The Watchful Soul
Readings: Isaiah 64:1-5, 8, Mark 13:24-36, Apocalypse Revealed #158 (see below)
See also on Youtube at youtu.be/yqbpywRGtHg
Our lectionary readings for today are ones that have several different themes that could be fruitfully explored. For today though, the one that stood out to me was unsurprisingly, watchfulness, or vigilance. Hmmm, I wonder why that might be? Well, we have all been brought into a new level of vigilance these days with the pandemic. We make sure not to forget our mask when we go out, we make sure to watch our hands regularly or use hand sanitizer, especially when in public places. We remain vigilant about keeping our physical distance, about guidelines for gathering, about case counts and positivity rates, about news of a vaccine.
And, as evidenced by the number of memes circulating about the awfulness of 2020, most people are not enjoying this new level of watchfulness. For those lucky enough to have not yet experienced a covid-related illness, we are still communally experiencing this new level of vigilance as a kind of low-grade trauma, compounded by the sense that we don’t exactly know when it will end.
And now advent introduces the theme of watchfulness, as well. Yeesh. That feels like a lot. But resistance often times be a sign that there is something interesting to be excavated, so let us explore.
First, we need to place the text within its narrative context. Earlier in the chapter, the Jesus had predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and the disciples ask him when it might happen, and how they will know that is going to happen. As he often does, Jesus gives answer that speaks to spiritual realities, rather than earthly ones. He describes a time of both distress and promise, using several different metaphors, and ends with a directive that his disciples must pay attention, be watchful. This is a directive in keeping with the way the disciples are portrayed in the gospel of Mark: constantly misunderstanding what Jesus is doing. In the very next chapter, they will fall asleep while Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, and Simon is rebuked: “Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?” Mark’s disciples need to hear this admonition, for they are in danger of being too complacent in the face of what is to come.
But, the bible does not always preach watchfulness. For example, in the gospel of Luke we are told:
22 … “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?…27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field…how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!
Or, from our reading today, from Isaiah…We are the clay, you are the potter…(v.8)
These verses speak of a God who already has everything in hand, the implication being that peace of mind comes from trusting this reality. Likewise, as we heard in our reading a few weeks ago, Swedenborg writes of Divine Providence saying “it constantly has in view what is eternal and is constantly leading to salvation,” though both joyful and miserable times(1). So which is it then? Are we to be watchful, awake, on guard, checking to see if we will miss something, looking out as if we might be suddenly surprised? Or should we be trusting and faithful and not worry?
Well, clearly it depends on what we are already doing, and what our natural tendencies might be. For those who tend towards just going with the flow, or who find themselves always being unreasonably optimistic, or who have fallen into numb, apathetic or uninspired states, as we all do at times, then it *is* important to be told to stay awake. Complacency can blind us to what God is trying to do, for us and for the world. And there are many times when prioritizing our own comfort causes us to be unawake to the suffering of others.
But what if we are already being vigilant and watchful? In this case, the stark urgency of the Mark parable might be less than helpful, might cause the vice grip on our hearts to tighten even further, might tempt us to take on more vigilance than is actually called for, might tempt us into the belief that we could actually thwart God’s purposes by not being watchful enough. We might come to believe that it all depends on us, that the power to make everything okay belongs with us. This is a difficult psychological burden to bear, as well as being untrue.
And so of course, I think we are being invited into a more nuanced take on watchfulness, and we can see this in one of the metaphors that Jesus used: the fig tree. He said:
“As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near…you know that it [or he] is near, right at the door.” (v. 28-29)
What does Jesus tell us to look for? Tenderness, softness, new life. Sometimes, when we are not paying attention, God’s presence will seem like a surprise, and especially if we are being called to repentance, then that surprise will not seem pleasant. But what the fig metaphor tells us is that ultimately, it is only surprising *because* of our inattention, not because God is inherently unpredictable. God is always present where there is the potential for new life, and where it is actively being born. God is always present to new possibility, to vulnerability, to tenderness, to growth. This is the sign that God is near. And this can be good news to the naturally watchful as well, those for whom watchfulness has quietly become powered by anxiety, and burden, and taking on too much. This watchfulness can be reframed as an offering; it does not need to be a bulwark against unpredictability. It can become the seeking of the new bud, the new leaf, the new promise, and all that is contained within such newness. Viewed through the lens of new creation, curiosity and diligence need not always need to be partnered by anxiety, for new life finds grows not only in cultivated spaces but in places we could never expect.
