Readings: Jeremiah 7:1-11, Matthew 20:20-28, Heaven and Hell #403 (see below)
There is an anecdote in the beginning of Swedenborg’s book, Married Love, about what constitutes heavenly joy. In it, newly deceased spirits arrive in the spiritual realm, and are allowed to experience whatever it is that they think heaven is or should be. Some spirits thought heaven was pure unadulterated bliss, some thought it was constant enjoyable conversation. Some thought it was feasting with the Patriarchs, some thought it was enjoying a paradise. Some thought it was experiencing great wealth and splendor, and finally, some thought it was constant praise and religious celebration. An angel tells them: “Follow me and I will introduce you to your joys…” and the spirits got to experience exactly what they had been hoping for. But we don’t have the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for” for nothing. Not surprisingly, the spirits tired very quickly of their perceived joys. The spirits wishing for endless diverting conversation were eventually driven to distraction by the sound of talking, the spirits wishing for endless feasting grew sick at the sight of food, spirits wishing for the exercise of power and wealth came to see themselves as playacting, spirits wishing for constant paradise found themselves becoming inured and numb towards beauty, the spirits looking forward to constant praise found themselves bored beyond telling.(1)
The angels tell each new spirit that they have mistaken the “subsidiary adjuncts to heavenly joys” for actual heavenly joys. Meaning: they mistook the external form of joy for the source of joy.
A spirit then asks: What then is heavenly joy? To which the angels answers: It is the pleasure of doing something that is of use to oneself and to others, and the pleasure of being useful takes its essence from love and its expression from wisdom. The pleasure in being useful, springing from love through wisdom, is the life and soul of all heavenly joys.(2)
Swedenborg’s book Heaven and Hell describes it this way:
This is because virtues for everyone in the heavens are virtues in act, which are functions. Everyone there does something specifically useful, for the Lord's kingdom is a kingdom of uses. (3)
All the things that are good about heaven, or about angels—love, honesty, integrity, compassion, curiosity, connection—are not abstract virtues that are good just in and of themselves, they become good when they become real in action. Thus heaven is a kingdom of uses. Elsewhere in Swedenborg’s writings heaven is described as a realm of mutual love. In both cases though, it is clear that the life and soul of heavenly joy is usefulness, a recognition that we do not exist so that we might benefit ourselves only, but rather, we exist so that we might extend love, benefit, and blessing outward towards others. As heard in our reading, joy that rests on the notion of idleness, necessarily rests upon the notion of wanting more happiness than another; such a view is ultimately inward looking, contracted, dwindling, static. A notion of heavenly joy that rests upon useful service is inexhaustibly generative, a mutual love feedback loop that builds ever more towards the renewal and perpetuation of each person’s humanity. The Buddha said: If you light a lamp for someone, it will brighten your own path.
And can anything else make sense to us? As we consider eternity, could anything else be palatable for the human mind and soul? “Forever” is beyond our true comprehension, but I think that we all sense the truth of the anecdote which with we began, that human beings are not very good at choosing what will make us happy. If an eternal afterlife is to exist, there is nothing else but active, loving and useful service that could be remotely tolerable for an eternity, that could actually lead to true and lasting joy and happiness.
So, when Swedenborg describes what do angels do in heaven, it is delightfully quotidian, delightfully grounded, delightfully varied.
There are angels who take care of children who have died, angels who teach or preach, angels who welcome and guide new spirits, angels who take care of new spirits as they awaken, angels who monitor and moderate the actions of people in hell, angels who see to domestic duties, angels who participate in civic endeavors and communal government, angels who organize and oversee divine worship, angels who study, read and learn, angels who build and garden, angels who create art and music. Swedenborg makes sure to say there is literally no way to list all the functions that people have in heaven. Because, even with an impossibly exhaustive list, each angel also contributes their own unique flavor to their function. A beautiful variety, guided by the principle that we heard in our reading:
…angelic life consists of worthwhile, thoughtful actions, actions that are useful to others, and that all the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.
But, it is very important to note, however, that an active life is not necessarily a busy one. The life of heaven is not doing for the sake of doing. It is not the “Busyness Olympics” which many of us fall prey to in our lives here, whereby our busyness quotient might prove just how important, or passionate or in demand we really are. The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote: I felt the need of a great pilgrimage so I sat still for three days. Love in heaven is expressed through wisdom, which is about knowing what is truly needed in any given moment. A great pilgrimage in a far away land might well feel exciting, but it is true wisdom to recognize when it is an internal pilgrimage that is warranted, and not an external one.
Heaven is not a realm of performative busy-ness, but a realm of true usefulness, of thoughtfulness. Swedenborg himself, though an active member of society, was a consistent meditator. He understood deeply how essential contemplation can be, how useful reflection, renewal and Sabbath can be. Usefulness has lots of different forms.
Sometimes the most useful thing is to not be active. Sometimes the most useful thing is to slow down. Sometimes the most useful thing is to receive: receive care, counsel, perspective, or renewal. Heaven is not a kingdom of martyrdom, about constantly ignoring ourselves and our needs, but rather, about not elevating our needs above all other things, all the time. The heavenly view sees the self through the lens of community, through the lens of usefulness to the common good, of which each angel is a part. They rest and renew and receive, in order that it might serve their own sense of connectedness to God and to their neighbor. We will pray in a few moments the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi…Lord make me an instrument of your peace. This is an angel prayer: Lord make me an instrument of your peace, Lord make me an instrument of heavenly usefulness and generativity, make me an instrument of your infinite flow of love, make me an instrument of connection for the sake of the wholeness of your creation.
Since heaven is a realm where the true nature of things is apparent, it is clear to angels how this connectedness plays out. Each angel is the microcosm to heaven’s macrocosm. Each individual is a reflection of the whole of heaven. Swedenborg writes:
It is a secret not yet known in this world that heaven, taken in a single all-inclusive grasp, reflects a single individual. In heaven, though, nothing is better known. Knowing this, knowing particulars and details about it, is the hallmark of angelic intelligence there…Since angels do know that all the heavens, like their communities, reflect a single individual, they refer to heaven as the universal and divine human…(4)
This, ultimately, is what I find so moving about the notion of heavenly usefulness. It is not so much about the virtue of activity, the virtue of creativity, the virtue of doing something good or even the virtue of love. It is participation in a grand symphony of inter-connectedness, whereby our unique individual identity is held in perfect balance with everyone else’s unique individual identity, like cells in the human body, because everyone agrees that everyone is a miracle but no one is the center of the universe.
Follow me, says the angel, and I will introduce you to your joy…I will introduce you to your place in the universal and divine human, where you might know your own value deeply but hold your selfhood lightly, where you might treasure your connectedness to others and every opportunity to be a benefit to them, where you might be alive in the truth of a loving God though whom all these blessings flow.
1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message: “ ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. 9 “ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Heaven and Hell #403
On the basis of an opinion formed in the world, some spirits have believed that heavenly happiness consisted of a life of leisure, being waited on by others; but they were informed that there is never any happiness in idling around in order to be content. This would mean wanting the happiness of others for oneself, in which case no one would have any at all. This kind of life would be idle, not active, a life that would lead to atrophy. They might in fact have known that apart from an active life, a life has no happiness, and that idleness serves that life only for refreshment, in order to return them to the active life with more energy. Then they were shown in many ways that angelic life consists of worthwhile, thoughtful actions, actions that are useful to others, and that all the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.
Prayer (attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)
Lord make us an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine One, grant that we may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Luke 17:20-25, Matthew 6:19-23, Heaven and Hell #311:2 and #54 (see below).
So I’m sure that you have noticed that most of my sermons here are pretty theology focused. Certainly that arena is where I feel most comfortable and interested, and also, these are the types of explorations that are suggested by following the lectionary. The lectionary is gospel heavy, and following Jesus’ life brings up questions of the theological variety, like what does Jesus tell us about God, how can we be faithful to God’s kingdom, what does resurrection tell us about God’s universe? I believe that grappling with these question is very important and useful, as it is extremely important to the Swedenborgian tradition that we live out what we believe.
What is interesting about Swedenborg’s writings though, is that they represent not one but several different genres. There are his works on theology, yes, on single themes such as Divine Providence, Heaven and Hell, Charity, Faith, and Marriage. Then, there are the multiple volumes of scriptural exegesis, whereby Swedenborg works to elucidates an inner meaning to the books of Genesis, Exodus and Revelation, verse by verse. Finally, there are his volumes directed towards the Christian church, a systematic dismantling of prevailing religious thought, and his perspective on what should replace it. Throughout all these works though, are interwoven Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences. In between chapters of theology he will often relate an experience in heaven or a conversation with spirits that bears on similar themes. Taken together, these represent a multitude of accounts of what he experienced in the spirit, what he saw in heaven, and the angels and hellish spirits with whom he spoke.
So, there are actually lots of ways into the Swedenborgian thought-world. Some folks like me find the theology the most appealing, some are lit up by a new understanding of scripture, and some folks resonate with the spiritual experiences. I love this; there are twelve gates to city after all. But even if we individually might have a preferred focus, it is often good to try something new, and that is what I am trying to do here for you with this series. I have my preferred way of doing things, but that doesn’t mean it is the best. So, for the next several weeks, we will be abandoning the lectionary and we will be exploring Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences and what they suggest. And, we will be doing this through the framework of angels, hopefully in a way keeps the our exploration relevant and grounded in our everyday lives.
So as you may gather from our title —Angels 101— we begin with a few basic principles. The first thing that needs to said is that angels are us. Swedenborg makes very clear that angels are not a separately created race of beings but rather are people who lived in this world, who chose to live a good life, who died to this natural earthly realm and continue to live in the spiritual world. Though that may sound like common sense, and the way that most people instinctively view angels and the afterlife, it is also true that there has historically been an elaborate religious mythology around angels that persists even today.
