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)
See also on Youtube
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.