Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44, John 6:1-21, Secrets of Heaven 9545 (see below)
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Today we consider one of the most famous of bible stories, the feeding of the five thousand, or the story of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. This is such an important story to the gospel narrative, that it is the only miracle story to appear in all four gospels, and Mark and Matthew both manage to tell it twice! It hooks into many important gospel themes: the providence and shepherding of God, the abundance of the kingdom, the surprise of faith, and care of the oppressed.
This miracle though, as iconic as it may be, is not an innovation on the part of Jesus, he was not doing something completely new. Feeding miracles abound in the Jewish Scriptures as well, and this gospel episode evokes many of them, with two in particular. The first we heard in our reading: Elisha’s feeding of the one hundred. The language and the form is mirrored very explicitly, including down to the barley loaves. The second allusion is only touched on our reading, but is developed more fully later in the chapter. With references to Passover, and to withdrawing to a mountain, and later, to manna in the wilderness, the gospel writer means to bring to mind Moses. Jesus is being deliberately established as a great prophet, in order to demonstrate continuity with Israel’s past.
But, as clearly as the gospel lifts up Jesus as a great prophet, it is important to note what the gospel thinks that means. The crowd, being in awe of such a miracle, immediately moves to make Jesus king, echoing the demands of their ancestors for a king many centuries before. But Jesus soundly rejects these efforts. Why? Isn’t God’s king—dom, and the bringing of it into being, the whole point of Jesus ministry? The problem is that the world’s idea of kingship and God’s idea are very different. The perspective of the world will always be based on scarcity, based on who has and who has not. Even the most benevolent of governments and empires will still always be based on this earthly mathematics, the economy of hierarchy, the currying of favor, the (hopefully just, but certainly not always) distribution of limited resources and power. God’s kingdom, however, radically upends hierarchy *itself* and challenges the whole notion that there is a limited amount of righteousness, worthiness and favor.
And clearly, the crowd was looking to Jesus because of what Jesus could do, what he could accomplish within that worldly context of kingship, how he could justly create and distribute food to a hungry people. Which is of course important to be done; that’s why Jesus did it. But, an entire kingship based on such a premise would still only ever be transactional, would be still based on the power of one person, and would not overhaul of the oppressive system that allowed some people to be and remain hungry in the first place. Jesus at the head of the Roman empire might have seemed like a good idea to some, but it was the ideology of empire itself that was the problem. Jesus wasn’t looking to usurp power, but to redefine what power really was.
So we are served the second miracle in this text today: the walking on the water. If the miracle of the loaves and fishes puts Jesus in continuity with Israel’s journey of faith, the walking on the water reveals his true identity in oneness with God. Jesus not only feeds people miraculously sometimes, as Elisha did, Jesus does as God does: brings people from scarcity to abundance in a larger sense, all the time. What is translated as “It is I” in the NIV, can just as correctly be translated “I AM,” the divine name. This links not only to all the various I AM sayings in John, but to the burning bush in Exodus all those years ago, to God’s personal introduction of God’s self to God’s people. Who are you, asked Moses then? I am who I am, said God. I am being, I am creation, I am generativeness, I am everything. The point of this kind of identification is not that God is everything and therefore God has everything; casting God as benevolent dictator. The I AM is not making us human beings “other,” or “less than.” Jesus drives this home by invoking the divine name while at the same time engaging in pastoral care. He says “I AM; do not be afraid.” He allays the disciples’ fears, anticipates what they will need to hear.
And so we see that we have a moment of glory tempered by a moment of grace. We learn that the sheer multiplying power of the feeding miracle cannot cannot be the end goal. The purpose of abundance is not so that there might be much for much-ness sake, but so that *need* might be met with *fulfillment*, this is the actual miracle. God’s glory is solely for the purpose of meeting our need with love. The walking on water episode moves directly into John’s well-known discourse on the “bread of life.” And now Jesus works hard to explain how it all hangs together. He says “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures for eternal life…it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” It is not about the bread alone, no matter how multiplied. What the abundance of the Bread of Life means, is that whatever needs are created by the living of life, the emptiness, the yearning, the loneliness, the worry, the brokenness, these needs will be met with nourishment and care by God. This is why, as we are told in our Swedenborg reading, that bread corresponds not only that which nourishes us physically but also spiritually, corresponds to the goodness of God’s love and to God’s very self. God will give of God’s very self so that we might all be filled. And that is something that empire can never do, because to empire, giving something away breaks down the whole enterprise; the whole point of empire is to get more, more power, more resources, more control. To empire, people are chattel, valued only for what they can produce, and need is a weakness. To God, people are beloved, valued for who they are, their need a means to connection.