The reality is actually pretty simple. God’s highest purpose is to be able to give love to us for eternity, to make a heaven from the human race. And, if Divine love wants to be able to give love in a meaningful way, there is at least one serious pre-condition. We all know love can only be meaningful when it is freely given, so we human beings, even as we ourselves are creations of God’s love, have been given the freedom to choose Divine Love over the self if we want to. As we progressively choose love over the self, in small and greater ways, we re-make ourselves into a fuller image and likeness of God. We come to reflect the nature and form of Divine Love and Wisdom. This is the process of becoming an angel. Swedenborg called it the process of regeneration. IT is not like passing a test or earning an award but rather more like becoming proficient and strong in a certain physical skill. Let’s take dancing for example.
In order to increase our proficiency in dancing, we will need to be open to learning, to being willing to work hard, mostly likely repetitively, to modify how we move our bodies and how we think about moving our bodies. Over time, we will gain muscle mass and muscle memory, greater flexibility, speed and agility. We will become a better dancer. And, instead of this proficiency being ultimately demonstrated by conformity or uniformity, great dancers express their personality through the technique they have acquired. They become more themselves the more they submit to the form and the craft of dancing.
And so it is with our process. There are ways to become a better, more loving, heavenly person. We can learn good communication, anger and anxiety management, compassionate practices, how to listen, how to stand up for ourselves, how to apologise, how to love people in the ways that truly help them. Our learning will depend on being open to teachers wherever we may find them, being willing to fail and try again, being willing to grow even when it is uncomfortable.
And so heaven, or becoming an angel, is not like reward because it is not about deserving. Neither is it about earning something or getting something. It is about being something. Not surprisingly, Swedenborg’s conception of heaven and how angels fit into the picture is not really a moral vision but rather, a scientific or even mechanistic one. Angels do not get to be in heaven because they deserve it. Angels get to live in heaven because they have made themselves into the kinds of people who love what heaven is: a realm of mutual love. Where angels reside is a direct consequence of what they have come to love the most. The more space we clear inside our own spirit for God, the closer we can be to God, because our nature, our deepest loves, will be in alignment with what God is. For people who choose the opposite, who privilege the self above all and close themselves off from God and mutual love, they go to hell. Again not because they “deserve it” but because they cannot abide being in heaven. They hate being in the sphere of mutual love because that is opposed to the primacy of the self. Hell is a mercy for those who have chosen not to transcend the smallness of their own concerns.
So, to recap, angels are us, humanity, and in this world we have the opportunity to do the work that will mould us into the kinds of people who will feel at home in heaven. And there isn’t a threshold, as in we have to achieve some specific level of goodness in order to find our home in heaven. Rather, we will be brought into a home in heaven that matches the heaven we have nurtured inside of ourselves. There will be a place for us; there is a place for everyone, wherever they can be the most happy. These are beautiful teachings, idyllic even. But, now is the time to ask the question: what do they mean for everyday life?
It is certainly reassuring, to know that God’s Divine Providence is leading and guiding us to our perfect heavenly home. But it is important to remember that this is a potentiality that we must actively live into. It is not a passive leading, as if we are floating above everything from one world to the next. There are choices to be made. Choices that involve us being open to new learning about ourselves, being unflinching in recognizing where we are falling short, where we are closing ourselves off from a heaven of mutual love. Choices that involve us sacrificing that which benefits our own ego, so that we might learn how to love others in the ways that they need. Becoming an angel will require determination, flexibility and resilience, for the human ego is relentless, human unconsciousness is pervasive, human defensiveness is the default.
For some further insight on this human condition, I turn to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, whom we will celebrate with a national holiday tomorrow. In a sermon considering how to be a good neighbor, Dr. King addresses segregation, and what is required to surmount it.
"But acknowledging this, we must admit that the ultimate solution to the race problem lies in the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable. Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary step toward the final goal we seek to realize, genuine intergroup and inter-personal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities that are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible inner law that etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”(1)
True neighbors, living in genuine intergroup and inter-personal living, through willing obedience to unenforceable obligations. Mother Theresa puts it this way: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
In contemplating our status as angels-in-training, it is easy to get a little tunnel-focused on our own journey. Our own hearts, our own process, our own internal states, heavenly or otherwise. But, what creates our angel-natures within us is our attention and steadfast diligence regarding our unenforceable obligations towards our fellow human beings. What is it that we choose to do when we don’t have to? This is what will express the nature of our love. This is what will forge us a heaven within us. As Jeremiah expressed, God’s law in our minds and God’s love written on our hearts, transforming how we live in the world. The kingdom of heaven is within us, but it only gets put there through caring about what is outside of us.
(1) Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love (Fortress Press: 2010), p 29-30.
31 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the LORD. 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD.
20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” 22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.
Heaven and Hell #311:2
…in all heaven there is not a single angel who was created as such in the beginning, nor is there in all hell a devil who was created as an angel of light and cast out. Rather, all the people in heaven and in hell are from the human race - in heaven the ones who have lived in heavenly love and faith, and in hell the ones who have lived in hellish love and faith. Hell as a whole is what is called the devil and Satan.
Heaven and Hell #54
It can never be said that heaven is outside anyone. It is within; because every angel accepts the heaven that is outside in keeping with the heaven that is within. We can see, then, how mistaken people are who think that getting into heaven is simply a matter of being taken up among the angels, regardless of the quality of their inner life, who believe that heaven is granted merely because of [the Lord's] mercy. On the contrary, unless heaven is within an individual, nothing of the heaven that is outside flows in and is accepted.
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, 43:7-10, Matthew 3:13-17, Secrets of Heaven #9596:5 (see below)
Those of you who know me, know that I am something of a theology nerd. My favorite book of Swedenborg’s works is Divine Love and Wisdom, which his most abstract and scientific theological tome, and which doesn’t mention Jesus even once. I can get lost in ideas. Not as an escape, but an act of hope, for ideas dictate how we live and exist in our world, how we interpret our experience. Ideas are important.
But sometimes, even I need something a little more devotional. A little more heart oriented. This week, maybe you do too. The news coming from various parts of the world in the first weeks of this new year have been concerning; natural disasters of various kinds, an increase in tensions between nations, erratic and confusing leadership. The news keeps coming hard and fast, which can cause us to feel somewhat whipped about and disoriented. This is all on top of a low hum of constant strain: climate change, abuse of power, eroding political norms, increases in anti-semitism, systemic racism, xenophobia and nationalism. And this doesn’t even include each of our own personal losses and challenges.
Sometimes it feels like too much. A portion of a poem called “what they did yesterday afternoon” by Warsan Shire, often makes the rounds on social media when things feel particularly bleak:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
This feeling is not new, of course. A conversation with my own teenage daughter this week reminded me how of anxious I was about the state of the world at her age. Human greed and overreach will always be set in conflict with essential righteousness and justice, and this contrast, the very fact of it, the very depressing fact of it, will alway pain the hearts of those who wish to see a world forged in the image of Divine Love. And as much as the actual work we all do to bring love into the world is exhausting, so too even the act of hoping can be exhausting as well. Who can continue to hope when it all seems so futile?
Sometimes the heart needs some care, some reassurance, some comfort, so that hope can feel even slightly possible. This week, I found comfort in Isaiah chapters 42 and 43, in hearing good news about stretching, breath, covenant and witness. From chapter 42, verse 5-6:
“This is what the Lord God says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it. I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people..”
The Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out…this verse speaks to God’s power, yes, and creativity, but also to God’s purposes. Biblical texts that talk about the creation of the universe also speak about the creation of our own spirit. We read in our Swedenborg reading today:
'Stretching out the heavens and spreading out the earth’…by this is meant regenerating a person and thereby creating or forming a new understanding in which there is a new will, which is the spiritual person's actual heaven in which the Lord dwells with that person.
As the Creator stretches out the universe, gives it form and shape and being, so too are we being molded and shaped progressively into the image and likeness of Divine Love. Being stretched is not always comfortable. We generally want to avoid tension and discomfort as much as possible. But the broad sweep of creation also includes *us*, and God the Creator of the heavens is also creating us moment by moment. If we can lean into this tension and let God do what God does, then new worlds are created within us.
This is not always easy, as the cares of the world often feel like they are pushing us down, pushing against us, making us smaller, weaker, more helpless. From this contracted place, we feel fearful, brittle, it feels like stretching will shatter us.
But we must remember that the way that God stretches us is not like stretching an elastic band further and further, thinner and thinner, with no end in sight, until it is pushed to and beyond its limits. Isaiah also uses God’s stretching imagery in regard to a canopy or curtains or tent. From Isaiah 40:22 “He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”
This is a stretching that has an enveloping quality, it contains something, it protects something, it nurtures something, like a mother giving birth to a child. The stretching comes from the the expanding potential of whatever is on the inside. What is it that is on the inside? Breath and life. Verse 5 continues:
“…who spreads out the earth and all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it.”
New space begets new life. We know enough of this natural world to recognize that life fills in every possible niche with something living, something that belongs there. We find bacterial life in the harshest of arctic climates, and in the bleakest crevices of the deepest ocean.
Within us, in the new space God creates, there will be breath and life. In the Hebrew, these words are neshamah and ruwach, both of which can also mean spirit. Our breath and life are deeply connected to spirit. Breath. Our lungs expand and stretch to contain life-giving oxygen, just as our minds expand and stretch to contain new insights, new understandings. Life. In our bodies, oxygen creates adenosine triphosphate or ATP, which is the molecule that provides energy for things our cells must do, all the things which collectively create our life. In our minds, a new understanding of our experience creates a new will to act and live differently, actions that also collectively create our life.