We see this reflected in our reading for today, in which Swedenborg indicates that the representation of being watchful is the living of a life according to the truths of faith, that it is diligently taking what we know to be true, and acting in accordance, in large ways and in small. This kind of watchfulness is not so much about making sure that bad things don’t happen, like the servant on watch at the door. It is rather, instead of just going through the motions of life, actively paying attention to how we can shape our lives into something that glorifies God, that actualizes truth, and embodies love. We *can* miss opportunities to do this if we are not alert and careful. And those missed opportunities can have consequences. It is not like there is no risk to living our lives. But God will always circle back around. Divine Providence 323 tells us that God cannot do otherwise:
…Everyone is created to live forever in a blessed state. This means that everyone is created to go to heaven. Divine love cannot do otherwise than intend this and divine wisdom cannot do otherwise than provide for this.
However we come into the practice of prayerful and faithful watchfulness this Advent season, whether it is by being shaken awake from our complacency, or though the cleansing breath that settles our anxiety, may our eyes ever be open to what is budding and getting ready to unfurl and bloom, even in difficult times. For we are indeed clay in the hands of our master potter, but a strange and magical clay that can share in the artisan’s vision. God leans over the potters wheel and whispers to us the words of our formation. And if we are awake enough to hear, we can offer in response our submission, our joyful acquiescence, to the shape of what we are becoming. The watchful soul; an ally to the act of creation. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #8560
Isaiah 64:1-5, 8
1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! 2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! 3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. 4 Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. 5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?…8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
24 “But in those days, following that distress, “ ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. 35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.
Apocalypse Revealed #158.
"'Be watchful.'" This symbolically means that they should have truths and live in accordance with them.
To be watchful has precisely this symbolic meaning in the Word, for a person who learns truths and lives according to them is like someone who awakens from sleep and becomes alert. By contrast, a person who lacks truths, but who is engaged simply in worship, is like someone who is asleep and dreaming.
Natural life, regarded in itself or apart from spiritual life, is really no more than a state of sleep, whereas natural life that contains spiritual life is a state of alertness. This alertness, moreover, is obtained only through truths - truths which appear in their own light and in their own clarity when a person lives in accordance with them.
"Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?"
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See also on Youtube here
This is the last week before advent, and so we come to the last of our stories about the Children of Israel (for now). We find ourselves in the book of Judges. Two weeks ago we heard about Joshua’s final speech before his death, in which he encouraged his people to renew their covenant to the Lord, having prevailed in establishing them in the promised land. This, unfortunately, represented a high note from which the book of Judges progressively declines.
The stories in this book all follow a recognizable cycle: the Children of Israel experience a triumph of some kind and a renewal of faith and practice, as in where we left off with Joshua. But over time they fall away into idolatry and evil. As a result, they find themselves challenged by some adversary, which is attributed to God as a punishment for their transgression. They cry out to the Lord for help, and the Lord lifts up a warrior-leader to lead them out of their suffering and oppression and into a time of new thriving for their community. This warrior-leader was also called a Judge, and would often lead them in both battles, and in adjudicating internal disagreements in peacetime. And then, whenever that Judge died and Israel was without leadership for a time, then the cycle would begin again. Each cycle would prove a little more difficult to recover from, and by the end of the book of Judges, Israel is in pretty bad shape.
But in our text today, the beginning of the story of Deborah, things are still pretty good for Israel. Deborah herself is of note because she was the only female Judge, and by all accounts was a wise and successful leader. We are told that Israel is struggling against Canaan, and against Sisera, the leader of the Canaanite army. Deborah deputizes a man named Barak to lead the Israelites in battle against Sisera, but he expresses uncertainty about his mission, and desires Deborah to accompany him, which she does. The Israelites are eventually victorious but not in an entirely conventional way. Sisera is ultimately killed, yes, but by a civilian women named Jael, which is also another story for another day.
Given that we are on the threshold of Thanksgiving, today I would like to focus on the representation of Deborah and how her example can invite us into the practice of gratitude. In verse 14:
“Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?”
