that they were returning to ruins.
The book of Nehemiah, then, begins with an intimate first-person account of a Jewish cup-bearer to the Persian king who finds himself called to return to Jerusalem to rebuild. He receives permission to do so, he returns to Jerusalem as governor, and gathers some supporters. They start repairing the city gates and rebuilding the city wall. Some of Judah’s neighboring enemies try to intimidate them but Nehemiah stands firm, never wavering from his mission. His confidence is contagious, and he rallies the people to complete their task. Chapter 4 verse 6 tells us that “the people worked with all their heart.” Eventually Nehemiah oversees the resettlement of the city.
It must have felt so bittersweet for the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Those who remembered their land would have been elderly by that time, many others would have been born in Babylon, only knowing Jerusalem through stories. What a shock to have seen the state of things; broken down city walls and buildings, burned out city gates. “*This* is what we had been yearning for?” they might have wondered. “It’s a mess.” But the beginning chapters of Nehemiah are a story of hope and trust. Even from this state of ruin and disrepair, the people come together to protect and encourage each other, and the work gets done.
Finally, as we reach our scripture reading for today, the people gather at one of the restored city gates, and ask Ezra, a learned scribe, to read from scripture. For us to appreciate the import of this moment for these people, we need to actively pause and remember how that most of them would have been illiterate. They would not have had access to their sacred texts in their every-day life, and the transmission of their faith up until that point would have been primarily oral. In addition, they had often been persecuted for practicing their faith while in exile. So, to hear the words of their God, to hear the story of their people from beginning to end was unusual; they were so thirsty for it. They listened intently for about six hours, from early morning until noon. They lifted up their arms, they bowed their heads and prostrated their bodies; God’s word moved them. And so they wept.
Why were they weeping? Probably for many different reasons. Recognition of what they had lost. Recognition of how much work they still had to do. Recognition of themselves in these stories, of their shortcomings and failures. But also recognition of God’s promises; how there was hope, how God had not abandoned them, and would not abandon them.
This is the message that Ezra leans into. He tells them not to mourn, for their future is bright, and for that they should celebrate. “…the joy of the Lord is your strength,” he tells them. In the Hebrew, the grammar of this phrase is quite ambiguous. It could mean both that God’s joy in God’s people is their strength, or also that the people’s joy in God is their strength. I think never has ambiguity been so very true. Joy is a reciprocal experience, and a connective one. God’s joy in us is the wellspring of our own joy in ourselves, others and God. The people were celebrating a renewed relationship between themselves and their God, celebrating a renewed hope for how that relationship would support their future.
Another important and interesting thing about this story is its inclusivity. One of the verses that was skipped in the lectionary reading lists the thirteen laypeople that joined Ezra up on a special high wooden platform that was fashioned for the occasion. Ezra was the learned one, the clergy, yet he was not up on high by himself, he was surrounded by those he was reading for and to. Note also that it was the people who requested the reading in the first place. This was not an edict from above but a desire bubbling up from below, that Ezra, as a servant-leader, chose to honor. Many of the temple practices from before exile centered around sacrifices that only the priests could perform; this was a new kind of worship, a new kind of holiness, one that involved the people themselves, in which their participation and understanding was integral.
Further, a specific note is made about who was listening; both men and women and (presumably) children old enough to understand. This was not a communication like on top of Mount Sinai to one special person, nor was it something just for the learned, or the elite (both of which in those days would have been men). It was the word of God for everyone. Verse 3 tells us “All the people listened attentively…” This is part of what makes this such a poignant episode. Can we not imagine how distant God must have seemed during exile, how alone and afraid the Jewish people must have felt? How wonderful yet overwhelming it would have been to face the rebuilding of their homeland? Yet, in this moment, in this vulnerable yet triumphant moment, each one of them hears the word of their God and they know that it is a word for them(1). All of them. Not just the king, not just the prophets, not just the scribes but for them; the ordinary, hard-scrabble, flawed, hopeful everyday people who would rebuild their land. A word that promised them something. Promised them history and destiny, promised them clarity and courage to face their wrong-doing, promised them energy to rebuild and grow, promised them steadfast and continuing love, promised them joy. After all they had been through, of course they wept. How could they not?
Fast forward to our gospel story, and we see that this tradition of reading scripture aloud had persisted over the years into Jesus’ time. Jesus had first been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, and then had been teaching in the synagogues in Galilee. Now he had returned to Nazareth, where he grew up. He attended synagogue, as would have been his practice as an observant Jew, and he took his place in the order of service, as he must have done many times before. He read scripture to the assembled just as Ezra did. Then he began his interpretation of the scripture and it was very different to what the assembled people might have expected.
He says, Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Today, what you have just heard has been realized. What had he been reading? He had been reading Isaiah, the same scripture that we read aloud in our responsive reading today.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus took a scripture spoken by a prophet so many years before and essentially said, “Here, today, in me, this scripture is realized.” A scripture that spoke of God’s promises to God’s people, all people, the lowly, the poor, and the broken-hearted, in both physical and spiritual terms. A scripture that spoke of liberation, relief and solidarity. Because, over the years, the egalitarian promise of the text from Nehemiah had not persisted. The imperial powers had become Roman, and far less benevolent, the political elite had become craven and power-seeking, the religious elite removed and corrupt. Yet this word from Isaiah (via Jesus) spoke into that reality, a reality that did not value the people listening, and said “this is a word to all of you, and it is fulfilled right now.” Not in the past, not in future, but right now. God was still finding joy in God’s people, God was still reaching out to God’s beloved, still working for their liberation, still working for their wholeness and their healing. And in that moment, the promises of God were fulfilled in Jesus, in the Divine Human. God was coming as close to us as possible, God was showing up with skin on.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading that the presence of the Divine Humanity in Jesus communicates to us the nature and substance of Divine Love, “which is a love directed towards the whole human race whom [God] wishes to save, making them blessed and happy for ever.”(2) It communicates God wanting to impart that which is God’s own so that it might become our own. This is such a fundamental truth about God, and about what God strives for, and we all desperately need to hear it sometimes, just as the people in Nehemiah and the people in the gospel needed to hear it.
When one reads through the first several chapters of Nehemiah, one gets the sense that it represents a moment of destiny; that the future of the Jewish people could have gone a bunch of different ways. Their relative freedom at that point was so new and fragile. So it feels appropriate that they found themselves meeting at the gate of the city. Swedenborg writes that a gate represents a gateway of entrance into a new state, into a new way of thinking, just as it is a physical entrance into a place. And not the kind of entrance that we might accidentally fall into, like a hole in a wall, but an entrance that is opened to us by a particular concept of goodness and truth, a particular idea that opens up to us a new way of being (3).
For these newly liberated Jews, they were entering into a new sense of themselves and their identity as a people. And the way in which they were entering into this new kind of faith and trust was the recognition that God was with every one of them, that God valued each one of them, that their restoration was not only possible but it was the joy of the Lord to renew them and love them. This is why Ezra called it holy, why he said “This day is holy to the Lord your God.” There were so many more dramatic days in the history of the Jewish people. But this one was declared holy because it communicated, and because it realized, a connection between the hearts of people and the Lord, because the people came to understand what they meant to God and what God meant to them.
This gate remains present and waiting for us today, and whether it be for us the Torah, or Jesus, or some other epiphany of God’s presence, we have an on-going opportunity to enter into the knowledge of God’s steadfast and fierce love, to enter into the possibilities that this knowledge holds. Do not grieve for the joy of the Lord is your strength. A word for each one of us, fulfilled in our hearing.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 …all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. 2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. 9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Secrets of Heaven #4735:2
The Lord's Human, now that it has been glorified or made Divine, cannot be thought of as something merely human but as Divine Love within a human form…For it was by Divine Love that the Lord made His Human Divine, even, as has been stated, as heavenly love serves to make someone an angel after death…From this it is evident that in the celestial sense [of the bible] the Lord's Divine Human means Divine Love itself, which is a love directed towards the whole human race whom He wishes to save, making them blessed and happy for ever, and to whom He wishes to impart, insofar as its members can accept it, what is His and is Divine, so that it becomes their own.
Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-15, Revelation 19:4-9, True Christianity 791 (see below)
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Today is a day that is holding a lot, practically bursting with celebration and joy! It is Juneteenth, as well as New Church Day, and Father’s Day. And let’s not forget that it is falling in June, which is Pride month. Such a lot to celebrate!
So today, I want to focus on the thematic connection between Juneteenth and New Church Day.
Juneteenth is a holiday that originated in Texas as a celebration of the day in 1865, when a Union Army General proclaimed freedom for the enslaved people of that state. Now, the Emancipation Proclamation had indeed already been issued two years earlier on January 1st 1863 but its enforcement was inconsistent, and relied on the presence of Union troops. Texas, the most remote of Confederate states, lagged far behind on implementation and actively tried to avoid implementation, and thus we have the importance of this second, state-focused proclamation in 1865.
Local celebrations of that day started immediately and continued to gain momentum, especially in the safer spaces that churches provided, eventually becoming a day for not only celebrating emancipation but also celebrating African American culture.
Now, New Church Day has also been celebrated by the Swedenborgian movement for a very long time. It commemorates the day, June 19th 1770, that Swedenborg reports the disciples traveling far and wide in heaven to proclaim: The Lord God Jesus Christ Reigns, whose kingdom shall be forever and ever.
