We Are Earth Creatures!
Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4, Secrets of Heaven #2999 (see below)
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Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash
Today we are planning a fun event for after church. We have been participating in a program called Sacred Grounds Wilmington, which is supporting churches in creating pollinator gardens, and in general moving towards certifying their properties as Native Habitats for wildlife.
We were very proud to be able to function as a pilot for this program in Wilmington in 2021 by creating the pollinator garden we have right now, and now we are continuing with the program by expanding our pollinator-supporting native plantings on a larger scale by prepping our garden beds today.
This is important work to do because native plants are ones that co-evolved with native species of animals, insects and birds, so planting them intentionally supports our local eco-system, keeping it healthy and robust. There are plenty of benefits for humans as well: Just enjoying natural beauty can support mental health, not to mention the fact that getting in the dirt can expose us to microbes that are beneficial to the human microbiome.
But what it does for us theologically is also important. When we engage in actions that are of a benefit not only to us but to our natural world, we place ourselves within our natural world, within the web of relationships that make up eco-systems. We place ourselves within this web of relationships, not above it. This perhaps doesn’t seem like a huge shift but it really is. Western Christianity has unfortunately, for many hundreds of years, considered humanity to be above the natural world, a dualistic view that has fostered a lot of harm.
But this dualistic view is not the only way of looking at it. Indigenous spirituality is based not on the separation inherent in dualism, but on integration and balance. In this worldview, human beings cannot be categorized as “apart” from creation, or “above” it, but only as one part of it.
We can see this connection clearly in the Genesis story, especially when we understand the word-play that is occurring in the creation of humankind. The first human is named adam and the word for soil in Hebrew is adama. The first human being is an earth creature, described in Genesis Chapter 2 as fashioned out of the clay of the earth and filled with the breath of God.
As we engage the natural world with our work after church today, as we put our hands in the dirt, as use our energy and enthusiasm to create something that supports the eco-system around us, these actions enfold us into a web of creation. We are truly living into the fact that we are earth-creatures, one part of a holy act of creation.
And so as we contemplate the actions we are about to take, and the ways that Indigenous spirituality informs our way of understanding it, let us make a land acknowledgment, to honor the original inhabitants of the land where we are.
Church of the Holy City in Wilmington Delaware acknowledges that is on Lenape land also called the Leni Lenape, and Delawaren, an indigenous people of the Northeastern Woodlands, who live in the United States and Canada. The first language spoken on these lands is Algonquian (Unami and Munsee). It is important that we recognize and respect the original stewards of this territory.
We pay our respect to elders both past and present.
We acknowledge that not only are we on their lands, they are still here and part of this community. We also acknowledge that this is the home of many Indigenous people as a result of federal relocation policies and Indigenous migrants from the south. We honor their ancestors, elders, and community leaders, past, present, and into the future.
We speak these words to honor the Lenape peoples and invite all who come here to reflect on their relationship to the histories of this land and the people.
We invite you to get involved and do your part to work with and support Indigenous struggles on these lands.
May the balance be restored.
And as we consider, how we might embody balance in our lives and our actions, let us spend some time in guided contemplation of the creation story in Genesis.
(find a comfortable seat, take a deep breath, and if you wish to, close your eyes)
In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
9 Then God said, “ Waters under the sky: be gathered into one place! Dry ground: appear!” So it was. 10 God called the dry ground “ Earth ” and the gathering of the waters “ Sea.” And God saw that this was good.
Breathing in: God saw that this was good.
Breathing out: God saw that this was good.
11 Then God said, “ Earth: produce vegetation — plants that scatter their own seeds, and every kind of fruit tree that bears fruit with its own seed in it!” So it was: 12 the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed, and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. And God saw that this was good.
Breathing in: God saw that this was good.
Breathing out: God saw that this was good.
20 God then said, “ Waters: swarm with an abundance of living beings! Birds: fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky!” And so it was: 21 God created great sea monsters and all sorts of swimming creatures with which the waters are filled, and all kinds of birds. God saw that this was good
Breathing in: God saw that this was good.
Breathing out: God saw that this was good.
24 Then God said, “ Earth: bring forth all kinds of living soul — cattle, things that crawl, and wild animals of all kinds!” So it was: 25 God made all kinds of wild animals, and cattle, and everything that crawls on the ground, and God saw that this was good.
Breathing in: God saw that this was good.
Breathing out: God saw that this was good.
26 Then God said, “ Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.” 27 Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them ; female and male, God made them. 28 God blessed them and said, “ Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth — and be responsible for it!
31 God looked at all of this creation, and proclaimed that this was good — very good.
Breathing in: God looked at this creation
Breathing out: and proclaimed that this was good.
As we remember God’s intentionality with creation, as we remember that we are both a part of creation, and have a special responsibility for creation, let us hear the words of this Navajo song, connecting us with both the vastness and the smallness of our natural world, placing us firmly within the whole.
The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice above,
The voice of thunder,
Among the dark clouds
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.
The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice below,
The voice of the grasshopper,
Among the flowers and the grasses
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.
Genesis 1:1-2:4 (The Inclusive Translation)
In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 But the earth became chaos and emptiness, and darkness came over the face of the Deep — yet the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters. 3 Then God said, “ Light: Be!” and light was. 4 God saw that light was good, and God separated light from darkness. 5 God called the light “ Day ” and the darkness “ Night.” Evening came, and morning followed — the first day. 6 Then God said, “ Now, make an expanse between the waters! Separate water from water!” So it was: 7 God made the expanse and separated the water above the expanse from the water below it. 8 God called the expanse “ Sky.” Evening came, and morning followed — the second day. 9 Then God said, “ Waters under the sky: be gathered into one place! Dry ground: appear!” So it was. 10 God called the dry ground “ Earth ” and the gathering of the waters “ Sea.” And God saw that this was good. 11 Then God said, “ Earth: produce vegetation — plants that scatter their own seeds, and every kind of fruit tree that bears fruit with its own seed in it!” So it was: 12 the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed, and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. And God saw that this was good. 13 Evening came, and morning followed — the third day. 14 Then God said, “ Now, let there be lights in the expanse of the sky! Separate day from night! Let them mark the signs and seasons, days and years, 15 and serve as luminaries in the sky, shedding light on the earth.” So it was: 16 God made the two great lights, the greater one to illumine the day, and a lesser to illumine the night. Then God made the stars as well, 17 placing them in the expanse of the sky, to shed light on the earth, 18 to govern both day and night, and separate light from darkness. And God saw that this was good. 19 Evening came, and morning followed — the fourth day. 20 God then said, “ Waters: swarm with an abundance of living beings! Birds: fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky!” And so it was: 21 God created great sea monsters and all sorts of swimming creatures with which the waters are filled, and all kinds of birds. God saw that this was good 22 and blessed them, saying, “ Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the waters of the seas! Birds, abound on the earth!” 23 Evening came, and morning followed — the fifth day. 24 Then God said, “ Earth: bring forth all kinds of living soul — cattle, things that crawl, and wild animals of all kinds!” So it was: 25 God made all kinds of wild animals, and cattle, and everything that crawls on the ground, and God saw that this was good. 26 Then God said, “ Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.” 27 Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them ; female and male, God made them. 28 God blessed them and said, “ Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth — and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on the earth!” 29 God then told them, “ Look! I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree whose fruit carries its seed inside itself: they will be your food ; 30 and to all the animals of the earth and the birds of the air and things that crawl on the ground — everything that has a living soul in it — I give all the green plants for food.” So it was. 31 God looked at all of this creation, and proclaimed that this was good — very good. Evening came, and morning followed — the sixth day. 1 Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. 2 On the seventh day God had finished all the work of creation, and so, on that seventh day, God rested. 3 God blessed the seventh day and called it sacred, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Secrets of Heaven #2999
In addition, there is nothing anywhere in the created world that does not correspond to things in the spiritual world and therefore in its way represent something in the Lord's kingdom. It is from the spiritual world that everything comes into being and remains in existence.
Readings: Luke 24:44-53, True Christianity #339 (see below)
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Today we hear the conclusion of the Easter story. As it is told in the gospel of Luke, three days after the crucifixion, three women discover the empty tomb and report it to the incredulous disciples. Then, Jesus casually appears to two followers walking on the road to Emmaus and spends some time with them. Finally, Jesus appears to all the gathered disciples, allows them to touch his body, experience its realness, and eats a meal with them. And it is towards the end of this meal that we enter into our text for today.
These are the last things that Jesus will do before he leaves. He reaches back to remind the disciples that everything is playing out exactly as he had told them it would, communicating reassurance that the Divine can be trusted, and grounding them in their own scripture and tradition. Then he speaks to them about the future. The disciples were witnesses to a fundamental revealing of God’s nature, and the experience of witnessing such things would change them, and charge them with a new way of living.
