Photo credit: Mimi Moromisato
Readings: Psalm 130, Matthew 6:9-15, Divine Providence #280 (see below)
Forgiveness is one of those topics that seems like it simple on the outside, but actually contains multitudes within it. I believe this is partly because forgiveness is such an emotional topic. To countenance forgiveness, we have to come face to face with the fact that human beings mess up so much and hurt each other all the time. Thinking deeply about forgiveness means we have to acknowledge that these hurts have ongoing consequences, that they are sometimes held deep within us for a long time. We have to embrace accountability and admit how difficult that is for the human ego, and that many times we will avoid it. And we have to acknowledge the fragility of human relationship, how dependent it is upon our ability to forgive each other.
So, it makes sense that forgiveness would be part of the Lord’s prayer; it is an important spiritual and transformational practice. And clearly, in the biblical context, in was important to Jesus as well, for in our Matthew text, he expounds upon the notion of forgiveness even after he finished telling them how to pray, as part of his famous Sermon on the Mount.
The first important thing to acknowledge about forgiveness as notion, is that forgiveness is a function of relationship; it always occurs *within* relationship, and it doesn’t have any meaning except *as* a function of relationship. This certainly can include our relationship with ourselves, or even our higher and lower selves, but ultimately forgiveness only comes into play because there is a disconnection between two things in relationship. It a holy threshold, an essential recognition of our infallibility but also a declaration of hope that relationship can exist and thrive in the face of imperfection. Imagine if forgiveness didn’t exist; how alone and isolated, how rigid yet fractured we would be.
But even though forgiveness represents a moving forward of relationship through the process of dealing with disagreement and tension, that doesn’t always mean the moving forward is the same thing as the continuance of the relationship, as it was. The outcome of forgiveness is many times the repairing of relationship, but sometimes it also is the letting go of relationship. Let’s consider these in turn.
As human beings, as the Lord’s Prayer shows us, we incur debts to one another. Debts of empathy, understanding, care, concern, and dignity. There are so many ways that we hurt and disappoint one another, and we often feel the pain of this deeply. Many times, this debt or disconnect is created because of an imbalance between how we expected to be treated and how we were actually treated. And this disconnect threatens or prevents relationship.
Enter, forgiveness. Disconnection of relationship is not necessarily a terminal condition, thank the Lord. Forgiveness is the process by which relationship is restored. But because it is a function of relationship, it requires engagement on the part of all who are in the relationship. Forgiveness requires accountability, what Swedenborg calls repentance, on the part of the one who was hurtful, and grace on the part of the one who was hurt. Both sacrifice ego; one sacrifices rightness, the other invulnerability.
Relationship depends upon empathy, upon caring about the wellbeing of another. Part of that caring, must include accountability when it is warranted. Without accountability, without repentance, forgiveness as a function of relationship repair is not possible, because refusing accountability is a fundamental abdication of empathy, (of putting oneself in another’s shoes and imagining their point of view) and how can relationship survive without empathy? This is part of what is making our national talk of unity so fraught right now. We yearn for true relationship with our fellow citizens but worry that papering over differences without an effort toward reparation just perpetuates existing cycles of injustice. I recall this challenge as a parent: that we teach our children to say “I’m sorry” from a very young age, but at some point we also need to teach them how to “be sorry,” we need to teach them the value of empathy and accountability. We need to teach them that empty words cannot carry relationship, and that to be sorry means to act differently in future.
We see from our reading today that Swedenborg was very critical of religious traditions that tried to circumvent true repentance, that offered what he called instantaneous salvation, a wiping away of our transgressions no matter how we regard them. Other theologians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer have called that “cheap grace.” The work of repentance must cost us something, must cause a re-evaluation of our ego and identity, so that an actual new and different future for the relationship in question can be brought into being.
