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Love is Life

Sermons

One Flock and One Shepherd

July 25, 2004

Bible Reading

As for you, my flock, this is what the Lord God says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed in the good pasture? Must you also tread down the rest of your pasture with your feet? When you drink clear water, must you muddy the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

Therefore, this is what the Lord God says to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.

I will make a covenant of peace with them, and will rid the land of wild beasts, so that they may live in the desert and sleep in the forests in safety.

(Ezekiel 34:17-25)

Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be kept safe, and will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand cares nothing for the sheep.

"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me--just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep fold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd."

(John 10:7-16)

Reading from Swedenborg

A good life, or living rightly, is abstaining from evils because they are against our religion and therefore against God. . . . If you do all the good you can, if you build churches and decorate and fill them with your offerings, if you devote your wealth to hospitals and hospices, if you give alms every day, if you help widows and orphans, if you faithfully attend divine worship, even if you think, talk, and preach about these things in all apparent sincerity, and still do not abstain from evils as sins against God, all these good deeds are not really good at all. They are either hypocritical or self-serving, because there is still evil within them. Our life is in absolutely everything that we do, and good deeds become good only by the removal of evil from them. We can see from this that abstaining from evils because they are against our religion and therefore against God is leading a good life.

These are the general principles of all religions, through which everyone can be saved. Belief in God and refusal to do evil because it is against God are the two elements that make a religion a religion. If either is lacking, we cannot call it a religion, since believing in God and doing evil are mutually contradictory, as are doing what is good and not believing in God. Neither is possible apart from the other.

The Lord has provided that there be some religion almost everywhere, and that everyone who believes in God and does not do evil because it is against God should have a place in heaven. Heaven, seen in its entirety, looks like a single individual, whose life or soul is the Lord. In that heavenly person there are all the elements that there are in a physical person, differing the way heavenly things differ from earthly ones. (Divine Providence #326)

Sermon

As we are all painfully aware, the United States is once again at war. However, I am not going preach about the war today. Instead, I am going to talk about how the Lord sees and governs this world, with all its human differences. We will especially look at some of the general laws by which God governs the world--and which perhaps, in time, can bring our world together.

We live in a world of conflict. The history of the human race is in many ways a history of wars. This is not just because of corrupt and greedy leaders. The people tend to support war. As we started this war, depending on what question was asked, anywhere from one third to two thirds of the American people supported it. So it would be inaccurate to say that the wars we fight are only because of our leaders. Our leaders are in their leadership positions because of the views and attitudes we all hold. And they take the actions they do with an eye to the people they are leading. Even when there is internal debate in the country, the leaders tend to do what a majority of the people will support--or at least not actively oppose.

Perhaps we have the same conflict within our own hearts and minds. We may partly support and partly oppose the war. We may see some good and some bad in it. So we may wait to see the results before we make up our mind whether we think it was good or bad. And in our uncertainty, we tend to let our leaders go ahead and do what they think we will support. So our actions are determined not only by our leaders, but by our own views about our relationships with the other people and nations of this earth.

This morning I will offer some thoughts on how the Lord governs the world. This may help us make our own decisions about some of the big issues, such as war. It may also help us to make decisions in our interpersonal relationships. One of the beautiful teachings of our church is that the big picture is just like the little picture. The conflicts among individuals are the same as the conflicts among nations, only on a different scale.

This means that the same principles that can help nations to get along with one another will also help us to get along with the people around us. And going the other way, the same principles that help us to get along with the people around us also apply to the relationship between our nation and other nations.

Today I will offer four principles of our church on God's relationship with the nations and peoples of the world. These are not the only principles I could offer, but they are some of the basics.

The most basic principle of our religion is: There is one God who rules over all the universe. People of different religions do have many different names for God. Yet we believe that all of these religions are approaching the same God. We believe that God set up the various religions of the world in order to reach out to people of different characters and cultures. Different nations and races need different approaches to God. That's why there is not just one gate, but twelve gates to the holy city, representing all different ways of approaching the one Lord. And the fact that God is one makes it possible for all of humanity to be one.

