Readings: Psalm 31:1-5, John 14:1-7, Divine Providence #60 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Addition one year later: I preached this sermon for Mother’s Day one year ago, and I thought it would be interesting to see how we hear it a year later. You’ll notice that I start out with grief and segue into birth. Last year, we were very much in the grieving phase. Now, we are perhaps more in the birthing phase. But the important point is that grief and birth connected, that when we accept the fullness of our experience of grief then it can lead to birthing new things. And of course, no matter the phase we feel ourselves in now, we will be processing, on many levels, the experiences of this year for a long time to come. It is reasonable and expected to enter into this cycle again and again.
Jesus said in our text today: do not let your hearts be troubled. This might be one of those times when I really feel like questioning the text. Because there is a lot in the world to trouble us. Even before the pandemic, there was plenty to be troubled about. Somehow it just doesn’t sit right to have Jesus to be telling me not to “let” my heart be troubled, as if being faithful meant somehow being detached from all the injustice, all the loss, all the inequity, all the grief in the world.
Whenever I am challenged by something that I read in the bible, I find it helpful to look a little deeper, to see if the context helps to ground what is being expressed. First, I think it is helpful to see that right before Jesus says do not let your heart be troubled, he predicts that Peter will disown him three times. In fact, in the previous chapter, Jesus washes his disciples feet, predicts his betrayal by Judas (with Judas right in front of him), commands the disciples to love one another, and then tells Peter he will disown him three times. And then immediately Jesus says: Do not let your heart be troubled.
On the face of it, it seems even more ridiculous. How could the disciples not be troubled by the crazy rollercoaster ride that is happening to them? But I think if we look deeper we can see that Jesus is actually anticipating the fullness of their experience, anticipating their grief and their uncertainty and helping them to see their way through it.
I don’t think Jesus is saying that to be faithful means not feeling sad. I don’t think he is saying to be unmoved, or not to grieve for the brokenness we see in the world. He is saying that in all of it, we do not need to feel internally agitated, unmoored, desperate, because God is with us. The word in the text that is translated as “troubled” is the greek word tarasso, and it indicates agitation, being stirred-up, literally movement to and fro.
Which sounds to me like a specific state that is more like anxiety or even defensiveness, a state that prevents us from being present to what is actually happening to us. And I think the antidote to that state is not detachment or escape or rising above our life, but rather recognizing what is expressed in Psalm 31. With God as our refuge, and rock, we can be grounded enough to squarely face whatever is happening. We can have the courage and fortitude to feel it all in fullness. We don’t have to retreat into denial, or dismissal, or numbness, or conspiracy theories. We won’t need simple answers to complex problems just to make ourselves feel better. With God as our rock we can see the world as it truly is, feel everything we are given to feel, and not be afraid of what it might mean.
For the disciples, grief was a reasonable reaction to seeing their friend and mentor die so terribly. Grief was a reasonable reaction to their own failures. Grief is a reasonable reaction to what we have experienced this past year. We have witnessed the death of the vulnerable (both due to the pandemic and white supremacy). We have witnessed overwhelm and exhaustion on the part of our doctors and nurses. We have seen ordinary people, our friends and neighbors lose their livelihoods. And as much as we have seen people come together, we are also seeing divisions widen. There is so much to grieve.
And I know that I have preached a lot about grief this past year. Well, grief isn’t a one and done experience. It comes in waves. It goes out and comes in like the tide. So, as we experience this collective trauma, it is reasonable that our feelings may come and go in a similar way. And one reason I want to return to the topic of grief today, on mother’s day, is because of what I see as the relationship between grief and the mothering impulse.
There are lots of things that we think of when we think of mothering. One thing that seems to me to be inherent to the mothering impulse is to see the suffering of another and to wish to ameliorate that pain somehow, to share the burden of the pain so that it might be lessened for another, being willing to sacrifice something of the self so that another might thrive.
And to be clear, I’m not trying to say that only mothers can engage in the mothering impulse. I’m talking more broadly about something that is very human, something that all people can participate in. Being a mother in a family certainly gives someone lots of opportunities to engage with and to practice and express the mothering impulse, but I wouldn’t call it exclusive to that relationship only. We can see it in lots of places.
Jesus, for example, gives us a powerful example of the mothering impulse. Jesus’ very birth was demonstrative of God’s mothering impulse, wherein God saw the suffering of humanity and reached out. Jesus continued to embody the mothering impulse by ministering to those unseen and suffering, and then finally sacrificing himself so that we might see and understand the ways in which our selfish choices are poisoning our own hearts, indeed, on the very cross forgiving us, enfolding and holding the grief and the blindness of the world, taking it upon himself.
In a very real way, when *we* are feeling the enormous grief that has accompanied this pandemic, and all of its effects, when we truly feel it, we are each of us mothering the world in our small way. Each of us acting in partnership with the mothering impulse of God, a God who feels the grief of our world in every moment.
But this mothering impulse is not passive. It does not exist solely to be martyred, to vacuum up the world’s grief and make it go away, to make us feel more comfortable. The mothering impulse also insists upon the birthing that is to come. For, as much as I have been preaching about grief these last two months, I have also been preaching about newness.
A pregnant women not only endures painful contractions but uses them to bring about birth. One of the most useful pieces of advice that I received from my midwife when giving birth to my own children was to enter into the pain of the contractions and to flow with them, rather than to resist them. To accept them as something that could give me the power, not just to simply endure the process, but to be the one who actively brought new life into the world.
I am sure that the disciples wished that Jesus would have resisted his crucifixion. Wished he would have spoken up and defended himself at his trial. But his purpose was not self-preservation, his purpose was to submit deeply to one of the most bleak of human failures, and then to reframe it as a powerful contraction, something that would give birth to new human possibility, something that would provide new life.
This is the way that Jesus speaks of: the way, the truth and the life.
Birth and re-birth is one kind of language for the way and the truth and life, but there are other ways of describing it too. As a gardener, I personally love gardening metaphors and Rev. Anna Woofenden uses the notion of compost as a way to describe how God works in the world and in us. I quote:
The more I learned about compost, the more I saw the image of God in it, proclaiming the work she does in the world. God is the Divine Composter. She takes all that has been, all that we’ve used, our best bits and our slimy bits, the endings in our lives and the pain of loss, the tantalizing crumbs from our joyful moments and the leftovers we’ve kept for too long. God takes all of that and says, “Okay great, let’s see what we can do with it next!” (1)(129)
Our best bits, our slimy bits, endings, loss, joy and the things we wish we could hold on to…this sounds a lot like that last supper with Jesus and the disciples that we described earlier, full of tenderness, betrayal, love, and confusion. It sounds a lot like life. I think sometimes we want our faith to be like a shield. Something that is supposed to make everything okay. That if Jesus says don’t let your heart be troubled, then we think avoiding sadness will mean we are doing something right.
I think instead that faith is more like a resilient immune system. Or like bacteria in compost. Or like the process of birth. There might be fever, there might be breakdown, there might be contractions, but the fever, the breakdown, the contractions, they are not evidence that something is going wrong, they are evidence that new life is on the way. I know that I feel “troubled,” as in agitated and afraid, when I think the breakdown is all there is, when I’m afraid that new life isn’t possible. Faith though, is believing in the process and being willing to ride it out.
We read in our Swedenborg reading that it is an angelic quality to know the path from having walked in it and then to walk in the path from this knowing of it. To truly know the way, we must be willing to walk in that way, and let that experience change us and lead us. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life. The way that embraces truth and leads to life.
(1) Anna Woofenden, This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls, p129.
1 In you, LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. 2 Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. 3 Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. 4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. 5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God.
1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Divine Providence 60
We can know the path to heaven to some extent simply by considering what the people who make up heaven are like, realizing that no one can become an angel or get to heaven unless he or she arrives bringing along some angelic quality from the world. Inherent in that angelic quality is a knowing of the path from having walked it and a walking in the path from the knowing of it.
There really are paths in the spiritual world, paths that lead to each community of heaven and to each community of hell. We all see our own paths, spontaneously, it seems. We see them because the paths there are for the loves of each individual. Love opens the paths and leads us to our kindred spirits. No one sees any paths except those of her or his love.
We can see from this that angels are simply heavenly loves, since otherwise they would not have seen the paths that lead to heaven.
Photo credit: Tim Mossholder
Readings: Isaiah 27:2-6, John 15:1-9, Secrets of Heaven #684 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Jesus used a lot of metaphors to try to communicate the nuances of spiritual reality. This metaphor of the vine is familiar to and beloved by the Christian tradition, and like the good shepherd metaphor, would have been very familiar to the people hearing it firsthand. They would have had intimate knowledge of viticulture, as grapes were an incredibly important crop to the ancient Mediterranean world. And they would have understood its use metaphorically as well, as the Jewish scriptures would often employ the image of a vineyard (and God as the vine grower) as a way to communicate ideas about the relationship between God and Israel.
But while Jesus, probably intentionally, employs a familiar metaphor here, he uses it a little differently to the way it is often used in the Old Testament. For the most part, the whole nation of Israel is referred to as a vine or vineyard, and occasionally, the people as the vines themselves. In Jesus’ metaphor though, we (people) are not individual vines nor are we collectively the vineyard, but instead we the branches.