But just because something is costly doesn’t make it a punishment. We often think about relationship in terms of give and take, but I’m not sure that works here very well, as it invites a sense that repentance is something we “take” or “exact” from each other. Forgiveness is really more about give and give. One gives repentance, another gives grace, and a new future gets to be written in relationship. This is what Jesus was referring to in the Matthew text. A lot of the time, Jesus speaks of forgiveness in terms of pride and hypocrisy. He cautions his disciples against holding grudges, or about withholding forgiveness in exchange for power. And it is in this context we hear the end of our Matthew text, which on the face of it sounds rather transactional, but really is about cultivating a compassionate state of mind. The refusal of either accountability or grace for selfish reasons just compounds sin upon sin, and will close our hearts way down every time. God always forgives, and always will, but that can’t have any functional reality for us until we open our minds to what we need to be forgiven for, and then extend that humble mindset to our interactions with others.
So, what about the other side of things: forgiveness as relinquishment. What about when there is no accountability or repentance on offer? Forgiveness still has a role to play here but it is less about repair and more about freedom. When an emotional debt has caused a disconnect in relationship and the one who has hurt us refuses accountability, it is very difficult to continue forward. And even if the relationship is severed, that doesn’t mean we might not still be tethered to it in an emotional way. There is no world in which it is God’s intention for us to remain in that hurt forever. Forgiveness can release us.
But it can be very hard. The way in which we culturally, unconsciously, understand forgiveness can make us feel like forgiving a hurt means somehow we are condoning it. Think about the common words: “It’s okay, I forgive you.” These words are usually offered in the context of relationship repair, but take on a whole different tone when repentance is not offered. The words “It’s okay” will often times hover over any contemplation of forgiveness, whether we realize it or not.
So it is important to remember that forgiveness is not a statement of right or wrong. Forgiveness is an action that intentionally heals a wound. Whatever hurts we have endured, our pain is a declaration of the wrongness of what has happened to us, and that declaration will always stand. But still the potential of that holy threshold remains unresolved, and forgiveness practiced on our own part, can release us from that lack of resolution. This kind of forgiveness will necessarily contain some measure of grief and a recognition that it is God’s work to reform other people, not ours. Like I said, hard spiritual work that takes the time it takes. But of course a God of love would wish this kind of release for us, and help us to make it so.
Now I know, I’ve simplified things a little here, perhaps even a lot. It certainly is possible to feel hurt based on our sense of ego or entitlement, or false assumptions. There is such a thing as selfish pain, and not all hurt means that someone else did something wrong. And it is also true, that it is possible to hurt someone unintentionally, and the associated repentance in that case will feel different to when hurt is actually intended. And I’ve said nothing at all on the topic of consequences, which are often an important part of accountability, or healthy boundaries, which are an important part of healing. Forgiveness tugs on a multitude of strings because the restoration of relationship is complicated and contextual and individual.
But the ultimate goal is wholeness, however it can be found. The psalm from our readings said “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” (Psalm 130:4) Our God models an unrelenting forgiveness not because of some hazy idealism, but because it is the only way to stay in relationship with us, God’s fallible creation. And God wants that more than anything else.
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD; 2 Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. 3 If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? 4 But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. 5 I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. 6 I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. 7 Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. 8 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Divine Providence #280
Another popular misconception is that when sins have been forgiven they are also set aside. This misconception is characteristic of people who believe that their sins are forgiven through the sacrament of the Holy Supper even though they have not set them aside by repenting from them. It is characteristic also of people who believe they are saved by faith alone or by papal dispensations. They all believe in direct mercy and instant salvation.
When the sequence is reversed, though, it is true: when sins have been set aside, they are forgiven. Repentance must precede forgiveness, and apart from repentance there is no forgiveness. That is why the Lord told his disciples to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:27) and why John preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3).
The Lord forgives everyone's sins. He does not accuse us or keep score. However, he cannot take our sins away except by the laws of his divine providence; for when Peter asked him how many times he should forgive someone who had sinned against him, whether seven was enough, he said that Peter should forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). What does this tell us about the Lord, who is mercy itself?
Give us this day our daily bread
Photo credit: Kate Remmer
Readings: Exodus 16:13-18, John 6:25-35, Secrets of Heaven #2493 (see below)
See also on Youtube at: https://youtu.be/FrqSEMKJN9I
Today we are going to consider the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread.” There is a give and take in all prayer: we praise God and reach out to God, and we speak of what we wish might come to pass, we speak of what we want and need. This section of the prayer is about our well-being. One of our most basic needs is nourishment, and in these words, we ask that this nourishment be provided.
