Readings: Luke 19:1-9, Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2 (see below)
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Today our gospel reading is a short (pun-intended) anecdote but it really does have so much contained within it. It articulates themes such as economic justice, repentance, social inclusion, salvation, jealousy, and stereotyping. And in a larger sense, I believe that its most basic and important message is about community.
We already last week established just how suspiciously tax collectors were viewed by the Judeans in Jesus time. The tax collectors were local Judeans who worked for the Roman empire to gather the taxes owed by the local population, and often, they collected more than necessary so as to line their own pockets. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, meaning that he oversaw all the other tax collectors. He was someone who had benefited from a corrupt system, had gotten wealthy on the backs of ordinary people. Even though he is described in a quirky and amusing way in this story, running and climbing a tree as he does, when we remember how it is that he has succeeded in the world, it is hard to have sympathy for someone who has enriched themselves in such an unethical way.
And yet. The whole of the story hinges on this sense of “and yet….”
Zacchaeus had worldly wealth. He had wholeheartedly bought into a corrupt system and taken advantage of it. And still, he clearly yearned for something. Something felt off. Something drew him to Jesus. Something drew him so strongly that he indulged in the quite undignified behavior of running through a crowd and climbing a tree. Remember, this was wealthy person, with reputation and status. Sitting in a tree trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
Now Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem for the final time. He was about to triumphantly enter Jerusalem in the manner in which we celebrate for Palm Sunday. He is about to drive the sellers from the temple, he is about to clash with the chief priests, he is about to celebrate the Last Supper with the disciples and be betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane. What is the last thing that he does before this final descent? What is the final act of his public ministry before the march to the cross is begun? He looks up in a tree and notices someone, someone reviled, and probably deservedly so, someone hesitantly peering around a corner, someone in a liminal space, someone everyone else thought was beyond redemption.
And Jesus resolutely, whether Zacchaeus felt ready for it or not, invites himself to stay at his house. Jesus final act of public ministry in the gospel of Luke is an act of inclusion and community. It was an act of faith. And the people around him grumbled about it. But it was an act that ultimately culminated in repentance and justice. Zacchaeus was given the space and the opportunity to change and grow, to do something bold and unexpected. Why and how did this happen? Because Jesus brought him into community, acted from an ethic of inclusion and possibility, and engaged him.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the nature of heaven, about how no one there can have any life at all apart from community. And I quote: “for one person’s life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others.” Swedenborg speaks of a universe that is held together by the connectedness of its parts. Angels connected to each other through community in heaven, heaven connected to the world through our communion with angels. Indeed, Swedenborg writes that without that connection to spirit, a person in the world “cannot go on living any longer.” This connectedness is integral to our life, our being, our existence.
So, the very foundation of spiritual reality is based upon the deep connection of people to each other. Community is integral to the way that God has brought creation into being. Science bears this out as well. A quick google search will deliver multiple examples of studies that describe the negative health effects of social isolation and loneliness. We need community to be emotionally, mentally and physically healthy, as we have all learned personally over the last few years.
So, we learn from mystical revelation that community is important. We learn from science that community is important. We know from our own personal experience that community is important. What specifically do we learn about community from the Zaccheaus story? That community has some essential elements and benefits, among them: the actions of noticing and inviting, of engagement, and of vulnerability and forgiveness.
First, the noticing and the inviting. This was something that Jesus was often doing, in this gospel and the others. Jesus would notice the people that were going unnoticed for various reasons: the mentally ill and the possessed, the sick, the paralyzed, tax collectors and other “sinners”, women, widows, Samaritans. This noticing and including was one of the main reasons Jesus had a scandalous reputation. His ministry was to ordinary people like his disciples, but also to the forgotten, and this was unusual. In our story today, Jesus was already he was on a journey to somewhere, he had somewhere to be. But he still noticed Zacchaeus and then opened up a space for interaction. Community is made through noticing each other, including each other, valuing each other, especially when we don’t really think we deserve it or need it.
Then, there is good faith engagement, coupled with curiousity and respect. Jesus sat at the table of a “sinner” and the people grumbled, either out of jealousy or a misguided sense of what was proper. But God will always engage us if there is opportunity; it is part of God’s inexhaustible love for us. God never tires of engagement. God never gives up on us. Likewise, when people gather in intentional community, they talk to each other, they share their ideas and their viewpoints. When viewpoints differ, good faith engagement means people not giving up on each other, working to see the good in each other. Yes, this sometimes might mean skillful communicating and setting boundaries for each other but this is the give and take of community. It is how we move forward and it is how we learn.
And finally, we come to the meat of the issue, the height of what community, at its best, can offer us: Vulnerability and Forgiveness:
There are times that community can offer us an amazing gift: the safety to be able to be who we are. To speak our truth and our experience, and to be held in safety and love while doing that. When we have been noticed, invited, and engaged with love and respect, community can be a place where we can be vulnerable, a place that is home to us. And I believe that is what God wants for us: to feel at home in our body, our life, our experience, our journey, our surroundings. And this is why community is so important and integral to spiritual life and reality, because it creates a spiritual home for us, a gift of love to each other through God.
Additionally, the gift of vulnerability works wonders in other ways. As much as it can be important and affirming to be vulnerable in admitting who are, the ability to be vulnerable is also integral to creating the space where we can change if we need to. This is where the Zacchaeus story ultimately takes us. Zacchaeus had some repenting to do. Admitting that we are wrong about something and need to change can be a most terrifying thing. Our survival instincts kick in, and our lizard brain worries we will be booted out of the group. So we cling to our rightness. But we must remember, what is it that allowed Zacchaeus to repent? Jesus affirmed him in community, he felt safe enough to be vulnerable and make restitution. The moral absolutists among us (myself included) might certainly have wished that Zacchaeus had recognized the wrongness of his ways and repented before Jesus came to him, because it was right and not because it was safe. But, it takes a very special kind of moral courage to act this way, and while we shouldn’t necessarily let go our expectation that such moral courage is good and should exist, we also need to recognize what kind of creatures humans beings really are: fallible, scared, limited, and needing each other’s support.
And so, what we see is that Jesus is pragmatic. God knows us. God knows that we need prompting, nudging, safety, and reassurance. In the difficult work of spiritual progress, God knows that we need each other, that we need to provide safety and encouragement and forgiveness for each other. We hold each other up, draw each other toward our better selves, providing inspiration and honesty as needed. We provide for each other the space to grow and change and be wrong and change our minds. Community forgives because community knows that we all need forgiveness, in one way or another.
Now, that doesn’t mean that community does not have its downsides. It can be, and often is, used as a bias bubble, an echo chamber, an emotional prop; community of the inward-looking kind can foster complacency, can foster systemic and ongoing injustice. We human beings take what God has given for good and we twist it into something that serves the self. That’s what we do. And our spiritual work is to stop doing that. God believes that we can and Zacchaeus showed us that we can.
What we see in this story, is what can happen when community is extended beyond where we think it “ought” to go. Whether that means extending community towards others, or whether that means allowing community into our own life, in ways that makes us nervous, we can know that God built the universe on the gift of community and connectedness. And because of that fact, that one very simple fact, then we can know that no one is beyond redemption.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
This being the nature of heaven, no angel or spirit can possibly have any life unless they live in some community, and in so doing in a harmonious relationship of many people. A community is nothing else than the harmonious relationship of many, for one person's life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others. Indeed no angel, spirit, or community can possibly have any life, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, if they are not joined to heaven and to the world of spirits through the many in their own community. The same applies to the human race. No one whatever, no matter who, can possibly live, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, unless they have in like manner been joined to heaven through the angels residing with them…
 For everyone during their lifetime are dwelling in some community of spirits or angels, although they are not conscious of doing so. And if they are not joined to heaven or the world of spirits by means of the community in which they live, they cannot go on living one moment longer.
Readings: Psalm 51: 1, 7, 10-12, 16-17, Luke 18:9-14, Secrets of Heaven 874 (see below)
Also see on Youtube
Photo credit: Ric Rodrigues
This is a parable that is going to get a little meta: Jesus cautions us against making judgements based on stereotypes and caricatures by using…you guessed it, stereotypes and caricatures.
