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Sermons

A New Earth

October 13, 2013

Bible Readings

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my
God, in whom I trust.”

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;

he will cover you with his pinions, and under his
wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a
shield and buckler.

You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow
that flies by day,

or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the
destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at
your right hand, but it will not come near you.

You will only look with your eyes and see the
punishment of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the
Most High your dwelling place,

no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your
tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you to
guard you in all your ways.

On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will
not dash your foot against a stone.

You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young
lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those
who know my name.

When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be
with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor
them.

With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my
salvation.

(Psalm 91)


Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

(Revelation 21:1-5a)

Reading from Swedenborg

These things are concerning the new heaven; something shall now be said concerning “the new earth.” By “the new earth” is meant the new church on the earth; for when a former church ceases to exist, then a new one is established by the Lord. For it is provided by the Lord that there should always be a church on earth, since by means of the church there is a conjunction of the Lord with the human race, and of heaven with the world; for there the Lord is known, and there are the Divine truths by which man is conjoined to him. That a new church is at this time being established, may be seen in the small work Last Judgment (n. 74). The reason why a new church is signified by “the new earth” arises from the spiritual sense of the Word; for in that sense, by the “earth” no particular country is meant, but the nation dwelling there, and its Divine worship; this, in the spiritual sense, being what answers to earth in the natural sense.

(The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrines §5)

Sermon

In Revelation, John said that he saw a new heaven and a new earth. I’m not going to vouch for the new heaven—I believe and pray that it’s there—but I can certainly vouch for the fact that we are seeing a new earth.

In my ministry at Wayfarers Chapel, where we do many, many weddings, I’m realizing that the world is becoming one and that I am marrying everybody to everybody. Part of the joy and part of the challenge—a joyful challenge—of that is to adapt myself to many cross-cultural situations. It’s a new earth.

I’m sure many of you here have been affected by the economic downturn and the globalization of our economy. If you’re not experiencing it personally, you are praying in your churches for people who are or who know people who are. We are seeing a new earth.

And then, of course, there’s the technology! When I became chair of the Council of Ministers, I got myself a tablet computer. They were jokingly referring to it in the office as my “new best friend.” It was a mixed blessing. There would be times when I had my list of things to do that day and I would be sitting my office, and there’s my desktop computer, and there’s my laptop, there’s my tablet, there’s my smart phone, and I’m thinking, “I have all these things to do and all the files I need are . . . somewhere . . .” I’ve had moments of brain freeze. I didn’t know what to do! Or I’d be working on my desktop, say, and the message comes up that I have an email. I read the email, I start to answer it, the phone rings. I answer the phone. Then someone comes to my office door to ask a question. One of the not-so-wonderful things about the new technology is that the interruptions to our interruptions to our interruptions can be interrupted. I have just accepted it as a fact that, when it comes to new technology, I am going to be lost and confused for the rest of my life.

Or again, a big part of my job these days is done via phone calls and emails. With the ability to connect through cellular service, I can park in a shady spot with a beautiful view, sit in the passenger seat of my car, and do my job. The other side of that, however, is that my job follows me everywhere I go, 24/7. It is indeed a new earth.

There is a deeper side to that as well. There are new ways of doing seminary and new ways of doing church.

Spiritual seekers are out there with all this new technology. It’s an amazing thing—I carry around in my pocket a device that will link me to all of the world’s information, everywhere, all the time. Spiritual seekers have—at least online—access to the full richness of human spiritual traditions and religions. It’s all there for them, all the time. Maybe there are fewer opportunities for the face-to-face—it depends on where you live—but it is all out there.

Recently we have been finding with spiritual seekers that they come to our ministries, they benefit from them, they get what they are looking for, and they move on. As a minister at Wayfarers Chapel, I have come to think of everyone as a wayfarer. People may stay for a day, they may stay for an eight-week course, or they may stay for years, but everyone is a wayfarer—they’re pausing for a while, and then they’re moving on.