So why the difference? What is Jesus trying to communicate here? Jesus is emphasizing inter-connectedness. As branches, one next to the other, we are all connected to the roots, to nourishment and stability, via the same trunk. We are invited to see the journey of our everyday living pictured in the life of the vine: nourishment on one end, fruitfulness on the other, and to understand that our inter-connectedness with the vine is what allows that journey to happen. Jesus doesn’t want us to forget about our inter-connectedness, to God and each other.
Nature and gardening metaphors abound in the bible, and this is not surprising because nature is before our eyes almost every moment. There are plenty of metaphors, ones that Jesus uses too, that imagine a person as a single plant. In these metaphors, God is often imagined as a gardener who tends either the vineyard or the plant/tree. There are ways in which this is helpful. As we heard in our Isaiah reading, God can be an extremely zealous gardener, in a way that communicates care, protection and diligence. And I quote: I, the LORD, watch over it; I water it continually. I guard it day and night so that no one may harm it. And, when we are invited to picture ourselves as a tree or a plant, it emphasizes our wholeness and freedom. The potential downside is if this God-as-gardener image starts to communicate distance and aloneness. I don’t know about you, but I don’t, I can’t, garden all the time. And even the most diligent human gardener can only focus on one tree at a time. But God is not only sometimes paying attention, only sometimes working for our benefit.
So into that metaphor, Jesus introduces the notion that God is not only the gardener but also the vine. That God’s connection to us not only comes from without but from within. Jesus reduces the distance, communicating that we cannot actually be apart from God. We are branches that are a part of a greater whole, intimately connected to God all the time. We are still called to be fruitful as our main task, but this task is cast as a partnership. I will abide in you and you in me. Plus, our freedom remains; we can refuse the abiding, we can refuse the fruitfulness, but like in all the biblical gardening metaphors, that will have its own consequences.
So, in one of his final teachings to the disciples in the gospel of John, Jesus really doubles down on our inter-connectedness to each other. He extends a familiar metaphor, one in which Israel is usually a vineyard or vine collectively, and zooms in on a more micro level. We can certainly feel communality as vines in the same vineyard, but Jesus intensifies that by calling everyone to be part of the same vine, evoking increased intimacy, increased inter-dependence, and increased connection.
This way of understanding our relationship to each other is reflected in the way that Swedenborg talks about heaven, as we heard in our reading today. Swedenborg also writes:
Since that is what heaven is like, no angel or spirit could ever have any life without being part of some community, without joining in harmony with many others. Community is simply harmony among many. No one's life is ever isolated from the life of others.(1)
Yes, we are all individual vines growing in our own contexts and there will also be an individual aspect of our spiritual lives that requires this singular view. But, it is also true that, as the quote says above, no one’s life is ever isolated from the life of others, not existentially, not spiritually. We human beings are a communal people, not simply because we might enjoy it, but because this is the way that the spirit that is constantly flowing into us naturally organizes itself.
So, I would like to bring this all forward into a consideration of the practice of communion, which we will share together after this sermon.
The Swedenborgian tradition has always emphasized the individual aspect of communion. We can see that fact even in the name it has more traditionally taken in the church: Holy Supper, rather than communion, which has the same linguistic root as community or commune. The heart of our whole tradition is the importance of each person’s lifelong spiritual journey, and the Holy Supper is a spiritual meal, one that provides nourishment for that journey. The bread corresponds to God’s goodness and God’s love, flowing into us, giving us life. The wine corresponds to God’s truth and God’s wisdom, ever available for our enlightenment and growth. Eating these elements, taking them into our body, corresponds to our openness to God’s love and wisdom, to our commitment to bring them into our lives. In the end, in this process, we can only approach God as ourselves, as one person. In freedom, we offer our own essential vulnerability, accountability and devotion; no one else can do that for us.
However, sometimes that emphasis overshadows the fact that our journeys, though individual, are most likely to be successful when undertaken with the support of a community. This is why church exists. And there is something so powerful about taking communion together, with our friends on the journey. I recall the first time I gave communion at the Church of the Holy City after being called to be pastor. Often we administer communion with people coming up to the altar in stages but that day everyone squeezed in along the rail, shoulder to shoulder, with not even a tiny bit of space between. And I found that to be such a hopeful, poignant and spontaneous expression of community. We were all embarking on an adventure together, side by side, and we wanted to be together.
And my friends, we all know that connection like that has been one of the hardest things to preserve during this year, in all realms, not just church. The days when we could kneel shoulder to shoulder on the altar have not yet returned, not quite. We relinquished that powerful enactment because we cared about each other’s lives, and that was and is the most beautiful of offerings. And now, as we have worshipped together online, we have discovered a new kind of community, unfettered by geographic location and physical proximity. But with intention, I believe we can still call the reality of being shoulder to shoulder into being, even online. Today, as we take communion together but apart, let us take a moment to connect in spirit to each other, to imagine that we are branches growing side by side, each person connected to their God, the main vine, in their own way, but all part of one plant with the same fruitful purpose.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #687
2 In that day— “Sing about a fruitful vineyard: 3 I, the LORD, watch over it; I water it continually. I guard it day and night so that no one may harm it. 4 I am not angry. If only there were briers and thorns confronting me! I would march against them in battle; I would set them all on fire. 5 Or else let them come to me for refuge; let them make peace with me, yes, let them make peace with me.” 6 In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit.
1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
Secrets of Heaven #684
The Communities That Make Up Heaven
THERE are three heavens. Good spirits inhabit the first, angelic spirits the second, and angels the third. Each heaven is deeper and purer than the one before it. The result is that the heavens are perfectly distinct from one another.
The first heaven, the second heaven, and the third heaven are each divided into countless communities. Each community consists of many people who because of the compatibility and unanimity among them form a single personality, so to speak. And all the communities together form a single human being.
The distinctions among the communities are created by differences in mutual love and in faith in the Lord. Those differences are so far beyond counting that I cannot list even the most universal kinds.
Not the smallest difference exists that is not fitted into its exact place in the overall plan. In this way it can unite with all the other pieces in perfect concord to form a common whole, and the common whole can contribute to unity among the individual pieces. Thus everything combines for the happiness of the whole (rising from the individuals' happiness) and for the individuals' happiness (rising from the happiness of the whole).
In consequence, each angel and each community is an image of the whole of heaven and a kind of heaven-in-miniature.
Readings: Luke 24:36-53, True Christianity 695:5-6 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/4SlOL1uDz3M
Photo by Luis Dalvan from Pexels
The resurrection, as a theological event, touches on some of the fundamental tensions of spirituality: we exist in this world we are in, yet we believe there is something more beyond what we see; we have earthly bodies but an eternal spiritual soul; Jesus was a person walking on the earth and then did something miraculous and other-worldly. How are we to navigate, to inhabit, this in-between space of being both earthly and spiritual, natural and heavenly?
A consideration of this inbetween-ness permeates every aspect of our lives, in one way or another, but in a very particular way relates to how we interpret and approach our relationship to our planet, to the verdant and amazing life-filled rock that is our home. With Earth day coming up, I thought we might explore some of these themes through the lens of the resurrection.
Our text today is a post-resurrection appearance from the gospel of Luke. The disciples were meeting together when suddenly Jesus was in their midst. Can you imagine? Having Jesus appear so suddenly would have been super disconcerting, so of course they were startled and frightened as the text says they were.
But what does Jesus say to calm them down? I find it really interesting that he brings their attention to the realness, the earthliness of his body. “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
I mean, what would have been wrong with Jesus being a ghost? The bible is full of spiritual visitations, of angels appearing to people and imparting information and/or blessing. Certainly it would have been comforting for the disciples to see such a vision, to know that Jesus’ spirit continued to be with them. But that is not what the resurrection was supposed to be or communicate. Jesus is not just coming back to them, even to comfort them or inspire them, from the spiritual realm as angels often do. The point of the resurrection was that the wholeness, the realness of his actual body had been enlivened and was returned to them, to dwell in their midst.
Why was this important? Well, it certainly was miraculous, much more so than a simple vision. It collapsed the usual boundaries around what we understand to be possible. It was a complete and total repudiation of human ambition, avarice and cruelty. And so, the resurrection is often called a victory. A victory over death, a victory over sin, a victory over the limitations of our natural world.
And while I do think the resurrection was indeed a victory over the worst tendencies of humankind, I’m not sure we can extend it as a victory over anything else though, most particularly because of the way that Jesus invited people to see and interact with his risen self. What we see in our text today, is the resurrected Jesus circling back around to enfold, bless and re-enliven that which is earthly. The revelation of the transcendent and alive Jesus is anchored in the realness, the fleshliness of Jesus’ hands and feet, in a stomach that was hungry and ready to eat, that could eat, and did so.