As we consider this parable, it is really important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the story is about the characters in it. The parable really isn’t about a Pharisee and a tax collector, per se. We aren’t supposed to draw conclusions about either of those groups of people in general. The characters, and the assumptions that the original hearers would have had about them, are there to help us to come to a recognition of the ways in which our own tribalism and self-absorption can lead us to make assumptions about others that are not accurate.
So, the parable works by starting in one place, and then bringing us full circle around to interrogate the assumptions with which we began. Like many of Jesus parables, this one would definitely have shocked the original hearers, for he subverts their expectations on multiple levels.
Jerusalem was very sectarian in Jesus’ time. There were various groups and movements within Judaism that were in conversation with each other around the optimal way to practice being a Jew. Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, describes Pharisaism this way: that it was a movement that “emphasized obedience to the law as a way of making God’s benefits visible to God’s people”, and “adherence to religious ritual as a way to encounter holiness in the everyday.” (1) These topics were of great interest to Jesus and his own ministry, so it makes sense that Jesus would find himself in conversation (and to a certain extent, in competition) with the Pharisees. Like any movement though, within Pharisaism there would have had some who were practicing with integrity, and others who were not.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus delivering a multi-level critique, not only of religious practice, but about how religion becomes allied with power and commerce and politics. So, Jesus had a very complicated relationship with the Pharisees. There were some who actually agreed with him (find refs), and some who argued with him. When Jesus saw that some of them were upholding external ritual but being internally corrupt, he critiqued them and called them hypocrites. I’m sure Jesus, if speaking to us today, would have equally harsh words for any of us who would show up to church, sing hymns and take communion, and then go home and treat our loved ones badly or go to work and act dishonestly. The general point that Jesus was often making—don’t be a hypocrite, and external ritual can’t buy salvation—applies to us now just as much as to the Pharisees then. And just to be clear, it doesn’t apply more to the Pharisees then than it does to us now. They were just the ones who happened to be in conversation with Jesus about these topics in his day.
Over time, as the early Christian movement grew out of Judaism, and then found itself in conflict with Judaism, the gospel writers would often use Pharisee “as a cipher for villain.” (2) Christianity ran with this, and Pharisee became short-hand for “hypocrite” or “legalist trying to earn God’s favor.” Worse still, Christians have often assumed that the gospel depiction of Pharisees is historically accurate overall and a useful education on the nature, practice and motivation of Judaism today, which has contributed to anti-Judaism. We should be very careful not to fall into this trap, or to further this mistaken practice. Religion allied with power was the condition that was in conflict with Jesus, not Pharisaism per se, and definitely not Judaism, and we are just as vulnerable to the excesses and overreach of religion allied with power today as then.
The point that Jesus was trying to make here, is not that Pharisees would naturally be arrogant, but that the cultural understanding of the time, that learning and ritual purity would make someone more likely to receive God’s mercy, was not correct. The common person has just as much access to God’s mercy as the learned and elite and powerful.
And the reason that this was so very surprising in the context of the parable, is that Jesus heightened the contrast between the two characters. The second person coming to pray was not a figure like the beleaguered widow from last week, nor a common fisherman like the disciples, but the worst person that the hearers could imagine. A tax collector. These days, we might not much enjoy paying our taxes or doing our tax returns, but the whole process is rather automated and bureaucratic, and certainly lawful. We don’t hate the good folks at H&R Block. In Jesus day however, the Jewish people were being taxed by an occupying power, not their own monarch and certainly not a democratically elected government. So already, they were resentful, understandably so. To make matters worse, the Roman empire would usually contract with local people to collect the taxes owed, and these people would often collect more than necessary to line their own pockets. In that context, many tax collectors were turncoats and collaborators and mobsters. You can imagine how reviled they were, by ordinary people just trying to get by.
So imagine then the surprise, when it is the tax collector who is lifted up as the model in this parable. In one fell swoop, Jesus indicts the Pharisee for arrogantly assuming the internal state fo the tax collector, and indicts the hearers for assuming likewise.
The point being, that we cannot assume that we know where God’s mercy should go. That is not for us to know, nor for us to have an opinion about. And, just as the original hearers might well have thought “There is no way that God will the hear the prayers of that tax collector”, so too if any of us now are looking at the parable and saying to ourselves “typical Pharisee, how arrogant and legalistic” we are doing exactly the same thing as the character of the Pharisee is doing towards the tax collector. And we should probably stop it.
The thing is, it is not exactly wrong for the Pharisee to pray in thanksgiving for his benefits. The problem was in how the recognition of those benefits led him to look down on others. Let’s now take a look at this through a Swedenborgian lens. These characters represent our spiritual process, and the fact is that we are all in process, and God’s mercy is present to us wherever we are in that process. From our reading:
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration…, a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
So, the first step on the journey is being like the Pharisee; acting in certain external ways because we believe that we should, that it is right, that it is what God wants for us. This is totally appropriate, in fact, very necessary. The problem is that this initial step relies very much on our own selfhood, and the pleasure and gratification that our selfhood/goodness relays to us.
And if is we don’t keep moving in the process, moving towards a recognition that it is by the Lord’s power that we can do what is good and not our own, the more we will be tempted to identify with how our own selfhood and ego makes us feel. We will be more tempted towards behaviors that increase our perceived superiority.
This is why Jesus lifted up the tax collector’s prayer, an honest acknowledgement of where our ego will naturally take us given free reign. Biblical language calls that being a sinner, other traditions might call it being in delusion. The reality is though, that all goodness, power and love flows into from God; it does not originate in us. We can choose to open ourselves up to, or close ourselves off from, that inflow. And the main thing that closes us off from God’s inflow is believing that it doesn’t exist, thinking that goodness arises from ourselves. The inflow will always continue to flow toward us, but we have placed ourselves out of alignment with it. So the tax collector’s prayer was good, it acknowledged the mercy of God, and how dependent we really are on God.
But we have to realize that this prayer was not perfect either, or at least, not complete. Did the tax collector promise to change? No, actually he didn’t, though maybe it was implied. Was he afraid to? Unsure how to? Perhaps, we don’t know. All we do know, is that recognition of our sins, our habits and tendencies, and the recognition of our reliance on God is a very good and necessary precursor to change.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are both pictures of us in different places in our spiritual process, both a little stalled in their own unique ways. At every phase in our journey, there are places where we can get stuck, and we may well keep coming back to those places time and time again.
We definitely need to be able to be humble and recognize the nature of our selfhood, but we can’t let that be all we do, or let that become an impediment to change. We need to act. This is the tax collector’s work to do, what he needs to find the courage to attend to.
When we do act, it will always feel like it is from our own selfhood. This is necessary, this is good. Positive feedback and a sense of effectiveness is important. The temptation at this point though, is to think that we deserve merit for “doing it right.” We need to avoid getting caught up in our own sense of righteousness or to start thinking that we are better than someone else in some other place in the process. This is the Pharisee’s work to do.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are two sides of a coin, and we may find ourselves resonating with either one of them at different times in our life. God lets us be where we need to be in order to take our next step. But let us be sure to always try to see the wholeness of each person’s journey, and not fall into stereotyping. Caricatures can be helpful to make a point, but they are not real. People are real.
Psalm 51: 1, 7, 10-12, 16-17
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Secrets of Heaven #874
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration…a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
Still, none of the good we do and none of the truth we contemplate while holding this opinion (a mistaken one) is the kind of goodness or truth that makes a part of faith. Nothing that we produce from ourselves can be good, because it is from ourselves…we are always thinking about how deserving and righteous we are. Some people, as the Lord teaches in Luke 18:9-14, go further and despise others in comparison with themselves. Others do other things just as bad. Self-centered desires add themselves to the mixture, making the exterior look good, although the interior is filthy.
As a consequence, the good that we do at this stage is not the good that belongs to faith. It is the same with the truth that we think. Even if the idea we adopt is absolutely true and is in itself a valid religious concept, nonetheless as long as we adopt it for selfish reasons, it has no religious good within it. Any truth, in order to be theologically true, has to have the good of faith from the Lord within it. That is when it first becomes good and true.
Readings: Amos 2:6, 14-16, Luke 18:1-8, Marriage Love 365:5 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Photo by Mikhail Nilov: https://www.pexels.com/photo/pair-of-boxing-gloves-on-gray-surface-6739946/
As is very common with biblical parables, we might find ourselves a little confused upon reading this one, asking “What is the point of this parable?” Understandably. There are not one, but several points to this parable. Among them, the utility of persistent prayer, the responsibility of society toward the vulnerable, the responsiveness of God towards our need, and reflection on the quality of faith. It can be a little hard to figure out where to place our attention.
