Readings: Mark 7:24-37, Secrets of Heaven 1690:2-3, 1692 (see below)
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The two places that we hear about in our reading today, Tyre and Sidon, are by the sea. Perhaps this summer, some of us took vacations, if we were able to safely, by the sea, or a lake. These are places, at least in our culture, synonymous with letting go of our routines and our anxieties, and reveling in the simple joys of our earth: sun, sand, water. Jesus was also trying to get away from the everyday. Perhaps more important than being by the sea, was the fact that Tyre and Sidon were beyond the boundaries of Herod’s kingdom, who was one of Jesus’ main adversaries. The path Jesus had taken was a difficult and exhausting one. He needed a break. So we are told: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.” Just a moment to himself.
But it wasn’t to be. A Syro-Phoenician woman, meaning a Canaanite, a gentile, comes to beg him for a healing for her daughter. Jesus does not respond well. He essentially calls her a dog. The greek word is diminutive, but not in a cute way, in a condescending way. The Jews of the day *hated* dogs, and had done so for centuries. As far as they were concerned, dogs were unclean scavengers, not the beloved friends that we now carry around in purses and feed organic food and let sleep in our beds. There is no getting around this insult. Yet, instead of crumbling, as many of us might do, the woman stands her ground, and delivers a pithy argument in Jesus’ own style, just as he had previously bested others. Jesus is shocked into changing his tune, and he heals her daughter from afar.
So, welcome back everyone, we are starting off with a bang this fall, with a difficult and controversial gospel story. Why difficult and controversial? Well, how did this story make you feel this morning? How did it make you feel to hear Jesus being so insulting to someone who simply came for his help. Let’s be honest, Jesus doesn’t mince words when rebuking the religious and political elite of his time; certainly he has said worse to them and we cheer him on. But rarely does he speak so to those who come to him for help in faith. In those cases, we are used to the compassionate and giving Jesus, not the testy and bigoted Jesus. What are we to do with *this* Jesus that we have been given on our text today? This Jesus likely makes us extremely uncomfortable.
So, many times preachers will try to figure out how to make Jesus look good here. He is just testing her, they might say, trying to strengthen and purify her faith. In Matthew’s version, the disciples get involved, perhaps he is trying to teach them a lesson too. But these “tough love” interpretations do not sit right with me. Out of love for her child, this woman sought out a leader of a different faith and people, crossing religious, cultural and gender boundaries to approach him. This woman’s faith was already strong, her discernment on point, her courage on display. She didn’t need to learn anything. Perhaps, just perhaps, *she* was supposed to teach Jesus something.
In Swedenborgian incarnational theology, we understand Jesus to have both a human and divine nature. He was human just as we are human, but his soul was divine. Now, the upshot of this view is that Jesus *felt* just as human as we all feel. Sometimes he was in sync with his divine nature and sometimes he was not, just we are are sometimes able to feel a distinct connection with our soul-natures, and though most of the time we are truly mired in our earthy humanness.
When Jesus was fully in his human nature, he would often speak of God the Father, essentially his own divine soul, as separate. These were the times that Jesus was vulnerable to temptation, just as we are. Now when we think of the temptations of Jesus in the gospel, we tend to think of the big ticket ones: Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and of course, the cross. But in reality, Jesus was tempted all the time, by big things and small, just like any human being. And it is my opinion, that is story is one of those small times. Jesus was exhausted, and depleted. I know that I myself, when I am exhausted and depleted, I am not my best self either. Who of us, after being interrupted for the umpteenth time when we just wanted some peace, hasn’t whirled around and said “What???”
This is our humanness on display, our concern for our own well-being yes, but also our own fear about not being in control, not trusting God’s abundance in the moment, not being willing or able to summon compassion. It is easy to be compassionate when everything is going right, when we’ve had our coffee, we’re within our tribe and within our comfort zone. It is much harder to summon compassion when we are feeling challenged and off-balance.
It’s also important to remember, however, that in this gospel story, Jesus was not being, in the words of Rev. Wilda Gafney “generically human.”(1) Most of the time we are quite willing to concede the *generic* humanness of Jesus because then we don’t have to think about what that really means. But Jesus wasn’t a generic human, Jesus was an actual human, an actual human being in his own place and time, subject to the physical and cultural heredity of his context. And so that means, that his temptations were sometimes also according to the cultural heredity of his context. And in his context, Jews did not like Canaanites and the feeling was absolutely mutual. To the Jews, Canaanites were lowly idolators. To the Canaanites, the Jews were their once-upon-a-time conquerers and occupiers, just as Rome and others had later conquered Israel. There was a centuries-old tension. By religious and cultural training, Jesus was biased against this woman. He did not want to squander his precious energy on her. Now, by this point in his ministry, Jesus surely knew such biases did not serve the kingdom. Jesus’s words in the gospel of Mark’s parables paint a picture of an expansive, wild and generous kingdom, one not necessarily received by those you would expect. Jesus had even healed a demon-possessed gentile two chapters earlier and sent him to spread the word of the gospel to his people. But biases run deep, and in a moment of weakness and likely, self-preservation, Jesus spoke from that bias.
And I know that makes me feel pretty uncomfortable, and a little disappointed. But, when I think about it, the disappointment comes only because I have forgotten what temptation really is, and what temptation is for. Temptation and spiritual trials are not for the purpose of demonstrating that we are pure, perfect and righteous. Temptation serves the purpose of bringing to light that which stands in the way of our regeneration, revealing to us the work that we still need to do. Let us take Jesus’ wilderness temptations from Matthew as an example. Satan dares Jesus to turn stones to bread, to throw himself off a cliff, and offers Jesus rulership of the world if only he would worship him. Jesus’ answers are so smooth and immediate that we forget that for the temptation to mean anything, a small part of Jesus had to have *wanted* to show off his power, and wanted to rule the earth. For the temptation of the cross to mean anything, then Jesus had to have been afraid to die, had to have been anxious that his actions might be in vain, had to want to give up. We don’t hear his struggle in the wilderness with Satan, but we do hear it in Gethsemane and on the cross. And we hear it in his words to the Syro-Phoenician woman. This is okay. That’s what makes these stories of temptation so powerful. When Jesus was born into a human body, and a human nature, even with a divine soul, his actions were not pre-determined. They were choices.
Those choices propelled Jesus towards glorification, the union of that which is human with that which is divine, and this journey mirrors our own. We too journey, inch by inch, day by day, towards the union of our human nature with our soul-nature, the alignment of our action with the divine love that animates our being. In the words of Karoline Lewis: “We forget that our God became fully human not *only* for the sake of solidarity with the joys and pains of humanity, but also for the sake of telling us the truth about our humanity – which always attempts to curtail God’s sovereignty.”(2)
We see Jesus’ humanity curtailing God’s sovereignty in our text today. It might make us uncomfortable to see Jesus so human but the gospel tells us the truth; sometimes our humanness is ugly. But what is illustrative here is not that Jesus was biased, but how quickly he was willing to be turned around. We know he had long been doing spiritual work, expanding the hearts and minds of the people around him as well as his own. He had a moment of weakness, a moment dwelling in dark human feelings, in a prejudice he had been marinating in since birth. But the woman’s wit and persistence reminded him of how he was limiting her in his mind, and his response was not of bluster, defensiveness, or excuse. His response was to return to what he knew was right with no fanfare and no hesitation, and to heal the person who needed to be healed.
This story is ultimately a hopeful one because it depicts what is possible. None of us will likely be offered a chance to rule the world by Satan, or thankfully, have to choose to be martyred. But we will all get a chance, many chances indeed, to enact this episode. We will many times in our lives find ourselves smack in the middle of our biases, drawing a line between ourselves and an “other” and doing so in a way that diminishes and belittles them. Instead, may we open our awareness to what we are doing, may we open our eyes to the humanity of the person in front of us, may we quietly, faithfully, let go of that which closes us off to another, and may we choose to be a channel of healing.