This is a typical and expected speech from a leader for the purpose of encouraging their troops. But she does it in a particular way, as many leaders of Israel had done: by reminding the people of their history and the stories of their ancestors. Just as the Lord went ahead of the Israelites in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, when they were escaping Pharaoh in Exodus 13:21, just as the Lord has shown up for their ancestors, so too would the Lord show up for them now, and deliver them a victory.
In a similar way, in its essence, thanksgiving for us is a practice of remembrance. In order to be thankful for something that has happened, we must recall that thing, lift it up in our memory, see its place in our life, and understand it’s significance to us. We make the decision to notice and remember, to give a particular occurrence some special meaning. And what happens to us as a result? The act of thanksgiving changes us: changes our perspective, changes how we interpret our current circumstances and our future possibilities.
In our Swedenborg reading, we heard how setting out ahead, or going out ahead by God, represents a setting in order, a rearrangement of our internal selves by Divine Truth. Deborah, as she asks us the question “Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” brings into focus how the act of thankful remembrance sets our view of things in a different order. Gratitude places different things before our eyes than grievance. When we see the truth, the Divine Truth, of God’s presence in our lives, a reordering of our experience occurs, and we often can appreciate it in a new way.
And while we can be grateful about all kinds of things, Deborah specifically represents an “affection for inner spiritual truths which look to the Lord as our Savior.” (1) We can be grateful for luck, we can be grateful for happenstance, but Deborah represents a gratitude that is specifically centered around recognizing God’s providence for us. And I don’t know about all of you, but I really need this practice right now.
Because, while I super love spending time with one of the most powerful female figures in the Bible, I find myself as many of you probably do too, resonating with the uncertainty of Barak. He says: “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” As we all head into very uncertain times together but apart, as we head into a holiday season that probably will not contain as many of the social rituals that we have come to rely upon, as we look toward a potentially difficult winter, and we all grapple with isolation and disruption, we certainly might wonder: What kind of battle are we being sent into? Like Barak, we might need some reassurance. This is totally okay. Barak looks toward the leadership he needs and desires that this leadership accompany him into the challenge to come. I can imagine this being like us looking around us to see what we can bring with us to fortify us, without which we will not go forward into the unknown. Things like: a mediation or prayer practice, alternative ways to connect with loved ones, making sure we get outside in nature, making ourselves nourishing and favorite foods, and multitude of other things we each differently need.
And Deborah’s answer is yes, I will go. These external practices that remind us of the presence of God, the strength of our bodies, the blessedness of our friendships, the beauty of the world, these things are very good for us. They make a huge difference. There is a wisdom to knowing our limits, foreseeing what we might need, asking for help, enacting a strategy for success. And right now, it is probably pretty important that we be metaphorically asking for Deborah to accompany us on our journeys.
But crucially and additionally, Deborah works to widen our view even further, being as she is the “affection for inner spiritual truths which look to the Lord as our Savior,” she helps us to recognize that our life will always be a partnership between ourselves and the Lord. We will do our part, and the Lord will do the Lord’s part. And in our day to day, in our distractedness and necessary earthliness, we will not always be able to see the Lord’s part, or appreciate it. So Deborah lifts up for us the question: How has the Lord gone ahead of us? If we allow it, this question can rearrange our internal life so that we can see with clarity, even if just for a moment, how the Lord always will be present for us and for our world.
What might we see when we ponder how the Lord has gone ahead of us in these times? Here are a few examples that I am thinking of:
Frontline medical workers, tirelessly treating all who come to them; learning and developing new ways to treat those who have Covid-19 and always working to do better and more. For this we thank them. Has not the Lord gone ahead of us?
Scientists, both those have been working directly on a vaccine, and those have built up the foundational science over the years. And administrators that support them in organizing and overseeing vaccine trials. For this we thank them. Has not the Lord gone ahead of us?
Public health officials, who have been working to keep track of data and demographics, so that we might have a sense of what is coming, while communicating safe and effective practices to the public. For this we thank them. Has not the Lord gone ahead of us?
There are so many we can be thankful for: Essential workers, administrators of our various supply chains, teachers, first responders, artists, activists, and many many others. Has not the Lord gone ahead of us?