And yet, we struggle to believe it. One of the most potent of human fears is the fear of being left out, of finding oneself outside of the circle of care and perceived worthiness. It is a survival impulse buried deep within our DNA, as once upon a time, separation from the safety of the tribe likely meant death. We are hardwired to desire assurance that we are part of a community that can sustain us, hardwired to seek relationship, knowing that we are safer together than alone.
We feel these anxieties all the time when our safe communities are expanded; families welcoming in-laws, churches welcoming new members, classes welcoming new students or teachers. On the world stage, these anxieties are played out as countries grapple with immigration, amnesty for refugees. Many times, when this anxiety is not processed or examined, when reflection is rejected, the temptation towards xenophobia, to the practice of making some human beings “other” is irresistible. The hells convince anxious people that hatred and lack of empathy is the only balm, the only assurance of survival and worthiness.
But this is not the Word of God. This is not what God would have us understand about the universe. We must remember Elisha: This is what the Lord says! “They shall eat and have some left.” The Lord says this, clear as day. Divine love is ever-giving, and God’s vision for us is to live into the abundance of divine love. We are assured that there is something in the universe that is inexhaustibly loving and good, something that is generative and creative and giving. In this knowledge, and only in this knowledge, we can let go of our grasping and draw a deep long breath. We need not fill ourselves; we need only open ourselves up and we can be filled with the I AM. God will never ever leave us, and God’s love will never, ever run out. And when we believe that, we can be fearless in our compassion and welcome to others. God’s assurance is that expansion grounded in love draws its marvelous elasticity from the great I AM. It doesn’t and cannot come from us. It has a much more consistent and durable origin. Thank the Lord!
As we anticipate joining together in our own meal of celebration today, we remember then that the central sacrament of our faith is celebrated around a table. Many times, that table has been used for the opposite of God’s intention, to convince some that they are not worthy, they are not included, they are outside of God’s love and care. But, as Jesus exemplified, the sharing of God’s abundant love and truth, symbolized in the bread and wine, powerfully enacts the invitation that is central to God’s character; that all may come and be fed. “They shall eat and have some left.”
2 Kings 4:42-44
42 A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. “Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said. 43 “How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked. But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the LORD says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’ ” 44 Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.
1 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near. 5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” 8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. 14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
Secrets of Heaven #9545
‘Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times,” (Exodus 25:30) means the Lord there in respect of celestial good. This is clear from the meaning of 'the table' as the receptacle of celestial blessings; from the meaning of 'bread' in the highest sense as the Lord, and in a related sense as the good of love that springs from Him… 'bread' in general meaning all heavenly food or the food that nourishes a person's spiritual life, and from the meaning of 'Presence', when the word refers to the Lord, as everything that springs from Divine Love, such as innocence, peace, and joy, thus heaven itself present with people on earth and with angels.
Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, Secrets of Heaven #5992:3 (see below)
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“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” How beautiful this verse is, sometimes I think perhaps the most beautiful in the whole bible! Well, I joke, but how many here can relate to this verse, especially after the last 18 months? While the pandemic did cause many of us to stay in our homes, did it and all that has happened, allow us to truly rest? Will life return now to to its face-paced default that kept many of us so exhausted? Jesus’ invitation here remains a little counter-cultural, though perhaps one that we might now be slightly more willing to hear.
But of course, in that particular moment in our text, it wasn’t to be, even for Jesus. The story continues: “but many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” Jesus saw their need and had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, searching and searching for one to lead them. This feeling of searching, I think we can relate to as well. In our society that is so infatuated with individualism, this is a hard, and sometimes secretly shameful thing to admit; that even as adults we still yearn for mentoring, for sometime to guide us along the way.