This is the first principle: There is one God over all.

The second principle is: God's love is universal, and is the same everywhere. God's love is the same in humans, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. God does not love one person more than another, nor one nation more than another. God loves us all equally.

Further, God loves us completely and unconditionally. We cannot cause God not to love us. In fact, there is nothing we can do that can change God's love for us. No matter what we do, God's love for us continues the same. No matter what we do, God loves us just as much as before. If we are not in a mutual loving relationship with God, it is not because God has turned away from us, but rather because we have turned away from God. This is a universal principle of our religion. God is always there for us.

So this is the second principle: Not only is there one God, but God's love is universal and unconditional.

The third principle is: All religions provide a pathway to God and salvation. God is not a small God, but a vast God, reigning over all the world and all the universe. So God is the God of the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, the native Americans, and people of every other religion. And God has provided that each religion has the basics needed for salvation, and for getting into heaven. This is what our reading from Swedenborg is about: There are fundamental truths that God makes sure are in every religion throughout the earth, so that all people will have a path to God if they choose to follow it.

It is useless to argue whether one religion is better than the others. We like to think ours is the best! But we also believe that each religion is appropriate to its own people. Perhaps Christianity is the best religion for us. But it may not be the best religion for people in the Middle East or China or India. Each region, each group of people, has its own religion. And there have been different religions at different stages of human history. Today, throughout the world, there are many choices, so that people can find a religion appropriate to the way they are able to approach God.

There is no need for conflict among the nations on religious grounds. We cannot say, "My religion is better than yours, therefore my country should take yours over." That is not how God rules our world. God gives the nations religions appropriate to their individual character.

In Divine Providence #330 Swedenborg writes, "The idea that only people who are born in the Christian religion are saved is a foolish heresy." I love his brashness! The fundamental idea in many Christian churches is that you must be a Christian and believe in Jesus in order to be saved . . . and Swedenborg calls this a "foolish heresy." He continues:

Those who are born outside Christianity are people just as much as those living within it. They have the same heavenly origin, and are equally living and immortal souls. They also have a religious faith from which they recognize that there is a God, and that they should live good lives. And all who believe in God and live good lives become spiritual in their own way, and are saved.

Some people object that non-Christians have not been baptized. But baptism saves people only when they are spiritually washed, meaning spiritually reborn, since baptism is a symbol and a reminder of this. Some people also object that non-Christians do not know the Lord, and without the Lord no one can be saved. But salvation does not come to us because we know the Lord; it comes to us because we follow the Lord's commandments.

Besides, everyone who believes in God knows the Lord, since the Lord is the God of heaven and earth.

I love this statement--especially the parting line. Many Christians say, "You have to believe in Jesus." Swedenborg says, "Everyone who believes in God knows the Lord [Jesus], since the Lord is the God of heaven and earth." We believe that if people approach God in their own way, using their own names for God, they are in fact approaching Jesus. There is no other God to approach!

This is the third principle: All religions provide a pathway to God and salvation. And if we look for the good things God has placed in other religions, it will help us as we seek to get along with the people who belong to those religions.

The fourth principle is: The basic teachings in all religions are the two Great Commandments. This is what Swedenborg says in our reading from Divine Providence--that loving and believing the Lord and not doing evil are the basics in all religion. And "not doing evil" is a reverse way of saying that we should love and do good things for our neighbor.

The two Great Commandments are: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:27). Let's take a look at each of these commandments.

Loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength means, first, that we must believe in God. Obviously we have to believe in God in order to love God. And all religions provide a God that its people can believe in. So we must believe in God as we understand God from our own religious beliefs.

It also means that we must put God first in our lives--above ourselves, above our possessions, above our pleasures, and even above our family, friends, and neighbors. This can sometimes be very difficult when we have to choose between following our religious principles and doing something a family or close friend wants us to do, but that isn't right. Sometime we have to choose between God and the neighbor. And this commandment says that God should always come first in our priorities.

Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves means that we must consider our neighbor to be just as important and just as worthy of thoughtfulness and respect as we ourselves are. God is above all, and the neighbor is equal to ourselves in our consideration. This is true of our international neighbors, our neighbors of other religions, and so on. It is true of all relationships, big or small: we are to give others the same consideration and respect that we would like them to give us. Hardest of all, this is true even of those with whom we are in severe conflict. We are to look for the good in all people--including our enemies.

And it is the good in others that we are to love. We are not asked to love the evil things that other people do, nor to condone wrongdoing. Rather, we are asked to look for the good in people, and to work to draw out and increase that good, while separating the evil both from others and from ourselves. This is true whether we consider someone to be a friend or an enemy. When we recognize that God is in all people, and that God is with them just as much as with us, we can start building the bridges that we were blowing up before.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves applies to everyone--though we may have to love different neighbors in different ways. And loving our neighbor isn't just a warm fuzzy feeling. It means actually doing useful, good, and kind things for our neighbor.

In the Ten Commandments, there is one table about putting God first, and another table about not doing evil things to our neighbor. The flip side of the second table is that when we stop lying, stealing, committing adultery, and committing other offenses against our neighbor, then we begin to do genuine good for our neighbor. So the fundamental commandments of the church are to put God first, and to love the neighbor, which means doing good things for the neighbor.

It seems simple; it seems straightforward--and yet we have such difficulty in so many areas of our life in following these simple, straightforward commandments. If we were to follow these as a world, there would be no more wars. Perhaps there would be some conflict, but we would be able to resolve it without coming to blows. The fact that our world has been engaging in wars and conflicts since time immemorial shows that we have nowhere near arrived at the kingdom of God. We still have so far to go.

If we would follow these principles first within ourselves, and then among the nations, it would give focus and unity to our scattered, divided hearts and minds. If we looked at all things from these principles, we would no longer wander and waver between one point of view and another. We would see clearly what is the right thing to do. And it would bring us all together as family and friends. We may not be best friends with everyone, but we wouldn't have to be in ceaseless conflict with one another. We would be able get along better with our neighbors, our co-workers, and even with the people that we consider our enemies--at least having some mutual respect even if we can't see eye to eye.

Swedenborg tells us that it is our differing thoughts and beliefs that divide us. Yet though we may have different opinions, if we have love and kindness in our hearts, we can bridge those differences, and work together. And as these principles rise up to the higher levels from people to communities to nations, and as both the leaders and the people begin to follow these principles, it will bring the nations of the world together. The world can become one if we focus on our common humanity, and not on the ideologies and material possessions--or lack thereof--that divide us.

Our reading from Isaiah is very pointed. The fact is that there are haves and have-nots in our society and in our world. Some are butting others aside and grabbing what they want, to the detriment of others. This is what makes it so that we cannot get along as a nation and as a world. But when we realize that life is not about material possessions, that it is not about our own pleasure and power, but rather, that it is about the good we can do for others, then we begin to resolve the conflicts in our world.

These, then, are the principles I am offering you this morning. There is one God. This God is a God of universal love. God has provided many different religions on this earth to reach out to many different people. And all people can be one, and at peace, if we will love God above all, and love our neighbor as ourselves. All people can be one if we will do our best to have the same respect and kindness for others that we want them to have for us. If we will follow these principles, it will bring our world together.

"I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice, so there will be one flock and one shepherd." Amen.

Prayer

O God of all, age after age our tragic human empires rise; and you stand above it all, weeping over the holy city of your human community on earth, and yearning for us to know what would bring us peace. Open the hearts of the leaders, nations, and peoples of this earth to set aside the lust for wealth and dominance, and instead to put you first in all things, and to seek the good of both individual and international neighbors. Show us the way for all nations to become one under your divine dominion. Amen.

Rev. Lee Woofenden