Our bodies are powerfully connected to our earth. We are made out of the same carbon-based molecules as all the life around us. In order to function, our bodies need nutrients, elements, that exist in the soil, but we can’t just ingest the soil. We also need energy provided from our sun but we can’t absorb that energy directly either. So, our needs are provided for by entering into a relationship, a cycle, with the other living organisms of this world. We rely on plants (and animals that eat plants) to reorder and reorganize those soil nutrients and that sun energy into forms that will support our life once we consume them. Our bodies are irrevocably intertwined with the natural processes that surround us.
Jesus, in this post-resurrection appearance in Luke, draws our attention and the disciples attention, to his body. Look at my hands and feet. They are real. My body is showing up here, in your midst, in the midst of this natural world, as part of this natural world and not separate from it. Carbon-based molecules, the same as you, the same as all around you. And then, to drive the point home, he eats something. He enters into the cycle of need and survival and inter-dependence that all human bodies share.
And perhaps to some, this might taint the resurrection, to have the resurrected Jesus indulge in something so commonplace, so earthly, to be anchored so fully to the same things we are, to be so human, still. But, I believe that the true power of the resurrection is in the embrace of what is human, or in Swedenborgian terms, the union of the human and the divine.
Swedenborg writes: The Lord made his human divine from the divine in himself, and he thus became one with the Father…from this it follows that the Divine cannot be separated from the Human, nor the Human from the Divine; for, to separate them would be like separating the soul and body. (1) Through this process God became human and a human became God in one person. (2)
Union is why the Lord came, not to claim a victory. Winning and losing is not the construct that guides Divine Love. Certainly, many human flaws, evils, weaknesses, need to be cleared away before union can be fully effected, and yes, the clearing process is hard and long work sometimes. There is nothing wrong with declaring victory when something hard won is achieved. But union is the endgame, union with a creation and with creatures (us) who God loves. And so God returns to us in a way that sanctifies that creation and those creatures, drawing our eyes away from the bright shiny gone-from-the-tomb miracle and refocusing on the everyday miracles, and everyday bodies, that Jesus always sought to make holy.
Swedenborg, as a scientist, was always in awe of creation, bowled over by its beauty and complexity. And as you heard in our reading today, he regarded the processes of the natural world to be just as miraculous as anything related in our sacred texts. He wrote:
But because these things are always to be seen and have become familiar, usual and commonplace by constant repetition, they are not looked on as amazing, but as simply the effects of nature.
If we focus on the resurrection as victory over, rather than union with, our natural world, then if we are not careful, the next step is to feel superior to the natural world, for how else does a battle construct invite us to view that which is vanquished? If we focus on the resurrection as a relinquishment or transcendence of the natural world, and we forget to notice how the resurrection circles back to embrace the natural world, if we are not careful, the next step is to despise the natural world, for how else does a super-cession construct invite us to view that which will be left behind?
Our text today instead invites us to be witnesses. There was important work that the disciples were about to begin. But first it was to be anchored in a realization, a witnessing, of the smaller miracle of the resurrection. “They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” The final texts of the gospels all end with some version of commissioning, they all end with an invitation to further the story in our own way. The church has for a long time focused on helping people know and understand the story of Jesus, to appreciate that the divine became a person and how that communicates love to all of us. It is still perhaps the most worthy and moving story ever told. But let us not forget how the story also shows us that the divine became a body and how that communicates a love of creation. We are commissioned to spread the love; let us make sure that includes *all* the things God loves: our world, everything in it, and the way it is intentionally inter-connected.
36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence. 44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
True Christianity 695:5-6
 Afterwards I talked with those angels about the amazing effects caused by the inflow from the spiritual world into the natural one. For instance, we talked about the way caterpillars turn into butterflies, about bees and drones, and the astonishing things the silkworm does, and also spiders…
 After this I related the amazing facts about plants, how they all progress from the seed in due sequence until they produce new seeds, exactly as if the earth knew how to provide and adapt its elements to the reproductive principle of the seed; and from this to bring forth a shoot, to broaden this to form a stem, to send forth branches from this, to clothe these with leaves, and later to embellish them with flowers, and beginning from their interiors to produce fruits, and by means of these produce as offspring seeds from which the plant can be born again. But because these things are always to be seen and have become familiar, usual and commonplace by constant repetition, they are not looked on as amazing, but as simply the effects of nature. People hold this view solely because they are ignorant of the existence of a spiritual world, working from within on and actuating every single thing which comes into existence and is formed in the world of nature and upon the natural earth, activating sensation and movement as the human mind does in the body. Nor do they know that every detail of nature is as it were a tunic, sheath or clothing enclosing spiritual things and serving at the lowest level to bring about the effects corresponding to the purpose of God the Creator.
Readings: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Mark 16:1-8, Heaven and Hell #523 (see below)
See also on Youtube at youtu.be/JILRiCoPkto
I love the gospel of Mark. There are plenty of reasons to love the other gospels; mystical John, compassionate Luke, steadfast Matthew. But there is something so direct about Mark. It is the shortest of the gospels and proceeds at a sustained clip, but I wouldn’t interpret that as being haphazard or leaving things out. Actually, every piece of the narrative is carefully constructed and ordered; there is not a single extraneous thing. It is all very intentional.
Including the end. The whole of the gospel of Mark actually ends right where our reading did: Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” End of the gospel. Now I don’t blame you if you are confused; your bible might actually continue for another page, but those last verses, where Jesus appears to the disciples and then is taken up to heaven, were added by a later author. The earliest copies of the gospel of Mark do not include that final part. And I kind of love that. Of course, I didn’t at first. When I first found out I was shocked, but it actually is completely the kind of thing the author of the gospel of Mark would do.
The gospel of Mark is acutely aware of how the reader is interacting with the story, so I’m not surprised that the author’s final act would be to invite the reader in. I watched a magic show on television recently where the magician, in the middle of the show, asked for someone in the audience to volunteer, who was willing to leave and come back to the performance on the next day. He then gave them a very thick notebook and an assignment to complete after they left. They were to go the first blank page in the notebook and write out how they thought the show would end. Then at the next show, they would read out to the next day’s audience what they wrote. Each time, with each person, their imagining of how the show would end would be incorporated into the show itself. Their story became a part of the ongoing story.
In a similar way, the gospel of Mark invites us in to finish the rest of the story ourselves. The author of Mark knew the women did eventually tell someone, as there is at least one epistle that relates the occurrence in a letter historically dated earlier than Mark. But he still chose to finish where he did for a narrative purpose: to collapse the distance between us, the reader, and the characters in the story, to place us in that story ourselves and ask us what we might do.
And you might remember that I have preached this before in a previous lectionary cycle. But this year, I think we might feel the significance of this story even more intently. Something really important was revealed to those women, something they did not expect to see.
Likewise, this past year, some really important things have been revealed to us all as well. A lot of what has been revealed will be deeply personal, of course, but some of it we also share. Some of it has been hard to see. For those of us with the privilege to have not noticed it before, we have now seen the full extent of racism and white supremacy in our country; we have seen the devastating consequences of people in power not telling the truth; we have seen the tension between individualism and the common good revealed by the pandemic. We have seen how vulnerable we and our systems are: lives and livelihoods lost, supply chains disrupted, neighbors in lines at the food banks, healthcare workers exhausted, people in the brink of eviction. We have seen our work/life boundary disappear, and the mental cost to isolation and constant change.
And we have also seen amazing things: We have seen the value of slowing down, the wonder of watching an azalea bloom before our very eyes, we have seen the levels of connection that can occur within families when we stay home, we have seen our communities stepping up for each other, businesses pivoting and adapting, the scientific community pulling off a most amazing feat, building upon years accumulated science to give us vaccines at a record speed. We have seen people rise up for justice and protecting the vulnerable, we have seen voting in unbelievable numbers, we have seen that we can still find humor in the most challenging of times, that we can still find connection without physical proximity.
During this time, things have been revealed to each of us that might not otherwise have been revealed. The tomb has been opened and surprising new realizations made known. We did not expect this. We did not ask for it. But now we have all this new knowledge, this new insight. Now what?
As we stand in the same space as those women, trembling, exhausted, bewildered, afraid, we are also called to ask ourselves: what responsibility do I have to what has been revealed to me? Just like these women, we are each being invited to step into our prophetic voice. This will mean different things to different people and situations, but what has been revealed will not be going away. It can be disregarded, ignored, forgotten, but it has been revealed nonetheless…and this is our work, our burden going forward, to figure out how to discharge that new responsibility, to write that next chapter in the gospel.
But, I don’t mean to imply that all there is to be found in Easter is responsibility and burden. While to do love the gospel of Mark for stopping so provocatively at such a human moment, we also know from the other gospels that it is not the end of the story. There is more coming. There will be wonder and amazement, there will be joy, there will be tears, there will be relief, there will be resolve as the leaders of a new movement settle in to the work that is before them.
For this is the gift of the resurrection: to know that the destination is joy. The empty tomb reveals an enormous potentiality, a glimpse into a universe of new beginnings. And sometimes our first reaction to that is fear. Change, even good change, is inherently scary.
But as we step into whatever new insight we have been given, we can know that God has promised resurrection as the ultimate outcome. Maybe it will take a while. Maybe it will take a lifetime, or several. But God has shown us what is possible, for us and for our world. God has affirmed what is to be. Therein lies the joy and the peace of Easter Sunday. It is just so simple. There will be new life. Always.