And so, the image of the divine shepherd is so perennially comforting. It is an invitation to breathe, an invitation to focus on that which is guiding us, an invitation to believe that someone has our back and that we are not alone. We heard about the concern that the Lord has for each of us in our Swedenborg reading: “a constant concern lasting from the very beginning of a person's existence to the final moment of their life, and for evermore after that.” And, we also learned, that it is not only the Lord that we have with us, but angels shepherding us as well. “Angels from the Lord…lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant.” We are all held in the loving arms of the God and angels in every moment. We are not always conscious of it, and sometimes we resist the embrace, but it is a constant of which we can always rely. And in our text today, Jesus embodied for us this compassion and concern of God, not hesitating for moment to heal those who needed healing. God with us, working for us, constantly. Our divine shepherd.
But of course, the temptation wrapped up in such a beautiful piece of knowledge, is that it will take us out of each moment that we are in. The transcendence of spiritual things, the fact that we believe spiritual things are beyond us in some fundamental way, that they represent an ideal, sometimes draws us away from the world. Surely, we think, heaven is an escape from the messiness of our lives, surely our angels call us to abandon that which is earthly and earth-bound?
It is not quite so simple. In his book Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg describes our inner natures being in the spiritual world and our outer natures in this natural world. We inhabit a nexus, an in-between place. And our outwardness, our bodies, actions, thoughts, senses…these are the ultimate things into which the flow of God’s love comes to rest. There is not some rarefied realm in which God’s love resides which we must strive to reach by shedding our outer natures. Rather, our transformed outer natures are the ultimate destination of God’s love. They are where God has been heading the entire time.
The passage continues:
 Since the Lord's divine inflow does not stop in the middle but goes on to its very limit, as just stated, and since the intermediate region it crosses is the angelic heaven and the limit is in us, and since nothing disconnected can exist, it follows that there is such a connection and union of heaven with the human race that neither can endure without the other. If the human race were cut off from heaven, it would be like a chain with a link removed, and heaven without the human race would be like a house without a foundation. (HH 304)
We see now then, that denying, abhorring, ignoring the world for the sake of spiritual things is like trying to have a house without a foundation; it is impossible. Heaven and the human race, in all its human-ness, are irrevocably connected. And when we recognize what this means, we see that the guiding, moderating and shepherding that we receive from God and the angels is not to draw us ever away from the world but rather, to allow us to exist compassionately and courageously within it. To allow us to bring God’s love into its ultimate destination in our embodiment, in our actions.
We see this reflected in the gospel text; the people brought their sick to be healed but not to Jesus up in that secluded place he spoke of, and clearly yearned for. He instead went into their villages and towns, and specifically healed the sick in the marketplaces of those towns, in the most busy and bustling places. The marketplace in those days was not just a place for commerce, it was also a place for legal hearings, elections and debates. It was both a commercial and a political center. It was the center of everyone’s lives, it was where the details of collective life in community happened. This is where the healings took place. Not in hiding, not in a sacred temple, not the deserted place he called them to at the beginning of the story, but in the midst of the nitty-gritty of life.
We have romanticized the image of the divine shepherd so very much, placed it in the realm of idyllic pastoral scenes, peaceful countrysides, fluffy white sheep. But in Jesus’ day, it was not an abstract idea. For many hundreds of years, the Jewish people had been a shepherding people; they knew exactly what was involved in being a shepherd, how dirty, how exhausting it could be. How different to understand the Old Testament use of the image of God as shepherd then, as we see in our Jeremiah reading, how this doesn’t cast God as distantly and peacefully presiding over green hills and happily gamboling lambs, but rather, God as fierce protector and rescuer. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…” God sweaty and dirty and directly involved; shouting, running, hands calloused from hard work and oily brown wool, arms full of the vulnerable and tired and the just born.
