Readings: Daniel 3:1, 4-6, 8-30, Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327 (see below)
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One of the reasons that I have always loved the Swedenborgian interpretative tradition, is that its metaphorical approach allows the Bible to become the story of each of us, you and me, right now. Yes, it is outwardly stories about people who lived a long time ago, but it also communicates something much larger; truths that we can use to further our own spiritual journeys in each of our own contexts.
And this means that, when we are faced with the prideful anger of the King Nebuchadnezzar, we cannot retreat into the comfort of literalism and say, well, I’m not a Babylonian King, or someone with anywhere near that kind of power, so this really doesn’t have anything to do with me. However, we *all* can experience pride and self-obsession, we can *all* experience avarice or find ourselves worshiping something not worth worshiping. I think this is a really valuable spiritual practice; when the whole bible is about us, we cannot wriggle out of its various critiques, regardless at whom they are leveled.
So King Nebuchednezzar tells us about the ugliness, the ridiculousness, the dangerousness, of being drunk with power and self-obsessed, of turning our allegiance to that which props up our own wealth, self-esteem, status, and demanding that others do the same. This can be borne out in so many small ways in each of our lives. For example, there are times in the past when I’ve lashed out at my children, not because I desire to correct them usefully but because I am furious they have disrespected my authority. This is my Nebuchednezzar self coming out. And more specifically, according to Swedenborg, Nebuchednezzar and the Babylonian regime represents the profanation of holy things. Which is a theologically fancy way of saying it is evil representing itself as good. So continuing my example above, it would be like if I were to not only lash out at my children for disrespecting my authority, but then also justify it as a good thing to myself (and them)…like, it is good for them to have boundaries, good for them to learn consequences for their actions, and maybe even, it is a good thing for children to be a little afraid of their parents. See how insidious it is?
Conversely though, if the bible is about us, then we also have within us the good characters as well as the bad. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego represent those parts of us that resist these darker impulses. The parts of us that have given their allegiance to God, to truth and love, to something outside of ourselves and our own benefit. Daniel represents our developing conscience, and Daniel’s friends represent the true ideas that our conscience depends upon (1). The existence of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, opens up to us the opportunity to practice steadfastness, diligence, courage, and faith. So to continue the parenting example, they represent my commitment to the ideas that my children should feel safe and loved, and learn to be confident, generous and accountable, with healthy and useful autonomy and boundaries. My commitment to those ideas as primary helps me to see my Nebuchadnezzar self for what it is, and to resist what it is calling me to give free rein to within myself.
And so, we can read these stories as something that can speak to us personally, in our own lives and in our own contexts. God speaks then and God speaks now through that which we can understand; stories about human nature and human possibility.
However, I do think there is one important caveat. As wonderful as I consider this personal metaphorical interpretive tradition to be, I believe it emphasizes some things and obscures others. One downside to spiritualizing biblical stories in such a personal way is that we might pay far more attention our personal spiritual journey and forget that we are social, communal, systems-building creatures. With this story, it might blind us to the fact that the type of pride exhibited by the king was not just a personal failing, it was a personal failing that was propped up and encouraged and, to a certain extent, created by a system of power. (2)
This is not only a story about the fact that King Nebuchadnezzar was a prideful person. It is also a story about the misuse of systemic power. The King directed the allegiance and the worship of his people towards a golden statue, something that supported and increased his own status and suggested it was what they should value. He used his power (which technically has the potential for good) to serve his own ends. His network of advisors, also beholden and invested in that system, helped to perpetuate that misuse of power by accusing Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego of wrongdoing.
So, I believe the framework of this particular story is prompting us to ask ourselves: how is my pride, my avarice, my selfishness, how is that supported, encouraged, and obscured by systems in which I find myself? How do those systems prompt me to reframe my selfishness as good, or prompt me to forget or overlook who those systems disadvantage? How do these systems profane what is holy, or try to pass off what is evil as what is good?