It probably won’t surprise us to note that right before this story, Jesus had been challenging the purity codes of the religious elite, specifically ceremonial washing. It caused him to say: “Listen to me everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of the person that defiles them.” And in our text today, Jesus himself became the parable by which this idea was brought to fullness. The Syro-Phoenician women’s external, outside context defiled her in Jesus’ eyes, made her less worthy than his fellow Jews. But her words humanized her to him, and reminded Jesus of his own words and this own ethos. Jesus’ eyes and ears were opened, just as for the next man he would encounter. The faith being purified was not hers but his. The miracle was not only an healing of a child, but the “overcoming of prejudice and boundaries that separate [people].”(3)
3. The New Interpreter’s Bible, page 461
Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44, John 6:1-21, Secrets of Heaven 9545 (see below)
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Today we consider one of the most famous of bible stories, the feeding of the five thousand, or the story of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. This is such an important story to the gospel narrative, that it is the only miracle story to appear in all four gospels, and Mark and Matthew both manage to tell it twice! It hooks into many important gospel themes: the providence and shepherding of God, the abundance of the kingdom, the surprise of faith, and care of the oppressed.
This miracle though, as iconic as it may be, is not an innovation on the part of Jesus, he was not doing something completely new. Feeding miracles abound in the Jewish Scriptures as well, and this gospel episode evokes many of them, with two in particular. The first we heard in our reading: Elisha’s feeding of the one hundred. The language and the form is mirrored very explicitly, including down to the barley loaves. The second allusion is only touched on our reading, but is developed more fully later in the chapter. With references to Passover, and to withdrawing to a mountain, and later, to manna in the wilderness, the gospel writer means to bring to mind Moses. Jesus is being deliberately established as a great prophet, in order to demonstrate continuity with Israel’s past.
But, as clearly as the gospel lifts up Jesus as a great prophet, it is important to note what the gospel thinks that means. The crowd, being in awe of such a miracle, immediately moves to make Jesus king, echoing the demands of their ancestors for a king many centuries before. But Jesus soundly rejects these efforts. Why? Isn’t God’s king—dom, and the bringing of it into being, the whole point of Jesus ministry? The problem is that the world’s idea of kingship and God’s idea are very different. The perspective of the world will always be based on scarcity, based on who has and who has not. Even the most benevolent of governments and empires will still always be based on this earthly mathematics, the economy of hierarchy, the currying of favor, the (hopefully just, but certainly not always) distribution of limited resources and power. God’s kingdom, however, radically upends hierarchy *itself* and challenges the whole notion that there is a limited amount of righteousness, worthiness and favor.
And clearly, the crowd was looking to Jesus because of what Jesus could do, what he could accomplish within that worldly context of kingship, how he could justly create and distribute food to a hungry people. Which is of course important to be done; that’s why Jesus did it. But, an entire kingship based on such a premise would still only ever be transactional, would be still based on the power of one person, and would not overhaul of the oppressive system that allowed some people to be and remain hungry in the first place. Jesus at the head of the Roman empire might have seemed like a good idea to some, but it was the ideology of empire itself that was the problem. Jesus wasn’t looking to usurp power, but to redefine what power really was.
So we are served the second miracle in this text today: the walking on the water. If the miracle of the loaves and fishes puts Jesus in continuity with Israel’s journey of faith, the walking on the water reveals his true identity in oneness with God. Jesus not only feeds people miraculously sometimes, as Elisha did, Jesus does as God does: brings people from scarcity to abundance in a larger sense, all the time. What is translated as “It is I” in the NIV, can just as correctly be translated “I AM,” the divine name. This links not only to all the various I AM sayings in John, but to the burning bush in Exodus all those years ago, to God’s personal introduction of God’s self to God’s people. Who are you, asked Moses then? I am who I am, said God. I am being, I am creation, I am generativeness, I am everything. The point of this kind of identification is not that God is everything and therefore God has everything; casting God as benevolent dictator. The I AM is not making us human beings “other,” or “less than.” Jesus drives this home by invoking the divine name while at the same time engaging in pastoral care. He says “I AM; do not be afraid.” He allays the disciples’ fears, anticipates what they will need to hear.
And so we see that we have a moment of glory tempered by a moment of grace. We learn that the sheer multiplying power of the feeding miracle cannot cannot be the end goal. The purpose of abundance is not so that there might be much for much-ness sake, but so that *need* might be met with *fulfillment*, this is the actual miracle. God’s glory is solely for the purpose of meeting our need with love. The walking on water episode moves directly into John’s well-known discourse on the “bread of life.” And now Jesus works hard to explain how it all hangs together. He says “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures for eternal life…it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” It is not about the bread alone, no matter how multiplied. What the abundance of the Bread of Life means, is that whatever needs are created by the living of life, the emptiness, the yearning, the loneliness, the worry, the brokenness, these needs will be met with nourishment and care by God. This is why, as we are told in our Swedenborg reading, that bread corresponds not only that which nourishes us physically but also spiritually, corresponds to the goodness of God’s love and to God’s very self. God will give of God’s very self so that we might all be filled. And that is something that empire can never do, because to empire, giving something away breaks down the whole enterprise; the whole point of empire is to get more, more power, more resources, more control. To empire, people are chattel, valued only for what they can produce, and need is a weakness. To God, people are beloved, valued for who they are, their need a means to connection.
And yet, we struggle to believe it. One of the most potent of human fears is the fear of being left out, of finding oneself outside of the circle of care and perceived worthiness. It is a survival impulse buried deep within our DNA, as once upon a time, separation from the safety of the tribe likely meant death. We are hardwired to desire assurance that we are part of a community that can sustain us, hardwired to seek relationship, knowing that we are safer together than alone.
We feel these anxieties all the time when our safe communities are expanded; families welcoming in-laws, churches welcoming new members, classes welcoming new students or teachers. On the world stage, these anxieties are played out as countries grapple with immigration, amnesty for refugees. Many times, when this anxiety is not processed or examined, when reflection is rejected, the temptation towards xenophobia, to the practice of making some human beings “other” is irresistible. The hells convince anxious people that hatred and lack of empathy is the only balm, the only assurance of survival and worthiness.
But this is not the Word of God. This is not what God would have us understand about the universe. We must remember Elisha: This is what the Lord says! “They shall eat and have some left.” The Lord says this, clear as day. Divine love is ever-giving, and God’s vision for us is to live into the abundance of divine love. We are assured that there is something in the universe that is inexhaustibly loving and good, something that is generative and creative and giving. In this knowledge, and only in this knowledge, we can let go of our grasping and draw a deep long breath. We need not fill ourselves; we need only open ourselves up and we can be filled with the I AM. God will never ever leave us, and God’s love will never, ever run out. And when we believe that, we can be fearless in our compassion and welcome to others. God’s assurance is that expansion grounded in love draws its marvelous elasticity from the great I AM. It doesn’t and cannot come from us. It has a much more consistent and durable origin. Thank the Lord!
As we anticipate joining together in our own meal of celebration today, we remember then that the central sacrament of our faith is celebrated around a table. Many times, that table has been used for the opposite of God’s intention, to convince some that they are not worthy, they are not included, they are outside of God’s love and care. But, as Jesus exemplified, the sharing of God’s abundant love and truth, symbolized in the bread and wine, powerfully enacts the invitation that is central to God’s character; that all may come and be fed. “They shall eat and have some left.”
2 Kings 4:42-44
42 A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. “Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said. 43 “How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked. But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the LORD says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’ ” 44 Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.
1 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near. 5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” 8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. 14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
Secrets of Heaven #9545
‘Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times,” (Exodus 25:30) means the Lord there in respect of celestial good. This is clear from the meaning of 'the table' as the receptacle of celestial blessings; from the meaning of 'bread' in the highest sense as the Lord, and in a related sense as the good of love that springs from Him… 'bread' in general meaning all heavenly food or the food that nourishes a person's spiritual life, and from the meaning of 'Presence', when the word refers to the Lord, as everything that springs from Divine Love, such as innocence, peace, and joy, thus heaven itself present with people on earth and with angels.
Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, Secrets of Heaven #5992:3 (see below)
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“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” How beautiful this verse is, sometimes I think perhaps the most beautiful in the whole bible! Well, I joke, but how many here can relate to this verse, especially after the last 18 months? While the pandemic did cause many of us to stay in our homes, did it and all that has happened, allow us to truly rest? Will life return now to to its face-paced default that kept many of us so exhausted? Jesus’ invitation here remains a little counter-cultural, though perhaps one that we might now be slightly more willing to hear.
But of course, in that particular moment in our text, it wasn’t to be, even for Jesus. The story continues: “but many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” Jesus saw their need and had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, searching and searching for one to lead them. This feeling of searching, I think we can relate to as well. In our society that is so infatuated with individualism, this is a hard, and sometimes secretly shameful thing to admit; that even as adults we still yearn for mentoring, for sometime to guide us along the way.
And so, the image of the divine shepherd is so perennially comforting. It is an invitation to breathe, an invitation to focus on that which is guiding us, an invitation to believe that someone has our back and that we are not alone. We heard about the concern that the Lord has for each of us in our Swedenborg reading: “a constant concern lasting from the very beginning of a person's existence to the final moment of their life, and for evermore after that.” And, we also learned, that it is not only the Lord that we have with us, but angels shepherding us as well. “Angels from the Lord…lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant.” We are all held in the loving arms of the God and angels in every moment. We are not always conscious of it, and sometimes we resist the embrace, but it is a constant of which we can always rely. And in our text today, Jesus embodied for us this compassion and concern of God, not hesitating for moment to heal those who needed healing. God with us, working for us, constantly. Our divine shepherd.
But of course, the temptation wrapped up in such a beautiful piece of knowledge, is that it will take us out of each moment that we are in. The transcendence of spiritual things, the fact that we believe spiritual things are beyond us in some fundamental way, that they represent an ideal, sometimes draws us away from the world. Surely, we think, heaven is an escape from the messiness of our lives, surely our angels call us to abandon that which is earthly and earth-bound?
It is not quite so simple. In his book Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg describes our inner natures being in the spiritual world and our outer natures in this natural world. We inhabit a nexus, an in-between place. And our outwardness, our bodies, actions, thoughts, senses…these are the ultimate things into which the flow of God’s love comes to rest. There is not some rarefied realm in which God’s love resides which we must strive to reach by shedding our outer natures. Rather, our transformed outer natures are the ultimate destination of God’s love. They are where God has been heading the entire time.
The passage continues:
 Since the Lord's divine inflow does not stop in the middle but goes on to its very limit, as just stated, and since the intermediate region it crosses is the angelic heaven and the limit is in us, and since nothing disconnected can exist, it follows that there is such a connection and union of heaven with the human race that neither can endure without the other. If the human race were cut off from heaven, it would be like a chain with a link removed, and heaven without the human race would be like a house without a foundation. (HH 304)
We see now then, that denying, abhorring, ignoring the world for the sake of spiritual things is like trying to have a house without a foundation; it is impossible. Heaven and the human race, in all its human-ness, are irrevocably connected. And when we recognize what this means, we see that the guiding, moderating and shepherding that we receive from God and the angels is not to draw us ever away from the world but rather, to allow us to exist compassionately and courageously within it. To allow us to bring God’s love into its ultimate destination in our embodiment, in our actions.
We see this reflected in the gospel text; the people brought their sick to be healed but not to Jesus up in that secluded place he spoke of, and clearly yearned for. He instead went into their villages and towns, and specifically healed the sick in the marketplaces of those towns, in the most busy and bustling places. The marketplace in those days was not just a place for commerce, it was also a place for legal hearings, elections and debates. It was both a commercial and a political center. It was the center of everyone’s lives, it was where the details of collective life in community happened. This is where the healings took place. Not in hiding, not in a sacred temple, not the deserted place he called them to at the beginning of the story, but in the midst of the nitty-gritty of life.
We have romanticized the image of the divine shepherd so very much, placed it in the realm of idyllic pastoral scenes, peaceful countrysides, fluffy white sheep. But in Jesus’ day, it was not an abstract idea. For many hundreds of years, the Jewish people had been a shepherding people; they knew exactly what was involved in being a shepherd, how dirty, how exhausting it could be. How different to understand the Old Testament use of the image of God as shepherd then, as we see in our Jeremiah reading, how this doesn’t cast God as distantly and peacefully presiding over green hills and happily gamboling lambs, but rather, God as fierce protector and rescuer. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…” God sweaty and dirty and directly involved; shouting, running, hands calloused from hard work and oily brown wool, arms full of the vulnerable and tired and the just born.
Then, and now, we are shepherded inwardly by God and our angels, as we told, in every instant and every fraction of an instant. We are guided toward goodness and away from harm, toward compassion and away from self-centeredness. As needed, we are guided into quiet places and restfulness, we are guided, as we heard in Jeremiah, back into the fold and away from fear. But this rescue, this greener pasture, is not for the sake of itself. We are shepherded so that the inflow of God might come to rest, come to fruition, in our transformed and compassionate actions.
And so, we are *also* guided into the marketplace. God and the angels will meet us even there, in the place where the details of our lives happen. We bring our sickness and our need of healing, we bring our problems and our doubts, our challenges and our stubbornness, our day-to-day anxieties, our dreams of being whole, and our dreams of making the world a better place. Nothing disconnected can exist. Heaven is built upon the foundation of our lives in this world, brick by brick, moment by moment. And not, so that we might eventually build a tower of babel tall enough to escape, but that we might build a room expansive enough to hold us all. The point of spirituality and the shepherding of God is not that we might become unmoored from our experience and our earthiness, a soul saved from the grasp of a tortured world and taken up to heaven. Rather, we are shepherded and guided so that heaven might be birthed in the here and now, inside a heart, inside a life, in which God’s love might come to fulfillment and rest.
1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Secrets of Heaven #5992:3
 In particular angels call forth the forms of good and truth residing with a person and set them opposite [the] evils and falsities…As a result the person is in the middle and is not conscious of the evil or of the good; and being in the middle they are in freedom to turn towards one or towards the other. Angels from the Lord employ means like these to lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant. For if the angels were to let up merely for a single moment the person would be plunged into evil from which after that they cannot possibly be brought out. The angels are motivated to do all this by a love they receive from the Lord, for nothing gives them greater delight and happiness than to remove evils from a person and lead them to heaven. This is their joy. Scarcely anyone believes the Lord has that kind of concern for a person, a constant concern lasting from the very beginning of a person's existence to the final moment of their life, and for evermore after that.
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Readings: Psalm 132, 2 Samuel 6:1-2, 12-19, Secrets of Heaven #10416 (see below)
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Not long after I decided to go with the second reading from the lectionary for today’s sermon, I began to regret it. As I read over 2 Samuel, going back and forth over the text to see what happened before and after, I started to panic a little, thinking: “I can’t draw anything good from this!” And why? Because it is too messy. There are no simple heroes or villains. It is a story of war, and no one comes out well. Since we last left David, a mere boy who vanquished a giant, he first spent years as a loyal servant in Saul’s court. Even as Saul’s paranoia eventually forces David to become a fugitive, he maintains his integrity in the face of Saul’s cruelty. And yet, as David gathers support and strategizes, even as Saul eventually dies at the hands of the Philistines and David mourns him with sincerity, the narrative is filled with wartime actions that seem almost casual in the biblical account but that feel deeply wrong in the larger scheme. And, as much as David is lifted up as a seminal leader, alongside his good qualities we also know that he was deeply flawed.