Then, and now, we are shepherded inwardly by God and our angels, as we told, in every instant and every fraction of an instant. We are guided toward goodness and away from harm, toward compassion and away from self-centeredness. As needed, we are guided into quiet places and restfulness, we are guided, as we heard in Jeremiah, back into the fold and away from fear. But this rescue, this greener pasture, is not for the sake of itself. We are shepherded so that the inflow of God might come to rest, come to fruition, in our transformed and compassionate actions.
And so, we are *also* guided into the marketplace. God and the angels will meet us even there, in the place where the details of our lives happen. We bring our sickness and our need of healing, we bring our problems and our doubts, our challenges and our stubbornness, our day-to-day anxieties, our dreams of being whole, and our dreams of making the world a better place. Nothing disconnected can exist. Heaven is built upon the foundation of our lives in this world, brick by brick, moment by moment. And not, so that we might eventually build a tower of babel tall enough to escape, but that we might build a room expansive enough to hold us all. The point of spirituality and the shepherding of God is not that we might become unmoored from our experience and our earthiness, a soul saved from the grasp of a tortured world and taken up to heaven. Rather, we are shepherded and guided so that heaven might be birthed in the here and now, inside a heart, inside a life, in which God’s love might come to fulfillment and rest.
1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Secrets of Heaven #5992:3
 In particular angels call forth the forms of good and truth residing with a person and set them opposite [the] evils and falsities…As a result the person is in the middle and is not conscious of the evil or of the good; and being in the middle they are in freedom to turn towards one or towards the other. Angels from the Lord employ means like these to lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant. For if the angels were to let up merely for a single moment the person would be plunged into evil from which after that they cannot possibly be brought out. The angels are motivated to do all this by a love they receive from the Lord, for nothing gives them greater delight and happiness than to remove evils from a person and lead them to heaven. This is their joy. Scarcely anyone believes the Lord has that kind of concern for a person, a constant concern lasting from the very beginning of a person's existence to the final moment of their life, and for evermore after that.
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Readings: Psalm 132, 2 Samuel 6:1-2, 12-19, Secrets of Heaven #10416 (see below)
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Not long after I decided to go with the second reading from the lectionary for today’s sermon, I began to regret it. As I read over 2 Samuel, going back and forth over the text to see what happened before and after, I started to panic a little, thinking: “I can’t draw anything good from this!” And why? Because it is too messy. There are no simple heroes or villains. It is a story of war, and no one comes out well. Since we last left David, a mere boy who vanquished a giant, he first spent years as a loyal servant in Saul’s court. Even as Saul’s paranoia eventually forces David to become a fugitive, he maintains his integrity in the face of Saul’s cruelty. And yet, as David gathers support and strategizes, even as Saul eventually dies at the hands of the Philistines and David mourns him with sincerity, the narrative is filled with wartime actions that seem almost casual in the biblical account but that feel deeply wrong in the larger scheme. And, as much as David is lifted up as a seminal leader, alongside his good qualities we also know that he was deeply flawed.
And in a flash I feel a distinct resonance with our own times: full of messiness and sadness and loss and injustice, full of a necessary reframing of things we thought we knew, full of a necessary reckoning with things covered over, full of dealing with things we never thought we’d have to deal with. From pandemics and insurrections to climate change and racial injustice, there is a lot to feel uncomfortable and uncertain about. Processing it all feels hard and messy and sad, as we all just try to figure out how to show up in way that is accountable and useful. I’m sure we’d prefer easier stories, easier history, an easier sacred text, but that is not what we have in front of us.
What I take from this story, though, is the recognition that God remains in all of it, not as sanction but as grace. And if last week, on July 4th, we spoke of the necessity of pairing celebration with reflection, this week we can see the other way, we can hear about the necessity of pairing reflection and challenge with celebration and joy. Because, in the face of all that is happening, all that we are learning, I know that I sometimes it can feel like celebration is not allowed, that somehow joy itself in the face of injustice and pain is a betrayal. How can we be happy when so many are suffering, so much is going wrong in our world?
And certainly, there are ways that the pursuit of happiness, of momentary and external joy, can be a distraction, an avoidance, a resistance, an indulgence, that prevents us from dealing with what needs to be dealt with. We certainly need to be aware when we are doing this. But, celebration and joy around the presence of God with us is an indispensable way to connect *to* God, to feel within our bones that our God is a good God, to recognize that our God is with us, in every challenge. It is a kind of celebration that cannot be relinquished, for the sake of our own well-being.