Faith is sometimes characterized in believing impossible or implausible things. But there is really only this one thing to believe in, at essence one thing that requires any faith at all. That God’s inherent presence in all of creation means that there is always the possibility of more life, more growth, more openness, more love. God became a person to show us this when we forgot.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the divine design. Swedenborg writes further:
In the process of taking on a human manifestation, God followed his own divine design. …in the act of creating, God introduced his design into the universe as a whole and into each and every thing in it. Therefore in the universe and in all its parts God's omnipotence follows and works according to the laws of his own design. (1)
In the words of our theology, our God came into the world, assumed the human, and thereby saved and redeemed humankind. But this is not like saving from a flood or fire, pulling people up and out of an inherently broken world. Rather, it is a saving in and through the divine design of this world, connecting Godself ever more deeply with this world and with us, a coming alongside. Our Lord is risen, and that rising is the design. And while our Lord, as acknowledged in our reading “never does anything contrary to his design,” *we* sometimes do though. And God’s answer is not to withdraw but to double down, to unite what is human and what is divine in a way that reveals what has been true from the beginning.
Easter Sunday is not the triumph of God *over* creation, it is the revealing of the heart of creation, and therein lies the joy, therein lies the celebration, therein lies the peace. Amidst all the loss and the brokenness, and this year has shown us so much of that, the divine design endures, allowing us to hope. Not an illusive hope that promises nothing more than escape, but a grounded embedded hope that allows us to get to work, to use our prophetic voice in the here and now.
I love these women in Mark, I just want to hug them. Knowing that their hearts are the same as ours, filled with us much no as yes, filled with as much apprehension as joy, and more than enough confusion, and probably a large serving of inadequacy. But they *did* tell someone. They did find their prophetic voice. So will we all, through a trust in the wisdom of God’s Easter revealing.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #89
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. 2 Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.”
14 The LORD is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. 15 Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! 16 The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” 17 I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done. 18 The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. 19 Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. 20 This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. 21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. 22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 23 the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Heaven and Hell #523
The Lord never does anything contrary to his design because he himself is the design. The divine truth that emanates from him is what establishes the design, and divine truths are the laws of the design by which the Lord is leading us. Saving people by unmediated mercy is contrary to the divine design, and anything contrary to the divine design is contrary to the divine nature.
The divine design is heaven for us. We have distorted it by living contrary to its laws, which are divine truths. The Lord brings us back into the design out of pure mercy, through the laws of the design; and to the extent that we are brought back, we accept heaven into ourselves. Whoever accepts heaven enters heaven.
Readings: Zechariah 9:9-12, Mark 11:1-11, Secrets of Heaven 2781:8-9 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/OsLSqcX_WeUyoutu.be/OsLSqcX_WeU
Welcome to Palm Sunday, the narrative beginning to Holy Week. As we just read, Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the final time. He rides on a donkey, telling the disciples exactly where to find it. His reputation has been growing, and the people welcome him with joy and anticipation for the way that they think he will save them from their current circumstances. In the gospel of Mark, after this entry, Jesus will immediately clear the temple of merchants. He will argue a little with the religious authorities and will do some public teaching. He will be anointed by a women at a friend’s house, and he will share a final supper with the disciples. And then he will be arrested, for a ministry that centered upon those who had been excluded, and that called out those who profited from that exclusion.
What has struck me this week is the emphasis on Jesus’ “kingship.” I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time resonating with what that meant to the people in Jesus context. Like most of you, I have grown up in a democracy, not a monarchy, and even though my childhood was spent in a country that is part of the British commonwealth, my primary experience of government was one that was elected.
So the idea of a “king” (or any monarch) and what that means, feels a bit remote to me, and in case it feels that way to you too, I thought I would explore it today.
Kingship throughout time, but especially in the Jewish context, has been rather inseparable from the divine right to rule. We recall from the Old Testament that Israel’s ability to have a king was granted by God, the first two kings, Saul and David, anointed by God’s prophet Samuel. Even today, monarchs are often ritually anointed at their coronations, and in Britain for example, the monarch is also the head of the church.
Likewise, the word Christ itself, which is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, means “anointed one” and we hear the people in our text today shouting “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” The Jewish people had long looked forward to the restoration of their nation, and the coming of a great and powerful ruler who would return Israel to autonomy and prominence. And of course they did. They had suffered the indignity of being an occupied people for way too long, under a brutal and unforgiving empire. We would all feel the same way.
So when they started to hear about Jesus and the amazing things he was doing, of course they got their hopes up. Of course their yearning and anticipatory joy caused them to gather in the streets. And of course, they wanted to welcome and praise this new king, one that would uphold their history and restore their people, and so they did what had always been done for kings: they spread garments and tree branches to make a pathway.
Jesus had never asked for this though. He *had* told his disciples that he was the Messiah but coupled it with a warning of his suffering to come, attempting to reframe for them what being the Messiah really meant. He was anointed, chosen, to usher in a new kingdom but it would nothing like what the people expected. He was focused on a spiritual fulfillment, not an earthly one.
So, he let the crowds signal his royal identity. But here is what he didn’t do: he didn’t lean into their admiration, he didn’t manipulate their feelings, he didn’t work them up. Instead, he intentionally subverted that worshipful energy. Instead of coming in on a warhorse, as royals in the past would do, with much fanfare, he comes in on the lowliest of animals, in an allusion to our Zechariah text. To quote one of my commentaries: “…Mark wants us to view Jesus as a king, but only by helping us re-imagine the very concept of king in accordance with Jesus’ mission.”(1)
This is really important for us to remember. As we re-enact this day, as we wave our palms, we have an opportunity to be actively conscious of what we are celebrating. When we signal our praise of the Lord’s kingship, what are we signaling? Certainly, some good and wonderful things: Godly power, omnipotence, providence and love, and our offering of loyalty, trust and joy.
But as we do this, it is also important for us to remain cognizant of the irony that Jesus was enacting. Recent history in this country, and indeed the length and breadth of human history throughout the world, has shown us that human beings are very susceptible to the worship of power and dominion. We need to be careful not to swallow imperialism, and the worship of dominion itself, whole without moving on to the deconstruction of earthly imperialism that Jesus was doing. Because, we could very easily just substitute Jesus for Caesar and leave everything else the same. We could pray for the coming of a kingdom that elevates us and those like us and forget the tenor of Jesus’ entire ministry. But Jesus would never step into hierarchical earthly power structures as they are. He has been trying to tell us all along that we can’t happily wave the palm, craving power and influence, all the while ignoring the donkey.
The truth is, Jesus was heading toward a painful and humiliating execution, which would serve to continue the subversion of what we are to consider strong, how we are to understand power. Yet, we can persist in making the Easter story about mastery over death instead of sacrifice, about the salvation of a few by grace instead of all by love, about the creation rather than the critique of religious power.
But Jesus had literally just schooled the disciples on this topic before entering Jerusalem:
10:42 … “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
And this is why it is such a beautiful tradition in the many churches that the palms that we wave today become the ashes used in the following Ash Wednesday. Our adoration must be anchored in reflection and relinquishment. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that the spiritual meaning of the Lord riding the donkey is to demonstrate the correct order of subordination of our human nature. Our earthly desires need to serve our spiritual desires and not the other way around.
Even though we do live in a democracy, where the people elect their leaders rather than being ruled by a king, it is also true that there has always been a strong strain of people and movements trying to co-opt legitimacy and power through claiming or implying a divine right, that God is on their side, that they are doing God’s will. I can only imagine what an addictive feeling it is, to be so sure that we are serving a higher power that we can disregard kindness, empathy, ethics or the rule of law.
The people shouted, as we do today, “Hosanna,” a word that is complicated to translate but contains a sense of giving honor to one who will save us. But that saving cannot mean that only *we* are saved, and that we are saved because someone will allow us to climb to the top of the heap, only to turn around the crucify those behind us. Jesus' entire ministry was founded on the ethos that salvation (not to mention loving concern) must include everyone.
So while the structures and the trappings of kingship are not something with which I can personally resonate, all the ways that human beings interact with the power of leadership certainly *is* recognizable in myself, my fellow human beings, and in our current context. As we shout Hosanna today, let us recognize then that one of the most fundamental salvation opportunities that Jesus offers to us is that we might be lovingly saved from ourselves.
(1) Ira Brent Driggers, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/49620
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. 12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ” 4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna! ” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” 10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
Secrets of Heaven #2781:8-9
 'Riding on an ass' served to indicate that the natural was subordinate, and 'riding on a colt, the foal of a she-ass' that the rational was so; From this - the spiritual meaning of these animals - … so that He might fulfill the representatives of the Church, the Lord was pleased to ride in this way.
 From this it may now be clear that every single thing in the Church of that period was representative of the Lord, and consequently of the celestial and spiritual things that are in His kingdom; even the she-ass and the colt of the she-ass were so, which represented the natural man as regards good and truth. The reason for the representation was that the natural man ought to serve the rational, and the rational to serve the spiritual; but the spiritual ought to serve the celestial, and the celestial to serve the Lord. This is the order in which one is subordinated to another.