And then finally, Jesus blesses his beloved friends, and as he is doing so, ascends to heaven. This moment, which we might reasonably assume would be tinged with sadness, is greeted with joy. “And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”
I don’t know about you, but I feel like if I had been in the disciples shoes, I might have been sad to see Jesus go. A beloved teacher, someone they relied upon, was leaving. Our attachments are not always so easy to release. Our closeness to someone is proportional to how much we will miss them when they are gone.
But it also must be noted, that with Jesus gone, the responsibility of the disciples to bear witness was even greater. And this of course, was the plan. Despite being divinely incarnated, Jesus was just one person. One embodiment of Divine Love and Divine Wisdom. And the point was always the existence of Jesus was for the purpose of freeing, empowering and transforming all humanity, each of us. In order to make that happen, Jesus needed to leave.
And so we grapple with that reality. There are many ways that Jesus may feel remote to us, and becoming more so. Each day takes us further away from him in time, takes us a little further away culturally from the human society that existed 2000 years ago. And the gospels themselves, they were written by others decades after Jesus left, reflecting the various lenses of the developing Jesus movement just as much (or more) as documenting what actually happened.
Yet, somehow, Jesus still speaks. There is something about the shape of his life, his vision, his devotion, his courage that reaches out to us even now. The reaching out of God then took a human shape, a shape that we fundamentally recognize now, a shape that we and everybody we know literally embodies, that we see before us everyday. Despite the fact of the ascension, of his appearing to leave, the fact that our God was a person, even for a relatively few short years so long ago, that God had a body with blood, bones, muscles, organs, had an emotional life with fears, hopes, relationships, and failures, a spiritual life with full of grappling with faith, leadership, being called, and sacrifice, this connects us deeply to Jesus because we recognize something shared and fundamental in the story of his life.
As we heard in our reading today, Swedenborg insists on the importance of us believing in a human God, a visible God. And that doesn’t so much mean believing in a God with human foibles, but rather, believing in a God we can relate to on a deep level, with a form that we recognize and with which we feel comfortable. Swedenborg worried that humans beings cannot connect with an abstract God, that this type of God would seem remote and vaporous and therefore would not have any real effectiveness in our emotional and spiritual lives. So he argued that when we think of God as having a human form, as suggested by the incarnation, we will feel deeply understood and affirmed by such a God, we will feel closer to such a God and believe that such a God really wants to be closer to us. We will recognize the ways in which the Divine connects to and infills and enlivens that which is earthly, and so we can believe that the Divine can connect to, infill and enliven us. And this makes a lot of common sense. We will naturally be much more empowered by the God who does not despise our earthliness but rather, willingly took it on, and affirmed it.
Which leads to the second point I would like to make about this text today. We started out by thinking about how despite the ascension, the incarnation itself counters the potential remoteness of God with the fact of Jesus’ humanity. And this very naturally prompts us to consider our own humanity, and how it is reflective of the Divine. How we might be called to further and amplify Jesus’ mission in this world. This is indeed a very personal consideration, but that is not all it is.
For we note that the gospel does not end with a story of individuality. While earlier accounts post-resurrection highlight the individual experiences of Mary Magdalene, Peter, the two followers on the road to Emmaus, by the time we reach our text for today, Jesus is speaking to all of his disciples… all we hear of is they and them. Jesus was blessing them, they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem, and they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. There is a reason that Jesus chose twelve and not one. He knew that we would need each other.
The human shape of Jesus and his life that deeply connects each of us to him through our own experience, that human shape can also be seen in the way that we connect to each other. Swedenborg writes that in the Lord’s sight, the whole of heaven, and then also each individual heavenly community, reflects the form of a single human being). Human community reflects the beauty, the variety, the inter-dependent differentiation of the human body. And thus, human community is also called to amplify Jesus’ mission, called to create openness that can be filled with God’s spirit, called to work and learn together in a holistic and dynamic way. Other traditions call this the Body of Christ, and we call it the Grand Human, a picture of the way God’s divine humanity permeates the shape of human relationships.
And so, on this day that we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, a day by its very name pictures a God moving away from us, we can know that the opposite is true. The human shape of Jesus was not simply a shell taken upon himself, not a concession, not an accommodation, and certainly not a disguise. The humanity of Jesus was a deep expression of the humanity of God; we were created thus, an image and likeness, and so was Jesus. The image of Jesus as a human being reveals the truth about God and also about ourselves.
But to see that, to really really believe it and know it, we cannot fixate upon Jesus or even upon the biblical accounts of his life. Jesus and his story are but one part of God’s gift to us. The rest of the gift is being able to see the ways the shape of Jesus shows up in ourselves and our world. Just like with an optical illusion, when we stare at a particular shape so long that still see its image even when we shift our gaze, Jesus’ ascension gives us a chance to observe the incarnation of God all around us all the time.
In ascending, Jesus has given us space to find him again in ourselves, and in each other, and in what we create together. For this blessing we give praise. Amen.
(1) Heaven and Hell #59 & #68
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 #339
We are to believe or have faith in God our Savior Jesus Christ because this is believing in a God who can be seen, in whom is what cannot be seen. Faith in a God who can be seen - who is both human and divine at the same time - goes deep within us. Although faith is earthly in its form, it is spiritual in its essence. Within us faith becomes both spiritual and earthly, in that everything spiritual has to be received in what is earthly to become anything to us. Something purely spiritual does indeed enter us but we do not accept it. It is like the ether that flows in and out of us without having any effect. For something to have an effect, we have to be mentally aware of it and open to it. We have no such awareness or openness unless something affects our earthly self.
Readings: Genesis 2:1-3, Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24, Divine Providence #333 (see below)
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Photo by Kei Scampa: https://www.pexels.com/photo/white-string-light-2370726/
Psalm 139 is such a wonderful psalm, just an amazing piece of poetry, no wonder it is a favorite of many people. And it is particularly appropriate for the Sabbath, the day on which we are gathered, because it invites us to shift our focus from our own preoccupations to God’s wide and timeless perspective. As we approach the transition of spring into summer, a lovely but sometimes busy time, hopefully that shift in focus from our perspective to God’s, can lead us some much needed rest.
The 12th century German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting. Our lives are often about adding more, doing more, creating more, and that is definitely not a bad thing….the curious and innovative human spirit is amazing, and when we come together we can create wonderful things. In the Swedenborgian tradition, it is so important that our theological ideas become embodied in our life, for it is our actions over time make us who we are, we create ourselves in partnership with God, patterned on God’s creation of the world in Genesis. However, in the Sabbath, the day God rested, we are also reminded of a necessary balance to all our doing, which is a subtracting, a stripping away of our earthly preoccupations. When we take a moment here and there to subtract away our striving, our controlling, our meriting, then we come to understand, as in the psalm, that God has known us before all that existed. We find that God created us, God created our inmost being, God was present to us in the primordial intimacy of our creation…and so it is God who truly knows us, more fully than anyone else possibly could. And more than anything, I think it is this sense of being known that speaks to us most powerfully in Psalm 139.
We put a lot of energy into being known on a daily basis. We communicate to people with words, both spoken and written, trying to make known our expectations and our desires. We communicate through our actions, physical intimacy, body language, what we buy and what we do with what we buy, what causes we support, how we spend our free time; we communicate through what we create, who we associate with. We make known our opinions, our experiences, our disappointments, our celebrations, and in doing so, we create community with each other.
Sometimes though, we may find ourselves managing our image for other people, and only broadcasting the parts of us that we think are acceptable to know. We may do this because it feels safer; vulnerability and authenticity can be uncomfortable sometimes and so we avoid them. But then we may find ourselves surprised to feel empty, misunderstood, lonely, not satisfied by being known so superficially. Even with the multitude of ways we signal our worthiness to the outside world, many times we still yearn for something.
Psalm 139 speaks to that yearning, to the amazing quality of the very deep knowing that God has with us. Being known, being truly seen as we are, and not as we imagine is acceptable to others, is such an incredible gift. This kind of being known weaves us into the fabric of relationship. We experience our own worthiness through God’s eyes, we feel profoundly validated, we experience relief and freedom because we know unequivocally that we belong.
And this is where the Sabbath comes in. When we are truly known, then we can also truly rest. When God knows all of our going out and our coming in, knows the words we are going to say, knows where we are and where we are going, knows all of the ways we have failed and will fail and still loves us, well, there is nothing more to be said or done. We can lay down our efforts to be known for a moment because God has become our constant. There is nowhere we can go, nothing we can do to escape the profound intimacy that is promised by a God who has been present with us from the very beginning. Present with us before we even knew about it, present with us when we we turn away, present with us in who we are now, and who we are to become. What an amazing promise. This is a promise that we can truly rest in. This promise is holy.
