A Vision of Service. A Classic Sermon.
September 26, 2004
Awake, Awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for the uncircumcised and the unclean shall enter you no more. Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, sit enthroned, O Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter Zion! . . .
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!"
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion they will see it with their own eyes. Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.
(Isaiah 52:1-2, 7-10)
Reading from Swedenborg
The church does not exist where there is no truth of faith, nor religion where there is no good of life. The church and religion make one like truth and good. And as truth relates to faith, and goodness to charity, they make one just as faith and charity do. Or, to make this clearer, they make one like understanding and will. We know that we may understand well and yet not will well; and that we can understand truth, and from understanding speak it, and yet not do it from our will. But when we will as we understand, and do as we say, then our will and understanding make one within us. It is the same with the church and religion. The church is a church from its doctrine; religion is religion from living according to doctrine. And the doctrine must consist of truth, and the life of goodness. (Doctrine of Charity #212)
Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments! . . . Shake yourself from the dust. (Isaiah 52:1-2)
Since the publication of My Religion, in which I acknowledge my profound indebtedness to Emanuel Swedenborg for a richer interpretation of the Bible, a deeper understanding of the meaning of Christianity, and a precious sense of the divine presence in the world, I have been asked a great many questions that trouble my heart and awaken disturbing thoughts in my mind. What I am going to say to you today has been suggested by these questions, and my reflections upon the state of mind they reveal.
An earnest friend asks me, "What is the attitude of the people who believe in Swedenborg's doctrine of charity, which you explain in your book, towards the practical problems of our day? What are they doing to promote peace and good will among men?"
A college student writes: "I do not find the New Church, which embodies the teaching of Christ so powerfully elucidated by Swedenborg, leading any movement for world betterment."
A zealous worker for universal peace and brotherhood inquires: "Did the followers of Swedenborg stand together in an effort to uphold the principles of their seer and of our Lord and Savior in the debacle of the World War?"
A radical writes: "It seems to me that your New Church variety of Christians is not very different from other churches, like the Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and the Evangelical denominations. They confess the Lord in the sanctuary and deny him in the marketplace."
A young man says: "The acquiescent, conciliatory attitude of the Christian Church towards a corrupt, cruel, and acquisitive society is a repudiation of the Christ Gospel."
These are only a few of the questions that have been brought to my attention the past six months. They indicate the feeling of many thoughtful people that Christianity is receding rather than growing in power. Some of the churches realize that their people are leaving them, and, without understanding the cause, they try all manner of expedients to hold their flocks together. They say, "We are living in a materialistic age; we must give the people material attractions in the churches." As a result, we see preacher-actors, concerts, motion pictures, jazz, and frenzied acrobatics in some of the churches. Still the exodus continues, the people murmur, and the light of faith grows dimmer in human hearts.
What is the cause of this ever-increasing darkness in the tabernacles of God? Why is humanity losing its belief in the livableness of Christianity?
While seeking the answer to these questions, I opened Swedenborg's True Christian Religion, and there I found the answer: "Where there is no good of life, there is no longer a church" (see True Christian Religion #389, Doctrine of Charity #212). Where people cease to apply their beliefs to practical living, there is no faith. Is this not what has happened to the Christian Church? No church can inspire noble ideals in the people if it does not follow the aims laid down for us by our Lord.
My friends, we have let very different aims choke the seed he would plant in our hearts. We have pursued vain things. Possessed by ambition for earthly power and dominion, we have sought to subject others to our will and law. To satisfy our desires, we have profaned our faith and desecrated the Holy of Holies in the lives of our fellow men. By word and deed we have denied the Lord and betrayed him to his enemies.
Two thousand years ago he clothed himself in flesh that he might walk with men and show them how to live together in peace. Through poverty, through persecution, through betrayal he lived his life before their eyes, going about his Father's business, healing the sick, comforting the sorrowful, opening the eyes of the blind, and setting free captive minds. He dwelt among the poor and despised of the people, and ministered to their physical needs.