We are first introduced to the unjust judge. Certainly to us even now, he reads as callous and potentially corrupt. Additionally, to the Jewish hearers of this parable, he would also have immediately appeared religiously bankrupt as well. The Jewish scriptures repeatedly advocate for the care of widows and orphans and foreigners, people who are easily forgotten, who have no obvious recourse for survival amid patriarchal structures. In this context, The judge did not revere God and God’s commands, and so of course, did not feel any responsibility towards the vulnerable.
Then we are introduced to the figure of the widow. Now, when I read this parable, my internal image of the widow is someone who is meek. Persistent yes, but diminutive. This is totally my own baggage but I imagine her in the the way that I might advocate for my own self in real life. (knock knock) “Um, excuse me, I’m so sorry to be bothering you, but I have this problem, can you help me? (knock knock) I know that you are terribly busy but if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at my case? (knock knock) Yes, I know, its me again, but I really could use your help…” etc etc.
This picture of the widow is not supported by the text, though it is hard for us to tell this by the English. What is often translated as “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will vindicate her, or in the end she will wear me out by her continual coming,” in the original greek, is actually a boxing metaphor. Its literal usage means to beat someone black and blue. I’m not saying the language was meant to imply that the judge thought the widow was really going to get violent, but rather, that the use of such a metaphor creates a very different picture to the deferential one I instinctively created in my mind. The widow was being a nuisance in such a way that caused the judge to use language that evoked being under attack.
And we see that, even so, this widow is lifted up as a faithful example. So while the parable is framed as being about prayer, I think we could also draw some lessons about persistence in relation to injustice in general, and about how we might approach eradicating injustice.
From the widow’s example then, clearly, we are to be people who notice injustice. And, we are to be people who are troubled and concerned about injustice. And, we are to be people who are persistent about correcting injustice, who are not content with allowing corrupt institutions or people (ie the judge) to go about business-as-usual. If our situation is unjust, we are empowered to resist it, not just once, but over and over again, until justice is restored.
What is more, we are empowered to resist with passion. The widow was clearly passionate enough in her entreaties to the judge that he employed a fighting metaphor to characterize her. In a real situation, we cannot know how much the judge’s own paranoia, or guilty conscience, might be projecting on to her. But, I do think a reflection upon the utility of righteous anger is appropriate here.
We heard in our reading today about what Swedenborg called zeal, that is, the condition under which we are moved to act passionately out of love. He points out that zeal often looks very much like anger, in that it can appear strident, or bristly. However, what is key is not so much what the zeal looks like to an observer, but what is motivating it internally. He writes:
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different…
The point being that what matters is the internal motivation. Righteous zeal or anger is trying to protect something good and just. It can certainly be working for something that is good and just for the self —the widow was advocating for herself and her own situation; it is not that zeal is must always completely self-less or purely altruistic in order to be motivated by something good. But ultimately, righteous anger is advocating for a just principle that serves more than the self. An example is the Civil rights movement: each person of color involved in this movement was certainly advocating for themselves and their own inherent right to be treated justly, but also in a larger sense, they were fighting for the principle that all people have a right to be treated justly, as much of MLKs soaring rhetoric demonstrated.
Whereas, zeal or anger that comes from a wellspring of hatred and vengeance might take upon it any number of external justifications, even might look like it is working for the greater good, but its ultimate root is the perverse satisfaction of seeing others suffer under its zeal. Again from our reading, Swedenborg writes:
[its] internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions…. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash.
We are cautioned here against anger for the sake of anger, anger makes us feel powerful and potent and superior, as opposed to anger roused for the sake of justice itself, for the sake of how justice might be realized for all. Due to its emotional potency, anger can be seductive, even if we start out with good motivations, we can become addicted to how it makes us feel. Even more so if our anger has always burned for selfish reasons, smoldering in wait for a reason to lash out.
So it can be easy to imagine that anger is always a bad thing, and this can be confusing when we contemplate how often God is characterize as angry and wrathful in the bible. In the Old Testament, the prophets portrayed God as extremely angry when the Israelites consistently worshiped idols and ignored the vulnerable among them. From Amos we hear:
This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.(2:6) “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.” (6:8)
Swedenborg makes the important point however, that even with God, how it might have appeared to the prophets, how they interpreted their visions in their context, is different from the reality. He writes:
So it is that the Lord's zeal, which in itself is love and compassion, is seen by them as anger…in fact there is no anger whatever in the Divine, nor any evil whatever, only pure forbearance and mercy. (1)
If God’s love and compassion are infinite, certainly God’s zeal, God’s passion, for us is beyond imagining. Love and compassion demand justice for all who are loved, demand that each beloved child of God be able to experience conditions of safety and contentment. Systems, like patriarchy for example, often serve some and not others, and can lead to some people, through no fault of their own, to be forgotten. But where injustice prevails, God sees those who are forgotten and lifts them up. Thus God’s zeal works for justice, for access for all to what they need to survive and thrive.
So how does God work to see that the forgotten, like the widow in the parable, be brought into community, into thriving? One way is through just systems and institutions instead of unjust ones. God gave a system of laws to a community, in the Old Testament this was the Israelites, and this community set up systems of justice so that they might be able to hold each other accountable to a shared mission for the greater good. And thus we see the widow appealing to the judge in the parable.
Such institutions are not infallible of course. People like the unjust judge rise up into power. People motivated by winning, by profit, supremacy, reputation, and glory. This is why we see in this parable a contrasting comparison between God and the judge. Even though this judge was associated with a system of justice, his heart was not in it. But God’s heart is always in it for us. God’s spirit moves along with those seeking for, working for, and creating justice. God’s spirit responds to this work and this desire. Our shared institutions, our shared vision for our communities need not be co-opted by selfishness. God will work with us to create and support a just world.
And so this widow is lifted up, that we might all seek the realization of a world in which she does not need to supplicate, did not need persistence, a world that sees her and values her automatically. For this we might pray, yes, in our minds and hearts, but we also pray with our feet, our letters, our compassionate and open conversation, our service, and our persistent protest.
Of course, when we talk about good zeal and bad zeal, righteous anger and unrighteous anger, we separate something in concept that is much more complicated in reality. We all act from mixed motivations. We all act from fear and self-centeredness sometimes, and altruism and love other times. We are simply human. So, if we are to take on the full import of this parable, to assimilate the necessity of persistent prayer towards a just world, we must recognize that our own hearts are a part of that world. Our persistent prayer cannot be for God’s intercession separate from our own engagement, for we know that God doesn’t work like that, our persistent prayer must be for justice to prevail in each and every heart, ours included.
For, righteous anger is powerful, and it is a very good thing in so far as it motivates us, gives us courage, gives us hope, gives us resilience, gives us the fortitude to do something difficult over and over again. But we cannot allow ourselves to get caught up in that power. Swedenborg writes:
The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
Let us watch ourselves then, with both compassion and accountability, watch when our anger dissipates and when it does not, and ask ourselves what we holding on to and why. Zeal for justice is borne out of love, and when justice is achieved, love is what remains. It can be a cautious love, a wise love, a love with boundaries, a love born of clarity, but it holds possibility within it, not vengeance. A possibility that brings us all forward together, if we allow for it.
(1) Secrets of Heaven #8875
Amos 2:6, 14-16
6 This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.
14 The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life. 15 The archer will not stand his ground, the fleet-footed soldier will not get away, and the horseman will not save his life. 16 Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,” declares the LORD.
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Marriage Love #365:5
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different; and the differences are as follows:
1. The zeal of a good love is like a heavenly flame, which never leaps out to attack another, but only defends itself - defending itself against an evil assailant in much the same way as when such a one rushes at fire and is burned; whereas the zeal of an evil love is like a hellish flame, which spontaneously leaps out and rushes upon another and tries to devour him.
2. The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
3. The reason for this is that the internal element in one who is prompted by a love of good, is, in itself, gentle, mild, friendly and kind. Consequently, even when, to protect itself, the external element hardens, stiffens, bristles, and so acts harshly, still it is tempered by the goodness which moves its internal element. Not so in evil people. In them the internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash; and if these fires do not break out in the world, nevertheless they do after death.