In one of his books, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asks an interesting question: What was the first holy thing in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar?” Nope, neither. According to the book of Genesis the first holy thing to be created was a day - the Sabbath. All the other things made during the first six days of the creation story, they were called “good.” But the Sabbath was called “holy.” Heschel points out that after all that creating, the world and everything in it, we might reasonably expect that God would create a holy place. But no…God created a holiness in time. The Sabbath day. Something that all people can have access to—for space and things, even sacred space and sacred objects, can be owned, withheld, and dominated…but time….that flows unimpeded to all equally.
Swedenborg writes that the holy day of the Sabbath (however we may decide to enact it in our lives) represents the whole of God’s redemptive work for us(TCR 301). It is holy because it contains God’s vision for us, a sacred vision mediated by the fact of God’s presence with us throughout time, no matter where we might go…“if I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” This sacred vision of constant leading is God’s; we cannot earn it, we can only co-operate with it. We can let go of our owning, conquering, and accomplishing, and we can find that God’s steadfast, active presence remains. And where there is God’s presence, there we find also God’s searching gaze, there we find we are known by God, an intimate and loving knowledge of who we are and who are to become.
This knowing stems directly from God’s Divine Love, a Love big enough to create the whole world, but then also big enough to give us something beyond it, to give us a holiness in time, born out of the holy vision for our future. This holiness in time, the Sabbath, and any Sabbath-like moments we create, is a divine portal, in it we are reminded that our be-ing, our existence, belongs to God, is cherished by God. And in this knowledge of our cherished existence, the fact of being beloved, we are able enter fully, with courage, into the final words of the psalm…”search me God and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts…see if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” We don’t have to be afraid of what God will find in us because God’s leading will happen anyway, in and through all our selfishness and our challenges. We can be searched, we can be completely known, because God has promised to be present throughout. As we celebrate a baptism today, let us remember that God’s unequivocal bestowal of love and worthiness is the very ground of our being, it is holy, and in it we may truly rest. Amen.
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
Psalm 139:1-18, 23-34
1 You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. 17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with you.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Divine Providence 333
…for our salvation, divine providence begins at our birth and continues to the end of our life. To understand this, we need to realize that the Lord knows the kind of person we are and the kind of person we want to be and therefore the kind of person we will be. Further, the Lord cannot deprive us of the freedom of our volition if we are to be human and therefore immortal…so the Lord foresees what our state will be after death and provides for it from our birth all the way to the end of our life…So divine providence is constantly at work for our salvation; but it cannot save more of us than want to be saved…The Lord sees all this and still leads us, doing so under the laws of divine providence, laws the Lord cannot violate because that would be to violate God’s own divine love and divine wisdom, and therefore God’s self.
Can These Bones Live?
Readings: Exekiel 37:1-14, Secrets of Heaven #2916 (see below)
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Our text today tells us of the Lord bringing Ezekiel to a valley full of bones, a great many on the floor of the valley, all dry, and lifeless. It is powerful imagery, and it was written to a people in exile. The Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians and its people were scattered. The Kingdom of Judah held on a while longer but eventually was also defeated by Babylon and its people taken into exile there. God’s promise to Abraham, that they would be a great nation, given many hundreds of years before, now seemed shattered to pieces. They were not only defeated and subjugated, but not even allowed to remain in their own land. Understandably, many felt there was no way forward.
The book of Ezekiel depicts this despair with the imagery of the valley of the dry bones. Could there ever be a picture of something more lifeless? Not just a dead body, but bones separated from each other, dry and dessicated. It’s incredibly bleak, no space for hope, no space for life.
But these images are full of symbolism of course, which is why texts like these speak so powerfully. Swedenborg writes that a valley represents our lower states of mind, times of obscurity when it feels harder to see the bigger picture.(1) We recall Psalm 23 from last week: Yea, though I walk through the valley of of the shadow of death. Valleys can be low dark places, difficult to see where we are, difficult to see where we are headed, difficult to see how to get out.
The bones themselves represent to us our selfhood. In the book of Genesis, Eve is built out of one of Adam’s rib bones, and Swedenborg describes this as the creation of our sense of living autonomy, our sense of self. It is the thing that allows us to have a relationship with God, to exist with self-consciousness. He writes:
When the Lord brings it to life, our sense of self gives us the ability to perceive all the good desired by love and all the truth taught by faith. So it holds within it all wisdom and understanding, joined to an indescribable happiness.(2)
So, in one very real sense, our selfhood is incredibly necessary. It can be an immense and effective gift; it holds us up, it structures our life. We rely upon it and that is appropriate and good. But our selfhood can only take us so far. And this is because anything living in us comes from the Lord's life, not our own(3). The bones scattered on the valley floor represent to us the limits of our selfhood, the limits of self-reliance, the limits of believing we can do it all and control everything. The limits of identifying too closely with our God-created selfhood and believing it originates with us.
Not only are the bones in a valley, but they are also dry. Being dry represents a lack of truth, a lack of a way to structure our thinking and our acting(4). Perhaps this strikes a chord —in an increasingly divided country, in an increasingly online world, how thirsty we all are these days, for sources of information that we can rely on, for systems that will tell us what to do, for tribes that will make us feel okay, for something that can give us some hope.
And finally, the bones are scattered about, disconnected. This may resonate as well. Not only in regard to a time when we were on lockdown, but also for the many ways in which we yearn for community even now, for the ways in which we separated from each other, by things as deep as ideology and prejudice, and as unseen and ordinary as urban planning. In a larger sense, in times of crisis, it is also easy to feel disconnected from providence, from a sense of God’s care. Swedenborg writes that angels can easily see how things are connected but often it is harder for us(5). And so sometimes we find ourselves in the valley of the bones: shadowed, scattered, desiccated, and seemingly alone.
And when we find ourselves in the valley, it is hard not to imagine the worst. Our minds very naturally start to cast about for what might happen to us going forward. We shouldn’t shame ourselves for that, it’s our brain’s job to do this for us. We have been trained over millennia to project and anticipate potential dangers and avoid them; this is how we survive. Our brains are trying to protect us. But our world today is full on chronic and ongoing stress, many times with only a small part of it within our control. And so our brains keep returning again and again to the dry bones, warning us, prompting us to act, even though many times we can’t. The result is that we continue in anxiety, constantly in fight or flight mode. And this can be exhausting and debilitating. We especially learned how difficult this was during the pandemic, and lessons learned then can still be helpful now.
I recall one expert during the height of the pandemic, naming our collective stress as anticipatory grief. Our minds were doing their best to keep us safe in an uncertain situation, grappling not only with actual losses but telling us to be careful about potential ones to come. His advice: to find balance in the things we are thinking. Whenever our worst predictions start to take shape, we can choose to also imagine alternatives, and to place them alongside.(6)
We can choose how we try to balance the images we are focusing on. Our mind will continue to do its job and will talk to us about the dry bones; let us give thanks for its capacity for foresight. We rely upon it. And also, let us with intention focus on the other images that God has given us in the Ezekiel text: breath and enlivenment. For we see that the dry bones are not the end of the story, that God has something else to say, something else to prophecy. Our minds prophecy in their own way, speaking to our own personal context of survival and loss and how-to-get-to-the-next-day, our God-created selfhood doing what it needs to do. But God also has a prophecy to offer; one that speaks in a broader way about resurrection and hope and answers our most basic and plaintive question: can these bones live?
God tells us: Yes, these bones can live! This has always been God’s most basic and fundamental promise: what seems dead to us can live again. It is the heart of the holy day of Easter just a few weeks ago. The empty tomb with the stone rolled away is the same as Ezekiel’s valley where bone joins to bone, flesh and skin and breath come into being, and a nation of people figuratively come back to life. “Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.”(v13)
God can be relied upon to take the initiative, for this is the one true purpose of Providence, to always and forever bring us out of the valley that we find ourselves in, to give us a hand up and out of the graves we have dug for ourselves, to walk alongside us in any challenge that befalls us. God will bring life to the crucified parts of our lives, and in order to show us that this is so, God went first.
Now, enlivenment does not always arrive in the ways we might imagine. We don’t always get to direct the process or decide how and where the life and breath manifests. If we were in charge, we would always just want things to go back to exactly however they were before the valley. But when the people of Israel finally got to return to their land, it wasn’t the same as before. They had to rebuild their cities, they had to rebuild their society, they had to rebuild their relationships. And it wasn’t without challenge. But this rebuilding brought them closer to each other, and closer to their God. God hasn’t promised a lack of danger or difficulty; God has promised resurrection. God has said “I will put breath in you and you will come to life.” (v6). We just get to decide if we are open to it. We get to decide if we want to imagine it. We get to decide to make space for it.
In the valley of the dry bones, we find that we have reached the end of our selfhood. A necessary end, a painful and anxious one to be sure. But God whispers in our ear: “I will put my spirit in you and you will live.” May we see this vision God has promised us, and may our breath and the breath of God, join together as one.