On the face of it, this seems like a fairly basic theological thing to proclaim; why is it so important as to be celebrated by the church every year? Well, this statement comes as a postscript at the end of Swedenborg’s work True Christianity, his two volume survey of the theology of his revelation. And in particular, the statement comes as the capstone to Swedenborg’s treatment in that book of the rise of a new church in human culture and history.
Swedenborg didn’t really understand this “new church” as being an organization, he understood it as a new way for humanity to be in relationship with God. Again and again throughout his final section on the new church, he states that for our salvation, people need to be in active and personal partnership with God. This was in contrast to all the ways that religion throughout the ages had tried to convince people how they would be saved: enacting sacrifices in a certain way or in a certain place or to a certain god, enacting certain rituals or sacraments, believing the “right” theology and saying the “right” creeds.
Instead, our salvation (note: not our chosen-ness, not our get out of jail free card) but rather our happiness to eternity, rests on us choosing to engage with a personal God who we believe cares about *us*. And, Swedenborg believed that it was really hard to have that kind of relationship with a God unless we could “see” (meaning conceptualize) God as human, and not human in a limited way, but human as in someone kindred with whom we can feel safe and understood.
Therefore, Jesus, the human incarnation of an infinite and invisible God, becomes an integral part of us human beings being able to buy into and participate in this kind of relationship. It helps us to recognize ourselves in Jesus, to see the same struggles, the same human shape of body and life, to know that he experienced much of what we experience. God came to us as Jesus so to increase our capacity and our openness for the type of engaged partnership that Swedenborg understood to be so important to our salvation.
Our reading from Revelation uses the metaphor of marriage in order to communicate the closeness, commitment, and free choice, that is involved in this partnership between each of us and God. In verse 7, For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Now, marriage is certainly not the only relationship that can model these characteristics of course, but through this metaphor, we get a taste for the kind of engaged steadfastness that God is going for with us.
And so perhaps we can see now the import of declaring The Lord God Jesus Christ Reigns. This very simple statement contains the acknowledgement that God and Jesus are one, and so contains the potentiality for our humanness and God’s humanness to be in a spiritually productive and personal relationship. And in addition, the fact of Jesus being God and God being Jesus communicates to us the enormity of God’s Divine Love, and God’s single-mindedness in bringing that love to us, to every person, in a meaningful and progressively transformative way.
Which brings us back around to Juneteenth. Swedenborg saw the New Church as something that would progressively emerge in the world the more that individuals chose to engage in partnership with God. The more individuals engage in partnership with God, the more they would see the truth of God’s love for everyone, the more they would value humility, diversity, equality, and see the potential and value of each human soul the way God sees it.
Slavery itself was the opposite of that. In its essence, it proclaimed that some people are less worthy than others, so much less worthy that they did not deserve basic autonomy or dignity, or the power to choose their own path, and that conversely some people were more worthy and tasked with dominion over others. There couldn’t be anything more opposite to the basic tenets of New Church Day, in that God’s Divine Love seeks a relationship with all souls, holding them all with equal importance, and that all have an equal place in God’s vision of the future.
And so Swedenborgians would understand the abolition of slavery as one more sign (among many!) that the New Church is coming into the world, that the metaphorical New Jerusalem from the Book of Revelation is descending from heaven to become manifest and real in the here and now. The hope contained within New Church Day is that there will many more Juneteenths to be celebrated, large and small, and that ultimately one day there will no longer be a need to free people from injustice because injustice will no longer exist.
But as we look to that future, we have to recall that Juneteenth only exists because of the *work* of people, (and not only their work but their suffering and sacrifice) responding in faith to the God, or the highest moral imperative, of their understanding. New Church Day celebrates the beginning declaration of *what could be*, and now it is up to all of us to bring it about. And this is why I chose to include the final verse in our Daniel reading: “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.” The celebration of New Church Day should trouble us a little, certainly even a lot, for the ways in which the characteristics of the Holy City are yet to be manifest.
Part of engaging in relationship, with God but also with anyone, is seeing through another’s eyes not only our strengths but also how we can improve, how we can love more effectively. This means relinquishing many things our ego would rather not relinquish, changing our mindset from serving ourselves to serving others. As it is with us personally, so it is with our society and world at large. The impulses that built institutional slavery have not gone away, instead these forces of racism and domination have been woven into the fabric of our society. For white folks, Juneteenth should serve as an opportunity for learning, as we reflect on how we can help to make things better. We can choose, together, to weave a new pattern, but there is still so much work to do and we cannot turn away from doing our part.
Let us also remember though, that God is helping. What is so moving about New Church Day for me is to deeply feel the import of God’s dream for humanity. When we love someone, we want what is best for them, we want them to exist in a context that allows them to thrive, we want them to be supported in ways that help to build them up, and we want them to be challenged in ways that help them to grow into the amazing souls that we know them to be. This the way God feels about us, all of us. And so God dreams for us The New Jerusalem, The Holy City, a place we only know about through the metaphor of scripture, but a place that I think we all feel in our hearts. New Church Day, and I imagine Juneteenth too, are about celebration but also about yearning, about longing for what could be. There is something very bittersweet about seeing with one eye that which is still broken, and with the other a restoration that still is to come.
So today, let us inhabit fully this in-between space, let us feel both reproach and hopefulness, both criticism and promise, for that is where we can get things done. Let us be as faithful Daniel “troubled in spirit” while also as in our Revelation reading, part of the “great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.”
Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-15
9 “As I looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.
14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
15 “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.
Revelation 19: 4-9
4 The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: “Amen, Hallelujah!”
5 Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who revere him, both great and small!”
6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
9 Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
True Christianity 791. Postscript
After this work was finished, the Lord called together the twelve disciples who followed him in the world. The next day he sent all of them out to the entire spiritual world to preach the gospel that the Lord God Jesus Christ reigns and that his kingdom will last for ages of ages, as foretold by Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14) and by the Book of Revelation (Revelation 11:15); also that "people who come to the wedding feast of the Lamb are blessed" (Revelation 19:9). This occurred on June 19, 1770. This is what the Lord was referring to when he said, "He will send out his angels, and they will gather his chosen people from one end of the heavens to the other" (Matthew 24:31).
Readings: Genesis 18: 1-10a, Luke 10: 38-42, Secrets of Heaven #2189:2 (see below)
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Photo by: Pragyan Bezbaruah
Interpreters have often been quite hard on poor Sarah and Martha in these texts. Though it wasn’t included in our reading, Genesis 18 goes on to detail Sarah’s reaction to the news that she will have a son. Now, she and Abraham are remarkably old, long past child bearing years. God had already promised them a son, but that was many years ago and they had been waiting a long long time. When Sarah overheard the promise of the child, well, she laughed. It seemed ridiculous. And her laughter, even as it informed the naming of her son Isaac, has sometimes been lifted up as a lack of faith. Likewise poor Martha toiling away in the kitchen. She has often been portrayed as preoccupied with silly, superficial, self-serving things, her resentment as unwarranted, her complaining to Jesus remarkably presumptive.
But as we know from our own spiritual journeys, our feelings and our reactions are rarely so simple, so black and white. With a Swedenborgian interpretive lens, we look not to each character in themselves, as if one is a model for us and one is not, but rather, that each character represents a part of ourselves. We all hold within us Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Martha, some parts welcoming some parts doubting, some parts yearning, some parts resentful. The key is to notice which part is rising up within us, and why, and what we are to learn from its appearance.
As we begin to explore commonalities between the texts, we can see that each begins with some sort of act of welcoming, an opening of a home towards people who are guests. Then, once the guests are welcomed, the expectations of the hosts are challenged is some way.
In both stories, there appears a sudden need for hospitality. Abraham spots three strangers in the distance. Their arrival is unexpected. The narrator has informed the reader that it is the Lord, but Abraham does not know this yet. He offers them sustenance and orders the preparation of a choice meal. Sarah and the servants diligently get to work. In our text from Luke, Jesus and the disciples were traveling as was their practice, and they came to a village “where a woman name Martha opened her home to him.” It’s not a foregone conclusion this would happen. Jesus has been gaining notoriety for sure, but he was still regarded suspiciously by many. Martha was taking a chance on him, for clearly she had responded to his message.
And so, we are prompted to consider the practice of welcoming and hospitality in our own lives. What happens when we open our homes and our shared spaces with others and with God? On a deeper level, what happens when we likewise open our hearts, our minds, our lives to others and to God?
Certainly, we might first imagine that it is our job to make guests feel comfortable by doing all the right things. We’ll do our guest room up just right, and they will be happy. And when we ourselves are guests, perhaps we try not to be any trouble. And this is nice, all well and good. But God’s purpose for hospitality is not limited to niceness. When we are willing to welcome God into our lives, we find that God has no intention of being a perfect guest. God has a little bit of trouble in mind.
On each of our journeys, God aims to be present, loving, and steadfast but also to challenge our expectations, to lead us into transformation. We all have certain notions around “this is the way things are.” Sarah’s barrenness, and her age, are a metaphor for the ways in which we might have written ourselves off…we will always be too “something” for God to truly work a miracle of transformation in us. Too complacent, too busy, too tired, too satisfied, too nervous, too overwhelmed, just not ready. Sarah knew what God’s ultimate plans were, yet she had exempted herself from participation in them.
