The Many Faces of God: A Post 9-11 Sermon
April 25, 2004
Those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High
Will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, "He is my refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust."
Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare
And from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
And under his wings you will find refuge;
His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
Nor the plague that destroys at midday. . . .
"Those who love me," says the Lord, "I will rescue;
I will protect those who acknowledge my name.
When they call upon me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will deliver them and honor them.
With long life will I satisfy them,
And show them my salvation."
Read also: Luke 16:19-31
Reading from Swedenborg
If God were not infinite, then nothing finite would exist. If the infinite were not the All, there would not be anything. And if God had not created everything from himself, there would be nothing real--nothing at all. In short, we are because God is. (Divine Providence #46)
Everywhere you go in America right now, you see American flags. They are hanging outside homes, on car antennas, in trees, on hats and shirts. They are everywhere because Americans are craving some way to express their solidarity with one another after the attack of September 11.
My church back home is a big, white congregational church with large pillars out front. A member of the congregation who had fought in WWII gave a huge battleship flag from that era to the church, and our minister had it lifted up between the two center pillars the night our town gathered on the village green for a candlelight vigil. It was a powerful sight. I am not a naturally patriotic person, and I must admit, I was deeply moved. The flag, like the cross, is a powerful symbol. I like to think of symbols as tangible guideposts on an intangible journey; markers set in place by someone who walked this path before us, in order to help us find our way. Symbols, in an almost magical way, can help us connect with the ineffable, and comprehend the incomprehensible.
But sometimes symbols can get in the way. We set them in place as a means to an end, but if we are not careful, they can become an end in themselves. On September 11, I was blessed in the midst of all the chaos. The minister at my church mobilized the local faith community and organized an interfaith prayer service--one of many such services held that week all around the world. Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, Muslims, Congregationalists, two (count 'em, two!) Swedenborgians, and people of no particular faith or affiliation gathered together, packing the church.
It was a symbolic act on one hand, and yet an act curiously and thankfully devoid of any symbols on the other. Symbolic because the people of this town were coming together in spite of all our differences to mourn and comfort one another. Yet noticeably devoid of symbols because the cross had been taken down from the altar, and nothing but a candle stood in its place. I suppose the removal of the cross was a gesture of hospitality more than anything else. It was way to make members of other faith communities feel more comfortable and able to connect with God in an unfamiliar space--and I appreciated the gesture.
When I have attended interfaith services, I have often thought that rather than removing the symbols of the host faith, we should gather the symbols of all the faiths present, and place them on the altar. But that night I gave thanks for the blank space. It wasn't that I felt the absence of God, or anger at him. Indeed, God was continually present in my prayers. It was something else that was taking form inside me, whispering to my heart, helping me to see.
That night there were no symbols, and I rejoiced because rather than focusing on the cross as a means to connect with my maker, I had only the faces around me. The face of my minister. The face of a rabbi I had never heard speak before that night. The faces of my students reaching out for some small word of comfort. The faces of parents looking at one another across the pews with their children tucked safely between them. And it struck me: all around me were people I have seen day in and day out for years now, and their faces became the face of God.
It struck my heart that if I truly believe God dwells in every soul, and his presence informs every good, just, and loving action, then the people who sat in prayer all around me were all ambassadors of the Spirit, holy ones in my midst. As I looked around that crowded church I realized that the healing and comfort I sought, would not come from hours of prayer and meditation, or from a Bible verse or passage in Swedenborg, or directly from some mystical experience of God. It would come from the care and concern of other human beings. The goodness of God would flow out to me and to others through the loving acts of my fellows. The Cross was absent, but the face of God was all around me.
I remember once years ago, as I was walking through the halls of Yale Divinity School, I saw tacked to a wall a crumpled yellow piece of paper that had a quote from a medieval mystic. It said something like this: On this earth, Christ no longer has eyes to see, or ears to hear, or a mouth to speak. He no longer has hands to hold out, or feet to carry him to those in need. What he has is us. When we see the world around us and recognize its need, when we listen to our neighbor's cry or speak words of comfort, when we reach out to serve one another, to hold one another, we are the eyes, the ears, the mouth, the hands, the feet of Christ. We are the body of Christ incarnate. Then does God dwell on earth. Then is the kingdom of God within and around us.
What does it mean that Christ dwells within us? What does it mean that I looked over at my neighbor, and because there was no longer a cross to draw away my attention, I saw the face of God? It is such a miraculous concept that it seems to be an idea I am aware of, but cannot truly understand, nor fully live by. It means that every single human being is precious and powerful beyond measure. It means that we are not merely physical, temporal creatures, but potential angels clothed for a brief time in human flesh.
This is a truth lost somewhere along the way by the terrorists who killed thousands of people that Tuesday morning. How could a person kill someone in the name of God while believing that God dwelled within them? It is also a truth that has been buried by the pain and anger of some people in our country who are lashing out at Arab Americans.
It is easy to see our failure to act as loving human beings when we look at it on such a grand scale. But what happens when we look at all the little acts of everyday life. God is in the details, right? The person who cuts you off in traffic, your annoying little brother, your husband or wife, is also an eternal being whose very existence is fueled by the presence of God.