1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ ”
Secrets of Heaven #2916
In the internal sense of the Word 'a grave' means life, which is heaven, and in the contrary sense death, which is hell. The reason it means life or heaven is that angels, who possess the internal sense of the Word, have no other concept of a grave, because they have no other concept of death. Consequently instead of a grave they perceive nothing else than the continuation of life, and so resurrection…Now because 'burial' means resurrection, it also means regeneration, since regeneration is the primary resurrection of a person, for when regenerated we die as regards our former selves and rise again as regards the new. It is through regeneration that from being a dead person we become a living one…
Salt of the Earth
Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-8, Matthew 5:13-20, Secrets of Heaven #9207:1-2 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo credit: Castorly Stock
I remember, as a child growing up in rural Australia, being involved in a number of tree planting initiatives. It seemed at that point in time, deforestation had led to increased salt levels in the soil, which had decreased the soil’s fertility. The solution was to plant more trees again. My beloved choir teacher had even written a song about it, which still makes me so happy to remember to this day. The words went like this:
We can halt the salt, we can help heal the land
We can plant trees with our own two hands
We can bring back the balance, a little each year
’Til the soil is sweet again, and all the rivers run clear.
It was branded onto my childlike heart, the wonder that I, small as I was, could do something beneficial and important to bring about a common good, and that we could all do it together. I will never ever forget that.
So in that particular context, too much salt in the earth was a bad thing. When Jesus called this followers the “salt of the earth” he was trying to get at something else entirely. Salt is certainly ubiquitous in our lives, and Jesus enjoyed using metaphorical language that employed the everyday. We have come to understand the “salt of the earth” to mean noble, no-nonsense, grounded, hard-working people. And this is basically who Jesus was talking to in this text. He had just begun the Sermon on the Mount, had just blessed the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn, people who normally don’t see themselves as blessed. And then he likened them to a valuable and useful mineral, something that anyone would be delighted to find and use, something of worth. But he also delivered a warning: salt without the quality of saltiness is pointless. It might as well be a random rock. Being “salt of the earth” was not a designation that could be bestowed, it was a quality that needed to be lived, a way of being. Salt isn’t really salt unless it is salt-y.
In the Swedenborgian worldview, salt corresponds to the “affection for truth.” It is old-fashioned phrasing to be sure, but basically, think of that feeling of relief and openness and gratitude and contentment in our minds when something clicks into place and makes sense and we know that it is true. That is a good feeling. We love that feeling. We usually want more of that feeling. Swedenborg calls this drive for wanting more of that feeling the “affection for truth.” The affection for truth simply means the love that we have for things that are true, and more broadly, the love that we have for the notion and the existence of truth itself.
So going further then, Swedenborg tells us that the state of being salted or salty represents the desire truth has for goodness. Swedenborg is nothing if not consistent. He tells us over and over and over again, that truth is not actually true unless it is also good, unless its inherent truthfulness springs from goodness. So, if salt corresponds to loving the truth, having the quality of saltiness corresponds to recognizing how goodness is the soul of truth, how truth is necessarily conjoined to goodness, and that loving what is true must also mean loving what is good.
And because of this, because loving what is true also means loving what is good, that Swedenborg describes salt as representing the conjunctive power of the heavenly marriage, which is the union of love and wisdom in God. He says:
'Salt' receives this meaning from its conjunctive properties; for it makes ingredients all combine and consequently brings out their flavor. (1)
This is one way to think about the so-called conjunctive power of salt, but I cannot also help but think of the chemical make-up of salt. Table salt is the result of the conjunction of two different elements: an atom each of sodium and chlorine. These specific atoms of sodium and chlorine need each other because of an imbalance in their electrons; one has one too many and one has one two few. They conjoin so that they can share an electron, and the force of that sharing (a positive charge and a negative charge coming together) creates a totally new thing: sodium chloride or table salt.
Even in its molecular form, salt models a principle of conjunction, the union of truth and goodness, for together truth and goodness become something whole and useful. Truth alone is like an atom missing an electron, deeply, inherently and desperately incomplete. It yearns for conjunction. So truth cannot just refer to good, or be adjacent to good, but genuine truth fervently wishes to be conjoined to good, to share its life, so that they together may be essentially one thing and one thing only: Truth-that-does-good.
Now, the Sermon on the Mount is not the only time that salt is mentioned in the Bible. There is also plenty of wasteland imagery to be found that speaks to what happens when there is too much salt and nothing can grow. This was the burgeoning reality of my rural homeland (which good people worked very hard to reverse). Swedenborg tells us that the in the contrary sense, salt represents the perversion of the desire for truth, and the consequently destructive desire that falsity has for evil. (2)
Because the reality is that the innate desire we human beings have for knowing can be turned inward. That shining beautiful moment of having things make sense can be addictive, we want to feel that way all the time, we want to claim that we have all the answers, that complete certainty is the only good and that doubt and questioning and nuance are all a sign of weakness and moral relativism.
But, it is an illusion that truth can be grasped and captured and turned into an unshakable certainty that serves to placate our fear of being alone, of being replaced, of being unworthy, of being broken. When truth is used thus, it is emptied of itself, it becomes a shadow, a shell. No matter how logical or sensical it might sound on the outside, truth emptied of good is falsity. It is soul-less. A black hole. A weapon.
This is a love for self, for safety, for superiority, and for power, that is dressed up as a love for truth. As Jesus suggests, it may look like salt but it is no longer salty. It cannot season or preserve, it cannot increase enjoyment or productivity, it is just sharp, spiky, hard and rocky.
And while I take Jesus’ point that such truth has lost its inherently useful quality, ie saltiness, speaking in this way actually downplays the dangerousness of a love for truth that is turned inward. The salt metaphor taken in another direction, the wasteland, as we heard in our Jeremiah reading, brings this home much more potently. Too much salt can lead to the ruination of the land, lays it waste, destroys it, prevents growth, fertility, generativity. Likewise, a grasping, rapacious desire for truth that keeps turning truth inside out like so many empty pockets, searching evermore for something that will finally prove the superiority of our selfhood, that will finally ensure the justification of our transgressions, that will finally erase the need for vulnerability…this desire will destroy everything it comes across, if given its way. This desire wants truth to serve and support power, but it cannot. Truth can only ever, and will only ever, serve love.
We read in Jeremiah… “But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.”
Just as I planted tree after tree in my childhood home, trying to halt the salt, heal the land, and bring back the balance, so we too can strive to love truth in the right way, for the ways that truth grounds us and puts our hands in the dirt, makes us salt of the earth. We can strive to have an affection for truth-that-serves-good, not truth-that-serves-party, not truth-that-serves-power, not truth-that-serves-self-preservation, but truth-that-serves-good.
For we are the trees that will halt the salt, heal the land, bring back the balance. Let us plant ourselves by the Lord’s living water, truths that hydrate and flow, right through our branches and into leaves and fruit and flowers. A bounty of goodness for all.
5 This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in humankind, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD. 6 That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives. 7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. 8 They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Secrets of Heaven #9207:1-2
…The fact that truths perish with those who have no desire for good is evident from what has been stated…regarding goodness and truth when joined together. But something further must be stated regarding that joining together. Truths that have been joined to good always hold within them a desire to do good, and at the same time to be joined more closely to good by doing it. Or what amounts to the same thing, those who possess truths always have a desire to do good and to join it thereby to their truths. People therefore who think that they are in possession of truths but who have no desire to do good do not in fact possess truths; that is, they have no belief in them, however much they imagine they do have.
 Their condition is portrayed by the Lord when He speaks of 'salt', in Matthew 5:13-14…
…By 'the salt of the earth' He means the Church's truth that has a desire for good, and by 'tasteless salt' He means truth devoid of any desire for good. The fact that such truth is worthless is portrayed by the idea of salt which has become tasteless and no longer has any use…
The Road to Emmaus
Readings: Isaiah 42:16-20, Luke 24:13-35, Secrets of Heaven #3863:14 (see below)
See also on Youtube
We hear today about one of the most beloved and detailed post-resurrection appearances: Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We begin the story with two followers of Jesus who are traveling to Emmaus from Jerusalem, after everything had gone down. We don’t know why they were traveling to Emmaus; it was not an especially notable town. Perhaps they were just going home. Along the way, they encounter someone, and here begins the delicious irony. The reader—us—we know something that these two followers do not yet know. The person is Jesus.
Jesus asks them what they are discussing. (The actual Greek is quite charming: it is literally “what are you tossing back and forth between you?”) The two are incredulous — how can this person not know the biggest news of the last few days? Jesus feigns ignorance. What news? So they give him a summary of the easter story that we ourselves have read over the last several weeks. Jesus is bemused, and begins to explain the significance of the events according to Scripture. Yet, still the two remain in the dark. Finally, when they reach the village, they invite Jesus to dine with them, and it is in the moment of breaking bread that their eyes are opened to his identity.
