Welcome Home!

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 8, 2002


Micah 4:1-5 They will sit under their own vines and fig trees

In the last days the mountain of the Lord's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations 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, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples, and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. 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 anymore. They will all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord of hosts has spoken.

All the nations may walk in the name of their gods, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.

John 14:15-27 We will make our home with them

"If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever: the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

"I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore; but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Those who have my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and show myself to them."

Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?"

Jesus replied, "Those who love me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

"All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid."

Arcana Coelestia #2048 The spiritual meaning of a house

In the Bible, "a house" means what is heavenly because it is at the inmost level. So "the house of God," in the broadest sense, means the Lord's kingdom, in a less broad sense it means the church, and in a specific sense it means an individual person in whom is the Lord's kingdom, or church.


Those who love me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:23)

Here we are at the beginning of another church year--my seventh with you as your pastor! For many of us, returning to the sanctuary after a summer of holding services in the Sunday School room is like returning to an old, familiar home. There is a certain sense of peace, comfort, and relaxation in the sanctuary. And it's not just because we have cushions on the pews! This is where we hold our worship services; this is where we feel especially close to the Lord.

Are there people among your family or friends that you are so close to that when you walk into their house, it is like walking into a second home? Whose houses you can simply relax in, and feel like you belong there? If you do have such a second home, think for a minute about its construction and its decor. Is it the same style of house as your house, or different? Are the rooms decorated with similar colors and artwork to those in your house, or are they different?

Some of you may be thinking, "What does it matter?" And that's exactly my point. When we feel at home in someone else's house, the construction and the decor of the house usually don't have much to do with it. It is the spirit we feel there that matters. It is whether we share similar thoughts and feelings, similar values and outlooks, similar loves and philosophies of life. These are the things that make us feel at home with one another.

On the other hand, if we do not hold these things in common, we feel like the proverbial fish in a tree when we are visiting the home of a family member or acquaintance. Their home may be beautifully built and cozily decorated, but if our mind and heart are in a different place from the inhabitants of that house, we will not feel at home no matter how nice the physical surroundings. Another way of putting this is expressed in the popular saying, "Home is where the heart is."

Now, legally speaking, this "house" that we are sitting in right now belongs to the Bridgewater Society of the New Jerusalem. That society consists of its members, with the Church Committee and its officers being the responsible parties when the membership is not in session at an annual meeting of the Society.

But that is just the legal side of things--which is, after all, a worldly and human viewpoint. None of the members of this church would normally say, or think, "this church belongs to me." Unless we're in a business meeting or "thinking business," we don't usually even say "this church belongs to us." In fact, we say just the opposite: "We belong to the church." Isn't that interesting? We say that our house belongs to us, but we say that we belong to our church.

Of course, we don't mean that we belong to the church building, the way the building that is our house belongs to us (if we own our home). Instead, we mean that we belong to this congregation. We are a part of the group of people that calls this building its church home. So even in our common language, we glide effortlessly between the idea of the church as the building and the idea of the church as the group of people that gather in this building to worship together, learn together, share our joys and sorrows together, and come into the Lord's presence together.

And what is it that makes this place a church? Is it the building, or is it the people?

In fact, it's not really an either/or question. The answer is both. But the church building is a church because the people who gather here are a church, rather than the other way around. Think about it. Why is there a church here in the first place? Because back in the 1800s a group of people who shared a common Swedenborgian faith wanted a place to gather together to share in worship, learning, and church fellowship--and they built this building for that purpose.

The building is here because of the people, not the people because of the building. And if there ever came a point where no group of people wanted to gather in this building, the building itself would gradually fall into disrepair, until eventually it would be torn down and something else put in its place. There is a living relationship between people and their buildings. The buildings shelter the people and give them a place to live and work, worship and play. Yet it is the people who keep the buildings in repair as long as those buildings are serving some use. Though we think of buildings as solid and permanent, it is really the human mind and heart that keep the buildings standing on their foundations year after year, and century after century.

What are our houses, then, but an expression of the human spirit? And what is a house of worship but an expression of the deepest levels of the human spirit--our relationship with our Creator, and with the heavenly and spiritual parts in one another?

This is exactly what Swedenborg expresses, in compact form, in our reading from Arcana Coelestia #2048. "In the Bible," he writes, "'a house' means what is heavenly because it is at the inmost level."

This, of course, is the positive meaning of a house. We all know of houses in which there is little that is heavenly going on. In fact, some houses are more like a little hell. However, though these may be houses, they are not "homes" in the best sense of that word. A house is truly a home only when love and friendship reign there--when mutual understanding and affection are the daily fare that sustain the people who live in it. In fact, the more love and friendship, understanding and affection there is in our household, the more we know deep down that this is truly a home--the more we feel at home there.

Of course, for most of us, our actual homes are--or have been--a mixture. We have times when our home life is truly wonderful, other times when it is truly terrible. And we have plenty of times when our home life is just drifting along on cruise control, and not making much of an impression on us one way or the other.

All of these things we have been talking about in relation to our individual houses are just as true when it comes to our church home. Like a house, a church is a place where people gather together and spend a part of their lives together. And like a house, we eventually get fairly familiar with one another. Yes, we're probably on better behavior than we sometimes are at home. But the more we get to know each other and the more comfortable we get with one another, the more likely we are to "let it all hang out," to use a phrase from the sixties. And though ideally we do try to feel, think, and act a little better in church than we do at home, when we are at the church we are still the same people. Underneath it all, we are carrying around the same strengths and weaknesses, the same virtues and vices, the same heavenly and hellish parts of our character that we have when we are at home.

Because of this, it is inevitable that the church, too, will go through its ups and downs; its times of heaven and yes, sometimes its periods of hell; and its times of simply drifting along on cruise control. A congregation is only as good as the people in it.

But wait a minute! That's not quite true. I've neglected to mention whose house this really is. Yes, legally, civilly, humanly it belongs to the Bridgewater Society of the New Jerusalem. But we know better. We know that this house of worship does not belong to us. We know that this is the house of the Lord. And that is what makes it different. That is what gives it a character all its own. That is what causes even the architecture of the church to reach upward toward God, in a way that we would never consider in building a house for our family. This is not our house. This is God's house.

And if the church truly is God's house, then it is not true to say that a congregation--a church family--is only as good as the people in it. Because there is one greater than any of us here in this house. There is a being here who is more loving, wise, compassionate, understanding, and kind than all of us put together.

In fact, there is a being of infinite love and infinite wisdom sharing this house with us right this very moment. There is a being who wants to make this a home for all of us--and for many others--in the deepest, most heavenly and spiritual way possible. There is a being who longs to fill us with the love and kindness, the thoughtfulness and concern for others, the perceptiveness and spiritual intelligence that will make this church a far greater and more wonderful home for us than we could ever imagine.

There is a being who wants to take away all the troubles and fears of our hearts, melting them in the secure knowledge that we are safe and secure in the arms of infinite love. There is a being who being who wants to give us the deep, inner peace of the soul that the world can never give.

This is the home our Lord Jesus wants to share with us. This is the home of peace, comfort, and a sense of utter belonging that he wants to give us. And the Lord will give us this home if we accept it by loving him in return, which means loving our neighbor--our fellow human beings--just as the Lord loves us. "Those who love me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."

Welcome home.


Music: The Homecoming

Floating script by:
Kurt Grigg