The Palm and the Donkey
Readings: Zechariah 9:9-12, Mark 11:1-11, Secrets of Heaven 2781:8-9 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/OsLSqcX_WeUyoutu.be/OsLSqcX_WeU
Welcome to Palm Sunday, the narrative beginning to Holy Week. As we just read, Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the final time. He rides on a donkey, telling the disciples exactly where to find it. His reputation has been growing, and the people welcome him with joy and anticipation for the way that they think he will save them from their current circumstances. In the gospel of Mark, after this entry, Jesus will immediately clear the temple of merchants. He will argue a little with the religious authorities and will do some public teaching. He will be anointed by a women at a friend’s house, and he will share a final supper with the disciples. And then he will be arrested, for a ministry that centered upon those who had been excluded, and that called out those who profited from that exclusion.
What has struck me this week is the emphasis on Jesus’ “kingship.” I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time resonating with what that meant to the people in Jesus context. Like most of you, I have grown up in a democracy, not a monarchy, and even though my childhood was spent in a country that is part of the British commonwealth, my primary experience of government was one that was elected.
So the idea of a “king” (or any monarch) and what that means, feels a bit remote to me, and in case it feels that way to you too, I thought I would explore it today.
Kingship throughout time, but especially in the Jewish context, has been rather inseparable from the divine right to rule. We recall from the Old Testament that Israel’s ability to have a king was granted by God, the first two kings, Saul and David, anointed by God’s prophet Samuel. Even today, monarchs are often ritually anointed at their coronations, and in Britain for example, the monarch is also the head of the church.
Likewise, the word Christ itself, which is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, means “anointed one” and we hear the people in our text today shouting “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” The Jewish people had long looked forward to the restoration of their nation, and the coming of a great and powerful ruler who would return Israel to autonomy and prominence. And of course they did. They had suffered the indignity of being an occupied people for way too long, under a brutal and unforgiving empire. We would all feel the same way.
So when they started to hear about Jesus and the amazing things he was doing, of course they got their hopes up. Of course their yearning and anticipatory joy caused them to gather in the streets. And of course, they wanted to welcome and praise this new king, one that would uphold their history and restore their people, and so they did what had always been done for kings: they spread garments and tree branches to make a pathway.
Jesus had never asked for this though. He *had* told his disciples that he was the Messiah but coupled it with a warning of his suffering to come, attempting to reframe for them what being the Messiah really meant. He was anointed, chosen, to usher in a new kingdom but it would nothing like what the people expected. He was focused on a spiritual fulfillment, not an earthly one.
So, he let the crowds signal his royal identity. But here is what he didn’t do: he didn’t lean into their admiration, he didn’t manipulate their feelings, he didn’t work them up. Instead, he intentionally subverted that worshipful energy. Instead of coming in on a warhorse, as royals in the past would do, with much fanfare, he comes in on the lowliest of animals, in an allusion to our Zechariah text. To quote one of my commentaries: “…Mark wants us to view Jesus as a king, but only by helping us re-imagine the very concept of king in accordance with Jesus’ mission.”(1)
This is really important for us to remember. As we re-enact this day, as we wave our palms, we have an opportunity to be actively conscious of what we are celebrating. When we signal our praise of the Lord’s kingship, what are we signaling? Certainly, some good and wonderful things: Godly power, omnipotence, providence and love, and our offering of loyalty, trust and joy.
But as we do this, it is also important for us to remain cognizant of the irony that Jesus was enacting. Recent history in this country, and indeed the length and breadth of human history throughout the world, has shown us that human beings are very susceptible to the worship of power and dominion. We need to be careful not to swallow imperialism, and the worship of dominion itself, whole without moving on to the deconstruction of earthly imperialism that Jesus was doing. Because, we could very easily just substitute Jesus for Caesar and leave everything else the same. We could pray for the coming of a kingdom that elevates us and those like us and forget the tenor of Jesus’ entire ministry. But Jesus would never step into hierarchical earthly power structures as they are. He has been trying to tell us all along that we can’t happily wave the palm, craving power and influence, all the while ignoring the donkey.
The truth is, Jesus was heading toward a painful and humiliating execution, which would serve to continue the subversion of what we are to consider strong, how we are to understand power. Yet, we can persist in making the Easter story about mastery over death instead of sacrifice, about the salvation of a few by grace instead of all by love, about the creation rather than the critique of religious power.