Readings: Genesis 32:22-32, Secrets of Heave #4274 (see below)
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Photo by Keenan Constance: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-person-in-black-pants-standing-on-a-rocky-river-5690986/
Today we're going to talk about the story of Jacob. Well, we're going to talk about one small part of the story of Jacob. This part of the story is all about learning to accept the path of growth, which is the path of struggle to expand from selfishness to generosity. There are a lot of ways to understand this story, a lot of ways we can apply it to our lives, today I want to consider how it shows up in our relationships. Our relationships with family, close friends, not so close friends, and partners or spouses. But before I get ahead of myself, let me take a moment and put this in context. Remember that Jacob is a twin. He's the younger of two boys born to Isaac and Rebekah. As they are born, Jacob is grasping his brother's heel, and so he is named “grasper” or Jacob. As the second born, he is certainly loved, but he is not the favored one, he will not inherit first, or have the highest honors which his brother Esau is granted simply by being born a few minutes earlier. Rather than accepting his lot, he manipulates the people around him to claim the rights and honors of his older brother. He tricks his brother into giving up his birthright, and tricks his own father into believing he is Esau and giving him a special blessing. He’s what we could call a problematic Hero. He’s the main character, and clearly the one we are invited to empathize with, but he’s a thief and con man at this point. Now what he’s done understandably makes his brother Esau quite angry. In fact, Esau begins plotting to kill him. So Jacob runs away to his uncle Laban in Haran, and lives there for 20 years.
Eventually he hears from God that it’s time to head home again. And by now he has 2 wives, 2 concubines, 11 sons, a daughter, and many many flocks and herds. Clearly he’s done well for himself. But to go home again he has to encounter Esau, the brother he betrayed. He sends messengers to Esau to let him know he’s returning home. Jacob’s messengers come back and inform him that not only is Esau coming to meet him, but he’s bringing 400 men. Perhaps it's this news that leads Jacob to prepare gifts for Esau, and to send them off in batches ahead of himself and the rest of his family. These are incredibly valuable gifts. This lets us know that Jacob is aware of just how badly he betrayed his brother, and is sending a message that he wants to apologize, to make it right.
That is where our story for today begins.
Jacob has camped for the night, and in the middle of the night he gets everyone up, and sends them across the ford of the Jabbok river. It leaves him separated from his wives and sons and all his possessions. He’s probably thinking he may never see his family again. Perhaps Esau will come and take them away. He’s all alone.
In the Swedenborgian tradition we talk about what things represent, Jacob’s family represent truths Jacob had learned as he lived his life. We do the same, as we live our lives we learn things, we develop an understanding of the way things are, we develop a worldview. Jacob himself represents our natural self. The part of us that is oriented to prioritize our own needs - our ego. Our ego and our worldview are the characters in this story so far.
Now what happens when our ego and our worldview become separated? Think of this as being a time when something happens to make us question reality enough to undermine our worldview. The story says Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him untill daybreak. Swedenborg wrote that this symbolizes a time when truth is tested; a crisis of conscience. I’m sure you can think of an example of this in your own life, but here’s an example from mine. And before I share this let me say, while this is in the context of a herterosexual marriage, I think this dynamic can show up in any marriage, and in close relationships of any kind: a friendship, or a family member. So while this comes from a married perspective, I hope it translates into your own life in a useful way.
Several years ago, I realized that my husband Solomon and I had a significant difference of worldview from each other and it was leading to unhappiness. My worldview at the time was built on the assumption that if I needed something I would ask for it, if someone else anticipated my needs that was a lovely surprise. I assumed that Solomon held this same worldview. But I found out that as he saw it, his responsibility was to be attentive to the needs of the people around him, and not think much at all about his own needs. He was also struggling to understand that I saw things differently. He assumed that I would be paying attention to what he might need and offer it. So we were in a lopsided pattern where we were both paying atten to what Tirah needed, and no one was paying attention to what Solomon needed.
We can see that self-centered ego-driven worldview in Jacob’s past actions. He took the birthright and blessing because he knew it would be good for him, and he didn’t care what it would do to his brother. Now perhaps with the expansion of his worldview that came from becoming a husband and father, he’s looking back at his actions and it seems like he’s feeling bad about what he did.
Being married to Solomon, being in a front row seat for how my actions affected him, slowly but surely awakened me to our differing perspectives, and I finally noticed the imbalance. It was not fun. My ego said I had the right worldview, but my love for my husband told me something was not quite right, and my worldview was too small. The internal struggle is what we can call temptation or spiritual struggle. That’s what Jacob was experiencing, as he wrestled with this person all night. and it was exactly how it felt to confront my own self-centeredness. It was very tempting to claim that my lopsided marriage could be solved by Solomon changing. All he had to do was be like me, and we would be fine. We could be side-by-side self-centered people - ‘cause isn’t that what makes a happy marriage? Maybe not. Of course I could just change to his worldview and maybe that would work. We can spend all our time trying to guess what the other person needs, and maybe some of the time we’d be right. The reality is we can’t read each other's minds, so that won’t work either. For me, this wrestling match meant facing my part in that unhealthy pattern, and it was really hard. I floundered for a while.
In the story, Jacob’s hip is injured, when it says the man saw that he could not overpower him. This means that natural goodness - what I’ve been referring to as ego - won the conflict. Swedenborg tells us that Jacob’s ego could not be overcome, meaning that his worldview didn’t expand or connect. This resonates with me, I have been through plenty of times when I have faced an opportunity to expand my worldview, and I didn’t. I have lost opportunities to nurture a relationship, even lost friendships entirely. This story seems to have two endings, one where Jacob doesn’t change, he stays in a self-focused view, his hip dislocated, and another ending where he does change, he expands his view. When we come to these ego and worldview changing moments we have a choice - We can expand our worldview to include the wellbeing of others, or we can make excuses for ourselves, and keep our ego and worldview as they were. This choice is represented by the injury to Jacob’s hip. The hip joint represents where the Natural and the Spiritual can meet and be united. It's the place where we have our worldview, but connect it to the care of others.
Adopting an expanded worldview is an ongoing challenge that is represented by the new name Israel. The name can be interpreted as “One who Struggles”. And isn’t that just terrible and wonderful. To become an embodiment of the effort to evolve, to identify with the messy human process of enlightenment.
Jacob gets his new name, and now he wants to know who this is he’s been wrestling with. He says “Please tell me your name.” But this being doesn’t want to be known and answers with a question “Why do you ask my name?” And then immediately blesses him. Swedenborg gives us two directly contradictory interpretations of who this being is. One says the being is evil spirits, and another says it’s angels. In both cases they don’t want to be known. I think this is describing the way we go through a struggle and we can wonder if it’s a gift or a curse. We need to make our choices to grow, in a state of freedom, and if we are certain that some experience was a message from heaven, perhaps we are a little less free. The blessing he is immediately given is all about the gift of the spiritual growth this experience has provided. Indeed, though facing my faults has hurt, facing them has been the only way to become a kinder, more compassionate person. The human connection that is only possible with compassion is a blessing beyond measure. I suspect that parts of my life that I look at as only tragic, are merely spiritual struggles I have not yet finished with, so I haven't gotten to the blessing part.
Jacob called the place Peniel, which means a state of temptation, of spiritual struggle. He says, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” He realizes he has had a spiritual encounter and lived. It certainly resonates with me and the miraculousness of surviving the shame-filled process of facing my harmful behaviors. In the hardest part of the struggle, there’s a time when it doesn’t feel like something I can survive. And yet, by holding on and not giving up, we do survive, and the blessings on the other side are profound. As Jocob’s story continues he is referred to as both Israel and Jacob. It seems to be to a recognition of the reality that growing is an ongoing process, that we will continue to be graspers, but we will also have success in being strugglers. I am better at thinking of what Solomon might need than I was in the past, but it still takes effort. And he is working with me, telling me more about what he needs, so that I don’t have to guess. As is so often the case, the best path of growth is the one that we take in step with our friends and partners, intentionally working toward greater connection as a team. Jacob does indeed return to his family, though he has a limp, he is reunited to the truths that made his worldview, but he is a different Ego now. We return to our world view, and we are changed. And it doesn’t happen all at once, or once and for all. When we are wrestling with our self-focused Jacob, and working on becoming that Israel-Struggler, limping along doing our best to be kind and compassionate, that's a beautiful imperfect human place to be. Amen
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.
