Photo credit: Joey Kyber
Readings: Psalm 119:1-10, Luke 15:1-10, Secrets of Heaven #3142:1 (see below)
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, which we heard back in Lent. 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 for, 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 two 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.
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 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, with no agency of its own. As we place ourselves it the role of shepherd and woman with the coin, 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. 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 again in the future?
There are two articles that I read this week that helped illuminate this principle for me. The first is an article from a mother of a black child in a majority white school, and the second is an article in the New York Times about the challenges that first generation college students meet in their transition to university. In the first, the author pointed out that black students are often discriminated against as early as kindergarten, that black students are perceived as “less innocent” and “more mature” than white students of the same age.(2) And these perceptions lead to the behavior of black students being watched more closely and being punished more often than for white students.(3) And so the mother in this article talked about having to explain to her seven year old son that he will need always need to behave twice as well as his other classmates because of the systemic racism of our society. What a difficult burden to put upon a child so young!
The second article spoke of the experience of a first-generation university student, attending school away from home, having grown up in poverty.(4) Their scholarship took care of room and board during the school term, but they could not afford to go home on breaks and had to stay in the dorm. They described the hunger they experienced during these times, with the school cafeteria closed, very little money, and no access to grocery stores. They described trying to balance classes with trying to work as many hours as possible during the school year, to provide not only for their own needs, but for their family back home. They described how the insecurity and vulnerability of their family’s situation weighed upon them emotionally, even at a distance. The attention and awareness of the university stopped at the diversity of admissions and didn’t extend to how much more such students would have to juggle overall.
And so we must ask, how is it that people became lost, overlooked, unseen, misunderstood? How is it that a normal black child might become the object of unnecessarily remedial behavior interventions? How is it that a student from a poor background might become hungry during school breaks, and over-scheduled during the year? Not from overt or explicit discrimination but from unexamined bias. From the color of a child’s skin causing teachers to make unconscious assumptions about their motivations and behaviors, or an administration not thinking to take into account how poverty impacts a student’s ability to do well in the university environment. Are these things maliciously done? No, of course not, but they are done none the less, without consciousness.
So, what do we learn about this from the parable? What does the woman who lost the coins do? She lights a candle and she sweeps the house until they are found. In the Swedenborgian worldview the woman represents an affection for truth, which means a desire and love for seeing 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.(5) 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. And this is not a token effort. The shepherd 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.
Likewise, 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. First, to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed, we remember that the lost coin is still in the house. We know that everyone remains within the realm of God’s love, no matter how lost. And sometimes that is very reassuring. How many times have we reassured ourselves about our missing car keys: the car is in the driveway, so the keys must be somewhere in the house. We breathe; the keys are accessible, they will be found eventually. But that does not absolve us from actually doing the work of finding them. We must stop and really think about where they were last, and what we were doing, and why they might not be where we thought. And if we keep on losing them, we have to be willing think about what we are doing wrong. Do I not have the right system in place? Is the lack of a key hook that is the problem, or maybe there is a hole in my pocket?
So, there are things that we can do. The mother from the first article asks parents of white children to speak up about unconscious bias in schools (for often white voices are heard more readily than minority voices, as unfair as that might be) and also to advocate for diverse resources and a culture that values and celebrate difference. The student in the second article went to the university administration and made his case. They listened, and made changes to their policies to support students in his position; he went on to become a professor. And still of course, there is always more to be done.
“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) Amanda Brobst-Renaud, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4165
(2) Center on Poverty and Inequality, https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/school-age/black-girls-face-discrimination-as-young-as-five-years-old-says-new-study/
(3) Kearie Daniel, https://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/heres-my-challenge-to-white-parents-this-schoolyear/fbclid=IwAR1HJmGXdZZPq1NunaLtobwOe7TU-TPPOuAKS1GJUpwncc_hNZfvLMgd6CU
(5) Apocalypse Explained 675:10
Psalm 119: 1-10
1 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. 2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart— 3 they do no wrong but follow his ways. 4 You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. 5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! 6 Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. 7 I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. 8 I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me. 9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. 10 I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
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.
Photo credit: Sydney Troxwell
Readings: Genesis 24:1-28, Secrets of Heaven #1712:2-3 (see below)
Welcome back, dear friends, to our new church year. This is a transitional time: perhaps we are going back to school, or back to work after a summer schedule or attitude. At the very least, we enter into a time of seasonal change, anticipating cooler weather, fall colors and the holidays.
So for our text today, we consider another transitional time, a story from the book of Genesis, when Abraham searches for a wife for his son Isaac. We recall that Abraham had been called out of his homeland by God to journey to a new land, and had been promised by God that he would father a great nation. It took a long time, but Abraham and his wife Sarah were granted a son, Isaac. And as Abraham entered into his final years, he wanted to secure his son’s future happiness by finding him a wife. But two things were important to Abraham: that a wife be found from among his own people and at the same time, that his son Isaac not return to where Abraham was born but continue God’s call in the new land. So Abraham sends his faithful servant on a mission, and the servant finds Rebekah.
This servant prayed: Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. (v12).
As we begin a new church year, a new school year, a new season, there is much on the horizon. Much to be excited about and perhaps much to be nervous about. And so we too might pray as the servant prayed: God make me successful, make my children successful, make our church successful, make my company successful. We have goals, we have wishes, we have strategies, we have plans. And praise be to God for the life that allows us to formulate and execute such plans, for minds and hearts and bodies that can dream and strive and work. And in the midst of this new season, as we stand on the precipice of what-could-be and what-we-would-like-to-bring-into-being…I believe it might be useful to consider what the difference is between success and faithfulness.
Mother Teresa once said: I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful. In saying this, she wisely pointed out that success and faithfulness are not necessarily the same things. Our success does not necessarily indicate anything about our faithfulness, and neither does faithfulness guarantee success.
We all receive cultural training in the mindset of worldly success. Whether it is in the workplace or in school or in our families, we come to understand that the goal above all goals is to be successful, in the way that the world defines success. Many times this involves forward and upward mobility, increasing our resources, increasing our power and agency, delivering quantifiable achievements that are recognizable by our peers. Often without even realizing it, we are molded to be linear, driven, goal-oriented, relentless, sometimes even to the detriment of our mental health.
Conversely, what do we think of when we consider faithfulness? What kind of cultural training do we receive in this idea? Many times faithfulness is mistaken for loyalty, or perhaps determination and resilience. But true faithfulness is not so much dogged attachment to a group or an idea, but rather it is a mindset of attentiveness, showing up to our life as it is and not what we are told it should be. Faithfulness in inter-connected, not always looking forward but looking around, knowing that God shows up where least expected. Faithfulness is humble, not always forging ahead but also listening and being led.
Now, for the sake of clarity, I’ve separated these two ideas for a moment. But I think we all recognize that success and faithfulness cannot really be separated in such an artificial way; it is not that simple. It is not an either/or. Success isn’t bad and faithfulness good just because we happen to be talking about them in church. These two things are actually inter-twined.
For it is a fallacy that if we are truly faithful, we will relinquish any desire to be successful, that if we are truly faithful, we will be detached from earthly outcomes, totally at peace with whatever happens. Humanity is an active species. Our minds derive satisfaction from setting goals and working to achieve them. We are designed to value success. We require at least some sense of effectiveness in order to feel the realness of our existence in this world, to feel the realness of our decisions and how those decisions build our selfhood. Faithfulness is not the opposite of effectiveness. Faithfulness does not call us to never strive or set goals or work to move forward on our journey. Rather, as we move forward in our journey toward success in life, whatever that might look like, faithfulness might just call us to do things a little differently.
We recall from our Swedenborg reading:
…the proper method is for us to do good as if on our own. We should not throw up our hands thinking, "If I can't do any good on my own, I ought to wait for direct inspiration; till then I should lie passive." This too is wrong. Instead we should do good as if we were doing it on our own, but when we reflect on the good we are doing (or have done), we ought to think, acknowledge, and believe that the Lord working in us is actually doing the good…If we abandon all effort because of the kind of thinking mentioned, the Lord cannot work in us. (Secrets of Heaven #1712)
The problem with success is that it might fool us into owning and meriting the success we achieve. Acting with faithfulness is about remembering that God infills and inspires any success that we might have, and about entertaining the idea that God’s infinity-view might define success differently than we do.
If you’ll bear with me for a moment, I’ve been thinking that the difference between success and faithfulness is sort of like the difference between chocolate cake and lentils. Now with this example, I’m not trying to characterize faithfulness as distasteful. Lentils are actually one of my favorite healthy foods; I really love them. If lentils aren’t your thing, feel free to substitute some other vegetable or fruit that you adore.
You see, chocolate cake is not inherently bad. There is nothing wrong with eating beautiful and delicious foods. The cacao in cocoa powder has a lot of health benefits, and the communal celebrations that accompany cake-eating are socially cohesive in a wonderful way. But here is what is also true about chocolate cake: it is highly processed. You follow a particular recipe, with specific ways of doing things or it won’t work. It involves a lot of precise technique and delivers very intense flavor and a lot of calories. Would we want this for every meal? Would it be good for us if we did?
Conversely, this is what is true about lentils: They are much less processed than cake, closer to their natural state, closer to the earth. We could eat them for every meal and be healthy, for they provide fiber and a multitude of nutrients. They are the opposite of empty calories. They are humble, easy to prepare and are often a supporting player. Does this perhaps make them easy to dismiss? Are we fooled into thinking they are boring?
This is not a perfect analogy of course. But does it help us illuminate the role that success and/or faithfulness might hold in our lives. It helps illuminate how beautiful but also how seductive success can be, how important it is that we pay attention to what actually supports our energy and our thriving, and not just our desires.
Because when we look at a lentil, or perhaps anything from our summer garden, it is a little bit easier to see God in it. The mystery is a little closer; it embodies the miracle of energy from the sun being captured and turned into matter, into shape. Certainly it was farmed, certainly we cooked it with intention, people partnered with nature to bring it to the table, but it remains only degrees removed from the mystery of life and creation.