But Jesus had literally just schooled the disciples on this topic before entering Jerusalem:
10:42 … “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
And this is why it is such a beautiful tradition in the many churches that the palms that we wave today become the ashes used in the following Ash Wednesday. Our adoration must be anchored in reflection and relinquishment. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that the spiritual meaning of the Lord riding the donkey is to demonstrate the correct order of subordination of our human nature. Our earthly desires need to serve our spiritual desires and not the other way around.
Even though we do live in a democracy, where the people elect their leaders rather than being ruled by a king, it is also true that there has always been a strong strain of people and movements trying to co-opt legitimacy and power through claiming or implying a divine right, that God is on their side, that they are doing God’s will. I can only imagine what an addictive feeling it is, to be so sure that we are serving a higher power that we can disregard kindness, empathy, ethics or the rule of law.
The people shouted, as we do today, “Hosanna,” a word that is complicated to translate but contains a sense of giving honor to one who will save us. But that saving cannot mean that only *we* are saved, and that we are saved because someone will allow us to climb to the top of the heap, only to turn around the crucify those behind us. Jesus' entire ministry was founded on the ethos that salvation (not to mention loving concern) must include everyone.
So while the structures and the trappings of kingship are not something with which I can personally resonate, all the ways that human beings interact with the power of leadership certainly *is* recognizable in myself, my fellow human beings, and in our current context. As we shout Hosanna today, let us recognize then that one of the most fundamental salvation opportunities that Jesus offers to us is that we might be lovingly saved from ourselves.
(1) Ira Brent Driggers, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/49620
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. 12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ” 4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna! ” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” 10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
Secrets of Heaven #2781:8-9
 'Riding on an ass' served to indicate that the natural was subordinate, and 'riding on a colt, the foal of a she-ass' that the rational was so; From this - the spiritual meaning of these animals - … so that He might fulfill the representatives of the Church, the Lord was pleased to ride in this way.
 From this it may now be clear that every single thing in the Church of that period was representative of the Lord, and consequently of the celestial and spiritual things that are in His kingdom; even the she-ass and the colt of the she-ass were so, which represented the natural man as regards good and truth. The reason for the representation was that the natural man ought to serve the rational, and the rational to serve the spiritual; but the spiritual ought to serve the celestial, and the celestial to serve the Lord. This is the order in which one is subordinated to another.
From the single seed to many seeds
Readings: Isaiah 56:1-8, John 12:20-33, Secrets of Heaven #679 (see below)
See also on YouTube at https://youtu.be/AWOyCgVZY_U
During the past year, one particular thing has not been available to us as it once had been: gathering together. We willingly relinquished this pleasure out of a concern for our fellow human beings; we sacrificed something important to us for the sake of love. Though very hard, it was and continues to be, a beautiful offering.
Now, as vaccination numbers increase, we are starting to be able to see each other in person again, albeit in small and careful ways. We are starting to entertain plans for the future that have been on hold. We are anticipating being able to gather again. For The Church of the Holy City, we will do our best to be thoughtful and diligent with any plans to return in person, including the question of how our folks who live at a distance might continue to join our worship.
How appropriate then, that this week’s lectionary speaks of Jesus drawing people together towards himself. The gospel text harkens back to the prophets, such as Isaiah in chapter 56, who would often speak of the nations gathering in Jerusalem. So, as we imagine our future togetherness, I thought it might be appropriate to think about gathering in theological terms.
In many places, the Old Testament is clear that, even though it is primarily the story of God’s relationship with one people, the Children of Israel, that God’s provision and concern extends beyond that relationship to the whole world. We see examples of God being on speaking terms with kings of other nations, references to what seems to be a pre-existing relationships with people of other nations, and most prominently, prophecies of a future time when people of all nations would stream into Jerusalem.
Isaiah 56 joins that tradition, and as well as specifically speaking into the post-exilic world of Israel. At the time of its writing, many of those who were in exile in Babylon have returned to their homeland. Many of those who stayed in Israel have intermarried with people of other nations. And now both groups are grappling with how to define themselves as a community and a people once they are all back together. They are wondering: Who is included? What marks inclusion? Of particular interest is the mention of eunuchs. We might wonder how they fit in to this particular context. Some scholars think that to become a eunuch furthered advancement in the Persian and Babylonian courts.(1) Now, eunuchs returning to Israel might worry about how they fit into the covenant, the narrative anchored as it has always been so firmly in the language of progeny and descendants. Additionally, those who have inter-married are also wondering how they might fit in. Into this anxiety, God speaks inclusion. All those who value and hold fast to the covenant will be included. Israel’s God is a gathering god.
