Readings: Psalm 104:24-31, I Corinthians 12:12-14, Secrets of Heaven 7236:2 (see below)
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Photo by Karolina Grabowska: https://www.pexels.com/photo/assortment-of-flowers-on-vases-7291750/
Welcome to our continuing series: Exploring Mission. Each week we will be exploring an aspect of our church’s mission statement. We are doing this so we can connect ourselves to the WHY of our community, to ground ourselves in the spiritual principles that can give our work together its meaning. Today we will consider the part of our mission statement that says that we are:
But as we will soon hear from our Swedenborg readings in the meditation we will do in a moment, as well as from the ecstatic praises of the Psalms, of which the 104th which we just heard is only one, we learn that variety is not simply to be tolerated but it is essential. Essential. God designed the universe to run on the principle of diversity, not on the principle of similitude. We will hear: Every perfect whole arises from a variety of elements and it is the way that these disparate elements find a way to work together that creates wholeness and creates perfection.
But even further, we will hear that variations in love and faith are what determine the nature of heaven and its joy. Variety is not only essential in a mechanistic way, variety is what creates joy. And I think this might be because when we truly appreciate and love variety, what we are loving is the pure creative energy of God, the pure generative potential of Divine Love. There really aren’t any words to explain it except to say that we are primed by our very nature to feel joy when we perceive the creative acts of God, when we perceive what Divine Love through Divine Wisdom can create…and perhaps we recognize this in our experience of the vastness of nature, the transcendence of music, the preciousness of a baby, the wonder of science.
Now of course, these are all lovely but somewhat abstract ideas…what does this mean for us in our daily lives, as we go about creating community here and elsewhere? Well, first it means that God values our uniqueness, and that our spiritual journeys are not for the purpose of making us all the same by somehow following all the right rules, but rather for the purpose of making us more wholly ourselves. Our uniqueness is not an earthly burden to be shed, but rather something we come into more and more fully the more we let God lead us to our true selves.
And second, when we can rest in the joy of our own uniqueness, as well as the fact of our winding journey to accepting it, we can with fuller freedom enjoy the uniqueness of others, knowing that we all have a vital part to play in God’s cosmic tapestry. Our evolutionary impulses, our cultural training, nudges us toward “othering” difference, and our work, in ourselves and for others, must be to lean into the heavenly joy we were created for and to use God’s eyes to see and value the diversity that is always before us.
Now, it might not be apparent but I have really struggled to put words to these ideas today, and I think it might be because they need to be felt with the heart as much as understood with the mind. So I want to now lead us in a short meditation to balance out our experience today. We’ll be using a couple of short phrases from the bible, in between some readings from the writings of Swedenborg.
Meditative Scripture Reading:
Psalm 104:24 How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Genesis 1:31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Heaven & Hell 56
Every perfect whole arises from a variety of elements, for a whole that is not composed of a variety of elements is not really anything. It has no form, and therefore no quality. However, when a whole does arise from a variety of elements, and the elements are in a perfected form in which each associates with the next in the series like a sympathetic friend, then it has a perfect quality. Heaven is, then, a single whole composed of a variety of elements arranged in the most perfect form; for of all forms, the form of heaven is the most perfect.
Psalm 104:24 How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Genesis 1:31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Secrets of Heaven 6706
For all without exception in heaven and all without exception on earth differ from one another in good. Good is never exactly one and the same with any two people; variation is essential, in order that each kind of good may continue to exist by itself.
Psalm 104:24 How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Genesis 1:31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Secrets of Heaven 690
In addition it should be realized that one community is never utterly and completely like another, nor one member within a community like any other member. Instead unanimous and harmonious variety of all exists, and these variations have been so ordered by the Lord that they strive towards one single end, which is attained through love and faith in Him. From this arises their unity. For the same reason one heaven and form of heavenly joy is never utterly and completely like another. Indeed variations in love and faith are what determine the nature of heaven and its joy.
Psalm 104:24 How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Genesis 1:31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Divine Providence 202
The Lord's divine providence is universal by virtue of its attention to the smallest details, specifically through his having created the universe in such a way that an infinite and eternal process of creation by him could occur in it.
Psalm 104:24 How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Genesis 1:31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Amen
24 How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. 26 There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. 27 All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. 28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. 29 When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. 30 When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. 31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works
I Corinthians 12:12-14
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Secrets of Heaven 7236:2
The fact that all in heaven are divided up in accordance with their different kinds of good shows how manifold and how varied good is; it is so varied that good is never the same with one person as it is with another. Indeed if millions of people went on being multiplied forever, one person's good would still not be like another's, just as one person's face is not like another’s…The reason for the unending variety is that every form has distinct and varied constituent parts; for if two were exactly alike they could not be two but a single unit. This also explains why in the natural order no one thing ever exists which is like another in every respect.
Exploring Mission: Making Space
Readings: Leviticus 19:33-34 (various translations), Secrets of Heaven 1473 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Tim Mossholder: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-wooden-welcome-sign-3643925/
Welcome to the second week of our series: Exploring Mission. Each week we will be exploring an aspect of our church’s mission statement and connecting it to the spiritual ideas that drive it. Many times it is very easy to get caught up in the details of our lives and work - I know my life is driven by my to-do list - and we forget why we are doing the things we do. This series is an attempt to bring us back to the *why* of church and spiritual community.
So today, we are going to focus of the part of our mission statement that says we aim to create welcoming, open and nurturing spaces - physically, emotionally and spiritually.
As we heard in our reading today, the Old Testament in particular contains repeated entreaties to welcome people who are variously translated as the stranger or the foreigner or the sojourner. These different words get at different aspects of the concept: stranger speaks of newness to a place, foreigner speaks to having belonged elsewhere, and sojourner is someone who will stay in a place for a time but maybe not forever.
Either way, the most important part to note that the welcome is anchored in empathy; God asks the Ancient Israelites to remember when you they were a stranger or a sojourner, like in Egypt, to remember how it was when they were welcomed and cared for during time of famine. God says, remember that and the pay it forward and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And it goes without saying that this principle applies to the modern church as well. This timeless exhortation to empathy and hospitality is just as relevant now as then.
