Steeple-Raising:
Reaching Upward, Reaching Outward

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 25, 1998

Readings

Isaiah 2:1-5 The Mountain of the Lord

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days the mountain of the Lord's temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations, and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.

Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Matthew 7:24-27 The Wise and Foolish Builders

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; but it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.

But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

Arcana Coelestia #4599 Towers reaching toward God

In the Bible, goodness and truth are described as things that are high because in heaven they are nearer to the Most High--that is, to the Lord. Also, "towers" refer to truth, and "mountains" to goodness.

Sermon

Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

Speaking of mountains, yesterday was definitely a peak experience! Two years after we first began talking with Sprint, and several months after the work began, it all came together. For me, it wasn't until the lower cone section was set down on the new belfry, and the steeple began to rise up above the staging, that it really hit me just how amazing it is that our steeple is being rebuilt, and just how good our church will look once again. This morning I drove up Bedford Street just to get that steeple view that no one has had for over four years now.

For me, the steeple-raising was an uplifting experience in a very literal way. When I saw the news photographers going up in the lift, I got a gleam in my eye, and soon I was riding aloft as well. There are advantages to being pastor of the church! Just before we went up, someone said, "Now you're going to get God's view of the steeple." And it was a different perspective on our church. We are used to looking at it from the ground up. But when I was up there looking down, and I saw all of you watching and waving, it was a wonderful feeling--this small but dedicated group accomplishing wonders in cooperation with the Town of Bridgewater and the companies that have made our beautiful new steeple a reality.

As I reflect on the experience now, that remark, "Now you're going to get God's view of the steeple" sticks with me. What is God's view of our steeple? And what is God's view of our church? For us, there is a lot of excitement in seeing our church restored to its former beauty. There is excitement in seeing so many townspeople out to watch this great event. There is hope for our future as we see our church in the newspapers and on TV and radio. And the possibility of income from the steeple to help support our church and its programs gives us further optimism about our church's prospects for outreach and growth.

But what is God's view of all of this? Of course, what is in God's heart of hearts we cannot know, since it is far beyond our ability to grasp. But we do know from the Bible that "the Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).

We humans live in a physical world, and we need physical sights and sounds to find our direction and keep us moving along. As Emanuel Swedenborg suggests in our brief reading this morning, seeing a church steeple towering upwards toward the Lord can give us a sense of our spirits reaching upwards toward God. And since our church, and our sister church across the common, with its steeple, are centrally located in the town, it is easy to make the conceptual leap to seeing our churches and their steeples as representing the entire community's willingness to look upward to God for guidance and inspiration. This significance of our steeple is more than mere symbolism; it is correspondence. The very structure of our steeple, pointing upward toward the sky, suggests that upward vision of our spirits.

As we reflect on this, we begin to approach something of God's view of our church and our steeple. God does not look at the outward appearance. As exciting as it is to us, in God's scrapbook there will not be a picture of our steeple going up! But there will be a picture in God's scrapbook of the hearts of each one of us--and the heart of our community--as this event unfolds. Whatever the material or financial or aesthetic effects of our steeple, what God is paying attention to is the effect it will have on the spiritual life of this congregation and this community.

We, the people of this congregation--the people who are in this sanctuary right now, and all the others who are active in our church--we will be the ones who determine what the spiritual consequences of this exciting physical event will be.

While the construction is going on, we are more visible than we have ever been. Thousands of cars drive by our church every day, and they cannot help but notice that we are an active church, still rebuilding, restoring our church to its full glory. Our name is in the media, and for the time being, almost everyone in our community knows who we are.

On the way home after the Halloween party yesterday evening, I stopped at the grocery store to drop off the three rolls of film I took of the steeple-raising, and to pick up a few groceries. The checkout clerk greeted me, "How are you doing this evening?" I said, "I have to be doing well: my church just got a new steeple!" He said, "The one in Bridgewater? I've been watching them build that steeple whenever I go by." When someone at the grocery checkout in the next town over knows about our church, that's community recognition!

Our task is to turn that great publicity and recognition into spiritual growth, not only for our church, but for our community as well. Our task is to take some of the same energy and innovation that went into rebuilding our church and our steeple, and put it into rebuilding this church as a congregation. And even more important, our task is to rebuild this congregation as a body of people dedicated to serving the spiritual needs of Bridgewater and the surrounding communities.

From God's view, our church has something far more exciting and amazing than the fact that such a small group of people could become the focal point for such a wide variety of people and companies all coming together to accomplish a rebuilding that we could never have done on our own. Our community has given us a great gift in helping us to rebuild; we have a great gift to give in return.

For me, this gift was summed up when one of Sprint's people complemented me on the quote that is on our Wayside Pulpit for this occasion. It reads, "Unless the Lord builds the house, the workers labor in vain" (Psalm 127:1). It is the job of the architects, engineers, welders, construction workers, crane operators, and so on, to focus on the physical task of designing and building a new steeple. It is our job to give that rebuilding spiritual significance. And by extension, it is our job to give spiritual significance to all the ordinary and extraordinary events and activities of people's lives.

As Swedenborgians, we have an especially rich gift to give in this area. Built right into our church's teachings is the idea that literally everything in nature, everything in the human world, everything in the Bible--in fact, everything in the entire universe--has a deeper, spiritual meaning. And I believe very strongly that people are now searching for a spiritual significance in their ordinary lives in a way they never have before. Popular interest in angels, near death experiences, and personal growth has never been higher.

This presents us with an opportunity, but also with a challenge. I have looked at many religions, and as much as I love some of their ideas and practices, I have never found another one that I believe addresses so fully and so deeply the great spiritual questions of our age. In the teachings of our church about the Lord, the Bible, and living a spiritual life, we have the richest of treasures--the most precious of gifts. When we realize how many people are searching for this sort of inspiration, the opportunity for our church is clear.

And yet, as a church we have had difficulty--especially in this century--in getting that message out in a way that reaches the people of our community. We are not the only church that has seen a long decline lasting many decades. But given the soul-satisfying nature of our teachings, I believe that we should be growing, not declining. And, being an optimist, I believe that our church and our denomination will grow.

But this will not happen automatically. We all know of churches in our denomination that have dwindled until they could no longer continue as a church. And our hearts go out to those who have lost their church homes. Other Swedenborgian churches, though, are growing. Even some of the ones that had to sell their buildings have revitalized themselves by looking for new and creative ways to serve the spiritual needs of their communities.

And this, I believe, is the key for us as well. As a church, we have always been good at reaching upward toward God. We are good at praying, at studying the Bible for the deep and satisfying meanings within it, and at guiding our own lives by what we learn. In this way, our church's steeple reaching upward is an accurate emblem of who we are. But for many years, we have not been so good at reaching outward and serving the needs of others in our community. Because of that, as our members have moved away or passed on to the next world, there have not been enough newcomers to take their places.

However, our new steeple is more than the old steeple was. Our new steeple is a tower holding antennas. It is a tower whose job is not only to reach upward toward God, but also to reach outward and connect with people.

Are we ready as a church to follow the new symbolism . . . the new correspondence, of our steeple? We have always been good at reaching upward toward God. Are we ready to reach outward into our community, looking for spiritual needs that we are uniquely able to satisfy? Is each one of us personally ready to begin a new chapter in the life of our church? A new chapter of actively offering to our community the priceless treasures that each of us has found here? If so, then we as a congregation will get a glimpse of God's view of our new steeple, as we reach upward toward God and outward into our community. Amen.


 

Music: Say Good-bye
Night Angel 

Floating Leaf Script
Courtesy of