As we fast forward to gospel of John, we find that Jesus fulfills the spirit of God’s promises spoken in Isaiah 56. Our text today begins with outsiders, Greeks, coming to see Jesus and Jesus sharing his essential mission with them. Indeed, it was becoming quite the concern to the authorities, to quote the verse right before our text (12:19) “So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” Jesus continued a tradition of inclusion throughout his ministry. When viewed with a broad lens, the upshot is this: those we think shouldn’t be included, and those who believe themselves unworthy of being included, always are.
Now, as we turn to our Swedenborgian lens, I’m sure you can guess that we will be exploring a more internal level. As we heard in our reading, in a deeper sense, gathering also refers to the goods and truths that are gathered within our hearts and minds. As we go through our lives, we pick things up and we squirrel them away. A new piece of information or a new perspective. A truism with which we resonate. The joy of making a difference. The memory of a kindness. A story that communicates something hopeful, truthful, or poignant. We gather true things and good things that stay with us, and start to coalesce into a worldview, an approach to life. God uses these things to regenerate us, to help us grow and mature spiritually on our journey.
But of course, the quality and character of those things that we have gathered in our hearts and minds affects how effectively God *can* regenerate us. What if we have gathered to ourselves the conviction that we are superior to others? That power and money make us worthy? What if we have never experienced the satisfaction of making a difference in someone else’s life, or have been taught that such an effort is weakness? What if we have experienced nothing but derision or lack of safety? What if all we’ve been able to gather for ourselves is fear, or ambition or grievance? This makes it much more difficult for God to lead and guide us.
Clearly, what we have gathered unto ourselves during our lives is a complex mix of what we choose to see and confirm, what have been exposed to, and what we are willing to learn. A complex mix of what we choose to open ourselves to and what has been offered to us.
Here we find the notion of gathering to be a powerful nexus point. In body, when we gather, we have an opportunity to model God’s compassion and inclusion and care, which then contributes powerfully to the gathering of spiritual good and truth in the hearts and minds of those gathered and included. As always in the Swedenborgian worldview, we find multiple levels operating simultaneously in an interconnected way. When we gather together in body, we multiply and intensify the gathering of internal goods and truths in each individual, the sum of us creating an opportunity that is not available to us on our own. This can be incredibly joyful, healing and connective. But we see conversely how the opposite can work as well. On one hand, how powerfully exclusion communicates and intensifies unworthiness to those on the outside, and on the other hand, how it communicates superiority to those on the inside.
For certainly, we can gather in a nefarious ways. In our own hearts and minds, we can gather knowledge and experience and information for selfish purposes. In the body, we can gather in ways that serve to create exclusion, group think, dominance, violence. Any time there is a gate keeper, power and supremacy are at play.
But we must remember that Jesus makes a crucial distinction in our text. The way that he would draw people to himself, the way the in-gathering of the world was to occur, was through his death, through sacrifice. He could have located the significance and promise of “gathering” with his triumphal entry just accomplished, with people waving palms and yelling praise, for there certainly was a crowd. But the promise inherent in drawing the world to himself is more than just a question of numbers, more than the power such numbers suggest to the earthly mind. Instead, he talks of a seed shedding its own limited existence in order to create many more seeds, to create fruit. “…unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (12:24) The in-gathering must be anchored in sacrifice, for that is the only thing that can make fertile soil for the growth that is to come.
So, what that means for us, as we consider the theme of gathering? It is the opportunity to ask ourselves question like:
For what do we gather, either internally or in-person? Are we gathering to serve our own selfhood? Or, are we focused on gathering to ourselves good things that will make a fertile soil for a growing heart and mind? A fertile soil for expansive and welcoming spaces? What motivates us? The inherent generativity of God’s heavenly kingdom or the way gathering bolsters our identity? Are we willing to sacrifice the single seed of our selfhood, so that the new open space might produce a living plant with leaves, flowers, fruit and many many more seeds? Asking these questions can help us clear away what needs to be cleared away, so that new growth can occur, much like the spring garden clean-ups we might be doing now that the weather has started to warm.
So, even as we have been prevented this year from gathering in-person, let us meditate upon what has been gathered within us due to the sacrifice we have made. Resilience, new skills, compassion, care and concern, gratitude. These things came out of giving up what we didn’t want to give up. And as we imagine our return to in-person community, in all kinds of ways, let us meditate upon how our physical spaces, our houses of worship and other places, can be more than just wood and stone and glass, but can be spaces that honor the way being present to one another supports everyone’s spiritual growth, that gathering in body supports what is gathered to our hearts and minds.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible, p513.