And, I also want to widen our interpretation a little bit, because as much as it is important to focus on the literal words in our text, the inherent trap contained in that language is that it necessarily creates an in-group and an out-group, those who already belong and those who don’t. You can’t have a stranger unless you have a group who is already defined as belonging. Where there are groups of human beings we also often find gate-keepers and paternalism and self-satisfaction.
However, when we look at the text through a Swedenborgian lens, we understand that the stranger and the sojourner are parts of ourselves, that even people who have entered this church, this space, a hundred times, they are bringing some part of themselves that embodies being a stranger or being a sojourner. This experience is not one that is intrinsic to people *out there* but one that we all share, in different ways.
For we heard in our Swedenborg reading that the representation or the metaphorical meaning of a sojourner is a change of state - a change of state of mind, state of heart, state of being. A movement or a progression of one state to another.
And isn’t *that* what we are all looking for when we seek out holistic and nurturing spaces and community? We are looking to feel something, to learn something, we are looking to be moved, to experience a change that takes us a few steps further on our own personal journey.
In a welcoming, open, and nurturing space, we might find that we are able to move from being disconnected to connected, disengaged to engaged, isolated to communal, unfulfilled to fulfilled, harmed to healed, disenfranchised to empowered, despairing to hopeful, judged (including by ourselves) to accepted, exhausted to renewed, defensive to curious, fearful to courageous, to name just a few.
This is why we add the three descriptive qualifiers to our statement on welcoming space: physically, emotionally, spiritually. Yes, we absolutely want to welcome people physically, this is the most basic tenet of hospitality: yes, please come through our door, come into our space, we want you here. But people also contain multitudes…and the kind of welcome, the kind of nurture that they might need, might be deeper, might be unseen, might take time, might only be something that God can do. The existence and the maintenance of welcoming, open and nurturing space is more than just that first invitation, it is instead an ongoing endeavor, for the invitation to cross our many personal thresholds is something we all need over and over again.
Therefore, I believe our philosophy of welcome needs to be holistic, recognizing that the stranger can be found on multiple levels and in multiple ways. And, always, we draw on God’s reminder to us to anchor in empathy. Remember when you were in Egypt, remember when you were hungry, when you were sad, grieving, lonely, hurt, confused, and a stranger to yourself. Remember when you were brought into the circle, remember how it felt to find respite, to find community, to find acceptance…and so now, go and do likewise.
From Shalonda Ingram, NURSHA project founder, and place-making ministry leader at The Church of the Holy City:
Happy and Blessed Lunar New Year!
I am grateful for the opportunity to practice allyship with members of the Church of the Holy City Wilmington community.
I assert that the aim to create welcoming, open and nurturing spaces - physically, emotionally and spiritually is materializing. The placemaking ministry that I am fortunate to lead, is a wonderful demonstration of how the mission statement is operating in the lives of engaged people.
Since the placemaking ministry was welcomed onsite: artists have produced impactful multimedia content, Green for the Greater Good has a consistent place for their weekly civic planning meetings, members of the church are learning new technology platforms and collaborating to be of greater service.
These collective outcomes have required openness to newness: new ideas, new people, new meeting schedules, new investments and new ways of being. These collective outcomes have required nurturing: of the physical building and materials therein, nurturing of relationships and at times nurturing one another emotionally.
As we continue to grow our collective practice of physicalizing this portion of the mission statement; I invite you to contemplate a quote from The Tao Te Ching is a Chinese classic text written around 400 BC and traditionally credited to the sage Laozi:
“Thirty spokes join one hub.
The wheel’s use comes from emptiness.
Clay is fired to make a pot.
The pot’s use comes from emptiness.
Windows and doors are cut to make a room.
The room’s use comes from emptiness.
Having leads to profit,
Not having leads to use.”
– The Tao Te Ching
May we each continue to create the emptiness within ourselves, to be of use. May we authentically share space, time and our journeys with one another in meaningful ways. May the balance be restored.
And so it is. Amen.
New International Version
33 “ ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.
34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
New Revised Standard
33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.
34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
New King James Version
33 'And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him.
34 The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
American Standard Version
33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong.
34 The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt: I am Jehovah your God.
King James Version
33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.
34 But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
Revised Standard Version
33 "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.
34 The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
Secrets of Heaven 1463
That 'sojourning' means receiving instruction becomes clear from the meaning in the Word of 'sojourning' as receiving instruction, and it has this meaning because sojourning and passing on, or moving from one place to another, is in heaven nothing else than a change of state… Therefore every time traveling, sojourning, or transferring from one place to another occurs in the Word nothing else suggests itself to angels than a change of state such as takes place with them.
Readings: Psalm 33 (portions), John 17, 20-26, True Christianity 99 (see below)
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Photo credit: Anastasiya Lobanovskaya
Welcome to our new series: Exploring Mission. Each week we will be exploring an aspect of our church’s mission statement. Why is it important to do this? Certainly in the new year, we often reflect on how we are doing, examine our habits, our perspectives, and our values in order to make commitments to the things that are important to us. This can be just as important for groups to do as individuals.
Because, sometimes it is very easy to get caught up in the what, the when, and the how, without spending much time on the WHY. And the why really is the heart of it all. The why fuels the when the what and the how, the why gives these things their meaning and their urgency.
So, I thought we might spend each week for the next several weeks until Lent, looking at a piece of our church’s mission statement and connecting them to the spiritual ideas that drive them. And hopefully, this exploration will also feel relevant to our everyday lives, because the work of church isn’t separate from our daily lives, it is just an aspect of our spiritual lives that we choose to do together in community.
So let’s begin with our mission statement itself:
The Church of the Holy City exists to help people be open to God’s presence and to facilitate spiritual well-being.
We do this by:
Today we are going to focus on the first section: The Church of the Holy City exists to help people be open to God’s presence and to facilitate spiritual well-being.