With the chocolate cake, it is a little easier to pretend that we made it. The mystery is a little further away. And certainly, chocolate cake *is* a product of human ingenuity: we collectively milled grains of wheat into flour, evaporated sugar from the cane, gathered cocoa pods from a tree, processed them and shipped them halfway across the world; developed a working recipe, conceived its decoration. We, as the cook, have worked hard and it shows. It is an explosion of flavor and satisfaction. And God recedes a little further into the background, a little further from our acknowledgment, and our own prowess takes the stage.
And so it is with success and faithfulness. When we lean into success without faithfulness, we convince ourselves that we are the center, that it is all about us, that our own goals are paramount and are therefore inherently good. When we lean into faithfulness without thinking about success and effectiveness, we rebuff God’s desire that we work in partnership with us, God’s gift of the power to make a consistence difference in the life of the world.
When we return to our Genesis text, we remember that Abraham was active. He went looking for a wife of Isaac, didn’t just wait for an eligible woman to come around. But in his search, two things remained important: Isaac should stay true to God’s call in the new land, and his wife should come from his father’s homeland. Like Abraham’s wish for his son, so it is with us. We should embrace the power that God has called us into, but at the same time not forget where the power came from. Isaac was not to marry a daughter of the Canaanites, a representation of worldly affections that are incompatible with divine truth (SH 3022). For there is plenty that will tempt us within success, plenty that will dazzle us with giddy intensity, plenty that will capture us within practiced anxiety, that will blind us to the service and the love that we owe to each other. We cannot allow ourselves to get caught up, to marry ourselves to ambition or greed or superiority or jealousy, or even simply fear. For all these things can and do drive our desire for success.
Rather, we should try to marry our desires with that which serves. When the servant found Rebekah, he watched her for a little while. What was she doing? She was watering his camels. The text does not reflect what a super-human task this really was. There were ten camels, and each camel can drink many gallons of water. By returning to the well over and over, refilling her jug and then emptying it again so many times, Rebekah was the picture of faithful service, and it was this that became the measure of the servant’s success, not her beauty, or her reputation or her wealth.
And so we too, in faithfulness can return to the well of living water, whatever that looks like for us, infilling our vessel of daily work, our earthen jug of strategy, planning, striving with that which sustains and refreshes. We remain on the path to the new land, we look forward, we practice being hopeful, and we work hard. But we also enact a return, perhaps a daily, weekly, monthly, or even momentary return, that reminds us what success is for: that God’s love might be known and felt by all people.
And here we are, our little church, on the precipice of what I believe will be a fantastic year. We have goals and we are reaching for them. May we be successful. And also: may we be faithful. May we be willing to stretch, grow and evolve. May we be willing to take risks, and try things out. May we be willing to be mindful, grounded and giving. May we return to God, our selves, our faith, and each other, our own wells of living water. May we do the work of church: showing up to what-is without fear and dreaming of what-could-be with hope.
1 Abraham was now very old, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. 2 He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. 3 I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, 4 but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.” 5 The servant asked him, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?” 6 “Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. 7 “The LORD, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. 8 If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” 9 So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter. 10 Then the servant left, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor. 11 He had the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water. 12 Then he prayed, “LORD, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.” 15 Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor. 16 She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again. 17 The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.” 18 “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink. 19 After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. 21 Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful. 23 Then he asked, “Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” 24 She answered him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milkah bore to Nahor.” 25 And she added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.” 26 Then the man bowed down and worshiped the LORD, 27 saying, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.” 28 The young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things.
Secrets of Heaven 1712
…the proper method is for us to do good as if on our own. We should not throw up our hands thinking, "If I can't do any good on my own, I ought to wait for direct inspiration; till then I should lie passive." This too is wrong. Instead we should do good as if we were doing it on our own, but when we reflect on the good we are doing (or have done), we ought to think, acknowledge, and believe that the Lord working in us is actually doing the good.
 If we abandon all effort because of the kind of thinking mentioned, the Lord cannot work in us. He cannot act on those who rid themselves of every capacity for receiving the power to do good. It is like saying that you refuse to learn anything unless it comes to you as revelation. Or like saying that you refuse to teach anything unless the words are planted in your mouth. Or like refusing to try anything unless you can be propelled like an automaton. If this did happen, you would be still more resentful for feeling like an inanimate object. The reality is that what the Lord animates in us is that which seems to be ours…it is an eternal truth that life is not ours; but if it did not seem to be, we would have no life at all.
Readings: Genesis 18:1-10a, Luke 10:38-42, Secrets of Heaven 2189:2 (see below)
Photo credit: Pragyan Bezbaruah
We had such an interesting discussion at bible study last week on these texts, that I was inspired to bring them forward to preach on this week. As is our habit during bible study, we take a look at how the different texts might be related thematically. Often it is quite obvious. Today, though, not so much. A little time with the texts however, can identify a common theme of hospitality, and differing human ways of reacting to the practice of it.
Interpreters have often been quite hard on poor Sarah and Martha in these texts. Though it wasn’t included in our reading, Genesis 18 goes on to detail Sarah’s reaction to the news that she will have a son. Now, she and Abraham are remarkably old, long past child bearing years. God had already promised them a son, but that was many years ago and they had been waiting a long long time. When Sarah overheard the promise of the child, well, she laughed. It seemed ridiculous. And her laughter, even as it informed the naming of her son Isaac, has sometimes been lifted up as a lack of faith. Likewise poor Martha toiling away in the kitchen. She has often been portrayed as preoccupied with silly, superficial, self-serving things, her resentment as unwarranted, her complaining to Jesus remarkably presumptive.
But as we know from our own spiritual journeys, our feelings and our reactions are rarely so simple, so black and white. With a Swedenborgian interpretive lens, we look not to each character in themselves, as if one is a model for us and one is not, but rather, that each character represents a part of ourselves. We all hold within us Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Martha, some parts welcoming some parts doubting, some parts yearning some parts resentful. The key is to notice which part is rising up within us, and why, and what we are to learn from its appearance.
As we begin to explore commonalities between the texts, we can see that each begins with some sort of act of welcoming, an opening of a home towards people who are guests. Then, once the guests are welcomed, the expectations of the hosts are challenged is some way.
In both stories, there appears a sudden need for hospitality. Abraham spots three strangers in the distance. Their arrival is unexpected. The narrator has informed the reader that it is the Lord, but Abraham does not know this yet. He offers them sustenance and orders the preparation of a choice meal. Sarah and the servants diligently get to work. In our text from Luke, Jesus and the disciples were traveling as was their practice, and they came to a village “where a woman name Martha opened her home to him.” It’s not a foregone conclusion this would happen. Jesus has been gaining notoriety for sure, but he was still regarded suspiciously by many. Martha was taking a chance on him, for clearly she had responded to his message.
And so, we are prompted to consider the practice of welcoming and hospitality in our own lives. What happens when we open our homes and our shared spaces with others and with God? On a deeper level, what happens when we likewise open our hearts, our minds, our lives to others and to God?
Certainly, we might first imagine that it is our job to make guests feel comfortable by doing all the right things. We’ll do our guest room up just right, and they will be happy. And when we ourselves are guests, perhaps we try not to be any trouble. And this is nice, all well and good. But God’s purpose for hospitality is not limited to niceness. When we are willing to welcome God into our lives, we find that God has no intention of being a perfect guest. God has a little bit of trouble in mind.
On each of our journeys, God aims to be present, loving, and steadfast but also to challenge our expectations, to lead us into transformation. We all have certain notions around “this is the way things are.” Sarah’s barrenness, and her age, are a metaphor for the ways in which we might have written ourselves off…we will always be too “something” for God to truly work a miracle of transformation in us. Too complacent, too busy, too tired, too satisfied, too nervous, too overwhelmed, just not ready. Sarah knew what God’s ultimate plans were, yet she had exempted herself from participation in them.
Martha was grappling with expectations in a different way; the expectations of the world around her. As the host, Martha had certain duties that she felt she needed to fulfill. Indeed, earlier in the very same chapter, Jesus had sent out the disciples to go from town to town, to rely on the very kind of hospitality that Martha was giving. So we need to be clear, Martha was doing a very good, a very needed thing. And at the same time, she was being challenged to think differently about the roles that her society proscribed. Yes, Mary was neglecting her work, but it was work that her society had deemed appropriate for her. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary was transgressing social boundaries, taking on the space of a disciple, who was typically only male. Yet, Jesus lifts her up as an unlikely, unexpected hero, just like the Samaritan was lifted up in the parable directly beforehand. Martha then joins with us, with hearers of the story, as Jesus compassionately makes clear that the boundaries, the roles that the world creates are not operative in the kingdom of God. Mary has a yearning in her heart, and it shall not be taken away by those who would act to limit others because it serves them in some way.