1 This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. 2 Blessed is the one who does this— the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.” 3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. 6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
Secrets of Heaven #679
'He was to gather them for himself' means truths. This is clear from what has been stated above, for 'gathering' has reference to the things that are in a person's memory, where they have been gathered together. It embodies in addition the point that the former and the latter - goods and truths - need to be gathered together in [a person] before regeneration takes place. Indeed unless goods and truths have been gathered together to serve as means through which the Lord may do His work, a person cannot possibly be regenerated…
Clearing the Temple
Photo credit: Mike Chai
Readings: Psalm 69:5-13, 16-17, John 2:13-22, Heaven and Hell #187 and Apocalypse Revealed #918.
See also on YouTube at
Today’s text relates the famous anecdote of Jesus clearing the temple of the sellers and money-changers. Familiar as it is, it still retains its power to shock us though, I think, especially when juxtaposed with the teaching and healing that occupied Jesus in the rest of the gospel account. This is one of the only times that we see Jesus so worked up. But it certainly makes sense when we understand historically how the merchants were taking advantage of faithful, impoverished people.
All four gospels mention Jesus clearing the temple courts in this way. Matthew, Mark and Luke use similar phrases and so are likely from a similar earlier source. The account in John is slightly different, and is the only one that links it to a prediction about Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is perhaps because the the author of the gospel of John places the story early in his narrative in order to create some foreshadowing for the events to come later on. The other three gospels place this event towards the end of the story, after Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem.
John’s account of this occurrence also intentionally refers back to Psalm 69: “His disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me.” This psalm, which we heard this morning, is one attributed to King David, and while probably not actually authored by him, intentionally represents aspects of what we might imagine his experience to have been. One of my commentaries reminds us that “the psalms grew out of concrete historical situations in which real people sought to live their lives under God.” (1)
As we journey in this season on Lent, and this season of history, we may well be resonating with either the sense of being run down and despairing, like King David, or the righteous, sad anger of Jesus, or the simple chaos and uproar of the temple courts themselves. As we work to confront our own shortcomings, as we work to clear out craven and selfish tendencies, as we work to figure out how we can have purpose in a broken world, this scene of disarray in the temple, things scattered and overturned, animals bleeting and sellers protesting, may well be an accurate picture of our internal selves and the chaos that often accompanies necessary change.
What is really interesting though, even as we acknowledge this state, are the words that are spoken into that chaos. Jesus, using metaphorical language as he often does, spoke of his body as a temple, predicting life would come out of destruction. What is even stranger is that he gives this as an answer about authority, about why he felt he had the authority to clear the temple at all.
Why did he make the explicit connection between his body and the temple here, implying that his body was the location of God’s presence with the people? Why would he say this especially after the temple cleansing, and in answer to why he had the authority to do it?
Swedenborg writes that in the highest spiritual sense, the temple represents God’s Divine Humanity. Swedenborg writes a lot about what he calls the “Divine Human", and how important it is that we believe in a God who is Human (with a capital H). And what that capital H means of course, is not that God is fallible in the way that human beings are fallible, but rather, that God is the pattern upon which our human life is based. It implies that there should be a natural resonance, and a natural understanding, between God and us because we are made in God’s image and likeness. God is not “other" to us, but inherently relatable to us.
The Divine Human is God’s pre-existing pattern of humanness that formed us, and continues to form us. And then eventually, the Divine Human found a unique form in Jesus, a new way for us to see God’s Divine Humanity. Certainly, we always have the experience of our own humanness to see, but Jesus brought the Divine Human before our eyes in a particularly powerful way, a way grounded in love, sacrifice and new life.
What do we see in Jesus? We see God’s Divine Humanity healing people who are suffering, feeding people who are hungry, blessing people who are oppressed and reviled. We see God’s Divine Humanity upholding the word of the ancient prophets who criticized those who would use power to afflict the downtrodden. We see God’s Divine Humanity reframing the kin-dom to include all those who would approach with genuine faith and love.
This is the pattern. And in seeing it, we recognize that God is not located in one specific temple, one specific tradition, one specific understanding but rather, that God is located in the Divine Humanity, in all the ways that the Divine Human is with us. God’s presence is in every body, every created body. God’s presence is in the pattern of each person trying to become more human, and the temporary chaos that this creates. And most importantly, God is present in the way that this chaos is resolved, in the burgeoning of new life, of resurrection.