While there are a couple of ideas that could be explored here, the one I’m going to focus on is God’s presence. The work we do here is to help people be *open* to God’s presence. Now, this implies that God is already present, and this is an important part of our theology. We believe in a loving God who is present for everybody, no matter who they are, no matter what faith or religion they might be, or even if they have no faith. So, not a distant God, not an angry God, not a judgmental or condemning God, not a transactional God. Swedenborg writes:
[The presence of God] appears to be far away. Yet God is actually close to each of us, for God is in us with his essence. (TC 22:2)
This is God’s default. To love us and be present with us. No secret passwords or creeds, no good enough or worthy enough. God’s steadfast love is referenced over and over again in the Bible, like in our Psalm for today, and this is what it means. God will never give up on us. We will always receive a baseline of love and acceptance because we are God’s beloved creation and nothing will ever change that.
But, it is important to note that presence is one thing and relationship is another. Presence is the gateway to relationship, it’s the table stakes. However, as we heard in our reading for today for two things or people to be in an actual relationship there needs to be reciprocity between them. God show up for us, and the next question is: what do we do in response.
Do we turn towards God and open ourselves up to relationship with God?
Because, if presence is all that we are willing to allow for God, then God will take it but that is not all that God wants. Swedenborg writes: love is nothing but an effort to forge a partnership. The essence of love is loving others who are outside oneself, wanting to be one with them…Divine love constantly aims to forge a partnership with us…it is what we were created for. (TCR 369:3)
So, yes, God’s presence is a given, but we can also choose how “open” and responsive we are to that presence. We can choose to enter into an active partnership with God, or we can choose not to. And this choice, is one that we make over and over again in our everyday lives. Some days we will be selfish and fearful and prideful, and we will stomp our feet and close our eyes to God. Some days we will be distracted and anxious, and we will get caught up in our cycles and our patterns and we will forget about God. Some days we will be focused and successful and driven, and perhaps we will feel satisfied and that we don’t even need God very much. This is what human beings do and we all struggle with it. And so, human beings over millennia have gathered together to help each other remember the presence of God in lots of different ways, when we have forgotten. Through useful work, though quiet retreat, through communal ritual and music, through forms of prayer and meditation and reflection, we gather to remember God together, we gather to support each other in creating open spaces in our hearts and minds into which God can flow.
When we remember, when we are able to create just a little distance from our own habits, our own self-obsession, our own self-ness, then there is space for us to feel God’s presence, a presence already there but sometimes made inaccessible by our own patterns.
And so this is why our mission statement begins with helping each other be open to God’s presence. This choice, this moment-by-moment spiritual practice, is the beginning from which all else comes. But it’s hard! The forgetting is so easy. Just like we might ask a partner, “Hey remind me to put out the trash later", so too we gather together with each other to say, “Hey, remind me about God.”
But as we end this message here today, I’ll be honest and say that I hesitated over this whole sermon series idea because it seemed like it might be too inward-looking. So I want to end each week with the question of “why does this all matter?”
Let’s be honest, life is absurd. The fact that we are all here and the world exists is absurd. But we do. We *are* here. And since we are, we may as well do something meaningful with our existence. This is the essential choice we are presented with: as we go about trying to create meaning, trying to survive and thrive, are we going to make ourselves and our desires primary or are we going to share the joy as much as possible, serve each other with love and care, knowing that we are all connected.
Of course, this commitment to service does not mean being a martyr, ignoring our own intuition or natural intelligence, thinking that being good always means putting ourselves last; it means that even when we do focus on ourselves, we are doing it in the context of community. My health leading to your health, my self-acceptance leading to your self-acceptance, my courage leading to your courage. There is an essential acknowledgement that we are all in this together and that we owe something to each other.
The beginning of this type of communal, connective mindset is the recognition that there is something essential outside of our own selfhood, our own ego, our own desires. In our tradition, we call that God. It’s not the only word that works for that purpose. But the essential point of being open to God’s presence means recognizing that *we* are not the whole world. It has to begin with that. When it does, when we recognize that the people around us are just as real as we are, just as beloved, just as complicated, then that becomes a place of wonderfully rich and dynamic learning, as well as useful service. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I’m here for.
Psalm 33 (portions)
1 Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
2 Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.
4 For the word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.
5 The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.
6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
7 He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses.
13 From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all humankind;
14 from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth--
15 he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do.
16 No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.
17 A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.
18 But the eyes of the LORD are on those who revere him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
20 We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.
21 In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.
22 May your unfailing love be with us, LORD, even as we put our hope in you.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,
21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one
23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me.
26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
True Christianity 99
The union is reciprocal because no union or partnership between two exists unless each party moves closer to the other. Every partnership in the entirety of heaven, in all the world, and throughout the human form is the result of two parties moving into a closer relationship with each other until both parties intend the same things. This leads to a similarity, harmony, unanimity, and agreement in every detail between the parties.
This is how our soul and our body form a partnership with each other…This is how the minds of people who deeply love each other form a partnership. It is an integral part of all love and friendship. Love wants to love and it wants to be loved…
If a given partnership is not the result of two things moving closer to each other in a mutual and reciprocal way, then a partnership develops that is only superficial rather than deep. In time, the partners in a superficial relationship drift away from each other, sometimes so far that they no longer recognize each other.
Making the Journey
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, Secrets of Heaven #2849, #5605 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo credit: Nubia Navarro
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. 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…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 often 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.
And so while we often focus on the gifts that the Magi bring: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, we can’t forget the other gift in the story: the star.
In the Swedenborgian worldview, the star represents knowledge learned from heaven and God(1), knowledge learned from something beyond us, knowledge that draws us forward, 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, a long long way. They rose up out of their own context and traveled to another, not knowing exactly what they would find, led by a star, and 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: by thoughts of the greater good, and how we are being called to rise up to meet whatever spiritual growth God has in mind for us.
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 involves; the journey was the gift, the gold, frankincense and myrrh simply a 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.
And we get to choose to enact this later 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.