Our lungs expand and take in breath over 20, 000 times per day, and each time it is an image of God’s creative, generative, propulsive purpose for us. We are stretched and expanded, and breath and life infill the space. We were not made to hold emptiness, but to be a container for soul.
We were also not made to journey alone.
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people…” (v.6)
We stretch, we grow, we expand to contain new breath and life, and in this God takes hold of our hand. I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people…
Swedenborg writes that whatever conjoins is a covenant.(1) A covenant is not just superficial words, a transactional agreement for mutual benefit. A covenant is words that give form to a connective relationship. In the reality of that connectivity, we see that our journey is not just for us, we are made to be a promise and covenant for other people as well. We stretch, we are filled with breath and life, God takes hold of our hand and we are propelled forward into the only future that God has made…mutual love, useful service, belonging to each other.
What is important to remember about these Isaiah texts, these “suffering servant” texts as they are known, is that even as Christians see them as prophecies of Jesus—who he will be and what he will do—in their own context they are God talking to the people of Israel about how they should be, how they should choose to define their identity in their own moment. We cannot forget how these texts are rooted in covenant and presence. They are not about what will happen, but about what we choose.
We continue in Isaiah Chapter 43:
10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. 11 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. 12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed— I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.
You are my witnesses…that I am God. Sometimes it is really hard to hope. Yet, into that very fallible despairing moment, to a fallible despairing people, God says “You.” You are my witnesses. I don’t want anyone else. You are proof that Divine Love is real. You are my witnesses.
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove…” (Matthew 3:13-17). Jesus witnessed in that moment, the presence and the pleasure of God. He witnessed and experienced expansion, breath, life and covenant. Then he went out and lived as if that were true. And so must we.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained #701
Isaiah 42:1-9, 43:10-12
1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” 5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. 11 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. 12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed— I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Secrets of Heaven #9596:5
'Stretching out the heavens and spreading out the earth' is plainly similar in meaning to stretching and spreading out a dwelling-place by the use of curtains. And by this is meant regenerating a person and thereby creating or forming a new understanding in which there is a new will, which is the spiritual person's actual heaven in which the Lord dwells with that person.
Photo credit: Inbal Malca
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #9293 (see below)
Sorry, my friends, we are not going to escape Herod this week either. Today we explore our first glimpse of Herod in the gospel of Matthew: his interaction with the Magi. Although the gospel narrative makes it seem like the Magi showed up right away, it is more likely that several months have passed, at the very least, since Jesus’ birth. It would take a fairly long time for a caravan of travelers to make their way from the far east. Mary and Joseph and the baby would have settled into a routine, and a quiet life. But, it was not to remain so.
We explored last week how Herod is representative of the evil that exists in our world today. The type of spirit that would do anything to preserve power, the type of spirit that is afraid of necessary change, the type of spirit that can only see the primacy of the self. And this type of spirit can be found in actions both overt and covert, conscious and unconscious; it can find its way into social systems and structures that we depend upon and value. The resulting slaughter of the innocents that sprang forth from Herod’s paranoia and selfishness calls us to examine our own responsibility for the ways in which the vulnerable suffer in our world.
The Magi, though, represent to us a wholly different kind of spirit. The Magi were from a different nation and a different religion from Jesus. They were mostly likely devotees of Zoroastrianism. Yet they practiced an openness to learning new things, a willingness to move themselves from one place to another, a readiness to bow down to something greater than themselves. They could worship in a way that Herod never could. We can also see this spirit in the world if we look for it: movements and institutions that look toward the greater good, that delight in learning from those who are different and that understand our futures are bound up in each other’s well-being.
But of course, this wouldn’t be a Swedenborgian sermon if I didn’t also point out that Herod and the Magi additionally represent impulses and desires within each human heart. They are not just out there (in the world) but in here (within our hearts). They represent the ever-present potential of our freedom, the spectrum of choices that are available to human beings in their everyday. And as we stand here in the baby-days of a new year and a new decade…it is a great time to consider what kind of spirit we wish to cultivate.
Because, the conflict between Herod and the Magi goes beyond just being a nice story. It tells us the truth about what kind of responses there are to divine love being born in the world. Epiphany used to be one of the three main Christian holy days, before Christmas rose in popularity, and it was a celebration of the revelation of the incarnation. Not just the *fact* of the birth of Jesus but the *truth* of what that birth communicates. The truth that Divine Love reached out to a beloved world and a beloved people, but that this reaching out is going to change us and by extension, change the world we live in.
What is our reaction to this truth? Do we evade, conspire, defend, rage, and destroy, like Herod? Or do we rise up, do we commit to a journey, no matter how long or dangerous, do we seek with curiosity and humility, do we bow down and worship? Do we bow down and worship Divine Love and Wisdom in the whole of our life, in every relationship and interaction that we will ever have? Wow, that is a lot to ask. There isn’t a corner of our life the won’t need to journey further than we have ever journeyed, that won’t be asked to bow lower than we thought was possible. In a sense, Christmas is passive; we focus on the gift that is given to us. Epiphany is active and focuses on the journey we will make and the gifts we will give to God and others.
Our Swedenborg reading today talked about what the gifts of the Magi mean:
“For gifts which were offered to Jehovah meant the kinds of things that are offered to the Lord by a person from the heart…for deeds are nothing other than witness-bearers to such things as compose the will.”
The different gifts from the Magi represent different ways to give and receive love, different kinds of action we can take, different ways that each of us bear witness to the truth of the incarnation and bow down before the Lord. What were these gifts exactly and what do they mean?(1)
First, myrrh is a kind of resin from a tree that was used as an ingredient in perfume and medicines and also in embalming. In the Swedenborgian worldview, myrrh represents natural or earthly goodness, from both natural actions and natural motivations. Now, earthly or natural doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Natural needs are very very important. Basic dignity, basic comfort, basic safety, basic emotional support/community/resources are all integral to human well-being, and each person’s ability about to live up to their potential. So, giving a myrrh-kind-of-gift might mean giving money, giving food, giving clothing, giving shelter, providing community or resources. And a myrrh-kind of motivation would doing something because we have been taught that it is the right thing to do.
Now, frankincense is a similar kind of resin to myrrh, with similar applications, and was most especially used for incense. It represents what Swedenborg called spiritual goodness, from both spiritual actions and spiritual motivations. By spiritual he didn’t mean actions that somehow come from a different realm, but rather, actions and motivations that have an internal aspect to them, more than one level. These kinds of actions that are led by the thinking mind, they work to figure out a problem and fix it, to provide for natural needs but more widely, more sustainably, with more efficacy. These actions take into account psychology, sociology, systems thinking and context. The frankincense-kind-of-giving might ask “how can I help?” and then really listen to the answer. And a frankincense-kind-of-motivation would be doing something because it makes sense, and our mind tells us it is the right thing to do.
And finally, we all know what gold is: a precious and beautiful metal, characterized by both its rarity and its malleability. Gold represents celestial goodness, which is characterized by actions led by the heart in wisdom. Swedenborg talks about the nature of the highest angels and calls them celestial. The quality of their natures are such that the wisdom of love is so written on their hearts that their actions are spontaneous and do not require an intellectual justification. They just do it. When someone is suffering, they give presence and care. When someone suffers an indignity, they provide justice. When someone had a need, they fulfill it. Why? Because each human being is an image of God, and to exist fully in the reality of this notion is to exist fully within the practice of mutual love. The gold-kind-of-motivation is doing something because our heart tells us it is the right thing to do.
Many of the gifts that can be given will look the same on all three levels. This is not a hierarchy of giving, saying that gold is better than frankincense and frankincense is better than myrrh. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that human beings exist on multiple levels: earthly, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and so giving always exists on all of those levels as well. But which is it, we may ask. Do the gifts of the Magi represent things we do or how we do them? The gift itself or the approach to giving? It is, of course, both, because the giving itself is a journey. The giving itself is a process, affecting both giver and receiver, and moving them forward in their own spiritual transformations.
And this is why we can’t forget the other gift in the story: the star.
The star is knowledge learned from heaven and God(2), knowledge learned from something beyond us, knowledge that draws us forward, knowledge that guides us up and out of our own self-obsession, our own sense of rightness and privilege. It is important to remember that the Magi journeyed. Far. They rose up out of their own context and traveled to another, not knowing exactly what they would find, led by a star, led only by their belief that this star would teach them something. Herod, of course, could not see the star. The Herod-spirit refuses to look to anything but the primacy of the self. Such a spirit will never take the risk of journeying, of not knowing the answer, and of putting aside outward strength and perceived rightness.
And so, as we consider what Epiphany calls us to, as we consider how we want to live our lives and how we wish bow down before the Lord and give of our own resources, spirit and love, we must remember to be guided by the star. The Magi did not give because it served them. The baby Jesus was not going to remember what they gave and why. We all know that babies prefer the boxes the gifts came in to the gifts themselves. They gave because that is what journeying to find the Lord requires; the journey was the gift, the gold frankincense and myrrh were the natural culmination of the journeying.
Neither did the Magi give out of their own comfort. The Magi didn’t send gifts, they brought them, they journeyed out of their own self-conception to see what Divine Love had wrought, and then they bowed down to what they found, not to their own idea of what it would be.
We all, at different times, will be led in different ways, just like the Magi. Sometimes the myrrh-star will lead us in an earthly way, and we will take care of someones’s natural needs…that’s good, keep on going. Sometimes the frankincense-star will lead our minds in an intellectual way, and bring us around to a new perspective of some kind, a new insight might give us a new way to serve….that’s good, keep on going. Sometimes the gold-star will lead our hearts, and we will be touched and moved by love, dignity and solidarity…that’s good, keep on going! Keep on journeying, Magi-friends!