He never told them it was an advantage for men to live in horrid, unwholesome dwellings, nor did he tell them it was a disadvantage for men to live under healthy, pleasant, and decent conditions. Neither did he ever say that impoverished people were necessarily good. That would not have been true. The poor must perforce think more than they should about external necessities. That is a part of the misery of being poor.
What Jesus did say was that accumulating or possessing external things is not an advantage. Happiness and virtue are inside of us. If we could only realize that, we should not want to be rich. When the rich young man came to him asking what he should do to be saved, Jesus said: You should give up hampering possessions. They prevent you from realizing the best that is in you (Matthew 19:16-22).
He said the same thing to his disciples. He told them to go out into the world and preach his gospel of service. He said that the world would not welcome them, but this was not to trouble them. They were to be calm and speak boldly. If a man took their cloak, they were to give him their coat also, just to show that material things were of secondary importance. Even if people used violence against them, they were warned not to be violent in turn. "Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword," he told them (Matthew 26:52). Love is the power that saves. "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34), and you shall be blessed by your Father who is in heaven.
How, then, can deliverance come through churches that begin their deliberations by banishing love? Love carries away the light when it departs.
My friends, we have wandered very far from the teachings of our Lord. We have lost our way in the maze of an evil system that makes a lie of Christianity. We cannot have a Christlike civilization until we have a Christlike church. If the people are to find spiritual joy, the church must establish upon earth a practical Christianity. It must make of human life something more than a battlefield of ruthless competition. When Christians live by the Golden Rule, there will be no empty churches. The church will then in very truth be the home our hearts yearn for.
It seems to me that the New Church has a great mission in the world. The people are in need of just the message that Swedenborg gave for mankind. Instead of merely listening to that message, we should go out and teach it. We have a precious treasure in the vessel of the New Church, and we must be careful not to value the vessel more than the treasure.
I sometimes think that the withdrawing attitude of the New Church keeps people from knowing what a glorious message it has in trust for those who are lost in the fogs of materialism. With all its abounding humanity, Swedenborg's message does not reach the ears of all sorts and conditions of men. If the message does not reach them, it is due not to any narrowness in the Christian ideal that it foreshadows, but to lack of zeal on the part of those who possess it. I want to see the New Church put on its beautiful garments and shake itself from the dust of aloofness.
It is assumed by some today that religion must not be treated as an elemental force, but as a "good form" diversion--somewhat tiresome and conventional. The one point agreed upon by all, or nearly all cautious, discreet preachers is that no pulpit reference should be made to any controversial topics. "Let not such problems as politics and war and industrialism be touched upon in the sanctuary."
We assume that the powers that be are ordained of God. We belong first to the state, and must have no will of our own. We may discuss ad infinitum evidences of Christianity, but most of the evidence is in the past. It occurs to very few people that God still speaks to his children!
May it not be the mission of our little band of New Churches to spread over the kingdom of the world the astonishing fact that the religion of Jesus Christ is a contagious reality; that there is still in the lowliest men and women something called faith that will respond to men speaking with the greatest of all authority: the authority of an inward conviction of the truth of God's message?
Then society will be so completely transformed that in nothing will the new order at all resemble the old. Christianity will yet inundate the world like the ocean at flood-tide. It will overwhelm, submerge, and regenerate mankind. No man-built barrier of warships, armies, and fortifications shall stay the oncoming of the mighty waters. Sex and color, races and creeds shall be washed and purified in the tidal waves of fraternal transformation.
When the day dawns, a man will walk with the sun of love before his face, and it will shine wherever two men look at each other. For the sun of love is the substance and the life of all created things. In its bosom lies the future of all things. It is from the sun of love that wisdom springs, and through its potency man develops whatever in his nature is patterned after the divine.
"Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments! Shake yourself from the dust." Amen.
Dearest Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, you have entrusted us with incredible riches of doctrine and insight. Yet we have done so little with that wealth! Wake us up from our theological slumbers, and send us out into the world to lavishly spend all you have given us in loving and serving those who are poor, blind, lame, and deaf, physically or spiritually, and who long for the good news. Amen.