One easy example is suggested by the “golden statue:” Does an allegiance to un-regulated capitalism ask us to value money over people? Is it asking us to forget that a system cannot be humane unless it serves everyone well, not just the few? Or, are some of our political ideologies based on accumulating power rather than serving people? Do they encourage us to dehumanize others in order to worship our own sense of “rightness?” As a parent of a transgender child, it sure feels like our family is walking around in a fiery furnace lately, with all the recent anti-trans legislation coming out of various states, obstructing life-saving gender-affirming care for people who need it. It is a picture perfect example of the Nebuchadnezzar spirit, using systemic power in ways that target the vulnerable.
Nebuchadnezzar is found within each human heart, yes. It is our responsibility notice where he is showing up in our lives, even in the small and mundane ways. But, it is also important to recognize that we don’t exist in a vacuum, that the Nebuchadnezzar spirit can join people together in ways that create and perpetuate larger systems of injustice, that seek to justify and continue their own existence by casting greed, incivility, selfishness and ignorance as good.
But of course, we still have Shadrach, Meshach and Abedego. Their story is not just about a one time courageous action. Their story tells us much more about how to exist in a world that seems to only see Nebuchadnezzar. You see, when Judah was first overthrown by Babylonia, promising Jewish youths like Daniel and his friends were plucked out of their own country and intentionally brought up within Babylonian structures, groomed to function in the Babylonian court, for Babylonian agenda. They had to learn how to exist in that context. But they didn’t forget where they came from. They stayed true to their heritage. They worked to the best of their ability within the social structures they found themselves in, but they did not allow those systems to corrupt the things that were most important to them.
This can be a valuable lesson to us. We cannot live outside of human systems and ideologies. We will always co-exist with them, we need them. When in their best forms, they create meaning and structure and connection for us. But they are still and always will be human. And many times, that means they will bid us forget what we owe to each other, bid us forget our heritage.
Our most basic heritage is that, from God’s divine love, everyone is born for heaven, which is a realm of mutual love (3). I don’t say this so that we will dismiss this world we live in and only focus on getting to heaven, not at all. Rather, I say it for us to realize that our heritage is something larger than the systems and ideologies of this world, no matter how much they might benefit us in the here and now, no matter how good they might make us feel. Our destiny is to exist in heaven in mutual love, to serve one another in mutual care, and to as far as possible live and birth that heaven into this world in the here and now. When we remember that heritage, we can resist any system or ideology that asks us to love or worship anything else. With God’s help and guidance, we can learn to walk around in the fire, unbound and unharmed. Amen.
(2) The New Interpreter’s Bible, p751.
(3) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #997, #1775 and Divine Providence #323
Daniel 3: 1, 4-6, 8-30
1 King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.
4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”
8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.” 13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” 19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace. 24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” 25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them. 28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327
'Nebuchadnezzar' the king of Babel…mean[s] that which is profane and lays waste, which happens when the truths and forms of good which the Word contains serve, through wrong application, as means to lend support to the evils of self-love and love of the world. For in these circumstances the evils of those loves exist inwardly, in the heart, while the holy things of the Church are on the lips.
These verses use Babylon as an image for the way the deeper aspects of faith — inner worship, in other words — are wiped out. Anyone who embraces self-worship is devoid of religious truth…Such a person destroys and devastates everything that is true and leads it into captivity.
Readings: Amos 5:18-27, Revelation 21:1-2 & 22:1-5, Secrets of Heaven #63 (see below)
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Our two readings today differ greatly in tone. One is full of lament, the other is bright with hope. During the last few years, we have seen much to fill us with both lament and hope. We saw so many lives lost to a pandemic, and also so much energy and love given to caring for each other through it. We have grappled deeply with seeing the fullness of how racism has poisoned our society and shaped the lives of people of color, and we have seen voices finally being heard and change starting to happen, even as much work remains to be done. We still see unjustifiable war, unexpected disaster, personal loss, division, greed and callousness all around us, but when we have eyes to see it, we can also see unity, competence, sacrifice, and accountability too. Now, as it probably is with any time in history, it is reasonable to find both lament and hope in our hearts.
Let’s first spend some time with the Amos text. Most of us are probably only familiar with verse 24, made particularly famous by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But I highly recommend reading the whole of chapter five at some point because it communicates so viscerally, as did our shorter reading, the depth of God’s lament. The whole chapter is a litany of complaints against the people of Israel, that they have turned away from God, that they have levied unfair taxes upon the poor, that they have oppressed the innocent, taken bribes and denied the poor justice in the courts, that they enriched themselves without any thought of others.
And in Amos God says, I can’t save you from this. If you insist on making these kinds of choices again and again and again, I can’t make it better. If you insist on replacing me with idols of your own making, if you insist on ignoring my words and replacing our covenant with your own selfishness….there will be no religious festival, no sacrifice, no special words that will be able to magically transform the world you have made.
And let’s be clear: God is heartbroken over the way things are going in the book of Amos. God is pleading with the Israelites to open their eyes and see what their selfishness and blindness has wrought. Those who have fashioned God in their own image, those who have twisted God’s word to serve their own purposes, those who have turned away from the suffering of God’s beloved, will not find likeness, will not find light or peace or safety, when they come to understand what God is really about. It will be a terrifying surprise, like running from a lion only to meet a bear, like pitch darkness without a flashlight. And this, not as a punishment, just as the soul-disorienting realization that God doesn’t exist to serve our self-aggrandizement, our worldview, our privilege.
And so God is pleading with them to wake up. To recognize that they cannot participate in festivals, or enact sacrifices in a purely external way. They can’t act selfishly and then act performatively, and expect God to be okay with it. “I will not accept [that]” says the Lord, “But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-ending stream.”
Swedenborg writes of this verse:
'Justice' means truth, and 'righteousness' good. Both stem from charity (kindness) and are the burnt offerings and sacrifices of the internal self (1).
A river evokes something old and deep and unstoppable. If the hypocritical sacrifices that God is rejecting in Amos are paper-thin and surface-deep, a river is something timeless, reflecting the heart of God…a never-ending stream of justice and righteousness coming up from the deep well of God’s divine love.
God is asking us to connect with that depth, to offer up sacrifices that come from deep inside us, that reflect the depth and the power of that river. That reflect the divine love that gives it being. To give metaphorical burnt offerings that represent ways in which we have recognized our wrongness, and our willingness to use that burnt ash to fertilize new growth. There are so many ways that this applies to each of our own contexts, our own spiritual work, our own particular sacrifices of things we are holding on to. Whether it is the sacrifice of our complicity towards white supremacy, sexism, homophobia or materialism for example, of personal reputation and ego, of ideology, of ambition, of avarice, of complacency. Today, on the precipice of Juneteenth, a celebration of freedom from oppression, is a particularly good day to consider what God is calling for us to sacrifice, so that the river of justice can truly flow.
Now let us take a look at the Revelation text. This begins with the descent of the Holy City New Jerusalem, from which our church is named. And we are told that the river of the water of life flows down the middle of this city, and the tree of life bearing different fruits every month grows on either side, and that the leaves of this tree will be for the healing of the nations.
If in Amos, God spoke that justice and righteousness should flow like a river, here in the holy city we see that river, flowing right through the center. Swedenborg writes that a river indicates divine truths in abundance, and in addition, so do the leaves of the tree. And I quote:
The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. This symbolizes the resulting rational truths by which people caught up in evils and… falsities are brought to think sanely and to live decently(2).
We are invited into a vision in which justice, righteousness, and healing are paramount. A vision in which Divine truth flows in abundance and it leads to people thinking with clarity and living with kindness.
The holy city is thus built by truth being heard and then people changing the way that they live. The holy city is built by the kind of sacrifice that God desires, internal sacrifice, whereby people relinquish ways of thinking that serve themselves and take on ways of thinking that promote healing and service and equality.
And as peaceful as the image of the New Jerusalem appears, we know that doing this is hard work, and will often involve internal conflict. This might feel uncomfortable to us because we have been taught to avoid conflict, to feel like conflict means that we are doing something wrong. But as we heard in our reading:
The hour of conflict is the hour when the Lord is at work…Nor does [the Lord] rest until love is playing the leading part, at which point conflict ceases.