In the simplest of ways, when we give to another, we give to the Lord. And we get to choose to enact our nativity scene each day, even after it comes down from the mantle after Christmas. But rather than a static scene, it is truly a dynamic one. Perhaps this time, in my own home, I will keep the Magi out all year long and have them journey around my living spaces, as a reminder that the birth of divine love bids us move, and that the journey itself is the gift.
Arise, shine, your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4262 and Apocalypse Revealed #277
(2) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #205
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. 5 Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. 6 Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Secrets of Heaven #9293
…For gifts which were offered to Jehovah meant the kinds of things that are offered to the Lord by a person from the heart and are accepted by the Lord. The situation with those gifts is as it is with all a person's deeds. A person's deeds are merely acts performed by the body, and when regarded in isolation from their will are no more than variously regulated, so to speak articulated movements, not unlike the movements of a machine, and so are lifeless. But deeds regarded together with the will are not like those movements. Rather they are outward expressions of the will displayed before the eyes, for deeds are nothing other than witness-bearers to such things as compose the will. They also derive their soul or life from the will…. So it is that by 'gifts' offered to Jehovah, that is, to the Lord, such things as are present in the will or the heart are meant, 'the heart' being what the Word calls a person's will…
Photo credit: Kat Jayne
Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23, Secrets of Heaven 4572:2 (see below)
So, the lectionary doesn’t give us much of a breath after Christmas this year, does it? We are barely done with the sweet and joyous celebration of Jesus’ birth, when we are reminded by the gospel of Matthew that Jesus was born in a dangerous time, in dangerous circumstances. He was part of a poor Jewish family under Roman occupation, under the rule of a cruel and paranoid proxy king. This would have been a difficult life for any child. But for a child who is prophesied to be king of the Jews, to be the coming Messiah? There were many in power for whom that was not good news at all. And so, we brought face to face with Herod. We are brought face to face with the existence of evil.
So, yay, welcome to the first Sunday of the season of Christmas! This story probably the last thing that most of us want to talk about. But, sometimes if we focus too much on the *fact* of the incarnation we forget about the *why.* Yes, God loved humanity and that is why God came, but it wasn’t just a random or indulgent bestowal of love. It was a rescue. We —humanity—really needed God, so God came; came in a way that continues to help us wrestle with the Herodian spirit….even here and now.
So, right before our reading today we find the story of the Magi, which we will explore next week. They had been looking for the Messiah that the stars had foretold to them. Herod played along in order to find Jesus and destroy him. However, the Magi were warned in a dream to avoid Herod, and so Herod never learned of Jesus’ exact location. Herod became furious and ordered a unilateral massacre of young boys in Bethlehem. Thankfully, another dream warned Joseph to leave, and he and Mary and Jesus were able to escape to Egypt just in time. But there were no dreams for the other children. To describe the devastation, the gospel writer quotes Jeremiah, another time of mourning for children lost in war:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
Herod perpetrated a great evil with this fabled slaughter of the innocents. He was well known as a blood-thirsty, cruel and paranoid leader, characteristics that worsened significantly as he aged. He executed his second wife and two of their sons, as well as his own first born son, his mother-in-law and his brother-in-law. Additionally, according to the historian Josephus, he was apparently so concerned that his death would not be properly mourned that he arranged for a number of distinguished persons to be killed after he died so that there would be greater sorrow associated with his death. Thankfully, his surviving children did not follow through with that order.
While there is no historical record of the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem, the event is clearly consistent with Herod’s character and approach and could easily have been inspired by Herod’s killing of his own children. If he was so paranoid and suspicious with his own family, we can only imagine how he would have reacted to a report of the birth of the “king of the Jews.” In Herod’s mind, and of course, in terms of the earthly political order, *Herod* was the king of the Jews. The little baby Jesus in the manger was a usurper, and if Herod was going to hold on to power, that baby must be killed. Out of anger, vengeance and fear, he did what he felt he needed to do to preserve his own power.
In our world, Herod is one in a long line of tyrants who have found their way to power and done unconscionable things to keep that power. History books are full of the slaughter of innocents, whether in terms of actual loss of life, or in terms of the death of personal dignity, identity and autonomy. Even today, we need look no further than our newspapers to learn of family separations at the border, the epidemic of sexual abuse in border facilities, the record number of deaths of black transgender women this year, or the record number of homeless deaths in some of our cities. Add #metoo, climate change, an increase in white supremacy and anti-semitism, and it seems that if we let it all in we might never be done with the weeping and mourning. When we come to understand, for example, the extreme psychological effects of thousands of children being separated from their parents, how can we ever be consoled? That loss is forever. That innocence will never be regained.
And for such things, I believe we must be like Rachel, and refuse to be comforted, we must refuse to be consoled by a world that tells us such dehumanization and indignity is par-for-the-course, is justified, is normal, is necessary. For there is the consolation that the world gives, a consolation that would wipe away, cover over, distract from, all that would make us mourn, all that still needs to be done. The world whispers: This again? Aren’t you done with that already? Go on: learn to be okay; learn to appear strong; learn to appear effortlessly Instagram-ready.
Now to some ears, a refusal to be comforted might sound like it is a dismissal of God’s peace and grace. But I would argue that it is a true assimilation of the spirit of Christmas, for Herod is as much a part of the Christmas landscape as are the angels, shepherds and the Magi. And in fact, the incarnation happened because *God* refused to be consoled and reached out to humanity, believing that we could do better, believing that when given direction and freedom and inspiration that we would more often than not choose to stand for truth and love. Evil exists —evil actions, evil consequences, evil systems—and this is why God came, to save *us*, not to save us from distress. Salvation is not a life-boat that takes us away from this world and all that is in it. God’s consolation doesn’t mean looking away from all that would make us mourn and cry out. It means knowing that God is with us when we go through the hard things, that God will be with us when we need to face down the Herodian-spirit in our world and in our hearts. This is what we hear in our Isaiah reading as well:
“For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them;” (Isaiah 63:8-9)
God’s consolation is not a simple, “there there.” God’s consolation is not for purposes of anesthesia, for proving we are chosen, or for escaping pain. Consolation is what happens after transformation, when we recognize just how present God has been with us during our difficulty. From our Swedenborg reading:
Yet the joy and comfort do not come because a victory has been won but because good and truth have been joined together. Joy is present within every joining together of good and truth, for that joining together is the heavenly marriage, in which the Divine is present. (Secrets of Heaven 4572:2)
Comfort comes from good and truth being joined together in life. God’s consolation is a bone-deep recognition of God’s love, and it comes from doing the work that joins good and truth together in practice. It is not a reward for being strong, and it was never a promise that we won’t mourn again. It is a promise that we won’t ever mourn alone.
“...he was their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them…” God is our savior *within* our distress, within our suffering, within our life and within our world…and thus that salvation is not characterized by a disengagement but rather an increased sensitivity to injustice.
Like Rachel, refusing to be comforted means understanding the stakes. It means choosing to eschew all that would anesthetize us, it means resisting the status quo. It means being willing to show up when it matters. Because, and I don’t mean to depress you, but Herod will always be with us, in some way or another. It is part of the human condition. The problem is not so much the existence of evil but the excusing of it. The problem is when we no longer see evil, whether evil actions or evil systems, when such things no longer cause us to weep and to mourn. The problem is when we accept the world’s consolation: there there, its really not that bad. They should have followed the law. They should have been more careful. They should have gotten a job. They shouldn’t have been wearing that. They should have known their place. They should have put their hands up. They should have known this is how things work.
Yet, even so, God said yes to being in our world. God said yes to being a vulnerable baby dependent on his father listening to a dream. God said yes to a ministry that loved the supposedly unlovable. God said yes to a death that upended our notions of power. And in doing so, God showed us what is real and lasting. God showed us that the Herodian-spirit can never have the last word.
In Richard Rohr’s phrasing, “incarnation means not just that God became Jesus; God said yes to the material universe, God said yes to physicality…[and] so it is always Advent. God is forever coming into the world.”(1)
And boy do we need that.
(1) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Celebrating an Eternal Advent, 12/24/19
7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior 9 in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Secrets of Heaven 4572:2
In general it should be recognized that every joining together of good and truth is effected by means of temptations. The reason for this is that evils and falsities offer resistance and so to speak engage in rebellion, and by every means try to prevent the joining of good to truth, and of truth to good. This conflict takes place between the spirits present within humankind, that is to say, between the spirits governed by evils and falsities and the spirits governed by goods and truths. Human beings experience that conflict as temptation within themselves. When therefore the spirits governed by evils and falsities are conquered by the spirits governed by goods and truths, the former are compelled to depart and the latter receive joy from the Lord by way of heaven. This joy is also felt by the person concerned as comfort; they feel it within themselves. Yet the joy and comfort do not come because a victory has been won but because good and truth have been joined together. Joy is present within every joining together of good and truth, for that joining together is the heavenly marriage, in which the Divine is present.
A Christmas Eve Message...
I’m going to say something now but you have to promise not to get mad at me. Jesus probably wasn’t born in a stable. Now I promise, I’m not trying to ruin your Christmas. I would never bring this up unless I thought that it could actually increase the meaningfulness of our celebrations, not decrease it. So, let me explain:
The actual design of Palestinian houses in Jesus day was to have one single room in which the family would live. The family’s animals were not kept in a separate dwelling, but would be brought inside at night to a lower compartment in that single family room, which would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with hay, where the animals would feed. Each house would have a room for guests in the back or on the roof. There is actually a fair bit of evidence that the greek word that is often translated as “inn” or “guest room” most likely refers to a spare room or upper room in a private house, and not to an inn as we might think of it now, a public boarding place for travelers.
Additionally, many scholars maintain that given the standards of hospitality at the time, it would have been unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his ancestral home, would have been turned away from anyone’s house. Even very distant relatives, and Joseph would have had many in Bethlehem, would have immediately welcomed Mary and Joseph into their homes. What is most likely then, is that the guest room was already taken, and so Mary and Joseph needed to stay in the family room, with the rest of the family, and of course, the animals.