26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.
32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Secrets of Heaven #4274
And a man wrestled with him symbolizes a time when truth is tested. This can be seen from the symbolism of wrestling as a trial. Spiritual trial is nothing less than a struggle or fight, because it is an attack on truth by evil spirits and a defense by the angels with us. Our awareness of that struggle is the trial.
We cannot undergo times of trial unless we have a goodness based on truth—that is, unless we have a love or desire for truth. If we do not love or desire truth as we know it, we do not care about it; but if we do love it, we are anxious that it not be harmed. The life of our intellect consists solely in what we believe to be true, and the life of our will, in what we have convinced ourselves is good. An attack on what we consider true is an attack on the life of our intellect, and an attack on what we are sure is good is an attack on the life of our will. When we are being tested, then, it is our life that is at stake.
Readings: Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4, Secrets of Heaven #3854:2-3 (see below)
See also on Youtube
This morning we are going to spend some time with the prophet Habakkuk. You’d be forgiven for asking: Who? Habakkuk is only included once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary and is not usually a go-to for other bible readings. And though the common invocation “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him,” does come from Habakkuk, we might not have heard much more from him.
We don’t know a lot about Habakkuk. He does not provide us with much information about himself, nor is there much opportunity: the book itself is a scant three chapters long. We can surmise a few things. Since he prophecies about an immanent defeat for Judah by the Babylonians, he was probably active during the reign of King Jehoiakim, which was 609-598 BCE. This would make him a contemporary of the more well-known Jeremiah.
As obscure as Habakkuk may be, however, I think that even now we can resonate with his writings. We might know something of the world Habakkuk describes. He writes:
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong-doing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and conflict abounds. Therefore, the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. (1:2-4)
How familiar this sounds! Human beings, then and now, make choices that lead to corruption and violence, choices that seem to actively prevent justice from being manifested in the world. Those who love justice, who value integrity, see evil prospering and it is perplexing, it is discouraging. Habakkuk, too, sees the prevalence of such forces and it pains him, distresses him, not only because they exist, but that their existence might imply that God tolerates these evils.
So he makes a complaint to God, lays out his case for his reasonable and rational distress, and asks for God’s reply. He asks: why does injustice prevail? and desires for God to answer for the state of the world. God’s initial reply, as characterized by Habakkuk, complicates matters. God says that he is sending the Babylonians to lay waste to the Israelites as payment for their crimes. This is how ancient peoples of all kinds understood the relationship between the divine and human history. They saw the divine as interceding directly in human affairs. That human history could be interpreted to reveal God’s acts of justice on a worldwide scale. Modern religion has, in many sectors, re-evaluated and evolved this relationship between God and human history. Even so, we see elements of evangelical religion stating that God has sent hurricanes or epidemics to punish certain groups of people whom they call sinners. So, we are not so far removed from this perspective as we might imagine.
Habakkuk though, pushes back. For as much as the Jewish tradition contained a strand of covenant thinking (ie God would give reward to those who followed the law, and punish those who didn’t), there was also a tradition such that we see in the book of Job, that grapples with a reality much less simple. For Habakkuk, God’s answer raised more questions on the topic of justice than it answered. How can it be just, Habakkuk asks, that even good people be destroyed wholesale by divine retribution. He asks God:
“Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13)
It does not add up for him. How can God’s ends be met by the wicked and vicious Babylonians? Yes, the Israelites (or anyone else for that matter) should receive punishment for their misdeeds but by the Babylonians? This divine act would perform a retributive purpose but not a restorative one, and Habakkuk knew God to be deeply and steadfastly restorative. How can God answer injustice with more injustice, and still be considered divinely loving?
Habakkuk decides to wait upon the Lord once more, to press God for a different, better answer. He says:
“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” (2:1)
This time God’s answer is different.
“Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it. It will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is puffed up in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” (2:2-3)
This is an answer that transcends Habakkuk’s original question. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “It is an answer… not in terms of thought, but in terms of existence.” (1) For still the vision awaits its time…and the righteous shall live by their faith. God opens up the realm of justice so that it is no longer about retribution in the short-term but rather restoration in God’s time. God turns the question back to us: What will you do, Habakkuk? What kind of vision will you write? What kind of vision will you live by? If you were truly to believe in the justice that forms the heart of God, how would you live differently?
Habakkuk had already given a clue that he was ready to hear such a word. He had written: I will look to see what *he* will say to me, and what answer *I* am to give to this complaint.” God’s answer and humankind’s response are linked; the first meaningless without the second (2), for humanity and God are now in a creative partnership. In the words of Heschel: “The universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history.” (3)
The “greater masterpiece” still to be finished, is the story of our choices, the history that we make. We recall from our Swedenborg reading:
The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom…
Evil and injustice are travesties, but they exist because we are given the gift, the respect, the mercy, of freedom. We are given the agency to craft an internal life of choices that reflects the divine, or reflects the lack of it. Swedenborg continues:
For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.
Heschel says it this way: But God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in temples, in space, but only in history, in time. (4)
What he is saying here is that God’s desire for mercy and righteousness cannot be satisfied in any other way than in the still quiet moment of human decision, pure only in its freedom. Every small fraction of a moment contains a new beginning that might become resonant with the desire of God, and along with Habakkuk, we mourn, bitterly, desperately, when that desire goes unfulfilled, when that moment of human decision decides to give birth to in-justice, to imbalance, to oppression.
And yet still the tension remains. Can any appeal to the ultimate value of freedom justify the worst of what humanity has wrought? How can it be that the freedom of one can be allowed to harm another? How can we bear to speak of the “greater masterpiece” while things are falling apart, while real suffering is happening in the here and now. It hurts. We cry out. We lament. And well we should. It is not a sign of a lack of faith to protest the existence of injustice, and of suffering, even to God. It is a sign we are taking seriously the desire of God, the vision of God, that would bring all people into thriving. It means, as Heschel says, we understand that “Justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern.”(5)
And so it remains something of a divine mystery, a bewilderment, that God would, in any way, cede to us something so freighted with divine concern, something so important. What *was* God thinking? God was thinking that the only way for our choice for justice to mean something is if we have the opportunity not to make it.
This is where faith and hope come into the picture. Our brains don’t really help us out with this predicament. In the words of science writer Erik Vance, the human brain is a prediction machine.(6) Its job is to take what has happened in the past, apply it to the present in order to make a prediction about the future. This helps us survive in the world, to learn what we need to learn.
And yet, in this way of looking at the world, we are acutely vulnerable to Habakkuk’s lament. When we observe rampant and persistent injustice, oppression and suffering, when we recognize how long it has been a part of human history, a good prediction machine would say it will always be so. And this can completely overwhelm us, it can debilitate us.
But there is a part of the picture that is outside of our history, outside of our neurology, outside of reason and prediction, and this is God’s promise of ultimate restoration. We have no real reason to believe it, except that each of us have experienced it, a small moment of blooming, of joy, of healing, growing up through the cracks of this world, somehow, someway. And if we do believe in it, against all odds, if we believe that justice is possible in the future, we are free to act for it in the present. For every single moment of our life is a new beginning.
(1) Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, An Introduction, 143
(2) Ibid, 142,
(3) Ibid, 198
(6) On Being with Krista Tippett, Interview with Erik Vance, The Drugs Inside Your Head, September 19, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4
1 The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.
2 How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
The LORD’s Answer
5 “Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6 I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.
Habakkuk’s Second Complaint
12 LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
2:1 I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
The LORD’s Answer
2 Then the LORD replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. 3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. 4 “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.
Secrets of Heaven #3854
 …The Lord foresaw from eternity what the human race was going to be like in the future and what every member of it was going to be like, and that evil was going to increase all the time, so that at length humankind, of themselves, would [wish to] rush headlong into hell. That being so, the Lord has provided not only the means by which He makes it possible for human beings to be diverted from hell and led towards heaven, but also does in His providence divert and lead us all the time. The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom, for that which does not take root in freedom is dispelled at the first sign of evil and of temptation.
 From this it may be seen how far someone errs who believes that the Lord has not foreseen and does not see the smallest individual thing with a person, or that within the smallest individual thing He does not foresee and lead, when in fact the Lord's foresight and providence are present within the tiniest details of all the smallest individual things with us, and in details so tiny that it is impossible to comprehend in any manner of thought one in many millions of them. For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.