The Lord is at work in our hearts and in our world! I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration and praise on this Holy City Sunday. When we look around and see conflict and denial and disagreement and anxiety in ourselves and in the world around us, it might not feel like the New Jerusalem is coming. When we see our world looking more like the book of Amos than the holy city, a vision where the leaves of the tree heal us all feels pretty far away, and maybe even a little naive.
But if the Lord is at work, so must we be. We know that the New Jerusalem is not something that we must passively wait for, something in our future that we will have no connection to. It is brought into being through each human heart. It is brought into being with each act of living courageously and decently. It is brought into being via our true and willing sacrifice, made in community together.
God will not rest until love is playing the leading part, And if the Lord does not rest, neither shall we rest until the holy city is embodied as fully as it can be in our world. Now of course, I don’t literally mean we shouldn’t rest. We are of course limited human creatures, we have a biological and emotional need to rest. But what I mean is that we cannot become complacent, content to rest in our privilege, however that privilege has become manifest. This complacency leads to an Amos world, full of blindness and selfishness, full of idols of our own making and myths of our own creating.
These days the invitation has never been more clear….The Lord is at work. Will we join Him? Amen.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #922:3
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Revealed #936
18 Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. 19 It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20 Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? 21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! 25 “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? 26 You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god — which you made for yourselves. 27 Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is God Almighty.
Revelation 21:1-2, 22:1-5
1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Secrets of Heaven #63
…the Lord is constantly fighting on our behalf against evils and falsities and by these conflicts is confirming us in truth and good. The hour of conflict is the hour when the Lord is at work, which is why in the Prophets a regenerate person is called 'the work of God's fingers'. Nor does the Lord rest until love is playing the leading part, at which point conflict ceases. When that work has reached the point where faith has been joined to love, it is then called 'very good', for the Lord then moves us to be a likeness of [God]self…
Readings: Psalm 84:1-7, Matthew 1: 18-24, Secrets of Heaven #5122:3 (see below)
We are going to do Father’s Day a little early this year. Next weekend is a crowded weekend, with Father’s Day, Juneteenth, and June 19th (a special religious holiday to our tradition) all happening. So, today we’ll get a headstart on the celebrations by exploring a character in the Bible who gets a little overshadowed sometimes: Joseph, the father of Jesus. That’s right we are doing Christmas in June!
If the gospel of Luke focuses on Mary and her experience of the incarnation, the gospel of Matthew centers Joseph. It even begins the narrative with “this is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about…” and starts talking mostly about Joseph’s actions and experience. So, I mean, Mary had something to do with it, I think….but in all seriousness, Matthew’s account gives us a window into a different experience of how God comes to us, for God’s presence is with each of us uniquely and yet universally.
As we enter the account, we immediately see how kind Joseph is. We are told that he is faithful to the law (and according to the law would have been within his rights to publicly sever his relationship with Mary) but at the same time he was empathetic to her situation and didn’t want to unduly hurt her reputation. The text is not explicit about what Joseph believed at this point. Mary’s claim to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit was indeed preposterous! Yet even from within that undeniable turmoil of mind, Joseph managed to think about someone other than himself, or his ego, or his pride. Already he is a sympathetic character, someone we would be happy to have be a father to Jesus.
But then, over the next few chapters, we see a remarkable thing: Joseph is visited by angels in dreams four times over the next few years and each time, he listens and obeys without question. The first time we see in our reading for today, where Joseph hears that Mary is telling him the truth, that her son will be the Messiah and that he should not be afraid to take her as his wife, and to join her in this important partnership.
Joseph does so, and Jesus is born. But soon after that Herod becomes jealous and, via the Magi, tries to find the baby Jesus to kill him. So, Joseph is visited a second time…
13 When [the Magi] 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.
Joseph’s willing and swift action saved Jesus’ life. But the angels were not done talking to him.
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.