And of course, we recognize that nourishment comes on several different levels. There is physical nourishment; the literal bread that of which the prayer speaks. Physical nourishment is a constant need, something that we require daily. So, we pray for the ongoing fulfillment of this need. But we also know that spiritual nourishment is just as vital as physical nourishment. There are many things that feed us at a deeper level, and the list of those things is long and individual.
But these nourishing things, either from food we imbibe or activities that uplift, are still things that come to us from the outside. Swedenborg offers us to a slightly different view. He indicates that in the bible, “bread” represents the “good of love,”(1) or what I tend to call the “goodness of love” because that phrasing makes a little more sense to me that way.
What is the goodness of love? Well, it is simply the way that love is good, the way that love produces goodness. And in what way is love good? Well, Swedenborg sometimes calls the “good of love” the “good of mutual love.” Love is inherently connective. Swedenborg writes that the main goal of love as a force is the “joining [of things] together.”(2) Love wants to join things together, and the mutuality that occurs as a result is good, is the very being of goodness.
And it is God, of course, who is the source of all love; whose inmost being is composed of this primal force. Divine Love is evermore reaching out. Secrets of Heaven tells us that the goodness of love flows into our internal selves from God.(3) It is constantly happening, it is how we are alive. Moreover, since measures of time in the bible always correspond to states of being, the words daily and this day, correspond to the state of having this provision in every moment, forevermore. We read from Swedenborg:
In heaven, the Lord imparts this food to angels moment by moment, thus perpetually and eternally. (4)
Thus we see another reframing: that the petition “Give us this day our daily bread” is not actually transactional, it is not that we have to ask for it to get it, or that we won’t get it if we don’t ask for it. We are already receiving it, for it is against God’s nature to be withholding. So the question becomes, rather, how might become more aware of what we are already receiving, or what is already available to us? Give us this day our daily bread might be usefully paraphrased as: Help us to feel and experience your love that is constantly flowing into us.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about how angels experience this reality. That their center of happiness comes from the provision of the Lord’s inflow, and so they therefore are not consumed by thoughts of the past or the future. I found the last part the most interesting:
But although angels have no care about things of the past and are not worried about those of the future they nevertheless have a most perfect recollection of things of the past and a most perfect insight into those of the future, because their entire present includes both the past and future within it.
Our reception of our daily bread, God’s good of love, does not bring us into a hazy blissfulness that no longer perceives the past or future. Rather, as we more fully inhabit God’s inflow, we more perfectly comprehend the past and future because we recognize how fully both are connected to our present. That the past brought us to our present, and that the present will give birth to our future. In receiving God’s inflow, in working to become aware of it and to make space for it, we become more deeply grounded in the present moment. What a beautiful gift this is, and yet, I think there is something still more powerful to be excavated from this verse.
Just as last week, where we found that a statement about God’s will necessarily leads us into the practice and discipline of the submission of our own will, today Give us this day our daily bread invites us into a contemplation of giving and receiving, and how that places us at the center of a powerful nexus point.
We read in Divine Providence #220 that: The union of temporal and eternal matters in us is the Lord's divine providence, [and that] the Lord unites spiritual and eternal things to physical and time-bound things, doing so according to acts of service. What this means is the way that God’s divine providence is active in this world, is real and concrete and operative in this world, is through the process of joining together what is earthly and what is spiritual IN US. And how to does that joining together happen? Through acts of service.
Essentially, the temporal and eternal are conjoined, spirit and earth conjoined, by the actions that *we* take, the service that we give to one another. In the Lord’s prayer, we ask that God give us something, and God does, but doesn’t let that be it. The giving both sustains us and summons us. God works both inside and outside of us, reaching us directly through our internal depths and reaching us indirectly through what we experience from others. Our daily bread is given in these two ways, nourishment from within, nourishment from without, placing us firmly at a sacred threshold, looking both inward and outward all at once, and taking our part in the way God’s providence is extended.