Readings: Isaiah 56:1-8, John 12:20-33, Secrets of Heaven #679 (see below)
See also on YouTube at https://youtu.be/AWOyCgVZY_U
During the past year, one particular thing has not been available to us as it once had been: gathering together. We willingly relinquished this pleasure out of a concern for our fellow human beings; we sacrificed something important to us for the sake of love. Though very hard, it was and continues to be, a beautiful offering.
Now, as vaccination numbers increase, we are starting to be able to see each other in person again, albeit in small and careful ways. We are starting to entertain plans for the future that have been on hold. We are anticipating being able to gather again. For The Church of the Holy City, we will do our best to be thoughtful and diligent with any plans to return in person, including the question of how our folks who live at a distance might continue to join our worship.
How appropriate then, that this week’s lectionary speaks of Jesus drawing people together towards himself. The gospel text harkens back to the prophets, such as Isaiah in chapter 56, who would often speak of the nations gathering in Jerusalem. So, as we imagine our future togetherness, I thought it might be appropriate to think about gathering in theological terms.
In many places, the Old Testament is clear that, even though it is primarily the story of God’s relationship with one people, the Children of Israel, that God’s provision and concern extends beyond that relationship to the whole world. We see examples of God being on speaking terms with kings of other nations, references to what seems to be a pre-existing relationships with people of other nations, and most prominently, prophecies of a future time when people of all nations would stream into Jerusalem.
Isaiah 56 joins that tradition, and as well as specifically speaking into the post-exilic world of Israel. At the time of its writing, many of those who were in exile in Babylon have returned to their homeland. Many of those who stayed in Israel have intermarried with people of other nations. And now both groups are grappling with how to define themselves as a community and a people once they are all back together. They are wondering: Who is included? What marks inclusion? Of particular interest is the mention of eunuchs. We might wonder how they fit in to this particular context. Some scholars think that to become a eunuch furthered advancement in the Persian and Babylonian courts.(1) Now, eunuchs returning to Israel might worry about how they fit into the covenant, the narrative anchored as it has always been so firmly in the language of progeny and descendants. Additionally, those who have inter-married are also wondering how they might fit in. Into this anxiety, God speaks inclusion. All those who value and hold fast to the covenant will be included. Israel’s God is a gathering god.
As we fast forward to gospel of John, we find that Jesus fulfills the spirit of God’s promises spoken in Isaiah 56. Our text today begins with outsiders, Greeks, coming to see Jesus and Jesus sharing his essential mission with them. Indeed, it was becoming quite the concern to the authorities, to quote the verse right before our text (12:19) “So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” Jesus continued a tradition of inclusion throughout his ministry. When viewed with a broad lens, the upshot is this: those we think shouldn’t be included, and those who believe themselves unworthy of being included, always are.
Now, as we turn to our Swedenborgian lens, I’m sure you can guess that we will be exploring a more internal level. As we heard in our reading, in a deeper sense, gathering also refers to the goods and truths that are gathered within our hearts and minds. As we go through our lives, we pick things up and we squirrel them away. A new piece of information or a new perspective. A truism with which we resonate. The joy of making a difference. The memory of a kindness. A story that communicates something hopeful, truthful, or poignant. We gather true things and good things that stay with us, and start to coalesce into a worldview, an approach to life. God uses these things to regenerate us, to help us grow and mature spiritually on our journey.
But of course, the quality and character of those things that we have gathered in our hearts and minds affects how effectively God *can* regenerate us. What if we have gathered to ourselves the conviction that we are superior to others? That power and money make us worthy? What if we have never experienced the satisfaction of making a difference in someone else’s life, or have been taught that such an effort is weakness? What if we have experienced nothing but derision or lack of safety? What if all we’ve been able to gather for ourselves is fear, or ambition or grievance? This makes it much more difficult for God to lead and guide us.
Clearly, what we have gathered unto ourselves during our lives is a complex mix of what we choose to see and confirm, what have been exposed to, and what we are willing to learn. A complex mix of what we choose to open ourselves to and what has been offered to us.
Here we find the notion of gathering to be a powerful nexus point. In body, when we gather, we have an opportunity to model God’s compassion and inclusion and care, which then contributes powerfully to the gathering of spiritual good and truth in the hearts and minds of those gathered and included. As always in the Swedenborgian worldview, we find multiple levels operating simultaneously in an interconnected way. When we gather together in body, we multiply and intensify the gathering of internal goods and truths in each individual, the sum of us creating an opportunity that is not available to us on our own. This can be incredibly joyful, healing and connective. But we see conversely how the opposite can work as well. On one hand, how powerfully exclusion communicates and intensifies unworthiness to those on the outside, and on the other hand, how it communicates superiority to those on the inside.
For certainly, we can gather in a nefarious ways. In our own hearts and minds, we can gather knowledge and experience and information for selfish purposes. In the body, we can gather in ways that serve to create exclusion, group think, dominance, violence. Any time there is a gate keeper, power and supremacy are at play.
But we must remember that Jesus makes a crucial distinction in our text. The way that he would draw people to himself, the way the in-gathering of the world was to occur, was through his death, through sacrifice. He could have located the significance and promise of “gathering” with his triumphal entry just accomplished, with people waving palms and yelling praise, for there certainly was a crowd. But the promise inherent in drawing the world to himself is more than just a question of numbers, more than the power such numbers suggest to the earthly mind. Instead, he talks of a seed shedding its own limited existence in order to create many more seeds, to create fruit. “…unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (12:24) The in-gathering must be anchored in sacrifice, for that is the only thing that can make fertile soil for the growth that is to come.
So, what that means for us, as we consider the theme of gathering? It is the opportunity to ask ourselves question like:
For what do we gather, either internally or in-person? Are we gathering to serve our own selfhood? Or, are we focused on gathering to ourselves good things that will make a fertile soil for a growing heart and mind? A fertile soil for expansive and welcoming spaces? What motivates us? The inherent generativity of God’s heavenly kingdom or the way gathering bolsters our identity? Are we willing to sacrifice the single seed of our selfhood, so that the new open space might produce a living plant with leaves, flowers, fruit and many many more seeds? Asking these questions can help us clear away what needs to be cleared away, so that new growth can occur, much like the spring garden clean-ups we might be doing now that the weather has started to warm.
So, even as we have been prevented this year from gathering in-person, let us meditate upon what has been gathered within us due to the sacrifice we have made. Resilience, new skills, compassion, care and concern, gratitude. These things came out of giving up what we didn’t want to give up. And as we imagine our return to in-person community, in all kinds of ways, let us meditate upon how our physical spaces, our houses of worship and other places, can be more than just wood and stone and glass, but can be spaces that honor the way being present to one another supports everyone’s spiritual growth, that gathering in body supports what is gathered to our hearts and minds.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible, p513.
1 This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. 2 Blessed is the one who does this— the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.” 3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. 6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
Secrets of Heaven #679
'He was to gather them for himself' means truths. This is clear from what has been stated above, for 'gathering' has reference to the things that are in a person's memory, where they have been gathered together. It embodies in addition the point that the former and the latter - goods and truths - need to be gathered together in [a person] before regeneration takes place. Indeed unless goods and truths have been gathered together to serve as means through which the Lord may do His work, a person cannot possibly be regenerated…
Photo credit: Mike Chai
Readings: Psalm 69:5-13, 16-17, John 2:13-22, Heaven and Hell #187 and Apocalypse Revealed #918.
See also on YouTube at
Today’s text relates the famous anecdote of Jesus clearing the temple of the sellers and money-changers. Familiar as it is, it still retains its power to shock us though, I think, especially when juxtaposed with the teaching and healing that occupied Jesus in the rest of the gospel account. This is one of the only times that we see Jesus so worked up. But it certainly makes sense when we understand historically how the merchants were taking advantage of faithful, impoverished people.
All four gospels mention Jesus clearing the temple courts in this way. Matthew, Mark and Luke use similar phrases and so are likely from a similar earlier source. The account in John is slightly different, and is the only one that links it to a prediction about Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is perhaps because the the author of the gospel of John places the story early in his narrative in order to create some foreshadowing for the events to come later on. The other three gospels place this event towards the end of the story, after Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem.
John’s account of this occurrence also intentionally refers back to Psalm 69: “His disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me.” This psalm, which we heard this morning, is one attributed to King David, and while probably not actually authored by him, intentionally represents aspects of what we might imagine his experience to have been. One of my commentaries reminds us that “the psalms grew out of concrete historical situations in which real people sought to live their lives under God.” (1)
As we journey in this season on Lent, and this season of history, we may well be resonating with either the sense of being run down and despairing, like King David, or the righteous, sad anger of Jesus, or the simple chaos and uproar of the temple courts themselves. As we work to confront our own shortcomings, as we work to clear out craven and selfish tendencies, as we work to figure out how we can have purpose in a broken world, this scene of disarray in the temple, things scattered and overturned, animals bleeting and sellers protesting, may well be an accurate picture of our internal selves and the chaos that often accompanies necessary change.