Martha was grappling with expectations in a different way; the expectations of the world around her. As the host, Martha had certain duties that she felt she needed to fulfill. Indeed, earlier in the very same chapter, Jesus had sent out the disciples to go from town to town, to rely on the very kind of hospitality that Martha was giving. So we need to be clear, Martha was doing a very good, very needed thing. And at the same time, she was being challenged to think differently about the roles that her society proscribed. Yes, Mary was neglecting her work, but it was work that her society had deemed appropriate for her. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary was transgressing social boundaries, taking on the space of a disciple, who was typically only male. Yet, Jesus lifts her up as an unlikely, unexpected hero, just like the Samaritan was lifted up in the parable directly beforehand. Martha then joins with us, with the hearers of the story, as Jesus compassionately makes clear that the boundaries, the roles that the world creates are not operative in the kingdom of God. Mary has a yearning in her heart, and it shall not be taken away by those who would act to limit others because it serves them in some way.
And so *we* are also challenged to see differently. Sarah was challenged to see herself differently, Martha was challenged to see others differently. And it was hospitality that kickstarted the process; we cannot be transformed if we do not open our doors, our minds, our hearts. This opening, this welcoming of unexpected experience is not always easy.
Sometimes our ideas about ourselves and others, yes even our ideas about our own goodness, have to fall apart and be rebuilt. We are forced to face our own limits, we are forced to see what compromises we make just to feel okay in this broken world, and we are sometimes forced to see our notions of who and what is righteous crumble.
When this happens we will often react in human ways; we doubt, we resent, we resist, we object, we justify. These are all normal things to do and feel. It’s just not where God will leave us. Chaos, confusion, challenge are not the end point, as overwhelming and all consuming as they might feel. Because, the beautiful part of this process is that, as we know from the Old Testament story, it ends with birth. Sarah is told that she will give birth to a son. Sarah hears a word from God that seems unbelievable, and she laughs. The Lord again compassionately challenges her: “Why did you laugh?” We can imagine God thinking: “What else do you imagine I am trying to do here?” And then we read in verse 14 "Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” I will return to you and you will have a son, I will return to you and you will have birthed something new. This is what God is up to.
In the Swedenborgian worldview, Sarah’s son Isaac represents the rational becoming spiritual. In our reading, we learned about the process of spiritual transformation; that it happens because of a desire to know what is true, what is ultimately and beautifully true, even if the truth is hidden, as it often is, by our expectations. This ability to look for, and to recognize, essential truth is what Swedenborg calls the human “rational.” The rational just starts out wanting to know things. But in order to be able to become spiritually mature, our rational has to figure out what to *do* with the truth that it has found, how to integrate that truth into a life well lived, a life of love.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading that when we are devoted to seeking truth and living a life of love, then this life of love is “constantly being born and developing and increasing” within us. We can now start to see how the story of Sarah and Martha is one that happens again and again and again. This is how it works: in a life that wishes to become progressively more spiritual, in a life that wishes to know what is true and real, we are constantly challenged to rewire our habitual ways of thinking and seeing, constantly challenged figure out new ways of loving our neighbor, and thus we give birth to new versions of ourselves. Constantly. This is how our faith is formed, this is how we become angels, this is how God leads us to eternity. It’s not always comfortable, sometimes it is downright unpleasant, but it is the way of love: sacrificial, courageous, and determined.
So, throughout our day-to-day, throughout our lives, like Abraham, we are sitting at the entrance to our tent and we see the stranger coming, a person, a circumstance, a life-change, a bump-in-the-road. What do we see Abraham do? He runs toward them and bows down. Our natural response might be to close our eyes, to walk on by, to hum a tune and look away. But no, our sacred text bids us run towards them, run because we know that they are gift from God, run because we know that God works to transform us through our experience in this world, run because God’s economy wastes nothing. Hospitality, openness, and welcome are the right thing to do. And they work to transform us as well.
Martha welcomed Jesus because she perceived that he was doing something important. He was; and because of that she was challenged to think anew, challenged to notice her own bias, preoccupations, and yearnings. We are not told how this works out for her, what her reflection looked like, what new thing was born for her. What we do know is that the Lord was doing what God always does: breathing us into expanded ways of thinking and loving so that we can transform and grow, so we can become the angels God knows that we can be.
1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” 6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” 7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. 9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Secrets of Heaven 2189:2
The first and foremost element of the rational with a person is truth…and therefore it is the affection for truth, which exists with a person to enable them to be reformed and so regenerated, such reformation being effected by means of cognitions and facts, which are matters of truth. These are being constantly implanted in good, that is, in charity, so that in this manner a person may receive the life of charity. It is therefore the affection for truth with a person that predominates in their rational. For the situation with the life of charity, which is the life of heaven itself, is that in people who are being reformed and regenerated it is constantly being born and developing and increasing, such growth being achieved by means of truths. Therefore the more truth that is implanted, the more is the life of charity perfected. Thus as is the nature and the amount of truth present with a person, so is the charity present with them.
Readings: Amos 5:21-24, John 14: 8-20, 25-27, True Christianity 138 (see below)
See also on Youtube
We continue in John’s version of the Last Supper, as we have for the last couple of weeks. Again, the scene is intimate. Jesus is talking with his disciples during their last meal together. They are grappling with the knowledge that Jesus will be leaving them and so Jesus tries to comfort them. He tells them: “you know the way to the place where I am going.”(14:4) They have been through a lot together, and Jesus believes in them, even as he knows the road will be challenging.
As with anyone who we love who is leaving us, in small and larger ways, we want to know something about how we will stay in contact. When my daughter leaves for a sleepover with a friend, I tell to her bring her phone in case she needs to text me. When I leave my brother in Australia, we promise that we will Skype. When we can’t be there for a friend at an event, we tell them that we will be there in spirit. Likewise, the disciples want to know how Jesus will remain present to them after he is gone.
So Jesus starts to speak to them about it. He invokes something called the paraclete, from the word in greek: parakletos (par-rah-clay-tus). This word is variously translated as advocate, helper, counselor, comforter, consoler, intercessor. It was a word used in those days to mean someone who represented you in court, one who pleads another’s cause, and more broadly it meant anyone who helps or assists. It literally means “one who comes alongside,” from the greek para, meaning beside or near, and kletos, meaning one who is invited or appointed.
This is what Jesus will leave the disciples with: the knowledge that there will still be something or someone walking alongside the them in their continuing journey. What exactly will that be? The gospel here calls it The Spirit of Truth, and later The Holy Spirit. It is the third part of what is known theologically as the Trinity.
Christian Theologians have argued throughout the ages about the three-fold nature of the divine: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some make a very clear separation between the different divine figures and treat them essentially as different people, in action if not in thought. Swedenborgianism, or the New Church, however, teaches a strict monotheism; that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit represent three different aspects of God’s nature: Divine Love, Divine Truth and Divine Outreach or Action, as we heard in our reading today.
Now it is easy to see why some trinitarian theologies lean towards distinct persons. Jesus does often speak to “The Father” as if separate, and does speak of the Holy Spirit in these terms: “I will send another comforter to help you…” This certainly sounds separate. But there are two kinds of words in greek that mean “another”: allos, meaning another of the same sort and hetero, meaning another of a different quality or kind. This verse, verse 16, uses allos, meaning another of the same kind. There is a clear continuity implied. Now, with our own temporal human minds, we mark our lives through beginnings and endings. To the disciples, Jesus was leaving and something would need to replace him. To human beings, that’s the way it works, that is our experience. In God’s time however…this replacement, this holy spirit, was and could only be, that which has always been. We recall that the greek word for spirit is pneuma, meaning breath, reminding us of the way that God breathed spirit into the first human being in the book of Genesis.
Of course Jesus would not leave us with nothing, no connection to him. The purpose of our creation is so that we might have an intimate, seen and sensed relationship with God. And so, the spirit is not new. The spirit is naturalized in creation, in our creation. In the John text, Jesus is lifting up what has always been true, that the spirit comes alongside, that the spirit is breath and life. That the spirit is an advocate, counselor, comforter, and helper. That the spirit is a part of the sacred reinforcing circle that is the trinity.
But, we also remember that the disciples were moving forward into a new story. They were not going to return to their previous lives as fishermen, they were going to lead a new movement, and this would be challenging and dangerous work. Which means that the Holy Spirit was going to be an active force alongside them.
From verse 25: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Even as an important function of the spirit was and is presence and comfort, so too a function of the spirit was and is to move us forward in the living of our life, reminding us what is important, reminding us of our grounding in God, urging us onward into new truths, new perspectives, new insights and new action. The Holy Spirit as it is with us now becomes the re-interpreter of Jesus’ words, the great contextualizer of divine truth (1), the maker of usefulness and meaning, application and growth, so that Jesus’ life can be ongoing in the here and now. So that we can realize love in the everyday.
And so in this active way, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is present with us to teach and to remind. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that “the divine actions and powerful effects [of the Holy Spirit] also include the acts of renewing us, bringing us to life, sanctifying us, and making us just.” The Advocate sent to defend and support each of us individually, will naturally, necessarily, call us to defend and support others. To be the one who comes alongside others.
And this is needed so desperately. My favorite cartoonist posted something recently that used the term “life ache.” How real that is. The recent shootings in the last two weeks, first in Buffalo and then at an elementary school in Texas, shred our hearts apart because of the innocent lives that were lost. There were and continue to be, on the ground, many who have come alongside, to tend to the wounds and to the grief. Such an important ministry. But being at a distance does not absolve us from coming alongside as well, in different ways. What might these ways be? The Holy Spirit also serves to remind us of what God has said. Like this famous passage in Amos we heard earlier:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)
Listen now to this adaption of the same verses from the minister Emily Elizabeth Ewing(2):
"I hate, I despise your vigils,
and I take no delight in your school shooter drills.