(1) 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 2849
As the stars of the heavens symbolizes abundant deeper knowledge of goodness and truth.
Spiritual people are the ones compared to stars in various places in the Word, and this is because they know about goodness and truth.
Secrets of Heaven 5605
'And we will rise up and go…means spiritual life entered into by degrees. This is clear from the meaning of 'rising up' as a raising up to higher or more internal things, and therefore to those that constitute spiritual life…[and] from the meaning of 'going' as living…
Refusing To Be Comforted
Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23, Secrets of Heaven 4572:2 (see below)
See also on Youtube
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. In our recent history, we have seen the murder of George Floyd, mountains of #metoo revelations pouring forth as if a dam had broken, an epidemic of violence against indigenous women, an unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine. When we add the loss of life due to the pandemic, the continued increase in white supremacy and anti-semitism, and the pre-emptive grief and anxiety of climate change, and it seems that if we let it all in we might never be done with the weeping and mourning.
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, normal, or necessary. For often, the type of consolation that the world gives is a type that would wipe away, cover over, distract from, all that would make us mourn, all that still needs to be done. The world whispers: Take a look at this new thing… And we move on to whatever is now distracting us.
Now, to some, this refusal to be comforted might sound like it is a dismissal of God’s peace and grace. There is so much in the bible that tells us to take comfort from God’s presence and love. And we should - but not the kind of comfort that makes forget about injustice. I would argue that Rachel’s refusal to be comforted it is actually 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. 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)
He became their savior *in* all their distress. 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. God’s consolation is presence within our experience and is what keeps us going within the process of transformation. 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)
Consolation and comfort come from good and truth being joined together in life, from a bone-deep recognition of God’s love, and a knowing that this love can and will be manifest in wise and compassionate ways. 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. For when we understand what God’s salvation is really about, how the Isaiah text and the Christmas story tells us of a God that is our savior *within* our distress, within our suffering, within our life and within our world…we understand 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 refusing 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. And, 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.
It is not how God would have 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.
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.
What Have You Seen and Heard?
Readings: Isaiah 35, Matthew 11:2-11, Heaven and Hell #522
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Photo by Soly Moses: https://www.pexels.com/photo/purple-flower-field-near-gray-rocky-mountain-6085519/
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 this certainly resonates with the season of Advent. It also signals 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, especially these last few years. We and those around us are grappling with loss, with anxiety, with change, with not having enough, with broken relationships, with a suffering earth, with healing from a disruptive pandemic that is still around, by the way. We grapple with a political realm in which it seems like, for some, 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?
And what it is that Jesus answers? He asks: 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, and 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? And, have we worked to bring any of these blessings to the life of another? Am I coming? says the Lord. If you look around you will see that 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, hearing aids that allow babies to hear their mother’s voices, solar powered desalination plants that bring clean fresh water to barren landscapes, a vaccine that allows us to travel to see each other again. We see all this and so much more. Am I coming? asks the Lord. I have already come.
This is what it looks like when God comes to us — when we each work to make a difference, to help divine love be incarnated concretely in this world and the lives of people. 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?And now we pause, because perhaps we 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 species is resurrected only when we humans refrain from hunting through law and consequence. A vaccine can only be fast-tracked by building on the hard work and sacrifice of those who came before.
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. (Isaiah 35:4)
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.
For our loving God, the one born for us in the manger, is also 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. It is a truth that the caterpillar dissolves completely in its cocoon but 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.”(2)
“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 ripping off our bandaid, 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.
(2) 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 leprosy are 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.
Becoming the Peaceable Kingdom
Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12, True Christianity #571 (see below)
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Photo by stein egil liland: https://www.pexels.com/photo/flock-of-sheep-on-gray-rock-during-sunset-8604876/
Here we are already on the third Sunday of Advent. Christmas is fast approaching, and will be here before we know it. For a lot of us, we can have mixed feelings about the holiday season. 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. It is a remarkable vision that 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, to impose it upon us outwardly. 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, coupled with 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.(2) 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 Swedenborg reading today describes this change and how it happens. It tells us that the first part of change is a new perspective, a new way of thinking. This is important, but it is just a beginning, for we can all hold new ideas in our minds that don’t lead to anything really being different. The second part of change is when these ideas become a part of what we will, what we love, and what we do. Swedenborg calls this a reversal, since we are no longer driven purely by an idea but by the good things this idea can accomplish, by the love and blessings it can create. A loving heart leading and creating a consistently loving mind. And I quote:
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….In brief, we are reborn.
What an optimistic view of humanity! The more we love, the more loving 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 real city will drop down out of the sky. We understand it to be a metaphor for the transformation of humanity and the world we live in. And just like for the peaceable kingdom, it cannot happen just externally. The city will not just arrive and settle down around us, as if we have nothing to do with it. 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 humankind. 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.”(3)
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 John the Baptist always shows up somewhere in Advent, 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 continue in 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.
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; 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.
The Elements of Community
Readings: Luke 19:1-9, Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Today our gospel reading is a short (pun-intended) anecdote but it really does have so much contained within it. It articulates themes such as economic justice, repentance, social inclusion, salvation, jealousy, and stereotyping. And in a larger sense, I believe that its most basic and important message is about community.
We already last week established just how suspiciously tax collectors were viewed by the Judeans in Jesus time. The tax collectors were local Judeans who worked for the Roman empire to gather the taxes owed by the local population, and often, they collected more than necessary so as to line their own pockets. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, meaning that he oversaw all the other tax collectors. He was someone who had benefited from a corrupt system, had gotten wealthy on the backs of ordinary people. Even though he is described in a quirky and amusing way in this story, running and climbing a tree as he does, when we remember how it is that he has succeeded in the world, it is hard to have sympathy for someone who has enriched themselves in such an unethical way.
And yet. The whole of the story hinges on this sense of “and yet….”
