Am a Swedenborgian
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
January 2, 2000
Exodus 3:1-15 "I Am
Who I Am"
Moses was keeping the flock
of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the
wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord
appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was
blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and
look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up."
When the Lord saw that he had
turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses,
And he said, "Here I
Then he said, "Come no
closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are
standing is holy ground." He said further, "I am the God of your
father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, "I
have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry
on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have
come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that
land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the
country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the
Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have
also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to
bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."
But Moses said to God,
"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of
He said, "I will be with
you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have
brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."
But Moses said to God,
"If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors
has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to
God said to Moses, "I Am
Who I Am." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I
Am has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say
to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the
God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is my name
forever, and this my title for all generations."
Matthew 22:34-40 The Two Greatest Commandments
When the Pharisees heard that
he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a
lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in
the law is the greatest?"
He said to him, "'You
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and
with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is
like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments
hang all the law and the prophets."
The Heavenly City #280-282 There
is one God
There is one God, who is the
creator and keeper of the universe. So he is the God of both heaven and earth.
Two things make our life
heaven: good actions done out of love and true ideas that come from faith. We
get this life from God; not a single bit of it comes from ourselves. So the most
important thing in religion is to accept God, believe in God, and love him.
If we are born Christian, we
should accept the Lord--both his divinity and his humanity--and believe in him
and love him, since all spiritual well-being comes from the Lord.
Happy New Year and Happy New
Millennium! I'm pleased to be here with you this morning breaking the sabbatical
in order to kick off our church's three month series of services on "Why I
Am a Swedenborgian."
I know there are misgivings
about my sabbatical. And I know that it will mean extra work for the people of
this congregation. However, my absence from the pulpit will give you, the
members and friends of this church, a wonderful opportunity to share with one
another what this church means to you--and I know that it means a lot to
you, just as it does to me. Contrary to the fears that while I am away the
church will lose the ground we have gained together over the past few years, I
believe that this congregation will grow in spirit through these three
months, and come out stronger in our faith and our vision of what the
Bridgewater New Jerusalem Church is--and what it can become.
For me, coming to this church
as your pastor was like coming back home. Though the roots of my Swedenborgian
faith go far back into my family's history, it was during my association with
this church in my pre-teen and teenage years that my conscious devotion to this
faith was formed. Over twenty years ago, I was confirmed into the Swedenborgian
faith by my father in this very sanctuary. And even if the road I traveled after
that day was not quite what I expected, I have never looked back. For me, it was
the beginning of a good and exciting journey of faith--a journey that I hope and
pray will continue forever.
Why am I a Swedenborgian? For
those of you who know my family history, it seems like a silly question. I am a
cradle Swedenborgian. I am a Swedenborgian because my parents were
Swedenborgians, and their parents were Swedenborgians, and their parents
were Swedenborgians. . . . There are devoted Swedenborgian
ministers and lay people stretching back for several generations on both sides.
In that sense, it is the most natural thing in the world that I am a
Swedenborgian. It is in my blood and in my bones.
Sometimes I wonder what my
life would have been like if I had not been born into the Swedenborgian Church.
Would I have eventually discovered this church, or would I have taken a
completely different path? Then I realize that if I had been born in different
circumstances and to different parents, I would no longer be me. I would be
someone else. And I continue to believe that the Lord, in his divine providence,
provided me with the beginning that I needed in order to be the person I am--and
the angel that I hope to become.
Would I have chosen the
Swedenborgian faith if I had not been born into it? That is a question that
cannot be answered, because I was born into it. For me, the question
becomes: Why have I remained a Swedenborgian? Why have I committed my
life to this faith instead of drifting off, or choosing another faith to give my
life direction and meaning?
For this question, there is a
more definite answer. And as intellectually satisfying and stimulating as this
religion can be, my answer is not an intellectual one. Faith that is real is
grounded not primarily in truth, but in love. For me, it was not
as much the truth of this faith as its goodness that drew me to
embrace it as the focal point of my life.
This may be surprising to
some--especially those of you who knew me as an overly-intellectual teenager and
young adult who prided myself in being (as I thought) smarter than everyone else
around me. At that time, I thought of the Swedenborgian Church as being what was
true and right. It took me longer to see that for any religion to
be genuine, beyond and within the truth it teaches, there must be what is good
Even as a teenager I knew
that the choice of one faith or another--or of having faith versus not
having faith--could not be made on a purely intellectual level. Of course, any
faith I adopted did have to make sense. But I distinctly remember the
time when I realized that no matter how much sense these Swedenborgian teachings
made, I could decide whether I believed them or not--and whatever decision I
made, I would find reasons to back it up and convince myself that I had made the
right choice. And if I could mentally convince myself either way, what could I
base this crucial decision on?