And so we are also challenged to see differently. Sarah was challenged to see herself differently, Martha was challenged to see others differently. And it was hospitality that kickstarted the process; we cannot be transformed if we do not open our doors, our minds, our hearts. This opening, this welcoming of unexpected experience is not always easy. I recently read an article by a Christian missionary who traveled to Nicaragua to aid the poor. They wrote:
“Living in Nicaragua made me less judgmental. That surprised me. I was extremely judgmental before I moved. I had a set of unrighteous behaviors and choices for which I judged those around me, friends and strangers alike…My heart was ugly. Who knows, maybe I was right about their poor choices, but my anger and superiority were vile. Then I moved to Nicaragua. Then I became a missionary, a Jesus follower willing to leave his comfortable home and life to suffer for the Gospel and live in an impoverished nation without an air conditioner or a dryer. If pride is the root of being judgmental, you might predict I would become unbearable. Instead, I crashed and burned. I slammed into culture shock, suffered heavy depression, failed in a whole slew of ways, and got way too near the edge for comfort. Instead of becoming more self-righteous, I came face to face with how we are, all of us, a bunch of train wrecks and disasters. No, some of us don’t realize it, but we all are. Grace is greater. Grace is greater than our train-wreckedness. Grace is greater than our unrighteous behaviors. Grace is even greater than our unbearable self-righteousness. Thank God. I didn’t do nearly the good I had hoped to do, but I did some. I loved some people, far more feebly than I imagined I would. I didn’t change the world. I didn’t change the culture. But I learned this: We want, desperately, to see ourselves as good. But doing good costs much more than most of us are willing to pay…So we work out a very narrow, very circumscribed standard for our own goodness. This likely has nothing to do with God’s view of us. We just need to be acceptable in our own sight.”(1)
This person, motivated by their Christian faith, by their love for others, opened their life to what God had in store, opened their eyes to humble and beautiful people, opened their heart to the difficult process of change. Our ideas about ourselves and others, yes even our ideas about our own goodness, have to fall apart and be rebuilt. We are forced to face our own limits, we are forced to see what compromises we make just to feel okay in this broken world, and we are sometimes forced to see our notions of who and what is righteous crumble.
When this happens we will often react in human ways; we doubt, we resent, we resist, we object, we justify. These are all normal things to do and feel. It’s just not where God will leave us. Chaos, confusion, challenge are not the end point, as overwhelming and all consuming as they might feel. Because, the beautiful part of this process is that, as we know from the Old Testament story, it ends with birth. Sarah is told that she will give birth to a son. Sarah hears a word from God that seems unbelievable, and she laughs. The Lord again compassionately challenges her: “Why did you laugh?” We an imagine God thinking: “What else do you imagine I am trying to do here?” And then we reading in verse 14 "Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” I will return to you and you will have a son, I will return to you and you will have birthed something new. This is what God is up to.
In the Swedenborgian worldview, Sarah’s son Isaac represents the rational becoming spiritual, or in the Lord’s case, divine. In our reading, we learned about the process of spiritual transformation; that it happens because of a desire to know what is true, what is ultimately and beautifully true, even if the truth is hidden by our expectations. This ability to look for, and to recognize, truth is what Swedenborg calls the human “rational.” The rational just starts out wanting to know things. But in order to be able to become spiritually mature, our rational has to figure out what to do with the truth that it has found, how to integrate that truth into a live well lived, a life of love. We read:
For the situation with the life of charity, which is the life of heaven itself, is that in people who are being reformed and regenerated it is constantly being born and developing and increasing, such growth being achieved by means of truths. Therefore the more truth that is implanted, the more is the life of charity perfected. Thus as is the nature and the amount of truth present with a person, so is the charity present with them. (2)
The life of charity “…is constantly being born and developing and increasing…” We can now start to see how the story of Sarah and Martha is one that happens again and again and again. This is how it works: in a life that yearns to find meaning in truth, and love and realness, in a life that wishes to become progressively more spiritual, we welcome that which comes to us, we are challenged to rewire our habitual ways of thinking and seeing, and we give birth to new versions of ourselves. Constantly. This is how our faith is formed, this is how we become angels, this is how God leads us to eternity. It’s not always comfortable, sometimes it is downright unpleasant, but it is the way of love: sacrificial, courageous, and determined.
So, throughout our day-to-day, throughout our lives, we are sitting at the entrance to our tent and we see the stranger coming, a person, a circumstance, a life-change, a bump-in-the-road. From our story, what do we see Abraham do? He runs toward them and bows down. Our natural response might be to close our eyes, to walk on by, to hum a tune and look away. But no, our sacred text bids us run towards them, run because we know that they are gift from God, run because we know that God works to transform us through our experience in this world, run because God’s economy wastes nothing. Hospitality, openness, and welcome are the right thing to do. And they work to transform us as well.
Martha welcomed Jesus because she perceived that he was doing something important. He was; and because of that she was challenged to think anew, challenged to notice her own bias, preoccupations, and yearnings. We are not told how this works out for her, what her reflection looked like, what new thing was born for her. What we do know is that the Lord was doing what God always does: breathing us into expanded ways of thinking and loving so that we can transform and grow, so we can become the angels God knows that we can be.
(1) Mike Rumley-Wells, “Why so many Christians want to go on mission trips to help kids but don’t want them here.” Relevant Magazine, https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/global-culture/why-so-many-christians-want-to-go-on-mission-trips-to-help-kids-but-dont-want-them-here//?fbclid=IwAR1gdvLmRnAWeuL0FuJvvJ_y9uqfvUHp5_xAOvzGMoPP5RsGwtKtGhbdnT8
(2) Secrets of Heaven #2189:2
1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” 6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” 7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. 9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Secrets of Heaven 2189:2
The first and foremost element of the rational with a person is truth…and therefore it is the affection for truth, which exists with a person to enable them to be reformed and so regenerated, such reformation being effected by means of cognitions and facts, which are matters of truth. These are being constantly implanted in good, that is, in charity, so that in this manner he may receive the life of charity. It is therefore the affection for truth with a person that predominates in their rational. For the situation with the life of charity, which is the life of heaven itself, is that in people who are being reformed and regenerated it is constantly being born and developing and increasing, such growth being achieved by means of truths. Therefore the more truth that is implanted, the more is the life of charity perfected. Thus as is the nature and the amount of truth present with a person, so is the charity present with them.
Knowing the Lord: A Promise & Process
By Chelsea Rose Odhner, Guest Preacher
Readings: Ezekiel 3:4-11, 47:1, 8-9, 12, Secrets of Heaven #3318 (see below)
In the book of Ezekiel there is a phrase that occurs more than sixty times: “Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel is foretelling what’s going to happen to the children of Israel and the outcome is repeatedly “knowing the Lord”! What I’ve found from tracing Ezekiel’s use of this phrase is that knowing the Lord does not mean simply knowing of God, but it suggests a much more intimate knowing. It involves a change of heart: “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord” writes Jeremiah (24:7). I want to share with you Ezekiel’s use of this phrase, and then share some thoughts on what we might be able to draw from it about what it means to know the Lord in our lives.
Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to the children of Israel, many of whom by this time are in captivity in Babylon, where he is as well. They were taken from the land of Judah, the land the Lord had promised to them, and now they are on the brink of losing it all. The only thing that has yet to be taken over is the holy city of Jerusalem itself, which contains the Lord’s temple. The temple is their most holy site—in a sense, it’s where they would normally go to know the Lord. Now they are having to adapt to life in exile, and they’re faced with having to find new ways of knowing the Lord. Ezekiel has the job of telling the children of Israel that even though most of them are already in captivity, things are actually going to get worse. He foretells of the final stages of the Babylonian takeover—the siege and fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of their most holy temple. But somehow, through all of this, in the end they will know the Lord.
That might not sound like much of a door prize. It’s a tough message to give, and it’s a tough message to receive, and the children of Israel understandably have a hard time hearing it. The Lord warns Ezekiel that they aren’t going to listen to his words of prophecy because they are a rebellious house. The term rebel in Hebrew can mean turned away from the light. Their foreheads are hardened and their hearts are stubborn toward God. They can’t trust that this sequence of events could lead to anything good for them, and they deny that any of it is going to happen. But the Lord tries to reach them nonetheless; and Ezekiel is only one of many prophets that the Lord raised up to reach out to the children of Israel, in hopes of turning them back toward the light and back into a relationship with God; because the Lord has nothing but love for them and wills to dwell with them in an everlasting covenant of love.
There are two main phases of Ezekiel’s prophecies to the children of Israel, with a turning point in between: prophecies that lead up to the fall of Jerusalem, the actual siege and fall of Jerusalem itself, and then the prophecies that follow.
The first phase of prophecies are about the coming desolation. We read, for example in chapter 6:14, “I will stretch out my hand against them, and make the land desolate and waste . . . Then they shall know that I am the Lord.” And in chapter 12:20, “The inhabited cities shall be laid waste, and the land shall become a desolation; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” Or in chapter 13:14, “I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Somehow even their perishing would be a means of knowing the Lord! These prophecies of desolation come to fruition in the middle of the book of Ezekiel: the Babylonians manage to lay siege to Jerusalem itself, the heart and stronghold of Judah.
It takes three years of rising famine and disease until Jerusalem falls and the temple is burned to the ground. All of Judah is now in captivity, except for some of the poorest people who are left to tend the land—to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil on the footprint of what was Jerusalem.
Jerusalem has fallen. At this point there’s a distinct shift in the tone of Ezekiel’s prophecies for the children of Israel. They go from foretelling desolation, to promising deliverance and blessing. For example, in chapter 34:27, “And they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them.” And in 36:11, “I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” Or in 39:28, “Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind.”
The desolation wasn’t the end! It was unavoidable; and somehow that stage ushered in a new level of capacity for them to receive the blessings the Lord willed to give them.
Every step of this process fed into them knowing the Lord: the desolation, the surrender, and the blessing. It’s the same for us in our spiritual lives! We cycle through a spiritual version of desolation, surrender, and blessing. Swedenborg makes the point that an essential part of our spiritual growth is going through times of trial. We heard in our readings that “the only way [the vessels in our mind] can be softened is through times of trial.” We inevitably undergo spiritual struggles, times of mental anguish and inner anxiety when evil tendencies in us are stirred up and attack what we love and the truths we believe. The Lord foresees these states and makes them serve us by being a means for us to be freed from evil and to become more receptive to divine love. One way Swedenborg puts it is that we “come into spiritual crises at the point when love needs to take the lead” (New Jerusalem 198). Even though to us it feels like we’re entering further into bondage and suffering, our spiritual struggles are actually the way out of bondage! Just like the children of Israel couldn’t understand how losing Jerusalem and being entirely taken captive to Babylon could be a means to their ultimate freedom and renewal, our spiritual struggles feel like they shouldn’t be happening and they couldn’t possibly be good, but they actually free us from persistent negative thoughts and feelings in the long run, if we let them, which requires a surrender on our part.