We can see this in the picture of David dancing as the ark is taken to Jerusalem, bookended by war and upheaval on one side and David’s upcoming transgressions on the other. It is not so much that David as a character has a consciousness of this tension; rather, the narrative itself provides us with the juxtaposition. Within so much loss and violence and turmoil, still God reaches out in order to be among humankind, to be at the very center of our lives, as the ark with God’s instructions for living would be in the center of Jerusalem. And so David dances, as do the people, and we are invited to join in.
This dancing, this expression of joy, does not erase the urgency and the gravity of the wrongs we will need to right, the catastrophes we will need to manage, the apologies we will need to make, the healing we will need to do. The dancing, the expression of joy, puts us in the space where we might be renewed, where our selfhood is forgotten, even if just for a moment, where God’s love might freely flow into our soul, our mind, our heart, so that we have the fortitude and the resilience to step into the challenges of our life and our world.
For there certainly are other ways to approach our challenges. We look at Michal, Saul’s daughter, we see her despising David as he danced, and we see a resonance with that part of us that despises freedom and joy in ourselves and in others. She admonishes David sarcastically as he returns home:
“How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (2 Samuel 6:20)
Her story is complicated too. As daughter of the king, she was used to privilege. And yet as a women in ancient times, she did not have access to any measure of self-determination either. She was initially promised in marriage to David by her father, Saul, when David was favored in court. Years later, after Saul had died, David called that promise due and dragged Michal away from her current husband. The biblical account tells us her husband followed behind her for miles, weeping, as David’s soldiers led her away. Of course she was salty and resentful, at minimum. Her life had been determined by powerful men who cared nothing for her own wishes. And even her own feelings ultimately do not get to be hers, as this personal episode is co-opted by the narrative to demonstrate the true end of the reign of Saul and his line.
There are ways that we have all been wronged and challenged, by particular people, by systems, by what seems like fate. Anger, resentment, and sadness are reasonable and expected reactions to this reality, especially in situations where we have no power to make things better, to right the wrongs, to change our circumstances.
But the ways we process that anger, resentment and sadness are key. We can see in Michel what happens when life make us hard and cynical. When we see the eruption of joy in others and all we can think of is what we have lost, what has gone wrong. The biblical narrative implies that for this stance, Michal would remain childless all her life. In the natural sense, this seems an overly harsh sentence for an understandable reaction to being treated like chattel. But in the spiritual sense, we can see that nothing can be born from that type of hardness, there can be no offspring of growth and transformation from a mindset that centers our pain, instead of processing our pain, that twists the existence of hardship into an ongoing support for a ego-centered worldview. And that is a very different thing from recognizing an accountability for our own actions even as we do not excuse what has happened to us, even as we work for justice and change.
And all of this is so nuanced and difficult to sort out in our real lives. This text doesn’t tell us “don’t worry be happy.” This text doesn’t tell us to just forget about our challenges and dance. This text isn’t saying we shouldn’t feel the fullness of the injustice of the transgressions we encounter, learn about, or experience. Perhaps it is just too much to see *David* dancing, knowing that he was the one who took Michel away from her life. But is it possible to see the dancing itself as holy and good apart from him?
What instead, would it have been like if Michal could have danced? She was alone in that window looking down; what if there had been a community to dance with her, to help her remember her connection to her God and her worthiness and potential. We can have compassion for the way her perspective turned, and why, while also hoping and wishing that she might have had access to a community and a practice that renewed her, that kept her whole in spirit. Purely happy endings are the stuff of fairy tales, but the dance, connected to the ground and our heartbeat; it bridges what is and what could be in a real and primal way.
The establishment of the ark in Jerusalem is so very important to the Jewish tradition and by extension, to ours. It signals the centrality of God in our lives, about how God pitched a tent right in the middle of all our messiness, and how we might respond by building the temple of our reverential selfhood around it. What steadfastness, what an unreasonable faith God has in us! And for this gift, for this grace, we dance.