The answer that has been
growing on me ever since is that the choice of faith is not based so much on
what we believe is the truest, but on what we feel is the "goodest."
By that time in my life, I had learned something about various religions, and
had also encountered atheism, agnosticism, and mere apathy toward religion. And
as I considered whether to embrace or abandon the faith I had grown up in, I
thought less and less about what was the most convincing belief, and more
and more about what the world would be like if people adopted this belief as
compared to any other belief I had encountered. In other words, I thought more
and more about what good would come from the Swedenborgian faith.
Somewhere around the time all
these thoughts were going through my mind, I read Voltaire's Candide--a
biting, satirical attack on the philosophy of Optimism. The optimistic main
character in Candide continually has his conviction that this is
"the best of all possible worlds" battered by disasters, both natural
and man-made, until he finally rests in simple pragmatism. In the end, he sums
it all up by remarking, "but we must cultivate our garden."
was a challenge to the belief growing within me that whatever is the best way
the universe could be created, that is how God would create it--because
any God, I believed, must be a God of goodness and love. Voltaire was a Deist:
he believed that God "started up" the world and then left it to fend
for itself, without caring about the fates of the people living in it. To me,
that view was not satisfying. It seemed to me that if God cared enough to create
a universe that included conscious beings such as ourselves, God would also care
enough to cultivate his garden: to take care of the beings whom he had
What continually drew me back
to the Swedenborgian faith in which I had grown up was Swedenborg's view of God
as pure love. This gave me the conviction, which Voltaire apparently
lacked, that even if we humans have done our best to foul up what God created,
God's work is entirely motivated by pure, unselfish love--and everything in the
created universe reflects that infinite love. In no other religion or philosophy
have I found such a complete unity and harmony, throughout the entire structure
of belief, with the central reality of God as pure love, from which everything
This pure reality of Love is
the "I Am" of the universe. It was this divine love that engulfed that
desert bush in blazing fire that did not consume it. It was this divine love
that turned Moses aside to see the great sight--which is the presence of the
Creator of the universe. It is this same divine love that has turned aside you
and me and everyone who has ever become aware, no matter how dimly, of a deeper
love at the core of our existence. I believe that it was not I who turned myself
toward the acceptance of faith, but God who reached out in love and turned me
toward himself as I was ready to accept it.
As important as a thorough
knowledge of spiritual principles is to our lives, what is needed for you or I
or anyone to accept faith is not simply an intellectual grasp of the spiritual
truths of reality. What is needed is for us to open up our hearts to the
possibility that there is a God of pure love who loves us--you and I and
every single person in this world--so fully and completely that no greater love
could ever exist. I feel like a mere infant in opening myself up to that love.
Yet it is the little sliver of God's love and light that I have let in through a
crack in the door that has illuminated my whole life.
I sometimes wonder what my
life would have been like if I had made the other choice back when I was
contemplating whether to believe or not to believe. With the particular type of
mind that the Lord saw fit to give me, I believe that without a sense of God's
love burning within--without a sense of God's love blazing behind everything
we see in the world around us--I would have lived up to my one of my childhood
nicknames: "Eyore." I would have gone beyond skepticism to cynicism. I
would have become one of those sorry souls who looks around and sees nothing but
the dark side of our world. From the spiritual riches God had given me, I would
have snatched a life of spiritual and emotional poverty.
Of course, there are plenty
of things that we could use to justify a cynical view of the world. I do not
subscribe to the blind optimism which holds that everything that happens is the
best thing that possibly could happen. There certainly is evil and hatred
in this world, and it does tremendous damage. But I believe that the goodness
and love of God is far stronger--and that if we accept God's love into our
lives, it will eventually overcome all the world's evil and hatred. The best of
all possible worlds will not happen automatically. But it will happen
gradually, powerfully, as we open ourselves up to the infinite love and wisdom
Why am I a Swedenborgian?
Because I have found in this faith a God who created the world and all that is
in it from pure love, through pure wisdom; a God who, from that love,
continually reaches out to us in the incredible beauty of nature and in the
infinite depths of Sacred Scripture. Most of all, I am a Swedenborgian because I
have found in this faith a God who did not remain distant and aloof from his
creation, but who, when every other means of expressing his love had failed to
express it fully, came to us personally. In the Lord Jesus Christ as illuminated
in Emanuel Swedenborg's writings, I have found the best of all possible Gods: a
God of pure, wise, tender, powerful, and infinitely human love. Amen.
Music: Dreams Do Come True
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer