The New World. . . of Spirit
A Columbus Day Sermon
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 12, 1997
Deuteronomy 2:31-36 Conquering the land of
John 14:15-21 I will give you another counselor: the Spirit of truth
Arcana Coelestia #1408.3 The Lord never is angry, punishes, or kills
will ask the Father, and he will give you another counselor to be with you
forever: the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him because it neither
sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in
you. (John 14:16, 17)
week I put together the November issue of Our Daily Bread, on the topic
"Divine Providence." One of the quotes from Swedenborg that I used was
this one from Arcana Coelestia, taken from a conversation between
Swedenborg and some angels:
angels confirmed the idea that there is no such thing as chance. What seems to
happen by chance or fortune is providence at work on the lowest level of the
universal order, in which all things are relatively inconstant. (Arcana
leads me to believe that God has a strange sense of humor. Today we welcome to
our church Adam Seward, a student at the Swedenborg School of Religion who will
be doing a Field Education placement with us this year. Adam's heritage includes
Native American ancestry. He has brought to the church a Native American
perspective on our Swedenborgian teachings.
God's strange sense of humor comes in is that this weekend is also Columbus Day
weekend. Columbus Day is a holiday for many Americans; but many Native Americans
see it as a day of mourning. For people of European ancestry, Columbus Day is a
celebration of our arrival in the New World. For Native Americans, it has a very
different meaning, since the arrival of the Europeans brought with it the
destruction of much of their way of life, and the deaths of many of their
people. So it is highly ironic that of all days, this should be the first that
Adam comes to our church.
I do suspect that God's providential reason for events to unfold this way has
more to it than a strange sense of humor. I suspect that sometimes God wants us
to confront some of the dichotomies and contradictions in our culture so that we
do not get too comfortable . . . too complacent with our lives
and with our society.
prefer to focus on the great advances Western culture has made. But we cannot
forget that many of those advances had a high cost in human tears and human
blood. More and more we value peace and mutual friendship, but we are not far
from a time when war and hostility were more the rule than the exception--and as
a culture, we continue to fall back into those dark ways of war more often than
we would like to admit, in our civilized view of ourselves.
human dichotomies are reflected in our two Bible readings this morning. First
from Deuteronomy: "The Lord said to me, "See, I have begun to deliver
Sihon and his country over to you. Now begin to conquer and possess his
land." These words could easily have served (and probably did serve)
as a battle cry for the European settlers on this continent who believed they
had a "Manifest Destiny" to possess this land from ocean to
ocean. God himself is telling us to conquer this land!
Israelites were very thorough in obeying this command that they believed they
had directly from God. They completely destroyed Sihon's towns, killing men,
women, and children. They left no survivors. After all, this was to be the Israelites'
land. This kind of passage, with a bloodthirsty God commanding wholesale
slaughter, is what gives the Bible--especially the Old Testament--such a bad
name in many people's minds.
from the Gospel of John we read:
you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he
will give you another Counselor [or Comforter] to be with you forever: the
Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him because it neither sees him nor
knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will
not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:15-18)
do these words about a Counselor, the Spirit of truth, who will not leave us as
orphans, have to do with that bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament who
commanded the merciless deaths of so many people?
dichotomy is in us. We as a culture and as individuals have something of
a multiple personality disorder when it comes to our attitudes and actions
toward our fellow human beings. On the one hand, we do hold to some very
admirable spiritual beliefs and principles that tell us to love not only our
neighbors, but also our enemies. On the other hand, we as a nation continue to
get involved in wars, and we continue to treat many of our own people in less
than humane ways. And we as individuals often cheer on actions that, from the
spiritual perspective of John's Gospel, have more to do with the blindness of
worldly thought than with the Spirit of truth that comes from the Lord.
is exactly why the Bible is written the way it is. We humans are not all love
and light. Every one of us has our dark spots. Perhaps we have an overly quick
temper when someone gets in the way of our plans or ideas; perhaps we have a
tendency to look down on other people whom we do not consider as good as we are;
perhaps we tend to assume bad motives in others, and speak badly of them as a
result. Our own dark spots may not involve the literal slaughter of men, women,
and children--but they come from the same source: the idea that we are right,
or we are better, and therefore entitled to look down on others and not
to treat them as well as we believe they should treat us.
the same time, each one of us has areas of light, where we humbly and lovingly
serve the needs of others out of a genuine desire to make them happy.
Europeans came to this continent, they also had a mixture of motives. The darker
motives, such as greed for gold and desire to conquer new territory, left a
trail of tears and blood among those whose land and possessions were plundered
in the pursuit of those goals. The more spiritual motives, such as a desire for
religious freedom and a desire to live in peace, free from despotic governments,
led other Europeans to value those who already lived on this continent, and to
pursue friendly relations with them.
two attitudes toward the New World (new to Europeans anyway) illustrate the
dichotomy that our two Bible readings represent. Some believed they had a
God-given right to take over this land and to dispossess those who currently
lived there, including killing them when it seemed expedient. Others were
fleeing similar oppression and dispossession at the hands of the authorities in
their homes across the sea. Each could point to the Bible and claim Divine
sanction for their actions.
is where Swedenborg steps into the fray. "The Lord," he says, "is
never angry, nor does he punish, still less curse and kill people." When
the Bible attributes such things to the Lord, this is due to the way its literal
meaning is written: according to the illusions of our physical senses. The
deeper meaning is just the opposite.
humans want the Lord to support the lifestyle we are engaged in, even if
it is far from the divine pattern. And we will remake the Lord in our own image
so that we can feel we have divine sanction for our actions. The Lord allows
this, says Swedenborg, so that we will at least have some belief in
God--which can be a lever in God's hand moving us toward a less destructive,
more loving way of life. The Lord allows us to make God in our own image so that
through that image, God can reach out to us and gradually fill our beliefs and
our lives with a deeper and truer image of God. To paraphrase John, the
"world" of our faulty materialistic and often self-centered attitudes
cannot see nor know the Lord; still, if we do love the Lord in the midst of all
our wrongs and shortcomings, we can know him, because he lives with us
and can be in us if we allow him to be.
again, we have a dichotomy within ourselves. When a new world opens before us,
we can look at it from a perspective that primarily values what we can gain for
ourselves, in a material way. If we cling to this attitude, we will never know
the Lord, nor will we know true human friendship and community. We will
slaughter other people's feelings and perspectives in our disregard for them as
human beings equal to ourselves.
there is a different kind of new world that we can discover--one that is always
ripe for exploration without exploitation. There is the new world of
spirit. It is a new world that we explore when we love the Lord and do what he
commands. Not killing men, women, and children--those are commands that we
put in the Lord's mouth. No, the Lord's commands are summed up for us very
simply: to love the Lord above all else and to love our neighbors--from
individuals to nations--as much as we love ourselves.
we are willing to obey these commands, then the Lord will send us
another Counselor to be with us: the Spirit of truth. And as we follow that
Spirit of truth, we will find that there are whole new worlds of human
friendship, love, and mutual service just waiting for us to explore--and to make
new spiritual homes there.