Swedenborg said, "We are because God is." Because God is what? Because God is in us. His breath animates us. His goodness and love, the very life force of the universe, is staring you back in your face when your child reaches up and says, "Here, I made this for you"; "Would you please pass the mashed potatoes?"; "I love you." Every time we reach out in love, it is God in us that is making that possible. Every human being is capable of goodness because God dwells within each and every one of us.
This is the truth that the rich man in today's parable recognized a lifetime too late. He feasted while he lived. He wore the finest clothes and held the grandest parties. He lived in splendor and excess, giving no thought to the poor man who lay sore and hungry outside his gate. There is no evidence that the rich man was actively cruel to Lazarus. He did not taunt him or abuse him. He simply did not deign to notice him at all. The rich man saw nothing, felt nothing, did nothing. Lazarus meant nothing.
Now, if you had told the rich man that God himself was at the gates, I'm sure he would have run to receive him. But in the rich man's mind, God was in heaven far, far away; and the poor man at the door was no more than any other poor man--just another empty shell taking up space.
The rich man was not an irreligious fellow. He recognized Abraham in the afterlife, as would any devout Jewish man. According to Swedenborg, the rich man represents people who have extensive religious knowledge. He is rich in knowledge, but he does nothing with it. He is filled to the brim with religion, but religion, like symbols, can get in the way. If a symbol doesn't help us take our contemplation of an idea to the next level, it is useless. Likewise, if our religion does not help us take the truths of our faith to the next level, it is not only useless, it is dead. What the rich man didn't recognize, it seems, is that the power of his religion, indeed of all religions and all truth, is not just in the knowing but in the acting. Whatever faith or set of beliefs he may have had apparently never made it fully into his way of life.
He may have known a lot about God, but somewhere along the way he forgot to love others as God loves them. He forgot to see the beauty, the worth, the incarnate glory in all of God's creation. He failed to see that even the beggar at his gates was not an empty shell, but a vessel of the Holy Spirit. And he suffered for this lack of awareness and action. The rich man was willfully unaware that we are all eternal beings. He failed to realize that heaven and hell are not just places to go when we die, but states of being right here and right now--states of being that are directly impacted by our propensity, or lack thereof, to actively love one another in accordance with our faith.
A few months ago I came across a stunning quote by C.S. Lewis. In his famous sermon, "The Weight of Glory," Lewis says:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship; or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
I think that as Swedenborgians, this should not only make perfect sense to us, but stir something inside of us. We talk a lot about the New Jerusalem, but do we truly believe that we are able to effect it? My friends, let us open our eyes and see the world around us for what it truly is. Let us see the power we contain within us as human beings, not just to destroy the lives of others, as we have seen over and over again on our television screen, but to lift one another up and heal our broken world. Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20, 21).
The rich man failed to see this truth during his lifetime. He failed to see how very important his actions could be. But in the afterlife it all becomes clear. In the story, he begged Abraham to let Lazarus bring him some water. When that request was deemed impossible, he asked that Lazarus at least be given the opportunity to warn the rich man's brothers lest they meet the same fate.
Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them."
He said, "No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead they will repent."
And Abraham said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead."
Who are the brothers of the rich man? We are the brothers--the ones still alive and able to enact change in this world. Who is the one risen from the dead but our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose power, love, and glory dwells in us as much as we allow?
And maybe there is another who has returned. Most Christians are not aware of his journeys, but I think we could see Swedenborg as one who returned from the dead. He did not die and then resurrect; but he definitely crossed over--more so than Jonathan Edwards. In a very real way, Swedenborg has been there and lived to tell the tale of "things seen and heard."
What would Swedenborg say to those of us who, like the rich man's brothers, are simply going about our daily lives? He would say that symbols are beautiful, but they are only the beginning of the story. And that religion, even this religion you have named after me, is all good stuff--but what are you going to do with it? Attending church, listening to a sermon, reading Swedenborg, it is all just the beginning. We need to wake up! We need to get out there, and as Swedenborgians, we need to be brave enough to tell people that we don't think Christ is coming back, because we believe that Christ is already here! Christ lives, breathes, and moves within us. Heaven and hell are all around us. They are as close as the need at the gate. Either one stands waiting for us right outside our front door. It is all just a matter of how we choose to respond.
Let me tell you one more thing about my little church back home. One week after the attack on New York City, the members of the congregation gathered together a bus load of supplies and volunteers. They set off at 3:00 AM so that they could begin the day by serving breakfast to the rescue and recovery workers at ground zero. They came back and shared their stories with us in church the next Sunday. Even though the attacks happened far from our homes, these people saw the need. They bridged the chasm between the table of those who have and those who do not.
They spent all day Tuesday serving food, handing out bottles of Visine and homemade cookies, and perhaps most importantly, letters from children and adults that said things as simple as, "Thank you. God Bless you." As I listened to their stories, once again I saw the face of God before me. Not a symbol, not a religion. In that Congregational church I saw the New Jerusalem taking shape before my eyes. The New Jerusalem begins with the simple act of allowing the God in me to love the God in you.
C.S. Lewis closed his sermon with this thought: "Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. . . . In your neighbor also Christ, . . . the glorifier and the glorified, Glory himself, is truly hidden."
O God of all the nations, help us to see that in you there is no death, but only life eternal. Help us to see your presence both in our friends and in our enemies. Open our eyes to see your New Jerusalem unfolding in the community all around us. Amen.
Rev. Sarah Buteux