What is really interesting though, even as we acknowledge this state, are the words that are spoken into that chaos. Jesus, using metaphorical language as he often does, spoke of his body as a temple, predicting life would come out of destruction. What is even stranger is that he gives this as an answer about authority, about why he felt he had the authority to clear the temple at all.
Why did he make the explicit connection between his body and the temple here, implying that his body was the location of God’s presence with the people? Why would he say this especially after the temple cleansing, and in answer to why he had the authority to do it?
Swedenborg writes that in the highest spiritual sense, the temple represents God’s Divine Humanity. Swedenborg writes a lot about what he calls the “Divine Human", and how important it is that we believe in a God who is Human (with a capital H). And what that capital H means of course, is not that God is fallible in the way that human beings are fallible, but rather, that God is the pattern upon which our human life is based. It implies that there should be a natural resonance, and a natural understanding, between God and us because we are made in God’s image and likeness. God is not “other" to us, but inherently relatable to us.
The Divine Human is God’s pre-existing pattern of humanness that formed us, and continues to form us. And then eventually, the Divine Human found a unique form in Jesus, a new way for us to see God’s Divine Humanity. Certainly, we always have the experience of our own humanness to see, but Jesus brought the Divine Human before our eyes in a particularly powerful way, a way grounded in love, sacrifice and new life.
What do we see in Jesus? We see God’s Divine Humanity healing people who are suffering, feeding people who are hungry, blessing people who are oppressed and reviled. We see God’s Divine Humanity upholding the word of the ancient prophets who criticized those who would use power to afflict the downtrodden. We see God’s Divine Humanity reframing the kin-dom to include all those who would approach with genuine faith and love.
This is the pattern. And in seeing it, we recognize that God is not located in one specific temple, one specific tradition, one specific understanding but rather, that God is located in the Divine Humanity, in all the ways that the Divine Human is with us. God’s presence is in every body, every created body. God’s presence is in the pattern of each person trying to become more human, and the temporary chaos that this creates. And most importantly, God is present in the way that this chaos is resolved, in the burgeoning of new life, of resurrection.
This God is so deeply intertwined with us and this world, and cannot be separate. This is why Swedenborg would talk so passionately about the need to believe in a God that is Human, as opposed to a God who is some kind of disembodied force. While at times I think it is possible he overstates the necessity of it, his main gist is that as a disembodied force, such a God is necessarily disconnected, far away, and inherently other. But God will never actually be these things to us. And Swedenborg uses the term Divine Human to express the fact that God is the pattern out of which we are manifested, and so never can be inherently other, can only be inherently related and relational.
When we deeply understand that God is not inherently other, this can help us in two important ways, which are especially useful to remember during Lent. As we are in the tension, in the David struggle, or the temple chaos, we can remember that God understands the struggle, and that God experienced the struggle, and God has planned for it. Notice the For. God didn’t plan our struggle, but planned for our struggle, creating a universe with resurrection built in, so that there is always the potential to come out the other side with greater love, greater understanding, and greater resilience.
Second, as we remember the Divine Humanity, and we remember that God is not other, then hopefully the natural extension of this recognition is that no one we encounter will be other to us as well. If God’s Divine Humanity is the pattern upon which all life is based, then it must extend to all, no matter the many illusions of hierarchy that our egos manufacture. The gift of being birthed and held within God’s Divine Humanity only truly works for us, for one, if it works for all.
All trials target the love we feel. The severity of the trial matches the nobility of the love. If love is not the target, there is no trial….The Lord’s life was love for the whole human race, a love so great and good that it was pure, unalloyed love. He allowed this life of his to be attacked continuously, from the dawn of his youth until his final moments in the world.(2)
"Zeal for your house will consume me.” (Psalm 69:9) Jesus’ zeal was proportional to his love. There can be no one who has more zeal for us and for our journey than God. And sometimes that will look like zeal for clearing our what needs to be cleared and that’s not fun. But that zeal is anchored in the reality of the Divine Humanity, the reality of God’s closeness and likeness and love for us, all of us. If we must use the word “authority” then this is where God’s authority to clear the temple of our selfhood comes from. When we ask why Lent, why we should open ourselves to any struggle at all, the answer is not so much found in what we will gain, but how God is with us. The deeper we go into God’s presence, the greater the invitation to let go of what needs to be let go. Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days. That’s a promise.
Psalm 69:5-13, 16-17
5 You, God, know my folly; my guilt is not hidden from you. 6 Lord, the LORD Almighty, may those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me; God of Israel, may those who seek you not be put to shame because of me. 7 For I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face. 8 I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children; 9 for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me. 10 When I weep and fast, I must endure scorn; 11 when I put on sackcloth, people make sport of me. 12 Those who sit at the gate mock me, and I am the song of the drunkards. 13 But I pray to you, LORD, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.
16 Answer me, LORD, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. 17 Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Heaven and Hell 187
So I could see why the Lord calls himself the temple that is in Jerusalem (John 2:19, 21). I could also see why the New Jerusalem appeared as a city of pure gold, with gates of pearl and foundations of precious gems (Revelation 21): it is because a temple offers an image of the Lord's divine human; the New Jerusalem refers to the church that was going to be founded; and the twelve gates are the truths that lead to what is good, and the foundations are the truths on which it is based.
Apocalypse Revealed 918.
Revelation 21:22 But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. This symbolically means that the New Church will have no external element divorced from an internal one, because it turns to the Lord Himself in His Divine humanity, from whom comes everything connected with the church, and worships and adores Him alone.
Photo by Kun Fotografi from Pexels
Readings: Genesis 12:1-5, Mark 8:31-37, Secrets of Heaven #1407 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/KmuCHRCpxGM
Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
These are the first words that God says to Abram, the words that will begin the story of the Children of Israel, a story that gave birth to three worldwide religious traditions, that connects millions together in spiritual ancestry.
Go from your country to the land I will show you. I’m not sure there could be a more simple but appropriate command for the Lenten season. The Lord told Abram to pick himself up from all that he knew and valued and head out into an unknown country and an unknown future. I’m sure many of us have experienced similar upheavals. I myself took a journey from my own homeland of Australia, into an unknown future which has brought me here with all of you. Many of us might have moved from where we grew up, or moved to go to college, or find a job. It takes faith, fortitude, optimism and trust to make big moves like that.
But of course, we read the bible not only in a literal physical way, but in a spiritual way as well. We can see that such a command has an internal meaning, signifying an emotional journey, a journey of the spirit.
Swedenborg writes (as we heard in our reading today):
Go away from your land' means the bodily and worldly things from which [Jesus] was to depart. 'And from the place of your nativity' means bodily and worldly things that were more exterior. 'And from your father's house' means such as were more interior. 'To the land which I will cause you to see' means the spiritual and celestial things that were to be brought to view.
Swedenborg unfolds the meaning of Genesis in terms of the spiritual journey that Jesus took while here in the world with us. And he also makes clear that Jesus’ process mirrors our own, that we are on a corresponding track, just with slightly different destinations: glorification and regeneration, two sides of the same coin, two manifestations of the same process. In our text, “your country, your people, your fathers household” signify the things, situations, thoughts, and perspectives in which we are invested, both external and internal. They are our emotional home. They are the place where we feel comfortable, they are our default. From resources we own, food we like, clothes we wear, to our habits and ingrained ways of doing things, to our sense of competence and control, identity, privilege, reputation, and more. In so far as these things do not serve our growing in love and wisdom, the Lord says “Go.” The Lord says to leave them behind.
And what is so powerful about this command is that it is not a rebuke, it is an invitation and a promise. The promise of, as the Lord says, a land that I will show you. A land that will be seen but first we must be willing to leave wherever we are. This is not so much a test of faith, or a test of our willingness to suffer, for which we will be eventually rewarded. God does not desire for us to be performative; God hopes that we will be open to transformation. Abram couldn’t see the land yet, not because God was withholding, but because he hadn’t yet taken the journey to get within seeing distance.
So it is the same for us. We can’t always see the shape of things that we are heading towards, we can’t always appreciate the freedom, or the expansion or the effectiveness, or the satisfaction that will be available to us once we have jettisoned our old ways of thinking and being.
The truth is we often need to get rid of something before there is enough space for a new way of thinking and being to bloom. This is why Swedenborg so very often emphasizes that we need to, in his words, shun evils before we can do good. (1) This is not meant to mean that we are to wait until we are perfect before we can have any positive effect on our world. It means that we can’t necessarily expect that our old and new selves, old and new lives, old and new habits can co-exist, at least, not long-term. Abram couldn’t physically be in both Harran and the new land the Lord would show him. It certainly makes sense if we want to avoid the middle space of the journey, the uncertainty of knowing what we are going toward while also having left what we know. And so sometimes we might try to have it both ways, hanging on to old habits while also trying to bring in the new. This doesn’t usually work very well. And to be clear, this is not the same thing as working diligently on some improvement and sometimes slipping into old patterns. This is more like not wanting to recognize the downsides of old patterns, and still valuing and desiring the old patterns, and then somehow still expecting a new result, when there is just no space for a new result. Like expecting our lungs to be healthy while still smoking, or expecting a relationship to improve while still engaging in a behavior that is hurting it.
Now let us fast forward to Jesus and our text from Mark. Jesus has just confirmed to his disciples his identity as the Messiah, and begins to tell them what kind of challenges the future holds. Jesus, in his own life, has taken the Lord’s command to Abram quite seriously, and has departed from his own metaphorical country, and his own actual family and comfort. He has stepped out on to a mission and a journey to a land, to an ending, that will be unfolded and revealed in the gospels over the next weeks.
As Abram would find, as Jesus would find, the journey is difficult at times. There is nothing particularly pleasant about facing adversaries, whether that is the powers-that-be in the real world, or the adversarial states of our own being, and our own habits. But Jesus tells his disciples and followers that they must suffer many things, must deny themselves and take up their cross. It is basically non-negotiable but again not because God demands suffering as a sacrifice either on Jesus’ part or our part, a terrible appeasement to God’s sense of justice. God is not so needy as that. Suffering and tension and conflict are simply what happens when we commit to making space and giving voice to our intention of becoming more; more whole, more loving, more inclusive, more open. Suffering and tension and conflict happened for Jesus because, in the words of one of my commentaries “powerful humans opposed both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brought to established law and order.” (2) The journey disrupts things, things that need to be disrupted.
Of course we want to save our lives, to save our emotional lives in our day to day. In the moment, the easiest way to do this seems like staying the same, digging in our heels, making sure we are always right, creating justifications, looking after our own. This feels like saving our lives. It is intuitive, it is automatic, it is the first thing we are moved to do, as humans. It is survival instinct. But this kind of strategy is like closing off our ears to the Lord’s command and staying in Harran. It is like Peter, so threatened and afraid and incredulous, that he forcefully contradicts his beloved teacher. We close down, we lash out, anything to avoid taking the journey.
But the journey was the very first command of God. The journey was the very thing that began it all. The willingness of Abram to leave behind what was comfortable and known and set out for a land that Lord would show him. This willingness is so central to the practice of the spiritual life that Jesus called Peter satan, when he persisted in denying it. And then Jesus gathered his followers around him to drive the point home.
For whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. There is the losing and then there is the saving, and this fundamental spiritual reality is what Jesus enacted, and the story we tell in the gospels today. When we lose our preoccupation with worldly things, when we lose our grasping for power, when we lose our self-serving defensiveness, we are rescued from all the ways that these things keep us small and judgmental and fearful. We are saved from the tyranny of our selfhood and this is the good news that we will celebrate in a few weeks.
For now, if we are choosing to ground ourselves in Lent, we are in the middle of the journey. We are finding our way, learning new things, seeing new landmarks, maybe being homesick, maybe being lost, maybe feeling overwhelmed but knowing that the Lord means to show us a new land, if we are willing to keep on walking. Keep on walking, my friends.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #330 (and others)
(2) Ira Brent Driggers, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5
1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
Secrets of Heaven #1407
Verse 1 And Jehovah said to Abram, Go away from your land, and from the place of your nativity and from your father's house, to the land which I will cause you to see.
The events described here and in what follows took place in history as they are recorded; yet the historical events as described are representative, and every word carries a spiritual meaning. 'Abram' is used to mean in the internal sense the Lord, as stated already. 'Jehovah said to Abram' means a first awareness of all things. 'Go away from your land' means the bodily and worldly things from which He was to depart. 'And from the place of your nativity' means bodily and worldly things that were more exterior. 'And from your father's house' means such as were more interior. 'To the land which I will cause you to see' means the spiritual and celestial things that were to be brought to view.
Photo by Designecologist from Pexels
Readings: Psalm 25:1-10, Mark 1:9-13, Secrets of Heaven #1049 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/MC3IzhW2fus
Welcome to the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which we observed with a litany today, the purpose of which is to remember our fragility and our earthiness. And from there, Lent invites us into a consideration of our shortcomings and our failures, and how we might be able to do better and be more loving in the future. Sometimes, this reflection might be usefully spurred by a spiritual discipline of some kind: the excision of something we have relied upon, or the adopting of something we don’t usually do. Either of these acts are not so much virtuous in and of themselves, but rather, can help create fertile ground for seeing things differently. Seeing things differently can lead to both to insight and action, moving us along on our spiritual path. The Swedenborgian tradition does not emphasize Lent quite as much as others might do, as we value the opportunity and responsibility to enter into repentance and reflection all year round, and whenever our circumstances and relationships suggest it is necessary. But also, there can be much value in taking a season each year to revisit long-term questions, habits, thinking, and perspectives. And, so I offer these reflections today.
But we must acknowledge that taking the opportunity to delve into our shortcomings, to feel the reality of our own nature and imperfection, and to develop clarity around where we need to improve, takes focus and courage. This year especially, when so many are struggling in so many ways, we may not feel we have the stamina for this work right now. That is totally reasonable. It is okay to set modest goals. But also, this year may have revealed to us things that we can longer ignore, that we can no longer put aside. It is important to give voice to both the urgency and the exhaustion that we are all feeling.
So before we begin, the practice of Lenten reflection needs to be grounded in the fact that we are beloved. Judgment, even righteous judgment, can rather easily morph into unhealthy shame and unworthiness. The pangs of conscience, appropriate regret and guilt, are essential to our process of repentance; they spur us forward into repairing what needs to be repaired. But shame, the sense that we ourselves are somehow bad and unworthy, this is can be corrosive. The engine of self-reflection, the true efficacy of the Lenten season, cannot be found in how awful we are, it must be found in love. From a solid place of security and worthiness, we can then look with courage and clarity at our shortcomings and not be overwhelmed by the work that is before us. Our Psalm for today speaks to this.
It begins with: To you Lord, I lift up my soul (NKJV). The word here translated as soul is nephesh, meaning soul, yes, and also selfhood, life, and all the activity of our being. It is incredibly vulnerable, to lift up such a thing. To bear forth our very being and life, to hold it outward for inspection like a child might lift up a precious stone or shell that they have found. Just talking about it feels very tender, let alone doing it. Interestingly though, other translations render this sentence as “In you Lord, I put my trust” (NIV). And this translation is important too, because it frames the vulnerability of what is happening. We lift up the tenderness of our soul to God, and we are able do it because we trust God. Why?
Because of raham and hesed. In verse six of the psalm we hear: remember Lord your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Raham—translated as great mercy or compassion—and hesed—translated as steadfast love—are two words that occur again and again throughout the psalms and the whole Hebrew bible. They mark out the shape and character of God’s relationship with God’s people, as one of safety, continuity and community.
The word Raham, as well as meaning mercy, also can be used to mean womb, and the yearning and care that a parent has for their child. How different does it feel then, to lift up our naphesh, our tender selfhood, when we are doing so within the safety of the womb of God, within the care and concern of our heavenly parent, warm, contained, and nourished. It evokes for me a sense of the safety and joy of childhood blanket forts; in the womb of God we are held and protected.
The word Hesed is such a complicated one to translate because it contains so much within it. It means love, yes, but an ongoing love in a covenantal relationship. For this reason it is sometimes translated as lovingkindness, because that word has ongoing aspect to it—love expressed in continual acts of kindness in relationship. And again, how differently do we feel about lifting up our nephesh, within this context, one in which any revelation about ourselves and our shortcomings occurs within a relationship with one who is committed to showing us kindness and compassion, who knows how to do that and will always do that.
Which brings us to our Mark text, because Jesus was the ultimate act of hesed (1), the ultimate act of fulfilling the promise of relationship. God doing what God had to in order to stay in connected with us. This involved reaching out, involved entering deeply into our experience. And before the experience of temptation in the wilderness, before the experience of being broken down, of questioning what he thought he knew, and coming to the clarity of knowing his mission…before all of that, Jesus heard that he was beloved, and we get to see him being told he was beloved, so that we might also know that we are beloved.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today:
Having mercy, though, is something [God] can be said to do, because [God] realizes what we humans are like.
God know who and what we are, and as we lift up our nephesh in trust, God sees us more clearly than anyone else can. And yet God will still always, as the reading says, “draw us to heaven with a powerful force.” We might not always feel this force but it is always there.
And it is so important for us to choose to partner with this force as much as we can. These pandemic times, these social and political times, have uncovered so much worth thinking about, have thrown into relief how urgently we need to be our best selves for each other and our world. There are times in the bible that God’s judgment is spoken of in terrifying ways, for the experience of seeing the brokenness of ourselves and our world can be heartbreaking, and demoralizing, and scary. But we need to see what is wrong and broken and sinful within ourselves and our world, or otherwise we will never be able to change it for the better. We need to see it. But we also need to be able to see it and withstand seeing it. We need to be able to see and not flee from it. We need to be able to see it and stay with the long process of dealing with it. And I really don’t believe that any kind of stamina for spiritual work can come from a place of unworthiness and shame. It has to come from love. It has to come from knowing that we are beloved and knowing that everyone else is beloved too. It has to come from raham and hesed.
This year in particular, we might need an extra dose of contemplating our belovedness before we can get to the business of examining ourselves. Heck, take twenty doses, there is more than enough. God needs us and wants us in the game, whatever that looks like for us. And so for today, let us settle and steep in the truth of our belovedness, with this blessing from Jan Richardson, entitled “Beloved is Where We Begin.”