Deborah’s episode in the book of Judges ends with a song, another mighty remembrance of suffering and ultimate victory. And the final word in her story says: “Then the land had peace forty years.” It’s a little hard to feel peaceful these days, my friends, I know. But we also know, and we remember, from the times gone by:
“Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people." (Exodus 13:22) Amen.
(1) Anita Dole, Bible Study Notes Volume 2, 385
Judges 4:1-10, 14-15
1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the LORD sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help. 4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’ ” 8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” 9 “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him.
14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. 15 At Barak’s advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.
Secrets of Heaven #8192.
And the angel of God set out. That this signifies a setting in order by Divine truth, is evident from the signification of “setting out,” as being a setting in order. That “to set out” denotes a setting in order is because the pillar of cloud-which was an angelic choir-that had previously advanced before the sons of Israel, now betook itself between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel, and thus brought darkness upon the Egyptians, and gave light to the sons of Israel; and because these things were thus set in order by the Lord, by means of the setting out of the angel of God, or the pillar, and by means of its interposition, therefore by “to set out” is here signified a setting in order.
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Readings: John 17:20-26, Matthew 5:23-24, 43-48, 10: 11-14, Divine Providence #18, True Christianity #409 (see below)
In the aftermath of a historic election, we being given an opportunity to recognize how deeply divided we are as a county. One does not have to go very far on social media to hear story after story of families and friends painfully cut off from each other due to disagreements about who to vote for.
And now that the winner of the election is clear, there have been many calls for unity, for political differences to be reconciled so that the country can move forward. On many levels this makes sense; we have so many pressing issues before us. It can hardly be beneficial to waste time and energy on that which divides us, and on tearing each other down.
And yet, I believe that the gospel prompts us to imagine how these calls for unity might be heard by the vulnerable members of our communities: (for example) people of color who have watched their brethren suffer under police brutality or systemic oppression; members of the LGBTQ community, who live on tenderhooks knowing that many of their basic rights hang in the balance each election; Dreamers, who are simply working hard to make a life for themselves in the only country they have ever known as home; or refugees and their children, over six hundred of whom have still not been reunited with their families.
Many people look at politics these days and see more than logistics, they see an expression of morality. Questions of tax rates and trade agreements, these could rightly be seen as political questions, but questions of human rights, the integrity of democratic ideals, who has a right to healthcare, dignity, personhood, agency - these, and many others questions, are also moral questions. And how do we approach unity on moral issues? This seems much more fraught, much more complicated. When human rights are in question, compromise can feel like being asked to ignore the evils of racism, homophobia, or xenophobia. Some disagreements are just so fundamental, that they cannot be settled with saying "to each their own.” What do we do with that reality?
So I thought we might try to consider some of these things in theological terms, and ask what does the Bible, Swedenborg, and others, have to say about unity, reconciliation, and loving our enemies?
First, let us consider the concept of unity. The desire for unity is understandable. These times have been so painful, who wouldn’t want a future that does away with all the tension that we have been experiencing. And one of Jesus’s most heartfelt personal prayers was for unity among his followers. Unity is a blessed state, one to be hoped for, dreamed of, and worked for.
But Swedenborg makes clear that true unity between opposites is not possible.(1) Truth and goodness cannot be united with evil and falsity, for they are like magnets shying away from each other. And while, in this world, we all are given the freedom to exist in grey in-between states, as we figure out our priorities and work through our baggage, true unity as it exists in heaven is the natural cooperation between things are in fundamental agreement. Now, unity is not the same thing as “sameness” and I quote again: “a form makes a unity more perfectly as its constituents are distinguishably different, and yet united.”(2) But this is talking about the kind of differentiation that exists in the human body for example, distinguishable parts in agreement about the cause of keeping the body alive. It is not considered a good thing when a part of the body starts to work against that cause, like an auto-immune disease, or stops playing by the rules, like cancer.
Perhaps in our current political situation then, unity is just not the right word for the moment. It’s use is understandable, for it is in the very name of our country, which has always been about bringing together in balance the needs and desires of semi-autonomous states. But the execution of that historical unity has thrown many people under the bus over time, and this needs to be recognized. Perhaps a phrase like “conscious partnership” is more appropriate now, representing a pragmatic choice to work together for the common good in places of agreement, but does not necessarily imply a forgetting or smoothing over of fundamental disagreements.