And in a flash I feel a distinct resonance with our own times: full of messiness and sadness and loss and injustice, full of a necessary reframing of things we thought we knew, full of a necessary reckoning with things covered over, full of dealing with things we never thought we’d have to deal with. From pandemics and insurrections to climate change and racial injustice, there is a lot to feel uncomfortable and uncertain about. Processing it all feels hard and messy and sad, as we all just try to figure out how to show up in way that is accountable and useful. I’m sure we’d prefer easier stories, easier history, an easier sacred text, but that is not what we have in front of us.
What I take from this story, though, is the recognition that God remains in all of it, not as sanction but as grace. And if last week, on July 4th, we spoke of the necessity of pairing celebration with reflection, this week we can see the other way, we can hear about the necessity of pairing reflection and challenge with celebration and joy. Because, in the face of all that is happening, all that we are learning, I know that I sometimes it can feel like celebration is not allowed, that somehow joy itself in the face of injustice and pain is a betrayal. How can we be happy when so many are suffering, so much is going wrong in our world?
And certainly, there are ways that the pursuit of happiness, of momentary and external joy, can be a distraction, an avoidance, a resistance, an indulgence, that prevents us from dealing with what needs to be dealt with. We certainly need to be aware when we are doing this. But, celebration and joy around the presence of God with us is an indispensable way to connect *to* God, to feel within our bones that our God is a good God, to recognize that our God is with us, in every challenge. It is a kind of celebration that cannot be relinquished, for the sake of our own well-being.
We can see this in the picture of David dancing as the ark is taken to Jerusalem, bookended by war and upheaval on one side and David’s upcoming transgressions on the other. It is not so much that David as a character has a consciousness of this tension; rather, the narrative itself provides us with the juxtaposition. Within so much loss and violence and turmoil, still God reaches out in order to be among humankind, to be at the very center of our lives, as the ark with God’s instructions for living would be in the center of Jerusalem. And so David dances, as do the people, and we are invited to join in.
This dancing, this expression of joy, does not erase the urgency and the gravity of the wrongs we will need to right, the catastrophes we will need to manage, the apologies we will need to make, the healing we will need to do. The dancing, the expression of joy, puts us in the space where we might be renewed, where our selfhood is forgotten, even if just for a moment, where God’s love might freely flow into our soul, our mind, our heart, so that we have the fortitude and the resilience to step into the challenges of our life and our world.
For there certainly are other ways to approach our challenges. We look at Michal, Saul’s daughter, we see her despising David as he danced, and we see a resonance with that part of us that despises freedom and joy in ourselves and in others. She admonishes David sarcastically as he returns home:
“How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (2 Samuel 6:20)
Her story is complicated too. As daughter of the king, she was used to privilege. And yet as a women in ancient times, she did not have access to any measure of self-determination either. She was initially promised in marriage to David by her father, Saul, when David was favored in court. Years later, after Saul had died, David called that promise due and dragged Michal away from her current husband. The biblical account tells us her husband followed behind her for miles, weeping, as David’s soldiers led her away. Of course she was salty and resentful, at minimum. Her life had been determined by powerful men who cared nothing for her own wishes. And even her own feelings ultimately do not get to be hers, as this personal episode is co-opted by the narrative to demonstrate the true end of the reign of Saul and his line.
There are ways that we have all been wronged and challenged, by particular people, by systems, by what seems like fate. Anger, resentment, and sadness are reasonable and expected reactions to this reality, especially in situations where we have no power to make things better, to right the wrongs, to change our circumstances.
But the ways we process that anger, resentment and sadness are key. We can see in Michel what happens when life make us hard and cynical. When we see the eruption of joy in others and all we can think of is what we have lost, what has gone wrong. The biblical narrative implies that for this stance, Michal would remain childless all her life. In the natural sense, this seems an overly harsh sentence for an understandable reaction to being treated like chattel. But in the spiritual sense, we can see that nothing can be born from that type of hardness, there can be no offspring of growth and transformation from a mindset that centers our pain, instead of processing our pain, that twists the existence of hardship into an ongoing support for a ego-centered worldview. And that is a very different thing from recognizing an accountability for our own actions even as we do not excuse what has happened to us, even as we work for justice and change.
And all of this is so nuanced and difficult to sort out in our real lives. This text doesn’t tell us “don’t worry be happy.” This text doesn’t tell us to just forget about our challenges and dance. This text isn’t saying we shouldn’t feel the fullness of the injustice of the transgressions we encounter, learn about, or experience. Perhaps it is just too much to see *David* dancing, knowing that he was the one who took Michel away from her life. But is it possible to see the dancing itself as holy and good apart from him?
What instead, would it have been like if Michal could have danced? She was alone in that window looking down; what if there had been a community to dance with her, to help her remember her connection to her God and her worthiness and potential. We can have compassion for the way her perspective turned, and why, while also hoping and wishing that she might have had access to a community and a practice that renewed her, that kept her whole in spirit. Purely happy endings are the stuff of fairy tales, but the dance, connected to the ground and our heartbeat; it bridges what is and what could be in a real and primal way.
The establishment of the ark in Jerusalem is so very important to the Jewish tradition and by extension, to ours. It signals the centrality of God in our lives, about how God pitched a tent right in the middle of all our messiness, and how we might respond by building the temple of our reverential selfhood around it. What steadfastness, what an unreasonable faith God has in us! And for this gift, for this grace, we dance.
8 ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. 9 May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ”(Psalm 132:8-9)
1 LORD, remember David and all his self-denial. 2 He swore an oath to the LORD, he made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob: 3 “I will not enter my house or go to my bed, 4 I will allow no sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, 5 till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.” 6 We heard it in Ephrathah, we came upon it in the fields of Jaar: 7 “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool, saying, 8 ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. 9 May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ” 10 For the sake of your servant David, do not reject your anointed one. 11 The LORD swore an oath to David, a sure oath he will not revoke: “One of your own descendants I will place on your throne. 12 If your sons keep my covenant and the statutes I teach them, then their sons will sit on your throne for ever and ever.” 13 For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, 14 “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. 15 I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. 16 I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy. 17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for my anointed one. 18 I will clothe his enemies with shame, but his head will be adorned with a radiant crown.”
2 Samuel 6:1-2. 12-19
1 David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. 2 He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark.
12 Now King David was told, “The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.” So David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. 13 When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. 14 Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, 15 while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. 16 As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart. 17 They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD. 18 After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty. 19 Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes.
Secrets of Heaven #10416
This is clear from the meaning of 'playing' as the desire of a person's interiors to celebrate, for play is the outcome of that desire, being a bodily activity brought about by gladness of mind; and all desire for celebration and all gladness of mind come from the delights belonging to the loves that govern a person. The reason why agreement as well is meant is that every desire to celebrate has agreement residing inwardly within it; for if any disagreement or disapproval enters in, that desire perishes. The desire to celebrate resides inwardly in a person's feeling of freedom, and all feeling of freedom comes as a result of love, when nothing exists to frustrate it.
Readings: Mark 1:1-15, True Christianity 530 (see below)
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We are not usually in church on July 4th, on this exact day. But, being as Independence Day falls on a Sunday this year, and a communion Sunday at that, I thought this might be a good opportunity to think about the intersection of celebration and reflection.
Now, at first it probably doesn’t really seem like celebration and reflection go together at all. Most of the time, when we celebrate something, like a birthday, we are celebrating what actually is, as opposed to what could be. Certainly, the intersection of celebration and reflection is at the center of some hot cultural debates, specifically in relationship to July 4th, the question of whether it is possible for someone to be patriotic, to love and be loyal to the United States, while still being clear-eyed and honest about the shortcomings of their nation? Often times, any critique at all of the United States and its history is pilloried as being anti-American. But that does seem unnecessarily defensive and reductive. In our personal lives, when we offer a critique of a spouse, or a friend, or a child, someone we love, are we *immediately* that person’s antagonist or enemy? Are we fundamentally “against” them? No, of course not. We know that, when critique is offered with improvement as the goal, when it is done in a loving way, it is possible to critique and love at the same time. Critique can be offered as a gift and a hope, as a way for important things that are unseen to be seen. And conversely, it is not always a gift to be silent about the ways someone that we love can develop, nor is it a blessing to be willfully blind about their shortcomings.