This God is so deeply intertwined with us and this world, and cannot be separate. This is why Swedenborg would talk so passionately about the need to believe in a God that is Human, as opposed to a God who is some kind of disembodied force. While at times I think it is possible he overstates the necessity of it, his main gist is that as a disembodied force, such a God is necessarily disconnected, far away, and inherently other. But God will never actually be these things to us. And Swedenborg uses the term Divine Human to express the fact that God is the pattern out of which we are manifested, and so never can be inherently other, can only be inherently related and relational.
When we deeply understand that God is not inherently other, this can help us in two important ways, which are especially useful to remember during Lent. As we are in the tension, in the David struggle, or the temple chaos, we can remember that God understands the struggle, and that God experienced the struggle, and God has planned for it. Notice the For. God didn’t plan our struggle, but planned for our struggle, creating a universe with resurrection built in, so that there is always the potential to come out the other side with greater love, greater understanding, and greater resilience.
Second, as we remember the Divine Humanity, and we remember that God is not other, then hopefully the natural extension of this recognition is that no one we encounter will be other to us as well. If God’s Divine Humanity is the pattern upon which all life is based, then it must extend to all, no matter the many illusions of hierarchy that our egos manufacture. The gift of being birthed and held within God’s Divine Humanity only truly works for us, for one, if it works for all.
All trials target the love we feel. The severity of the trial matches the nobility of the love. If love is not the target, there is no trial….The Lord’s life was love for the whole human race, a love so great and good that it was pure, unalloyed love. He allowed this life of his to be attacked continuously, from the dawn of his youth until his final moments in the world.(2)
"Zeal for your house will consume me.” (Psalm 69:9) Jesus’ zeal was proportional to his love. There can be no one who has more zeal for us and for our journey than God. And sometimes that will look like zeal for clearing our what needs to be cleared and that’s not fun. But that zeal is anchored in the reality of the Divine Humanity, the reality of God’s closeness and likeness and love for us, all of us. If we must use the word “authority” then this is where God’s authority to clear the temple of our selfhood comes from. When we ask why Lent, why we should open ourselves to any struggle at all, the answer is not so much found in what we will gain, but how God is with us. The deeper we go into God’s presence, the greater the invitation to let go of what needs to be let go. Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days. That’s a promise.
Psalm 69:5-13, 16-17
5 You, God, know my folly; my guilt is not hidden from you. 6 Lord, the LORD Almighty, may those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me; God of Israel, may those who seek you not be put to shame because of me. 7 For I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face. 8 I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children; 9 for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me. 10 When I weep and fast, I must endure scorn; 11 when I put on sackcloth, people make sport of me. 12 Those who sit at the gate mock me, and I am the song of the drunkards. 13 But I pray to you, LORD, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.
16 Answer me, LORD, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. 17 Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Heaven and Hell 187
So I could see why the Lord calls himself the temple that is in Jerusalem (John 2:19, 21). I could also see why the New Jerusalem appeared as a city of pure gold, with gates of pearl and foundations of precious gems (Revelation 21): it is because a temple offers an image of the Lord's divine human; the New Jerusalem refers to the church that was going to be founded; and the twelve gates are the truths that lead to what is good, and the foundations are the truths on which it is based.
Apocalypse Revealed 918.
Revelation 21:22 But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. This symbolically means that the New Church will have no external element divorced from an internal one, because it turns to the Lord Himself in His Divine humanity, from whom comes everything connected with the church, and worships and adores Him alone.
The First Command: Go!
Photo by Kun Fotografi from Pexels
Readings: Genesis 12:1-5, Mark 8:31-37, Secrets of Heaven #1407 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/KmuCHRCpxGM
Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
These are the first words that God says to Abram, the words that will begin the story of the Children of Israel, a story that gave birth to three worldwide religious traditions, that connects millions together in spiritual ancestry.
Go from your country to the land I will show you. I’m not sure there could be a more simple but appropriate command for the Lenten season. The Lord told Abram to pick himself up from all that he knew and valued and head out into an unknown country and an unknown future. I’m sure many of us have experienced similar upheavals. I myself took a journey from my own homeland of Australia, into an unknown future which has brought me here with all of you. Many of us might have moved from where we grew up, or moved to go to college, or find a job. It takes faith, fortitude, optimism and trust to make big moves like that.
