Farewell and Welcome

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 29, 2000
A Confirmation Sermon

Readings

1 Kings 8:56-61 Committed to the Lord

Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. Not one word has failed of all the good promises he gave through his servant Moses. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our ancestors; may he never leave us nor forsake us. May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways and to keep the commandments, decrees, and ordinances he gave our ancestors. And may these words of mine, which I have prayed before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, that he may uphold the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel according to each day's need, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other. But your hearts must be fully committed to the Lord our God, to live by his decrees and obey his commandments, just as they are at this time.


John 6:35-40 Eternal life

Jesus said, "I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never go hungry, and anyone who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but to do the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me: that I shall lose none of the ones that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that all who look to the Son and believe in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day."


True Christian Religion #694.7 Everlasting rest

Everlasting rest does not mean idleness, since that reduces the mind, and therefore the whole body, to a state of feebleness, lethargy, stupidity, and drowsiness. This is not life, but death--much less is it the everlasting life that the angels in heaven have.

Everlasting rest is a rest that banishes that condition and makes people alive. This must be something that uplifts the mind. So it is some interest or task that excites, enlivens, and delights the mind. This depends upon the purpose for which, in which, and towards which it aims.

This is why the whole of heaven is seen by the Lord as a coherent purpose. And it is the purpose which angels serve that make them angels. The pleasure of service carries them along, just as a favorable current does a ship, and gives them everlasting peace, and the rest that peace brings with it. This is what everlasting rest from labors means. And angels are just as alive as is their minds' commitment to service.


Sermon

Your hearts must be fully committed to the Lord our God, to live by his decrees and obey his commandments. (1 Kings 8:61)

Last week one of you commented that things seem to happen all at once. That certainly is true of our church's life this month! Three weeks ago today, we celebrated the confirmation of Lorena Costello into our church. A week ago today, our dear friend Irva Miller, a long time active member of this church family, left us for her heavenly home. And though we rejoice that she is in a happier place, we also miss her, and continue to grieve her passing. Now, just one week later, we again celebrate the confirmation of two people into our church: Sheri Rienstra and Anne Mitchell.

It's hard to grieve and celebrate at the same time! It is hard to say welcome to new friends at the same time we are saying farewell to the old. It stretches our minds and hearts in uncomfortable, even painful ways to try to encompass both the sorrow of parting and the joy of new life together.

And yet, as I have contemplated this week both the loss to our church in Irva's death and the gain to our church of welcoming three new members, I have come to think of it as providential that we should be stretching our minds and hearts to accommodate both of these events together. We are saying farewell to our old and dear friend; at the same time, as we are welcoming new members into our church, the angels are welcoming Irva into the new and fuller life for which she has been preparing throughout eighty-six years here on earth.

Meanwhile, contemplating the heavenly home to which Irva is now finding her way helps us to think more deeply about just what it means to make a commitment to our church--to our faith--as Sheri and Anne are doing today, as Lorena did three weeks ago, and as so many of us here in this church have done, whether it was a few years ago or many decades ago.

Make no mistake about it: joining the church represents a commitment on our part. Solomon expressed this commitment powerfully and beautifully in his speech to the people at the dedication of the temple. He said, "Your hearts must be fully committed to the Lord our God, to live by his decrees and obey his commandments." Your hearts must be fully committed to the Lord our God, to live by his decrees and obey his commandments. This is a total life commitment, from our inner heart right through to our outward actions. The Lord is calling each one of us to dedicate our entire life to the higher work of building God's kingdom both in our own heart and in the world around us.

Sometimes this may seem like a burden. Sometimes it may seem like too much for God to ask of us when we have enough trouble keeping up with our worldly commitments. Sometimes, it may simply seem too otherworldly, too distant from the concerns of family, friends, work, and home life that are right in front of us.

And then, just as we begin to get comfortable with the routine of our lives, the death of someone close to us confronts us once again with those big, ultimate questions: Why are we are here? Where we are going? What are we doing in this life? It reminds us that no matter what we may accomplish on this earth, we are all going to the same place. And we are faced once again with the challenging statement of Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is not out here or over there, but is forming both within us and among us. We realize once again that the important thing is not the treasure that we build up for ourselves on earth, but the treasure that we build in heaven even while we are living on earth.

The great power of Jesus was that he continually pursued this higher goal, even as we fallible humans continually forget it. He said, in our reading from John:

I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but to do the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me: that I shall lose none of the ones he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that all who look to the Son and believe in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. (John 6:38, 39)

Our Lord Jesus was continually aspiring to lift up not only his own soul, but the souls of all the people he encountered each day--and even of all the people in the entire world. He was continually seeking to elevate people's hearts, minds, and souls up to heaven.