And I’m sure that many of us are grappling with this tension, on this Independence Day, of critiquing and loving at the same time, in regards to our beautiful but flawed nation. Because, boy, what a year and a half! Layer upon layer has been revealed to us, things that many of us should have been able to see long ago perhaps: the pervasiveness of systemic inequalities, the fragility of democracy and our economies, the urgency of climate change, and much more. What is the reaction to this revealing? Sometimes it is denial, a defensiveness that seeks to preserve a righteous and comfortable identity. And sometimes it is also wanting to speak up, to raise awareness, to create useful change. Certainly both these reactions seem like they come from love, but the heart of the question is: what are we loving? In either case, the key is whether or not we are loving the Lord and loving the neighbor, as opposed to loving power or loving ourselves. In church, in a place dedicated to spiritual practice and spiritual questioning, I think we are led today to ask: how appropriate is a celebration that does not attend to this important question?
So, what does this have to do with communion? Well, it seems to me that the sacrament of communion embodies this holy tension between reflection and celebration. Someone coming to receive communion is called a celebrant. During communion, we commemorate the Lord’s presence with us in this world, we lift up and praise what God offers to us, accomplishes for us. We perform a joyful remembrance of a holy meal; we *celebrate* communion.
But, the point of communion is not just remembrance and praise. The point of communion, and of the remembrance, is to translate the effectiveness of the Lord’s Holy Supper with the disciples all those years ago into something that has efficacy in the here and now, in our lives. And how do we do that? By reflecting upon how *we* can be a conduit for God’s love and truth in this world, by reflecting upon the places where this love and truth are not yet fully embodied, by reflecting on how we might change. When there is a concrete effect in our personal realm, some realization, some transformation…then God’s work and effective presence continues in the present. The celebration is no longer pure enactment; the Holy Supper has become reality. The celebration is internalized; it is no longer about remembering what someone else did but about what we are doing.
And so we see that celebration is only half of the story; that without accompanying reflection, it is a mere shadow of something that once was. For, in Swedenborgian theology, communion is just as much excavation as it is remembrance, just as much integration as it is celebration. We take the wine and the bread, ordinary elements, and we see them deeply, correspondentially, see them for the way that they connect us to spirit, to the love and wisdom of God. But we don’t just *look* upon them, we don’t just try to understand their meaning, we ingest them, we take them into ourselves as a representation of accepting and integrating God’s goodness and truth into our daily living. This acceptance, this integration, can only occur through reflection, repentance, re-formation, *trans*formation. It is an active practice, it is ongoing, it is showing up with our full selves, and our full willingness and surrender to where God is leading us.
And I think perhaps the way that communion embodies both celebration and reflection can be instructive for us in other parts of our lives. Already on important days such as birthdays or anniversaries, we might both celebrate and reflect. We lift up in gratitude what has gone before and we think about who we would like to be and what we would like to see going forward, both in our own lives and in relationship. Perhaps this dynamic can be brought forward usefully into the way we celebrate July 4th.
The birth of American democracy was a new and hopeful thing. It changed the world for the better. *And* it was a historical event enfolded within its own time, bearing the inevitable markers of that time, that ushered various injustices forward. We can see both of these things as true at the same time. We can hold the clarity of truth within the boundaries of love. We can, as communion does, infill an important remembrance with the holy offering of reflection in a way that makes the reality of our nation more whole, and even more beautiful.
Reflection isn’t always comfortable, in fact, most the time it isn’t. But a commitment to the spiritual life is a commitment to the truth that reflective discomfort can be a good thing, that it can be productive, that it is giving birth to something. If we don’t believe the truth of this, if we believe that the purpose of religion and/or patriotism is to make us feel righteous and powerful and happy all the time, then I believe we have missed the point.
And this is why in our reading today, we hear Jesus say “Repent *and* believe the good news!” Our belief, our perspective, our celebration of the goodness of the news of the ways that God shows up for us, needs to be coupled with a healthy humility, with a willingness to see where we are throwing up obstacles to God’s partnership with us.
And even though we read those two things in a particular order, repent and then believe, we also know that life is a little more messy than that, that as in communion, we can hold both at the same time. As we heard in our Swedenborg reading, “repentance becomes effective if we practice it regularly.” It is not a one and done thing, so that we can finally, really, believe. It is a practice and a discipline that encourages the ongoing refinement and expansion of our belief and our perspectives. Each feeds into the other, as we learn more about ourselves and others and God and relationship and service.
And so, as we mark this Independence Day, I hope that we might be moved to both celebrate and reflect, that we might come to inhabit that holy tension of critique and love with calmness and hope and determination. That we might recognize that as each angel is perfected to eternity, so might our world be. There is still so much work to do; may it be both joyful and reflective in perfect measure. Amen.
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
True Christianity 530
The question then is, How are we to repent? The answer is, we are to do so actively. That is, we are to examine ourselves, recognize and admit to our sins, pray to the Lord, and begin a new life.
 Repentance becomes effective if we practice it regularly - that is, every time we prepare ourselves to take the Communion of the Holy Supper. Afterward, if we abstain from one sin or another that we have discovered in ourselves, this is enough to make our repentance real. When we reach this point, we are on the pathway to heaven, because we then begin to turn from an earthly person into a spiritual person and to be born anew with the help of the Lord.
Photo credit: Scott Webb
Readings: I Samuel 17, Secrets of Heaven #1197 (see below)
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This is probably one of the most familiar stories in the Old Testament. It certainly has made its way into our collective imagination and our language, as even for people unfamiliar with the bible generally, the names David and Goliath unequivocally recall the potent narrative of the underdog, the triumph of the little guy over insurmountable odds.
So, first, a little background on the story. As noted by the name of the book I Samuel, the story takes place in the days of the prophet Samuel. The children of Israel desired a king to rule over them, and so Samuel installed Saul as monarch. But ultimately God rejected Saul as king, due to a number of transgressions, and so Samuel anoints a new king in secret: David, the youngest and smallest of the sons of Jesse.
But meanwhile, Saul remains king, and readies for war with the Philistines. The Israelites are not confident in their ability to win, and they are mightily intimidated by the Philistine champion, Goliath, who at six cubits and a span, was about 9 feet 9 inches tall. And David, the secretly anointed but utterly forgettable brother comes to visit his older siblings on the war front. They are not pleased. Yet somehow David has a kind of unbelievable confidence that carries him to the notice of Saul. Saul agrees to let David fight Goliath, and even though David eschews traditional armor and weapons, he wins, using his very simple sling and five smooth stones he had gathered at the river.
It is a crazy, detailed, and exhilarating story. And as we look through a Swedenborgian lens, we of course see that the story is a metaphor for our internal life. Swedenborg tells us that the Philistines represent faith separated from charity and Goliath as the conceit of self-intelligence.(1) We can see how these two go together, in that, in a more general way, as we try to separate what we know and believe from how we live in relationship to others, we are tempted to retreat further and further into a silo of self-righteous and high self-opinion.
It is a threat to our spiritual life, a danger, when we try to separate what we know from how we live our life, as if somehow our true self is made up of the thoughts we think, instead of the way that we actually show up to our life and our relationships and our world. This threat is pictured by the Philistine army. But a particular danger is that the more we place value and prestige on our thinking, on our intelligence, or on our beliefs, (rather than our living) then a giant of self-centeredness starts to grow, until only *we* can be right (because our ego demands that we must be), and we have lost the humility and the reflective ability that is so central to spiritual evolution and a spiritual, loving life.
And there are many varieties of mental and emotional Goliaths that keep us immobilized, that keep us centered in fear and ego. So many giants that feel so big and strong, and loom so large over our internal landscape.