So let us now consider the question of reconciliation and its necessary companion: forgiveness. As author Austin Channing Brown has astutely noted: we are not going to hug our way to justice.(3) Calls for unity can sound like they want to skip over repentance in order get to the reconciliation. And this feels fundamentally wrong to those who have suffered under, for example, racist systems and attitudes as they have existed for a long time. How would we feel personally if someone who has hurt us, who has brought into question our worthiness and dignity, started acting like we should just forget what they had done? It can be easy to ask for unity when you have nothing to lose by giving it.
What do our traditions have to say about reconciliation and forgiveness? Well, Jesus is very clear that we should be generous with our forgiveness, way way more generous than we might otherwise feel comfortable with. He famously tells his disciples to forgive their brethren seventy times seven times, or as in our reading today, to not offer worship until they are reconciled with their neighbor. Context is important though. Both of these instances are about not allowing our own selfish feelings to be an obstacle when true reconciliation is on the table. But what is it that makes true reconciliation possible?
Repentance is an indispensable part of the process of reconciliation. Swedenborg is very clear that repentance must precede forgiveness, and that without repentance there can be no forgiveness.(4) This is not anywhere near as transactional as it might sound on its face. God forgives everyone their sins. It is already done, for everyone, out of the abundance of God’s love, in every moment. But that forgiveness has no reality or meaning in the life of the person being forgiven, unless they have an understanding of what they are being forgiven for. Forgiveness is activated for us, as a force that forges the repairing of relationship, when repentance allows it to do so.
And so for those who have been hurt, it may well reduce their own emotional burden to grant forgiveness. But without repentance on the part of the transgressor, coupled with the change in behavior that comes from true repentance, how can there be any functional moving forward together in relationship? How can there be real reconciliation or unity?
Which brings us now to the question of love. The author James Baldwin has famously said: "We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Jesus has even more famously said: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. The juxtaposition of these statements begs the question: what kind of love are each of them talking about?
Martin Luther King Jr was adamant that the Christian discipline of loving enemies was absolutely indispensable to the civil rights movement, and to the future of humanity going forward. He deemed it “an absolute necessity for our survival.” He wrote:
“I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy. He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of the moral life. He realized that every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God. So when Jesus said “love your enemy,” he was not unmindful of its stringent qualities. Yet he meant every word of it. Our responsibility as Christians is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.”(5)
King made a crucial distinction however. In the Greek New Testament, when Jesus says to love your enemy, the word used is agape. There were three words for love in the new testament: eros, meaning either romantic love, or a yearning for the divine; philia, meaning the love found in friendship and collegiality; and finally, agape, meaning (in King’s words) “an understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill towards all [people].”(6) So importantly, Jesus wasn’t asking anyone to “like” their enemies…but calling his disciples to align with a greater principle of trust in the Divine. If all people are made in God’s image, then all people are beloved by God, period. And this doesn’t mean that God condones evil actions, but rather, that God holds a greater hope for, and a greater sight of, each person’s own trajectory than we possibly can. In practicing the discipline of Christian love, we are invited to step outside of the way hatred and domination naturally multiplies itself within the human heart.
Sikh activist and author Valarie Kaur, herself having been the target of racist attacks, also writes movingly about revolutionary love being that which births new realities:
“Love is more than a feeling. Love is a form of sweet labor: fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving—a choice we make over and over again…This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love.
“Revolutionary love” is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us. It is not a formal code or prescription but an orientation to life that is personal and political and rooted in joy. Loving only ourselves is escapism; loving only our opponents is self-loathing; loving only others is ineffective. All three practices together make love revolutionary, and revolutionary love can only be practiced in community.”(7)
Kaur crucially recognizes the three-strong foundation that is necessary for the discipline of revolutionary love: fierce and compassionate love for others, sacrificial love for opponents, and healthy, healing love for ourselves. And it is in this last one that we reference our final bible reading. Jesus sent his disciples out into the world, schooled them in openness but also advised them to know when to draw a boundary. Sending love out into the world, and working for its transformation, must rely on a dynamic balance between love for others and love for the self. The work of love can only be sustainable when we are each able to draw the necessary boundaries that protect the holy tenderness of our hearts and minds. Reaching out balanced by reaching in, like the breathing that gives life, a sacred balance of community and interiority.