Even though you offer me your thoughts and prayers,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your collection plates
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your lament;
I will not listen to the melody of your tears.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
- an adaptation of Amos 5:21-24
This is the Holy Spirit, heard in this moment as the great contextualizer of truth, the force that takes these ancient words and uses them to reveal to us a truth about our current circumstances. Such truth is not easy to hear. Sometimes the coming alongside for the Holy Spirit will be comfort, but if it is also to teach and remind then sometimes it will need to be a rebuke, sometimes it will need to be a call to action. And this will likely make us feel very uncomfortable, overwhelmed, afraid, and uncertain. This is to be expected. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that another function of the holy spirit is to purify us, to help us to act when we are afraid and to keep going when we are despairing.
We need this, we need this holy balance. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, both the one who consoles us and defends us, and the one who pleads another’s case to us. In John, we hear Jesus saying “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.” As we recognize the inherent responsibility in accepting and engaging with the Holy Spirit, we can hear this not only as Jesus speaking to us, but to the people who we can serve and defend. I will come to you. I will send another comforter; this allos, this another of the same sort, it can be us as well…we too can strive to live forward God’s love, and Jesus’ courage.
I Love Jesus final words in this text; Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. I don’t know about you but to me these words seem comforting but also tricky. There is a caveat sandwiched in there. I do not give to you as the world gives. Of course, not, Jesus gave as Jesus was and is. We might want an external peace, we might want only the comforter part, but that is not the whole of who God is; God speaks truth when it needs to be spoken. And so the Holy Spirit too draws us toward holy action that needs to occur in the service of others.
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
John 14:8-20, 25-27
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” 9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
True Christianity 138
Chapter 3: The Holy Spirit and the Divine Action
UPON entering the spiritual world, which generally happens on the third day after death, all…who have developed a just idea of the Lord our Savior are first taught about the divine Trinity. They are specifically taught that the Holy Spirit is not a separate God; the Word uses the phrase to mean the divine action that radiates from the one omnipresent God.
1. The Holy Spirit is the divine truth and also the divine action and effect that radiate from the one God, in whom the divine Trinity exists: the Lord God the Savior.
2. Generally speaking, the divine actions and powerful effects meant by the Holy Spirit are the acts of reforming and regenerating us. Depending on the outcome of this reformation and regeneration, the divine actions and powerful effects also include the acts of renewing us, bringing us to life, sanctifying us, and making us just; and depending on the outcome of these in turn, the divine actions and powerful effects also include the acts of purifying us from evils, forgiving our sins, and ultimately saving us….The Lord has these powerful effects on those who believe in him.
Readings: John 17:20-26, True Christianity 43 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Today we are continuing in the gospel of John hearing Jesus’ prayer for oneness and unity in the church and the world.
This word, unity, might cause you, as it does me, to sigh and feel a bit cynical. Is unity even possible? Politically, this country is extremely divided right now. That’s not news. But let’s just say it: it’s exhausting. Disagreements are a normal thing in the life of a country, but I don’t think it’s the fact that we disagree that is so discouraging. People have aways had different visions for this country. What feels discouraging is that it seems we can no longer agree on basic versions of reality, and so we are retreating, we are digging in, we are treating each other with suspicion and distrust.
Unity seems impossible when a person or group of people refuses to concede to common ideals like human dignity, or to even try to look for common ground. It is easy to call for unity, but much harder to decide what to do when overtures are rebuffed out of hand, when compromise itself is seen as a sign of weakness or capitulation, when power is sought in order to “win” instead of seeking the common good. At that point, it seems there is nowhere to go but further into our own silos. And from inside our own bubbles, either out of disappointment, disillusionment, or pure preoccupation with power and being right, retaliation starts to seem justified. So, I will forgive you, and you can forgive me, if we hear Jesus’ prayer for unity and oneness and think: “Yeah, right. Good luck with that.”
Except. [Sigh.] Except…there is the tiny problem that our whole tradition is based on the actions of Jesus, who endured torture and humiliation and returned those actions with love, not retaliation. A person’s whose last prayer for us was for oneness, for forgiveness. We don’t get to take a pass on this, not if we truly want to follow Jesus, not if we want to say that the Easter story that we just heard a month ago, means something to us. So, I guess that means we need to buckle up.
Part of the problem with this text, is that we hear Jesus praying for unity but he doesn’t tell us how to make it happen. Unfortunately, the bible is not an instruction manual. Sometimes we desperately want it to be, but it is not. It is stories about people trying to figure out how to live in relationship to God, their triumphs and their failures both. In this text from John, we are essentially overhearing Jesus own prayer for us, which is different to receiving a teaching(1). We are eavesdropping. We are hearing the intimate and heartfelt desire of Jesus, praying for his disciples, praying for us, not telling us what to do. What we do see, though, is Jesus grounding that unity he prays for in love, as we hear in verse 23: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.”
When we turn to Swedenborg, we receive advice about the three essentials of love: “The essence of love is loving others who are outside oneself, wanting to be one with them, and blessing them from oneself.” This description certainly sounds a lot like love, and it might seem easy to contemplate how these characteristics of love manifest in our personal relationships. But how might these ideas be used in particular towards unity, in a situation where unity is not the first impulse? This is much harder.
First, the essence of love is loving others who are outside of oneself. This might seem obvious, but we can’t love others if we are filled with our own ego concerns. And neither can a group of people act as a team, or work together towards common goals when everyone looking out for themselves. The easiest example is a sports team. A player who is grandstanding will probably miss the right play, and get in the way of the whole team succeeding. Loving means caring more about people outside of ourselves, or the common good, or a higher ideal, more than we want to serve our personal ego, and our personal goals, reputation, or righteousness. It is simple; love requires sacrifice. And many times, this involves listening deeply, putting aside our preconceived notions.
Second, the essence of love is wanting to be one with others. Of course it is easy to want to be one with the people we already love, that feels very natural. It feels much less natural with people that challenge us, feel different to us. It often feels easier to put physical or emotional distance between us and them, so we choose that option. We choose to “other” people, make assumptions about them that justify the distance, put them in boxes so that we don’t have to respect their inner life, and recognize their humanity. The demonization of immigrants or transgender people is a clear example of this tendency, one way cruel policies are being justified. Yet, we will find there can be no unity without respect, curiosity and openness. Love is inherently connective; it helps us to recognize what we share.
Third, the essence of loving another is blessing them from oneself. Love is nothing unless it is put into action, used to serve others, in greater and lesser ways. And again, it is easy to serve the people we already love. We do that almost automatically. It is much harder, in the service of unity, to serve and bless those who hurt us or disagree with us, those whom we think don’t “deserve” our help. Yet, love is courageous, love is faithful. There is an amazing example from a few years ago(2). A well-known comedian named Sarah Silverman received a tweet from a man calling her a filthy name. Instead of retaliating, she looked at his profile, and found a story of frustration and depression, as he suffered from debilitating back pain and a traumatic past. Ms. Silverman reached out to him over twitter in empathy and understanding, even rallying local fans to help the man find treatment for his back pain. The man was amazed and grateful, and apologized for his behavior. Ms. Silverman could have been defensive, made her main concern her pride, and yet she looked closely and found something to connect with and a way to help.
And this is the hard part. It is easy to want to be one with and bless others whom we already love and agree with. This kind of unity feels effortless, because we want to do it, it makes us feel good, included, safe. The subversiveness of the crucifixion is that Jesus extended love and forgiveness even to those who persecuted him. He resisted the natural human temptation to lash out in retaliation, and showed that the sacrificial nature of love is what brings life, resurrection, freedom. Now we must be clear: the cross is not calling for martyrdom. It is not to be used by the powerful to tell the less powerful what they must sacrifice. We see a lot of that in this world, and it is not okay. We definitely need to prevent harm from happening to ourselves and others, both physically and emotionally, wherever we can. But we cannot forget that the symbolic import of the crucifixion is that our self-centered ego, our need to “win,” our need for retaliation and to demonize others - this needs to die. Then we, and others, and the whole world, can really live, can rise from the tomb of mutually assured destruction.
Gandhi is said to have stated: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Lest we think that an eye for an eye is some ancient code that we have now moved beyond, take a look at social media. Vengeance and retaliation, or at least a habitually defensive and aggressive stance towards all who disagree, is still considered to be noble, macho, desirable, practical. Culture tells us that we are allowed to give up on the humanity of others, if they have wronged us, even in a small way. But Jesus tells us differently.
So we return to the essentials of love. They don’t make sense in the landscape of disunity. Our pragmatic selves tell us they are stupid, naive, insane. But they are also our only hope, our only way to life, the only way to stay truly sane.
I was recently watching an adaptation of the classic book, Les Miserable by Victor Hugo(3). The story is about the reformation of a prisoner named Jean Valjean, and a policeman, Javert, who dedicates his life to bringing Valjean to justice, even as Valjean attempts to create a new and respectable life. After escaping from prison, Valjean takes on new identity and adopts an orphan girl, Cosette, who was being abused by her foster family. The years go by and they become as close as father and daughter. Javert, meanwhile, is tormented by the idea that a criminal like Valjean could be living a free life, and he searches for him everywhere. Eventually, Cosette falls in love with a boy named Marius and wishes to marry. Valjean is stricken at the thought of losing her, knowing that he would never be able to join her in society, due to his secret. Nevertheless, Valjean saves the life of Marius on the battlefield of the revolution, and drags him through the sewers of Paris to safety. As they emerge, Javert finally catches up with Valjean. He did not expect to find him in the midst of a selfless act. As he tries to puzzle out this contradiction on the way to the police station he asks:
“That young man…is he a particular friend of yours? Would you say that he is dear to you?”