Readings: Amos 6:1, 4-7, Luke 16:19-31, Secrets of Heaven #997:1 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo credit: Noelle Otto
Two weeks ago, we considered the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, and we grappled with it, because it is one of those parables where is not entirely clear what Jesus is trying to say. This week’s parable is of the opposite kind. It is pretty darned clear what Jesus is getting at with this story.
We first hear about a rich man who reveled in his financial means while he lived on earth. We are told he was clothed in purple and fine linen. The color purple was a rare and expensive color in ancient times, and so traditionally indicated royalty and wealth. Lazarus, a poor beggar laid at his gate, clearly suffering due to lack of nutrition and care, covered in sores. I’m sure he was a sight to behold. Sadly, we can imagine the rich man holding his nose as he steps over Lazarus each day to go about his business.
After both have died the situation is flipped. Lazarus finds himself by Abraham’s side, safe in the heavenly company of the patriarch of their faith, and the rich man is tormented in hell, with a wide chasm in between. Even then though, in the midst of his suffering, the rich man treats Lazarus as someone who should serve him, asking that he first be sent to bring him some water, and then be sent to warn the rich man’s still living relatives.
The purpose of this parable is not to paint a literal picture of the afterlife. The purpose is to bring our attention to what kind of life we are creating and enacting right now on earth. The consequence is not so much that we will find ourselves cast into hell, but rather, that we will become the kind of people who in the afterlife still think that we ought to be served, rather than being willing to serve others. The discomfort for this week is not so much in trying to interpret what the parable is trying to say, but in trying to figure out how to deal with its implications in our real lives.
On one level, it’s pretty simple. When we see people in need, we should help them. Obviously, we each cannot the solve suffering of the entire world but as Martin Luther apparently once said: You cannot feed every beggar in the world, but you can feed the one at your gate(1). We should do what we can. We believe in a God who loves us and wants us to extend and grow that love forward into the world, into the lives of people right in front of us, not *only* because God loves all people but because God knows that doing so, stretching us to do so, will help *us* become infinitely more loving. For this reason, Jesus speaks voluminously about the need to care for the vulnerable among us, especially in the gospel of Luke, and he doesn’t mince words about it. The kingdom of God necessarily includes the least, the last, the lost and the left behind.
We have all failed on this count, one way or another. We have all walked by someone on the street asking for money and not given it, we have all missed opportunities to give help when we could have. And, this is not the sermon where we analyze the complicated nature of homelessness, or the breakdown of our mental health infrastructure, or the efficiencies of charitable giving. Yes, the economy of need is very complicated, but that is not what this parable is about. This parable is about making sure we are the kind of people who *see* need when it is in front of us. It is so easy, feels almost necessary, when we (for example) pass person after person asking for money on the street, to steel ourselves, to close ourselves off, to learn how to habitually ignore them. This parable is warning against this tendency. Whether and how we choose to give in order to alleviate the world’s problems is not the point here, the point is rather, to ask: does it still *pain* us to see the vulnerable, day after day. Or have we shut our hearts down because that is easier than having empathy for their suffering and grappling with the existence of need.
We heard in our reading today that Swedenborg’s vision of heaven is one that is based not in the notion of heavenly peace, joy, and satisfaction but on useful service out of which those blessings come. And I quote:
For with good spirits and angels useful service is the source of their delight; and the services they perform determine the amount and the essential nature of the delight they receive(2)…Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses.(3)
This is a beautiful vision, of a heaven that is built upon the freedom and joy that comes from giving: giving love, giving hope, giving presence, giving knowledge, giving nurture. But what goes almost unsaid within this vision is the necessity that undergirds being able to give in the first place, and that is being able to *see need.* We cannot perform useful service unless we can identify where that useful service is required. And this means we have to be able to see and identify need. Help that is given indiscriminately, without any attention to need, certainly may well be called service, but can it be called useful? I’m not sure it can.
There are plenty of things that get in the way of us seeing and responding to need. Sometimes for myself, I’m not able to see what my children might need because of my desire to control their path and their outcomes. Sometimes I am not able to see my spouse’s needs because I am preoccupied with being right. Perhaps we might choose not see the need of some people, like with homelessness, or with climate change, because we feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to help in a substantive way. Or we might not see the need of some people because it makes us feel superior to blame them for their own circumstances. Or we might not see a real deeper need because it is covered up by other socially unacceptable behaviors. Or, like the rich man, we might just be so wrapped up and invested in our own worth, that the needs of others don’t matter to us.
You see, the enormous chasm between heaven and hell that we hear about in the parable is not so much a revelation about the spiritual architecture of the afterlife, but a symbol of the kind of life that the rich man had constructed in the world. He had literally put a gate between himself and Lazarus, and figuratively put a gate between his heart and the need of those around him. If heaven is a realm of useful service, how else would the rich man experience his relationship to such a realm after he died? He would experience it as a chasm, something far away and incomprehensible, because he had never tried to reach past it, had never wished to reach past it, during his life.
He had forgotten a very fundamental truth, that we all are made in God’s image and likeness, and so all are worthy and deserving of love, even if figuring out how to show that love and care is difficult or inconvenient. That is what we are here for. Not to enrich ourselves but to expand in love, to learn that giving connects us more closely to God and each other than having. And we will never be able to appreciate that fundamental truth if we continually erect a wall or a gate around our hearts, if we continue to convince ourselves that we are separate and different and more deserving that other people.
Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, once wrote of stopping at a busy intersection in the center of the city of Louisville. He said:
…I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers. . . . If only we could see each other that way all the time. . . .(4)
Which leads us to the final level, the final necessity, the final acknowledgement that lies fundamental to even the seeing of need. When we are able to identify a need and fulfill it, when we are able to give what is needed when it is needed; what an amazing feeling! It is the joy and fulfillment we were created for. But, even this purposefulness can have its dark side. We can become overly invested in being the savior. We can become expectant and reliant on the ego-fulfillment that “solving problems” gives us. We can begin to think that we know better about what is needed than those experiencing the need. We can over-identify with a selfhood that is shored-up by being useful. And so finally, we recognize that the ability to see need must be grounded in humility. We must be willing to listen. Need sometimes shows up in ways that we are blind to, in ways that we weren’t prepared for, in ways that we don’t feel ready for. And so we recognize how much a heaven of useful service requires not only activity but also sacrifice, the constant sacrifice of our sense of ego and separateness, of believing that we are the one to know what is needed, so that we can truly be present to what is *actually* needed. So that we can be present to what each moment is calling us to, without our need to overlay our expectations upon it.
As Merton puts it: My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity.(5)
When we recover our original unity, then the distance between us is reduced, and we have nothing to gain from our selfhood. We can serve purely, simply, humbly, and freely. And this is heaven, wherever we are.
5. Thomas Merton, Address to International Summit of Monks, Calcutta, India (October 19-27, 1968), published in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1975), 51.
Amos 6:1, 4-7
1 Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!
4 You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. 5 You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. 6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. 7 Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30 “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
Secrets of Heaven 997:1
…People who are governed by charity, that is, who dwell in love towards the neighbor - from which love the living delight contained in pleasures derives - have no regard for the enjoyment of pleasures except on account of the use that is served; for charity does not exist if there are no works of charity. It is in the exercise of it, that is, in use, that charity consists. Someone who loves the neighbor as themselves never experiences the delight of charity except in the exercise of it, or in use. Consequently the life of charity is a life of uses. Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses. Every pleasure therefore that springs from charity finds its delight in use, and the more pre-eminent the use the greater the delight. For this reason it is the very being and nature of a use which determines the happiness that angels have from the Lord.
Photo by Matthias Groeneveld: https://www.pexels.com/photo/one-us-dollar-banknote-on-table-4200744/
Readings: Luke 16:1-13, Secrets of Heaven 4063:3 (see below)
See also on Youtube
So, remember the show Breaking Bad? It was quite the phenomenon a number of years ago, garnering critical acclaim and devotion, many awards and at least one spin-off. It tells the story of a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who is diagnosed with incurable cancer and decides to become a drug dealer as a way to secure his family’s financial future. It chronicles his descent into a life of crime and the subsequent darkening of his soul. Now, as much as I appreciate the brilliance of the lead actor, I’ve chosen not to watch it. It’s not that I don’t value complex, nuanced stories, or that I cannot handle realistic depictions of violence. It is rather that I don’t like having to root for an antagonist. It makes me feel uncomfortable, compromised somehow. And so I avoid having to do it.
