Sermon: Doing the Lord's Work by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 12, 2004
Sermons on Audio

 Isaiah 51:1-8 Everlasting salvation

"Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many. The Lord will surely comfort Zion, and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.

"Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath. The heavens will vanish like smoke; the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever; my righteousness will never fail.

"Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of others, or be terrified by their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations."

 Matthew 7:15-27 Doing the Lord's work

"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

"Therefore 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; yet 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 #2009.11 What is a congregation?

In Matthew 18:20 we read, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Those who are "gathered together in the Lord's name" are people who have religious teachings about love and kindness, and who are therefore engaged in love and kindness.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. (Matthew 7:24)

We are now beginning another church year together, having received many blessings as a congregation in recent years, and with new possibilities ahead of us in the coming year.

One of the possibilities that we hope for each year is that our congregation will continue to grow, just as it has been doing each year for the last five years. And my message this morning is simple: If we want this church to grow, we need to put the idea of growth on the back burner, and focus instead on doing the Lord's work as a congregation. If we are truly doing the Lord's work, then growth will come as a matter of course, if that is God's will for our congregation. In other words, church growth is simply a natural consequence of being a real church!

It is just like the growth of our bodies. How many of us, as children, got up every morning and said to ourselves, "I think I'll work on growing today; maybe if I work at it hard enough, I can add an eighth of an inch to my height by the end of the week"? Well . . . sometimes kids do have funny thoughts! But most of the time, we got up in the morning and went about the business of being a kid: eating breakfast, playing, running around outside, reading a book, doing our chores, and so on. As we did our part, eating, sleeping, exercising our bodies and our minds, the Lord did his part, causing us to grow to maturity both physically and mentally.

In fact, if, as kids, we were to concentrate on growing, we would be more likely to make things worse than better. We might eat lots and lots of food, thinking it would make us grow faster, only to find that it made us sick or overweight instead. Perhaps we would hang by our knees or our hands for hours and hours, hoping to stretch out our bodies. Not much help there! Or, in this modern age, how about taking hormone pills to stimulate growth? We could certainly do it . . . and then find out two or three decades later that those artificial hormones were carcinogenic.

Of course, all of this is a bit silly. We know that kids grow naturally. All we have to do is make sure they get food, exercise, fresh air, sleep, and all the other things that the human body needs to do its work. Then God and nature will take care of the rest.

It's about time we had the same faith and assurance about the church. Many churches are focused on figuring out how to grow. But we can't make a church grow any more than we can make a child grow. As with the growth of a child, the growth of the church occurs naturally when all the conditions and needs for growth are met reasonably well, and when the church does what it's supposed to be doing as a church.

So if growth is a natural consequence of being a normal, healthy church, just what is a church supposed to be doing in order to be normal and healthy? The short answer is that a church should be doing the Lord's work.

Now, Emanuel Swedenborg was not much of an institutional guy when it came to the church. He grew up as a preacher's kid, so for him, the institution of the church was a given. And he seems to have thought very little about it in those earlier years of his life, judging by the fact that up to his mid-fifties, he wrote almost entirely on scientific and philosophical subjects, and hardly at all about the church, institutionally or otherwise. Even when he began writing about theology and religion, he still wrote very little about church organizations--and he certainly didn't leave us a manual of ecclesiastical order. He apparently preferred to focus on the spiritual side of religion, and leave others to figure out the organizational aspects.

In other words, Swedenborg didn't explain how to run a church. But he did leave a few hints here and there about what the church is supposed to be. And about the closest thing I've found to a definition of a congregation is found in our brief reading from Arcana Coelestia #2009. To quote the salient portion again:

Those who are "gathered together in the Lord's name" are people who have religious teachings about love and kindness, and who are therefore engaged in love and kindness.

Here he draws on the Lord's words in Matthew 18:20. And the Latin word for "gathered together" is the one that our word "congregation" comes from. So from a Gospel perspective, a "congregation" is two or three or more people gathered together in the Lord's name. And according to Swedenborg, people are "gathered together in the Lord's name" when they have religious, or spiritual, beliefs about love and kindness, and as a result of those beliefs, actually engage actively in the work of love and kindness. That's what a congregation is, and that's what a congregation does. It believes in God's teachings about love and kindness, and actually lives by those beliefs.

Of course, our church has many beautiful teachings about love and kindness. In fact, all those thirty green volumes of Swedenborg's writings with all that fancy theological terminology are simply a big, long version of the Lord's teaching that we are to love the Lord most of all, and our neighbor as ourselves. That's what it all boils down to.

In traditional Swedenborgian language, this is called the "doctrine of uses"--which itself is just a fancy way of saying that if we want to be truly spiritual, we can't just learn the church's teachings; we have to live by those teachings. We have to actually go out and do things for people.

Jesus, in his usual fashion, doesn't talk in fancy theological language. Instead, he uses down-to-earth stories and images to get the point across. "Every good tree bears good fruit," he says, "but a bad tree bears bad fruit." And he is equally concrete about what happens to the bad trees--the ones that do not bear good fruit: "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." The Rev. George Henry Dole (my great-grandfather), drawing on Darwin's catchy phrase "the survival of the fittest," called it "the survival of the useful." Spiritually, those who are useful survive and have eternal life, while those who are not useful have their spiritual lives cut down and thrown into the fire of selfish and materialistic desires--which is eternal death.

For the church, spiritual survival is also of a more earthly kind. Those churches that actively engage in the Lord's work tend to not only survive, but thrive. Those churches that focus on their own survival, however, and neglect serving their community, will sooner or later dwindle and die, no matter how rich they are in money or spiritual insight. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven," Jesus says, "but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven."

Then the Lord goes on to give us another plain and simple illustration of this truth. Those who hear his words and do them, he says, are like people who build their houses on the rock; and when the storms of life come--as they inevitably will--the "house" of their faith and spiritual life will stand up to the challenges, and survive. But those who merely learn the teaching, and don't put them into practice, are like people who build their houses on the sand. And when the storms of trials and tribulations come, their faith is swept away and destroyed because it has no solid foundation, but is simply a castle in the air.

The Lord's words apply to the church, and to each congregation, just as much as they do to an individual person. Knowing the truth, as great as it is, does not in itself do anything for a congregation. But when a congregation of people work together to serve its neighbors in the community, doing this in the Lord's name, then that faith becomes real, and begins to bear fruit.

It's a simple, obvious message. We all know it, and recognize its truth as soon as we hear it. And yet, putting it into practice is the real challenge. So let's get just a little more specific about our church.

The Swedenborgian Church has always been great at offering Bible studies, doctrinal classes, lectures, and books, books, books on God, salvation, the spiritual meaning of the Bible, heaven and hell, and how to live a spiritual, heaven-bound life. And I'm not knocking that! These are all things I personally love to do; these are gifts we as a church have been given. And these are, in fact, good works of service to whatever audience we can gather together. This is the work of preaching and teaching, and it is important work.

Where we have not been so strong is in the ministry of service and healing. It's not that we don't do it at all. Over the years, our church has done many service projects of various kinds, from the former Ladies' Sewing Circle making quilts for needy families to today's Sunday School raising funds to provide farm animals to third world families.

I believe that the challenge ahead of our congregation is to find ways that we as a church can serve the local community right around us. While continuing to do the work of teaching, we need to add the practical ministries of hands-on service to the people of Bridgewater and the surrounding communities. And I am convinced that as we do the Lord's work more and more, the Lord will bless our church with new life and growth. Amen.

Music: A Distant Shore
Bruce De Boer
and used with permission