Valjean replies: “Quite the contrary. If he lives, he intends to rob me of all my happiness.”
Javert is confused: “And yet, you….” he trails off. “Are you insane?”
Valjean replies: “No, I don’t think so. Are you?”
And we see it suddenly dawning for Javert that it is *his* life that is the insane one, a life preoccupied with vengeance and reputation, a life boxed in by obsession with being righteous, a life that couldn’t contemplate mercy or forgiveness or transformation.
And so we ask ourselves: What is the true insanity? In a world that feels less and less unified, ultimately, believing that people are unchangeable, and the world is irredeemable feels like the true insanity. Abandoning love feels like the true insanity.
But that doesn’t make the sane choice easy. The problem with the idea of unity, the reason that the word might ring hollow to our ears is that we all intuitively know that unity doesn’t just happen. You can’t just flip a switch. You have to love your way into it. And that is awful news because it is just so hard. So hard to love people that consistently act in bad faith, consistently take advantage, consistently act defensively and make decisions with which we cannot agree and cannot fathom. But what is our choice; would we really prefer the tomb? For all of us?
Loving our way to unity is messy. Sometimes we will have to make the call to protect ourselves and others. As we heard in our reading “It is love that wants those three things, however, and wisdom that brings them about.” We act in wisdom to protect and strategize and organize, but we do it while still practicing the three essentials of love. They are not a check list that we get to abandon because we think that someone or some group no longer deserves love and respect. God is always working in people, in every moment, in a myriad of unseen ways. God is always planting seeds.
And Jesus prayed: “Righteous Father…I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them…” (v25-26) Let us kneel beside Jesus in this prayer, may we always work to make God known.
(1) The New Interpreters Bible, p682.
(3) see pbs.org
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
True Christianity 43
The essence of love is loving others who are outside oneself, wanting to be one with them, and blessing them from oneself. Two things - love and wisdom - constitute the essence of God; but three things constitute the essence of God's love: his loving others who are outside of himself, his wanting to be one with them, and his blessing them from himself. The same three constitute the essence of his wisdom because in God love and wisdom are united…It is love that wants those three things, however, and wisdom that brings them about.
 The first essential, God's loving others outside himself, is recognizable in God's love for the entire human race. And as those who love the purpose also love the means, God also loves all the other things he created, because they are the means.
…God’s love goes out and extends not only to good people and good things but also to evil people and evil things. It goes not only to the people and things that are in heaven but also to those that are in hell…
Despite this, evil people and things are still evil. This is a result of what is in the people and the objects themselves. Evil people and things do not receive the love of God as it truly and most profoundly is; they receive the love of God according to their own nature, much the way thorns and nettles receive the heat from the sun and the rain from the sky.
 The second essential of God's love, his wanting to be one with others, is recognizable in his partnership with the angelic heaven, with the church on earth, with everyone in the church, and with everything good and true that forms and constitutes an individual and a church. In fact, seen in its own right, love is nothing but an effort to forge a partnership…
 The third essential of God's love, his blessing others from himself, is recognizable in eternal life, which is the unending blessedness, good fortune, and happiness that God gives to those who let his love in. As God is love itself, he is also blessedness itself; and as every love exudes pleasure, so divine love eternally exudes blessedness itself, good fortune itself, and happiness itself. God gives these blessings to angels and people after death through his partnership with them.
Readings: John 21:1-19, True Christianity 364:1,3 (see below)
I know that I say this all the time, but this is one of my favorite bible stories. There is something so simple and beautiful about Jesus inviting his disciples to sit down to a simple meal on the beach. Jesus says a lot of inspiring things in the gospels, but the invitation “Come and eat breakfast” just lets my heart and soul exhale. In the aftermath of something as momentous as the resurrection, Jesus bids us find nourishment in the realities of the everyday.
After the post-resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, we suddenly find the disciples back in Galilee. We don’t actually know what brought them back there, the text doesn’t tell us. Perhaps they were uncertain and afraid, so they returned to what they knew. Perhaps they were confused as to what their mission was to be. Perhaps they were simply preparing themselves for what they imagined was to come. Either way, returning to something familiar is a common response to uncertainty and change. There was so much for them to process; not only had they witnessed Jesus’ death and return, one of their own group had been the one to betray Jesus in the first place, and Peter himself had denied him. There was plenty of cause for both lament and hope, so they were probably experiencing some pretty complicated emotions. In the end, I think they were mostly just waiting to see what was going to happen.
What happens is that Jesus appears to them again, and invites them into the experience of a miraculous catch and then a meal of fish and bread. The simple meal recalls earlier in the gospel of John, when Jesus fed the multitude with the same food, at the same location. John does not have a communion episode as the other gospels do, where Jesus shares a meal with the disciples and says the familiar words, “this is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” What Jesus does say after the miracles of the loaves and fishes is, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (6:35) This final miracle also recalls the first of Jesus’ signs in this gospel: the miracle of the water turning into wine at the wedding at Cana. In John’s gospel, in the beginning, middle and end, in celebration, in a crowd, with an intimate few, the point is clear: God is the source of life-giving nourishment.
God is constantly being that source for us and we don’t always notice. When we do notice, it is often because something has turned out differently or better than we expected. And so we see in this gospel, how the notion of God as source of life-giving nourishment is communicated and recognized through abundance. Wine where there was none, fish and bread for everyone when there was only a little, full to bursting nets when the fish weren’t biting. The epiphany is that God’s presence is revealed to us when we recognize the abundance available to us. All of God, all the time. We read in our Swedenborg reading (True Christianity 364):
The Lord is omnipresent; and everywhere he is present, he is present with his entire essence. It is impossible for him to take out some of his essence and give part of it to one person and another part to another. He gives it all. He also gives us the ability to adopt as much as we wish of it, whether a little or a lot…In a word, all things are full of God. We each take our own portion from that fullness.
The gospel of John writes: “For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (6:33) Our life comes from God, and we are full of God in every moment. And further, we get to the be ones who decide how much we recognize and engage that gift.
And so God shows up on a beach and invites us to breakfast. Oh, how I love Jesus’ super-casual question: “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” The whole serious and poignant episode is leavened with Peter’s bumbling enthusiasm, as he frantically pulls on his clothes and jumps into the water. Peter has always been all in, even if he couldn’t always follow through. We all need to grapple with how we deny or avoid the fullness of God’s presence with us. We will soon get to Peter and his conversation with Jesus that reads as a redemptive replay of his three-fold denial. But, first, even here on the beach, his failure is already subtly referenced by the fire of burning coals. It had been around such a fire that Peter had repeatedly denied knowing Jesus. Here, the fire reappears, a reminder to Peter, and to us, of how we need to improve, where we need to open up our hearts, how we need to re-evaluate our habits and our ways of thinking.
But it is important to note that this fire is not meant to hurt us. The bible often uses fire language in the sense of purification, but that is not the purpose here. This is a gentle fire, used to cook a meal that will nourish. So, it is with our process. We should face our failures unflinchingly not because we deserve punishment, or that it is good that we should suffer for our wrongs, bur rather, so that we might learn how to act differently. The power from those red-hot coals, the power of self-reflection, is converted into making something useful, a meal, that will nourish our further journey.
And Jesus says: “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” In the Swedenborgian worldview, fish represent facts that we derive through our senses (1). God asks us to bring what we ourselves have caught, to bring the things we have noticed happening in our lives due to our specific circumstances, and what those facts suggest to us. To this meal with God, to our life with God, we are asked to bring the fruits of our own experience, our wonderings, our questions, our realizations. We and God both bring something. We bring what we have gleaned from God’s great abundance and we offer it back up to God. And God brings the gentle fire of love to helps us to transform our offerings into a regenerated life. We eat, we notice, we learn, we are changed.
So, in this story, we see a different kind of eucharist, something grounded in our daily life, something grounded in the ordinary. It recalls for me a moment at one of the first services at my ministry internship site. At that church, at the early service, we would do communion every week. Like in our bible story, it was an intimate scene, conducted in a small chapel as opposed to the larger sanctuary. Our musician would play the piano and people would approach to receive the bread and the wine, one by one. Then towards the end, the minister would offer communion to the musician, right in her seat at the piano. She would pause her music for just a moment, take communion, and hear the words “This is the presence of Jesus, given in love for you…” ….and then return to playing the music. And it would always strike me as so poignant a moment, that suspension of breath, that sacred pause, that pregnant silence, as one person took in the presence of God, and we all were witness to it.
All things are full of God…means that every meal is communion, every breath is sacred space, every pause is pregnant with the fullness of God’s presence. We gather at the Holy Supper together because sometimes we need to remember just how holy the world really is.
Then, after they had eaten, Jesus has a conversation with Peter, and from this we come to understand that our journey is not just individualistic, that our nourishment at the meal calls us into mission, that taking our portion from God’s fullness must open our eyes to what being in God’s fullness means. When Peter denied Jesus around that fire in Jerusalem, it was not that Peter had denied who Jesus was, it was that Peter had denied his relationship with Jesus (2). “Aren’t you one of his disciples? Peter was asked, to which he replied “I am not.” Another asked “Didn’t I see you with him?” and Peter denies it again. He didn’t say Jesus wasn’t Lord, he said he wasn’t one of his followers. In that moment, in talking with Jesus, Peter is getting to reclaim that relationship, to recognize that loving Jesus is not only about recognizing him, but also about transforming that love into useful action, about following him. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?…Take care of my sheep.” The most famous of this gospel’s passages tells us that “God so loved the world…” (3:16) In the words of theologian Karoline Lewis, this is one of the ways that God was going to love the world now, by encouraging Jesus’ followers to be good shepherds, to take care of each other, and to take care of the vulnerable (3).