8 ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. 9 May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ”(Psalm 132:8-9)
1 LORD, remember David and all his self-denial. 2 He swore an oath to the LORD, he made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob: 3 “I will not enter my house or go to my bed, 4 I will allow no sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, 5 till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.” 6 We heard it in Ephrathah, we came upon it in the fields of Jaar: 7 “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool, saying, 8 ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. 9 May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ” 10 For the sake of your servant David, do not reject your anointed one. 11 The LORD swore an oath to David, a sure oath he will not revoke: “One of your own descendants I will place on your throne. 12 If your sons keep my covenant and the statutes I teach them, then their sons will sit on your throne for ever and ever.” 13 For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, 14 “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. 15 I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. 16 I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy. 17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for my anointed one. 18 I will clothe his enemies with shame, but his head will be adorned with a radiant crown.”
2 Samuel 6:1-2. 12-19
1 David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. 2 He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark.
12 Now King David was told, “The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.” So David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. 13 When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. 14 Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, 15 while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. 16 As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart. 17 They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD. 18 After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty. 19 Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes.
Secrets of Heaven #10416
This is clear from the meaning of 'playing' as the desire of a person's interiors to celebrate, for play is the outcome of that desire, being a bodily activity brought about by gladness of mind; and all desire for celebration and all gladness of mind come from the delights belonging to the loves that govern a person. The reason why agreement as well is meant is that every desire to celebrate has agreement residing inwardly within it; for if any disagreement or disapproval enters in, that desire perishes. The desire to celebrate resides inwardly in a person's feeling of freedom, and all feeling of freedom comes as a result of love, when nothing exists to frustrate it.
Readings: Mark 1:1-15, True Christianity 530 (see below)
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We are not usually in church on July 4th, on this exact day. But, being as Independence Day falls on a Sunday this year, and a communion Sunday at that, I thought this might be a good opportunity to think about the intersection of celebration and reflection.
Now, at first it probably doesn’t really seem like celebration and reflection go together at all. Most of the time, when we celebrate something, like a birthday, we are celebrating what actually is, as opposed to what could be. Certainly, the intersection of celebration and reflection is at the center of some hot cultural debates, specifically in relationship to July 4th, the question of whether it is possible for someone to be patriotic, to love and be loyal to the United States, while still being clear-eyed and honest about the shortcomings of their nation? Often times, any critique at all of the United States and its history is pilloried as being anti-American. But that does seem unnecessarily defensive and reductive. In our personal lives, when we offer a critique of a spouse, or a friend, or a child, someone we love, are we *immediately* that person’s antagonist or enemy? Are we fundamentally “against” them? No, of course not. We know that, when critique is offered with improvement as the goal, when it is done in a loving way, it is possible to critique and love at the same time. Critique can be offered as a gift and a hope, as a way for important things that are unseen to be seen. And conversely, it is not always a gift to be silent about the ways someone that we love can develop, nor is it a blessing to be willfully blind about their shortcomings.
And I’m sure that many of us are grappling with this tension, on this Independence Day, of critiquing and loving at the same time, in regards to our beautiful but flawed nation. Because, boy, what a year and a half! Layer upon layer has been revealed to us, things that many of us should have been able to see long ago perhaps: the pervasiveness of systemic inequalities, the fragility of democracy and our economies, the urgency of climate change, and much more. What is the reaction to this revealing? Sometimes it is denial, a defensiveness that seeks to preserve a righteous and comfortable identity. And sometimes it is also wanting to speak up, to raise awareness, to create useful change. Certainly both these reactions seem like they come from love, but the heart of the question is: what are we loving? In either case, the key is whether or not we are loving the Lord and loving the neighbor, as opposed to loving power or loving ourselves. In church, in a place dedicated to spiritual practice and spiritual questioning, I think we are led today to ask: how appropriate is a celebration that does not attend to this important question?
So, what does this have to do with communion? Well, it seems to me that the sacrament of communion embodies this holy tension between reflection and celebration. Someone coming to receive communion is called a celebrant. During communion, we commemorate the Lord’s presence with us in this world, we lift up and praise what God offers to us, accomplishes for us. We perform a joyful remembrance of a holy meal; we *celebrate* communion.