So where do we get the notion of the stable? We note that the text does not say anything about a stable. The idea comes from centuries of reading the birth narrative with Western eyes. A culture that places their animals in a stable separate from the family home will see those assumptions in the text. A culture that does not center hospitality in the same way will view Mary and Joseph as being “turned away.”
And so, let me just say that there is nothing wrong with the way that we tell the Christmas story as it is now. It communicates some very powerful and important things about the incarnation. The turning away from the inn brings home to us how easy it is to turn away from God in our lives, to say not now, not here, not me. It speaks of such a great love and humility on the part of God, to enter into our world, in the quiet, alone, on the margins, without fanfare. In a complicated and discouraging world, we long for simplicity and peace and inclusion, and God’s birth can certainly bring these things home to us.
But I think that it is also true that the way we tell the story creates a some distance. The picture of the holy family up on a hill, by themselves in a stable with only the animals…it’s beautiful and rarefied yes, but also a little remote. And perhaps this remoteness allows us to disengage from this immensely powerful story, to keep it relegated to the Christmas season, a beautiful nativity scene only to be looked at and not touched. Certainly having nothing to do with our lives from January to November. Certainly having nothing to do with our lives as they are, which are often complicated, raucous, messy and heartbreaking. Do we think that this is what Divine Love intends for us to believe, that God wouldn’t enter into our lives as they are?
So let me suggest an alternative.
When Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, there was no space in the guest room, so they were told to make themselves comfortable in the family room. Among the animals, yes, but also among the pots and pans and the paraphernalia of life. When it came time for Mary to deliver, it would have been a bustling place, aunties and cousins hovering, heating water on the fire, community midwives rubbing Mary’s back, Joseph and the men fetching wood, children peeking around the corners with wide eyes, animals munching on their straw. As Mary labored and paced and pushed, as Divine Love was birthed into the world with body and breath and life, our God was incarnated in the midst of human activity, in the midst of culture and family and connection. Jesus was born in a middle-eastern living room, his first cries heard with joy and applause, not because he was God but because he was loved.
And the reality is…this picture has more in common with the hustle and bustle of each of our own family Christmases than with the quiet peaceful pastoral scene we often look to. As you tumble downstairs tomorrow morning, or round the corner, into your raucous? Christmas morning, God is already there, being born into your Christmas living room, among the family dogs, cats, goldfish and gerbil, next to the sofa and the tv and the coffee table, the places where we spend our days.
God is being born amidst all the shrieks of joy and contented smiles, the Christmas pudding coming out a bit burnt and the cranberry sauce spilling on the floor, the tensions rising and falling, the lame family jokes, the dog getting into the garbage, the misunderstandings and the forgiving of them. This is where God would be born, within all of it. Exactly where new life should be found.
We don't have to become like our Christmas story, quiet, peaceful and perfect for God to be present. Sure, sometimes it helps to us take a breath, to silence our chattering thoughts…but that is about us being able to notice God’s presence, not about God’s desire to be with us, to be born within our very lives, messy and incomplete as they are. Our God was born into our world, as it was, as it is.
So, for all the ways in which the traditional telling of the Christmas story calls us to be brave, welcoming, generous, reverent and joyful, let’s definitely keep it. But perhaps it is time to question how it might also keep us at arms length from the immense love of God, from the ways in which God would be born into our lives right now, in each beautiful and difficult moment. From the way that God unabashedly embraced our human particularity and our human experience. In the words of Sarah Bessey, “it’s not Jesus otherness but his us-ness, his human-ness, his full experience as fully human and fully God together that is the miracle [of the incarnation.]” Let us welcome the birthing of God into our living rooms, and let us be not afraid, for we call our God “Emmanuel” God-with-us. Let us let God be with us.
Ian Paul, “Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable.” https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/once-more-jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/?fbclid=IwAR0Q5khXkb-x4-aFWX9ujisBVjCnaxQqeyAJ9zDPDaSHEhLaxuFC9rkqVqg
Sarah Bessey, “Why everything you know about the nativity is probably wrong.” https://sarahbessey.substack.com/p/why-everything-you-know-about-the?fbclid=IwAR3YxC4JUHGDn28eakxkEbKpDnm3AMzlsycpXim3YfrPGDMZttUXwOOr9Wc
Photo credit: Egor Kamelev
Readings: Isaiah 35, Matthew 11:2-11, Heaven and Hell #522 (see below)
More than once this week, I heard from my various commentaries that the question that John asks in the Matthew text is an Advent question. Are you the one that is to come? It is a plaintive question, heavy with waiting, expectation, need, hope. And also, a little doubt, for underlying that question is another….Lord, are you really coming? The world often appears fraught to the people in it, we are but little and limited, and these days we are living through are no exception. We and those around us are grappling with loss, with anxiety, with change, with not having enough, with broken relationships, with a suffering earth. We grapple with a political realm in which it seems like truth doesn’t matter, with an economic realm in which it seems like compassion doesn’t matter, a cultural realm in which it seems like altruism doesn’t matter.
And so, in this Advent season, we ask the question that Christians have asked for two thousand years. Are you the one? How can we know if you are the one? Lord, are you coming to save us? We ask along with John the Baptist, each of us in our own prisons: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” We ask, in between the lines: Is our faith justified?
What it is that Jesus answers? What do you see happening? He says: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind have received sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Jesus tells us to look around, to notice birth and resurrection as it comes to us in our daily lives, in our world but in ourselves as well. Have we come into an insight that we were formally blind to, have we learned something new or empowered ourselves in some new way, have we cleansed ourselves of some habit that was holding us back, have we nursed back into health some part of us that we thought was lost, have we finally come to accept our worthiness in a world that would convince us we are nothing? Have we worked to bring any of these blessing to the life of another? Am I coming? says the Lord. I have already come.
Our Isaiah reading uses different but equally compelling imagery. We heard in our reading today about the desert bursting into bloom, about feeble hands and wobbly knees becoming strong, about song where there once was silence, about water flowing in the wilderness, about a road safe to travel. As we look around we see this too; we see crocuses bravely blooming in the snow, we see knees and shoulders replaced by capable doctors, solar powered desalination plants that bring clean fresh water to barren landscapes, hearing aids that allow babies to hear their mother’s voices, we see humpback whales rebounding from the brink of extinction,(1) we see #illridewithyou, a twitter campaign where Australians offered to ride with their Muslim neighbors afraid of islamophobia.(2) Am I coming? asks the Lord. I have already come.
This is what it looks like when God comes to us. When love is born in our lives. When divine love is incarnated in this world. But, these images are not the only thing included in the Isaiah reading. We also hear: “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
Wait, what? With…vengeance? With retribution? God will save us with these things? I don’t get it. I thought salvation was a blooming flower, a miracle, a gift, a waterfall, a healing, a leaping deer.
It is all these things. But it is not these things separated from their context. A superbloom in the desert only happens after a prolonged dormancy and a flooding rain. A healing surgery only becomes so in and through an intentional wounding of the body and the difficult therapy that follows. A movement of people offering rides to anxious strangers only happens when they reject the siren call of apathy and/or tribalism. A species is resurrected only when we humans refrain from hunting through law and consequence.
John the Baptist calls for us to make straight the highway for our God, the highway that Isaiah calls the Way of Holiness. It is our choice to clear that path. And anyone who has done even a little yard maintenance knows that this is hard work, and that it is not always work that we want to do. I used to dread when my parents would ask me to mow the lawn. I would do whatever I could to get out of it. And I resented them for asking me to do it, something that on this side of homeownership and parenthood, I recognize as a completely reasonable and necessary thing.
But sometimes things just need to be done. Sometimes the bandaid just needs to be ripped off. We can look our child in the eyes and tell them it needs to be done, and still they won’t agree, still they will barely allow it. And when we do rip it off, they look at us resentfully with a quivering lip and betrayed, watering eyes. Until the moment passes and they realize that the pain was momentary and now they are free.
Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.
Sometimes we just don’t want to do what salvation requires. Sometimes we don’t want to sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed. We are fearful, we believe we cannot survive without our emotional crutches, our justifications, our defenses. We want our transformations to be easy, safe, controllable. This is not what we are promised though.
C.S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce, imagines a busload of the newly deceased coming into heaven and being met by luminous angels. He tells the story of one spirit accompanied by a small red lizard on his shoulder. At first the spirit attempts to enter heaven, but after the lizard whispers in his ear for a bit, he decides to turn around. He is stopped by an angel who wonders where he is going. The spirit explains that “it’s no good,” the lizard on his shoulder won’t keep quiet, and he knows his murmurings don’t belong in heaven, so he’s just going to go home. The angel offers to kill the lizard but the spirit demurs, he shrinks, he makes excuses. He promises to think about it and come back another day.
“There is no other day”, says the angel. “All days are present now.” And he reaches a luminous hand towards the lizard.
“Get back!” shouts the spirit. “You’re burning me! How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so.” says the angel calmly.
“Why, you’re hurting me now.” complains the spirit.
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
But still the spirit equivocates. “Why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me—before I knew. It would be all over by now if you had.”
“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible.” explains the angel. “Have I your permission?”
And all the while, the lizard whispers and whispers in the spirit’s ear…
“Have I your permission?” says the angel again.
“I know it will kill me,” whimpers the spirit.
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right.” the spirit surrenders “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature…Get it over….God help me."
And the spirit finally allows the angel to tear the whispering lizard off his shoulder. The spirit screams in agony, and the lizard is gone, and moments later the spirit is transformed, standing taller, brighter, stronger, lighter. (3)
Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.