Zacchaeus had worldly wealth. He had wholeheartedly bought into a corrupt system and taken advantage of it. And still, he clearly yearned for something. Something felt off. Something drew him to Jesus. Something drew him so strongly that he indulged in the quite undignified behavior of running through a crowd and climbing a tree. Remember, this was wealthy person, with reputation and status. Sitting in a tree trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
Now Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem for the final time. He was about to triumphantly enter Jerusalem in the manner in which we celebrate for Palm Sunday. He is about to drive the sellers from the temple, he is about to clash with the chief priests, he is about to celebrate the Last Supper with the disciples and be betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane. What is the last thing that he does before this final descent? What is the final act of his public ministry before the march to the cross is begun? He looks up in a tree and notices someone, someone reviled, and probably deservedly so, someone hesitantly peering around a corner, someone in a liminal space, someone everyone else thought was beyond redemption.
And Jesus resolutely, whether Zacchaeus felt ready for it or not, invites himself to stay at his house. Jesus final act of public ministry in the gospel of Luke is an act of inclusion and community. It was an act of faith. And the people around him grumbled about it. But it was an act that ultimately culminated in repentance and justice. Zacchaeus was given the space and the opportunity to change and grow, to do something bold and unexpected. Why and how did this happen? Because Jesus brought him into community, acted from an ethic of inclusion and possibility, and engaged him.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the nature of heaven, about how no one there can have any life at all apart from community. And I quote: “for one person’s life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others.” Swedenborg speaks of a universe that is held together by the connectedness of its parts. Angels connected to each other through community in heaven, heaven connected to the world through our communion with angels. Indeed, Swedenborg writes that without that connection to spirit, a person in the world “cannot go on living any longer.” This connectedness is integral to our life, our being, our existence.
So, the very foundation of spiritual reality is based upon the deep connection of people to each other. Community is integral to the way that God has brought creation into being. Science bears this out as well. A quick google search will deliver multiple examples of studies that describe the negative health effects of social isolation and loneliness. We need community to be emotionally, mentally and physically healthy, as we have all learned personally over the last few years.
So, we learn from mystical revelation that community is important. We learn from science that community is important. We know from our own personal experience that community is important. What specifically do we learn about community from the Zaccheaus story? That community has some essential elements and benefits, among them: the actions of noticing and inviting, of engagement, and of vulnerability and forgiveness.
First, the noticing and the inviting. This was something that Jesus was often doing, in this gospel and the others. Jesus would notice the people that were going unnoticed for various reasons: the mentally ill and the possessed, the sick, the paralyzed, tax collectors and other “sinners”, women, widows, Samaritans. This noticing and including was one of the main reasons Jesus had a scandalous reputation. His ministry was to ordinary people like his disciples, but also to the forgotten, and this was unusual. In our story today, Jesus was already he was on a journey to somewhere, he had somewhere to be. But he still noticed Zacchaeus and then opened up a space for interaction. Community is made through noticing each other, including each other, valuing each other, especially when we don’t really think we deserve it or need it.
Then, there is good faith engagement, coupled with curiousity and respect. Jesus sat at the table of a “sinner” and the people grumbled, either out of jealousy or a misguided sense of what was proper. But God will always engage us if there is opportunity; it is part of God’s inexhaustible love for us. God never tires of engagement. God never gives up on us. Likewise, when people gather in intentional community, they talk to each other, they share their ideas and their viewpoints. When viewpoints differ, good faith engagement means people not giving up on each other, working to see the good in each other. Yes, this sometimes might mean skillful communicating and setting boundaries for each other but this is the give and take of community. It is how we move forward and it is how we learn.
And finally, we come to the meat of the issue, the height of what community, at its best, can offer us: Vulnerability and Forgiveness:
There are times that community can offer us an amazing gift: the safety to be able to be who we are. To speak our truth and our experience, and to be held in safety and love while doing that. When we have been noticed, invited, and engaged with love and respect, community can be a place where we can be vulnerable, a place that is home to us. And I believe that is what God wants for us: to feel at home in our body, our life, our experience, our journey, our surroundings. And this is why community is so important and integral to spiritual life and reality, because it creates a spiritual home for us, a gift of love to each other through God.
Additionally, the gift of vulnerability works wonders in other ways. As much as it can be important and affirming to be vulnerable in admitting who are, the ability to be vulnerable is also integral to creating the space where we can change if we need to. This is where the Zacchaeus story ultimately takes us. Zacchaeus had some repenting to do. Admitting that we are wrong about something and need to change can be a most terrifying thing. Our survival instincts kick in, and our lizard brain worries we will be booted out of the group. So we cling to our rightness. But we must remember, what is it that allowed Zacchaeus to repent? Jesus affirmed him in community, he felt safe enough to be vulnerable and make restitution. The moral absolutists among us (myself included) might certainly have wished that Zacchaeus had recognized the wrongness of his ways and repented before Jesus came to him, because it was right and not because it was safe. But, it takes a very special kind of moral courage to act this way, and while we shouldn’t necessarily let go our expectation that such moral courage is good and should exist, we also need to recognize what kind of creatures humans beings really are: fallible, scared, limited, and needing each other’s support.
And so, what we see is that Jesus is pragmatic. God knows us. God knows that we need prompting, nudging, safety, and reassurance. In the difficult work of spiritual progress, God knows that we need each other, that we need to provide safety and encouragement and forgiveness for each other. We hold each other up, draw each other toward our better selves, providing inspiration and honesty as needed. We provide for each other the space to grow and change and be wrong and change our minds. Community forgives because community knows that we all need forgiveness, in one way or another.
Now, that doesn’t mean that community does not have its downsides. It can be, and often is, used as a bias bubble, an echo chamber, an emotional prop; community of the inward-looking kind can foster complacency, can foster systemic and ongoing injustice. We human beings take what God has given for good and we twist it into something that serves the self. That’s what we do. And our spiritual work is to stop doing that. God believes that we can and Zacchaeus showed us that we can.