In this short passage, two separate dreams, taking Joseph and his family one way and then another. Back and forth, trying to find safety and peace. Mary said yes when an angel came to her and told her that she would give birth to Jesus. And likewise, Joseph said yes when an angel came to him and told him to join Mary in taking care of her son. But of course, Joseph, like many of us when we start on a journey, didn’t know what he was saying yes to. Yet he showed up anyway, open and listening and ready to move.
And so when I came across Psalm 84 this week, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph when I read the verse 5: Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
Part of what Joseph was saying yes to was pilgrimage…a physical pilgrimage at times sure, but also a heart pilgrimage. Joseph was someone who loved; loved his God and loved his family, and he let that love, that care and concern for others, be his strength and his guide. He was open to his heart being set on pilgrimage, open to hearing what he needed to hear, learning what he needed to learn, acting when he needed to act.
When Swedenborg talks about dreams in the Bible, he often also talks about Divine Foresight and Providence, and the fact that the Lord is present to us and caring for us in even the smallest details of our lives. This doesn’t mean that the God manipulates outcomes in a way that overrides our freedom, but I think it does mean that God understands possibility in a way that we do not, that in God’s creation all things, even small inconsequential things or things that challenge us, can be brought to blossom for goodness, some way, somehow.
And in this story about Joseph and his dreams, we see the importance of our receptivity to God’s Divine foresight and providence. Because, it was not the bestowal of divine foresight in a dream that made Joseph special. He was special because of his openness, his acceptance, his willingness to listen.
We heard in our reading about God’s care for each person’s process and growth, to eternity. It said:
For one stage looks to the next in an unending sequence and produces chains of sequences which never cease.
Another translation puts it this way: for what is prior looks to what follows in a continuous series.
One part of what was prior, one part of the groundwork for the incarnation, was Joseph’s character, and his willingness to listen. His state of openness allowed for what was to follow. Likewise, *we* are invited to participate in God’s foresight and providence for us, knowing that part of our agency and our power is to cultivate the quality of our receptivity, to practice openness to hearing new things and accepting new ways of thinking.
By the time Jesus enters his public ministry at around age 30, none of the gospels mention Joseph anymore. A reasonable supposition is that by that time he had died. There is something very poignant about he fact that he may not have lived to see Jesus come into the fullness of his mission. The one who, according to Matthew, acted in so many ways to allow Jesus to be a fulfillment of the scriptures, representing such a long tradition of human spirituality, was not able to see Jesus become that fulfillment in his own way, in his own words, and through his own sacrifice. This feels really sad to me. So, on the cusp of Father’s Day, let’s take a moment to honor the man who was open and kind and faithful enough to say yes to the very strange heart pilgrimage that was and is the incarnation. The man who worked hard to protect and feed and shelter the body of the living God when he was a mischievous toddler, an impish child, and a stubborn teen. The man who worked to mould and guide and encourage the heart and mind of the one who would inspire so many around the world in the millennia to come.
May we all aspire to think so kindly, to listen so keenly, to act so faithfully. May we do as Joseph did and let God set our hearts on pilgrimage. Amen.
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, LORD Almighty! 2 My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. 3 Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, LORD Almighty, my King and my God. 4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. 5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. 6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
Secrets of Heaven #5122:3
These are the matters that are meant by progressive stages of development and by continuous derivatives even to the final one. Such stages and derivatives are unending in the case of a person who is being regenerated. They begin when we are young children and continue through to the final phase of our life in the world; indeed they continue for ever after that, though our regeneration can never reach the point when we can by any means be called perfect. For there are countless, indeed a limitless number of things to be regenerated, both within our rational and within our natural. Everything there has limitless shoots, that is, stages of development and derivatives that progress in both inward and outward directions. A person has no immediate awareness at all of this, but the Lord is aware of every particular detail and is making provision for it moment by moment. If [the Lord] were to stop doing this for a single instant every stage of development would be thrown into confusion. For one stage looks to the next in an unending sequence and produces chains of sequences which never cease. From this it is evident that Divine Foresight and Providence exist in every particular detail, and that if they did not, or did so in a merely overall way, the human race would perish.
Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4, Secrets of Heaven #2999 (see below)
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Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash
Today we are planning a fun event for after church. We have been participating in a program called Sacred Grounds Wilmington, which is supporting churches in creating pollinator gardens, and in general moving towards certifying their properties as Native Habitats for wildlife.
We were very proud to be able to function as a pilot for this program in Wilmington in 2021 by creating the pollinator garden we have right now, and now we are continuing with the program by expanding our pollinator-supporting native plantings on a larger scale by prepping our garden beds today.
This is important work to do because native plants are ones that co-evolved with native species of animals, insects and birds, so planting them intentionally supports our local eco-system, keeping it healthy and robust. There are plenty of benefits for humans as well: Just enjoying natural beauty can support mental health, not to mention the fact that getting in the dirt can expose us to microbes that are beneficial to the human microbiome.
But what it does for us theologically is also important. When we engage in actions that are of a benefit not only to us but to our natural world, we place ourselves within our natural world, within the web of relationships that make up eco-systems. We place ourselves within this web of relationships, not above it. This perhaps doesn’t seem like a huge shift but it really is. Western Christianity has unfortunately, for many hundreds of years, considered humanity to be above the natural world, a dualistic view that has fostered a lot of harm.
But this dualistic view is not the only way of looking at it. Indigenous spirituality is based not on the separation inherent in dualism, but on integration and balance. In this worldview, human beings cannot be categorized as “apart” from creation, or “above” it, but only as one part of it.
We can see this connection clearly in the Genesis story, especially when we understand the word-play that is occurring in the creation of humankind. The first human is named adam and the word for soil in Hebrew is adama. The first human being is an earth creature, described in Genesis Chapter 2 as fashioned out of the clay of the earth and filled with the breath of God.
As we engage the natural world with our work after church today, as we put our hands in the dirt, as use our energy and enthusiasm to create something that supports the eco-system around us, these actions enfold us into a web of creation. We are truly living into the fact that we are earth-creatures, one part of a holy act of creation.
And so as we contemplate the actions we are about to take, and the ways that Indigenous spirituality informs our way of understanding it, let us make a land acknowledgment, to honor the original inhabitants of the land where we are.
Church of the Holy City in Wilmington Delaware acknowledges that is on Lenape land also called the Leni Lenape, and Delawaren, an indigenous people of the Northeastern Woodlands, who live in the United States and Canada. The first language spoken on these lands is Algonquian (Unami and Munsee). It is important that we recognize and respect the original stewards of this territory.
We pay our respect to elders both past and present.
We acknowledge that not only are we on their lands, they are still here and part of this community. We also acknowledge that this is the home of many Indigenous people as a result of federal relocation policies and Indigenous migrants from the south. We honor their ancestors, elders, and community leaders, past, present, and into the future.
We speak these words to honor the Lenape peoples and invite all who come here to reflect on their relationship to the histories of this land and the people.
We invite you to get involved and do your part to work with and support Indigenous struggles on these lands.
May the balance be restored.
And as we consider, how we might embody balance in our lives and our actions, let us spend some time in guided contemplation of the creation story in Genesis.
(find a comfortable seat, take a deep breath, and if you wish to, close your eyes)
In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
9 Then God said, “ Waters under the sky: be gathered into one place! Dry ground: appear!” So it was. 10 God called the dry ground “ Earth ” and the gathering of the waters “ Sea.” And God saw that this was good.
Breathing in: God saw that this was good.
Breathing out: God saw that this was good.
11 Then God said, “ Earth: produce vegetation — plants that scatter their own seeds, and every kind of fruit tree that bears fruit with its own seed in it!” So it was: 12 the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed, and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. And God saw that this was good.
Breathing in: God saw that this was good.
Breathing out: God saw that this was good.
20 God then said, “ Waters: swarm with an abundance of living beings! Birds: fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky!” And so it was: 21 God created great sea monsters and all sorts of swimming creatures with which the waters are filled, and all kinds of birds. God saw that this was good
Breathing in: God saw that this was good.