The Hebrew word for desolate actually means “to be put to silence” or to be astonished or stunned. Our thoughts and feelings are actually vessels that can be more or less receptive to the Lord’s love. The ones that aren’t receptive resist and oppose the love that God is. These vessels are hardened against the Lord’s constant loving inflow. Thoughts of this kind never allow for a positive, loving outlook. Have you ever tried to talk yourself out of fear or reason with it? The thoughts that stem from fear have a way of always coming up with convincing arguments in their favor that keep us caught in a tangle of fear and worry. We can’t change what they’re like, but they can be stunned into silence. And when they are, we can surrender into the Lord’s loving presence, we can surrender our self-will to the Lord’s will. And then the Lord actually molds or works those “hardened vessels” until they become pliable and open to the Lord’s love. Desolation, or times of spiritual struggle bring about the exact conditions our minds need to be freed from hell’s oppression and opened to love.
I was amazed to learn that Swedenborg actually pinpoints fear and distress as the primary symptoms of the onset of a spiritual crisis—the phase just before a shift toward love takes place (Secrets of Heaven 4249). This doesn’t mean every time we experience fear we’re having a spiritual crisis, but I’ve noticed the truth of this claim in my own life. I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of being caught up in worry and fear, or as Brené Brown calls it, a “shame storm”, and then something happens that tips the balance and you maybe just break down in tears, or soften in some way? There’s a release and then those tears bring a sense of relief; there’s an inner shift and the fear is lifted. For me, motherhood has provided ample opportunities for this spiritual growth cycle to occur. And for whatever reason, bedtime has been a prime setting. I can think of numerous times that I’ve been trying to wrestle three energetic children through proper dental care and down for bed, and if the hassle of trying to convince them to listen to me wasn’t enough, my outer experience is kicking up self-critical thoughts inwardly that churn away about my motherhood, how this is probably easier for other people, or I’d be having a different experience if only I were more patient, or positive. These escalate in proportion with the unmanageability of the moment, coming out sideways in anger and frustration. It reaches some inner tipping point, and then, it might be something one child says, or I catch my reflection in the mirror, or I’m just struck by the contrast between my inner overwhelm and the tenderness of the moment—settling kids safely in their beds—and my heart cracks open. My self-concern is stunned, and I soften. I soften enough to be present to the feelings that are coming up for me—the sadness, the shame, the fear—rather than being blindly driven by them.
Maybe you can think of a time or times in your life when blessing has come after desolation, with a pivotal moment of surrender in between. In the language of 12 Step recovery, our lives become unmanageable and we acknowledge our powerlessness, we soften in the face of life being “too much,” and then from that place of surrender, we come to believe that God—a power greater than ourselves—can restore us to sanity. An inner shift happens and we find ourselves surrounded by love, a love we weren’t able to perceive before.
These experiences are genuinely humbling. Swedenborg writes that “When we are feeling humble, we are in a state receptive to goodness and truth from the Lord” (Secrets of Heaven 4956). Surrender doesn’t feel like a win; but there’s a tenderness that wasn’t there before, which makes way for the blessings. This process, this cycle, going from desolation, to surrender, to blessing is how we “come to know the Lord” so-to-speak, but it’s really how we become united to the Lord in love. In knowing the Lord, our heart is transformed.
For the last nine chapters of the book of Ezekiel, the prophecies of blessing shift to visions he has of the holy city and temple restored, as the Lord promised. The glory of the Lord comes from the East and fills the temple. Ezekiel hears the Lord speak from the midst of the new temple, saying, “This is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will reside among the people of Israel forever” (43:7). Out from the sanctuary in the temple, a river of the water of life begins to flow, and feeds and heals the land. Swedenborg writes that this water is a symbol of the Lord’s mercy, now flowing into the vessels in our hearts and minds that are newly receptive to it. This is the outcome the Lord is leading us toward.
When we find ourselves in the thick of desolation, we can look within and see what needs to be let go of in order for us to soften to the possibility of love’s true presence. It takes surrendering something on our part, but we can trust that every state we go through can be a means to open us more to love—to having a heart that truly knows the Lord.
He said to me: Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them. For you are not sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel—not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to them, they would listen to you. But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. See, I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads. Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not fear them or be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. He said to me: Mortal, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears; then go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them. Say to them, “Thus says the Lord God”; whether they hear or refuse to hear.
Ezekiel 47:1, 8-9, 12
Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. . . . He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. . . . On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Secrets of Heaven 3318
Before [the vessels in our mind] can become submissive and fitted for accepting any of the life belonging to the Lord’s love, they have to soften, and the only way they can be softened is through times of trial. Tribulation takes away elements of self-love, contempt for others, and therefore vain pride, and elements of a consequent hatred and vengefulness as well. So when these evils are somewhat lessened and conquered by our trials, the vessels start to become yielding and obedient to the life of the Lord’s love, which constantly flows into us.
Our trials (our spiritual struggles) regenerate us, or in other words, remake us and give us a different character ever after. We become gentle, humble, sincere, and chastened at heart. This now reveals the use that times of trial serve: they enable goodness not only to flow in from the Lord but also to make the vessels in us obedient and in this way unite with them.
Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Secrets of Heaven 5954:10 (see below) Photo credit: Kelsey Johnson
I’m so glad that this story has come up in the lectionary! It is a favorite of mine since childhood, having engaging characters, a clear narrative, and offering both comic relief and deep wisdom. As remote as the setting may be, it is easy to see ourselves in these very human characters.
We find ourselves in the time of Ancient Israel; Elisha has fairly recently succeeded Elijah as the preeminent prophet of the day, and he has become well known for his various miracles. King Jehoram is on the throne, and Israel has been recently defeated in battle by the nation of Aram, which is now known to us as Syria. Israel’s position in the region is precarious.
In the midst of this politically fraught situation, we are introduced to the figure of Naaman, the Aramaic commander. He is clearly charismatic, competent and valiant, but he suffers from a skin condition. Even though it is referred to as leprosy in the bible, the Hebrew word that is translated thus actually referred at that time to a number of different ailments, so Naaman probably does not have the disfiguring form of leprosy that today is known as Hansen’s Disease. Even so, the condition was likely causing him plenty of discomfort and embarrassment.
The cure that had eluded Naaman up until this point, would come however, from a lowly and humble source; a young slave girl captured from Israel. She suggests that Naaman seek out Elisha, and Naaman, desperate enough at this point to do just about anything, takes her advice. But of course, the commander of a conquering army can’t just saunter over to enemy territory. So, the proper diplomatic actions are taken, and Aram’s king sends a letter to Israel’s king. King Jehoram freaks out a little bit at this point, perhaps unsure if this is a power play of some kind. (And let me assure you that it is okay to chuckle at the Bible; we are meant to do so here. King Jehoram is clearly being ridiculous). Elisha though, ever direct and pragmatic, has Naaman sent over to his house, but when Naaman arrives, Elisha refuses to even come out, and sends his very simple instructions by messenger: “Go wash in the Jordan seven times.”
Naaman is, of course, extremely put out. He has just personally defeated Israel; he is “the man.” He has power and wealth and he was fully prepared to buy his cure, having brought a fortune with him. He is probably used to everyone seeing to his every whim. So when Elisha does not capitulate in the way others always do, when he does not even show up in person, Naaman’s pride is on the line. And yet again, it is a humble servant who brings him around. In a moment of real grace, Naaman puts aside his pride, washes in the Jordan and is healed.
People originally hearing this story would likely have heard it with one ear towards ritual purification. Leviticus, in particular, is very detailed regarding the type of things that would cause an Israelite to be deemed “unclean” and unable to enter the tabernacle to worship, and is equally detailed as to how an Israelite might regain ritual purity. Something like a skin condition could very likely render an ancient Israelite ritually impure. And lest we relegate such attitudes to the ancient past, even today we continue to have strong notions of secular impurity. Seeing someone like Naaman, someone disfigured or suffering an obvious malady, well, our first thought might not be about ritual impurity, but we do often instinctively recoil from touching them, or being around them. Sadly, we all carry around with us a sense of the ideal, and sometimes, we react negatively to people who do not embody that ideal in a wide variety of ways.
Society in general, and religious groups in particular, have throughout history used this notion of purity to exclude, demonize and destroy people. When purity is used as a justification for a value-judgement, when it is used as a way to determine superiority, it is an extremely dangerous notion. We need only look to World War II and the Nazi regime for an example of how devastating an ethic of racial purity, for example, can be. This is not as far behind us as we might hope. Recent events in our own country have shown us, and continue to show us, that white supremacy and white nationalism has kept a hold on many minds. And there are many other examples, large and small, from sexuality to the wellness/diet industry, where purity judgements have become detrimental. So, in this regard, we must tread very carefully, and acknowledge that any discussion of purity itself has become very fraught, and potentially damaging.
The problem, though, is not with the idea of purification itself, but with how we, church and culture, have used it. Where would we be without the technology to purify water, or metals, or our air? Sometimes there are toxic elements that need to be removed from the whole, for the health of the whole. If our daily routine includes smoking for example, for the sake of the health of our respiratory system, and consequently our whole bodies, we should perhaps consider removing that habit from our lineup, to cease introducing toxic chemicals to our bodies that have been shown to lead to cancer. Likewise, the notion that we can remove spiritually toxic practices from lives and our relationships can also be a useful idea. Perhaps we are preventing our own spiritual health through toxic self-talk, for example, or an unwillingness to listen to our loved ones, or a habitual defensiveness in the face of reasonable and logical critique.
