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 Sihon
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

I 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)

Last 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:

The 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 Coelestia #6493)

This 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.

Where 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.

However, 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.

We 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.

These 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!

The 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.

Then from the Gospel of John we read:

If 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)

What 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?

The 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.

This 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.

At 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.

When 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.

These 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.

This 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.

We 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.

Once 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.

But 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.

If 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.