Ultimately, this story is about what discipleship would look like post-resurrection. Jesus was not always going to be with them. In the absence of clear direction, the disciples returned to fishing. Jesus gently reminded them that they had more to do. He reiterated his call to them: “Follow me.” But before that he said “Come and have breakfast.” Discipleship is sometimes difficult. Peter would lead a whole movement, and his commitment to it would would eventually cost him his life. But discipleship is also in the small things. It looks like sitting down at a meal together. It looks like forgiveness. It looks like being reminded who we are and what we value. It looks like communion in the middle of everything. It looks like being a good shepherd to others. It looks like fish and bread on a fire.
1 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus ), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. 5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”“No,” they answered. 6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. 7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
True Christianity 364
 The Lord flows into everyone with all his divine love, all his divine wisdom, and all his divine life….God could not and still cannot divide his own essence - it is an indivisible oneness. Therefore since God alone is life, it follows without a doubt that God uses his life to bring us all to life….Divinity is indivisible.
 The Lord is omnipresent; and everywhere he is present, he is present with his entire essence. It is impossible for him to take out some of his essence and give part of it to one person and another part to another. He gives it all. He also gives us the ability to adopt as much as we wish of it, whether a little or a lot. The Lord says that he has a home with those who do his commandments, and that the faithful are in him and he is in them. In a word, all things are full of God. We each take our own portion from that fullness.
Readings: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, John 20: 19-31, Heaven and Hell #56 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Artwork by Bronwen Henry, www.bronwenmayerhenry.com
This text appears in this spot in all three of the lectionary cycles, so basically, this is the reading that always appears the week after Easter. Often times it causes us to consider the intersection of doubt and faith. Today, however, we will focus on Jesus, and what it means that he appeared to the disciples, not transfigured and whole but with wounds on his hands and feet and on his side.
It might, at first, seem that his wounds were retained only as a help to us poor humans in believing the unbelievable. The disciples were afraid that they were seeing an apparition, a ghost. Being able to touch Jesus, and to see the evidence in his body of what they had witnessed happening to him, helped them to understand that it was Jesus himself that stood before them.
But when we go a bit deeper, this appearance by Jesus has some really interesting implications. It leads us to ask: Is it by our wounds that we are known? Is it by our wounds that we can connect with other people? Is it by our wounds that we can believe in the transcendent? And if so, what does this say about God, about the wounded-ness of God?
Naturally, we are not used to talking about God in this manner. Theologians, preachers and liturgists have often used the word “perfect” to describe God, and lots of other words besides that imply the perfection of God like unchanging, omnipotent, supreme. Swedenborg was certainly among them, often using the world “perfect” to describe the Lord, as well as angels and heaven.
It is important, however, to understand the way in which the word is used. From a Swedenborgian perspective, we can’t have a conversation about the perfection of God without taking about the “universal human,” (or as previously translated, the “Grand Man.”) From Heaven and Hell #59:
“….heaven, taken in a single all-inclusive grasp, reflects a single individual…Since angels do know that all the heavens, like their communities, reflect a single individual, they refer to heaven as the universal and divine human—“divine” because the Lord’s divine nature constitutes heaven.”(1)
The vast embodiment of God in reality takes the form of a universal human being, from which heaven takes its form as a universal human being, from which heavenly communities take their form as universal human beings, from which individual angels take their form as individual human beings. And because all things earthly take their existence from a spiritual inflow, we too (as angels-in-training) take our human form from the universal human shape of God.
This certainly urges us to recall Genesis, and how human beings were created, in that story, in the divine image: So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them. (Gen 1:22)
And here we are given our first hint that when we think of this universal human form of God, clearly, it is beyond our earthly framework. For example, both male and female are created out of God’s one divine image, not to mention all of the normal and expected variation in human form. When we think about the universal human, it doesn’t appear that we are supposed to just take an earthly idea of the human form and make it enormous, or perfectly beautiful or powerful and say that this is God’s form.
Of course, it is tempting to do this because when some universal truth is beyond our earthly ideas, it very easy to default to an ideal, to our own personal concept of what perfection is, because what else would God be except for the most beautiful perfect thing we can imagine? Except that, when Swedenborg actually describes what makes perfection, it is actually something quite a bit different than simple beauty. Further from Heaven and Hell:
…The reason that so many varied elements act as one in an individual is that there is nothing whatever there that does not contribute something to the common good and do something useful. The inclusive body serves its parts and the parts serve the inclusive body…they provide for each other respectively, they focus on each other mutually, and they are united in the kind of form that gives every single component a relationship to the inclusive entity and its well-being.”(2)
It is worth noting that the more members there are in a single community and the more united they are in action, the more perfect is their human form. This is because variety arranged in a heavenly form makes perfection, and variety occurs where there are many individuals.(3)
So here, whether we are speaking either about communities or individual bodies, we are seeing a more nuanced idea of what perfection is and how it relates to the universal human. In what we just read, there are two important ideas. The first is integration: every single component is in a relationship to the inclusive entity and its well being. The second is unity of purpose: the more united in action the components are, the more perfect the form.
From this we see that the perfection of the universal human is not in any way an aesthetic determination, but rather a functional one. It depends upon integration and unity of purpose, not upon beauty or wholeness or one specific ideal.
Let’s think this through in terms of an example: have you ever seen athletes who are competing in the ParaOlympics? Perhaps basketballers with their super-fast wheelchairs, or runners with custom prosthetics? What they are able to do is amazing. Often times their prosthetics seem like an organic extension of their bodies because they are (just as we discussed above) integrated and unified with the function of that person’s body. Components that we might otherwise call “non-human” are in a perfect relationship with the other parts of the “human” body. According to the tenets of heavenly perfection, these “disabled” bodies are in perfect human form, because the various parts of their bodies, natural or otherwise, are usefully and seamlessly inter-related and inter-connected. I think one might even be able to say that they are more perfectly engaged with the universal human form than myself, for example, even though I have what is understood as a whole and abled-body, because on my worst days, I do not support the integration and purpose of my body; sometimes I ignore it, abuse it or despise it, as many of us do.
This is why disability theologians have called out a too close identification between tragedy and disability, the idea of “physical disability as travesty of the divine image.”(4) Throughout the ages, physical disability has been connected to sin, or conversely to virtuous suffering. Either way, it has been considered an obstacle to be endured, and an impediment to participation in the divine image. But of course, thinking about disability in this way obscures the fact that the perfection of the universal human form is a question of integration and unity of purpose, not of aesthetics or ideal. The universal human was never about aesthetics, about perfection from sameness, but about how various disparate things come together, and about the inter-dependence that is formed between them.
Even prior to today, I’ve already preached before about the Swedenborgian theological idea that “variety makes perfection.” That the perfection of something is increased the more various its parts. But we haven’t explored as deeply why and in what way variety contributes to perfection. Why is variety and difference so important to the reality and embodiment of heavenly perfection? I believe that it is because when there is variety, there are more different ways for perfection to be achieved. So, here is the third leg in the heavenly-bar-stool-of-perfection: first, integration, second, unity of purpose, and third, increased possibility. Perfection comes from an integrated unity that is born out of the beauty of potentiality. It does not have an orchestrated or preferred outcome; it is organic and it is particular and that is what makes it real.
So, what of the wounds of God? How do they play into what we have been exploring here? Jesus’ body was “a body reshaped by injustice” (5) as many bodies are, by disease, violence, time, and chance.
Nancy L. Eisland, in her book, The Disabled God, writes:
“Here is the resurrected Christ making good on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are, incorporating the fullness of human contingency and ordinary life into God. In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected savior, calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection to God, their own salvation. In doing so, this disabled God is also the revealer of a new humanity. The disabled God is not only the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that true personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability.” (6)
The revelation of true personhood, or a conscious and engaged participation in the universal human, must contain all of our experiences with disability and contingency, because Eisland continues “our bodies participate in the [image of God], not in spite of our contingencies and impairments, but through them." (7) This makes total sense in light of the notion of heavenly perfection: the universal human form is manifested by striving to integrate and unify what “is,” not by striving to eliminate what “is” in order to reach what “could be.” Thus, disability represents not brokenness, but rather, holy possibility. The wounds of Jesus prove that the universal human is not prevented from manifesting until something broken is fixed, but rather that the image of God incorporates and uses whatever is happening in service of connection and integration.
And, lest I mislead you with my example of the disabled athletes from earlier, it is important not to unconsciously make the image of God about excellence, achievement or “overcoming,” but rather about surviving in, as Eisland calls it, “a simple unself-pitying honest body, for whom the limits of power are palpable but not tragic.”(8) Overcoming cannot erase the difficulty of disability, but still difficulty is not the same thing as tragedy. In the wounds of Jesus we see this: it’s not that Jesus was excellent at not dying, or even that he triumphed and overcame death, it is that he survived a vicious and brutal act and proved that thriving, proved that living, is still possible in the face of difficulty. The universal human is not aspirational but pragmatic; it blooms fully wherever it is planted.