In order to regenerate, in order to further our spiritual journeys, we have to be open to seeing that which does not serve our spiritual growth, and be willing to work on getting rid of it. Swedenborg tells us that this spiritual purification happens by means of truth. “For the earthly and worldly loves from which a person has to be purified are not recognized except by means of truth.”(1) We don’t know what is toxic to us and our relationships until we use the light of truth to illuminate what is happening, until we see in the light of truth what love really looks like. We might use the truth of our universal beloved-ness to cease our negative self-talk, the truth of our own natural limits or the value of holy curiosity to take the figurative hands from our ears, or the truth of the safety of God’s grace and forgiveness to feel brave enough to stop ignoring our mistakes.
This is the signification of the river Jordan as the introduction into what Swedenborg calls the cognitions of good and truth.(2) The Jordan served as the boundary into the land of Canaan; likewise cognitions of good and truth serve as a boundary into the spiritual life. If we want to enter into a spiritual, expanded life, if we want to enter into God’s kingdom, new ways of thinking and acting come first. New ways that privilege loving God and others, instead of self and the world.
But here is the rub. The notion of purification cannot, and should not, be used as a justification for superiority over another person. If it is used in that way, then its whole purpose is inverted. Purification, as a spiritual process, is for the purpose of healing, wholeness, and growth. It is like cleaning a wound so that healing can properly occur. We know that certain germs will make a wound worse, will prevent it from healing. So we take water, we take our anti-bacterial creams, we put on a band-aid, we clean, purify and protect that which we want to heal and make whole.
The problem occurs when we use purification as our guiding principle, rather than one way in which we can support our own healing and wholeness. Purification, as in using truth to help us understand what is getting in the way of healing, is a useful process, but it is just that, a means and a process. It should not be a value-judgment about the worthiness of a person.
Purification is about removing the things that prevent healing, wholeness, and growth. Purity itself is not the end. Healing and wholeness is the end. God does not love purity. God’s loves bringing us into thriving, into healthy, whole, balanced and growing lives. It is our own selfish and worldly loves that prevent us from embracing God’s kingdom, and so we are invited to purify ourselves from them. We are invited to wash in the Jordan as Naaman did, invited to wash our thoughts with God’s thoughts about love rather than our own. We are invited to separate from, to wash away, that which serves to harm, so that all that is left is nourishment.
And there are two important things that we cannot forget about Naaman. The first is that he was not just restored externally; he was changed from the inside out. He learned something pivotal about his own pride and he responded with faith, respect and commitment to carry his newfound discoveries into his complicated life outside of Israel. So it is not God’s hope for us that purification simply be external, be engaged in for its own sake, used as a weapon for the purposes exclusivity or superiority. Humility must guide any sense or attempt towards purification, not our pride. Which bring us to the second important thing. It was Naaman’s humble servant who convinced him to wash in the Jordan. Humility must lead purification, or otherwise we will be tempted to use purity as a way to feel superior to one another. And that is not what the notion of purity is for. It is for us, from God, so that we might be able to concentrate, gather and collect all that is good and let go of all that does not serve. So we might know the blessedness of being free from that which would cause us harm. So that we might know peace. So that we might know ourselves as God always see us, newborn and restored, and with so much potential.
(1) Secrets of Heaven 7918
(2) Secrets of Heaven 4255:2
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. 2 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” 8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” 11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. 13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Secrets of Heaven 5954:10
Cleansings from impurities are effected by means of the truths of faith since they teach what good is, what charity is, what the neighbor is, and what faith is. They also teach the existence of the Lord, heaven, and eternal life. Without truths to teach them people have no knowledge of these things or even of their existence. Who left to themselves knows other than this, that the good which goes with self- love and love of the world is the only kind of good in a person? For both constitute the delight of their life. Can anyone know except from the truths of faith about the existence of another kind of good that can be imparted to a person, namely the good of love to God or the good of charity towards the neighbor? Can anyone know that those kinds of good have heavenly life within them, or that those kinds of good flow in from the Lord by way of heaven in the measure that the person ceases to love themselves more than others and the world more than heaven? From all this it becomes clear that the purification which was represented by...washing is effected by means of the truths of faith.
Readings: Luke 8:26-39, Divine Providence #309 (see below)
Photo credit: Lewis Burrows
I have always been fascinated by this text. In my opinion, it is one of the most quietly creepy stories in the bible, particularly because of verse 30, when Jesus asks the name of the demon and he replies “Legion.” This story is also recounted in the book of Mark, and it is rendered even more ominously: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” I can’t read that without the hairs rising up on my arms. Now why do I think that is? Well, for many of us, there is something inherently scary about “the malevalent many.” At the time of Augustus, a Roman legion was about six thousand men. Thus, the demon’s name calls to mind an enormous army. One person does not have much chance of standing up to that many. I’ve also seen one bible translation use the word “mob” instead of “legion.” That adds an additional dimension of violent chaos to the characterization. So, whether we are talking about the menace provoked in a disciplined army of many thousands, or a the chaos of a mob, we almost unconsciously understand this “legion” to be completely uncontrollable, and I think this is why it is deeply unsettling.
But, you might have noticed that a different type of fear shows up in the narrative as well. A few verses later, in v. 35 we find that the people, seeing the healing that Jesus has done, seeing the formerly possessed man dressed and in his right mind….are they grateful, joyful, amazed? No, they are afraid. They ask Jesus to leave. Jesus has done this amazing thing, this amazing service to their community, but they ask him to leave. What is that about? Surely, this possessed man no longer being violent and uncontrollable, that would be a good thing? Why didn’t they think so? It’s a good question. So, while I do love the understandably scary and ultimately ridiculous Legion, I would submit today, that the fear of the people in the face of the healing itself is the much more interesting part of the story. So that’s what we are going to talk about.
First, a little background on the text. This healing comes directly after a story of Jesus calming the raging waters of a storm. Jesus had to take a boat across a lake to get to Geresene, where he encountered the possessed man. While they are in this boat, Jesus goes to take a nap, and then a squall comes up and the boat was in danger of sinking. The disciples go wake Jesus up, saying “we are going to drown!” and Jesus “rebukes the wind” and calms the waters. He then asks them (rather famously) “Where is your faith?” and they in turn, incredulously ask each other “Who is this, that the wind and the water obey him.”
And it is at this point, with these two important questions still hanging in the air, that the story turns to the demon-possessed man and his healing. So, in terms of the narrative, we are seeing that Jesus first shows his command of the natural world (the wind and sea) and then he also shows his command of the spirit world (by ordering the spirit out of the man and into the pigs). Jesus will follow up this story with another healing of a chronically bleeding woman who touches his cloak, and then he raises a little girl who had just died, foreshadowing his own resurrection. All these stories in quick succession are trying to answer the question “Who is this Jesus?”….by saying that Jesus is someone whose power is so great that he can command the weather, vanquish demons, can raise the dead, whose power is literally so vibrant and pulsing that someone need only touch his cloak and they are healed.
But, while the narrative is trying to answer who Jesus is, Jesus himself is also kind of subversively asking a different question. He asks: Where is your faith? This question too, given first to the disciples, lingers in the air as the demon-possessed man is healed, as the townspeople react negatively and ask Jesus to leave. We might like to think that if we were present in Jesus’ day, that we would react positively to what Jesus was doing. But, if we put ourselves into the position of the various participants in the narrative, perhaps we might we a better sense of why they didn’t. In the disciples’ case, imagine being tossed about in a near sinking boat, or in the townspeople’s case, imagine being terrified by the unpredictability of a violently possessed man. In both those cases, we surely might feel very very small, very powerless. From this vantage point of smallness, the mercy and power of Jesus might also seem like just another thing that we cannot control, as large and disconnected from our own sense of agency as the howling wind, or a legion of spirits. No wonder the townspeople wanted Jesus to leave. They were afraid of yet another thing that they could not control. Fear was compelling them to ask some very uncomfortable questions like…in the face of all this uncontrollability, who am I? What am I? The wind is invisible and destructive, the spirits are legion, and Jesus is incredibly powerful….and so I must be…nothing. What do we do with that realization?
And doesn’t that get right to the heart of our deepest spiritual questions: Who and what am I? How do I hold and experience my sense of self? How do I relate to my own life, to God and to other people as a result?
One important principle of Swedenborgian thought is the connectedness of the spiritual and natural worlds, that there is a basic continuity between them, that they are not separate things. We don’t escape this world to enter into heaven as if it is some place completely or categorically different…rather we will recognize ourselves in the next life, which is part of the reason why we believe personal transformation and how we relate to our own “selfhood” is so important to our spiritual progress. Our reading for today highlights the struggle and the fear that is elicited from our ego when we attempt to give over to God’s providence what is due, to recognize that our selfhood is pure gift and that God is the source of all. We read earlier:
…These people who credited everything to their own prudence (we could even call them overly invested in their own image) flared up so violently that fire came from their nostrils. "You're talking paradoxes and madness," they said. "Surely this would reduce us to nothing, to emptiness. We would be some idea or hallucination, or some sculpture or statue." (DP 309)
Do you hear that fear? “Surely this would reduce us to nothing.” Perhaps we can resonate. And I think this might be one of the complicated things that the villagers of Gerasene were feeling. Were they wondering where their own agency might be in the face of a man subject to a legion of demons, but who is equally subject and reliant on Jesus to save him? Perhaps they just didn’t want to think about what that meant, didn’t want to grapple with it. It was too much. Swedenborg continues:
 All I could say in response was that the real paradox and madness was believing that we are the source of our own life…Further, this is like people who are living in someone else's house, with someone else's possessions, and convincing themselves that they own them as long as they are living there.’
Maybe the people at Geresene didn’t want to think about the fact that their selfhood was metaphorically, someone else’s house, someone else’s possession. This is understandable of course, we are all very invested in our selfhood. We want to OWN things, physical things yes, but also to own our accomplishments as a way of proving our worth, proving our existence. We say: I own that, I did that…..look at this evidence of my healthy individualism, my moxy, my focus, my hard work, my brilliance. But of course, we all know that this MY is always part of a WE, whether it is the WE of a family, workplace, society….or just the WE of ourselves and God. Our individual selves are always, always, found in a matrix of relationship.
And sometimes we forget that, we forget about the people looking after our children, the people collecting up the trash, picking our vegetables, building the bridges and the roads, the people keeping us safe and the electricity flowing, the people who made our shiny new possessions in perhaps less than humane working conditions…And we forget the most amazing thing….that God is letting us live in God’s house! This body, this world, this life is a most incredible gift, like an air bnb that we get for free and forever. This is why we praise, to remind us of the truth of God’s generosity, to prevent us from becoming like those seagulls in Finding Nemo, going around saying “Mine! Mine! Mine!” to everything around us. Because that is the madness, that is the absurdity, trying to co-opt something that could never truly be ours, forgetting the true blessing is that we are given this house, this life, to live in, no questions asked.
But this begs the question: how do we live in this house that is not ours? What does that look like, psychologically? What are we supposed to do, detach completely from ownership of anything in our life? Float about not caring about any of it? Well, that is not actually what the healed man is told to do. At first, he wants to come along with Jesus. He DOES want to detach from his life as he has known it. We might wonder: how could his old life have any meaning for him now? But Jesus says, go back to your house, go back to your life. Go back to your house that is filled with “someone else’s possessions,” go back to this house filled with gifts from God, see and feel your gratitude there in your life, and there in your life tell people how much God has done. God does not wish for us to abdicate the responsibility of our lives, the blessedness of our connections or the uniqueness of our context. God wants us to be IN our lives, with gusto, just not to grasp them in fear and desperation. Yet, how do we find that balance?
There is a philosophical idea that has been helpful to me in thinking about this, an idea known as the “deconstructive embrace.”(1) Yes, we embrace this metaphorical home, this life, this selfhood. God has invited us with love into it, and we are allowed to love it too. We are allowed to take up space. We live in our life, we use it, and we take care of it because it is a glorious and wonderful gift. But we don’t grasp it, we don’t allow ourselves to pretend that we own it, we actively, constantly, “deconstruct” the illusion that we might have built it, we abdicate being the source of life. We hold this life, this selfhood, with a knowing, deconstructive embrace. We hold, but lightly, with love and gratitude.
And so when Jesus asks: “Where is your faith?” may we recognize that it is not located in ourselves, in our own selfhood, but that our faith is located in the giving nature of God, in all the forms of connectedness that give glory to the kingdom. When we know that the house isn’t ours, when we know that our very existence is based on an God’s act of radical hospitality and love, then perhaps, we can welcome Jesus, and the all transformation he brings, to stay, no matter how uncomfortable that might make us feel.
(1) Attributed to Gayatri Spivak, in Mayra Rivera’s The Touch of Transcendence, p114.
26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. 30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
Divine Providence #309
Allow me, though, to pass on something I have heard from people in the spiritual world. These were people who believed that their own prudence was everything and that divine providence was nothing. I told them that nothing is really ours unless we want to call "ours" the fact that we are one kind of subject or another, or one kind of organ or another, or one kind of form or another--that no one has any "self" as people usually understand the word "self." It is only a kind of attribute. No one actually has the kind of self that is usually meant by the term. These people who credited everything to their own prudence (we could even call them overly invested in their own image) flared up so violently that fire came from their nostrils. "You're talking paradoxes and madness," they said. "Surely this would reduce us to nothing, to emptiness. We would be some idea or hallucination, or some sculpture or statue."
 All I could say in response was that the real paradox and madness was believing that we are the source of our own life and that wisdom and prudence do not flow into us from God but are within us, believing that this is true of the good that comes from caring and the truth that comes from faith. Any wise person would call this claim madness, and it leads into a paradox as well. Further, this is like people who are living in someone else's house, with someone else's possessions, and convincing themselves that they own them as long as they are living there.
Readings: Isaiah 42:5-9, Revelation 12:1-6, 13-17, Apocalypse Revealed #533:1, 564 (see below)
Today we celebrate (three days early), the birthday of the Swedenborgian church, or as it has called itself since its beginning: The Church of the New Jerusalem, or the New Church for short. In many of his books, Swedenborg describes the beginning of a new church in both heaven and in the world, a church that is represented by the descent of the New Jerusalem, which we explored together a few weeks ago. At one point, Swedenborg recounts a vision of the Lord calling together his twelve disciples in heaven and sending them out to preach the gospel of this new church to the whole spiritual world, a message that says: the Lord God Jesus Christ reigns and that this kingdom will last for ages upon ages. Swedenborg tells us that this event occurred on June 19th, 1770 and thus those of us in this world who are inspired by the writings of Swedenborg celebrate this day, the day that a new thing that the Lord was doing was definitively announced. Thus, The New Church has always resonated deeply with the vision of the holy city Jerusalem descending from heaven. Our identity, as a group of people, is tied to this vision of a city that represents the presence of God in the world, that calls forth a future in which all suffering will end, and issues to a challenge to us now to be vessels for its manifestation.
But, the vision of the holy city is the culminating metaphor of the book of Revelation, the shining and beautiful picture with which that book ends. The rest of the book is certainly less peaceful and this is because the way to the holy city will be full of challenges. It takes work, fearlessness, and persistence to bring a new consciousness into being. So while many believe the book of Revelation is predicting the return of Jesus to earth, the New Church sees the events in Revelation as a grand cosmic story, as a representation of spiritual events that have already happened, and are continuing to happen in the hearts of every human being. The book of Revelation tells of the endurance and the courage that it takes to live a life of faith and love. Specifically, we can see this playing out in the image of the women clothed with the sun and the dragon, which communicates to us the process, the danger and the hope of birthing a life of love into the world.
The woman clothed with the sun is a beloved figure in Swedenborgian theology. She represents what Swedenborg calls a new church(1). Just to be clear, when we talk about church in this mystical context, we are not referring to a specific earthly organization but rather the manifestation of God’s connection with people in this world, whatever form this is taking. This can take the form of secular organizations, it can take the form of informal groups of people, it can take the form of one person striving to unite wisdom and love in their lives, as well as groups gathering as we do in places of worship. So really, by a “new church” is meant all the various ways a new spiritual consciousness and reality is becoming manifested for humankind. The woman clothed with the sun represents this new hope and this new way of engaging with spirit, a new opportunity continually given to open up to the presence and guidance of the Lord.
The woman clothed with the sun also gives birth to a child. In Swedenborg’s worldview, this child represents doctrine(2). Doctrine can be such a loaded word but all it means is how a church, or a group of people, or even an individual, thinks about truth, and what we think that truth is calling us to do. But the child does not represent doctrine as we might have come to understand it; dry, intellectual and disconnected. The child represents a doctrine of life, a living religion, brand new and alive, where faith and love together lead us into action. The woman needed to labor to give birth to this child, because when the truth moves us to act it can sometimes take a lot of work to figure out how that needs to show up in our lives. But when we do that work, and figure out how truth will be showing up for us, this effort to produce our own “doctrine of a life well-lived” is protected by God. And it is not so much that our own precious interpretation or construct of doctrine is protected, but rather, God protects our sacred capacity to see truth and let it move us into action, into a new way of living. God protects our ability to give birth to ever new interpretations of our context and how God wants us to show up in it, because this is how we grow, this is how we regenerate.
But giving birth can make us vulnerable, and so when the truth moves us to act, then the dragon is waiting to devour whatever we bring forth. The dragon represents worldliness and selfishness, our own and that of our environment or culture(3). It represents materialism, selling out, entitlement, self-aggrandizement. And in the context of religion, it represents the idea of faith alone being able to save us, believing that faith should give us a free pass so we can do whatever we want. I think we are all familiar with the dragon part of ourselves and our world. We all have our shadow sides that just want to get our own way, that want to take the easy way, that believe we should not have to examine ourselves, we should not have to transform, we should not have to sacrifice ego, superiority, accumulation and power. We can see this everywhere. And in the dragon, we can see the kind of anger and hate that arises when we don’t get what we want, we can see the ever-escalating defensiveness that grows out of the inability to reflect, and the unwillingness to be accountable.
So, the dragon attacks the woman, to prevent her giving birth to something new and hopeful and alive. As protection, she is given “the wings of a great eagle.” These wings represent spiritual intelligence and circumspection(4), a God-given ability to see truth and to understand truth’s underlying order of love, to recognize and make connections, to see the story of God’s Word as a grand love story between God and humanity. The wings represent the opening up of that potential within us, this potential to feel moved by the beauty and truth of God’s ordering of the universe. Those wings take the woman away to the safety of the wilderness. Yes, the wilderness, as counterintuitive as that may seem. We can’t skip the wilderness. We all will need to wrestle with our dragon selves in our wilderness times, but we go into it with the protection of the Lord: our ability to rise above our circumstances in thought, to see God and God’s guidance, to see patterns and order and beauty and potential. The woman with her wings teaches us that being under the wing of God allows us to soar, to rise above our selfish desires, to rise above the dragon’s urgings. For us, when we can view our circumstances with God’s eyes, when we know that God is with us and will always endeavor to bring light to our darkness, this knowledge can sustain us, just as the woman is nourished in the wilderness.
There is one final character in our story: the earth - the good ground. If the woman is the possibility of new way, and the wings are a God-given ability to see truth and beauty, and the child is what the truth calls us to do, then the earth is the actual doing of it, the earth is being the church(5). The earth is a life grounded and rooted in love, day by day. The earth is solid, the earth is real life, the earth is planting our flag, the earth is coming out of the wilderness and actually choosing to live out the wisdom of love in our actions. Swedenborg calls the earth here “spiritual truth rationally understood” but I would go further to say that it is truth understood so deeply that, in both a personal and organizational context, we are able to move beyond the life of the mind, where we tend to over-complicate and rationalize, and simply be the church, putting one foot in front of the other in service to what is good.
The earth teaches us about the power of love, about seeing the truth and grounding it, about establishing a connection to God in the living of life through each sacred moment. And as the culmination of our process, the earth provides the ultimate protection for the woman clothed with the sun and what she represents. The earth opened wide and swallowed the flood that issued forth from the mouth of the dragon. The selfishness of the world always wants to sweep away the potential for transformation, and so the dragon tries to overwhelm the woman with a torrent of water. And haven’t we all felt that we are going to be carried away by the world sometimes? The false assumptions, the expectations, the siren song of “more”? Life in this world whispers in our ear and suddenly we’re floating miles away from where we thought we were. The dragon and his torrent of water is the crafty reasonings of the ego, that voice in our head leading us away from the grounding of love. The false thinking that sweeps us away from what we know is right(6). But it is the earth—with it’s crystal clear understanding of the efficacy, the wisdom, of day-to-day loving action— that swallows the flood and saves the woman, and turns that great flood of falsity into the nothingness that it really is. The flood is in turn devoured by God’s truth for us, the truth of love.
So, these are our players: the woman, child, wings, dragon, and earth. They depict for us a story of what is looks like to try and manifest the New Jerusalem in our lives and in the world. God clears a space, creates an opening, calls us forth to give birth, provides protections. The world reacts, and our shadow selves, lash out in anger and put up obstacles. Yet, the dragon’s torrent of water is pure nothingness, as overwhelming and as powerful as it may seem.
The author Neil Gaiman wrote the following, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton:
"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” (7)
The truth of this story from Revelation is similar; it is scary and difficult to live a life of true spiritual transformation. The dragon is all around. But so is God. So is a woman clothed in the beauty of the sun, so is her fertility and her ability to birth something new, so is the preciousness of a new baby, so is the magnificence of soaring wings, so is the steadfastness of an earth that swallows all that would harm us. Dragons can be beaten because God will show up wherever the have the courage to call God forth. May it be.
5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
Revelation 12:1-6, 13-17
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
13 When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
Apocalypse Revealed #533:1
A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet. This symbolizes the Lord's New Church in heaven, which is the New Heaven, and the New Church to come on earth, which is the New Jerusalem…A woman symbolizes the church because the church is called the Lord's bride and wife.
The woman here appeared clothed with the sun because the church is governed by love toward the Lord; for it acknowledges Him and keeps His commandments, and that is loving Him (John 14:21-24). That the sun symbolizes love may be seen in no. 53.
Apocalypse Revealed #564
But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the river which the dragon had spewed out of its mouth. (12:16) This symbolically means that the multitude of reasonings flowing from falsities that followers of the dragon put forward come to nothing in the face of the spiritual truths rationally understood that are advanced by the [angels] of whom the New Church is formed.
Readings: Genesis 2:1-7, John 14:8-20, 25-27, Divine Providence #324:1a, 2 (see below)
Often times, on Pentecost, (a day of celebration of the Holy Spirit) we will read a passage from Acts. Something like:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
This is why we often wear red for Pentecost, in line with this ancient image of the Holy Spirit as fire. However, the lectionary this year also gives our reading from John as an option. It is very different in tone from the public mayhem of the Acts reading. Like last week, with Jesus’ prayer for unity, this scene is intimate. Jesus is talking with his disciples during their last meal together. They are grappling with the knowledge that Jesus will be leaving them and so Jesus tries to comfort them. He tells them: “you know the way to the place where I am going.”(14:4) They have been through a lot together, and Jesus believes in them, even as he knows the road will be challenging.
As with anyone who we love who is leaving us, in small and larger ways, we want to know something about how we will stay in contact. When my daughter leaves for a sleepover with a friend, I tell to her bring her phone in case she needs to text me. When I leave my brother in Australia, we promise that we will Skype. When we can’t be there for a friend at an event, we tell them that we will be there in spirit. Likewise, the disciples want to know how Jesus will remain present to them after he is gone.
So Jesus starts to speak to them about it. He invokes something called the paraclete, from the word in greek: parakletos (par-rah-clay-tus). This word is variously translated as advocate, helper, counselor, comforter, consoler, intercessor. It was a word used in those days to mean someone who represented you in court, one who pleads another’s cause, and more broadly it meant anyone who helps of assists. It literally means “one who comes alongside,” from the greek para, meaning beside or near, and kletos, meaning one who is invited or appointed.
This is what Jesus will leave the disciples with: the knowledge that there will still be something or someone walking alongside the them in their continuing journey. What exactly will that be? The gospel here calls it The Spirit of Truth, and later The Holy Spirit. The third part of what is known theologically as the Trinity.
Christian Theologians have argued throughout the ages about the three-fold nature of the divine: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some make a very clear separation between the different divine figures and treat them essentially as different people, in action if not in thought. Swedenborgianism, or the New Church, however, teaches a strict monotheism; that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit represent three different aspects of God’s nature: Divine Love, Divine Truth and Divine Outreach or Use.
Now it is easy to see why some trinitarian theologies lean towards distinct persons. Jesus does often speak to “The Father” as if separate, and does speak of the Holy Spirit in these terms: “I will send another comforter to help you…” This certainly sounds separate. But there are two kinds of words in greek that mean “another”: allos, meaning another of the same sort and hetero, meaning another of a different quality or kind. This verse, verse 16, uses allos, meaning another of the same kind. There is a clear continuity implied. Now, with our own temporal human minds, we mark our lives through beginnings and endings. To the disciples, Jesus was leaving and something would need to replace him. To human beings, that’s the way it works, that is our experience. In God’s time however…this replacement, this holy spirit, was and could only be, that which has always been.
We are see this right from the beginning. The spirit of truth in the greek is pneuma aletheia. In a sense that is lost to English translations, pneuma means not only spirit, but also breath, or wind. The use of this word recalls the breath of life breathed into us by God in Genesis. “Then the Lord formed a human from the dust of the ground and breathed into the human’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.” (Gen 2:7) The breath gave life, and with that breath came movement, lungs expanding and contracting, the flow of air, the absorption of oxygen. Likewise, that sacred breath, the spirit of truth, continues and contains the movement and flow of our own spiritual journeys. Our hearts and minds expand and contract, we are challenged, we are inspired, we spiral upwards, two steps forward one step back, the flow of life taking us along, in-breath, out-breath. The holiness and the diligence of the spirit comes alongside and within us, breathing us into new realities and perspectives.
So although Jesus brings his disciples’ attention to the spirit in the moment that they understand that he is leaving them; the spirit has always been there, layered intrinsically into the very moment of our creation and the very movement of our life. We read in Swedenborg’s book, Divine Providence:
Everyone is created to live forever. Everyone is created to live forever in a blessed state. This means everyone is created to go to heaven. Divine Love cannot do otherwise than intend this and divine wisdom cannot do otherwise than provide for this.(1)
All people are created for heaven. This is the purpose of the spirit bringing us life, and purpose of the spirit attending to our journeys, the one who comes alongside. Thus Jesus says: “I will not leave you as orphans…I will come to you.” The Divine is incapable to leaving us. The moment God created us, it sealed us and God together, as our life is composed of God’s breath, our spirit a gift of God’s outpouring.
As we heard in our reading, God could not create anything less intimate. Divine Love could not and would not create playthings, create human beings for amusement, to be enjoyed at a distance. Divine Love could only create that which could continue to accept love to eternity, and moreover that which could learn to recognize and reciprocate love. Divine love could only create that which has the potential to increase ever more blessedness.
From our reading:
What divine purpose would there be in all these changes unless they were serving subjects who would accept something divine more intimately, who would see and sense it?
Of course Jesus would not leave us with nothing, no connection to him. The purpose of our creation is so that we might have an intimate, seen and sensed relationship with God. But, the spirit is not new. The spirit is naturalized in creation, in our creation. In this moment, in our text, Jesus is lifting up what has always been true, that the spirit comes alongside, that the spirit is breath and life. That the spirit is an advocate, counselor, comforter, helper. That the spirit is a part of the sacred reinforcing circle that is the trinity.
The trinity: God placing the holy spirit, the holy breath, within our creation, so that we might come to know our belovedness and our destiny. Jesus, revealing to us what God is up to, how God will never stop reaching for us. The Holy Spirit reminding us how Jesus showed up, and that love is for living. The trinity is a dynamic interplay between the ways that God has made provision for us, the ways that God wants to love us, the ways God calls us to respond.
From verse 25: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” As breath moves us forward in life, one inhalation at a time, so the spirit moves us forward in the living of our life, reminding us what is important, reminding us of our grounding in God, urging us onward into new truths, new perspectives, new insights. The Holy Spirit as it is with us now becomes the re-interpreter of Jesus’ words, the great contextualizer of divine truth (2), the maker of usefulness and meaning, application and growth, so that Jesus’ life can be ongoing in the here and now. So that we can realize love in the everyday, so that we can accept and engage with the breath of life.
Now, the sad reality is that sometimes we will want to opt out this amazing opportunity that God has set up for us….some of us will refuse heaven, refuse the blessedness that God offers because it requires the loss of ego, requires making space for being open and being wrong, requires sacrifice. But that doesn’t change the fact that God still comes alongside. “Divinity, though, gives what truly is, or what does not cease to be.”
The Father creates, the Son comes, the Spirit contextualizes. The Creator loves, the Redeemer reaches, the Comforter reminds. May we all choose to consciously participate in this sacred process, and this sacred gift.
(1) Divine Providence #324
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. 4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
John 14:8-20, 25-27
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” 9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. 15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Divine Providence #324:1a, 2
(a) Everyone is created to live forever.  What would the Lord have been doing with all this creating of a universe if he had not made images and likenesses of himself with whom he could share his divine nature? Otherwise, it would only have been making something so that it existed and [then] did not exist, or so that it happened and did not happen, and doing this only so that he could simply watch its permutations from far away, watch its ceaseless changes like something happening on a stage. What divine purpose would there be in all these changes unless they were serving subjects who would accept something divine more intimately, who would see and sense it? Since Divinity has inexhaustible splendor, would it simply keep it all to itself? Could it keep it all to itself? Love wants to share what it has with others, to give to others all that it can. What about divine love, then, which is infinite? Can it first give and then take back? Would this not be giving something that was bound to perish--that was intrinsically nothing, since it would become nothing when it perished? There is no real "is" involved in that. Divinity, though, gives what truly is, or what does not cease to be. This is what is eternal.
So today we find ourselves back in the gospel of John. Two weeks ago, we explored Jesus prayer for glorification. Last week, if not for our jaunt through the holy city, we would have heard Jesus’ prayer for his disciples. Now today, we hear Jesus’ prayer for all believers, his prayer for oneness and unity in the church and the world.
This word, unity, might cause you, as it does me, to sigh and feel a bit cynical. It seems like everyone is calling for unity right now, but no one seems to know how to get there. Politically, this country is extremely divided right now. That’s not news. But let’s just say it: it’s exhausting. Disagreements are a normal thing in the life of a country, but I don’t think it’s the fact that we disagree that is so discouraging. What feels discouraging is that we can no longer agree on what is true, and so we are retreating, we are digging in, we are treating each other with suspicion and distrust. Unity seems impossible when a person or group of people refuses to compromise, refuses to concede to common ideals, or to look for common ground. It is easy to call for unity, but much harder to decide what to do when overtures are rebuffed, when compromise itself is seen as a sign of weakness, or capitulation. At that point, it seems there is nowhere to go but further into our own silos. And from there, either out of disappointment, disillusionment, or pure preoccupation with power and being right, retaliation starts to seem justified. So, I will forgive you, and you can forgive me, if we hear Jesus’ prayer for unity and oneness and think: “Yeah, right. Good luck with that. That will never happen.”
Except. [Sigh.] Except…there is the tiny problem that our whole religion is based on the actions of Jesus, who endured torture and humiliation and returned those actions with love, not retaliation. A person’s whose last prayer for us was for oneness, for forgiveness. We don’t get to take a pass on this, not if we truly want to follow Jesus, not if we want to say that the Easter story means something to us. So, I guess that means we need to buckle up.
Part of the problem with this text, is that we hear Jesus praying for unity but he doesn’t tell us how to make it happen. Unfortunately, the bible is not an instruction manual. Sometimes we desperately want it to be, but it is not. It is stories about people trying to figure out how to live in relationship to God, their triumphs and their failures both. In this text from John, we are essentially overhearing Jesus own prayer for us, which is different to receiving a teaching(1). We are eavesdropping. We are hearing the intimate and heartfelt desire of Jesus, praying for his disciples, praying for us, not telling us what to do. What we do see, though, is Jesus grounding that unity he prays for in love, as we hear in verse 23: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.”
When we turn to Swedenborg, we receive advice about the three essentials of love: “The essence of love is loving others who are outside oneself, wanting to be one with them, and blessing them from oneself.” This description certainly sounds a lot like love, and it might seem easy to contemplate how these characteristics of love manifest in our personal relationships. But how might these ideas be used in particular towards unity, in a situation where unity is not the first impulse? This is a little harder.
First, the essence of love is loving others who are outside of oneself. This might seem obvious, but we can’t love others if we are filled with our own ego concerns. And neither can a group of people act as a team, or work together towards common goals when everyone looking out for themselves. The easiest example is a sports team. A player who is grandstanding will probably miss the right play, and get in the way of the whole team succeeding. Loving means caring more about people outside of ourselves, or the common good, or a higher ideal, more than we want to serve our personal ego, and our personal goals, reputation, or righteousness. It is simple; love requires sacrifice.
Second, the essence of love is wanting to be one with others. Of course it is easy to want to be one with the people we already love, that feels very natural. It feels much less natural with people that challenge us, feel different to us. It often feels easier to put physical or emotional distance between us and them, so we choose that option. We choose to “other” people, make assumptions about them that justify the distance, put them in boxes so that we don’t have to respect their inner life, and recognize their humanity. The demonization of immigrants or transgender people is a clear example of this tendency, one way cruel policies are being justified. Yet, we will find there can be no unity without respect, curiosity and openness. Love is inherently connective; it helps us to recognize what we share.
Third, the essence of loving another is blessing them from oneself. Love is nothing unless it is put into action, used to serve others, in greater and lesser ways. And again, it is easy to serve the people we already love. We do that almost automatically. It is much harder, in the service of unity, to serve and bless those who hurt us or disagree with us, those whom we think don’t “deserve” our help. Yet, love is courageous, love is faithful. There is an amazing example that happened a couple or years ago(2). A well-known comedian named Sarah Silverman received a tweet from a man calling her a filthy name. Instead of retaliating, she looked at his profile, and found a story of frustration and depression, as he suffered from debilitating back pain and a traumatic past. Ms. Silverman reached out to him over twitter in empathy and understanding, even rallying local fans to help the man find treatment for his back pain. The man was amazed and grateful, and apologized for his behavior. Ms. Silverman could have been defensive, made her main concern her pride, and yet she looked closely and found something to connect with and a way to help.
And this is the hard part. It is easy to want to be one with and bless others whom we already love and agree with. This kind of unity feels effortless, because we want to do it, it makes us feel good, included, safe. The subversiveness of the crucifixion is that Jesus extended love and forgiveness even to those who persecuted him. He resisted the natural human temptation to lash out in retaliation, and showed that the sacrificial nature of love is what brings life, resurrection, freedom. Now we must be clear: the cross is not calling for martyrdom. It is not to be used by the powerful to tell the less powerful what they must sacrifice. We definitely need to prevent harm from happening to ourselves and others, both physically and emotionally, wherever we can. But the symbolic import of the crucifixion is that our self-centered ego needs to die, our need for retaliation needs to die. Then we, and others, and the whole world, can really live, can rise from the tomb of mutually assured destruction.
Gandhi is said to have stated: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Lest we think that an eye for an eye is some ancient code that we have now moved beyond, just take a look at a few action movies in recent years. Take a look at social media. Vengeance and retaliation, or at least a habitually defensive and aggressive stance towards all who disagree, is still considered to be noble, macho, desirable, practical. Culture tells us that we are allowed to give up on the humanity of others, if they have wronged us, even in a small way. But Jesus tells us differently.
So we return to the essentials of love. They don’t make sense in the landscape of disunity. Our pragmatic selves tell us they are stupid, naive, insane. But they are also our only hope, our only way to life, the only way to stay sane.
I was recently watching an adaptation of the classic book, Les Miserable by Victor Hugo(3). The story is about the reformation of a prisoner named Jean Valjean, and a policeman, Javert, who dedicates his life to bringing Valjean to justice, even as Valjean attempts to create a new and respectable life. Once out of prison, Valjean takes on new identity and adopts an orphan girl, Cosette, who was being abused by her foster family. The years go by and they become as close as father and daughter. Javert, meanwhile, is tormented by the idea that a criminal like Valjean could be living a free life, and he searches for him everywhere. Eventually, Cosette falls in love with a boy named Marius and wishes to marry. Valjean is stricken at the thought of losing her, knowing that he would never be able to join her in society, due to his secret. Nevertheless, Valjean saves the life of Marius on the battlefield of the revolution, and drags him through the sewers of Paris to safety. As they emerge, Javert finally catches up with Valjean. He did not expect to find him in the midst of a selfless act. As he tries to puzzle out this contradiction on the way to the police station he asks:
“That young man…is he a particular friend of yours? Would you say that he is dear to you?”
Valjean replies: “Quite the contrary. If he lives, he intends to rob me of all my happiness.”
Javert is confused: “And yet, you….” he trails off. “Are you insane?”
Valjean replies: “No, I don’t think so. Are you?”
And we see it suddenly dawning for Javert that it is his life that is the insane one, a life preoccupied with vengeance and reputation, a life boxed in by obsession with being righteous, a life that couldn’t contemplate mercy or forgiveness or transformation.
The theologian Frederick Buechner has written: ”The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks [they] can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”(4)
What is the true insanity? In a world that feels less and less unified, ultimately, believing that people are unchangeable, and the world is irredeemable feels like the true insanity. Abandoning love feels like the true insanity.
But that doesn’t make the sane choice easy. The problem with the idea of unity, the reason that the word might ring hollow to our ears is that we all intuitively know that unity doesn’t just happen. You can’t just flip a switch. You have to love your way into it. And that is awful news because it is just so hard. So hard to love people that consistently act in bad faith, consistently take advantage, consistently act defensively and make decisions with which we cannot agree and cannot fathom. But what is our choice; would we really prefer the tomb?
Loving our way to unity is messy. Sometimes we will have to make the call to protect ourselves and others. As we heard in our reading “It is love that wants those three things, however, and wisdom that brings them about.” We act in wisdom but we do it while still practicing the three essentials of love. They are not a check list that we get to abandon because we think that someone or some group no longer deserves love. God is always working in people, in every moment, in a myriad of unseen ways. God is always planting seeds.
So we must practice being the sower, being the gardener, acting alongside God. There is a particular Buddhist meditation practice which involves concentrating on widening circles of loving kindness. First, we might repeat a phrase or mantra towards ourselves, something meaningful to us like “May I be happy, May I be filled with peace, May I be free from suffering.” Then, we widen the meditation towards someone that we love: “May they be happy, May they be in peace, May they be free from suffering.” Then, we widen the meditation towards someone to whom we feel neutral, and then to someone with whom we have a difficult relationship. Finally, we widen our prayer towards all beings in the world. And this, in a sense, is what Jesus does in chapter 17 of John, praying first for his glorification, then for his beloved disciples, then for all believers and finally for wide world that God so loves.
“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (v25-26) Let us kneel beside Jesus in this prayer, may we always work to make God known.
(1) The New Interpreters Bible, p682.
(3) see pbs.org
(4) Frederick Beuchner, The Faces of Jesus