Who would have thought, though, that is answer would be David? David, who is picked on by his brothers, David who says “Now what have I done?”, the small and inconsequential shepherd boy? Because sometimes, our truest loves, our cherished ideals, our lofty goals, our bleeding hearts, our desire to make a difference, they seem so small and ridiculous compared to “they way the world works.” But those things, those depths of our hearts, those true north principles, when out on the field on their own, they pulled the sheep from the lion’s mouth without a moment’s hesitation. David’s faith was powerful, but it was just a different kind of power. He had no use for the armor or the sword.
And I’ll quote now a passage about how David armed himself, from the Dole Notes, an in depth treatment of many familiar bible stories along with their internal sense:
David's weapons were his shepherd's staff, his sling, and five smooth stones from the brook. The staff was his reliance on the Lord; the smooth stones from the brook, particular truths of the Word readied by experience (five meaning a few but sufficient); and the sling, the understanding-also gained by experience-which enabled him to direct the truth against a particular evil and to communicate to it the force of his zeal. We all may have David's weapons. The Lord promises support to all who obey His commandments. We all have the Word, the clear stream of truth, and we all have the power to find in it truths which we may prove by experience. We make a sling for ourselves by meditating on the truths of the Word and their application to life and conduct. We should be constantly choosing "smooth stones from the brook" and putting them in our "shepherd's bag" ready for use when an enemy attacks any of our innocent affections. (2)
David’s triumph over Goliath pictures how when we find our internal giants are taking up too much space, intimidating us, immobilizing us, even leading us, that there are small smooth indestructible and completely available truths that can re-center us. Some examples of these might be: the golden rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you, love your neighbor, we are all made in the image and likeness of God, blessed are the those who mourn, The Lord is my shepherd, and many many others. The smoothness of the stones is important, meaning that the truths need to be anchored in goodness. A rough truth harshly applied might conquer a giant for a time, scare it away for a moment, but at what cost to our spirit? For example, if some Goliath fear or flaw is preventing us from doing something useful, we could certainly marshal the doctrine of use against ourselves in a judgmental way, and that might shame us into action. But that won’t deal with the deep-seated assumptions that brought the giant into being in the first place. It won’t help us understand how to love better, either ourselves or others. Swedenborg speaks in many places in his works about truth alone being sharp and angular, and good having the quality of being soft, smooth or flexible. David’s sling could only be effective, his aim could only be true, when the stones were smooth. Likewise, we need the clarity of truth against our giants, but without self-compassion we won’t take the time to do the difficult reflection we might need to do.
And now that we have seen the inner landscape of this story, we can also see how it might apply in a broader sense, how we might complete the circle and integrate this inner landscape into our relationship to the outer world, one might say the “real” world.
Just as we have Goliath tendencies, habits, fears, in our own minds, there are Goliaths to contend with in society and culture: assumptions, prejudices, systemic injustices, ingrained inequalities, war, corruption, racism and so much more.
And I think what we can glean from this story is, that these giants are not vanquished by *also* assuming might, or by being uniquely clever or skilled and outwitting them. These giants are vanquished by being willing to go to the river and find those smooth stones, those key, elemental, inviolable truths that we can easily carry with us and that give us the courage to stand forth day by day.
David tried putting on Saul’s armor but he could barely walk in it. We can’t mimic cultural Goliaths that are perpetuating harm, can’t put on their trappings of earthly power, or emulate their systems, for then we will just turn around and perpetuate harm in different ways. Nor can we use the weapons that Saul provided; they are too heavy upon the soul, to difficult to carry.
And, neither was it skill in wielding the sling that was key. Certainly, David did need to know how to use it, but also only a perfectly smooth stone can be wielded by the sling in an effective way. That is the choice that matters. Truth alone, a sharp stone, might seem like the perfect weapon but it is not. The smoothness of a truth that is anchored in goodness, this is what can ultimately vanquish evil; it is the only thing that can. So we must ask ourselves: What are the principles that are guiding us as we confront our giants? Are they anchored in lovingkindness, made smooth by the water of life, by the way that God’s love flows toward us, in and around us? May God guide the search to answer these questions. Amen.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, The Doctrine of Faith #52
(2) Anita Dole, The Dole Notes Volume 3, p142
I Samuel 17
1 Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah…2 Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. 3 The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them. 4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span. 5 He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; 6 on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. 7 His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him. 8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.
12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was very old. 13 Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war… 14 David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. 16 For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand. 17 Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. 18 Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them. 19 They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.” 20 Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. 21 Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. 22 David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and asked his brothers how they were. 23 As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. 24 Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear. 25 Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel.” 26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” 27 They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.” 28 When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.” 29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” 30 He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him. 32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.” 33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”
38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42 He looked David over and saw that he was little more than a boy, glowing with health and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!” 45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands…47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” 48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground. 50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.
Secrets of Heaven #1197
The ancient church used the label of Philistine for all those who talked and talked about faith and about the idea that salvation is found in faith and yet completely failed to live a life of faith…
These people by nature could not help turning religious knowledge into a matter of memorization. The knowledge of spiritual and heavenly realities and even the mysteries of faith become nothing more than objects of memory when the people who are adept at them have no love for others.
Memorized details are dead objects to us unless we live according to them as a matter of conscience. When we do, then as soon as something becomes part of our memory it also becomes part of our life. That is when it first becomes something in us that remains useful to us and our salvation after physical life ends. Neither secular nor religious knowledge means anything to us in the other life — even if we have learned all the secrets that have ever been revealed — unless it permeates our life.
Photo by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels
Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24, Mark 4:26-34, True Christianity 350:1-2 (see below)
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Today we heard two parables, both about seeds, both trying to tell us something about the kingdom of God. Many times, when we consider these parables, we might be thinking about the kingdom of God, out there. We watch the sower in our mind, but out there in the field, or the mustard seed growing into a tree, but out there in the meadow and we naturally (or automatically) think of the kingdom of heaven as out there too. We see the little plants growing, we see the tree growing, and we make the leap to seeing the kingdom growing, but out there.
This is a totally appropriate application of the metaphor. However, what about the famous bible quote from the gospel of Luke:
17:20 Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; 21 nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you."
Likewise, Swedenborg writes: A person has heaven in their internal, so in their willing and thinking as a result of love and faith. (1)
Now we are invited to see these parables slightly differently. Yes, they are telling us about the kingdom of heaven but not necessarily out there, but inside our own selves. What are we being invited to see?
Let us first take a look at the parable of the sower:
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
What is at first noticeable is the sense of wonder that is evoked. Seeds are like magic. You can scatter them, leave them alone, and then with a process that is essentially out of our control, they burst forth in growth and create something new, something useful, fruitful.
Perhaps part of the invitation held in this metaphor is to regard the growth of the kingdom of God within us with wonder as well. What does that look like? What are the things that grow within us? We heard in our Swedenborg reading:
A seed in the Word means simply truth… The human mind resembles the soil in which spiritual and natural truths are planted like seeds, and they can multiply without limit.
So when we think about seeds as truths, I think they are less facts or axioms but rather true ideas that can grow. Let’s try to think about an example: Let’s say we want to learn something new, like a new instrument. From this one endeavor, we come into the understanding of lots of different truths like: I am capable of learning, I can derive enjoyment and fulfillment from creativity, it is good to stick to things even when they are difficult, hard work can lead to improvement.
We can see that a small seed like, I would like to learn to play an instrument, contains so much within it. The idea grows and expands, and unfurls new leaves and then maybe even creates some new seeds, some new ideas, some new realizations.
And the question that the metaphor poses is: are we doing that growth, or is it God? As our own inners self expands in order to integrate these new ideas, where does that capacity come from? Our Swedenborg reading says further: People acquire this capacity from the infinity of God, who is perpetually present giving His light and heat, and His generative power. When we look at the miracle of the growing seed, we can marvel at, and be grateful for, the ways that God is growing our own internal spiritual capacities.