You may have already heard the poet laureate Amanda Gorman recite her amazing poem “This Hill We Climb” at this week’s inauguration. (I promise you, you will get tired of me quoting this poem so much but...) It begins thus:
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We've braved the belly of the beast
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished…
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it…
This is the hidden truth that is held within the asking for our daily bread. The dawn is ours before we knew it, the bread is ours before we asked for it. But once we do ask for it, and we accept it, we take our place in a web of connection, a web of nourishment from both within and without; in receiving we recognize the flow and how the flow must continue ever outward. We recognize that God is in the business of uniting things through love, uniting spirit to earth, uniting the eternal to the time-bound, uniting people one to another, and doing it through the ways we care for each other.
In this way our daily bread becomes the spiritual nourishment that which will quicken and support and enliven us as we all work to further the presence of spirit in the world, when we move what is unfinished one step further towards wholeness, when we move what “just is” one step further towards justice. This is God’s divine providence: this is bread from heaven that gives life to the world, this is our manna in the wilderness, given in holy remembrance and gathered side by side.
Next week, we will consider forgiveness, and that will feel thorny and complicated and maybe also like freedom, like shaking off the chains and soaring in the vast blue sky.
But today it is preceded by a basic acknowledgement: we need, and in needing we look to another, first God and then by God’s gentle direction, to those who are beside us. “Give us this day our daily bread” is not just petition; it is also prophecy. Even as we ask for our daily bread, we know that it is given, even as we ask for our daily bread, we find ourselves woven into a larger tapestry of giving and receiving, enfolded into God’s plans for the way heaven and earth are to be connected and strengthened.
Our wellbeing, tied up in everyone else’s wellbeing, just the way God intended it. Whoever comes to me shall never go hungry (John 6:35)…Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #7966
(2) Ibid #4351
(3) Ibid #4352
(4) Ibid #2838
13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat. 16 This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’ ” 17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” 26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” 28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” 30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” 35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Secrets of Heaven 2493
I have spoken to angels about the memory of things of the past and about consequent anxiety concerning things of the future, and I have been informed that the more interior and perfect angels are the less do they care about things of the past or think about those of the future, and that this is also the origin of their happiness. They have said that the Lord provides them every moment with what to think, accompanied by blessing and happiness, and that this being so they have no cares and no worries. This also is what is meant in the internal sense by the manna being received 'day by day' from heaven, and by the 'daily [provision] of bread' in the Lord's Prayer, as well as by the statement that they must not worry about what they are to eat and drink, or what clothes they are to put on. But although angels have no care about things of the past and are not worried about those of the future they nevertheless have a most perfect recollection of things of the past and a most perfect insight into those of the future, because their entire present includes both the past and future within it. Thus they possess a more perfect memory than can possibly be imagined or put into words.
Thy Will Be Done
Readings: I Chronicles 29:10-18, Luke 11:1-4, Divine Providence #58 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/xNVweQpWrE0
Welcome to this sermon series in which we examine a prayer that we have likely said many hundreds of times: The Lord’s Prayer. It is called thus because it is based upon two passages in the gospels when Jesus’ disciples ask him how they should pray and he gives them a model. The Lord’s prayer as we know it contains themes of holiness, God’s will, God’s kingdom, God’s provision for us, forgiveness and indebtedness, and temptation. Additionally, a doxology was added to the end in the early days of the Christian church, most likely based on our reading from I Chronicles, a reminder of whence comes all power and glory. To this day, we find that some Christian practices include this doxology and some do not.
Today, we will focus on the beginning phrases: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The prayer starts out by using a metaphor that speaks of intimate relationship; we do not just say “Father” but “Our Father.” It is interesting to note that in the gospel of Mark (14:36), when Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane in his most challenging moments, he qualifies his use of the word “Father” with the Aramaic term “Abba,” which is best understood by us as “Papa,” a word used not to indicate fatherhood in a general detached sense, but a word used everyday in familial contexts. So whatever word we use for our own fathers, that is the word that would express the closeness with which we are addressing God in this prayer.