Breathing out: God saw that this was good.
24 Then God said, “ Earth: bring forth all kinds of living soul — cattle, things that crawl, and wild animals of all kinds!” So it was: 25 God made all kinds of wild animals, and cattle, and everything that crawls on the ground, and God saw that this was good.
Breathing in: God saw that this was good.
Breathing out: God saw that this was good.
26 Then God said, “ Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.” 27 Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them ; female and male, God made them. 28 God blessed them and said, “ Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth — and be responsible for it!
31 God looked at all of this creation, and proclaimed that this was good — very good.
Breathing in: God looked at this creation
Breathing out: and proclaimed that this was good.
As we remember God’s intentionality with creation, as we remember that we are both a part of creation, and have a special responsibility for creation, let us hear the words of this Navajo song, connecting us with both the vastness and the smallness of our natural world, placing us firmly within the whole.
The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice above,
The voice of thunder,
Among the dark clouds
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.
The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice below,
The voice of the grasshopper,
Among the flowers and the grasses
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.
Genesis 1:1-2:4 (The Inclusive Translation)
In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 But the earth became chaos and emptiness, and darkness came over the face of the Deep — yet the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters. 3 Then God said, “ Light: Be!” and light was. 4 God saw that light was good, and God separated light from darkness. 5 God called the light “ Day ” and the darkness “ Night.” Evening came, and morning followed — the first day. 6 Then God said, “ Now, make an expanse between the waters! Separate water from water!” So it was: 7 God made the expanse and separated the water above the expanse from the water below it. 8 God called the expanse “ Sky.” Evening came, and morning followed — the second day. 9 Then God said, “ Waters under the sky: be gathered into one place! Dry ground: appear!” So it was. 10 God called the dry ground “ Earth ” and the gathering of the waters “ Sea.” And God saw that this was good. 11 Then God said, “ Earth: produce vegetation — plants that scatter their own seeds, and every kind of fruit tree that bears fruit with its own seed in it!” So it was: 12 the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed, and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. And God saw that this was good. 13 Evening came, and morning followed — the third day. 14 Then God said, “ Now, let there be lights in the expanse of the sky! Separate day from night! Let them mark the signs and seasons, days and years, 15 and serve as luminaries in the sky, shedding light on the earth.” So it was: 16 God made the two great lights, the greater one to illumine the day, and a lesser to illumine the night. Then God made the stars as well, 17 placing them in the expanse of the sky, to shed light on the earth, 18 to govern both day and night, and separate light from darkness. And God saw that this was good. 19 Evening came, and morning followed — the fourth day. 20 God then said, “ Waters: swarm with an abundance of living beings! Birds: fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky!” And so it was: 21 God created great sea monsters and all sorts of swimming creatures with which the waters are filled, and all kinds of birds. God saw that this was good 22 and blessed them, saying, “ Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the waters of the seas! Birds, abound on the earth!” 23 Evening came, and morning followed — the fifth day. 24 Then God said, “ Earth: bring forth all kinds of living soul — cattle, things that crawl, and wild animals of all kinds!” So it was: 25 God made all kinds of wild animals, and cattle, and everything that crawls on the ground, and God saw that this was good. 26 Then God said, “ Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.” 27 Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them ; female and male, God made them. 28 God blessed them and said, “ Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth — and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on the earth!” 29 God then told them, “ Look! I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree whose fruit carries its seed inside itself: they will be your food ; 30 and to all the animals of the earth and the birds of the air and things that crawl on the ground — everything that has a living soul in it — I give all the green plants for food.” So it was. 31 God looked at all of this creation, and proclaimed that this was good — very good. Evening came, and morning followed — the sixth day. 1 Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. 2 On the seventh day God had finished all the work of creation, and so, on that seventh day, God rested. 3 God blessed the seventh day and called it sacred, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Secrets of Heaven #2999
In addition, there is nothing anywhere in the created world that does not correspond to things in the spiritual world and therefore in its way represent something in the Lord's kingdom. It is from the spiritual world that everything comes into being and remains in existence.