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Our Circle of Love

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 25, 1998

Readings

Psalm 133 How good it is to live together in unity!

How good and pleasant it is
When brothers live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
Running down upon the beard,
Running down on the beard of Aaron,
Running down over the collar of his robes.

It is as if the dew of Hermon
Were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
Even life for evermore.


John 13:34, 35 I give you a new commandment: "Love one another"

Jesus said, "I give you a new commandment: 'Love one another.' Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


Apocalypse Explained #746a.2 All people are brothers (& sisters)

All people, both in heaven and on earth, who are involved in the good of kindness are called brothers because they all have one father, namely: the Lord. People who are involved in the good of love for the Lord and the good of kindness toward their neighbors are his children, and are called "sons of God," "sons of the kingdom," and "heirs."

Since we are all children of one father, we are all brothers. And the Lord's primary commandment is that we should love one another mutually. This means that it is love that makes us brothers, and love is also spiritual union.

This is why among the very earliest people who belonged to religions in which kindness was the most important thing, all people were called brothers. This was also true in the Christian Church at its beginning. And this is why "brother" means "kindness" in the spiritual sense.

 

Sermon

Jesus said, "I give you a new commandment: 'Love one another.' Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34, 35)

This morning's sermon is both a celebration of our church family here in Bridgewater and a challenge to this church family. It is a celebration of the circle of love that we share with each other, and a challenge for us to expand our circle of love. Now that I have warned you, I hope you won't mind if I speak to you both personally and forthrightly.

Last week, while Merrilee and Larry were leading the shortest Sunday morning service on record here in Bridgewater, I was in Leesburg, Florida attending some meetings and workshops sponsored by the Swedenborg School of Religion and our denomination, the Swedenborgian Church. And yes, the weather was a little better there than it was here!

Although my original flight was cancelled and I didn't arrive at the conference center until after 10:00 the next night, I still had a good and productive time at the meetings. We held talks between the Council of Ministers and the Swedenborg School of Religion to help bring out into the open some issues that have been building between the two bodies. At a different time, the three newest ministers there, Nadine Cotton, Jonathan Mitchell, and I, had a chance to discuss issues in our ministries with faculty members from SSR and from Andover Newton Theological School. And of course, there was time during meals, breaks, and off-hours to share stories and ideas with other ministers.

As I heard various ministers in our denomination speaking about the issues and challenges in their churches--about both the successes and the conflicts in their churches--I came to appreciate even more something that I have appreciated about this church all along: we are a very solid and stable group of people. Even more, we are a group of people that genuinely love each other.

Oh, we have our differences. Some of us lean more to the traditional than others. We don't always see eye to eye on how our money should be spent. We don't always agree about what programs we should offer, what parts of our Sunday School and our Sunday worship service should stay the same, and what parts should change. These issues and many others come up in our Church Committee meetings, in our coffee hour discussions, and in our informal contacts with each other during the week. We express differing opinions--and things don't always go the way one or another of us might want.

But we care about each other--and about our church--enough to look beyond our differences, to respect each other, and to continue working together for the good of the church and for the good of the people whose spiritual needs we serve. We have achieved . . . we have been blessed by the Lord with a level of cooperation, of mutual concern, and of dedication to the good of our church that not all churches enjoy. This is something to celebrate!

Our readings from the Bible and from Swedenborg speak of this unity of love that is not only our ideal for the church, but the Lord's ideal for the church. "How good and how pleasant it is when brothers [and sisters] dwell together in unity!" sings the Psalmist. "I give you a new commandment," says Jesus, "Love one another." And he continues, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Swedenborg points out that we are all children of God. If we can take this to heart, both as individual people and as a church, then we can live together as spiritual brothers and sisters, which means living together in love and kindness toward each other.

We as a church can celebrate the love and kindness that we show toward each other. We can celebrate the way we visit each other when one of us is sick, support each other when we know that one of us is having a difficult time.

We can be even more intentional about this as a church, resolving to be a community of faith that, yes, does look to me as the pastor of the church, but also pastors to each other in many ways and times that a single individual simply cannot do. For the Lord is calling not just me, but every one of you as well, to a ministry of loving each other and serving each other's physical and spiritual needs. The Lord is calling each one of us to show love to one another, and to participate in a universal ministry of mutual kindness and service.

This brings us to the challenge that I feel called to put before you today.

When I first started as your pastor a year ago September, I was full-time for the first four months. And since I had just started my pastorate here, things hadn't gotten rolling yet. I had a lot of time on my hands! I called every member of the church that I could get hold of--both active and inactive--and talked to them personally. I offered to visit those who wanted to have a visit. It was a precious time--a time I greatly enjoyed--when I was able to spend a lot of time in your homes getting to know you personally.