It is such beautiful story-telling. One of the reasons that I believe this story is so beloved is that resonates so fully with our experience. We have all had disappointed hopes, we have all had our expectations dashed, or felt overwhelmed and confused. And we’ve all had moments of being taken by surprise by the in-breaking of the spirit, a moment gone before we knew it was there.
But one of the main things that makes this story so compelling is the mounting irony: we know that Jesus has been resurrected but the disciples don’t recognize him. So, what keeps them from seeing? Well, the text makes pretty clear that it was their expectations kept them from seeing. They say it themselves: “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
They had their own story that they are telling themselves about what happened. They had their own ideas about what Jesus was, and why he had come. And this kept them from seeing Jesus right in front of them. You see, Jesus was the one who was going redeem Israel. Jesus existed for them within their Messiah construct, and that came with certain ideas about what success looked like, and it sure didn’t look like death on the cross. Now, we shouldn’t be too hard on them, when Jesus was crucified and put in a tomb, that really must have seemed like the end, and we in their place, we all have thought so too. But part of Jesus’ whole message was that, if we want to usher in the reality of the kingdom of God, we cannot always trust our own telling of the story. Part of the point of being crucified was to upend human ideas about what is righteous, so that we might learn to depend on God’s telling of the story more than our own.
We too, like the two followers, have stories that we tell ourselves about the way life is. About what has happened to us. About what other people have done, or not done. About what God’s plans are. About what, or who, is good or not good. Yet, our telling of the story will always be formed and marked by our social location, by our expectations, our community formation, and yes, our personal interest. Now that is not bad thing necessarily, in fact, it is kind of unavoidable. We all have our particular viewpoints, we all have our unique experiences. But it *is* important to remember that our story is not the whole or only story. It is important to recognize the existence of a variety of experience, a variety of interpretation, a variety of stories, which means that there is always more to learn. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron likes to say “let the world speak for itself.” She says, “the world doesn’t speak for itself because we are so caught up in our story line…You just keep speaking to yourself, so nothing speaks to you.” (1)
So it is important remember not to get so caught up in crafting our own narrative, so invested in our own story-lines and expectations, that we can’t see what is unfolding right in front of us. We must let God, and the world, speak for itself.
But it is not quite that simple now is it? Because, certainly, our own self-centeredness and our expectations can absolutely get in the way of seeing how God is showing up for us, but is that the only thing that obscures God’s presence? Yes, the disciples had expectations, sure, and they were having a hard time letting go of them, and of what they wanted Jesus to do for *them.* But also, they were sad. They were suffering. They had had good intentions overall and an oppressive regime had crushed their hopes. They were reeling, they were hurting, they were confused and overwhelmed. Like most human beings, their experience was a complicated mish-mash of things that were their fault and things that weren’t, things that were in their control and things were out of their control. People sometimes suffer under things that are not their fault, and this experience can *also* make it hard to see God, to recognize God’s work in our lives. We shouldn’t heap shame upon ourselves when our circumstances…political, economic, biological…all make it hard to feel positive, open and receptive.
And as usual, the Word of God speaks to our human experience in a both/and kind of way. God shows up for us on the road of life no matter what, a companion to our hardest days and our deepest challenges. When everything feels like it has fallen apart, God is there. The text tells us that when Jesus asked what had happened, the disciples “stood still, looking sad.” The simplicity of this description just kills me. Their sadness literally stopped them in their tracks. Certainly there are times when we can all relate to that. A deep deep sadness. God shows up for us in this sadness, or whatever else we are experiencing, unequivocally, and non-judgmentally.
But God shows up with more than companionship. Even in our suffering, the stories that we are telling ourselves matter. God comes to us where we are and introduces the possibility of seeing things differently. Not judging, just gently asking, “hmm, so what happened again?” And listening to the way that we tell it. And then inviting us into a new way of seeing and understanding, if that is what we need.
God understands that we are both products of our environments *and* that we are capable of rising above our environment. When we quiet our litany of desires and interests and expectations, we open ourselves to the possibility that God is welcoming us into a new story. And this new story isn’t always about what we are doing wrong, although it can be. This new story is also sometimes about grace, or realignment, or rest, or forgiveness, or so many other things.
So, what helped the two of them to see? Well, first, they were curious and hospitable. They told their story and Jesus listened to the whole of it. But they didn’t argue the truth of it with him. When Jesus started to explain things to them, they listened, they were open. And then, they offered for Jesus to continue with them. They made space for what was being offered.
Second, they sat down to an ordinary meal and allowed Jesus to be the host in a situation in what he should have been the guest. And what Jesus did was draw their attention to the bread, to the breaking of bread, which is done for the purpose of nourishment. As we learned in our Swedenborg reading, bread represents goodness, represents love. God’s presence with us is most fundamentally grounded and recognizable in acts of service, is most fundamentally accessible and understandable in love that is given freely to one another. Many times our thinking is caught up in questions of what is right or what is best or what is efficient. But are we told that God is found in goodness, not in truth without goodness. All the explanations in the world don’t matter unless they are organized around the question of “how do we serve?” or “how can we bring goodness and love into being?”
The answer we give to these questions will be individually different. If we are already serving a lot, it might be loving to serve our own health for a while. If we are spending a lot of energy in trying to figure out how to serve in the best possible way, it might be loving to just serve in the one way that we can today. And of course, if we have privilege of some kind, it certainly might be loving to use that privilege for the sake of others. The key is, God is recognizable in love that is shared, in power that is relinquished, in concern that is extended. And this is why Jesus disappeared from sight, because God is seen in the moment that we give something away. Personally, I don’t love this idea. I want to hold on to God! But this comes from my own fear of scarcity. When we recognize what this story is telling us, that God is present and recognizable in each tiny ordinary bread-crumb moment of love and goodness, then we realize that God is all around us, all the time, and always will be.
(1) Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, p30
16 And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them. 17 They shall be turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in graven images, who say to molten images, "You are our gods." 18 Hear, you deaf; and look, you blind, that you may see! 19 Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the LORD? 20 He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear.
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, "What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cle'opas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" 19 And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning 23 and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see." 25 And he said to them, "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. 28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, 29 but they constrained him, saying, "Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, 34 who said, "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Secrets of Heaven 3863:
It came to pass when Jesus sat down with them, that He took the bread, and blessed, and breaking, gave to them; and their eyes were opened, and they knew Him (Luke 24:30-31);
by which was signified that the Lord appears by good, but not by truth without good, for "bread" is the good of love. From these and other passages it is evident that "seeing," in the internal sense, signifies faith from the Lord, for there is no other faith which is faith than that which comes from the Lord. This also enables a person to "see," that is, to believe; but faith from self, or from what is a person's own, is not faith, for it causes them to see falsities as truths, and truths as falsities; and if they see truths as truths, still they do not see, because they do not believe, for they see themselves in them, and not the Lord.
Readings: Isaiah 42:5-9, John 20:1-18, True Christianity #109 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Happy Easter everyone! As I was thinking about this sermon this past week, I realized that there were to two particular things that I wanted to emphasize: the symbolism of the empty tomb and how that connects to grace.
In the internal sense of the Word, in the Swedenborgian symbolic worldview, a grave or a tomb or a sepulcher, any burial place really, actually symbolizes the opposite: life, renewal, regeneration. From Secrets of Heaven:
The reason it means life…is that angels, who possess the internal sense of the Word, have no other concept of a grave, because they have no other concept of death. Consequently instead of a grave they perceive nothing else than the continuation of life, and so resurrection… Now because 'burial' means resurrection, it also means regeneration, since regeneration is the primary resurrection of a person, for when regenerated they die as regards their former self and rise again as regards the new.(1)
I just want to sit with this for moment so that it can really sink in. I know that one of the reasons that I really love being with people who are new to Swedenborg is that I get to see the tradition and the teachings with new eyes. I’ve grown up in the faith, and it has always been the air that I breathe, so sometimes the really simple teachings lose their power. Sort of like this Easter teaching. Anyone in the Christian world is already familiar with it; the fundamental recognition that someone that we thought was dead becomes alive. And for Swedenborgians…yes yes, the tomb actually symbolizes life and regeneration, got it. Cool.
But…wait a minute. What this is actually saying to us is enormous. For, as Swedenborgians we believe that this cosmic meaning is more than just an interesting metaphor. We believe that this symbolism of words and concepts and things is what actually binds heaven and earth together, binds spirit and flesh together. So it is not just that Jesus’ tomb meant life for him, or even that Jesus tomb means life for us, it is that the whole notion of death/tomb/burial/ending/loss/suffering, that whole notion, in whatever way it comes it us in our lives, in whatever way we recognize it or experience it, this notion is connected spiritually to its opposite: life/renewal/regeneration/growth.