Which is a bit of a problem for me as a preacher though, because the bible is full of complicated characters that make me feel the same way. There is Jacob for example, a patriarch of Israel, who deceived his father and cheated his brother out of his inheritance. I squirm and wonder: Does God implicitly condone what Jacob did by making him the patriarch of a nation? Or there is Sarah, Jacob’s grandmother, cruelly casting out her maidservant Hagar, Jesus’ disciples acting stupidly and arrogantly, and Paul upholding patriarchy and slavery within his ancient context. The dishonest steward joins a long list. What are we to make of him and the fact that he is praised here? The fact that the clever trickster is prominent in Jewish folklore(1) doesn’t make me feel much better, nor the fact that is was his ingeniousness that was clearly valued, not his dishonesty. I still don’t like it.
I personally much prefer the Josephs, Daniels and Marys of the bible. Perfect, uncomplicated figures who are faithful and dutiful. It makes me feel more confident and safe to exist in a black and white narrative world, where everything makes sense and is put in a reasonable order. But of course, that is not what the real world is like. The world is full of complicated people, ourselves included. A black-and-white perspective is comforting but it is not reflective of reality. The bible is telling us stories about real people who defy our easy categorization, including this dishonest steward who clearly acted selfishly but who was then praised for his shrewdness. And if we are feeling uncomfortable, then it means the parable is doing its job; we are questioning. So then, how do we make sense of this text?
Well, in his own particular context, the steward’s actions are somewhat understandable. As a steward, a manager of an estate, his world was transactional, relationships were mediated by money. That’s how everyone got what they wanted. Even the master’s loyalty itself was dependent on how well the steward did his job, and it seems he wasn’t doing it well at all. And so when thrust into crisis, he continued to act according to his context, his story about the world, which was: Money not only buys goods but buys influence. Relationship, cordiality, good standing, these things are created through transaction. With no resources of his own, he nonetheless manages to purchase good will through a financial transaction, the abatement of debt, borrowing the power to do so from his master. It is a desperate but clever plan, and the master recognizes it as such, seemingly unconcerned about the money that will no longer be paid to him.
And this is where it becomes so confusing. Because it is not so much that we are surprised at what the steward did. The parable is called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward after all, and he acted very consistently. The surprise, and the discomfort, comes from the fact that the master praises him, and that in the interpretation, Jesus lifts him up as a positive example. What, on earth, is up with that?
Much scholarship around this text, wonders about the steward’s motivations and what exactly he meant to accomplish. I think it is also important to ask, what did he believe were his options? What other story about his life and potential did he have recourse to? In a culture where social and economic standing was remarkably fixed and intractable, what other option was available to him?
We all have our own stories that mediate our identity, our options, our decisions. Many times, these stories, these meta-narratives, operate unconsciously unless we have had reason to try and notice them. And we operate within these realities, everyday. It is completely unavoidable. There are many different stories that people have about themselves, we can change stories if we want to, but not having an operating story is not an option, it is just part of being human. I believe that one of the things we are hearing in this parable is that God understands this about us, that God can work with us, and our stories. We start wherever we are, and God starts there with us.
Sometimes we might be led to imagine that God is separate from us and our contexts. And in a way, God must be, for God cannot be limited by *our* stories about ourselves and the world. But that doesn’t mean that God disdains our stories, that God refrains from entering into our stories. The incarnation itself is the ultimate example of how deeply God is willing to enter into our stories and our contexts. God is not afraid of our incompleteness. God does not condescend to simply tolerate the ways in which we all endeavor to create meaning, God instead uses them, without a moment’s hesitation. For, “God so loved the world…” says John 3:16 and God indeed, still loves it, both for what it is now and for what it could be.
And so, we get Jesus’ advice to us at the end of the parable. He tells us to “use worldly wealth”, or as the King James Version says: “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.” And perhaps we might want to pretend that we are above all of that. Well, its a bit too late for all of us really. Money, and its value, is a predominant human story, one of many, but one of the most prevalent and powerful. Maybe we personally have a different main story, for we all are shaped by our different experiences. But what Jesus is telling us is to make friends with our story, whatever it is, and to use it as far as it can do some good.
For example: There are some times that I am find myself striving to get my children to their various activities on time, not only because of my love for them but because I want to appear as if I have it all together. It’s not great that I’m motivated by appearance but still, on time is better than late. Or many times that having guests in my home will prompt a grand cleaning up that might otherwise never have happened, because I care about seeming like a moderately competent housekeeper. Better the stress of frantically tidying up first, so to later provide a space where my guests and I feel relaxed and can actually enjoy each other. Our less than heavenly concerns can help us conform to the basic civility that keeps us all in relationship with each other, that keeps the world moving.
Another way to illustrate the idea of making friends with our story comes from the Buddhist faith. The story goes that one day, the Buddha is meditating under a tree, and the demon Mara approaches, hoping to distract Buddha from his enlightenment, to lure Buddha into battle with him. But the Buddha sees Mara coming, and simply says “I see you, Mara.” And rather than taking a defensive stance, the Buddha invites Mara to sit down and have some tea.
I believe this is what we are being invited into with this parable. We cannot separate ourselves from our context, from the effect of our experiences on the formation of our identity, from telling ourselves a story about “the way things are.” But we can learn how to see these influences and these stories for what they are. We can say, “I see you, Mara,” and not be drawn into battle that distracts us from sitting under the tree, that distracts us from enlightenment.
And thus we heard in our Swedenborg reading about the mercy of “intermediate good.” Our spiritual journeys cannot be instantaneous; they must be incremental and sustainable if we are to truly transform our earthly natures. God works with and within this reality, which means that sometimes our intentions are mixed. This is okay. God invites us to make friends with what-is, instead of denying what-is, so that then we might truly see the stories we are telling ourselves with clarity.
But we also receive a warning. We are told to remember that we cannot serve two masters, prompting us to consider who we really want to serve overall. We need to be super clear: The Buddha may have been serving Mara tea, but that does not mean he was serving Mara’s agenda. We should make friends with our stories, and with the dominant stories of the world we live in, because they have real effects upon us, but we don’t want to end up serving those narratives instead of God. There is a necessary tension here. For example, I might want my children to buy into the cultural norms of appearance enough so that they look presentable, but not so much that they learn to hate their bodies. Or, I might want them to value success enough to create a fulfilling forward motion in their careers, but not at the expense of their mental health.
We all need to exist both inside and outside of our stories. This is what we are taught in the cross: God entered into our story, all of our stories, not only in an act of radical solidarity with our experience, but as an act of revelation, to wake us up to our dominant narratives. And with the crucifixion, we saw humanity choosing to serve our own stories instead of serving God and God’s story for us, leading to the ultimate in human over-reach: the death of the incarnate God. Conversely, serving God means seeing Mara, being unafraid, calm, and clear in Mara’s presence, and then subverting Mara’s expectations and agenda. We are to make friends with unrighteous mammon, with the worldly ideas by which the world is run, but we are not to serve them. And this is really really hard to do, which is one of the reasons I know that I prefer the simple, perfect bible characters. That black-and-white world seems much easier…even as it asks for perfection, that seems less to ask than dealing with balancing the world of grey.
Another way of expressing this whole idea is that we shouldn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Now, it is only by the most generous of assessments that we can call what the steward did “good” but to the folks who benefitted from his debt abatement, objectively it was. He could have done something much worse. What I believe that we are hearing in this parable, is that God doesn’t make the possible the enemy of the actual. God does not love who we are becoming more than who we are.
God sees us. Seeing us in terms of who we are right now does not inherently compromise God, or condone us and whatever we might be doing. Nor does it mean that God cannot be against evil either. But it does mean that God can uncynically, unreservedly, root for the antagonist, because those categories of protagonist and antagonist, of good guy and bad guy, are not God’s story, they are ours. God is always for all of us.
(1) The New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, p256.