Thus, the experience of disability does not take away personhood, does not prevent participation in the universal human. And it is not that we must be martyrs and saints, and pray for suffering so that we may prove our faith, prove our mettle. Rather, knowledge of Jesus’ woundedness, woundedness that was incorporated into the resurrection, helps us to see that the divine image contains not only beauty and power but also integrity: wholeness-in-what-is. Eisland quotes a women who suffers from multiple sclerosis, who in contemplating her journey said: “I’d take a cure but I don’t need one.” When the perfection of the universal human is about the possibility inherent in unified integration rather than in aesthetics or excellence, or in the erasure of difficulty and challenge, we see how fully God really is with us, wherever we are, however we are. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Readings: Isaiah 42:5-9, John 20:1-18, Secrets of Heaven 2916 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Thumbnail photo: Johannes Plenio on Pexels
Dear Friends, how wonderful it is to be together on Easter after two years of celebrating Easter online. I cannot be more grateful for the ways that you have continued to show up for our community during these past two years. And boy, what a two years it has been!
I don’t know about you but I certainly do resonate with Mary Magdalene, wandering around crying outside of the tomb, knowing that something is off, something big and strange has happened, but doesn’t quite know how to process it. Where is Jesus? Where have you taken him? Please tell me where you have put him!
We ourselves might well likewise be asking these days: Where have you taken my stability, my certainty, my energy, my faith in humanity, my hope for a better future? It’s been a tough few years, full of loss and change. We’ve had a lot revealed to us, and this revealing is still happening. We are discombobulated. Recent articles point to the uptick in crime during the pandemic, we note a decline in teenage mental health (likely exacerbated but not caused by the pandemic), we note seemingly intractable political divisiveness, we note the rise of brazen authoritarianism around the world, we note a closing window of time to mitigate climate change.
Yes, we are back together, but we also may well feel traumatized and off-balance and anxious, and thus Mary is our perfect avatar today.
And yet, the bleakness that I have just described is not the only story. According to the World Happiness Report, and quoted as follows (on Twitter) by University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant:
The untold story of 2021: people became kinder. Global rates of helping strangers, volunteering, and giving to charity are nearly 25% above pre-pandemic levels. The dominant response to suffering is not selfishness. It’s compassion. The worst of times bring out the best in us.
The resurrection of Jesus tells the same story, a story in which trauma, violence, and cruelty do not have the last word, a story in which God births life within that which seems dead, a story that allows for hope where we did not dare to have any.
And what a balm it is to hope. In the face of all the suffering in our lives and in the world, brought so quickly and acutely into our awareness now via our newsfeeds, what a relief to know that we can hope in humanity, that overall, when tested, humanity reacts with compassion over fear and selfishness. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that is the case.
And so we resonate also with Mary’s tearful surprise and joy: Rabboni! Teacher! Life appears into a space where all seemed lost, where it seemed impossible.
But almost as quickly as that joy is expressed, Jesus appears to put a damper on it. Do not hold on me, he says, the greek implies a kind of clinging. On the face of it, it seems callous - why curtail Mary’s joy? Why prevent her from embracing her beloved teacher, it seems such a natural and poignant impulse. And it was certainly not because Jesus didn’t want to be touched - he later would invite a doubting Thomas to touch his wounds. Jesus gave Thomas what he needed in that moment, and likewise Jesus gives Mary (and perhaps us) what she needs in her moment as well, as much as we might not want to hear it.
A natural reaction to good news in the midst of a crisis is the hope that things can now go back to what we considered to be normal. To the extent that a crisis, by definition, is an interruption of a preferred state, well, of course we want to return to that preferred state. Remember life before covid existed? Before the loss of 980,000 Americans and 6.2 million people worldwide? Many of us would give much to go back to that time.
But we can’t. Not only because time only flows one way, but because we have been changed by our experiences. We have been changed by what we have seen, we have been changed by what has been revealed to us. The fragility of our democracy and a peaceful world order, the depth of systemic racism and discrimination, the inter-relatedness of our supply systems, the nearness of many to hunger, homelessness, and loneliness. And to the many who had never noticed these things before, we have had our privilege revealed to us as well. We can’t go back to the way things were, and we shouldn’t want to.
Easter Sunday was never meant to erase Good Friday. So it is my preference not to describe Jesus as conquering, defeating, or vanquishing death. He did die, he didn’t escape it. We are *supposed* to remember what happened to Jesus at the hands of the powerful, even on this day. What he did do though, was demonstrate that death, that suffering, is never the final word. This is what we celebrate. We celebrate that global rates of compassion are up 25% and did we have any right at all to expect that, to hope for that? We celebrate that people of good conscience put on masks and sacrificed gathering together for the sake of each other’s health. We celebrate that healthcare workers and teachers worked twice as hard to take care of us all and our children, and scientists doubled down to develop a vaccine at lightning speed. We celebrate scores of people who showed up for each other, who created ways to support each other. These are miracles.
Because this, again, is the resurrection story writ large. Jesus rises from the tomb inside our own hearts and minds when we take the realizations that crisis has created within us and we use that insight, these new hearts of flesh, to make things better. Jesus did not rise from the dead to make us happy; he did it so humanity would understand that even from the shame and the pain of the crucifixion there could still come life; that God’s divine design never leaves us anywhere so dark that light cannot exist.
So, the resurrection that we celebrate today is not only a joy but a challenge. For Mary, she would come to understand that Jesus couldn’t stay, and that it would be up to Jesus’ followers to build a movement that embodied Jesus’ teachings. And now we, in the face of our own resurrection, our own return to the somewhat familiar (for now), what will God’s challenge to us be? If, in the moment of embracing Jesus, Mary dared to hope everything would be as it was, Jesus gently reminded her that she was to take this miracle and live it forward, not backward. And so it is with us, in every resurrection of life that we experience, large and small, God is calling us into new life, and that new life gives us an opportunity to love more and better and stronger. As we heard in our Swedenborg reading, we live out the Easter story on a metaphorical level over and over with each crisis in our lives; in our tradition we call that regeneration, and the rest of the world might call it spiritual growth. Either way, it is God’s gift to us. In our Isaiah reading, God has new things to declare; the question is are we listening?
Mary, to her credit, listened to Jesus right away, when he told her not to hold on. I’m quite sure I would have needed more persuading than that. But the text then tells us that "Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” May we all be as responsive and resilient as she.
5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Secrets of Heaven #2916
The reason it means life…is that angels, who possess the internal sense of the Word, have no other concept of a grave, because they have no other concept of death. Consequently instead of a grave they perceive nothing else than the continuation of life, and so resurrection… Now because 'burial' means resurrection, it also means regeneration, since regeneration is the primary resurrection of a person, for when regenerated they die as regards their former self and rise again as regards the new.
Readings: Psalm 139:1-10, Heaven and Hell #265 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Nicole Avagliano: https://www.pexels.com/photo/milk-way-2706654/
Welcome to our fifth and final installment of our Lenten series Grounded: Goodness by Design. Today’s installment is titled TBD: An Exercise in Not Knowing. (TBD is of course, an abbreviation for the phrase To Be Determined).
Now, I’ll be the first to say that this makes me extremely uncomfortable! One of the foundational tenets of the Swedenborgian tradition is that faith is a belief in concepts that we understand. Swedenborg was very critical of what he called blind faith, a belief in mystery that we do not understand. Much of Christian history, especially before the scriptures were widely available, rested on those in authority telling people what they should believe, and that they should believe, regardless of whether any of it made sense to them. Swedenborg instead posited that rather than spiritual things being an inherent mystery, spiritual things are inherently understandable. He wrote:
It is, however, a common saying that no one can comprehend spiritual or theological matters because they transcend human understanding. Yet spiritual truths are as comprehensible as natural ones. And if they are not clearly understood, still, when they are heard, it falls within its scope of the intellect to perceive whether they are true or not. This is especially the case with people who have an affection for truths.(1)
I much prefer this vision of things. I have no interest in a relationship with a God who is all mystery. That kind of God seems unpredictable, capricious and entirely “other.” I don’t believe a loving God would set things up that way. A loving God would provide for a pathway for us to have a sense of place in the universe, as sense of knowing who and what God is, a sense of resonance for the way things are, a sense that there is enough likeness between God and human that there actually can be useful relationship.
However, Swedenborg also was clear that since we are not God, we will never be able to completely understand the infinity of God, the whole of God. There are limits to being human. God is everything and we are not. But, the main point is that we are not supposed to experience God’s transcendence as something that makes God impenetrable or inscrutable. God wants to be close to us, and closeness requires some level of resonance and understanding.
So, we are to love truth, and the understanding of truth, and the sensing of truth, while at the same time recognizing that there is always more to learn, that we are earthly and fallible and limited. We are not to grasp at certainty, as a bulwark for our ego and sense of superiority. Our understanding of truth is a gift to give us a sense of place and home, rather than something we should twist to serve power and ego.
In the practice of Lent, a time of reflection, openness and curiosity are very important. If we think we know what we will find out before we start, there is not much use to the process. So, we will end our Lenten series this year with a time of settling into the space of not knowing, of getting comfortable with recognizing there is much beyond us, and this is a good thing.
Now, this has some relationship to Buddhism (which is the theme of series) because it is a practice of Zen Buddhism to meditate upon statements called koans. (Koh-an) These statements are deliberately perplexing and paradoxical, but they are not designed to trap the mind but rather to free it, to invite the contemplating student to step outside of the dualistic framework that might be holding them back from spiritual progress. Sometimes this is called the Great Doubt or the Great Inquiry.