But of course, we read the bible not only in a literal physical way, but in a spiritual way as well. We can see that such a command has an internal meaning, signifying an emotional journey, a journey of the spirit.
Swedenborg writes (as we heard in our reading today):
Go away from your land' means the bodily and worldly things from which [Jesus] was to depart. 'And from the place of your nativity' means bodily and worldly things that were more exterior. 'And from your father's house' means such as were more interior. 'To the land which I will cause you to see' means the spiritual and celestial things that were to be brought to view.
Swedenborg unfolds the meaning of Genesis in terms of the spiritual journey that Jesus took while here in the world with us. And he also makes clear that Jesus’ process mirrors our own, that we are on a corresponding track, just with slightly different destinations: glorification and regeneration, two sides of the same coin, two manifestations of the same process. In our text, “your country, your people, your fathers household” signify the things, situations, thoughts, and perspectives in which we are invested, both external and internal. They are our emotional home. They are the place where we feel comfortable, they are our default. From resources we own, food we like, clothes we wear, to our habits and ingrained ways of doing things, to our sense of competence and control, identity, privilege, reputation, and more. In so far as these things do not serve our growing in love and wisdom, the Lord says “Go.” The Lord says to leave them behind.
And what is so powerful about this command is that it is not a rebuke, it is an invitation and a promise. The promise of, as the Lord says, a land that I will show you. A land that will be seen but first we must be willing to leave wherever we are. This is not so much a test of faith, or a test of our willingness to suffer, for which we will be eventually rewarded. God does not desire for us to be performative; God hopes that we will be open to transformation. Abram couldn’t see the land yet, not because God was withholding, but because he hadn’t yet taken the journey to get within seeing distance.
So it is the same for us. We can’t always see the shape of things that we are heading towards, we can’t always appreciate the freedom, or the expansion or the effectiveness, or the satisfaction that will be available to us once we have jettisoned our old ways of thinking and being.
The truth is we often need to get rid of something before there is enough space for a new way of thinking and being to bloom. This is why Swedenborg so very often emphasizes that we need to, in his words, shun evils before we can do good. (1) This is not meant to mean that we are to wait until we are perfect before we can have any positive effect on our world. It means that we can’t necessarily expect that our old and new selves, old and new lives, old and new habits can co-exist, at least, not long-term. Abram couldn’t physically be in both Harran and the new land the Lord would show him. It certainly makes sense if we want to avoid the middle space of the journey, the uncertainty of knowing what we are going toward while also having left what we know. And so sometimes we might try to have it both ways, hanging on to old habits while also trying to bring in the new. This doesn’t usually work very well. And to be clear, this is not the same thing as working diligently on some improvement and sometimes slipping into old patterns. This is more like not wanting to recognize the downsides of old patterns, and still valuing and desiring the old patterns, and then somehow still expecting a new result, when there is just no space for a new result. Like expecting our lungs to be healthy while still smoking, or expecting a relationship to improve while still engaging in a behavior that is hurting it.
Now let us fast forward to Jesus and our text from Mark. Jesus has just confirmed to his disciples his identity as the Messiah, and begins to tell them what kind of challenges the future holds. Jesus, in his own life, has taken the Lord’s command to Abram quite seriously, and has departed from his own metaphorical country, and his own actual family and comfort. He has stepped out on to a mission and a journey to a land, to an ending, that will be unfolded and revealed in the gospels over the next weeks.
As Abram would find, as Jesus would find, the journey is difficult at times. There is nothing particularly pleasant about facing adversaries, whether that is the powers-that-be in the real world, or the adversarial states of our own being, and our own habits. But Jesus tells his disciples and followers that they must suffer many things, must deny themselves and take up their cross. It is basically non-negotiable but again not because God demands suffering as a sacrifice either on Jesus’ part or our part, a terrible appeasement to God’s sense of justice. God is not so needy as that. Suffering and tension and conflict are simply what happens when we commit to making space and giving voice to our intention of becoming more; more whole, more loving, more inclusive, more open. Suffering and tension and conflict happened for Jesus because, in the words of one of my commentaries “powerful humans opposed both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brought to established law and order.” (2) The journey disrupts things, things that need to be disrupted.