Next, we speak of hallowing. This is a kind of archaic word to us now, but it means to make holy, or to honor with holiness. And specifically, we hallow, or make holy, the name of God. On the surface, this might seem a simple matter of external praise. But Swedenborg indicates that in the bible, the word “name” represents the essential nature of something, its entire character, or essential being. (1)
To illustrate this, I want to tell you about the very first thing that I ever bought as a child with my own money. It was a homemade stuffed seal at a flea market. I loved that stuffy so much. Can you guess what I called it? Seal. Not very original, I know. But when I think back to that time, and about why I didn’t choose a different name, I think it is because I loved that seal for exactly what it was. This would have been in the early 80’s, so the variety of available toys pales in comparison to today, and basically in a landscape of mostly teddy bears and dolls, I had never seen a stuffy quite like it. So I didn’t see a reason to name it anything other than it was, because I loved seals, and I loved this stuffy because it was a seal. I called it the name that best reflected its essential character, which was its most valuable trait to me.
And thus in a similar way, when we invoke and hallow God’s name, we do not simply hallow the word that we call God, but rather, the whole of God’s being that we are using that word to signify. Sometimes that word might be Father, Lord, God, Creator, or something else but regardless of the actual word, when we hallow God’s name, we are lifting up and honoring the whole of what God stands for, the whole of God’s intent and mission and providence. And as we heard in our Swedenborg reading, God’s intent is to save the whole human race, no exceptions.
Next, we begin to speak of how we would like God’s presence to be known by us and by the world. This prayer, like much of the bible, uses a royal metaphor to express this. We ask that God’s kingdom might come, essentially that God’s “reign” might be extended from heaven onto the earth. The assumption embedded here is that heaven is a realm, or a vision even, where God’s intent comes to pass more completely than on earth.
How are we to understand what it means for God’s kingdom to come on earth? It might help us to understand how that metaphor is employed in the gospel at large. Most of the time, it is done in a kind of subversive way, in that it co-opts that familiar royal language, but then reframes what such a reign would be, reframes what such a kingdom would look like, and contrasts it with what we know of earthly kings and kingdoms. If we might otherwise describe kingdoms in terms of power, strength, authority and dominance, the bible describes God’s kingdom as a place where the least will be first, belonging to people who are poor in spirit, or who are like little children. He compares it to a party to which everyone is invited, a seed sown in a field, yeast leavening bread, a tiny mustard seed, a treasure hidden in a field for which we would give everything we own. Because of the way that God’s kingdom is actually described in the bible, many preachers now slightly change the word to “kin-dom” to better reflect its true nature, one in which relationship, equity, respect and worthiness are paramount.
Finally, as as extension of the notion of bringing God’s kingdom to earth, we ask in the prayer that God’s will be done. Inherent in this request is the idea that our will must be surrendered to God’s will. In so far as prayers are calling forth what might not yet be, we pray that even as our own will remains primary before our eyes (we are human after all and it cannot be otherwise) that we might remember that God’s will ultimately has a broader view; in essence, we surrender our view to God’s view and practice the discipline of putting our will into eternal perspective. Jesus himself models this prayer, once again in Gethsemane, as he countenanced the ultimate sacrifice of his own will and his own life, saying: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)
While we will generally, thankfully, not be facing Jesus’ particular gauntlet in our own lives, we recognize that the dynamic itself plays out in smaller ways over and over. I’m sure we all find our own will, our own desires, thwarted time and time again in this life. And the purpose of our submission to God’s will in the prayer, is not to make us inherently suspicious of our own will in every circumstance. It is not that are to become emotional martyrs but rather to submit to the discipline of curiosity, the discipline of holding our own will lightly enough, that when it does need re-evaluating, we are open to doing it. This is how regeneration happens. This is what salvation actually is.
There is such a powerful progression within these initial lines of the prayer. We first proclaim as holy not only God’s being but God’s intent and providence; and in the hallowing of God’s name we declare our allegiance to God’s intent, and our belief in God’s trustworthiness. This then leads us to ask that God’s vision, what we call God’s kin-dom, might become manifest in our world. We see the value of the kin-dom and wish for it to be the way of things. But even as these opening lines speak mostly of God, they begin to mark out our responsibility as well. Many upcoming parts of the prayer, which we will explore in the coming weeks, explicitly lay out important ways that we can help the kin-dom come, though faithfulness, forgiveness, and courage. But these start, in these early sentences, with the surrender of our own will. Many times, our desires will be contrary to the coming of God’s kin-dom, and in our prayer we make this essential recognition and commitment: when our will is contrary to the kin-dom, may God’s will be primary.