For us right now, I’m not going to appropriate the practice of koan meditation, because it is actually a highly developed and varied practice, and koans are given to students of Buddhism by trusted teachers at specific points in their spiritual development. This is not for me, in our space and context, to take on. But, I think we can be inspired by the intent of the koan, to introduce a pause, and an openness, in our thinking. We can accept the invitation to let go of the comfort that knowing the answer might provide.
So I invite you into a few moments of contemplation, with some passages from Swedenborg, a prelude perhaps to our time of communion, when we offer ourselves into the arms of God, into our journeys that are still before us. We will the meditation time with a prayer from the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard du Chardin.
I invite you now to settle in your seat, take a deep breath, and close your eyes.
The Lord as He is in the heavens - that is, His Divine Good and Divine Truth there - is able to be represented, but not that which is Divine and His above the heavens, because this cannot fall within the range of what human minds or even angelic minds can grasp, since it is infinite.(2)
…the mind cannot have any grasp of things that are Divine or infinite except through those that are finite, of which humankind is able to have mental images. Without mental images formed from finite things, and especially images formed from things that exist within space and time, human beings cannot begin to comprehend Divine things, let alone the Infinite.(3)
The Divine fills every space of the universe, but is non-spatial.(4)
The Divine is in all time, and is timeless. (5)
The Divine is the same in the greatest and the smallest things. (6)
Sometimes, we cannot see the whole picture. As we move toward the end of the Lenten season, may we retain openness, curiosity, and a willingness to learn, but above all:
…trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability--
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
and grace will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ)
1 You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Heaven and Hell 265
The nature of the wisdom of heaven's angels is almost beyond comprehension because it so transcends human wisdom that there are no means of comparison, and anything transcendent seems to be nothing at all. Still, there are a few overlooked means that can be used for description, means which until they are recognized seem like shadows in the mind and actually obscure the nature of the matter as it is in itself. Yet they are the kinds of things that can be known, and can be understood once they are known, if only the mind takes delight in them; for since delight arises from love, it has a light with it; and for people who love matters of divine and heavenly wisdom, that light radiates from heaven and provides them with enlightenment.
Readings: Mark 14:27-31, 66-72, The Doctrine of Life 45 (see below)
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Welcome to the fourth installment in our Lenten series, Grounded: Goodness By Design. So now, finally, we get to the Lent-y part of the series, the part when we think about how we need to change, what we might need to do differently in our lives going forward.
We start with Peter’s story of denying Jesus. It’s just heart-wrenching isn’t it? To be so confident and then to deny so quickly and fully. There is something so very human about that. I think we can recognize ourselves in the text. We have such good intentions, high hopes, lofty goals. And then sometimes they are undone in a moment.
It is in this context of our obvious human fallibility that we can understand Swedenborg’s rather incredulous but common sense critique of Protestantism of his time. He thought that the doctrine of faith alone, as in the notion that all our salvation requires is a simple faith in Jesus' sacrifice and has nothing at all to do with how we act, was patently ridiculous. He wondered: How can the life of faith have nothing to do with our behavior? Look at how much we all mess up! Of course our behavior has to be part of the equation or what is the spiritual life even for? Swedenborg put forth instead a progressive and transformational vision of salvation, with faith and love working together to move us forward incrementally. And isn’t this much more like how we actually live our lives? We learn and grow in proportion to our openness and willingness to do so.
And it is with that focus, the fact that how we act is part of our faith story, that Swedenborg pretty much constantly talks about turning our backs on our evil desires, beliefs and behaviors. Older translations use the term shunning, that we should shun evils as sins. It seems pretty simple, he was saying just don’t be evil, don’t be bad, or destructive, or malicious. Makes sense, right? But it didn’t seem to him that religion at the time was focusing on that much anymore, especially the everyday evils - being a jerk, being dishonest, being selfish. But our lives are made up out of these everyday sins too.
And so it is a focus of Swedenborgian theology, in Lent and the whole year round, to cultivate awareness of our everyday evils and then to shun them, to say no to them and to stop doing them. To us, this is the bare minimum of the spiritual life; to care enough about God, ourselves and others to embark on a journey of doing better.
But, as you may well have guessed from the tone and direction of this Lenten series, I’m going to gently challenge how we hold this task, and particularly the language of shunning. As a good Swedenborgian, I’ve totally assimilated the notion of shunning evils, and when my everyday evils come up: jealousy, apathy, prejudice, fear, or any number of others, I’ll say NO, go away, that’s not me or how I want to be. And let me just say up front, that of course, I think this is an important “intellectual” process. We need to have clarity about what is right and wrong, we need to draw our lines in the sand, we need to be resolved on what kind of life we are trying to build, and that often means a commitment about what *not* to do.
But, emotionally, in the last several years, I’ve found shunning has showed up for me as a rather energetically aggressive and sort of superficial approach. It’s both exhausting and inherently judgmental, and doesn’t actually get to the bottom of why challenges might are coming up in my spiritual life in the first place.
Hence, the ideas from Buddhism that I have been introducing in these last two series: surrender, acceptance and self-compassion. Perhaps where I am going with this can be best illustrated by this Buddhist story, which I will paraphrase:
The Buddha was meditating under a tree one day, and saw the demon Mara lurking around the edges of the grove, spoiling for a fight. The Buddha knew that he was a match for Mara but also that, because of Mara’s nature, he would always be there, waiting to ambush. So, the Buddha said: “I see you, Mara.” And he invited Mara to tea, and served Mara with kindness. Mara was befuddled and eventually went away. (1)
I love this story. I love how it subverts an assumed combative premise, and offers up another way. There is something very powerful, a power derived from peaceful confidence rather than defiance, whereby the Buddha acknowledges Mara’s presence and who Mara is, and then takes away Mara’s power, which exists in the assumption that the “fight” is necessary. We notice of course, that the Buddha isn’t befriending Mara, isn’t signing on to or acquiescing to Mara’s agenda, which clearly is an agenda based in suffering and destruction. The Buddha simply accepts that Mara is present, and that leads to a reframing of the situation.
I think that sometimes, our focus on shunning our evils, even turning our backs on them as the more recent translations say, can only be a short-term solution. Yes, if we are in the heat of the moment tempted to kick the dog, then yes, shun that real hard!! But then, when the heat of the moment is gone, perhaps we should spend some time inhabiting that impulse, asking it where it comes from, and what it might need in order to be healed. Because, whenever we go all in on shunning the impulse after the fact, that looks a lot more like denial. Accepting that our evil impulses exist, and exist for a some sort of reason, is foundational to our spiritual progress, because, if we do that curious work, work based in acceptance and self-compassion rather than denial, we will be less likely to even consider kicking the dog next time.
Acceptance can lead to change. And I know my brain is doing a little short-circuit because the definition of acceptance communicates a kind of static affirmation, a reaching of a state of approval. How can something like that lead to change? Isn’t that the opposite of change? I think rather, it is an acceptance grounded in acknowledgment rather than explicit approval. We need to see Mara first, accept Mara’s presence first, before deciding upon wise action because then in that clarity held with kindness, we have more freedom than just fight or flight. We can decide, as the Buddha did, to reject any false categories, like the combat Mara was wanting, and opt for a better solution.
Tara Brach writes: “By holding my feelings of anger and frustration with “radical acceptance” I could find my way to the caring that gives rise to wise action. Acceptance of whatever arises in us in the present moment is not a passive act. Rather, this engaged, mindful presence allows us to respond to our world from our deepest compassion and wisdom.” (24-25)
As we return to our reading today, we observe that we don’t get to hear from the gospel Peter’s internal process around his cowardice. We know he wept bitterly, and I think we all recognize that abyss of regret and disappointment. What we do know is that Peter went on to become an influential apostle, a key figure in the development of the early Christian church. And I believe an important part of him getting there was the way he encountered Jesus after the resurrection. In the gospel of John, there is a story of the disciples fishing and Jesus calling to them to breakfast on the beach (and this is a text we will hear more from in May). Jesus doesn’t demand an apology. But he does ask Peter three times, "Do you love me?” echoing, one could even say, healing, Peter’s three-fold denial. Each time Peter answers yes, and each time Jesus answers with a variation on “Feed my sheep.” The end game, as the Buddha knew, is not the vanquishment of our everyday evils as a sign of valor and purity. The end game is feeding Jesus’ sheep, those around us, and the reason we work to remove our evils is because they are going to get in the way of being loving. And we should attempt their removal in whatever way removes them from the root, rather than just removing them from our eyes. Compassion and understanding together can lead to powerful transformation.
Or, as noted by a renowned Buddhist teacher,
“The essence of Buddhism is to discover a state of lasting happiness and to work for the benefit of others. On this path, wisdom and compassion are inseparable. Little by little, through a process of investigation, we gradually come closer to understanding the truth.” (2)
Mark 14:27-31, 66-72
27 “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: “ ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” 30 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” 31 But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same.
66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said. 68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway. 69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” 70 Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71 He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” 72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
The Doctrine of Life #45.
It then follows that as we turn our backs on evils because they are sins we have faith, because as explained just above this means that we are focused on what is good. There is support for this in the contrasting fact that if we do not turn our backs on evils because they are sins we do not have faith, because we are focused on what is evil, and evil has an intrinsic hatred for truth. Outwardly, yes, we can befriend truth and put up with it and even love having it in our understanding; but when we shed that outwardness, as happens after death, we first discard the truth we befriended in the world, then we deny that it is true, and finally we turn away from it.