And I think it is important to recognize that this is not a connection that *we* have to make, through either goodness or progressive enlightenment. This is a connection that exists. God made it so. God gifted this to us. God made a loving universe in which the potential for goodness and growth exists in everything. I can’t think of a single other gift that is more important. Everything which we experience as unpleasant, no matter how small or large, no matter the kind of suffering, God has arranged the universe so that these things are fundamentally spiritually connected to that which is growing and renewing and living, all the time, every time, no exceptions. We really do not need to be afraid, ever. Oh we will be, and that’s totally okay. But, because of God there is nothing in the universe, no condition of fear or loss or overwhelm, that exists just purely as itself. There is no black hole of suffering that does not, potentially, come out the other side without some sliver of new life, new truth, new compassion, new understanding.
This means that God has our back in the most fundamental way. God can’t live our life for us, but God has arranged it so goodness and love and growth always have the last word, somehow, someway, somewhere.
And we see this borne out in the Easter story. As Jesus, God is reaching out and demonstrating this fundamental principle in a personal and embodied way, showing us that, yes, there will be loss, there will be death, and it will happen in the most unfair, evil, and shameful ways. That it will seem like empire, dominion, selfishness and cowardice (in ourselves and in others) will take the day. But Jesus rises from the tomb. There will be life, there will always be life because God has not left us alone with our suffering.
A simple but gorgeous truth. It seems like I know it and don’t know it all at once. It seems too simple. And it is exactly what I would want and expect a God of love to do.
But even this most lovely truth…well, human beings will weaponize it to hurt ourselves. Sometimes because our Lord conquered death so completely, rose so completely, even as to his body, as we read in our Swedenborg reading…because it was so complete a resurrection, we might feel that anything other than a complete resurrection in ourselves is a failure. If we don’t make the most delicious lemonade out of our lemons. If we don’t learn some amazing life lesson from our loss. If we don’t emerge from our suffering triumphant, changed, better.
The truth is though, the process is not often quite so neat. Our resurrections can sometimes feel barely grasped, scrabbly and wispy, and not enough, not nearly enough. Our resurrections can sometimes feel late to the party, or like they took the very very scenic route. They can be partial, they can be incremental, they can be incredibly hard won. Jesus was never supposed to be model but an inspiration. Our Lord wasn’t saying what should be so, but was revealing a potential that exists, revealing a gift and a grace that exists. In Swedenborgian speak, God works all the way to the ultimates, redeeming the whole of what can be redeemed and leaving nothing behind, so that the potential for redemption for us and the world and everything in it is always completely possible.
And because of this potential for redemption, there is often a lot of talk about belief around Easter. The traditional Christian notion has been that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross makes God’s grace accessible to us. And certainly, being open to the import of Jesus life, death and resurrection *can* be transformational to our ways of thinking and being. But, the Swedenborgian tradition rejects the transactional nature of the belief for grace equation. We rather subscribe to a kind of naturalized grace, a grace as described earlier that is built into the structure of the universe, that flows out unimpeded from God’s being. And so often times, we don’t even speak of grace at all, firstly because it doesn’t always mean the same thing to us as it does to other traditions, and second, because it is so foundational, it is built into the notion of a loving God, it is a given.
And yet, sometimes when we don’t speak of it, we forget about it. In times of anxiety and uncertainty, when we are all just doing our best, but we are exhausted, afraid, disillusioned, and just barely keeping it together, this is exactly when we need to remember God’s naturalized grace, in the times when we are having trouble believing in it.
Because this is the actual gift. We don’t even have to fully believe in God’s naturalized grace, we don’t even need to believe that God can actually bring something good out of suffering. Our belief isn’t what makes it true. God’s love makes it true. Certainly, our beliefs have some relationship to what we see and what we are open to. Certainly, our partnership and engagement has some relationship to what comes into being for us. But it is also true that God’s power is not limited by our consciousness. Even in our darkest, lowest, doubting times, resurrection happens anyway. It happens with or without us, because God made the universe that way.
I’ve always enjoyed the quote: Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection(2). I don’t see this grace as a condescension or as pity, as “oh honey, maybe you’ll get it right next time” but rather it is a face full of hope and confidence because of the way God has designed the world, and us. Grace is an announcement of a pre-ordained newness, like the power and potential that exists in every seed, a quiet and serene and explosive power, waiting inside each breath, each moment, and circling back evermore as an offering to us, God’s beloved.
See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.
5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
True Christianity 109
The Lord's process of glorification was a transformation of the human nature that he took on in the world. The transformed human nature of the Lord is the divine physical form. A proof of this is that the Lord rose from the tomb with the whole body he had had in the world. Nothing was left in the tomb. Therefore he took with him from the tomb every aspect of his earthly human form. This is why after the resurrection he said to disciples who thought they were seeing a spirit, "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Feel me and see; for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have" (Luke 24:37, 39).
Sitting Under the Broom Tree
Readings: I Kings 19:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #5036:2-3 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Sometimes it can be hard to relate to the Bible. Without historical context, many of the stories seem strange to us. But chapter 19 in I Kings is one of those chapters in which the millennia that separate us and the time it was written just fall away. Who cannot resonate with the heart of Elijah’s experience? We may not personally be under threat of an evil queen, we may not have a wilderness to which we might flee or a broom bush under which we might pray. But we know what it is to feel like there is something that might destroy our life or happiness, some loss that will devastate us. We know what it is to feel like to need to run away. We know what it is to say: “I have had enough, Lord.” We know that feeling of weariness, emptiness, and aloneness.
These feelings are a part of being a human being, experiences that we particularly try not to shy away from during the season of Lent. Jesus felt all these things too, in the garden of Gethsemane, on the cross, in being rejected by his hometown, in all those times the disciples just could not understand what he was trying to do. These are truths of our human experience; they are real and we honor how difficult they are.
The Swedenborgian notion of temptation is a little more robust than our current cultural one, which generally seems to be about either seduction or an irresistible piece of chocolate cake. But really, true temptation is nothing other than a situation that exposes a challenge to our spiritual or moral conscience. We might just call it “spiritual struggle.” We come across these situations all the time, in lesser and greater forms, whereby we experience varying levels of agitation, confusion, sadness and anger. There are too many examples of spiritual struggle to list, and all of them deeply personal. We can all remember times we have been tempted to walk by, withhold love, give up hope, discount ourselves, make an assumption, lash out, close our eyes to what is important. We think of Elijah, standing up to to an evil regime, but empty, afraid, not sure what to do next or how to move forward, doubting that anything he did mattered. This is temptation and it isn’t fun.
Not that it is much of a comfort in the moment, but it is through these experiences of temptation that we are forged, that we are propelled forward in our spiritual journey. Through them we shed notions and ideas that do not serve love, we let go of desires or fears that hold us back from doing good in the world. Temptations of many kinds are necessary, so that we might become progressively more heavenly.
But they are difficult and challenging work, and in those times when we are consumed by our own feelings, when it feels like we are fighting for survival, it can be hard to notice how God and angels are present with us. It might feel like God is absent, even though we know that God is always with us and never withdraws. This is okay. Angels have nothing but compassion for us in this state. There is nothing we can do that would make them leave, for they have been through all of it just as we have, and they know how hard it is.
But even more, our angels, the ones who connect us to heavenly influence, are not simply passive during times of temptation. As we heard in Swedenborg reading, angels and spirits are connected to our thoughts and feelings. When our selfish feelings and our false thoughts are in conflict with our caring feelings and true thoughts, then the spirits and angels with us are in conflict as well. Our angels are fighting for us, and defend us from within.
But what is most amazing is that the angels are not only fighting for us as we are now, they are fighting for who they know we can become. As we heard in our reading: The angels present with us see spiritual concerns within our natural ones since our interiors at this time are open towards heaven. The angels know something about us more deeply than we ourselves yet know it. The angels see us truly, what we truly want but can’t yet see, they see the best of us and they draw that forth and protect it. What faith! Within our earthly concerns they see the infinite and eternal, they see the heart of the matter, even if we are yet to discern it. They see our yearning and our deepest hoping, they see the cracks where the light can get in, they see our openness and they fight for it, even as we fail and stumble and fall.
And so, when finding ourselves in our wilderness times, underneath our broom tree, ready to give up, what do the angels suggest to Elijah? To take a nap and find something to eat. And then to listen to the still small voice. They show up where we are, and help us to be open to what we need. A gentle help, small nudges, designed to fortify our own resilience, courage and groundedness.
As we learned last week, we are not generally supposed to be able to feel our connection to spirit in a way that encroaches on our freedom.(1) Sure, it might seem like it would be comforting to have a literal angel by our side all the time, giving us whatever we need, or an angel showing up in times of challenge to give just the right advice, but the nature of that kind of occurrence can also be somewhat coercive. We are not supposed to feel the connection in a way that gives us no choice in acknowledging it. The natural power and transcendence of spiritual reality cannot help but naturally influence us, and might well force us into belief, erasing our ability to doubt, and the ability to doubt is very important for our spiritual process. So God has ordained that heavenly spiritual influence should be gentle in nature. But when something is gentle, it is easy to ignore, easy to miss.