The purpose of prayer in general is to center us in our relationship with God. As we navigate our own lives, as we navigate an increasingly difficult time with the pandemic and with politics, how might this prayer be of help to us? Everyone will have their own individual responses but here’s what I see:
That God remains present with us, and as God ever was. God’s being, intent and vision are steadfast and available; when we lift them up as holy we place them at the center of our lives, and they become our compass and our guide. When we have questions about the meaning of things, we have something fundamental to turn to. Then, when we declare that God’s kin-dom might come, we issue an invitation to our own selves to step into the birthing of that vision, to partner with what God is already doing. We have an answer to the question, what should we do? We have the hope of God’s kin-dom to look forward to and to guide our work. And then we start to get an answer about how; we declare that God’s will be done, setting in motion a foundational discipline of reflection that is an opening for personal spiritual growth. And thus, a power invocation is given, and a powerful prayer is begun:
Our Father, who are in heaven, hallow be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #300.
I Chronicles 29:10-20
10 David praised the LORD in the presence of the whole assembly, saying, “Praise be to you, LORD, the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. 11 Yours, LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. 12 Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. 13 Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. 14 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. 16 LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. 17 I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. 18 LORD, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.
1 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “ ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’ ”
Divine Providence #58
The reason divine providence focuses on what is infinite and eternal particularly in its intent to save the human race is that the goal of divine providence is a heaven from the human race…Since this is the goal, it follows that the main focus of divine providence is reforming and regenerating us, that is, saving us, since heaven is made up of people who have been reformed and regenerated.
Since regenerating us is a matter of uniting what is good and what is true, or love and wisdom, within us the way they are united in divinity that emanates from the Lord, divine providence focuses primarily on this in its intent to save the human race. The image of the Infinite and Eternal One can be found in us only in the marriage of what is good and what is true.
The Good Shepherd
Readings: Ezekiel 34:1-16, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrines #322 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/Ofny_9LIarI
This really has been quite the week, hasn’t it? The events of Jan 6th were shocking to watch, though to anyone who has been paying attention, not really surprising. I spent the day glued to the television, my heart racing and breaking at the same time. And of course, even though my sermon for today was already half written by that time, I knew I would need to start over. It is times like these that we need to hear words of guidance from our faith and I will do my best to provide something useful.
But first, I want to recognize a necessary tension. There is an intentional and important separation of church and state in our country. This is in order that religion might not dictate politics, so that we might not become a theocracy. But, religion and faith can certainly inform how we understand and evaluate politics, and it is in this spirit that I offer these words today.
Because, actually, the Bible is chock full of politics. Not representative democracy as we know it today, but full of the grappling of human beings around how to govern themselves, what or who to give allegiance to, and how to act, or how not to act, when they are in power. And the Bible has a quite lot to say about what kind of behavior best supports the communal project of human beings living together in this world. This is what politics really is at its philosophical core: the question of how human beings might make the best of this world we are living in together, the question of how we might all work together for the common good.
In a democracy, our leaders are chosen by the people. For the sake of efficiency and efficacy, we choose proxies to act on our behalf, and the work that they do is called government. By virtue of the faith that is given by us to those we choose to represent our interests and our livelihoods, our leaders have power, not just to enact policy but also to model the type of behavior that ensures the respect, integrity and basic enfranchisement upon which our system of government depends.
And I think that this is where faith can powerfully speak in the political realm, not in a moralizing way, but by lifting up the most prevalent metaphor that the bible provides for leadership: the good shepherd.