This is your God, the divine band-aid ripper, the one who will do what we cannot actively do but only allow, because we are afraid and tired and weak. We look through tear-filled eyes at this God who at first seems terrible and then is wonderful. I never said it wouldn’t hurt. I said it wouldn’t kill you. The caterpillar dissolves completely in its cocoon, and emerges in beauty.
Salvation is not an intercession but a transformation, one that we must choose. Richard Rohr puts it this way:
“We must all hope and work to eliminate suffering, especially in many of the great social issues of our time…We don’t ignore or capitulate to suffering, yet we must allow it to transform us and the world. Suffering often shapes and teaches us and precedes most significant resurrections.
Christian wisdom names the darkness as darkness and the Light as light and helps us learn how to live and work in the Light so that the darkness does not overcome us. If we have a pie-in-the-sky, everything is beautiful attitude, we are going to be trapped by the darkness because we don’t see clearly enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Conversely, if we can only see the darkness and forget the more foundational Light, we will be destroyed by our own negativity and fanaticism, or we will naively think we are completely apart and above the darkness. Instead, we must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness, even our own—while never doubting the light that God always is, and that we are too (Matthew 5:14). That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world—through the darkness and into an ever-greater Light.”(4)
Are you the one that is to come? we ask in Advent. I am coming, says the Lord, I am already here. I will come with vengeance, I will come to save you. The God who insists that we are strong enough and good enough to survive without the lizard on our shoulder, whatever that represents for us, from the inside of our fear, this God looks punishing, unfair, insane and downright unsympathetic. But this God is birthing us, and God knows that, sometimes, an attitude that looks something fierce like vengeance is required to get that baby born.
What do you see happening? The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor.
(3) Adapted from: C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Simon & Schuster:1996), 96-100
(4) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, 12/6/19, Adapted from Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr: Daily Meditations for Advent (Franciscan Media: 2008), 22-24.
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. 8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosyare cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” 7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: “ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Heaven and Hell #522
First, though, let me state what divine mercy is. Divine mercy is a pure mercy toward the whole human race with the intent of saving it, and it is constant toward every individual, never withdrawing from anyone. This means that everyone who can be saved is saved. However, no one can be saved except by divine means, the means revealed by the Lord in the Word. Divine means are what we refer to as divine truths. They teach how we are to live in order to be saved. The Lord uses them to lead us to heaven and to instill heaven's life into us. The Lord does this for everyone; but he cannot instill heaven's life into anyone who does not refrain from evil, since evil bars the way. So to the extent that we do refrain from evil, the Lord in his divine mercy leads us by divine means, from infancy to the end of life in the world and thereafter to eternity. This is the divine mercy that I mean. We can therefore see that the Lord's mercy is pure mercy, but not unmediated: that is, it does not save people whenever it feels like it, no matter how they have lived.
Photo credit: Dan Hamill
Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10. Matthew 3:1-12, True Christianity #517 (see below)
Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent. Christmas is fast approaching, and will be here before we know it. For a lot of us, Advent can be an ambivalent time. There are so many wonderful opportunities for connection and generosity but they are often accompanied by the pressures of doing things a certain way, finding just the right thing, or needing to accomplish too many things in too little time. We celebrate Christmas within a culture that attempts to commodify it, to use it to make us consume ever more. So often times, the Christmas season becomes very much about fulfilling expectations, getting what we want, or makings sure other people get what they want. It becomes about recreating celebratory spaces because of how we want to feel. We practice rituals that make us feel warm and fuzzy, we put up sparkly decorations that make us feel excited, we makes lists of gifts so that people can be sure to give us what we want.
But, of course, this is not really what the season is about. As our readings make clear, the season is about change, about reversal. What kind of God, what kind of birth, are we really celebrating here? Baby Jesus was born into poverty on the margins, what kind of God would do that? Jesus would grow up to minister to those excluded and forgotten, what kind of God would do that? Jesus died to bring a kingdom into being via sacrificial suffering, what kind of God would do that? A God who understands that the way we human beings usually do things takes us further away from love and further into fear and selfishness. A God who, lovingly, wants to help us change this tendency.
And so we begin with imagery from our Old Testament reading: the peaceable kingdom.
“The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”
This beautiful and pastoral imagery has inspired many throughout history and no surprise. In the words of one commentary, this “vision of a reordered creation is remarkable.” It tells a story of instincts transformed and reversed. Carnivorous animals will no longer kill their prey to eat but find sustenance in straw. Dangerous animals will no longer be a threat to vulnerable creatures such as children. It is a lovely, peaceful image, but it also something of a ridiculous one. We know that nature cannot change in this way. So, of course, the image is a metaphor. It casts a vision of a future in which predatory instincts do not prevail, or are not primary. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” The image is not literal but rather communicates something about the world which God wants to create for us.
But, it is not a world that God can, or will, create for us externally. God certainly could do so, but given human nature, it would not really work. Swedenborg writes:
…the Lord leaves each person in freedom, for unless a person is in freedom they cannot be reformed at all. What a person does under compulsion does not reform them because compulsion does not allow anything to take root; for anything a person does under compulsion is not an act of willing, whereas what they do in freedom is an act of willing. What is good and true, if it is to be present in a person as their own, must take root in their will. What is outside the will is not the person's own. (1)
So, as much as we might wish for it to be so, the vision of the peaceable kingdom cannot be brought about through purely external change. It is transformation that must come from within. And this is because, as Swedenborg points out, “our outer self has to be reformed by means of our inner self, and not the reverse,"(2) because the inner flows into the outer and not the other way around. But even further, this flow is not a passive one, it occurs in and through action. And I quote:
The inner self is not reformed simply by gaining knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, not, that is, simply by thinking. We are reformed inwardly by intending to do what our knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom tell us. (3)
So even though the peaceable kingdom represents an internal transformation of humankind, it is again, not something that comes into being without our active participation. We are not transformed via divine download. We are not transformed by learning the truth, nor by thinking the truth. This is not enough. Transformation happens by actually intending and doing the things dictated by transformed ways of thinking.
Which sound easy, but of course, it’s not. Even when we know about what is right and good, there are many reasons why we might not follow through, emotions or habits that get in the way. If we zoom in on the peaceable kingdom, we can see this represented by the animals included in the vision and what they are doing. In terms of Swedenborgian correspondences, animals represent our affections: how we feel and what we love.(4) In the context of the image of the peaceable kingdom, the mild, useful, friendly animals correspond to good affections, and fierce, deadly animals correspond to evil affections. And what are we looking at here in this image? Fierce, deadly, selfish affections that have been transformed, that have been stripped of their predatory nature. They are no longer killing, destroying, striking out, or preying on the vulnerable. Transformed instincts. Transformed ways of being. And so it is inside of each of us: The vision of the peaceable kingdom is a vision of our internal ways of being, the possibility of our own instincts being re-formed, away from selfish and fearful affections into useful, loving, peaceful ones.
Our reading today describes this change and how it happens:
To put it another way, the first state is a state of thought that occurs in our intellect; the second state is a state of love that occurs in our will. As the second state begins and progresses, a change takes place in our minds. There is a reversal, because then the love in our will flows into our intellect and leads and drives it to think in agreement and harmony with what we love. As good actions that come from love take on a primary role, and the truths related to faith are relegated to a secondary role, we become spiritual and are a new creation [2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15]. Then our actions come from goodwill and our words come from faith; we develop a sense of the goodness that comes from goodwill and a perception of the truth that is related to faith; and we are in the Lord and in a state of peace. In brief, we are reborn.
What an optimistic view of humanity! The more we love, the more loving we will become. And conversely, sadly, the less we love, the less loving and more selfish we will become.
This notion is directly linked to the New Church vision for the world, the coming of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. In that book, John of Patmos receives a vision of a shining city, which he called the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God to the earth. We don’t believe this literally, as if a city will plop down out of the sky like an alien spaceship. We understand it to be a metaphor for the transformation of humanity and the world we live in. But it is important to split hairs just a little bit, and point out that, even if it is a metaphor, it is not, as we have mentioned, a metaphor for an external transformation, just as the peaceable kingdom is not a metaphor for external transformation. God is working, yes God is working very hard to bring the New Jerusalem into being, but God is doing it through our hearts and minds. The coming of the New Jerusalem is an internal phenomenon; the transformation of our world through the transformation of the people in it. We are talking about transformed instincts on a global scale. Little by little, bit by bit, heart by heart.
We see this reflected in the document “The Faith and Aims of Our Church,” which can be found in our denomination’s yearly journal:
“The Swedenborgian church believes that a new epoch is opening in the spiritual life of mankind. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, as he promised to do, has come again, not indeed in a physical reappearance, but in spirit and truth; not in a single event only, but in a progressive manifestation of God’s presence among people.”(5)
This is what God is up to with Advent. Hope, yes, love, yes, beauty, yes, all of it. But also subversive change. Transformed instincts. And this is why we always seem to start Advent off with John the Baptist, preaching repentance. John the Baptist doesn’t feel like Christmas. He is not warm and fuzzy. He is not twinkle lights and soft music. He is strident, he is urgent, he is clear. He is talking about doing the work of transforming our instincts. About how we need to recognize that our instincts need transforming, and to give ourselves over to the renewal that God has in mind for us. "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The way of the Lord is change. Not change for the sake of change, but change for the sake of mutual love, for the sake of the peaceable kingdom.
And so, as we begin Advent, as we look to a season of giving and receiving, let us also make space for a little disturbing. Let us make a space for John the Baptist, cantankerous as he is, so that we might recognize that the Lord was born into our world so that we might have an opportunity to re-make ourselves. I am reminded of this prayer by Jan Richardson:
God of making and unmaking, of tearing down and re-creating, you are my home and habitation, my refuge and place of dwelling. In your hollows I am re-formed, given welcome and benediction, beckoned to rest and rise again, made ready and sent forth.(6)
It is Advent, and we are ready, Lord. Transform our instincts so that the peaceable kingdom may come into being, so that the wolf may lie down with the lamb, and be led by innocence, openness and vulnerability.