Now, let us take a moment to consider the parable of the mustard seed
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This parable evokes a similar kind of wonder as the first, but with a slightly different focus. It is lifting up the miracle of smallness, that something small and seemingly inconsequential can grow into something bigger, something beautiful, something that is integrated in to world around it.
When we consider the smallness of the seed, what are the assumptions held within that premise that will eventually lead us to wonder? First, in its smallness, it might be considered insignificant, incapable, disconnected from everything, kind of meaningless, disposable. But what we learn is that these assumptions do not hold when it comes to the spirit. Smallness is no measure of potential.
But it is not even so much that something small magically becomes big. It was more common in literature of the bible’s time for nations to compare themselves to the mighty cedar (2), a magnificent tree. But this parable sees the kingdom of heaven being pictured by a mustard shrub, really a just scruffy bush, a few feet taller than a person. But the question becomes, what can it do? It provides shelter to birds and animals. The most important thing is that it is enfolded into its own environment, that it contributes, that it connects. Size, might, beauty - none of that matters as much as holistic usefulness.
And so we see that we are invited to consider how the kingdom of heaven grows within us, that it may not grow in ways that the world considers powerful and beautiful, but that in God’s divine design, the growth will always be purposeful and integrative, something that has the goal of enfolding us into community with others.
Two ordinary miracles, both focusing on the miracle of growth but in slightly different ways: one focusing on the miracle of transformation, that a seed sheds its seedy existence in order to become a plant, and the other focusing on the miracle of purposefulness, that something small might actually become something integral and essential.
When we look out at the garden that we will be planting after church today, a garden planted with the intention that it might provide something of use to the “insects of the air” we can also see an image of our internal selves. We can see ourselves reflected in nature, and nature reflected in ourselves, and we can become more deeply embedded in this place, this world.
“…the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.”
“‘I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it.’ ”
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #234
22 “ ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. 24 All the trees of the forest will know that I the LORD bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. “ ‘I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it.’ ”
26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” 33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
True Christianity 350
350. (i) It is evident that the truths of faith are capable of being multiplied to infinity from the wisdom of the angels in heaven being for ever increasing. The angels also say that there is never any limit to wisdom, and the only source of wisdom is from Divine truths analytically arranged by means of the light which falls on them, coming from the Lord….
 The way the truths of faith multiply to infinity can be compared with human seed, each one of which can propagate families for century after century. The way the truths of faith reproduce can also be compared with the way seeds in fields or gardens reproduce; these can be propagated to make hundreds of millions and for ever. Seed in the Word means simply truth, a field means doctrine, a garden wisdom. The human mind resembles the soil in which spiritual and natural truths are planted like seeds, and they can multiply without limit. People acquire this capacity from the infinity of God, who is perpetually present giving His light and heat, and His generative power.
Photo credit: Nick Fewings
Readings: Psalm 89: 1-4, 14-18, John 16:4-15, True Christianity 95, Heaven and Hell 523 (see below)
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Today I would like to have a conversation about the concept of justice, and our responsibility towards creating a just world, as a way to hold space for the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, which was this past Tuesday.
Sometimes it is difficult to have these conversations in church, ones that connect to social justice and political topics because some folks say that politics don’t belong in church, or that we shouldn’t be talking about politics in church. And I do agree with that, in the sense that we shouldn’t be doing *partisan* politics in church, absolutely. But in a more philosophical sense, politics is simply the communal project of figuring out how we all are to live together as a society, and to work together for the common good. And how can that type of communal project not be in conversation with religion? That is exactly the kind of thing that religion is working on figuring out as well, just from a slightly different point of view, especially for a tradition like ours whose favorite quote is “All religion is of life, and the life of religion is to do good.”
So, I offer these reflections as a kind of resource and context in which we can all do our own thinking about the communal project of politics, shared systems, and institutions.
This past Tuesday was the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. Last month, the police officer who killed him by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, was found guilty of all three charges against him: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. While this outcome was greeted as a relief to many people, including the Floyd family, and the black community and its allies, many of them also pointed out that the verdict represented accountability but not necessarily justice, or that it was a first step on a long journey. Justice would have been George Floyd not being killed in the first place.
And what these statements do is broaden out, widen out, the concept of justice, so that it might be considered on a communal level. Justice certainly is something that can be found on an individual level, often through the courts, or some kind of intentional mediation, but it is also important to recognize that justice on an individual level is deeply affected by the systems that govern justice on a communal level. The statements were calling attention to the fact that we can’t call this one verdict “justice” and then be done with it, because that wouldn’t remedy the underlying systemic problems that led to Floyd’s death in the first place.
When I consider these statements, I can’t help but think of a particular quote in the book of Jeremiah, Chapter 6:13-14. Jeremiah is a firebrand, constantly criticizing the nation of Israel for forgetting its covenant with the Lord and taking up the worship of idols. In chapter six he says:
13 “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. 14 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.
Jeremiah is trying to get his people to understand that they should pay attention to the systemic injustice, the habitual marginalization that is occurring within their society. Yet he declares that what he is seeing instead is powerful people trying to cover over the wound of marginalized people and say that everything is fine. And likewise the statements that I referred to earlier about accountability vs justice are trying to say the same thing: that we can’t simply move on now that one person has been held accountable, we can’t dress the wound of systemic injustice as though it were not serious, saying phew it’s all good now just because we wish it were. Instead, these statements are trying to focus our attention towards, rather than justice in one specific case, instead what a just society would look like, how we can help to bring that into being
We heard in our Swedenborg reading that “justice” is not so much a transaction - getting a just outcome in response to a transgression - as it is about being in line with the divine design. *Supporting* justice means bringing back into the divine design things that have fallen away from the design. This way of looking at justice naturally resonates with the statements that we have been referencing. It is a holistic perspective; it inherently begs the question of why and how something has fallen out of the divine design, and additionally, what is required to bring it back into the design, for good and not just for a time.
Now, one basic aspect of the divine design is that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, with a will and an intellect that is capable of receiving love and wisdom from the Lord. This fact elevates all people into intentional divine belovedness, giving them an inherent and inviolable worthiness that mandates respect and dignity. There is nothing anyone can do to erase that mandate. It is part the divine design. Now, behaviors of all kinds might require certain boundaries and outcomes of differing severity, but the divine design will always also require these be enacted with respect and dignity. There can be no human system of policing or law that does away with basic human rights, that we also can call just, or in alignment with the divine design.
And the question before us all, given that we are all a part of society and can affect its formation, is what do we do when various systems or institutions are clearly out of alignment with the divine design. What can we do to bring them back? This is the communal project that we are faced with one year later. And when systemic racism is embedded deeply in culture, organizations and institutions, it can take a lot of time and persistence to remake these things in a different way. And the point I would like to make today, is that it is really important not to give up. Long-term difficult projects are rarely the kind of project that our ego prefers - not even a tiny bit of instant gratification in sight. The work of racial justice is long journey. Which us back around to our gospel reading.
Jesus was talking to his disciples about what would happen once he went away, once the disciples would be left, as are we, trying to figure out how to live life in a way that ushers in the Lord’s kingdom, that makes space for it, that honors it. That is no small task, especially as time marches on, and the world we live in looks less and less like the world that Jesus lived in. Jesus knew that the disciples, and us, would have many challenges ahead of them, including what to do when they felt confused, abandoned and exhausted. But what Jesus tells them is that the Holy Spirit will be with them. The word he uses, in the Greek paraclete, sometimes translated as Advocate, means literally to come alongside. As we consider all these difficult questions, how to approach this communal project called civilized society, how to approach a commitment to helping the world to become more just and inclusive, to conform to the basic tenets of the divine design, we can know that the Holy Spirit will come alongside, will be with us if we are open to it. From our reading:
13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.