1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ 3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ 5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ 7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ 8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? 13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Secrets of Heaven 4063:3
So that a person may be led from the state of the old person into that of the new, worldly passions have to be cast aside and heavenly affections assumed. This is effected by countless means known to the Lord alone, many of which the Lord has made known to angels but few if any to humanity…When therefore a person is converted from an old person into a new one, that is, when they are regenerated, it does not take place in an instant as some people believe, but over many years. Indeed the process is taking place throughout the person's whole life right to its end. For their [selfish] passions have to be rooted out and heavenly affections implanted, and they have to have a life conferred on them which they did not possess previously, and of which in fact they scarcely had any knowledge previously. Since therefore their states of life have to be changed so drastically they are inevitably maintained for a long time in an intermediate kind of good which partakes both of worldly affections and of heavenly ones. And unless they are maintained in that intermediate good, they in no way allow heavenly goods and truths into themselves.
Readings: Luke 15:1-10, Secrets of Heaven 3142:1 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
We are back this week in the gospel of Luke. Chapter 15 is comprised of three stories: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, which we heard today, along with the parable of the prodigal son, with which you may already be familiar. All three of the stories are about something seemingly insignificant becoming lost: one wayward sheep, one tiny coin, the youngest son in the family, and how much they matter to the one who has lost them. As we understandably place God in the metaphorical position of the shepherd, the woman, and the welcoming father, we come to understand how far God would go to find those who are lost, and how much joy God feels to welcome home the bereft. This is a balm to all of us, because who hasn’t felt lost at some point? Who hasn’t wandered off the path they thought they were on, who hasn’t made a regrettable decision? What a relief to picture a God of infinite welcoming love, who considers no one irredeemably lost, or not worth seeking, who would put so much effort into finding us.
I consider this interpretation to be the foundational interpretation of these parables and such a valuable one. And, as this interpretation sinks in, as we really assimilate it and come to believe and rest in the expansive, forgiving, protective love of God, I believe that we also can move on to a more personally challenging reading. Typically, in reading this text, God is placed in the role of the shepherd and the woman and we ourselves in the role of the lost. What happens when we place ourselves in the role of shepherd or woman and other people in the role of the lost? How does that change how we read this story?
This reading is a little more complicated. There is a downside to seeing ourselves as the implied hero of the story. We might be tempted to self-aggrandize and point a finger of accusation toward the lost, or at the very least, adopt an attitude of superior condescension. Poor things! If only they had made better decisions! Perhaps they deserve what they have got. How lucky they are to have such people as us to forgive them!
To avoid this, we must do two things. First, we must ground ourselves in the first interpretation and bring it forward into the second. There is no judgment, no superiority to be found in these parables; there is only sadness at the loss and then celebration in being found. I was reminded by one of my commentaries this week that each of us bears the imprint of God, we are God’s image-bearer, and when any of us are lost, a piece of God is lost as well.(1) This imprint of God remains as part of us, even within our lostness, and so always carries with it an inherent dignity and worthiness. A strong allegiance to this truth, as well as the universal experience of being lost, prevents us from othering people, keeps before us the primacy of empathy.
Second, we must interrogate our motivations for assuming the latter interpretation. What is the usefulness of metaphorically placing ourselves in the role of the shepherd or woman? Why are we looking around for the lost? Hopefully, it is because we believe that our job is to partner with God for the sake of the betterment of the world, as we spoke of last week. That our job as people of faith is to humbly emulate the type of love that we see described in these parables. So then the question becomes: How do we do that? How do we emulate the love of God?
Because this is where it gets complicated. Obviously, we are not God. We can do our best to be loving and kind and open and forgiving to the people we encounter in our lives; this is very important. But we also need to acknowledge that we are on the field in a different way, that what we do affects the rules of the game to begin with, not just the final outcome. God has granted us the freedom to shape our world, to create societies and institutions and cultural understandings that actually affect the likelihood of people experiencing some kind of lostness. For example, let’s think about the lostness of addiction. Who made the substances that addict us? Humanity did. We discovered them, purified them, trafficked them for profit, both legally and illegally. God is only ever on the side of good; we human beings sometimes shift around a bit. Which makes it extremely important for us to ask: How did the sheep or the coin become lost? Perhaps it was not our fault at all. Perhaps. Or perhaps we had something to do with it.
Because a coin doesn’t become lost on its own. In the parable, we are not told it is stolen. For a coin to become lost there would usually be some kind of negligence or distraction on the part of the owner. Maybe it fell off the counter as we breezed by. Maybe it fell in between the couch cushions when we weren’t paying attention. But why weren’t we paying attention? This is an important question. Is there something about our culture or the structure of our institutions that makes it so we don’t notice people becoming lost? Was the coin too small or worthless to be cared about? Did we think at all about how “between the couch cushions” is the barest of inconveniences to our backsides, but is a deep dark chasm to tiny coin?
There is nuance to be explored with the shepherd parable as well. A sheep, unlike a coin, certainly does have legs and so could wander away on its own. It would be easy to blame the sheep, to say they are simple or distracted. But what about the terrain around Jerusalem? It is hilly and dangerous with some parts quite inaccessable. It is possible that a very small miscalculation could lead a sheep to suddenly be unreachable and far away. Sometimes the nature of our environment is a large factor in whether or not we are lost, can magnify small decisions that might not otherwise be a problem in other environments. When we talk about privilege, white or otherwise, this is a part of what we are referring to.
And so we recognize that each of the three parables can teach us different things about why someone might be lost. In parable of the prodigal son, the son makes some really questionable decisions about what to do with his inheritance. His behavior leads to some undesirable consequences, and sometimes part of our journey of lostness is to accept accountability and to ask forgiveness of those we have hurt. But in the other two parables, can we really place blame on the sheep and the coin? The environment of the sheep was challenging to say the least and the coin is an inanimate object; events acted upon it. As we place ourselves it the role of shepherd and woman, as we attempt to emulate the love of God in the world, sometimes we find that it is we ourselves who need undergo some reflection and repentance.
For it is our responsibility to ask: How did the sheep and the coin become lost? How can we find them again, and prevent them from getting lost in the future? We must ask ourselves and our society, how is it that people became lost, overlooked, unseen, misunderstood? We all bear responsibility to do the work of figuring out why and how our human neighbors are being disadvantaged by the society that we have built together but that sometimes doesn’t serve all equally.
We see this process of reflection pictured in the parable of the woman and the coin. She lights a candle and she sweeps the house until the coin is found. In the Swedenborgian worldview the woman represents an affection for truth, which means a desire to see the truth of a situation; the lighting of the candle is the self-examination that results from that desire to see the truth, and the sweeping of the house is the practice of going over one’s whole mind in reflection.(2) The woman doesn’t just say “oh, well” and wait for the coin to show up again. She is active and motivated to find out where it has gone, thinks about what she must to do find it, makes space to learn new information. Who hasn’t assumed a lost thing is in one place only to find it somewhere we didn’t even think of. We must be methodical but also curious. And this searching and learning work is not a token effort. The shepherd in his own parable illuminates the determined and steadfast commitment that is required in the seeking, for the shepherd does not give up when it becomes hard or uncomfortable, but does whatever it takes to bring the sheep back to the fold.
As we do this work of reflecting, we remember, always, that symbolically, the lost coin is still in the house. Everyone remains within the realm of God’s love, no matter how lost. And sometimes that is very reassuring. We are not alone in this work. All that is lost will be found, eventually, and in eternity, for God never gives up on anyone. But we still are called to actively sweep our houses, and regularly too. We are still called to evaluate our society, our institutions, our habits, for ways in which they create or allow for lostness to occur. By doing so, who knows how many coins and sheep will be found, will be welcomed home into belovedness and thriving?
From our reading: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Sometimes, even or especially when we don’t realize it, that sinner is us. Thanks be to God, for the chances we receive every day to repent, to sweep out our house, and to be cause of angels rejoicing.
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Secrets of Heaven #3142:1
3142. 'And I have swept the house' means all things had been prepared and filled with goods. This is clear from the meaning of 'sweeping' as preparing and being filled…and from the meaning of 'a house' as good…And a person themself, from the good which governs them, is called a house. The reason why 'sweeping' means preparing and being filled is that nothing else is asked of anyone except to 'sweep their house', that is, to reject evil desires and resulting false persuasions. If they do this they are filled with all forms of good, for good from the Lord is constantly flowing in. It flows into 'the house', that is, into the person who has been cleansed of such things as hinder influx, that is, which turn away, or pervert, or stifle inflowing good.
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).