As our minds follow our departed friend up to heaven, we are reminded that the commitment these two people are making today, and the commitment so many of us have made in the past--and that others of us may make in the future--is a commitment to raise not just our minds to heaven, but our hearts and our whole lives. We are reminded once again that whatever we may accomplish here, our only true and lasting accomplishments are the ones we make within our own souls. Our only true and lasting accomplishments are in the ways we can grow in love and understanding for one another, in following the way of the Lord, in expressing both our faith and our love through an active life of service to our fellow human beings.

These are the elements of genuine human life. These are the things we remember with love and thankfulness in those who have passed on before us. These are the things we commit ourselves to when we come before the altar and express our faith--and our intention to live by our faith--before God and before the congregation of our church family.

Remembering where we are going at this time of commitment helps us to keep our priorities straight. Paul expressed this beautifully in his letter to the Colossians:

If you have been lifted up with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

Now this is fascinating. Paul is speaking to people who are very much alive, and who have committed their lives to Christ. And yet he says, "You have died"! Is there a death in committing our lives to the Lord? Yes, there is--and Paul goes on to explain it:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)

Jesus also expressed it this way:

I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24)

The more deeply we consider the farewells and the welcomes that we are saying in our church right now, the more we realize that the two are inextricably bound together: that every time we say farewell, there is also a welcome taking place. As we say farewell to Irva, the angels--especially the angels of her family members and friends who have gone before her--are welcoming her with open arms.

At the same time, whenever we say welcome, there is also a farewell taking place. When we come to this church and make a commitment to its faith and life, we are saying goodbye to some of our old connections and associations. We may be leaving behind another church or another faith and belief--saying farewell to the faith and the spiritual family that used to sustain us, or that we used to struggle with. Both of these can be difficult.

And even if we have grown up in the Swedenborgian Church, we are saying farewell to an uncommitted spiritual life. We are saying farewell to the old freedom of having a wide open field of choices about the primary faith and the primary spiritual family in which we will pursue our spiritual life and growth. This, too, can be a difficult step to take. It can be scary. It can feel constricting. We may feel that we are closing paths to ourselves--paths that we have looked at with curiosity and longing. Whenever we say welcome to the new, we are always saying farewell to what is old and dear to us.

And yet, if we are following the path that the Lord has laid out for us, the new welcome is always leading us on to something greater than what we are saying farewell to. The heavenly life that Irva is now entering is so much greater, more beautiful, more joyful than the increasingly constricted life she is leaving behind! And though it is hard for those of us who love her to realize it now, her departure into the spiritual world also lifts our own souls a little closer to the spiritual world, and to the Lord who reigns there. As our hearts and minds follow her with longing, we are inwardly raised to a new level of understanding, compassion, and commitment on our own spiritual path.

Making our commitment to the Swedenborgian Church--to its faith and to the Lord whom we worship--is also a welcome that leads us on to something greater than what we are saying farewell to. We may be saying farewell to former church associations; yet we are saying welcome to a new, deeper, and more satisfying faith--to a faith which I continue to believe will one day bless the entire earth with its inspiring and comforting message.

And while we may be saying farewell to some of our former ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others, we are saying welcome to new and deeper ways of being and of living. We are opening up whole new fields of deeper understanding of God and of the world in which we live. We are opening up new fields of understanding and compassion for the people around us. We are opening up new parts of ourselves to the light and warmth of the Lord's radiant presence. We are making a commitment to let the light and warmth that God is pouring down upon us also flow out to those around us, warming them with our love and compassion, enlightening them with our insights and understanding, serving their needs willingly, with an inner joy and peace that is the true rest of our souls.

Yes, farewell and welcome are inextricably bound together. We cannot say farewell without saying welcome, and we cannot say welcome without saying farewell.

The beautiful thing is that God has arranged our lives so that each farewell will bring us to a new and deeper welcome; so that every time we leave behind the old, there is a new path laid out in front of us that will lead us to new heights and new depths of spiritual life. With the pain and sorrow of every farewell, there is the joy and new life of welcoming the Lord's renewed presence into our hearts, minds, and lives.

What is this new life and new presence in our lives? Paul sums it up for us a few verses later in his message to the Colossians:

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which, indeed, you were called as members of one body. (Colossians 3:12-15)

Amen.

 

 

 

Music: Forever and a Day
Bruce De Boer