What is key here, is that we cannot be looking to ourselves and our own gain and comfort if we wish to know the truth. Part of being guided into the truth is a willingness to let go of what glorifies us and commit to seeing what glorifies God. In our Pentecost reading last week, we heard about the Holy Spirit coming on a great wind, and what an appropriate metaphor, as time and time again, in our process of regeneration, we must let the spirit of truth sweep away our prejudices, our misconceptions, our stubbornness and our fear.
The truth embodied in God’s divine design will always challenge us because the selfishness of the human ego always leads us away from the divine design, whether that is embodied in our attempts to dominate others, our attempts to ransack the earth’s natural resources, our attempts to accumulate power and wealth and prestige. We have a promise though, that an inexhaustible source of spirit and truth and love will always come alongside us. There is long way to go before we can reach true justice for George Floyd. But the spirit of truth is guiding us along the way.
Psalm 89:1-4, 14-18
1 I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. 2 I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself. 3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, 4 ‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’ ”
14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. 15 Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, LORD. 16 They rejoice in your name all day long; they celebrate your righteousness. 17 For you are their glory and strength, and by your favor you exalt our horn. 18 Indeed, our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel.
4 I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who
sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. 12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
True Christianity 95
Justice is following the divine design in all that one does, and bringing back into the divine design things that have fallen away from that design. Justice is the divine design itself.
Heaven and Hell 523
The Lord never does anything contrary to his design because he himself is the design. The divine truth that emanates from him is what establishes the design, and divine truths are the laws of the design by which the Lord is leading us…
The divine design is heaven for us. We have distorted it by living contrary to its laws, which are divine truths. The Lord brings us back into the design out of pure mercy, through the laws of the design; and to the extent that we are brought back, we accept heaven into ourselves. Whoever accepts heaven enters heaven.
Photo credit: Brett Sayles
Readings: Isaiah 62:1-2, 11-12, John 17:6-19, Secrets of Heaven #9229 (see below)
One of the reasons why I love this text today, is that you can really hear Jesus as a person in it. He is praying for his friends. In a moment he will pray for all those who will come after but this prayer, this prayer is for his companions who have been journeying with him for the past three years; his friends, his disciples. You can hear that history of friendship in this prayer. “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them, by the power of your name…” I don’t know about you, but I am deeply moved by the pathos held in these words about someone leaving and wishing they could still protect those they care about.
Jesus and the disciples had been through a lot together. And so when Jesus had a chance to pray for them, he prayed for their protection, for their joyfulness, and for their connectedness, and lastly, for their sanctification. To sanctify something means to make it holy. Often times in religious contexts, this implies a separation or a purification. That to be holy or consecrated, something needs to be set apart, or having something about it purged, or stripped away. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is getting at here.
The whole time Jesus is praying, before ending with the notion of sanctification, he is praying about connection, weaving together God and Jesus and people, saying things like ”so that they might be one as we are one,” or “They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.” We can see then, how sanctification must have something to do with entering into or being brought into oneness and connection.
But what does that really mean? We heard in our Swedenborg reading that holiness comes from the Lord alone. So it is not something that we can accomplish on our own, or while being separate from God. Holiness requires connection to God by its essential nature. Holiness emanates from God, and the holiness of anything else is directly correlated to how connected it is and receptive it is to the divine.
But it also doesn’t seem like a binary connection, like putting a plug into a socket. It is more mystical than that. Jesus says “All I have is yours and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them.” There is a sense of co-mingling and a shared identity. In fact, it reminds me of what Swedenborg wrote in Divine Providence: “the more closely we are united to the Lord, the more clearly we seem to have our own identity, and yet the more obvious it is that we belong to the Lord.”(1)
And now we also have this word: belong. The more we intentionally connect to the Lord, the more clear it becomes that we belong to the Lord. And not in the sense of being God’s property, but in the sense of being a part of something bigger, a sense of being exactly where we are supposed to be. So we are learning that holiness is a function of connection, which leads to a sense of belonging.
We are seeing that Jesus’ prayer has a powerful subtext; it is about what is going to happen to the disciples next in their lives, but even more it is about “becoming who are we in God.” To quote one of my seminary professors:
Jesus called us into sanctification, which is the becoming of who we and the earth are in God: sacred people living in sacred places with all forms of sacred life, without distinction. (2)
God wants everything to be holy because God wants everything to be connected to the divine. Holiness cannot be some kind of currency that mediates the value of someone or something, meaning that only a few very special things are or can be holy. That seems more like something the grasping human mind would do to the concept of holiness.
In fact, the more I hear about this, the less it seems that holiness is something staid, static, prescribed, measured, perfect, something that we must be very careful with because it is so very special, but rather, it has to be something that we fling ourselves into and towards with abandon, with our whole selves. If holiness comes from our connection with God, then holiness must also involve holding nothing back, holiness must also involve letting go; letting go of the ways we think it should be and letting it become what it is.
But of course, we need to remember to circle back to the fact that holiness is found in God not us. All of these observations about holiness are beautiful but can also very easily be twisted to sanctify anything that we want sanctified. God wants everything to be holy but that doesn’t mean everything can be holy. Evil, malice, hatred, distortion…these things could never even contemplate the kind of ego relinquishment that holiness requires.
Thus, we see in the text that Jesus says “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” You might recognize these words from our communion liturgy. This is intentional, in order to reflect the reality that holiness is not a firehose of blissful acceptance, but it is an active and intentional partnership with what emanates from God. Swedenborg writes:
By 'that which is holy' is meant the Divine Truth emanating from the Lord. This Truth is called holy, and is meant also by the Holy Spirit…(3)
Holiness is an attribute of divine truth. When Jesus was praying for the sanctification of his disciples, he was praying that they would feel anchored and grounded in the reality of what he had embodied for them, the truths that he had brought to life for them. He said: “They are not of the world…” meaning that he hoped they would not find their belonging in the cravenness of human self-centeredness but rather in the universal and sacrificial love of God. The gospel of John begins with the “Word became flesh.” Jesus’ very existence tells us the truth about God.
But, divine truth is not just about knowledge but about life. Swedenborg writes, speaking of those in the spiritual church:
…in the measure that they receive good from the Lord they are holy; and the measure of good they receive from the Lord, that is, the measure in which they are holy, is determined by how far they lead a life of good in keeping with the genuine truths of faith, and by how far at that time they believe that all the good they think and do then begins in the Lord. (4)
Holiness is also about how open we are to being transformed by loving our neighbor, by being useful, by leaving the world better than we found it. Have you heard the phrase that it is better to “get caught trying?” It means that it is better to at least risk trying to accomplish important, loving, difficult things, and potentially fail, than to not try at all. There is magic, holiness, in that desire to serve that is willing to “get caught trying.” Jesus knew that his disciples would have a difficult road ahead of them, but if they were grounded, sanctified, in the truth that leads to good, the truth that leads to trying, then they would be protected from “the evil one,” that is, the forces that try to stop us from “getting caught trying,” the forces of cynicism, avarice, hypocrisy, ambition and fear.
What have we discovered today? That holiness is about connection and about belonging. That holiness grounds us in truth, propels us in life. That sanctification is the process of tracing all things back to God and then finding out who we are in that light.
Jesus loved his disciples. What he wanted for his friends, was that they might be so deeply connected to the divine, to the reality which Jesus had embodied for them, that it would sustain them going forward. That they would understand the quality of the love that they belonged to and that they might “have the full measure of [his] joy within them.” And Jesus wants that for us as well.
Isaiah 62:1-2, 11-12
1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. 2 The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.
11 The LORD has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.’ ” 12 They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted.
6 “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. 13 “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
Secrets of Heaven #9229
… the meaning of 'men of holiness' [is] those who are led by the Lord, for the Divine which emanates from the Lord is holiness itself. Consequently those who receive that emanation in faith and also in love are called holy ones. Anyone who imagines that a person is holy from any other source, or that anything present with a person is holy apart from that which comes and is received from the Lord is very much mistaken...