Soon, however, I was no longer full-time. This must have been some relief to our Treasurer, because the fact is, even with support from the denomination and the Massachusetts New Church Union, this church is not strong enough to support a full-time minister on an ongoing basis. Even if I were full-time, the issues in our church would be practically the same, because I am still only one person.

As our programs got underway, and as we began to reach out into the community (another thing to celebrate!), I no longer had the luxury of many hours each week to devote to pastoral visiting. I continued to visit those who seemed to need it most, and kept up with other visiting as best I could. But it was clear that with the new level of activity in our church, I would have to find a new balance between tending to the activities of the church and giving the personal, pastoral care that the members and friends of this church want and need. I am still working on that balance. The discussions and conversations in Florida gave me some needed perspective on this issue, which is helping.

However, as I mentioned before, I am only one person. Even if I were to find the perfect balance, there are still only a certain number of hours in the week.

This need not limit what we as a church can accomplish. Because our church--any church--does not consist of a minister alone. We are a community of people gathered together as a church. I alone am one, but we together are many. We together can accomplish things that no one person, no small committee of people, can accomplish alone. Our potential as a church is limited, not by what we can pay a minister, an organist, or even the people that larger churches can employ, such as secretaries, maintenance people, youth ministers, program leaders, and so on.

No, our church is limited only by the limits we put on our own commitment as individuals in a community of faith. The flip side of this--a more positive way of looking at it--is that we as a church can achieve whatever we as individuals, and we as a faith community, make a decision and a commitment to achieve together.

We have experienced the truth of this in the rebuilding of our church. Not everyone agreed with the decision to rebuild, nor did everyone agree with all the decisions that were made along the way. There were some ins and outs among the various members, and how they were involved in the church. But once a decision was made, the group as a whole pulled together and worked together to make the plan a reality. And we were able to accomplish in a single year a rebuilding that many churches that have had a major fire take three years to accomplish. Soon we will have our steeple back as well--the crowning glory of our church.

Now our challenge is to take the same commitment that we put into rebuilding our church physically, and turn it towards rebuilding our church spiritually.

Let's face it: We are a very small church! We have a building that is designed to serve a much larger congregation. But more importantly, in the teachings of our church we have a spiritual vision that is designed to serve humanity as a whole, not just one small group of people. Our view of the Lord's church represents the broadest possible vision. It embraces all people, of every faith and belief, in the vast sweep of a universal religion that is bound together not so much by common beliefs as by a common love for each other and a mutual desire to serve each other's needs. All who share this mutual love are part of the Lord's kingdom, no matter what the particular beliefs through which they express that love.

Can we as a church expand our vision in this way? Can we see ourselves not only as a small group of people who love and care for each other, but as part of a larger, universal church that encompasses all people of good will, and reaches out even to those who are not of good will in an effort to bring about personal and societal transformation?

As long as we think of ourselves as this small group only, our vision is limited. As long as we primarily serve each others needs (as much of a cause for celebration amongst ourselves that is) we have drawn our circle of love in tightly around ourselves. We have limited our circle of love to our small group. And we have limited the potential of our church to grow and expand, to reach out in love towards many people and to serve the spiritual needs of a much larger circle. As long as our circle of love is small, our church will be small, both in numbers and in spiritual service to our community.

We can expand our circle of love.

We can to expand our circle of love by continually broadening in our minds the small boundaries that we tend to draw around our church. We can begin to think of ourselves, not only as a group of people who love each other, but as a church that exists to serve our entire community. We can expand our circle of love in our minds so that we include many more people than we may now be including when we think about who we are as a church.

If we now draw a line around the active members of the church and say these people are our church, we can expand that circle to include the inactive members and friends of this church. Perhaps we have a sense that these people are not real members, or are somehow lesser members because they do not put as much into the church as we do. Perhaps we draw them out of our circle of love because we feel they will never be a real part of our church.

This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we draw people out of our circle of love, we lose any chance there may be of inviting them into our circle of love. When we draw people out of our circle of love, we do not reach out to them. Even when there is contact, they do not feel welcomed by us. Can we each expand our circle of love to include some of these people that we have been excluding in our minds and hearts? Can we reach out to them and make them feel welcome in a way they have not felt welcomed before?

If we are able to expand our circle of love to include people who have not been so active in our church, can we expand it even more to include people entirely new to the church? Can we expand our souls so that we can show genuine, heartfelt love toward people who have never set foot in our church before? Further, can we expand our concept of our church to include the people we see every day? Even invite someone we know to come and share a service or a program with us--as teenagers are often so much better than we are at doing?

How wide can we expand our circle of love? Our answer to that question is also the answer to another question we often ask ourselves: Can we grow as a church? Of course we can. We simply have to expand our circle of love.

How good and pleasant it is
When brothers live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
Running down upon the beard,
Running down on the beard of Aaron,
Running down over the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
Were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
Even life for evermore.

Amen.



Music: Tears of Gold
1999 Bruce DeBoer

 
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