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Why I Am a Swedenborgian

by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
 Bridgewater, Massachusetts
January 2, 2000

Readings

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, Moses!"

And he said, "Here I am."

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 Egypt?"

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 them?"

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.


Sermon

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 and loving.

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."

Candide 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 created.

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 else flows.

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 of God.

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.


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Music: Dreams Do Come True
1999 Bruce DeBoer

 











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