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Readings: Genesis 32:3-21, 33:1-5,8-11, Secrets of Heaven #4247:2 (see below)
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A lot has happened in our story since we left off. At Rebekah’s suggestion, after stealing his brother’s blessing, Jacob flees to his uncle’s house in Haran. On the way, he has his famous dream of a stairway with angels ascending and descending, which is where we get the phrase “Jacob’s Ladder”. When he arrives in Haran, he immediately falls in love with his cousin, Rachel. He works, tending Laban’s flocks, for seven years in order to marry her, but on the wedding night, Laban switches Rachel for her older sister Leah. Jacob is, of course, livid. But he dutifully works for another seven years in order to finally marry Rachel. Over the course of time, he works hard and intelligently and builds up his own flocks. His wives bear him twelve sons and a daughter.
Eventually, the Lord speaks to Jacob and tells him to go home. Jacob has done a lot of living since he was last there. As we hear in our reading, Jacob makes elaborate preparations, terrified about how Esau will receive him after all this time. He sends on ahead of himself magnificent gifts, and in the final moments, bows down excessively as his brother approaches. And then, in one of the most poignant verses in the bible, Esau simply runs to his brother and embraces him. We read: “He threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” What an extravagance of love! No stand-offishness, no demanding Jacob apologize (though thankfully Jacob seems to insist upon still doing so), just a welcome full of grace and forgiveness.
This is a beautiful picture of the restoration of a family, and of a relationship. And it is a picture of the ultimate goal of our spiritual journey. Swedenborg writes:
As regards the actual joining together [of Jacob and Esau], it is that which brings about a person's regeneration, for they are regenerated through the joining of the truths they know (represented by Jacob) to the good they cherish (represented by Esau), that is, through the joining of matters of faith to the deeds of [kindness].(1)
The journey of Jacob and Esau is a picture of how we each change into more spiritually mature, loving, and wise people, people who live out what they believe. We all start out in one place, wherever or whenever we are, with our menagerie of thoughts, feelings, and perspectives….groomed from the culture in which we were raised, the environment to which we were exposed, the people we come in contact with, our education, and our natural temperament. Many times, in this headspace, we are comfortable with what we know and feel.
But, the beginning of spiritual development is the precious acknowledgement that we might not know it all, so we pause, and into that pause leaps Jacob. In listening, in learning, in discerning, we are separated from our instinctive Esau-mind, from the ways we have settled into what we think we know, the ways we are comfortable feeling what we feel. Jacob stretches us, and we are not always glad for it. Sometimes we might even rage, or sulk or resist.
But God’s covenant with us will persist, and it depends upon our willingness to trust the separation into which the Jacob-mind has brought to us, to recognize, as Swedenborg wrote:
“Wisdom is perceiving that the things in which you are wise are scarcely anything compared with the things in which you are not.” (2)
For a time, perhaps over and over again for most of our life, we will need to consciously lift up the Jacob-mind, to remind ourselves to remain teachable, especially when we don’t think we need to. But the learning phase is not the endgame. Jacob cannot stay away forever. Transformed ways of thinking, in and of themselves are not enough.The primary thing that truth teaches is that we must ACT in love. Swedenborg writes: the “truths of faith regarded without love are mere sounds devoid of any life…"(3)
Our minds may have been open to learning new things but now we need to commit to transforming our will according to that new understanding. This doesn’t always feel easy. We will need to overcome whatever barriers we hold toward action. Our various fears, our real or supposed lack of competence, our selfishness or distractedness. Sometimes, many times, when we do start to act, it will feel hollow, performative, awkward, we might want to abandon the whole thing. This is pictured in what Jacob goes through returning to Esau: his fear of Esau’s four hundred men, his obsessive re-ordering of the arrangement of this traveling party, his wrestling with the angel the night before, which we will hear about on some other day.(4)
But eventually, our bumbling works of love become habits of being. Eventually, the truest kindest way to be is not something we think about, not something we know in our minds, but something that we know in our bones, in our gut, in our heart. This is Jacob and Esau joined together, embracing. A new way of being that has become a part of us. As we heard from our Swedenborg reading:
When a person is being regenerated however, which takes place…when we possess cognitions, good reveals itself, for we are then moved not so much by the affection for knowing truth as for doing it. For previously truth had been in our understanding, but now it is in our will, and when in our will it is in our true self, since the will constitutes a person's true self.
You see, love was always supposed to be the firstborn. Love *is* the firstborn, that which motivates us, that which moves us. And love is always that to which we will need to return.
But figuring out how to love well, in this broken world, that’s the trick, isn’t it? There are lots of ways that we think are loving that are really just loving ourselves, loving the way others make us feel, loving being right, loving to control, or loving the status quo. The story of Jacob and Esau is the story of how we can learn to love in a way that is self-sacrificial, that is brave, that is wider and fuller and mostly importantly, concretely useful.
Father Richard Rohr puts it this way:
We are shown that eventually even the greatest things in our lives—even our loves—must be released and allowed to become something new. Otherwise we are trapped. Love has not yet made us free….When we love exclusively from our small selves, we operate in a way that is mechanical and instrumental, which we now sometimes call codependent. We return again and again to the patterns of interaction we know. This is not always bad, but it is surely limited. Great love—loving from our Whole Selves connected to the Source of all love—offers us so much more.(5)
To get to this heavenly “more” we take the road of Jacob and Esau. We are changed from small self loving to Whole Self Loving. We let God’s Divine love move us and stretch us and change us, in a multitude of ways, through letting go, listening, learning and then acting, until we find ourselves transformed. And this transformation might not wholly be a surprise, since we have taken a long road to get there, but it will be poignant and satisfying and feel something like destiny, like two long lost brothers weeping in each others’ arms. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4353:1
(2) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained #828
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4352:2
(4) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4248
(5) Richard Rohr, Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, Great Love, July 23, 2020.
3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’ ” 6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” 7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.” 9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, LORD, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’ ” 13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.” 17 He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’ ” 19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’ ” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” 21 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
Genesis 33:1-5, 8-11
1 Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. 2 He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. 5 Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked. Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”…8 Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?” “To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said. 9 But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” 10 “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. 11 Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.
Secrets of Heaven #4247:2
…one may see that good flows constantly into truth, and truth receives good, since truths are the vessels for good. The only vessels into which Divine Good can be placed are genuine truths, for good and truth match each other. When a person is moved by the affection for truth, as everyone is at first prior to being regenerated, good is constantly flowing in even then, but as yet it has no vessels, that is, no truths in which to place itself or make its own; for nobody at the outset of regeneration possesses any cognitions as yet. But because good at that time is flowing in constantly it produces the affection for truth, for there is no origin to the affection for truth other than the constant endeavor of Divine good to flow in. This shows that even at that time good occupies the first position and plays the leading role, although it seems as though truth did so. When a person is being regenerated however, which takes place in adult years when they possess cognitions, good reveals itself, for they are then moved not so much by the affection for knowing truth as for doing it. For previously truth had been in the understanding, but now it is in their will, and when in their will it is in the person's true self, since the will constitutes the person's true self…
Readings: Genesis 27:1-35, 41-45, Divine Provident #147 (see below)
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Here we are at the second stage of Jacob and Esau’s story. It does sound like a little bit of a replay, but Jacob seems to have upped his game. If he was simply being shrewd in convincing Esau to part with his birthright last week, he is downright deceitful in the way he cheats Esau out of his blessing this week. While the scheme was Rebekah’s idea, Jacob’s only real objection was procedural, and once the goat skins were on, he was all good. If anyone is the victim in this story it is poor Isaac, who as diligently as he could, tried to ascertain his son’s identity but was thwarted by the deception. Both Isaac’s and Esau’s desperate and heartbroken reaction to what Jacob did is incredibly sad to read.
Now we might find ourselves a little bit confused about the difference between the birthright and the blessing. The former relates to issues of inheritance, basically a private family matter, but the blessing was more ritualistic, a public declaration. What looks to us like an everyday affair of bringing Isaac some dinner actually represented a specific blessing ritual, with various elements agreed upon by social construct. Isaac could no more revoke the blessing and place it on Esau in the same way that a minister cannot just say a marriage they have officiated doesn’t count because they changed their mind.
So we understand why Esau was so very enraged. If Esau didn’t value the birthright and gave it away too easily, he certainly valued Isaac’s blessing, and it is clear that their bond was real and deep. Jacob had taken something that Esau could never regain. But also, that doesn’t mean that Esau had the right try to kill Jacob for what he did. Again, a messy human situation, with people acting badly all over the place.
If we return to our Swedenborgian interpretation we see more fully explored what was hinted at last week. Esau represents our natural will: what we want and how we feel. Jacob represents our natural understanding: how we think about things and what we understand to be true.
Part of learning how to be wise, of learning how to love effectively, is learning that our feelings, and our way of seeing things through the lens of how we feel, might be limited, might not represent objective truth. For this recognition to occur, we need to let go of the way that we feel, and let our understanding take the lead for a while.
Because there is a reason we have the phrase “look before you leap.” Many times it is really important for human beings to learn how to create a space between impulse and action, between feeling and thinking. When we are ensconced in our emotions, we don’t put much stock in waiting, in thinking things through; we don’t want to. Our emotions don’t necessarily care very much about ultimate truth, they are only concerned with what is true for us. And there are times when we do need to stand for what is true for us. But there are also times when we need to put aside our feelings so that we can be led by ideas that will expand us and bring us into spiritual growth. Life based only on how we feel, what is good for us, often ends up hurting other people.
One example might be from our recent common experience with white privilege and anti-racism. There are certain ways we might *feel* about racism in this country, and those feelings will lead our thinking and our conclusions. Our sense of personal grievance might lead us to think that white privilege can’t be real because we personally have suffered in various ways. Our sense of hopefulness, or let’s be real, our attachment to the status quo, might lead to us to conclude that we are now in a post-racial period because we elected a black president. Our feelings of defensiveness might cause us to reject the idea that we have participated in a systemically racist society, because how can we be a good person if we have done so, even unwittingly? But when our feelings are leading our thinking, we don’t always get to the truth.
This process of making space for new ideas, being willing to look outside of our own ego for truth, is not so much about second-guessing ourselves all the time, or ignoring our own intuition, but rather having the humility to recognize that our own feelings are not necessarily the final arbiter of truth and rightness, that we can learn something by listening to other people and other ideas, and especially that we can learn something from engaging with God’s word. Sometimes Jacob needs to take the lead.
And that is going to feel a bit like “stealing” what rightly belongs to our will. Think about how much “truer” our own thoughts feel to us than objective facts, or other people’s experience. The intensity, the closeness, of our own feelings give them a lot of power, and that is not easy to give up. When we go looking for another kind of truth, that might even feel like being cheated somehow. Many times our emotions are not ready to be called forth into a new way of being, into transformation. This call to newness might feel a lot like “taking away” something that belongs to us, like our peace of mind, or of usurping our right to feel the way we want, and we certainly might feel anger if we have been happy with the way things were.
But letting Jacob lead is integral to the path of regeneration, the path of spiritual progress. All of us are born into the primacy of the Esau-mind, and this sense of selfhood, about ability to feel things as a singular person, is a good and righteous gift. But it also can tend towards selfishness if we never learn to look outside of our own experience. God has made each one of us for a heaven of mutual love. We have a selfhood, we have feelings, so that we can experience the beauty and joy of heaven by being both recipients and participants in its mutuality. But if we never learn to look beyond our own feelings, we will never get to the mutual part of it. So God calls us to mutual love over and over and over again, as training for the joy that awaits us.
And as we do let Jacob lead, and especially as we learn to *remember* to let Jacob lead when it is important, it won’t feel comfortable, just as the Jacob and Esau story is wrenching, and tense and chaotic. Both Esau and Jacob end up suffering. Jacob is sent far away to his uncle’s home. As we stretch our natural understanding, as we search for new ways of thinking about things, we might well feel discombobulated, or estranged, like we are living in a foreign land. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that when the pattern of our thoughts is being inverted, when we give up the primacy of our feelings and open up to learning something new, something that will change us, we feel actual psychological pain. I think we can all relate to this through our experience, those times when some new information, or a new willingness to listen, starts turning us inside out, changing what we thought we knew, and consequently, how we feel and how we act. But this is a good thing, because God is reordering something that needs reordering within us. If we can bear it, then we will be building within us a greater capacity to see the truth with clarity, building within us a greater capacity to love others effectively, building within us a greater capacity to act with both wisdom and empathy.
Jacob and Esau remain separated for a really long time. And I don’t think that needs to be a picture of how we will always be suffering the psychological pain of letting our thinking be reordered, but do I think it is a picture of how the work of humility is ongoing. Swedenborg writes in relation to this story that: The arrival at intelligence and wisdom takes time. In the meantime [a person] is led on by means of those truths to good.(1) (AC 3330:2) And what he means here by good, is essentially kindness. The point of this separation of the Jacob-mind and the Esau-mind is not to demonstrate how bad and wrong we are, but to lead us to kindness, to teach us how to live with kindness. Jacob and Esau do a whole ton of living while they are apart, and eventually they reconcile. This is what we will hear about next week.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #3330:2
Genesis 27: 1-35, 41-45
1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.” “Here I am,” he answered. 2 Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. 3 Now then, get your equipment—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. 4 Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.” 5 Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob…8 Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: 9 Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. 10 Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.” 11 Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin. 12 What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.” 14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it. 15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. 16 She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. 17 Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made. 18 He went to his father and said, “My father.” “Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?” 19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.” 20 Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?” “The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied. 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” 22 Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him. 24 “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. “I am,” he replied. 25 Then he said, “My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing.” Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come here, my son, and kiss me.” 27 So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. 28 May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness— an abundance of grain and new wine. 29 May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.” 30 After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. 31 He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.” 32 His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?” “I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.” 33 Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!” 34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
41 Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. 43 Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. 44 Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. 45 When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”
Divine Providence 147
…we have an earthly mind, a spiritual mind, and a heavenly mind, and that we are wholly locked into our earthly mind as long as we are caught up in our compulsions to evil and their pleasures. During all this our spiritual mind is closed. However, as soon as we look into ourselves and realize that our evils are sins against God because they are against divine laws, and therefore try to refrain from them, the Lord opens our spiritual mind and comes into our earthly mind by way of its desires for what is true and good. He comes also into our rational processes and from there rearranges the things in our lower, earthly mind that have been in disorder. This is what feels to us like a battle, or like a temptation if we have indulged in these evil pleasures a great deal. There is actually a psychological pain when the pattern of our thoughts is being inverted.
Photo credit: Photo by Frédéric Dupont on Unsplash
Readings: Genesis 25:19-34, Secrets of Heaven #3330 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/f0zspfw3_cE
Today we will begin a three part series on the story of Jacob and Esau. This first week we will explore Esau selling his birthright. The second week will focus on Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing. And the final week we will hear about their ultimate reconciliation.
Jacob and Esau, the disparate twins, are a well known story from the bible; it is detailed, suspenseful and deeply complicated in how it asks us to think about how God is present in the actions of the faithful. We know that Jacob will go on to father Joseph, who will eventually bring his whole family to Egypt, and bring us to the story of the Exodus. Jacob is an important, pivotal figure in the history of the people of Israel, and in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Yet, he acts deceitfully in stepping into his role as patriarch. How are we to understand this? That the end justifies the means? That God’s chosen can act however they want? Certainly, it cannot be so.
So the first issue that we bump head first into is the fact that these characters are so very flawed. Jacob and Rebekah, and Esau as well, do not act morally or prudently, or in any way in which we would hope people who bear an important covenant with God would act. But this is part of what makes the bible ultimately so powerful. It is not a litany of perfect people enacting God’s word perfectly. It is made up of stories of imperfect people living into God’s promises imperfectly. And yet God remains steadfast in the face of that imperfection. This does not mean that God condones our mis-steps or our selfishness, but rather, that God believes in the possibility of our growth. We human beings are the ones who want to declare definitively who is good and evil, but God makes no such ultimate declaration.
Now it is reasonable that we might want the Bible to clearly tell us what to do and what not to do. Part of what I find to be so overwhelming about figuring out how to act for good in a broken world is that it is not always clear what is the right and good decision, because often there are many intersecting implications. So course, we want the bible to tell us how we should act and give us people to emulate. And we do definitely get some of that from it. But the bible is also the story of humanity, the story of us, not just of what we can be but of what we are. And this is strangely comforting, because in this we can know that God is not with us only when we get to a certain level of perfection, but also with us on the journey of figuring all that out.
So the upshot is: human beings are messy. But God remains. (Thank goodness). The story of Jacob and Esau is even messier than it might at first seem. First, we need to appreciate the nature of inheritance in those ancient times. The firstborn received everything; all the family’s land and riches. Which left subsequent sons at the mercy of their older brother, or on the hook to figure out their own livelihood. Tradition is often important for keeping order; we can understand the wisdom of such a system, even as we recognize the unfairness of the burden it placed on younger siblings. But in this case, Jacob was only the younger by a few minutes; thus the unfairness of this particular situation is heightened. This is not so far away as we might think; fans of the book Pride and Prejudice might recall Colonel Fitzwilliam with telling Lizzie that he cannot marry for love; as a second son he was going to have to marry for money. We can criticize such an unromantic understanding now from the comfort of modernity, but for many in the past, especially women, questions of livelihood were questions of life and death.
While being the firstborn certainly conveyed a serious advantage, it also carried with it a lot of responsibility. And in this case, it carried with it the responsibility of taking forth God’s promise to Abraham into the future and partnering with God to bring it into fulfillment. So Esau would not just charged with taking care of the family, but shepherding an important covenant with God. And what we learn from the text, is that Esau despised this birthright. We don’t know exactly why he despised it but it becomes clear later in the story that Esau was of a particularly contrarian nature. We all have had the experience of rebelling against the expectations that our parents or society have put upon us. And we don’t always value things that are passed down to us, as opposed to things that we have built or discovered ourselves.
So while Jacob absolutely took advantage of his brother, Esau contributed to the way things turned out as well. He acted impulsively, without care for the future, intent on immediate gratification. We don’t generally give up things that we value so easily. For whatever reason, Esau did not care all that much for the important role that he would be stepping into. The gravity of it, the weight of the covenant with God, that did not concern him, or occupy his mind. So he sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. And in the moment, he was satisfied.
But satisfaction is not the ultimate mission of a spiritual life. In Swedenborg’s worldview, this ancient story tells timeless truths about each of our inner natures. Esau represents our natural will and Jacob our natural understanding. Or in other words, in our daily lives, Esau represents the desires that we have, and the things that we want, and Jacob represents the way that we think and the things we understand to be true.
Esau was the firstborn, and we see this reflected in the fact that our desires are primary, that we usually feel things more acutely and immediately than we think about things. Motive comes before thought. We can see the truth of this in the physiology of our brains. Our limbic system, which governs emotion, is evolutionarily older than the frontal cortex, which governs thought, and so our brain processes feelings more quickly than higher order thinking. And from experience, we know that if we were always guided purely by our feelings, we wouldn’t always do the right thing. Many times our impulses *are* loving; to give a hug, to take care, to defend. But just as often they are selfish: to lash out, to shut out, to dismiss, to take, or to hurt.
And so there are lots of examples in the bible of the regular order of things being inverted, from Jacob and Esau all the way to the cross, and this is always has the same representation, always paints the same picture. The way of spirit is sacrifice. Not martyrdom necessarily, not subservience necessarily, but recognizing privilege, priority, and advantage, and interrogating it, using it for the benefit of all. And specifically, in the context of this story, it is recognizing that the closeness, the intensity, of our feelings about something will always make them *seem* like the most important and truest possible thing…but it might not be so. We need to be able recognize when the intensity or the priority of our feeling is simply covering over the fact that those feelings are selfish. Not all feelings are selfish, of course not. But emotion is a gift, just as being firstborn for Esau was a gift, and with a gift comes responsibility, the responsibility to take a step back and question our motives.
Esau had already sold his birthright long before Jacob made him say the words. He was stubborn, and repudiated what being firstborn was going to mean. And what does being firstborn ultimately mean? It means being willing to sacrifice: in our external story, a sacrifice taken in order to shepherd the covenant, and take care of the family; in ourselves, a sacrifice taken in order to be transformed away from self-centeredness wherever possible.
So, while narratively, it seems like selling the birthright was not a good thing for Esau to do, spiritually it *is* something we need to be willing to do. Perhaps selling it is the wrong word, but we need to value our birthright enough that we understand what it means, and that means being willing to give it up when it becomes clear we are clinging to it for the wrong reasons. We have to be willing to give up the primacy of emotion when necessary, when it is stopping us from being loving.
Sometimes, we need to learn something new that has the potential to change how we feel. And this means that Jacob will need to be ascendent. And this is what we will explore next week. May God’s word continue to open our understanding and our hearts. Amen.
19 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” 24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. 27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom. ) 31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.
Secrets of Heaven #3330
3330. 'And he sold his birthright to Jacob' means that in the meantime priority was conceded - to the doctrine of truth represented by Jacob…The chief reason why with the spiritual person truth has dominion first is that in their initial state delights that belong to self-love and love of the world are present. These they believe to be the goods which attach themselves to their truths and constitute the greater part of the affection for truth with them. Indeed at this time they suppose that truths are able to assist them in the acquisition of important positions, or of material gain, or of reputation in the world, or also of merit in the next life. All these arouse that affection for truth with him and also set it ablaze. These are not however good but bad.
Readings: Psalm 119:33-45, John 8:31-34, 36-43, Secrets of Heaven #1947:2-3 and Divine Providence #145:3 (see below)
See also on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/Hq9dmSWor4M
Since we are just one day removed from July 4th, Independence Day, I thought that today would be a good time to think about the topic of freedom. This might be on our minds already due to the holiday, or it might be on our minds because around the nation, safety protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic have sparked debate around what personal freedom means, and what is reasonable to ask people to do for the common good. And of course, this grappling with the balance between respect for individual freedom on the one hand, and how we must all submit to some level of governance in order to create a civilized society on the other hand…well, this is a very old dilemma and we are seeing it take a new form within our specific context. So while July 4th might be prompting us to consider what freedom means in a political or even a sociological sense, I want to round that out today with a consideration of what freedom means in a theological sense.
The early Christian evangelist, Paul, would often describe the experience of faith as finding freedom in Christ. He understood sin as a cosmic power that could indeed tempt us, but that also more insidiously was capable of convincing us that our sinfulness was actually good, and blessed by God. By Paul’s own experience, he found himself enslaved by his unyielding and unsympathetic devotion to his own tradition, leading to his persecution of early Christians. The antidote to this, in Paul’s mind, was for people to give over their desire to judge what is righteous *to* God, by recognizing that what God wants is revealed in the boundary-busting upside-down event of the crucifixion of Christ. For Paul, it is our desire to judge what is righteous, to own the power of that discernment for ourselves, that keeps us in servitude to the power of sin. Conversely, belief in Christ, essentially a relinquishment of the notion that we can define, own, build, collect, or withhold righteousness, frees us from all the ways that sin would try to control us. By its nature, sin enslaves, while faith emancipates.
Swedenborg would agree with certain aspects of this formulation. But he would depart from Paul in defining spiritual freedom as not just a function of belief or faith, but also as a function of the choices that we make. Swedenborg speaks about freedom in two ways. The first way is in the more classically enlightenment sense: the state of being able to make various different unfettered choices by our own will. He understood the possibility of this state as integral to our spiritual life. God gives us the gift of free choice so that our choices can have meaning.
However, he also speaks of freedom as defined by what it is used for(1). When we use our freedom to think, will and do evil, then that is hellish freedom, and when we use our freedom to think, will and do good, then that is heavenly freedom. Whenever we use our freedom to actualize what we think and want, whatever that leads to, it will *feel* like freedom to us. But Swedenborg points out that “to be led by evil is enslavement…to be led by good is to be led by the Lord.” If our freedom ultimately leads us into ways of thinking and being that are defined by fear, self-aggrandizement, selfishness, etc we become beholden to those ways of thinking and being, and so it doesn’t actually end up looking much like freedom at all.
Which leads to his really interesting assertion, as we heard in our reading today, that when we compel ourselves to do something good for the sake of others, thinking of others and not just ourselves, we are actually in a state of greater freedom than when we choose otherwise. The more we voluntarily work to relinquish servitude to our selfhood, the free-er we will ultimately be. So again, we see spiritual truth manifesting itself in a kind of paradox - that a higher state of freedom actually comes from a thing that doesn’t seem like freedom at all: self-compulsion.
It certainly doesn’t feel that way, right? In moments of self-compulsion, we often feel really constrained. Think about how it feels to compel ourselves to choose healthy food instead of a treat, or to choose to calm ourselves instead of giving in to anger, or to have a conversation that we know we need to have but don’t really want to have. Those moments feel really hard. We might feel resentment, we might feel fear, we might feel embarrassment, and we certainly don’t feel free in the way that freedom is usually characterized, by a sense of being unburdened or unfettered by some expectation. In these moments we are burdened indeed, but by our conscience, by our sense of what is right, and our love for our neighbor. And Swedenborg is saying, that when we consciously choose to do the hard thing but the right thing, instead of the easy thing, we are more fully exercising our freedom than if we were to choose the easy thing. And in a strange way, this does make sense. Choosing the harder thing when we could have chosen the easier thing goes against our instincts, and to choose something that goes against whatever flow we are in demonstrates the true power of free choice. When we choose to stop being bound by our own fears, or selfishness, and make a decision not based in those things, we are stepping into a new realm of freedom, the realm of no longer being bound by that fear or selfishness.
Heavenly freedom, then, is not defined by the simple fact of its own existence but rather by what it leads to. Heavenly freedom is not just having the choice, but using the choice to create more freedom, love, and belonging for others. It is essentially generative, connective and hopeful, not so much something we have, or something that happens to us, but something we practice. Which might not sound all that appealing to our lower selves. Because the notion of heavenly freedom gets weighty real quick. Self-compulsion isn’t fun. It’s kind of exhausting. Our lower selves want to do the easy thing, not the harder thing. Our lower selves want to exist in a realm where nothing difficult is asked of us, a realm where freedom just means getting to do what we want. Notice that at this point we are hearing echoes of Paul, seeing how the cosmic power of sin can even take an inherently good thing like freedom, and turn it into something that serves only the self. But this kind of freedom, one that only looks inward, ends up only being a shell, an impersonation, of the real thing, because it revolves around the self like a moon in orbit. It is necessarily limited, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
Our devotion to our own selfhood keeps us small, and I do believe that God wants to invite us into a kind of freedom that is more creative, expansive and inclusive. The trick though, is that we have to choose it by consciously submitting our will to God’s will, and that doesn’t feel like freedom to our selfhood. And so our selfhood won’t want to do it. So here is the crux of the paradox about freedom as I see it. We often equate freedom with feeling relief, or safety, or peace. And this is good, because ultimately freedom should create those things, for everyone. But heavenly freedom should also feel a little bit challenging, a little bit nerve-y. Father Richard Rohr puts it this way:
Let’s use the word emancipation to describe a deeper, bigger and scarier level of freedom: inner, outer, personal, economic, structural and spiritual. Surely this is the task of our entire lifetime.(2)
Freedom isn’t the same thing as comfort. In fact, heavenly freedom calls us away from the whatever our selfhood calls comfort, into a realm where love continually expands us beyond our small way of seeing things. This can feel scary but it is also beautiful. Swedenborg writes: “The more present the Lord is the more free we become…” (3) We are not doing this alone. God calls us into a deep freedom that recognizes our fundamental connection to each other, and our unbreakable connection to the divine. May we trust in this essential connective design, and may we celebrate the gift of spiritual freedom that allows us to choose to enter into it with our whole selves. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #43
(2) Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation from The Center for Action and Contemplation, Inner and Outer Freedom, June 17, 2020.
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #905
33 Teach me, LORD, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. 34 Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart. 35 Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. 36 Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. 37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. 38 Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared. 39 Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good. 40 How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life. 41 May your unfailing love come to me, LORD, your salvation, according to your promise; 42 then I can answer anyone who taunts me, for I trust in your word. 43 Never take your word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws. 44 I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. 45 I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.
John 8:31-34, 36-43
31 To the Judeans who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” 34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.” 39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the works of your own father.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.
Secrets of Heaven #1947:2-3
When a person is being regenerated they compel themselves from the freedom the Lord imparts to them, and humbles, and indeed afflicts, their rational, so that it may submit itself, and in consequence they receive a heavenly [selfhood]. This [selfhood] is then gradually perfected by the Lord and it becomes more and more free, so that as a result it becomes the affection for good and for truth deriving from that good, and possesses delight. And in that affection and delight there is happiness such as the angels experience.
 What this freedom is, is totally unknown to those who do not have conscience, for they identify freedom with feelings of being at liberty and without restraint to think and utter what is false, and to will and do what is evil, and not to control and humble, still less to afflict, those feelings. Yet this is the complete reverse of freedom.
Divine Providence #145:3
…We can see that this is not inconsistent but in accord with our rationality and freedom, since it is our rationality that starts this struggle and our freedom that pursues it. Our essential freedom, together with our rationality, dwells in our inner self, and comes into our outer self from there.
Updated Ecumenical Statement from Delmarva Christian Council and other Ecumenical Partners in Ministry
June 7, 2020
To our neighbors and friends,
Like most of you the events over the past few days and weeks have led us to a sense of emotional and spiritual exhaustion. This is understandable when we witness the killing of yet another unarmed black man by the people that are sworn to protect us. Yet again we had to watch as an unarmed person of color was tragically taken far too soon by the very sin that stains the fabric of this nation and the combined church of God, racism.
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God?” (Micah 6:8)
We commend the protesters and demonstrators for their commitment to justice and calling those of us to repent for the sin of racism. In doing so they bring to light what has been hidden for centuries. The voices calling for justice and the very basic right to live free from harassment and discrimination can no longer go unheard. When we fail to embody the very basic ideals of equality and freedom, we do a disservice to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is antithetical to what it means to be a Christian.
We lament the church’s failure to faithfully, powerfully, and consistently bear witness to racism in our society historically and in our own time. We confess and repent for the times when the church has been silent in the face of racial injustice.
We, the undersigned faith leaders of Delmarva, and on behalf of our individual communities, condemn the killing of George Floyd and all the unjust killings and abuse of unarmed black and brown people across this nation. In addition, we condemn forms of white supremacy and racism in our communities and in our nation. As faith leaders called to repentance, we will engage our individual congregations in the task of anti-racism training and work that will fulfill the Gospel command to love one another.
The Rev. William (Bill) Gohl, Jr., Bishop Delaware-Maryland Synod, ELCA
The. Rev. Jason R. Churchill
Ecumenical Officer DE/MD Synod, ELCA Pastor, St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, Wilm. DE
Rev. Shada Sullivan
Pastor, The Church of the Holy City, Swedenborgian
Rev Nathaniel W Pierce Ecumenical Officer Episcopal Diocese of Easton
The Rev. Peggy A. Johnson, Bishop Eastern Pennsylvania Conference The United Methodist Church
The. Rev. Robert P. Hall, OSL Ecumenical Officer
The United Methodist Church
Rev Dr Tracy Keenan Missional Presbyter New Castle Presbytery
Rev Freeman L Palmer Conference Minister Central Atlantic Conference United Church of Christ
The Rt. Rev. Kevin S. Brown, Bishop The Episcopal Church in Delaware
The Rev. Canon Martha Kirkpatrick The Episcopal Church in Delaware
Elder Bob Schminkey Stated Clerk
New Castle Presbytery
Pastor Barbara Melosh, Dean Delmarva North and Delmarva South Delaware-Maryland synod, ELCA
Readings: Psalm 84:1-7, Matthew 1:18-24, Secrets of Heaven #5122:3 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/tNcCgwTHZeI
Happy Father’s Day to one and all. Today we’re going to explore a character in the bible who gets a little overshadowed sometimes: Joseph, the father of Jesus. That’s right we are doing Christmas in June!
If the gospel of Luke focuses on Mary and her experience of the incarnation, the gospel of Matthew centers Joseph. It even begins the narrative with “this is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about…” and starts talking mostly about Joseph’s actions and experience. So, I mean, Mary had something to do with it, I think….but in all seriousness, Matthew’s account gives us a window into a different experience of how God comes to us, for God’s presence is with each of us uniquely and yet universally.
As we enter the account, we immediately see how kind Joseph is. We are told that he is faithful to the law (and according to the law would have been within his rights to publicly sever his relationship with Mary) but at the same time he was empathetic to her situation and didn’t want to unduly hurt her reputation. The text is not explicit about what Joseph believed at this point. Mary’s claim to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit was indeed preposterous! Yet even from within that undeniable turmoil of mind, Joseph managed to think about someone other than himself, or his ego or his pride. Already he is a sympathetic character, someone we would be happy to have be a father to Jesus.
But then, over the next few chapters, we see a remarkable thing: Joseph is visited by angels in dreams four times over the next few years and each time, he listens and obeys without question. The first time we see in our reading for today, where Joseph hears that Mary is telling him the truth, that her son will be the Messiah and that he should not be afraid to take her as his wife, and to join her this important partnership.
Joseph does so, and Jesus is born. But soon after that Herod becomes jealous and, via the Magi, tries to find the baby Jesus to kill him. So, Joseph is visited a second time…
2:13 When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod.
Joseph’s willing and swift action saved Jesus’ life. But the angels were not done talking to him.
2:19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.
In this short passage, two separate dreams, taking Joseph and his family one way and then another. Back and forth, trying to find safety and peace. Mary said yes when an angel came to her and told her that she would give birth to Jesus. And likewise, Joseph said yes when an angel came to him and told him to join Mary in taking care of her son. But of course, Joseph, like many of us when we start on a journey, didn’t know what he was saying yes to. Yet he showed up anyway, open and listening and ready to move.
And so when I came across Psalm 84 this week, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph when I read the verse 5: Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
Part of what Joseph was saying yes to was pilgrimage…a physical pilgrimage at times sure, but also a heart pilgrimage. Joseph was someone who loved; loved his God and loved his family, and he let that love, that care and concern for others, be his strength and his guide. He was open to his heart being set on pilgrimage, open to hearing what he needed to hear, learning what he needed to learn, acting when he needed to act.
When Swedenborg talks about dreams in the Bible, he often also talks about Divine Foresight and Providence, and the fact that the Lord is present to us and caring for us in even the smallest details of our lives. This doesn’t mean that the God manipulates outcomes in a way that overrides our freedom, but I think it does mean that God understands possibility in a way that we do not, that in God’s creation all things, even small inconsequential things or things that challenge us, can be brought to blossom for goodness, some way, somehow.
And in this story about Joseph and his dreams, we see the importance of our receptivity to God’s Divine foresight and providence. Because, it was not the bestowal of divine foresight in a dream that made Joseph special. He was special because of his openness, his acceptance, his willingness to listen.
We heard in our reading about God’s care for each person’s process and growth, to eternity. It said:
For one stage looks to the next in an unending sequence and produces chains of sequences which never cease.
Another translation puts it this way: for what is prior looks to what follows in a continuous series.
One part of what was prior, one part of the groundwork for the incarnation, was Joseph’s character, and his willingness to listen. His state of openness allowed for what was to follow. Likewise, *we* are invited to participate in God’s foresight and providence for us, knowing that part of our agency and our power is to cultivate the quality of our receptivity, to practice openness to hearing new things and accepting new ways of thinking.
By the time Jesus enters his public ministry at around age 30, none of the gospels mention Joseph anymore. A reasonable supposition is that by that time he had died. There is something very poignant about he fact that he may not have lived to see Jesus come into the fullness of his mission. The one who, according to Matthew, acted in so many ways to allow Jesus to be a fulfillment of the scriptures, of a long tradition of human spirituality, was not able to see Jesus become that fulfillment in his own way, in his own words, and through his own sacrifice. This feels sad to me. So, on this Father’s Day let’s take a moment to honor the man who was open and kind and faithful enough to say yes to the very strange heart pilgrimage that was and is the incarnation. The man who worked hard to protect and feed and shelter the body of the living God when he was a mischievous toddler, an impish child, and a stubborn teen. The man who worked to mould and guide and encourage the heart and mind of the one who would inspire so many around the world in the millennia to come.
May we all aspire to think so kindly, to listen so keenly, to act so faithfully. May we do as Joseph did and let God set our hearts on pilgrimage. Amen.
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, LORD Almighty! 2 My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. 3 Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, LORD Almighty, my King and my God. 4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. 5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. 6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
Secrets of Heaven #5122:3
These are the matters that are meant by progressive stages of development and by continuous derivatives even to the final one. Such stages and derivatives are unending in the case of a person who is being regenerated. They begin when we are young children and continue through to the final phase of our life in the world; indeed they continue for ever after that, though our regeneration can never reach the point when we can by any means be called perfect. For there are countless, indeed a limitless number of things to be regenerated, both within our rational and within our natural. Everything there has limitless shoots, that is, stages of development and derivatives that progress in both inward and outward directions. A person has no immediate awareness at all of this, but the Lord is aware of every particular detail and is making provision for it moment by moment. If [the Lord] were to stop doing this for a single instant every stage of development would be thrown into confusion. For one stage looks to the next in an unending sequence and produces chains of sequences which never cease. From this it is evident that Divine Foresight and Providence exist in every particular detail, and that if they did not, or did so in a merely overall way, the human race would perish.
Readings: Amos 5:18-27, Revelation 21:1-2, 22:1-5, Secrets of Heaven #63 (see below)
See also on YouTube at youtu.be/vr1cfNF57cU
Our two readings today differ greatly in tone. One is full of lament, the other is bright with hope. And lately with these days, as we all grapple with seeing the fullness of how racism has poisoned our society and shaped the lives of people of color, when we see the voices finally being heard and change starting to happen, well, it is reasonable to find both lament and hope in our hearts right now.
Let’s first spend some time with the Amos text. Most of us are probably only familiar with verse 24, made particularly famous by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But I highly recommend reading the whole of chapter five at some point because it communicates so viscerally, as did our shorter reading, the depth of God’s lament. The whole chapter is a litany of complaints against the people of Israel, that they have turned away from God, that they have levied unfair taxes upon the poor, that they have oppressed the innocent, taken bribes and denied the poor justice in the courts, that they enriched themselves without any thought of others.
And in Amos God says, I can’t save you from this. If you insist on making these kinds of choices again and again and again, I can’t make it better. If you insist on replacing me with idols of your own making, if you insist on ignoring my words and replacing our covenant with your own selfishness….there will be no religious festival, no sacrifice, no special words that will be able to magically transform the world you have made.
And let’s be clear: God is heartbroken over the way things are going. God is pleading with the Israelites to open their eyes and see what their selfishness and blindness has wrought. Those who have fashioned God in their own image, those who have twisted God’s word to serve their own purposes, those who have turned away from the suffering of God’s beloved, will not find likeness, will not find light or peace or safety, when they come to understand what God is really about. It will be a terrifying surprise, like running from a lion only to meet a bear, like pitch darkness without a flashlight. And this, not as a punishment, just as the soul-disorienting realization that God doesn’t exist to serve our self-aggrandizement, our worldview, our privilege.
And so God is pleading with them to wake up. To recognize that they cannot participate in festivals, or enact sacrifices in a purely external way. They can’t act selfishly and then act performatively, and expect God to be okay with it. “I will not accept [that]” says the Lord, “But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-ending stream.”
Swedenborg writes of this verse:
'Justice' means truth, and 'righteousness' good. Both stem from charity (kindness) and are the burnt offerings and sacrifices of the internal self (1).
A river evokes something old and deep and unstoppable. If the hypocritical sacrifices that God is rejecting in Amos are paper-thin and surface-deep, a river is something timeless, reflecting the heart of God…a never-ending stream of of justice and righteousness coming up from the deep well of God’s divine love.
God is asking us to connect with that depth, to offer up sacrifices that come from deep inside us, that reflect the depth and the power of that river. That reflect the divine love that gives it being. To give burnt offerings that represent ways in which we have recognized our wrongness, and our willingness to use that burnt ash to fertilize new growth. Of course, there are so many ways that this applies to each of our own contexts, our own spiritual work. But, to our communal context right now, God is calling for a particular sacrifice of the internal self: the sacrifice of our complicity towards white supremacy, so that the river of justice can truly flow.
Now let us take a look at the Revelation text. This begins with the descent of the Holy City New Jerusalem, from which our church is named. And we are told that the river of the water of life flows down the middle of this city, and the tree of life bearing different fruits every month grows on either side, and that the leaves of this tree will be for the healing of the nations.
If in Amos, God spoke that justice and righteousness should flow like a river, here in the holy city we see that river, flowing right through the center. Swedenborg writes that a river indicates divine truths in abundance, and in addition, so do the leaves of the tree.
The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. This symbolizes the resulting rational truths by which people caught up in evils and… falsities are brought to think sanely and to live decently(2).
We are invited into a vision in which justice, righteousness, and healing are paramount. A vision in which Divine truth flows in abundance and it leads to people thinking with clarity and living with kindness.
The holy city is thus built by truth being heard and then people changing the way that they live. The holy city is built by the kind of sacrifice that God desires, internal sacrifice, whereby people relinquish ways of thinking that serve themselves and take on ways of thinking that promote healing and service and equality.
We see something of this happening right now. If we just look at the books on the New York Times best-sellers list, volume after volume of education in anti-racism, people are hearing, learning and hopefully changing. But, what is important to remember is that over time, the headlines might well dissipate. The urgency might well fade. And we might well feel relief that the intensity has passed away because we have been conditioned to avoid conflict, to feel like conflict means that we are doing something wrong. But as we heard in our reading:
The hour of conflict is the hour when the Lord is at work…Nor does [the Lord] rest until love is playing the leading part, at which point conflict ceases.
The Lord is at work! I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration and praise on this Holy City Sunday. When we look around and see conflict and denial and disagreement and anxiety in ourselves and in the world around us, it might not feel like the New Jerusalem is coming. When we see our world looking more like the book of Amos than the holy city, a vision where the leaves of the tree heal us all feels pretty far away, and maybe even a little naive.
But if the Lord is at work, so must we be. We know that the New Jerusalem is not something that we must passively wait for, something in our future that we will have no connection to. It is brought into being through each human heart. It is brought into being with each act of living courageously and decently. It is brought into being via our true and willing sacrifice.
God will not rest until love is playing the leading part, And if the Lord does not rest, neither shall we rest until the holy city is embodied as fully as it can be in our world. Now of course, I don’t literally mean we shouldn’t rest. We are of course limited human creatures, we have a biological and emotional need to rest. But what I mean is that we cannot become complacent again, content to rest in our privilege, however that privilege has become manifest. This complacency leads to an Amos world, full of blindness and selfishness, full of idols of our own making and myths of our own creating.
These days the invitation has never been more clear….The Lord is at work. Will we join Him? Amen.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #922:3
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Revealed #936
18 Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. 19 It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20 Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? 21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! 25 “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? 26 You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god — which you made for yourselves. 27 Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is God Almighty.
Revelation 21:1-2, 22:1-5
1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Secrets of Heaven #63
…the Lord is constantly fighting on our behalf against evils and falsities and by these conflicts is confirming us in truth and good. The hour of conflict is the hour when the Lord is at work, which is why in the Prophets a regenerate person is called 'the work of God's fingers'. Nor does He rest until love is playing the leading part, at which point conflict ceases. When that work has reached the point where faith has been joined to love, it is then called 'very good', for the Lord then moves us to be a likeness of Himself…
Photo credit: Ryan Halloway
Readings: Micah 6:6-8, John 15:12-17, Divine Love and Wisdom #47 (see below)
Well friends, a lot has happened in the last two weeks, since I spoke here last. We find ourselves in the United States and around the world, grappling more intensely with the reality of white supremacy and systemic injustice than we have in a very long time. And this is a good thing. Our siblings of color have been raising their voices for so many years now about these issues, and they are justifiably exhausted and frustrated that their distress has gone unheard for so long.
I spent a while thinking about what might be useful for me to say today. We’ve all heard the sermons about the fact that we should love one another. I know you already know that Jesus says we should love one another. The pertinent question is *how* do we love one another. Love is not just a fuzzy feeling of positivity, for love to be real it must be ultimated in action. But what action? And in what way? We might recall here the Swedenborgian notion that the twin of love is wisdom; to love truly we need to be able to love wisely. But just to be clear, contrary to the way in which the word wisely is often held, to love wisely does not mean to love *carefully* it means to love *effectively.* It is not about reserving love for those we think deserve it, it is about taking on the work to figure out how to love someone in a useful way, in a way that actually serves them. It means paying attention to questions like: Are we loving in ways that serve others, and not just making ourselves feel good. Is the love actually felt by the person we say we are loving? Do they feel it in the way we hoped they would? Are we listening if they tell us the they don’t feel it? What is it in ourselves might be preventing us from loving others wisely and usefully?
An important part of actually being able love wisely, is being practiced at taking ourselves and our own agenda out of the equation. We need be in the habit of de-centering ourselves, so that we are not, even unconsciously, imposing our own notions of rightness or our own projections onto the people we are trying to love.
And it is on this topic of de-centering that I want to focus today. Because systemic racism and injustice doesn’t come out of nowhere, it doesn’t come from a few bad apples, it comes from a society that habitually, consistently and intentionally centers whiteness: white experience, white wholesomeness, white power and the white narrative.
So, in this context, I want to talk about an article that read this past week, that seemingly deals with something small, but has significant ramifications. The article spoke about the kind of social media responses to racial injustice that are actually helpful and those that are not. Often times, when well-meaning white people become aware of injustice, we want to express how that makes us feel. So for example, we might talk about how outraged or disbelieving or disgusted or ashamed we are, we might want say not all white people are that way, that we are not that way, or we might want to shift the focus to where kindness and progress is actually happening. What we don’t realize is that these kinds of responses actually center white opinion and white feelings, and are focused on establishing white identity (our identity) as good people. It focuses on ourselves and not on the experience of the people of color who are involved with the in injustice. It doesn’t center what has happened to them, or the systemic racism under which they must constantly function. So, the article points out that better examples might be to respond with “I see you,” “that’s awful," or even better “I’ve found an organization that helps in these kinds of instances and I’ve donated money.” (1)
I know this might seem like a kind of trivial example…why try to regulate genuine expressions of dismay and/or optimism? Because white centrality in our society is so baked into our everyday, so a part of our unconscious responses to everything, that even small things like how we individually respond to examples of injustice will reflect it. And so in order to actually practice love in real life, in ways that are useful, we have to become aware of and work against that default white centrality. And for white people that means working to de-center the self. In order to do that, we have to work on our awareness of our responses and reactions. We need learn to cope with our feelings in private and not burden people of color with our processing. We have to be willing to open our eyes to different narratives than we have previously heard, to listen to voices we wouldn’t otherwise have listened to. We have to engage in serious self-reflection and be willing to recognize our own complicity, no matter how unconscious, with honesty and courage.
And so by now, you might have noticed an irony which another reader of that article noticed. We’re not supposed to make it about us (white people), but we do have to pay a lot of attention to ourselves in order to have the wherewithal to…not make it about us. As the author of the article points out, in order to de-center the self, we first have to pay attention to our sense of self. It’s a bit of a paradox. But of course, where there is paradox, there is often a deeply spiritual principle.
Self reflection toward the purpose of de-centering the self is actually a really good synopsis of the work of regeneration. I’ve brought it up in this context of de-centering whiteness, but of course, it is a spiritual principle that has a much broader application. It plays a part in all of our relationships; marriages, friendships, parenting, and others, and all the ways we might try to be effective and useful in the world. This sense of de-centering is captured in our reading from Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Wisdom today:
Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves--that is loving. Feeling our joy in others, though, and not theirs in ourselves is not loving.
The pertinent question then is, how do we feel the joy of another as joy within ourselves in that pure and lovely way, without it actually being our own sense joy located in someone else? Our own sense of joy from loving how someone one else serves our own pride or happiness? We get there by practicing the de-centering of the self. By having relinquished our attachment to selfhood and self-identity enough so that the joy of another can actually flow though us un-impeded and un-interpreted by our own hang-ups and desires.
In fact, we might describe an angel, as someone who has very effectively de-centered the self, so much so, that their selfhood is entirely abdicated, and instead filled up and given life by the Lord. Swedenborg writes:
They feel the inflow of divine love and wisdom from the Lord, and since they feel it and in their wisdom realize that these constitute their life, they say that their life comes from the Lord and not from themselves. (2)
This is the spiritual work that is before us. It is before everybody in all of our relationships, but specifically in this moment, it is before white people to let go of our narratives, defensiveness, embarrassment, and fear, so that we might allow our default centrality to fall away. This won’t feel comfortable. We all have habits of mind that protect the primacy of our selfhood, that protect our notions of our own rightness and goodness. But it is imperative that we find the will to notice how our acquiescence to white centrality has formed our society and has formed our institutions in ways that disadvantage our siblings of color. Jesus tells us to love one another. Figuring out how to de-center the self is “step one” in loving another. Not loving how they can serve us, not loving how loving someone can make us feel happy, but actually getting ourselves out of the way enough to hear how they are asking us to love them.
Until this de-centering occurs, the Swedenborgian vision of the Grand Human cannot be manifested in its fullness. Our vision of heaven on earth, the New Jerusalem, of perfect inter-connection and inter-dependence cannot be actualized while one group of people hangs on to centrality.
The main challenge in this call, though, is that we first have to focus on and engage with the thing that we ultimately will need to let go of. And the temptation is to imagine that all this necessary self-reflection is the culmination of the work, or to get so distracted by it that we never get around to acting. But to quote the writer and activist Rachel Cargyle: anti-racism is not a self-improvement project for white people(3). The point is not to *become* a loving person, but to *be* a loving person. Or, in this context, the point is not about becoming anti-racist and how that might make us feel better about ourselves, but about being anti-racist and how that might serve our siblings of color.
To quote Cornel West: justice is what love looks like in public. Love cannot be a vague notion; it is a verb that needs to be actualized, personally and communally. This will likely make us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. What if we do the wrong thing? News flash: we probably will. We definitely will, at some point. But a commitment to loving wisely and usefully (instead of a commitment to our own sense of goodness) means that we are willing to remain teachable and open and curious, it means that we are willing to apologize and try again, it means that we are willing to keep clearing out our own internal obstacles, over and over again. Not to arrive somewhere and be finished, but because the process of relinquishment makes room for God to lead us and guide us, makes room for a future that our selfhood alone could never have imagined. May it be.
(3) Rachel Cargyle, Public Address on Revoluation: Revolution Now, May 30 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leBPMyQ60HM&t=9s
6 With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
Divine Love and Wisdom 47
Divine love and wisdom cannot fail to be and to be manifested in others that it has created. The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves but loving others and being united to them through love…
The essence of love is that what is ours should belong to someone else. Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves--that is loving. Feeling our joy in others, though, and not theirs in ourselves is not loving. That is loving ourselves, while the former is loving our neighbor. These two kinds of love are exact opposites. True, they both unite us; and it does not seem as though loving what belongs to us, or loving ourselves in the other, is divisive. Yet it is so divisive that to the extent that we love others in this way we later harbor hatred for them. Step by step our union with them dissolves, and the love becomes hatred of corresponding intensity.
Readings: Daniel 3:1, 4-6, 8-30, Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327
See also on YouTube here
I thought to use this story for worship today because certain aspects of these last few months have felt bit like being in the fiery furnace. I think we all might have felt something of that intensity in each of our own ways…some combination of anxiety, frustration, grief, sadness and anger. And has anyone been on Facebook lately? Tensions are running high, to say the least, as we all grapple with what this pandemic is going to mean for us going forward.
Most of us have not done this pandemic thing before. So, it can be useful for us to look to our traditions and our stories for ways to help us understand what we are going through, for insight into the human condition so that we might find a framework for how to act now, in this particular situation.
This is one of the reasons that I have always loved the Swedenborgian interpretative tradition, which holds that the Bible is “the story of us.” The whole thing is the story of us, you and me, right now. Yes, it is outwardly stories about people who lived a long time ago, but it also communicates something much larger; truths that we can use to further our own spiritual journeys in each of our own contexts.
And this means that, when we are faced with the prideful anger of the King Nebuchadnezzar, we cannot retreat into the comfort of literalism and say, well, I’m not a Babylonian King, or someone with anywhere near that kind of power, so this really doesn’t have anything to do with me. However, we *all* can experience pride and self-obsession, we can *all* experience avarice or find ourselves worshiping something not worth worshiping. I think this is a really valuable spiritual practice; when the whole bible is about us, we cannot wriggle out of its various critiques, regardless at whom they are leveled.
So King Nebuchednezzar tells us about the ugliness, the ridiculousness, the dangerousness, of being drunk with power and self-obsessed, of turning our allegiance to that which props up our own wealth, self-esteem, status, and demanding that others do the same. This can be borne out in so many small ways in each of our lives. For example, there are times I’ve lashed out at my children, not because I desire to correct them usefully but because I am furious they have disrespected my authority. This is my Nebuchednezzar self coming out. And more specifically, according to Swedenborg, Nebuchednezzar and the Babylonian regime represents the profanation of holy things (see reading). Which is a theologically fancy way of saying it is evil representing itself as good. So continuing my example above, it would be like if I were to not only lash out at my children for disrespecting my authority, but then also justify it as a good thing to myself (and them)…like, it is good for them to have boundaries, good for them to learn consequences for their actions, and maybe even, it is a good thing for children to be a little afraid of their parents. See how insidious it is?
Conversely though, if the bible is about us, then we also have within us the good characters as well as the bad. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego represent those parts of us that resist these darker impulses. The parts of us that have given their allegiance to God, to truth and love, to something outside of ourselves and our own benefit. Daniel represents our developing conscience, and Daniel’s friends represent the true ideas that our conscience depends upon (1). The existence of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, opens up to us the opportunity to practice steadfastness, diligence, courage, and faith. So to continue the parenting example, they represent my commitment to the ideas that my children should feel safe and loved, and learn to be confident and generous, with healthy and useful autonomy and boundaries. My commitment to those ideas as primary helps me to see my Nebuchadnezzar self for what it is, and to resist what it is calling me to give free rein to within myself.
And so, we can read these stories as something that can speak to us personally, in our own lives and in our own contexts. God speaks then and God speaks now through that which we can understand; stories about human nature and human possibility.
However, I do think there is one important caveat. As wonderful as I consider this personal metaphorical interpretive tradition to be, I believe it emphasizes some things and obscures others. One downside to spiritualizing biblical stories in such a personal way is that we might pay far more attention our personal spiritual journey and forget that we are social, communal, systems-building creatures. With this story, it might blind us to the fact that the type of pride exhibited by the king was not just a personal failing, it was a personal failing that was propped up and encouraged and, to a certain extent, created by a system of power. (2)
This is not only a story about the fact that King Nebuchadnezzar was a prideful person. It is also a story about the misuse of systemic power. The King directed the allegiance and the worship of his people towards a golden statue, something that supported and increased his own status and suggested it was what they should value. He used his power (which technically has the potential for good) to serve his own ends. His network of advisors, also beholden and invested in that system, helped to perpetuate that misuse of power by accusing Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego of wrongdoing.
So, I believe the framework of this particular story is prompting us to ask ourselves: how is my pride, my avarice, my selfishness, how is that supported, encouraged, and obscured by systems in which I find myself? How do those systems prompt me to reframe my selfishness as good, or prompt me to forget or overlook who those systems disadvantage? How do these systems profane what is holy, or try to pass off what is evil as what is good?
One easy example is suggested by the “golden statue:” Does an allegiance to un-regulated capitalism ask us to value money over people? Is it asking us to forget that a system cannot be humane unless it serves everyone well, not just the few? Or, Are our political ideologies based on accumulating power rather than serving people? Do they encourage us to dehumanize others in order to worship our own sense of “rightness?” Is a preoccupation with freedom and patriotism asking us to forget the basic kindness we owe to our neighbor, like wearing a mask, even if we would rather not? Are our systems of white supremacy and white privilege, asking white people like myself to dismiss the lived experience of people of color, while we quietly benefit from entrenched systemic advantages?
And I think right now is a perfect time for us to be considering these points, and others like them, as the pandemic has revealed to us many weaknesses in our systems and ideologies, many ways that they leave people behind, or serve to divide us, the human family, from each other. I think it is appropriate right now to be asking questions about the systems in which we participate and the ideologies to which we subscribe: what are they asking us to value, do they benefit us in ways that we might not realize, and who are they leaving behind?
Nebuchadnezzar is found within each human heart, yes. It is our responsibility notice where he is showing up in our lives, even in the small and mundane ways. But, it is also important to recognize that we don’t exist in a vacuum, that the Nebuchadnezzar spirit can join people together in ways that create and perpetuate larger systems of injustice, that seek to justify and continue their own existence by casting greed, incivility, selfishness and ignorance as good.
But of course, we still have Shadrach, Meshach and Abedego. Their story is not just about a one time courageous action. Their story tells us much more about how to exist in a world that seems to only see Nebuchadnezzar. You see, when Judah was first overthrown by Babylonia, promising Jewish youths like Daniel and his friends were plucked out of their own country and intentionally brought up within Babylonian structures, groomed to function in the Babylonian court, for Babylonian agenda. They had to learn how to exist in that context. But they didn’t forget where they came from. They stayed true to their heritage. They worked to the best of their ability within the social structures they found themselves in, but they did not allow those systems to corrupt the things that were most important to them.
This can be a valuable lesson to us. We cannot live outside of human systems and ideologies. We will always co-exist with them, we need them. They create meaning and structure and connection for us. But they are still and always will be human. And many times, that means they will bid us forget what we owe to each other, bid us forget our heritage.
Our most basic heritage is that, from God’s divine love, everyone is born for heaven, which is a realm of mutual love (3). I don’t say this so that we will dismiss this world we live in and only focus on getting to heaven, not at all. Rather, I say it for us to realize that our heritage is something larger than the systems and ideologies of this world, no matter how much they might benefit us in the here and now, no matter how good they might make us feel. Our destiny is to exist in heaven in mutual love, to serve one another in mutual care, and to as far as possible live and birth that heaven into this world in the here and now. When we remember that heritage, we can resist any system or ideology that asks us to love or worship anything else. With God’s help and guidance, we can learn to walk around in the fire, unbound and unharmed. Amen.
(2) The New Interpreter’s Bible, p751.
(3) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #997, #1775 and Divine Providence #323
Daniel 1, 4-6, 8-30
1 King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.
4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”
8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.” 13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” 19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace. 24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” 25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them. 28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327
'Nebuchadnezzar' the king of Babel…mean[s] that which is profane and lays waste, which happens when the truths and forms of good which the Word contains serve, through wrong application, as means to lend support to the evils of self-love and love of the world. For in these circumstances the evils of those loves exist inwardly, in the heart, while the holy things of the Church are on the lips.
These verses use Babylon as an image for the way the deeper aspects of faith — inner worship, in other words — are wiped out. Anyone who embraces self-worship is devoid of religious truth…Such a person destroys and devastates everything that is true and leads it into captivity.
Photo credit: Thai Nhan
Readings: Psalm 29, Luke 24:44-53, Secrets of Heaven #10646:3 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
So, we’ve certainly gone through a lot of changes regarding worship in the last couple of months, haven’t we? Not just for us and our community but churches the world over. Virtual worship feels different, and has brought about both challenges and blessings. And so I thought that this week might be a good time to consider *why* we worship. Why did a whole bunch of places of worship go to the trouble to take worship online, why are you sitting down in your home in front of a computer to watch? What is worship for, and why is it so important?
Well, I’ll begin by setting the stage with a couple of key Swedenborgian ideas about worship. First, as we heard in our reading: worship is not for God, it is for us. We don’t ascribe to a God who needs our worship, it is not something we *owe* to God, it is not a transaction whereby we get what we want. Worship is for the purpose of our own growth. It is so that we might make space to, in a regular fashion, open ourselves up to new perspectives, to put aside preoccupations, to align ourselves with God’s purposes. Swedenborg calls this being in a state of humility, which I think has modern connotations that might make it sound like a negative thing. However, it is not about being ashamed per se, but about being quiet, being open, being vulnerable. It is into those states that God can flow most easily, and help us to grow and change. And for many, worship of some kind or another brings us into that state.
Second, true worship is not necessarily about being in a church. Swedenborg also writes:
…We worship constantly when we have love and charity; outward worship is merely an effect. Angels worship in this way, so they have a perpetual Sabbath.(1)
So it is also an important thing in our tradition to recognize that the truest form of worship of God is living a loving, good, and kind life. Church worship is to serve this ultimate purpose. When we strive to live a loving life, then every day is Sunday, every moment is liturgy, every action a hymn. It has become a rallying cry to the world wide church the last few months, that church has never been about a building, and this is so very true. Church is about striving to be open to God in a way that connects us to love and kindness, to God’s purposes, and to our fellow human beings. We do not *have* to have a building to do that. And so, in that vein, I thought I might read you something now that encapsulates this notion, something that I really love and that I have been waiting for an opportunity to share with you.
I would like to read to you the preface to the 1950 liturgy of the Swedenborgian Church. When I read it for the first time several years ago, it really moved me, and I hope that it speaks to you in a similar way. I’ve not been able to find out who wrote it (if you happen to know, please tell me!) but I love the idea of, when we are in challenging time for church, to intentionally ground ourselves in our tradition, to reach back for the wisdom of those who came before us, knowing that they are present for us, even now, in spirit. This preface is called “Let Us Worship."
In all of us, there is a sense of what ought to be, which will not let us rest until we give ourselves and our all to its demands. It bids us rise above our lower nature, to seek the worth and meaning of life in our endless spiritual possibilities. It stirs our concern for all mankind and a better world. Whence that yearning, if not from a God whose love dwells in the inmost recesses of our souls and draws us to himself, fashioning us in his image and likeness?
We, Christians of the New Age, see this image in the Lord God, the Savior Jesus Christ, risen and glorified, now come again in the truth and power of his Word and urging us to match our lives and all our relationships with his Divine Humanity. As we look up to him, we cannot compromise with a lesser destiny. When in utter commitment we devote ourselves to the pursuit of his purpose, so that in us and our social order his Incarnation might be completed, and that his inner presence in the hearts and minds of men may illumine humanity from within and make it the glorious organism it is mean to be, then truly we bow down before him and say, “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.”
This is what worship is intended to bring about and intensify. Beyond the words we sing, within the words we pray, back of our standing and kneeling, as we listen in the silence of our hearts to the Book which “testifies of him,” in presenting to him the tokens of our willingness, we dramatize, indeed, our dependence on him and our interdependence with all men as the objects of his care. We recognize, proclaim and rejoice in that, “He is our God.” And so, through appreciation of his infinite mercy, worship becomes our experience of holy fellowship with him, and all he loves. Conscious of our shortcomings and sins, and our oneness with all men, we bare our lives before him; and, according to our sincerity and repentance, we receive the enlightenment and the strength to become his once again. We see in him what human life can be, the goal to which creation moves, and in the light of it our humblest strivings are given new significance. Worship is the actual thrill of receiving from him light and love and power for our daily task. It is the joy of being made by him, and, step by step, becoming better channels through whom his love may flow.
There is in that experience a rapture no words can express. Yet it does not always come easily. Often we hold ourselves back and forget that worship is essentially a response, an expression of love to a Person. Let us remember, in our praise and our prayers, our need of him, not simply of knowledge about him. We need his hand, which alone can lift us up in our full spiritual stature; the light of his presence; the glow of his companionship; the forgiveness of his compassion; the sound of his inner voice, if he is to send us, charged with power, to heal and comfort the bruised and broken heart of the world. For, though worship begins in one precious hour, it extends to the whole of life. It is opening our life to the Lord that He may work in and through us. It is staking our faith in the man that is to be, and the world that is to be, because of the God who is.
Isn’t that just gorgeous? What I love about it, is that it balances so perfectly the way in which human beings exist in both our individuality and our commonality. We, each of us, open our lives to God, so that we might become who *we* are meant to be, which in turn contributes to the world becoming what *it* is meant to be, a vision of which God carries so tenderly in God’s heart.
I don’t know what is in store for the world-wide church, for *our* church over the coming months. Uncertainty is never fun. Difficult decisions might need to be made. But what I do know, is that our mission is to make space, if not physical then virtual, so that we might in community be moved by the spirit of our God in heart and mind, and then, as we read, charged with power, we might heal and comfort the bruised and broken heart of the world.
There is so much bruised and broken right now; may we always seek to live, to embody, the perpetual Sabbath.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #1618
1 Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. 3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. 4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic. 5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. 7 The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning. 8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert; the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh. 9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaksand strips the forests bare. And in his temple all cry, “Glory!” 10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King forever. 11 The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Secrets of Heaven 10646:3
It is said that the Lord alone is to be worshipped. Anyone unacquainted with the nature of true worship of the Lord may think that the Lord loves to be worshipped and desires glory from people, like someone who grants another person what he requests because that other person pays him respect. Anyone who thinks like that has no idea at all of what love is like, let alone of what God's love is like. God in His love does not desire worship and glory for His own sake but for that of people and their salvation. For humility exists in those who worship the Lord and give Him glory, and from those in whom humility exists…what belongs to self departs. And so far as this departs, the Divine is received; for the…self, being evil and false, is the one thing that stands in the way of the Divine. This is the glory of the Lord, and worship of Him exists to that end.