Of course we want to save our lives, to save our emotional lives in our day to day. In the moment, the easiest way to do this seems like staying the same, digging in our heels, making sure we are always right, creating justifications, looking after our own. This feels like saving our lives. It is intuitive, it is automatic, it is the first thing we are moved to do, as humans. It is survival instinct. But this kind of strategy is like closing off our ears to the Lord’s command and staying in Harran. It is like Peter, so threatened and afraid and incredulous, that he forcefully contradicts his beloved teacher. We close down, we lash out, anything to avoid taking the journey.
But the journey was the very first command of God. The journey was the very thing that began it all. The willingness of Abram to leave behind what was comfortable and known and set out for a land that Lord would show him. This willingness is so central to the practice of the spiritual life that Jesus called Peter satan, when he persisted in denying it. And then Jesus gathered his followers around him to drive the point home.
For whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. There is the losing and then there is the saving, and this fundamental spiritual reality is what Jesus enacted, and the story we tell in the gospels today. When we lose our preoccupation with worldly things, when we lose our grasping for power, when we lose our self-serving defensiveness, we are rescued from all the ways that these things keep us small and judgmental and fearful. We are saved from the tyranny of our selfhood and this is the good news that we will celebrate in a few weeks.
For now, if we are choosing to ground ourselves in Lent, we are in the middle of the journey. We are finding our way, learning new things, seeing new landmarks, maybe being homesick, maybe being lost, maybe feeling overwhelmed but knowing that the Lord means to show us a new land, if we are willing to keep on walking. Keep on walking, my friends.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #330 (and others)
(2) Ira Brent Driggers, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5
1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
Secrets of Heaven #1407
Verse 1 And Jehovah said to Abram, Go away from your land, and from the place of your nativity and from your father's house, to the land which I will cause you to see.
The events described here and in what follows took place in history as they are recorded; yet the historical events as described are representative, and every word carries a spiritual meaning. 'Abram' is used to mean in the internal sense the Lord, as stated already. 'Jehovah said to Abram' means a first awareness of all things. 'Go away from your land' means the bodily and worldly things from which He was to depart. 'And from the place of your nativity' means bodily and worldly things that were more exterior. 'And from your father's house' means such as were more interior. 'To the land which I will cause you to see' means the spiritual and celestial things that were to be brought to view.
Photo by Designecologist from Pexels
Readings: Psalm 25:1-10, Mark 1:9-13, Secrets of Heaven #1049 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/MC3IzhW2fus
Welcome to the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which we observed with a litany today, the purpose of which is to remember our fragility and our earthiness. And from there, Lent invites us into a consideration of our shortcomings and our failures, and how we might be able to do better and be more loving in the future. Sometimes, this reflection might be usefully spurred by a spiritual discipline of some kind: the excision of something we have relied upon, or the adopting of something we don’t usually do. Either of these acts are not so much virtuous in and of themselves, but rather, can help create fertile ground for seeing things differently. Seeing things differently can lead to both to insight and action, moving us along on our spiritual path. The Swedenborgian tradition does not emphasize Lent quite as much as others might do, as we value the opportunity and responsibility to enter into repentance and reflection all year round, and whenever our circumstances and relationships suggest it is necessary. But also, there can be much value in taking a season each year to revisit long-term questions, habits, thinking, and perspectives. And, so I offer these reflections today.
But we must acknowledge that taking the opportunity to delve into our shortcomings, to feel the reality of our own nature and imperfection, and to develop clarity around where we need to improve, takes focus and courage. This year especially, when so many are struggling in so many ways, we may not feel we have the stamina for this work right now. That is totally reasonable. It is okay to set modest goals. But also, this year may have revealed to us things that we can longer ignore, that we can no longer put aside. It is important to give voice to both the urgency and the exhaustion that we are all feeling.
So before we begin, the practice of Lenten reflection needs to be grounded in the fact that we are beloved. Judgment, even righteous judgment, can rather easily morph into unhealthy shame and unworthiness. The pangs of conscience, appropriate regret and guilt, are essential to our process of repentance; they spur us forward into repairing what needs to be repaired. But shame, the sense that we ourselves are somehow bad and unworthy, this is can be corrosive. The engine of self-reflection, the true efficacy of the Lenten season, cannot be found in how awful we are, it must be found in love. From a solid place of security and worthiness, we can then look with courage and clarity at our shortcomings and not be overwhelmed by the work that is before us. Our Psalm for today speaks to this.