So here we are, and after a consideration of these topics (which rightly should probably have been three sermons instead of one!) I’m as disappointed as anyone to find that there is no clear answer, or as Kaur says, no formal code or prescription. But that should not be surprising. The reason that the Bible sounds like it contradicts itself at times is because it is both idealistic and contextual, and such contradiction is exactly what we would expect to happen when principles meet real life. What I am taking away from this exploration, is that I believe the word to focus on rather than unity is community. Unity is beautiful but it can sound somewhat static; community however suggests something more dynamic, something that we continually create rather than finally achieve.
As we as a nation go forward in to these days and years together, my hope is that we continue to stay focused on the practice of revolutionary love. And because this practice is dynamic, it will look different for different people. But if there is anything to unite us, let it be this. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #18
(2) Ibid #4
(4) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #280
(5) Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love (Fortress Press, 2010), 44.
(6) Ibid, 47.
(7) Valarie Kaur, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love (One World, 2020), xv-xvi.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
11 Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. 12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.
Divine Providence #18
The reason everyone must be engaged in what is good and what is true together after death or in what is evil and what is false is that good and evil cannot be united. Neither can good and any falsity that is prompted by evil, or evil and any truth that is prompted by anything good. Such things are opposites, and opposites battle with each other…
True Christianity #409
I have been told from heaven that the Lord forgives everyone our sins, and never punishes us for them, or even imputes them to us, because [God] is love itself and good itself. Nevertheless the sins are not wiped away by this, for it is only by repentance that they can be wiped away. For if [Jesus] told Peter to forgive up to seventy times seven times, is there anything that the Lord Himself would not do?
We Will Serve the Lord
Readings: Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25, Secrets of Heaven #8560 (see below)
So, it has been an anxious week, hasn’t it, my friends? An anxious several months, really. And while the resolution we received yesterday gives us respite for now, for many reasons including the ongoing pandemic, we might be continuing in anxiousness for a good while. So let us return again to the story of the children of Israel, providing us with a metaphorical picture of our own varied challenges in the here and now.
When we last left the Children of Israel, two weeks ago, Moses had just died, and the people were about to enter into the promised land under the leadership of Joshua. *Now* the lectionary brings us to Joshua’s final chapter. The Israelites have spent many years finding their place in the land, and that has included many battles against various antagonists. As Joshua is about to leave them, he gives a farewell speech that is designed to reinvigorate their commitment to their covenant with God.
We will recognize this renewing of the covenant as an ongoing theme in the life of the Israelites, and of course, in ourselves. We, too, enter into covenants, we too make statements and stands and promises to ourselves and the people around us and to God. We might do so in particular and important ways on particular and important days: when we get married, the day our children are born, our first day at a new job or our first day at school, a naturalization ceremony, or on a day like we just experienced earlier in the week: election day.
But as important as each of those days are, days that establish a covenant, days when we actively make a stand or a decision that will dictate the shape of all of our future days, each of the days that come in between are important as well. Days when we are tired and sad and distracted, days when no one is going to throw us a party for just showing up, days that feel like we might not be making progress, days that we feel we can just let slide.
We are making choices on those days too. Smaller choices, perhaps, more mundane choices, perhaps, repeated choices, definitely. But less important choices, I don’t think so. The point of a covenant, the way in which it becomes something that forms and shapes what our future looks like, hinges on whether or not we uphold that covenant in our each and every day. We are not necessarily going to do that perfectly all the time, of course, but what we do in the aggregate matters, the overall direction of our intention matters, our willingness to put in the work matters.