What we see in this story, is what can happen when community is extended beyond where we think it “ought” to go. Whether that means extending community towards others, or whether that means allowing community into our own life, in ways that makes us nervous, we can know that God built the universe on the gift of community and connectedness. And because of that fact, that one very simple fact, then we can know that no one is beyond redemption.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
This being the nature of heaven, no angel or spirit can possibly have any life unless they live in some community, and in so doing in a harmonious relationship of many people. A community is nothing else than the harmonious relationship of many, for one person's life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others. Indeed no angel, spirit, or community can possibly have any life, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, if they are not joined to heaven and to the world of spirits through the many in their own community. The same applies to the human race. No one whatever, no matter who, can possibly live, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, unless they have in like manner been joined to heaven through the angels residing with them…
 For everyone during their lifetime are dwelling in some community of spirits or angels, although they are not conscious of doing so. And if they are not joined to heaven or the world of spirits by means of the community in which they live, they cannot go on living one moment longer.
Going to Pray
Readings: Psalm 51: 1, 7, 10-12, 16-17, Luke 18:9-14, Secrets of Heaven 874 (see below)
Also see on Youtube
Photo credit: Ric Rodrigues
This is a parable that is going to get a little meta: Jesus cautions us against making judgements based on stereotypes and caricatures by using…you guessed it, stereotypes and caricatures.
As we consider this parable, it is really important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the story is about the characters in it. The parable really isn’t about a Pharisee and a tax collector, per se. We aren’t supposed to draw conclusions about either of those groups of people in general. The characters, and the assumptions that the original hearers would have had about them, are there to help us to come to a recognition of the ways in which our own tribalism and self-absorption can lead us to make assumptions about others that are not accurate.
So, the parable works by starting in one place, and then bringing us full circle around to interrogate the assumptions with which we began. Like many of Jesus parables, this one would definitely have shocked the original hearers, for he subverts their expectations on multiple levels.
Jerusalem was very sectarian in Jesus’ time. There were various groups and movements within Judaism that were in conversation with each other around the optimal way to practice being a Jew. Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, describes Pharisaism this way: that it was a movement that “emphasized obedience to the law as a way of making God’s benefits visible to God’s people”, and “adherence to religious ritual as a way to encounter holiness in the everyday.” (1) These topics were of great interest to Jesus and his own ministry, so it makes sense that Jesus would find himself in conversation (and to a certain extent, in competition) with the Pharisees. Like any movement though, within Pharisaism there would have had some who were practicing with integrity, and others who were not.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus delivering a multi-level critique, not only of religious practice, but about how religion becomes allied with power and commerce and politics. So, Jesus had a very complicated relationship with the Pharisees. There were some who actually agreed with him (find refs), and some who argued with him. When Jesus saw that some of them were upholding external ritual but being internally corrupt, he critiqued them and called them hypocrites. I’m sure Jesus, if speaking to us today, would have equally harsh words for any of us who would show up to church, sing hymns and take communion, and then go home and treat our loved ones badly or go to work and act dishonestly. The general point that Jesus was often making—don’t be a hypocrite, and external ritual can’t buy salvation—applies to us now just as much as to the Pharisees then. And just to be clear, it doesn’t apply more to the Pharisees then than it does to us now. They were just the ones who happened to be in conversation with Jesus about these topics in his day.
Over time, as the early Christian movement grew out of Judaism, and then found itself in conflict with Judaism, the gospel writers would often use Pharisee “as a cipher for villain.” (2) Christianity ran with this, and Pharisee became short-hand for “hypocrite” or “legalist trying to earn God’s favor.” Worse still, Christians have often assumed that the gospel depiction of Pharisees is historically accurate overall and a useful education on the nature, practice and motivation of Judaism today, which has contributed to anti-Judaism. We should be very careful not to fall into this trap, or to further this mistaken practice. Religion allied with power was the condition that was in conflict with Jesus, not Pharisaism per se, and definitely not Judaism, and we are just as vulnerable to the excesses and overreach of religion allied with power today as then.
The point that Jesus was trying to make here, is not that Pharisees would naturally be arrogant, but that the cultural understanding of the time, that learning and ritual purity would make someone more likely to receive God’s mercy, was not correct. The common person has just as much access to God’s mercy as the learned and elite and powerful.
And the reason that this was so very surprising in the context of the parable, is that Jesus heightened the contrast between the two characters. The second person coming to pray was not a figure like the beleaguered widow from last week, nor a common fisherman like the disciples, but the worst person that the hearers could imagine. A tax collector. These days, we might not much enjoy paying our taxes or doing our tax returns, but the whole process is rather automated and bureaucratic, and certainly lawful. We don’t hate the good folks at H&R Block. In Jesus day however, the Jewish people were being taxed by an occupying power, not their own monarch and certainly not a democratically elected government. So already, they were resentful, understandably so. To make matters worse, the Roman empire would usually contract with local people to collect the taxes owed, and these people would often collect more than necessary to line their own pockets. In that context, many tax collectors were turncoats and collaborators and mobsters. You can imagine how reviled they were, by ordinary people just trying to get by.
So imagine then the surprise, when it is the tax collector who is lifted up as the model in this parable. In one fell swoop, Jesus indicts the Pharisee for arrogantly assuming the internal state fo the tax collector, and indicts the hearers for assuming likewise.
The point being, that we cannot assume that we know where God’s mercy should go. That is not for us to know, nor for us to have an opinion about. And, just as the original hearers might well have thought “There is no way that God will the hear the prayers of that tax collector”, so too if any of us now are looking at the parable and saying to ourselves “typical Pharisee, how arrogant and legalistic” we are doing exactly the same thing as the character of the Pharisee is doing towards the tax collector. And we should probably stop it.
The thing is, it is not exactly wrong for the Pharisee to pray in thanksgiving for his benefits. The problem was in how the recognition of those benefits led him to look down on others. Let’s now take a look at this through a Swedenborgian lens. These characters represent our spiritual process, and the fact is that we are all in process, and God’s mercy is present to us wherever we are in that process. From our reading:
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration…, a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
So, the first step on the journey is being like the Pharisee; acting in certain external ways because we believe that we should, that it is right, that it is what God wants for us. This is totally appropriate, in fact, very necessary. The problem is that this initial step relies very much on our own selfhood, and the pleasure and gratification that our selfhood/goodness relays to us.