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD— 3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. 6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
True Christianity #571
There are two states that we all inevitably enter into and go through if we are to turn from an earthly person into a spiritual person. The first state is called reformation, the second is called regeneration. In the first state we look from our earthly self toward having a spiritual self; being spiritual is what we long for. In the second state we become someone who is both spiritual and earthly. The first state is brought about by truths (these have to be truths related to faith); through these truths we aim to develop goodwill. The second state is brought about by good actions that come from goodwill; through these actions we come [more deeply] into truths related to faith.
To put it another way, the first state is a state of thought that occurs in our intellect; the second state is a state of love that occurs in our will. As the second state begins and progresses, a change takes place in our minds. There is a reversal, because then the love in our will flows into our intellect and leads and drives it to think in agreement and harmony with what we love. As good actions that come from love take on a primary role, and the truths related to faith are relegated to a secondary role, we become spiritual and are a new creation. Then our actions come from goodwill and our words come from faith; we develop a sense of the goodness that comes from goodwill and a perception of the truth that is related to faith; and we are in the Lord and in a state of peace. In brief, we are reborn.
Readings: Genesis 1:28-31, 2:7-9, 15, Psalm 46, True Christianity #46:6 (see below)
Here we are on the week of Thanksgiving, when we as a nation celebrate a holiday dedicated to gratitude. There are many different ways of practicing that gratitude. Some people gather with family and friends for a homemade feast, some order in or go out, some take time alone as self-care. However it is manifested, gratitude is a healthy practice.
Many of us will lift up our blessings during this time of thanksgiving, blessings that are sometimes forgotten or taken for granted in our day to day. We might say thank you for family and friends, health, security, useful work and sturdy shelter. And one might say, most importantly, by virtue of the feast that many of us will sit down to, we say thank you for the harvest. We say thank you for abundance. We say thank you for the fecundity of the earth, and the hard work of those who steward it.
I feel we must note, however, that increasingly, our gratitude for things like abundant food and the generativity of the earth is constantly now held in tension with the knowledge of an earthly crisis that endangers our abundant harvest, our security, our livelihoods. I’m speaking, of course, of climate change. Now, this sermon will not be making an argument for or against its existence, although scientific consensus is very very clear: climate change exists, that the activity of humankind has contributed to it, and we have very little time to reverse its course. Instead, we will talk today about how we might understand our relationship to the earth theologically, through both a Christian and a Swedenborgian lens.
One popular Christian view of the relationship between humankind and the earth on which we reside, was for many centuries based upon a text in Genesis that conferred dominion upon human beings. From Genesis 1:28 we read:
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule (some translations say “have dominion”) over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
To summarize: the earth was given to humankind so that we might use it to our benefit, that we might be ruler of its resources. Ruling and dominion is the language of a monarch, and the Hebrew is pretty darned clear about it, and therefore, to many it has seemed obvious that humankind is to exercise kingship, or ultimate power, over the earth and its resources. At first, when we examine how Swedenborg talks about the natural world, it might seem as if he is supporting this dominion view. We read from his book Divine Love and Wisdom:
The physical world's sun is nothing but fire and is therefore dead; and since nature has its origin in that sun, nature is dead. In no respect whatever can creation itself be attributed to the physical world's sun: it is due entirely to the spiritual world's sun. This is because the physical world's sun is totally lifeless, while the spiritual world's sun is alive, being the first emanation of divine love and wisdom. Anything that is lifeless does not effect anything on its own, but is activated; so to attribute any aspect of creation to a lifeless sun would be to attribute the work of an artisan to the tool in the artisan's hand.
The physical world's sun is nothing but fire, with all its life removed. The spiritual world's sun is a fire that has divine life within it.(1)
So, one way to look at this is that if nature is dead, surely it cannot have any true value, and we may exploit it. If nature is dead, nothing we do to it matters; we can’t hurt something that is already dead, or has no life in it. Surely the tool in the artisan’s hand may be used however the artisan desires? However, I don’t believe that this is what Swedenborg means when we calls the natural world inherently dead. He does so to make a larger point: all life comes from the spiritual sun, the first emanation of Divine Love and Wisdom, all life comes from God. Life cannot arise from anything that is not-God, and to make this point Swedenborg calls that which is not-God “dead,” as in, something within which life cannot arise on its own. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the natural world is therefore worthless, and to be despised or pillaged. It doesn’t follow that humankind has a mandate to abuse it. God is the artisan, not humankind. The natural world might be lifeless on its own, but it functions as a container for the spirit, and its reason for being is that it might be activated by the spirit. Swedenborg also writes as we heard in our reading today:
The universe is something to which God could extend his love and in which he could put his love into action and so find rest.
“…into which he could put his love into action and so find rest.” The natural world, then, is an extremely important container into which God’s love can flow, finding both action and rest.
As an analogy, we might think of this in terms of our own skin. Technically, the outer layer of our skin is entirely dead. It is composed of dead skin cells. When we venture further into our epidermis we will find layers that are connected to our blood stream and our nervous system, but our outer layer is not so. The outer layers of our bodies, the part of us that can be seen by everyone around us, is not actually alive. Honestly, that fact is kind of fascinating and weird.
Now, how do we feel about our skin? Do we despise it because it is dead? Do we exploit it or excavate it for our personal gain? Do we think about it as a lesser part of our body? Do we renounce our skin because we prefer the brain? No, of course not. We understand that it provides an extremely important barrier, it protects us and gives a form, and the ability to be whole and to have agency. Because of our skin, we can be a body in the world, we can exist and do the things we want to do.
Our skin allows us the fullness of our existence and just as the outer layer of our skin is constantly being renewed from the inside, such it is with the natural world, constantly being renewed by the inflow of spirit. From our reading:
The three essentials of God's love are the reason the universe is maintained as well, because maintaining is an ongoing creation, just as continuing to exist is the same as perpetually coming into being.
So, now then, with this new understanding, how shall we characterize our relationship to the natural world, a world that is perpetually coming into being via the spirit? What does it mean that the world should be a container for this spirit? Often times, I ask rhetorical questions in my sermons, but this time, I will admit, I don’t fully know the answer, or at least, that I think my answer is still developing. What does it mean that the world should be a container for spirit?
Well, to begin with, I believe there are a few implications involved in seeing the world this way:
First, it means there is a purpose to the world that is beyond what we can see. That the world has value not only because of what it is, but because of what flows into it. What follows from this idea is that the world has value then, beyond what we can extract from it on a natural level. It has a value that we cannot see or quantify in earthly natural terms.
Second, it means that the world is connected to spirit. Just as our skin is intimately connected to what goes on inside our bodies, so the natural world is maintained, sustained and affected by what happens in the spirit. And also, this means what we do in the world affects spirit. To continue the analogy, what we eat, or our general health, can affect the quality of our skin, just as how we treat our skin, as in exposure to excessive sunlight or chemicals, can affect the rest of our body. The natural world, and the world of spirit, are in a co-responding relationship.
Third, it means that we, human beings, are not a part of the natural world in a way that is different to the rest of creation. We too, are a container for the spirit, we too are activated by the spirit that flows into us. We are a part of the natural world, we exist in solidarity with it, not apart from it. We participate in God’s perpetual creation of the universe, we too take life from the spirit as the rest of the universe does.
With this last observation, I will mention another Genesis text: 2:15
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
The Hebrew words here meaning “to work” and “to take care” can also mean “to serve” and “to guard.” This is a very different tone and meaning compared to the Genesis text from just a chapter before. Clearly, in this second text, humankind is to steward the earth and its resources rather than subdue them. How are we to understand this difference, how are we to balance them? For it is true, humankind has evolved a consciousness that can see itself, abilities that can allow us as a species to take to the lead, to dominate certain aspects of the trajectory of this planet. And so the question is: should we? Should we dominate and subdue? Or should we take the gift of our abilities, intelligence, technology, and ingenuity, and use them to serve and to guard a world that is is a container for spirit, just as we are? And now I am asking a rhetorical question, for clearly, I believe that we should. That humankind should desist from extracting the earth’s resources for personal gain, and use our ingenuity to figure out how to exist in this world in a way that respects the natural systems and the natural beauty of creation. We have been put in the Garden to Eden to work it, yes, but also to take care of it.
We read in our psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The whole world is a temple to our God, the whole world was created to give glory to the Divine Love and Wisdom that made it, and not to us. May we always be cognizant of that fact, and may we always be worshipful toward God’s universe.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom #157
Genesis 1:28-31, 2:7-9, 15
1:28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
2:7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. 5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. 6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. 7 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. 8 Come and see what the LORD has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. 10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” 11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
True Christianity #46:6
These essentials of divine love were the reason the universe was created, and they are the reason it is maintained. By examining and scrutinizing the three essentials of divine love, one can come to see that they were the reason for creation. The first essential, loving others outside of himself, was a reason for creation in that the universe is outside God (just as the world is outside the sun). The universe is something to which God could extend his love and in which he could put his love into action and so find rest. We read that after God had created heaven and earth he rested; and that he made the Sabbath day for that reason (Genesis 2:23)
You can see that the second essential, God's wanting to be one with others, was also a reason for creation from the fact that people were created in the image and likeness of God. The "image" and the "likeness" mean that we were made as forms that are receptive to love and wisdom from God - forms that God could be one with, and on whose account he could be one with all the other things in the universe, which are all nothing but means. A connection with the final cause is also a connection with the intermediate causes. Genesis, the Book of Creation, makes it clear that all things were created for the sake of humankind (Genesis 1:28-30).
That the third essential, God's blessing others from himself, is a reason for creation you can see from the fact that the angelic heaven was provided for everyone who has let God's love in, a place where the blessings of all come from God alone.