We see that the angels first minister to Elijah’s physical needs, and so too, in our times of challenge, we can ask, is there a pause or a renewal that we require? We are not machines. Many times our challenges look different on the other side of sleep, or meditation, or a walk, or time outside, or a proper meal. About this time last year, we did a sermon series on the Seven Types of Rest, seven types of renewal that are important to make time for.
Next, we can ask ourselves if something is getting in the way. Our angels can only work with what we give them. If we are making choices that are unhelpful and unkind, if we are entertaining and defending false notions, and if we do these things to serve our own selfhood and self-preservation, it is harder for angels to be present and useful to us. Our times of spiritual struggle are sometimes an indication that we have some untangling to do, some unhooking of unhelpful ideas from our self-identity for example, or perhaps noting what ideas might make us act in unkind ways, including towards ourselves.
We note that even when Elijah regained his strength to journey again, he then spent the night in a cave. Swedenborg writes that being in a cave is a representation of being enveloped in false ideas and that in particular, in times of temptation, it represents false ideas that are obscuring something good, some good thing we are trying to reach.(2)
In that cave, God’s voice delivers the all-important question: What are you doing here, Elijah? How is being in this cave serving you, Elijah? On the internal level, the question begs us to do as the angels are already doing for us, to focus on our allegiance to divine love, and to come out of the cave, to come out of whatever false idea is holding us back.
Including, how God ought to show up. For Elijah, God was not in the earthquake, or the great wind, or the fire. The voice that finally, fully, pulls Elijah out of the cave was a small whisper, Swedenborg writes that “Divine Good and Divine Truth on the highest levels are peaceful and altogether without any agitation(3)”
This is what our angels are guiding us towards in our times of struggle. A peaceful connection to our God, one that is open and listening and ready to step out of the cave. They bring us food and water, love and insight, nourishment for the journey. They believe in us. They say: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” They don’t fix our problems for us, but they give us the sustenance to make it to the mountain of God. And most of the time we don’t even know they are doing it. For this we give thanks.
I Kings 19:1-13
1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” 3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
9 There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Secrets of Heaven #5036:2,3
As for temptations themselves, they are going on while a person is in the actual process of being regenerated, for no one can be regenerated unless they also undergo temptations…In temptation the person is brought into a state in which the evil that possesses them, that is, possesses their own essential self, is dominant. Once they enter this state evil and hellish spirits surround them, and when they realize that inwardly a person is protected by angels those evil spirits reactivate the false ideas a person has previously contemplated and the evil deeds a person has committed. But the angels defend us from within. This conflict is what a person experiences as temptation, yet the experience is so vague that we are aware of it as scarcely anything more than a feeling of anxiety…a battle is taking place at such a time over us and our eternal salvation, with both sides using what is within us; for both draw on what resides with a person and engage in conflict over it.
 As stated, temptations arise primarily when a person is becoming spiritual, for at that time they are gaining a spiritual understanding of the truths of doctrine. The person themself is often unaware that this is happening; even so, the angels present with them see spiritual concerns within their natural ones since their interiors at this time are open towards heaven.
Those Who Are With Us
Readings: Psalm 103:1-2, 13-14, 20-22, 2 Kings 6:8-17, Secrets of Heaven #5992:1,3 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Dakota Lim on Unsplash
Our text for today, one of the stories of the prophet Elisha, is powerful. When we are in moments of fear or anxiety, how comforting it would be to have our eyes be opened to an army of angels helping us! Fear and anxiety are compounded by feelings of aloneness, our own abilities and competencies and agency made smaller by a sense of being isolated. Conversely, our courage is often bolstered by togetherness and solidarity, by knowing that there are people in our corner. So this story resonates, especially after the last few years. We yearn to know that we stand in the company of those who have our best interests at heart.
This reality is reflected in our Swedenborg reading for today. We may not literally find ourselves facing an army but all battles in the Bible can metaphorically speak to the battles of our minds and spirits. In those moments, we might also know that we are not alone. As we heard in our reading, angels from the Lord lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant, and they do this out of love for us, for nothing gives them greater joy. Inside every second of our lives, we will find fellowship, we will find encouragement, freely given. Two implications of this teaching strike me as interesting and poignant.
First, we often resonate with the idea of our loved ones being angels who are with us, that they might visit us, or that we might feel their presence with us. This is certainly possible, and lovely, and something that many people experience.
Or we might think of the powerful verse from the book of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us… (12:1-2).
These verses refer to those who have acted with courage and suffered on account their faith in the past, who now stand in solidarity with the early Christians to whom the letter was written. Again, an inspiring and beautiful scene not unlike the story about Elisha; we all look to people from history who have inspired us, whether they be well known or not, and it gives us courage to imagine that they stand with us now.
But Swedenborg doesn’t specifically speak of our guardian angels in either of those terms. Regardless of our family connections in this world, of who we loved in the world and who loved us, each human being is connected to and protected by angels from the moment of their birth, but not necessarily angels who knew us, and not necessarily angels who have done something amazing or exemplary in this world. They are simply people like us, who lived a good life, who have done days and years worth of dishes, who breathed approximately 500 million breaths, who messed up and apologized and tried to do better, who lost and learned and prayed and ate and slept. These people, now in the spiritual world, their hearts and minds voluntarily refined by the work of love, have turned around to focus on helping us.
And I don’t know about you, but it kind of blows my mind that there are people who are fighting for me who I do not know, or might never know. As we remember, angels are not some specially created race of beings so pure and good that *of course* they would support us and look after us. No. As we learn from Swedenborg, as we sense in our hearts, angels are ordinary human beings who are now in the spiritual realm, who have chosen to fight for you and me, who delight in every small victory, who believe in us more than we could ever believe in ourselves. We might expect this of a parent, a sibling, a friend…but from someone we have never known? What an unfathomable gift of grace, of confidence, and of love. How could we ever deserve it? We don’t. It’s not about deserving. Angels delight in seeing the image of God in us, revel in our essential worthiness, and what’s more, they *believe* in our worthiness, deeply and unreservedly, now and forever, without ever having known us in the world. Good Lord, how could we ever accept this is true? It is a gift beyond comprehension.
And yet, this is the kind of universe that God has built. A universe that runs on connectedness with each other. A universe that is constructed so that it draws its strength and endurance from an intimate and co-responding relationship between heaven and earth. It is just a matter of course, that in this kind of universe, each us would be lovingly held within such a web of care.
The second thing that I find so fascinating is *how* angels guard and protect us. We often think of protection in terms of a barrier, like a windshield on a car or a railing on a balcony.
But consider this passage from Swedenborg’s Secrets of Heaven:
A considerable amount of experience has proved the truth of this to me. For I have noticed that when evil spirits have thrust evils and falsities at me, the angels from the Lord present at the time have maintained in me the truths implanted in me previously and have thereby withheld me from those evils and falsities. From this it has also been evident that the truths of faith which, through an affection for truth, have become rooted in me serve as a level into which angels can operate…(1)
From this seems that angels do not bat away challenges like tennis balls or fend off raindrops like an umbrella. Their protection consists in the empowerment of ourselves. The protection of angels is to remind us what we believe in. The protection of angels is to strengthen us in what we know to be right and good and true, so that then we can choose to act on our own.
So, an example: we might have committed ourselves to a life guided by empathy and non-judgment. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes, or even often, instinctively judge people before knowing them, perhaps by their appearance or some other small or external thing. We might find ourselves already doing it before we even know it. And then we catch ourselves. That moment when we catch ourselves unfairly judging, that moment when we are reminded of what is important to us and how we wish to live our lives…this is our angels protecting us. Protecting us by reminding us who we are and what is important to us. What we decide to do with that information is our choice. How we interpret and employ that remembrance is up to us.
And, of course, it is not one and done. We are going to mess up again in the very same way. Like in meditation, when our awareness has wandered and we are ask ourselves to gently and without judgment return our awareness to our breath, so too our angels remind us to return to ourselves. We are going to have to do it again and again and again. But this is how a heavenly nature is built, through intention, sacrifice, forgiveness and persistence. Our angels walk us through this cycle as many times as we need.
And on the outside, that might seem like weak sauce to a world that believes that protection is about big strong actions. But, I actually cannot think of anything more powerful or loving. Angels have no interest in protecting us in ways that disempower us, or dis-incentivize us, or infantilize us. Yes, they love us but they love our freedom and our developing journey just as much. This is a mature love, a risky kind of love, a respectful and pragmatic love. And it is a love in which we must participate: a co-responding and reciprocal melding of heart and spirit.