But, the point of communion is not just remembrance and praise. The point of communion, and of the remembrance, is to translate the effectiveness of the Lord’s Holy Supper with the disciples all those years ago into something that has efficacy in the here and now, in our lives. And how do we do that? By reflecting upon how *we* can be a conduit for God’s love and truth in this world, by reflecting upon the places where this love and truth are not yet fully embodied, by reflecting on how we might change. When there is a concrete effect in our personal realm, some realization, some transformation…then God’s work and effective presence continues in the present. The celebration is no longer pure enactment; the Holy Supper has become reality. The celebration is internalized; it is no longer about remembering what someone else did but about what we are doing.
And so we see that celebration is only half of the story; that without accompanying reflection, it is a mere shadow of something that once was. For, in Swedenborgian theology, communion is just as much excavation as it is remembrance, just as much integration as it is celebration. We take the wine and the bread, ordinary elements, and we see them deeply, correspondentially, see them for the way that they connect us to spirit, to the love and wisdom of God. But we don’t just *look* upon them, we don’t just try to understand their meaning, we ingest them, we take them into ourselves as a representation of accepting and integrating God’s goodness and truth into our daily living. This acceptance, this integration, can only occur through reflection, repentance, re-formation, *trans*formation. It is an active practice, it is ongoing, it is showing up with our full selves, and our full willingness and surrender to where God is leading us.
And I think perhaps the way that communion embodies both celebration and reflection can be instructive for us in other parts of our lives. Already on important days such as birthdays or anniversaries, we might both celebrate and reflect. We lift up in gratitude what has gone before and we think about who we would like to be and what we would like to see going forward, both in our own lives and in relationship. Perhaps this dynamic can be brought forward usefully into the way we celebrate July 4th.
The birth of American democracy was a new and hopeful thing. It changed the world for the better. *And* it was a historical event enfolded within its own time, bearing the inevitable markers of that time, that ushered various injustices forward. We can see both of these things as true at the same time. We can hold the clarity of truth within the boundaries of love. We can, as communion does, infill an important remembrance with the holy offering of reflection in a way that makes the reality of our nation more whole, and even more beautiful.
Reflection isn’t always comfortable, in fact, most the time it isn’t. But a commitment to the spiritual life is a commitment to the truth that reflective discomfort can be a good thing, that it can be productive, that it is giving birth to something. If we don’t believe the truth of this, if we believe that the purpose of religion and/or patriotism is to make us feel righteous and powerful and happy all the time, then I believe we have missed the point.
And this is why in our reading today, we hear Jesus say “Repent *and* believe the good news!” Our belief, our perspective, our celebration of the goodness of the news of the ways that God shows up for us, needs to be coupled with a healthy humility, with a willingness to see where we are throwing up obstacles to God’s partnership with us.
And even though we read those two things in a particular order, repent and then believe, we also know that life is a little more messy than that, that as in communion, we can hold both at the same time. As we heard in our Swedenborg reading, “repentance becomes effective if we practice it regularly.” It is not a one and done thing, so that we can finally, really, believe. It is a practice and a discipline that encourages the ongoing refinement and expansion of our belief and our perspectives. Each feeds into the other, as we learn more about ourselves and others and God and relationship and service.
And so, as we mark this Independence Day, I hope that we might be moved to both celebrate and reflect, that we might come to inhabit that holy tension of critique and love with calmness and hope and determination. That we might recognize that as each angel is perfected to eternity, so might our world be. There is still so much work to do; may it be both joyful and reflective in perfect measure. Amen.
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
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The question then is, How are we to repent? The answer is, we are to do so actively. That is, we are to examine ourselves, recognize and admit to our sins, pray to the Lord, and begin a new life.
 Repentance becomes effective if we practice it regularly - that is, every time we prepare ourselves to take the Communion of the Holy Supper. Afterward, if we abstain from one sin or another that we have discovered in ourselves, this is enough to make our repentance real. When we reach this point, we are on the pathway to heaven, because we then begin to turn from an earthly person into a spiritual person and to be born anew with the help of the Lord.