The Tabernacle of God
Exodus 40:16-38 Moses sets up the tabernacle
"Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle." (Exodus 40:34)
This is a happy day, both for the Bridgewater New Church and for me. We are starting a new relationship that was long awaited on both sides. For me, it has been a journey of twenty-five years or more from the time I first began looking toward ministry as a young boy to the time in which I now stand before you, beginning my ordained ministry as your pastor. To say that I am happy to be here would be an understatement. I am overjoyed to be here, and I thank the Lord for leading me in his own way toward this day.
For this church, in a sense, today represents the completion of the rebuilding after the fire. I know there is still no steeple and the organ has yet to be rebuilt-and there are many more things to be done for the building and grounds. But there is a completion on a level deeper than that of physical buildings and property. This church community has come together around the rebuilding of its church not simply to have a building, but so that this church could continue to serve the Lord by providing a spiritual home for its members, both old and new, and showing the Lord's love through service to the surrounding communities. In that human and spiritual sense, the rebuilding of this church is completed today. With a solid, caring, and committed fellowship of members and the beginning of the first pastorate after the fire, this church is ready to provide a new spiritual home to its members and offer a fuller measure of spiritual service to the community.
Our reading from Exodus captures the spirit of this moment. As we read through the details of all the different parts of the tabernacle that Moses set up at the command of God, it becomes almost monotonous. In fact, I spared you the full details of the building of the temple, since it would have taken up most of our service just to read them all! I suspect that for the last two years, some of you have felt the same way Moses may have felt-as if this rebuilding would keep going and going and going and going and going. It is easy to get lost in the continual grind of tasks and details that must be taken care of in such a big project as rebuilding the church.
Yet for Moses there was a completion similar to the one this church is experiencing right now. We read that when Moses finished the work of setting up the tabernacle, "the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle."
What is this glory of the Lord that fills the tabernacle? For the Israelites it was a cloud over the tabernacle during the daytime, with fire in the cloud at night. This was a highly visible sign of the Lord's presence for all the people to see. For us the glory of the Lord has a different meaning. (Come to think of it, we do have clouds over the church today, but somehow they just don't seem to be the same...)
Swedenborg explains that for us, the glory of the Lord has at least two meanings. In a very deep sense, the Lord's glory means the divine truth that comes from the Lord. This church has maintained a strong commitment to the divine truth in the form of the Bible and the teachings of the New Jerusalem church. One of the things that attracted me to this particular church was that I knew that here I could preach and teach from the Bible and from the writings of Swedenborg, and that would be exactly what the members of the church wanted.
This is the glory of the Lord shining out in this church. The teachings of our church are very precious. They provide a depth of understanding and insight to satisfy the most ardent seeker after truth. Yet they also offer a directness and simplicity to satisfy the youngest of children, as well as all that is simple and childlike in each of us. And they give us comfort and support to help us through all the traumas, depressions, and difficult changes that we face in our lives. The teachings of our church are bright sunlight shining from above; they are cool and refreshing water-living water flowing from the Lord; they are a chest full of gleaming jewels; a solid rock that we can plant our feet on and know that this rock will not move, because it is the Lord's divine truth.
Swedenborg points to another meaning of "the glory of the Lord" as well. "In a representative sense," he says, "'glory' means the goodness of love toward our neighbor, or kindness." I puzzled over what he meant when he said that this was the meaning of glory in a representative sense. After a while, I came up with an answer. I don't know if it is what Swedenborg intended, but it seems to work for our purposes, so I'm going to charge right ahead.
We can't always speak the Lord's truth as we understand it directly to the people we see each day. People have their own ideas, and they may or may not be interested in hearing our version of spiritual reality. However, we can always be a representative of the spiritual truth that the Lord has given us to understand.
How can we do this? We can begin by following Jesus' example in boiling down all the Law and the Prophets into two simple commandments: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind," and "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 22:37, 39) This is divine truth in a nutshell!
When we act from the goodness of love toward our neighbor by showing them kindness, we are representing the Lord's divine truth through our lives. In this way, we can show people our truth without having to tell it to them in words.
This is where our reading from Luke comes in. When Jesus sent out seventy disciples to every town and place where he intended to go, he did give them something to preach: that "the kingdom of God has come near to you." But he did not stop there. He also told them to cure the sick who were there. The seventy did not simply say that the kingdom of God had come, they showed by their healing actions that it had come.
In his recent book Further Along the Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck paints a scenario for how early Christianity spread so quickly. It was a rough world in those days. There weren't support groups and agencies to take care of all kinds of human needs. People struggled along, often barely keeping body and soul together-and sometimes not managing to do even that.
But the early Christians lived by the Lord's saying that we should love one another, just as he loves us. They got together and shared their faith and their burdens. They laughed together and cried together. They had joyful suppers together, and gathered regularly to pray and praise the Lord. How could this not be attractive to people? As Scott Peck said, people walking by in the street would see these people gathered together sharing love, and they would say to themselves, "I don't know what they're doing, but I want to be part of it!"
We don't live in such rough times materially. Even spiritually we have made great progress since the dark days when the Lord came to earth to bring light again. Yet there are still many people seeking something more for their lives; there are still many people suffering under heavy and painful burdens. We have many of the same human situations today that existed in the world of the early Christians. If we love our neighbors as ourselves, our love will just as attractive today as it was nearly two thousand years ago. Some of the people we show love and kindness to will want to know where we get it from. Then we can show them.
At first, our two readings this morning may not have seemed to go together. One is the story of the completion of the ancient Jewish tabernacle. The other is the story of Jesus sending out seventy disciples to preach the good news and heal the sick. But really, they are both about the same thing. The purpose for building the tabernacle is the same as the purpose for rebuilding this church. It is to serve as a center from which we can bring the good news to our community in both words and actions.
These two stories express my vision for this church as I begin to serve here as your pastor. I think it is the same vision you as a congregation expressed to me as we explored the possibilities for my serving here. Our shared vision is of the glory of the Lord filling this renewed church and overflowing into the surrounding community. It is the glory of the new truth that the Lord has revealed to us in the Bible through the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. And it is the glory of rising up as a church to love our neighboring communities just as we love each other in our own church community.
If we can find it in our hearts and minds to follow this vision, then whatever our membership numbers may be and whatever our financial situation may be at any moment, we cannot fail as a church, because we will be doing the Lord's work. Indeed, if we do the Lord's work in this way-with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind-we cannot help but grow, both spiritually and in numbers.
As we begin this new relationship, I offer to join with you in making this vision a reality. Our numbers may be small, but the Lord started with only twelve disciples, and look what happened! The same love and commitment that rebuilt this church building can also build up this church until it is a powerful center of Christian healing and growth for its surrounding communities.
It will take time. It will take commitment from all of us. But it is a vision of the church that the Lord holds out to us. If it is what we want, the Lord will give us the power and the wisdom to bring it to fruition.
This is the vision symbolized by the building of the tabernacle of God. It is a vision so central to our church that it is written in golden letters that arch over my head in this chancel. The letters were not destroyed by the fire, just as the vision of this church was not destroyed by the fire. The full verse from the book of Revelation reads: "Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God." Amen.