And so, as we spiral along on our journeys, so too our angels spiral with us, protecting us by calling forth our own irrepressible humanity, our own hopefulness. No matter how deeply buried it might be, they will find it, for they know beyond a doubt that it is there.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #5893:3
Psalm 103:1-2, 13-14, 20-22
1 Praise the LORD, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who revere him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
20 Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. 21 Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. 22 Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, my soul.
2 Kings 6:8-17
8 Now the king of Aram was at war with Israel. After conferring with his officers, he said, “I will set up my camp in such and such a place.” 9 The man of God sent word to the king of Israel: “Beware of passing that place, because the Arameans are going down there.” 10 So the king of Israel checked on the place indicated by the man of God. Time and again Elisha warned the king, so that he was on his guard in such places. 11 This enraged the king of Aram. He summoned his officers and demanded of them, “Tell me! Which of us is on the side of the king of Israel?” 12 “None of us, my lord the king,” said one of his officers, “but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.” 13 “Go, find out where he is,” the king ordered, “so I can send men and capture him.” The report came back: “He is in Dothan.” 14 Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city. 15 When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked. 16 “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Secrets of Heaven #5992:1, 3
[Regarding] The angels through whom the Lord leads and also protects a person…Their function is to impart charity and faith, to notice the direction in which the person's delights turn, and to modify and bend those delights towards what is good, so far as they can do so in the person's freedom. The angels are forbidden to act in any violent manner and thereby crush a person's evil desires and false assumptions; they must act gently…
 In particular the angels call forth the forms of good and truth residing with a person and set them opposite the evils and falsities activated by the evil spirits. As a result the person is in the middle and is not conscious of the evil or of the good; and being in the middle they are in freedom to turn towards one or towards the other. Angels from the Lord employ means like these to lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant. For if the angels were to let up merely for a single moment the person would be plunged into evil from which after that they cannot possibly be brought out. The angels are motivated to do all this by a love they receive from the Lord, for nothing gives them greater delight and happiness than to remove evils from a person and lead them to heaven. This is their joy. Scarcely anyone believes the Lord has that kind of concern for a person, a constant concern lasting from the very beginning of a person's existence to the final moment of their life, and for evermore after that.
Coming Out of the Ark
Readings: Genesis 8:1-5, 13-19, Matthew 11:25-20, Secrets of Heaven #905 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Flo Maderebner from Pexels
There is a story about Swedenborg that is beloved by his followers. It goes like this: A young girl who grew up in Swedenborg’s neighborhood kept asking him to show her an angel. So one day, he agreed, and took her inside his summer-house and placed her in front of a curtain. He said, “Now you shall see an angel,” and drew the curtain aside, revealing a mirror in which the girl could see her own reflection.(1)
This charming anecdote gets at the heart of Swedenborg’s optimistic and humane theology. He says many times during his works, all human beings are born for heaven. Yes, we have to make the conscious choice to follow that path, but it is nonetheless God’s intention for all of us. Contrast this with the vision of Jonathan Edwards, an American preacher of the same period, who preached a famous sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” whereby he described each of us being as spiders held by a slender thread over the pit of hell by a wrathful God who abhors us, and that it is God’s hand alone that prevents our burning forever.
Certainly, Edwards must have imagined that the specter of such a fate would provoke a necessary anxiety in his listeners, so that they might surrender to God’s grace. Fear persuades. We know this not only from religion but from politics, advertising, and from our own lives. But fear can only take us so far. It can motivate external action, but it cannot create a heavenly internal, a heart built on the stuff of heaven: mutual love. Mutual love can only be embraced through the relinquishment of fear, of self-preservation, of resentment. We can only love when we make ourselves vulnerable, make ourselves empty of our presumptions, and trust in a God who desires our eternal happiness above all.
Swedenborg’s positive vision includes such a God, one that begins with the assumption of our belovedness, not our sinfulness. This can be such an important grounding or counter-point to hold on to, as we bravely encounter the necessary reflection involved in the season of Lent. Lent is about being committed to loving the truth, even when that truth indicates we need to change. It is about being devoted to learning how to love others, even if that means hearing what we don’t want to hear. It is about trusting that the faithful practice of self-relinquishment means that the vision of our true angelic selfhood in that mirror will become ever clearer.
As Swedenborg puts it, Lent is about “finding the power to resist love for ourselves and love of the world and preventing those loves from taking control.”(2) It is simple but its not small. It is straightforward but it is not easy. The work continues throughout our lives because the way to heaven is not a test, but a journey. And the central question of that journey is not so much “What do I need to do to become an angel?” The question is: “How free do I want to be?”
We heard in our text today about the moment that Noah and his family and all the animals were finally able to leave the ark. They had been set afloat and tossed around by the floodwaters for almost a year, and finally the waters had receded.
And we note from our Swedenborg reading that leaving the ark symbolizes the freedom that occurs when we open ourselves the the presence of God. I quote: The more present the Lord is, the freer we are. In other words, the more we love goodness and truth, the more freely we act.
The world, our egos, have plenty to say about who we are and who we should be. The influences of hell piggyback on these messages we receive, intent on subjugating and dominating us, decreasing our sense of hope and possibility. We hear: you are not enough, you are too much, you need to look this way, own this thing, choose this product. We hear: you shouldn’t help them, it’s not your responsibility, it’s a hoax, it’s fake news, you should be very scared. We hear: you must control this, we must control them, own them, destroy them, get your way, get all the power, never apologize. We hear: your anxiety will prevent it, your disowning them will teach them, be small, be quiet, close your eyes, scroll your phone. And so we remain surrounded by the flood water, gulping for breath, splashed and sprayed and shivering, in an ark only three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high, when instead we could be living in the whole wide world.
The more we buy into what hell is selling us, the smaller and more cramped our world will be. But, the more we love goodness and truth, the more freely we act. The more we love goodness and truth, the more we are brought into the influence of the Lord and the angels. We read further:
But once a person has been set free, that is, been regenerated, they are led by the Lord through angels so gently that no yoke or dominion exists at all, for they are being led by what is joyful and pleasing, they are being loved, and they are being shown respect.(3)
The influence of hell means only to make us nothing, and out of that nothing to have us strike out, and plunder, and scream, so to fill a void that can never be filled, to make ever more minuscule a selfhood that knows it was made for love, and to make ever larger a selfhood that is captive to avarice and superiority and fear. This is a desperate search for freedom that has instead settled on a lack of restraint.
The influence of heaven, however, is not undergirded by domination but by love and respect. The irony is that hell would have us be nothing as an insult, to break us down, but heaven would have us be nothing so that there is room for us to learn how beloved we are. The more present the Lord is the freer we are.
Now it might not always feel that way. As we grapple with the complexities of our lives, as the good choice, the right choice, becomes less and less obvious in an inter-connected and inter-dependent world, we might well feel less free, more confused, increasingly ambivalent. This is of course, normal and reasonable. Freedom is not the same thing as decisiveness or clarity. Freedom is not the same thing as ease or flow. Freedom is simply about having the ability to choose who we will serve in any given moment. Freedom is about letting God pull back the curtain from the mirror and seeing our reflection there, and then really believing that it is us, that it is our future, and our present. When we believe that this true, when we know that it is so, the stakes change. We are no longer trying to be good enough, but to live into what is already true about us, into what God has already ordained for us. And on this road, even our flaws and our mistakes become a pathway for learning, a way to embrace a blessed emptiness into which God pours a love that rebuilds us.
Genesis 8:1-5, 13-19
1 But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. 2 Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. 3 The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, 4 and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5 The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.
13 By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. 14 By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. 17 Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.” 18 So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. 27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Secrets of Heaven #905
'Going out of the ark' symbolizes freedom…The time that Noah spent in the ark, surrounded by flood water, symbolized being in captivity — that is, being tossed about by evil and falsity or, what amounts to the same thing, by the evil spirits who spark our spiritual struggles. From this it follows that leaving the ark symbolizes freedom.
The Lord's presence involves freedom; the one is a consequence of the other. The more present the Lord is, the freer we are. In other words, the more we love goodness and truth, the more freely we act. That is the nature of the Lord's influence, coming by way of angels.
Hell's influence, on the other hand, coming by way of evil spirits, brings with it the forceful effort to dominate. Those spirits connive at nothing else than to put us so completely under their yoke that we become nothing and they become everything. When they are everything, then we are one of them — and hardly even one of them, but like a nobody in their eyes.
Consequently when the Lord is freeing a person from their yoke and dominion, conflict arises. But once a person has been set free, that is, been regenerated, they are led by the Lord through angels so gently that no yoke or dominion exists at all, for they are being led by what is joyful and pleasing, they are being loved, and they are being shown respect. This is what the Lord teaches in Matthew,
My yoke is easy, and My burden is light. Matthew 11:30.