In the book of Ezekiel, as we heard in our reading today, when God needed to call Israel’s leadership to account, and to communicate about what kind of better leadership was required, God used the image of a shepherd and their flock. Ezekiel writes:
“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?” (Ez 34:2)
Yes, of course they must! The most important aspect of being a good shepherd is that they do not put their own needs above those of the sheep. The entire job is to prioritize the needs and the safety of the sheep. It seems so ridiculously simple that I almost cannot believe it needs to be said. I mean, I like a fresh and interesting theological take as much as the next person, but some things are just very simple. The moment the shepherd puts their own needs above those of the sheep, they have abdicated the one thing that makes them a shepherd at all.
So the words of the prophet here are telling us that the most important quality in a leader is being willing to sacrifice self-interest. There are lots of other things that the Ezekiel text tells us should be done by a good shepherd: strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, searching for the lost and rescuing them from all the places they have been scattered, as well as gathering, pasturing, and tending. But of course, the main thrust is that when a shepherd tends to their own self-interest first, they cannot actually do any of the other things in an effective way.
What we have seen the political realm is a President not willing to sacrifice self-interest. We have seen him lying about the election results in order to preserve his own ego and further his own benefit. We have seen members of congress choose to perpetuate those same lies in order to bolster their own political prospects. The culmination of this prioritization of self-interest, was an insurrection against the people’s house, and the endangerment of the people’s representatives. It was an affront to the social contract that makes democracy possible, and it was deeply deeply self-centered. It was exactly the kind of thing that the prophet Ezekiel decried.
Swedenborg wrote about leadership several decades before the American experiment would give the world its brand of (imperfect but hopeful) representative democracy. So when he talks about leadership, he refers to priests, magistrates and kings. But the principles remain the same then as now. We heard in our reading about how a king who considers the law above him, and not himself above the law, is a wise king. He writes as well:
The law which is justice ought to be passed by the wise and God-fearing lawyers of the kingdom, and therefore both the king and his subjects ought to live in accordance with it. A king who lives in accordance with a law that has been passed, and in this sets his subjects an example, is truly king.(1)
The true nature of kingship, of just and good leadership, in parallel to the true nature of good shepherding, is ultimately self-sacrifice, a surrender to the greater good. Real leadership is actually servant leadership.
And we see that Jesus would extend and employ the shepherd metaphor during his ministry, as well. He spoke of the joy in finding lost sheep (Luke 15), he spoke a shepherd separating sheep and goats as a way to describe how important it is to take care of the suffering among us (Matt 25), he spoke of the “good shepherd” as a way to express protection and intimacy and inclusion (John 10). The gospel of Mark speaks of Jesus having compassion on us, as shepherd would have for scattered sheep. (Mark 6)
Jesus would embody the good shepherd, just as God has always done. What did this look like? Interestingly, not necessarily about being “nice.” Servant leadership is not simply about always being polite or well-mannered. Jesus spoke the truth when it needed to be spoken, and he did so clearly. But all his ministry, he did for others and not for himself. He allowed his desire to love and serve others lead him, instead of a desire to be famous or idolized or powerful or even safe. In the end, his love for others led him to do something he would have done anything to avoid. He prayed: “Father if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
The sacrifice of self-interest often feels very painful to the ego, and to our sense of self-identity. We all know it is hard. But it is an essential part of the agreement that comes with taking on political leadership, it is an essential part of the social contract in which we confer upon our representatives the power to act on our behalf. It can be tricky work representing any vast and disagreeing constituency, that much is sure. Faults in judgment will necessarily come from all positions on the political spectrum, for leaders will above all, always be human beings. The best of us will never be able to prevent that completely. But each of our leaders, and each of us, are indeed in control of our intent. We are in control of our guiding motivations. And we must not allow clear and corrupt motivations to stand.
Jesus said “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #323.
1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. 7 “ ‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #322
Royalty consists in governing in accordance with the kingdom's laws, and in judging justly in accordance with them. A king who looks upon the laws as above him is wise; one who looks upon himself as above the laws is not. A king who looks upon the laws as above him attributes royalty to the law, and the law is his master. For he knows that law is justice, and all justice which is truly justice is Divine. One, however, who regards himself as above the laws, attributes royalty to himself and either believes himself to be the law or the law which is justice to be from himself. Thus he claims for himself what is God's, when he ought to be subject to it.