If you would enter
into the wilderness
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
Named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
(1) Commentary by Nancy deClaisse-Walford, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-251-10-13
(2) Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O Lord! 8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Secrets of Heaven #1049
The symbolism of and I will remember my pact, which is between me and you, as the Lord's mercy, specifically toward people who have been and people who can be reborn, also follows from all this, since remembering, for the Lord, is having mercy. The Lord cannot be said to remember, because he knows absolutely everything from eternity. Having mercy, though, is something he can be said to do, because he realizes what we humans are like. He knows that our self-centeredness reflects hell and is our actual hell, because our self-will keeps us in touch with hell. Self-will is such, on its own and by hell's inspiration, that its strongest, keenest wish is to throw itself headlong into hell; and it is not content with this but wants to drag everyone else in the universe along with it. Because this is the kind of devils we are on our own, and the Lord knows it, remembering the pact is consequently the same as showing mercy, using divine means to regenerate us, and drawing us to heaven with a powerful force, so far as our nature allows him to.
Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, Matthew 6:9-13 and Secrets of Heaven #1692 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
The Lord’s Prayer once again brings us to another really big topic: temptation and God’s deliverance. There’s so much here we can only scratch the surface.
First, if the phrasing “Lead us not into temptation” gives you pause, know that you are not alone. The idea that God might actually *lead* us into conflict and has to be petitioned not to do so, has bothered Christians from the very beginning of the movement. There is evidence that early Christian liturgies even modified the wording of the prayer to deal with this. Some scholars believe that the phrasing speaks to a kind of apocalyptic mindset that was prevalent in Jesus’ day, one that understood history to be heading toward a great battle between the faithful and cosmic forces of evil. The prayer spoke to a hope that, in following God, the faithful might not be led into a conflict that would ultimately overwhelm them (1). I think that we can resonate with those kind of existential anxieties even today, whenever we hope that we will be up to the challenges life throws at us.
But of course, all of this exposes some natural and fundamental questioning that we might well have around how Divine Providence works ie how God actually affects and shapes our lives. How does God lead us? Why does temptation exist? What is its purpose? And where is God during times of temptation?
Swedenborg speaks to all of these questions many times in his works. First, in regard to the phrasing “lead us not in to temptation” he points out that these words are what he calls an appearance. In the Swedenborgian worldview, there is an internal spiritual metaphorical meaning contained within the literal outward meaning of the words on the bible page. God’s Divine Truth emanates out toward us and goes through successive accomodations to human understanding, finally coming to rest in the outward “clothing” of the words spoken to and by the people of the time the Bible was written. Sometimes that outward clothing feels pretty similar to the spiritual meaning, (for example “love our neighbor”) and sometimes it almost totally obscures it (for example, God is angry and vengeful). To illustrate the difference in meaning, Swedenborg uses the example of the sun appearing to rise and set around a still earth, according to our vantage point, when the actual reality is that the earth moves around the sun. What appears to our eyes in that circumstance doesn’t represent the ultimate truth. Likewise for God’s nature; there were times when circumstances were interpreted by people to conclude that God was angry and vengeful and the Bible reflects that conclusion. However, the reality is that God is entirely loving.(2)
It is a similar case with the phrasing of the prayer. God never takes the tough love approach, leading us into trials or temptations, “for our own good.” When we want someone to blame it can sometimes feel like that. But God’s leading doesn’t actually happen that way. God has the utmost respect for our freedom, and so God’s leading is subtle and internal and individually crafted according to our needs and mindset. God does not create circumstances out in the world for us to experience, but rather, as we do experience them, guides our response and reflection and our meaning-making.
But this does prompt the question of what temptations are and why they happen. Culturally, the word temptation has taken on a kind of salacious tenor, which is why some of the most recent translations of Swedenborg’s works simply use the word “crisis” instead. We all know what it feels like to be in crisis, both large and small. Crisis means: a time of upheaval, often in which various elements are in opposition to each other, and/or turning point decisions will be made. After a crisis, we usually see things differently, and act differently with intention, because the crisis has changed us. A simple communal example is our current pandemic crisis. How is it changing what we value? What is it bringing into relief? How will we act differently afterward? Once things return to normal, might we still wear masks sometimes to make sure someone doesn’t catch our cold? Might we pause in gratitude for the simple things like a hug? Might we prioritize down time, or helping our neighbor, or scientific development?
So Swedenborg uses temptation in this way, not so much as something that has the potential to make us stray from the right path, but rather, as an experience that has the potential to change us: that clarifies our thinking, strengthens what we value and opens the path toward transformation. Why is this kind of experience necessary? We heard in our Swedenborg reading that temptations or crises are the means by which evils and falsities are broken up and dispersed within us. We all have unhealthy tendencies and false ideas to which we cling. This doesn’t make us bad people, it just makes us people. People born into a natural earthly world, faced with a natural earthly life. Many times, we are happy to just chug along, not paying attention to our unhealthy tendencies or false ideas until we are forced to, until we are thrust into a crisis. The crisis *makes* us pay attention. And just like forgiveness, it is another holy threshold, where we get to decide what we value. We get to decide if we will keep trying to put our head back in the sand, or if we will face the crisis process with courage, and be open to what it will reveal to us.
In personal terms, a crisis can be precipitated by any number of different outward events, but the nature, quality and outcome of the crisis will be dictated by *our* internal processes and constitution: what and who we love and value, what we understand to be true, how willing we are to reflect and repent if necessary, and how willing we are to change.
But, even though our own personal makeup determines the nature and shape of our crises, and it sure does feel like a lot of work to make it through them, and this brings into relief another appearance at play. Swedenborg emphasizes that the Lord is fighting fiercely for our benefit during our crises, and it is by the Lord’s power alone that our crises are resolved, even as we are “allowed” to feel the full blooming of our own efforts. We have to feel like we are doing our own work in order for it to have any real meaning for us. The experience of overcoming or working through our crises changes us fundamentally, and we get to hold on to that, it becomes part of us. But it is key for us, as we look back upon our temptation times, to recognize it was the Lord’s power that brought us through, not our own. Making it through a crisis should indeed make us feel confident, and it is worth celebrating, but it is a confidence that should be grounded in faith and gratitude rather than self-satisfaction.
And this circles us back around to what is appearing as an unintentional sub-theme of our Lord’s Prayer series. Many times we are asking for things in the prayer that are already happening. In the sentence we are focusing on today, we ask that we might be delivered from evil, but that is not something that God needs to be prompted to do. Just as in the giving of the daily bread, just as with forgiving our sins, so it is the same with our constant deliverance. God is already giving us internal sustenance, already forgiving us, and already fighting on our behalf all the time. We don’t have to prove that we are good enough to receive God’s care. It happens no matter what.
So why do we pray for these things if they are already happening? Well, just because they are already happening, doesn’t mean that they have nothing to do with us, or that their meaning, efficacy or potential to change us is not affected by our conscious awareness and partnership. We ask for things that we know are already given or already happening so that we might remember them, so that we might give our consent to partner with them, so that we might remain open to them. I know that when I pray The Lord’s Prayer each morning, that my silent addition is “Please don’t let me forget.” Don’t let me forget in the middle of the day, when I’m hungry and grumpy and overwhelmed and trying to power through my to do list. Don’t let me forget when I’m trying to go so sleep but my mind is swirling. Don’t let me be so distracted by my own selfhood, that I forget that God is with me.
We construct a life for ourselves through endless sensual pleasures, through love for the material world and for ourselves…This demonstrates how large a gap separates mortal life from heavenly life, which is the reason the Lord uses adversity to regenerate us and bend us into harmony. (3)
I love this imagery, that we might be “bent into harmony” through our crises. There is nothing more human than the struggle we all share in trying to live this life, and this acknowledgment is the foundation of empathy. As Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem stated: That even as we grieved we grew, that even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried..(4)
God is so deeply present in those words “even as.” Even as we grieved we grew. They are not to be skipped over, those two words are what bend us into harmony.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol VII, p133.
(2) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #3425
(3) Ibid #760
1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
Secrets of Heaven #1692
Hardly anyone can see what the battles of spiritual crisis accomplish. They are the means for dissolving and shaking off evil and falsity. They are also the means by which we develop a horror for evil and falsity, and gain not only conscience but strength of conscience; and this is the way we are reborn. For that reason, people who are regenerating are thrust into combat and undergo terrible trials — if not during their physical lives, then in the other life, assuming they can regenerate. In consequence, the Lord's church is called the church militant…
 It is the Lord alone who does the fighting in people facing their own spiritual battles, and who conquers. By our own power, we cannot accomplish anything at all against evil, hellish spirits, because they band together with the hells in such a way that if one hell were overcome the next would rush in to fill the void. This would continue forever. They are like the ocean beating on the individual stones in a jetty. If it managed to open a chink or a tiny crack in the jetty, it would never stop until it had broken down and overflowed the entire structure, leaving not a trace. That is how it would be if the Lord did not bear our battles by himself.