And if is we don’t keep moving in the process, moving towards a recognition that it is by the Lord’s power that we can do what is good and not our own, the more we will be tempted to identify with how our own selfhood and ego makes us feel. We will be more tempted towards behaviors that increase our perceived superiority.
This is why Jesus lifted up the tax collector’s prayer, an honest acknowledgement of where our ego will naturally take us given free reign. Biblical language calls that being a sinner, other traditions might call it being in delusion. The reality is though, that all goodness, power and love flows into from God; it does not originate in us. We can choose to open ourselves up to, or close ourselves off from, that inflow. And the main thing that closes us off from God’s inflow is believing that it doesn’t exist, thinking that goodness arises from ourselves. The inflow will always continue to flow toward us, but we have placed ourselves out of alignment with it. So the tax collector’s prayer was good, it acknowledged the mercy of God, and how dependent we really are on God.
But we have to realize that this prayer was not perfect either, or at least, not complete. Did the tax collector promise to change? No, actually he didn’t, though maybe it was implied. Was he afraid to? Unsure how to? Perhaps, we don’t know. All we do know, is that recognition of our sins, our habits and tendencies, and the recognition of our reliance on God is a very good and necessary precursor to change.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are both pictures of us in different places in our spiritual process, both a little stalled in their own unique ways. At every phase in our journey, there are places where we can get stuck, and we may well keep coming back to those places time and time again.
We definitely need to be able to be humble and recognize the nature of our selfhood, but we can’t let that be all we do, or let that become an impediment to change. We need to act. This is the tax collector’s work to do, what he needs to find the courage to attend to.
When we do act, it will always feel like it is from our own selfhood. This is necessary, this is good. Positive feedback and a sense of effectiveness is important. The temptation at this point though, is to think that we deserve merit for “doing it right.” We need to avoid getting caught up in our own sense of righteousness or to start thinking that we are better than someone else in some other place in the process. This is the Pharisee’s work to do.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are two sides of a coin, and we may find ourselves resonating with either one of them at different times in our life. God lets us be where we need to be in order to take our next step. But let us be sure to always try to see the wholeness of each person’s journey, and not fall into stereotyping. Caricatures can be helpful to make a point, but they are not real. People are real.
Psalm 51: 1, 7, 10-12, 16-17
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Secrets of Heaven #874
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration…a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
Still, none of the good we do and none of the truth we contemplate while holding this opinion (a mistaken one) is the kind of goodness or truth that makes a part of faith. Nothing that we produce from ourselves can be good, because it is from ourselves…we are always thinking about how deserving and righteous we are. Some people, as the Lord teaches in Luke 18:9-14, go further and despise others in comparison with themselves. Others do other things just as bad. Self-centered desires add themselves to the mixture, making the exterior look good, although the interior is filthy.
As a consequence, the good that we do at this stage is not the good that belongs to faith. It is the same with the truth that we think. Even if the idea we adopt is absolutely true and is in itself a valid religious concept, nonetheless as long as we adopt it for selfish reasons, it has no religious good within it. Any truth, in order to be theologically true, has to have the good of faith from the Lord within it. That is when it first becomes good and true.
Readings: Amos 2:6, 14-16, Luke 18:1-8, Marriage Love 365:5 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Photo by Mikhail Nilov: https://www.pexels.com/photo/pair-of-boxing-gloves-on-gray-surface-6739946/
As is very common with biblical parables, we might find ourselves a little confused upon reading this one, asking “What is the point of this parable?” Understandably. There are not one, but several points to this parable. Among them, the utility of persistent prayer, the responsibility of society toward the vulnerable, the responsiveness of God towards our need, and reflection on the quality of faith. It can be a little hard to figure out where to place our attention.
We are first introduced to the unjust judge. Certainly to us even now, he reads as callous and potentially corrupt. Additionally, to the Jewish hearers of this parable, he would also have immediately appeared religiously bankrupt as well. The Jewish scriptures repeatedly advocate for the care of widows and orphans and foreigners, people who are easily forgotten, who have no obvious recourse for survival amid patriarchal structures. In this context, The judge did not revere God and God’s commands, and so of course, did not feel any responsibility towards the vulnerable.
Then we are introduced to the figure of the widow. Now, when I read this parable, my internal image of the widow is someone who is meek. Persistent yes, but diminutive. This is totally my own baggage but I imagine her in the the way that I might advocate for my own self in real life. (knock knock) “Um, excuse me, I’m so sorry to be bothering you, but I have this problem, can you help me? (knock knock) I know that you are terribly busy but if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at my case? (knock knock) Yes, I know, its me again, but I really could use your help…” etc etc.
This picture of the widow is not supported by the text, though it is hard for us to tell this by the English. What is often translated as “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will vindicate her, or in the end she will wear me out by her continual coming,” in the original greek, is actually a boxing metaphor. Its literal usage means to beat someone black and blue. I’m not saying the language was meant to imply that the judge thought the widow was really going to get violent, but rather, that the use of such a metaphor creates a very different picture to the deferential one I instinctively created in my mind. The widow was being a nuisance in such a way that caused the judge to use language that evoked being under attack.
And we see that, even so, this widow is lifted up as a faithful example. So while the parable is framed as being about prayer, I think we could also draw some lessons about persistence in relation to injustice in general, and about how we might approach eradicating injustice.
From the widow’s example then, clearly, we are to be people who notice injustice. And, we are to be people who are troubled and concerned about injustice. And, we are to be people who are persistent about correcting injustice, who are not content with allowing corrupt institutions or people (ie the judge) to go about business-as-usual. If our situation is unjust, we are empowered to resist it, not just once, but over and over again, until justice is restored.
What is more, we are empowered to resist with passion. The widow was clearly passionate enough in her entreaties to the judge that he employed a fighting metaphor to characterize her. In a real situation, we cannot know how much the judge’s own paranoia, or guilty conscience, might be projecting on to her. But, I do think a reflection upon the utility of righteous anger is appropriate here.
We heard in our reading today about what Swedenborg called zeal, that is, the condition under which we are moved to act passionately out of love. He points out that zeal often looks very much like anger, in that it can appear strident, or bristly. However, what is key is not so much what the zeal looks like to an observer, but what is motivating it internally. He writes:
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different…
The point being that what matters is the internal motivation. Righteous zeal or anger is trying to protect something good and just. It can certainly be working for something that is good and just for the self —the widow was advocating for herself and her own situation; it is not that zeal is must always completely self-less or purely altruistic in order to be motivated by something good. But ultimately, righteous anger is advocating for a just principle that serves more than the self. An example is the Civil rights movement: each person of color involved in this movement was certainly advocating for themselves and their own inherent right to be treated justly, but also in a larger sense, they were fighting for the principle that all people have a right to be treated justly, as much of MLKs soaring rhetoric demonstrated.
Whereas, zeal or anger that comes from a wellspring of hatred and vengeance might take upon it any number of external justifications, even might look like it is working for the greater good, but its ultimate root is the perverse satisfaction of seeing others suffer under its zeal. Again from our reading, Swedenborg writes:
[its] internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions…. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash.
We are cautioned here against anger for the sake of anger, anger makes us feel powerful and potent and superior, as opposed to anger roused for the sake of justice itself, for the sake of how justice might be realized for all. Due to its emotional potency, anger can be seductive, even if we start out with good motivations, we can become addicted to how it makes us feel. Even more so if our anger has always burned for selfish reasons, smoldering in wait for a reason to lash out.
So it can be easy to imagine that anger is always a bad thing, and this can be confusing when we contemplate how often God is characterize as angry and wrathful in the bible. In the Old Testament, the prophets portrayed God as extremely angry when the Israelites consistently worshiped idols and ignored the vulnerable among them. From Amos we hear:
This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.(2:6) “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.” (6:8)
Swedenborg makes the important point however, that even with God, how it might have appeared to the prophets, how they interpreted their visions in their context, is different from the reality. He writes:
So it is that the Lord's zeal, which in itself is love and compassion, is seen by them as anger…in fact there is no anger whatever in the Divine, nor any evil whatever, only pure forbearance and mercy. (1)
If God’s love and compassion are infinite, certainly God’s zeal, God’s passion, for us is beyond imagining. Love and compassion demand justice for all who are loved, demand that each beloved child of God be able to experience conditions of safety and contentment. Systems, like patriarchy for example, often serve some and not others, and can lead to some people, through no fault of their own, to be forgotten. But where injustice prevails, God sees those who are forgotten and lifts them up. Thus God’s zeal works for justice, for access for all to what they need to survive and thrive.
So how does God work to see that the forgotten, like the widow in the parable, be brought into community, into thriving? One way is through just systems and institutions instead of unjust ones. God gave a system of laws to a community, in the Old Testament this was the Israelites, and this community set up systems of justice so that they might be able to hold each other accountable to a shared mission for the greater good. And thus we see the widow appealing to the judge in the parable.
Such institutions are not infallible of course. People like the unjust judge rise up into power. People motivated by winning, by profit, supremacy, reputation, and glory. This is why we see in this parable a contrasting comparison between God and the judge. Even though this judge was associated with a system of justice, his heart was not in it. But God’s heart is always in it for us. God’s spirit moves along with those seeking for, working for, and creating justice. God’s spirit responds to this work and this desire. Our shared institutions, our shared vision for our communities need not be co-opted by selfishness. God will work with us to create and support a just world.
And so this widow is lifted up, that we might all seek the realization of a world in which she does not need to supplicate, did not need persistence, a world that sees her and values her automatically. For this we might pray, yes, in our minds and hearts, but we also pray with our feet, our letters, our compassionate and open conversation, our service, and our persistent protest.
Of course, when we talk about good zeal and bad zeal, righteous anger and unrighteous anger, we separate something in concept that is much more complicated in reality. We all act from mixed motivations. We all act from fear and self-centeredness sometimes, and altruism and love other times. We are simply human. So, if we are to take on the full import of this parable, to assimilate the necessity of persistent prayer towards a just world, we must recognize that our own hearts are a part of that world. Our persistent prayer cannot be for God’s intercession separate from our own engagement, for we know that God doesn’t work like that, our persistent prayer must be for justice to prevail in each and every heart, ours included.
For, righteous anger is powerful, and it is a very good thing in so far as it motivates us, gives us courage, gives us hope, gives us resilience, gives us the fortitude to do something difficult over and over again. But we cannot allow ourselves to get caught up in that power. Swedenborg writes:
The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
Let us watch ourselves then, with both compassion and accountability, watch when our anger dissipates and when it does not, and ask ourselves what we holding on to and why. Zeal for justice is borne out of love, and when justice is achieved, love is what remains. It can be a cautious love, a wise love, a love with boundaries, a love born of clarity, but it holds possibility within it, not vengeance. A possibility that brings us all forward together, if we allow for it.
(1) Secrets of Heaven #8875
Amos 2:6, 14-16
6 This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.
14 The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life. 15 The archer will not stand his ground, the fleet-footed soldier will not get away, and the horseman will not save his life. 16 Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,” declares the LORD.
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Marriage Love #365:5
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different; and the differences are as follows:
1. The zeal of a good love is like a heavenly flame, which never leaps out to attack another, but only defends itself - defending itself against an evil assailant in much the same way as when such a one rushes at fire and is burned; whereas the zeal of an evil love is like a hellish flame, which spontaneously leaps out and rushes upon another and tries to devour him.
2. The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
3. The reason for this is that the internal element in one who is prompted by a love of good, is, in itself, gentle, mild, friendly and kind. Consequently, even when, to protect itself, the external element hardens, stiffens, bristles, and so acts harshly, still it is tempered by the goodness which moves its internal element. Not so in evil people. In them the internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash; and if these fires do not break out in the world, nevertheless they do after death.