It begins with: To you Lord, I lift up my soul (NKJV). The word here translated as soul is nephesh, meaning soul, yes, and also selfhood, life, and all the activity of our being. It is incredibly vulnerable, to lift up such a thing. To bear forth our very being and life, to hold it outward for inspection like a child might lift up a precious stone or shell that they have found. Just talking about it feels very tender, let alone doing it. Interestingly though, other translations render this sentence as “In you Lord, I put my trust” (NIV). And this translation is important too, because it frames the vulnerability of what is happening. We lift up the tenderness of our soul to God, and we are able do it because we trust God. Why?
Because of raham and hesed. In verse six of the psalm we hear: remember Lord your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Raham—translated as great mercy or compassion—and hesed—translated as steadfast love—are two words that occur again and again throughout the psalms and the whole Hebrew bible. They mark out the shape and character of God’s relationship with God’s people, as one of safety, continuity and community.
The word Raham, as well as meaning mercy, also can be used to mean womb, and the yearning and care that a parent has for their child. How different does it feel then, to lift up our naphesh, our tender selfhood, when we are doing so within the safety of the womb of God, within the care and concern of our heavenly parent, warm, contained, and nourished. It evokes for me a sense of the safety and joy of childhood blanket forts; in the womb of God we are held and protected.
The word Hesed is such a complicated one to translate because it contains so much within it. It means love, yes, but an ongoing love in a covenantal relationship. For this reason it is sometimes translated as lovingkindness, because that word has ongoing aspect to it—love expressed in continual acts of kindness in relationship. And again, how differently do we feel about lifting up our nephesh, within this context, one in which any revelation about ourselves and our shortcomings occurs within a relationship with one who is committed to showing us kindness and compassion, who knows how to do that and will always do that.
Which brings us to our Mark text, because Jesus was the ultimate act of hesed (1), the ultimate act of fulfilling the promise of relationship. God doing what God had to in order to stay in connected with us. This involved reaching out, involved entering deeply into our experience. And before the experience of temptation in the wilderness, before the experience of being broken down, of questioning what he thought he knew, and coming to the clarity of knowing his mission…before all of that, Jesus heard that he was beloved, and we get to see him being told he was beloved, so that we might also know that we are beloved.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today:
Having mercy, though, is something [God] can be said to do, because [God] realizes what we humans are like.
God know who and what we are, and as we lift up our nephesh in trust, God sees us more clearly than anyone else can. And yet God will still always, as the reading says, “draw us to heaven with a powerful force.” We might not always feel this force but it is always there.
And it is so important for us to choose to partner with this force as much as we can. These pandemic times, these social and political times, have uncovered so much worth thinking about, have thrown into relief how urgently we need to be our best selves for each other and our world. There are times in the bible that God’s judgment is spoken of in terrifying ways, for the experience of seeing the brokenness of ourselves and our world can be heartbreaking, and demoralizing, and scary. But we need to see what is wrong and broken and sinful within ourselves and our world, or otherwise we will never be able to change it for the better. We need to see it. But we also need to be able to see it and withstand seeing it. We need to be able to see and not flee from it. We need to be able to see it and stay with the long process of dealing with it. And I really don’t believe that any kind of stamina for spiritual work can come from a place of unworthiness and shame. It has to come from love. It has to come from knowing that we are beloved and knowing that everyone else is beloved too. It has to come from raham and hesed.
This year in particular, we might need an extra dose of contemplating our belovedness before we can get to the business of examining ourselves. Heck, take twenty doses, there is more than enough. God needs us and wants us in the game, whatever that looks like for us. And so for today, let us settle and steep in the truth of our belovedness, with this blessing from Jan Richardson, entitled “Beloved is Where We Begin.”
If you would enter
into the wilderness
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
Named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
(1) Commentary by Nancy deClaisse-Walford, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-251-10-13
(2) Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O Lord! 8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Secrets of Heaven #1049
The symbolism of and I will remember my pact, which is between me and you, as the Lord's mercy, specifically toward people who have been and people who can be reborn, also follows from all this, since remembering, for the Lord, is having mercy. The Lord cannot be said to remember, because he knows absolutely everything from eternity. Having mercy, though, is something he can be said to do, because he realizes what we humans are like. He knows that our self-centeredness reflects hell and is our actual hell, because our self-will keeps us in touch with hell. Self-will is such, on its own and by hell's inspiration, that its strongest, keenest wish is to throw itself headlong into hell; and it is not content with this but wants to drag everyone else in the universe along with it. Because this is the kind of devils we are on our own, and the Lord knows it, remembering the pact is consequently the same as showing mercy, using divine means to regenerate us, and drawing us to heaven with a powerful force, so far as our nature allows him to.