The three essentials of God's love are the reason the universe is maintained as well, because maintaining is an ongoing creation, just as continuing to exist is the same as perpetually coming into being. Divine love is the same from eternity to eternity. The nature God's love has now, and will have in the future, is the same nature it had when creating the world.
Readings: Isaiah 1:10-18, Luke 19:1-9, Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
Today our gospel reading is a short (pun-intended) anecdote but it really does have so much contained within it. It articulates themes such as economic justice, repentance, social inclusion, salvation, jealousy, and stereotyping. And in a larger sense, I believe that its most basic and important message is about community.
We already last week established just how suspiciously tax collectors were viewed by the Judeans in Jesus time. The tax collectors were local Jews who worked for the Roman empire to gather the taxes owed by the local population, and often, they collected more than necessary so as to line their own pockets. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, meaning that he oversaw all the other tax collectors. He was someone who had benefited from a corrupt system, had gotten wealthy on the backs of ordinary people. Even though he is described in a quirky and amusing way in this story, running and climbing a tree as he does, when we remember how it is that he has succeeded in the world, it is hard to have sympathy for someone who has enriched themselves in such an unethical way.
And yet. The whole of the story hinges on this sense of “and yet….”
Zacchaeus had worldly wealth. He had wholeheartedly bought into a corrupt system and taken advantage of it. And still, he clearly yearned for something. Something felt off. Something drew him to Jesus. Something drew him so strongly that he indulged in the quite undignified behavior of running through a crowd and climbing a tree. Remember, this was wealthy person, with reputation and status. Sitting in a tree trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
Now Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem for the final time. He was about to triumphantly enter Jerusalem in the manner in which we celebrate for Palm Sunday. He is about to drive the sellers from the temple, he is about to clash with the chief priests, he is about to celebrate the Last Supper with the disciples and be betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane. What is the last thing that he does before this final descent? What is the final act of his public ministry before the march to the cross is begun? He looks up in a tree and notices someone, someone reviled, and probably deservedly so, someone hesitantly peering around a corner, someone in a liminal space, someone everyone else thought was beyond redemption.
And Jesus resolutely, whether Zacchaeus felt ready for it or not, invites himself to stay at his house. Jesus final act of public ministry in the gospel of Luke is an act of inclusion and community. It was an act of faith. And the people around him grumbled about it. But it was an act that ultimately culminated in repentance and justice. Zacchaeus was given the space and the opportunity to change and grow, to do something bold and unexpected. Why and how did this happen? Because Jesus brought him into community, acted from an ethic of inclusion and possibility, and engaged him.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the nature of heaven, about how no one there can have any life at all apart from community. And I quote: “for one person’s life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others.” Swedenborg speaks of a universe that is held together by the connectedness of its parts. Angels connected to each other through community in heaven, heaven connected to the world through our communion with angels. Indeed, Swedenborg writes that without that connection to spirit, a person in the world “cannot go on living any longer.” This connectedness is integral to our life, our being, our existence. Now Swedenborg focused mostly on his spiritual and mystical experience, and didn’t always have much to say about human sociology but, we can extrapolate. For, that which drives spirit also drives the world, because spirit flows into and animates the world. If community is integral to heaven, and is integral to the relationship between heaven and earth, then earthly community is probably pretty important as well. From our reading again: “No one’s life is ever isolated from the life of others.”
So, the very foundation of spiritual reality is based upon the deep connection of people to each other. Community is necessary, integral, fundamental, to the way that God has brought creation into being. Science bears this out as well. A quick google search will deliver multiple examples of studies that describe the negative health effects of social isolation and loneliness. We need community to be emotionally, mentally and physically healthy.
We learn from mystical revelation that community is important. We know from science that community is important. I think we know from our own personal intuition that community is important. So Here are some things that I am noticing about community today, prompted by the Zaccheaus story. Community has some essential elements, among them: the act of noticing, invitation, engagement, vulnerability and forgiveness.
First, the noticing. This was something that Jesus was often doing, in this gospel and the others. Jesus would notice the people that were going unnoticed for various reasons: the mentally ill and the possessed, the sick, the paralyzed, tax collectors and other “sinners”, women, widows, Samaritans. This noticing and including was one of the main reasons Jesus had a scandalous reputation. His ministry was to ordinary people like his disciples, but also to the forgotten, and this was unusual. In our story today, Jesus had something he was doing, he was on a journey to somewhere, he had somewhere to be. But he still noticed Zacchaeus. Community is made through noticing each other, including each other, valuing each other, especially when we don’t really think we deserve it or need it.
Then there is the Invitation. Jesus took a risk. He noticed Zacchaeus, but he also acted further. He opened up a space for interaction. Zacchaeus could have said no thank you, or another time my house is not ready, or a number of other excuses. but instead, an invitation was given, and it opened a space, without which nothing would have happened. Our reading points out that it is through community with heaven that we are moved to will what is good and think what is true. Our movement though and in life, happens within the matrix of community, happens because of the space created by community.
Then, there is good faith engagement, coupled with curiousity and respect. Jesus sat at the table of a “sinner” and the people grumbled, either out of jealousy or a misguided sense of what was proper. But God will always engage us if there is opportunity; it is part of God’s inexhaustible love for us. And we see God’s invitation and engagement for us in our Isaiah reading for today: even after the Lord complains of meaningless ritual and indicts the Israelites for their lack of attention to the responsibilities of community, God says: Come now, let us settle the matter. Other translations say, Come, let us argue it out. Let us sit together and come to a resolution, an understanding. God never tires of engagement. God never gives up on us.
Likewise, when people sit at a table together, they talk to each other, they share their ideas and their viewpoints. Good faith engagement means people not giving up on each other, recognizing that they belong to each other. Yes, this sometimes might mean communicating and setting boundaries for each other but this is the give and take of community. It is how we move forward and it is how we learn.
And finally, we come to the meat of the issue, the height of what community, at its best, can offer us: vulnerability and forgiveness.
There are times that community can offer us an amazing gift: the safety to be able to be vulnerable. To be who we are. To speak our truth and our experience, and to be held in safety and love while doing that. When we have been noticed, invited and engaged with love and respect, community can be a place that is home to us. And I believe that is what God wants for us: to feel at home in our body, our life, our experience, our journey. And this is why community is so important and integral to spiritual life and reality, because it creates a spiritual home for us, a gift of love to each other through God.
Vulnerability works wonders in many ways. As much as it can be important and affirming to be vulnerable in admitting who are, the ability to be vulnerable is also an integral practice in creating a space where we can change. This is where the Zacchaeus story ultimately takes us. Zacchaeus had some repenting to do. Admitting that we are wrong about something and need to change can be a most terrifying thing. Our survival instincts kick in, and our lizard brain worries we will be booted out of the group. So we cling to our rightness. But we must remember, what is it that allowed Zacchaeus to repent? Jesus affirmed him in community, he felt safe enough to be vulnerable and make restitution. The moral absolutists among us (myself included) might certainly have wished that Zacchaeus had recognized the wrongness of his ways and repented before Jesus came to him, because it was right not because it was safe. But, it takes a very special kind of moral courage to act this way, and while we shouldn’t necessarily let go our expectation that such moral courage is good and should exist, we also need to recognize what kind of creatures humans beings really are: fallible, scared, limited.
And so, what we see is that Jesus is pragmatic. God knows us. God knows that we need prompting, nudging, safety, and reassurance. In the difficult work of spiritual progress, God knows that we need each other, that we need to provide safety and encouragement and forgiveness for each other. We hold each other up, draw each other toward our better selves, providing inspiration and honesty as needed. We provide for each other the space to grow and change and be wrong and change our minds. Community forgives because community knows that we all need forgiveness, in one way or another.
We must not take advantage of community, however. Community can be, and often is, used as a bias bubble, an echo chamber, an emotional prop; community of the inward-looking kind can foster complacency, can foster systemic and ongoing injustice. Some, in this country, who would rightly have us recognize, for example, white privilege or economic inequality would argue that this is what American society has been for many years now…a place where we have forgotten how to be wrong, a place where we have forgotten about the necessity of repentance, a place where we cannot bear to imagine thriving for all because it threatens the few. And the marginalized are understandably tired, tired of educating the majority about the reality of their lives, tired of patiently waiting for us to repent for systems that keep them oppressed generation after generation. We human beings take what God has given for good and we twist it into something that serves the self. That’s what we do. And our spiritual work is to stop doing that. God believes that we can; Zacchaeus showed us that we can.
What we see in this story, is what can happen when community is extended beyond where we think it “ought” to go. Whether that means extending community towards particular people or groups of people, or whether that means allowing community into our own life in ways that makes us nervous, we can know that God built the universe on the gift of community and connectedness. And because if that fact, that one very simple fact, then we can know that no one is beyond redemption.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! 16 Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. 17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. 18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
This being the nature of heaven, no angel or spirit can possibly have any life unless he lives in some community, and in so doing in a harmonious relationship of many people. A community is nothing else than the harmonious relationship of many, for one person's life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others. Indeed no angel, spirit, or community can possibly have any life, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, if he is not joined to heaven and to the world of spirits through the many in his own community. The same applies to the human race. No one whatever, no matter who, can possibly live, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, unless he has in like manner been joined to heaven through the angels residing with him, and to the world of spirits, and even to hell through the spirits residing with him.
 For everyone during his lifetime is dwelling in some community of spirits or angels, although he is not conscious of doing so. And if he is not joined to heaven or the world of spirits by means of the community in which he lives, he cannot go on living one moment longer. It is like the parts of the human body. Any part of it which is not joined to the rest by means of fibres and vessels, and so by means of various functions, is not part of the body. It is instantly removed and expelled as that which has no life.