But somewhere within the multitude of days, we will all need a pep talk sometimes, we will all need a reminder as to why we entered the covenant in the first place. And this is what Joshua was doing for the children of Israel. Our reading was only a portion of the speech, so we don’t hear everything he say in the reading, but one thing he does is take them through their history, reminding them of what God has done for them. About God’s call to Abraham, how God brought them out of slavery and brought them to victory in the promised land. Joshua also brings it into the personal realm, saying…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, demonstrating solidarity and humility as a leader. And as the people declare their loyalty to God, he tests them a little. Are you sure? Are you really sure? Because there will be some risk to serving God, some cost to our selfhood and our comfort. Once we decide we want to align with divine love, we find that it is not just about warm fuzzy happy feelings. Making a stand for love, justice, integrity and righteousness is not always easy. All our worst impulses will find their way to the surface one way or another, and the demands of love will cause there to be conflict between our own selfishness and fear, and what God is calling us to. But the alternative is serving those other gods. The alternative is giving in to selfishness and fear, and letting that be our covenant, letting that be the shape of our lives.
So, we keep returning to the covenant and renewing as needed, we say as Joshua did, as for me and my house—as for me and my actions, my choices—we will serve the Lord, and we do so as a remembrance of what is important to us. We do so as a remembrance of how far we have come. And we do so as an act of hope, an act of speaking into being the shape of our future days. As the text says, we do so in order to be witnesses both for and against ourselves…we draw our line in the sand to be visible on the days we are grateful and on the days we want to give up. “No, we will serve the Lord.” “Yes, we are witnesses.” We do our part. Then sometimes we forget to do our part. And so we do our part again. We commit to showing up.
What is key to remember though, is that God’s providence in our lives, God’s leading us forth, is not contingent of whether we renew the covenant or remember the covenant. God’s providence for us is already existent, already active, because God’s love demands that it be so. The renewal of the covenant, choosing this day who we will serve, is choosing to step into providence that is already happening, choosing to respond as gracefully and as actively as we can to the flow, choosing acknowledgment and gratitude and conscious partnership.
The problem is that sometimes we think in transactional terms, our earthly lives are largely lived in transactional terms: do this to get that. But God’s providence is different. It is already happening, and *not* just already happening in the good things, but already happening in all parts of our lives. When we renew the covenant we are remembering this important aspect as well. We are remembering that through God’s love and wisdom, *all* things can make a contribution towards a person’s life to eternity. We heard this from our reading:
God's providence is different from any other kind of leading or guidance in that it constantly has in view what is eternal and is constantly leading to salvation. It does so through various states, sometimes joyful and at other times miserable; and though these are beyond the person's comprehension they all nevertheless make a contribution towards [a person’s] life into eternity.
This is essentially what Joshua’s warning was about. The covenant is not about ensuring that only good things happen going forward, and we are not promised there won’t be miserable times. We are promised that God’s leading has an eternal view, and that all things move us toward our ultimate transformation, if we let them, if we keep our hearts and minds open to the possibility. Sometimes, the miserable things are even more instructive to us than the good things. (Which, let’s be honest, totally sucks!) But, when we know the point of the covenant is transformation (and not primarily comfort) then we have a greater chance of accepting this truth with equanimity. When things are going well, God is leading. When things are not going well, God is still leading.
You see, the covenant exists in perpetuity because of one thing only: God’s steadfastness. The one true God exists; and the choice is ours, whom will we serve? Whom will we serve on the day after election day, a month after the new year, five years after getting a new job, a decade after our wedding day, and so on. Will we continue to serve the cause of love, of inclusion, of truth, of honesty, of integrity, of courage?
In the words of Father Thomas Keating: we should begin a new world with one that actually exists.(1) This is what God does with us everyday, and the world through us. We renew and renew, we say okay this day, now this day, and now this day we will serve the Lord, making a new world each day with the one that existed before.
(1)  Thomas Keating, Fr. Thomas Keating’s Last Oracle (Contemplative Network: 2020), transcription (October 2018).
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
1 Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God. 2 Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. 3 But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants.
14 “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” 16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! 17 It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. 18 And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.” 19 Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.” 21 But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the LORD.” 22 Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the LORD.” “Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied. 23 “Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the LORD our God and obey him.” 25 On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he reaffirmed for them decrees and laws.
Secrets of Heaven #8560
God's providence is different from any other kind of leading or guidance in that it constantly has in view what is eternal and is constantly leading to salvation. It does so through various states, sometimes joyful and at other times miserable; and though these are beyond the person's comprehension they all nevertheless make a contribution towards [a person’s] life into eternity.