When people leave our ministries, most often they are not leaving angry, they are leaving grateful. Sometimes I say to my Angels in Training group that someone who just “graduated” sent me a very grateful email, saying he or she had gotten the support and help needed, and now that person is doing something else on Wednesday evenings. These folks are leaving grateful, but they are moving on. That is a reality of the current world. It is a new earth. And at the seminary and on the ministry placement committee, we are changing. And we are going to continue to change. It’s not whether we are going to change, it’s how we are going to change. We are living in a new earth, and we are going to become—whether by planning or by just letting things unfold—a new church.

In planning this sermon, I wanted to talk about the spirituality of embracing change. The more I thought about it, the more I came to feel that the way to handle change is to focus on what does not change. In our readings this morning there is common thread and a common word. That word is dwell. In the opening of Psalm 91, we read, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” And in Revelation, “Now God’s home is with all people. God will dwell with them. They will be God’s people, and God will be with them and be their God.” Swedenborg didn’t use the word “dwell,” but it is implied in the end of our reading from him. He’s promising us that there is always a church on earth. He’s promising us that we can always be part of that church. And indeed, the church he is speaking of is “a place where the Lord is known and where the divine truths are to be found which enable people to be united with him” (The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine §5). In other words, church is a place where people dwell with God.

Rev. Ken Turley, in his presidential address, came to us as a prophet. I like what Rev. Steve Sanchez said in his ordination address: that Ken not only named the elephant in the room, he stomped on it too. Like a prophet, Ken told us some hard truths and issued a dire warning. But like a true prophet, he also offered us hope.

Swedenborg promises us that there is always going to be a church and that we can always be part of it. What no one is promising, however, is that there is always going to be a General Convention of the New Jerusalem. I agree completely with Ken’s assessment. I’ve been on the Placement Committee—I’ve seen the same data. There will always be a church, but it remains to be seen whether there will always be a General Convention of the New Jerusalem. That is up to us and the Divine Providence.

This is an invitation to think about what church is in its essence. I think one way to approach this is simply through the word “dwelling”—not the noun but the verb. A church is a place of dwelling. In my ministry, I’ve seen that one of the great hungers in this world—where we are so busy and so fast and so connected—is for the deeper conversation. I’ve seen this many times at Wayfarers Chapel: we have Sunday service; I’m talking to people afterwards at coffee hour; I get called away to a baptism; I come back, and they are continuing the conversation; I go do a wedding, come back, and they are still talking.

I’ve realized that once you break through the polite get-to-know-you, the “How are you doing?” “I’m doing fine . . . .” Once you get beyond that and punch into something deeper, people do not want to let it go. There is a great hunger for it. If I say a class is an hour, it goes an hour and a half. If I say to myself, “Really, an hour is not enough,” and make it an hour and a half, it goes two hours. If I say, “C’mon, guys, it’s nine o’clock; the staff needs to go home,” we close up, we’re driving out—they’re standing next to their cars, continuing the conversation. People hunger for the deeper conversation.

People want to be known. But to be truly known, that is a scary thing. Because when you offer from your deepest thoughts, your deepest feelings, your deepest desires, when you offer from that, you’re vulnerable—and it’s scary. I was going to say that we’re vulnerable to judgment, to being looked down upon, to being criticized. But when I was preparing this morning, I thought that really what we are more afraid of than any of that is being misunderstood, or even of not being understood at all. If we share from our deepest thoughts and feelings, and the response is “Huh? What?,” that’s a very lonely place to be.

When you find the place where you can be known, where it is safe to be known, where you’re heard with compassion, where you’re held as just who you are, where you are, how you are, that is church. Wherever you find it, that is the dwelling place of the Lord. When people are held that way, that’s when they open up to looking within, to questioning their hearts, to discerning the changes they need to be making in their lives, and to finding the insight and the courage that allows change to unfold. Wherever you find that in your life, that is the dwelling place of the Lord, that is church.

In November, I was back in my native eastern Massachusetts for General Council meetings, but it was also my dad’s seventy-ninth birthday, in which I got to participate. But part of that trip also was bittersweet: I attended the last worship service of the Elmwood New Church in their historic building. Elmwood New Church is still there, and they’re still worshiping, but not in that building. That was the place where I became a Swedenborgian many years ago. It was Rev. Ken Turley’s first pastorate. He was the one that convinced me that—despite what I thought—I was a Christian after all. Once I understood Christianity through the lens of Swedenborg, I realized I was a Christian, and that was a good feeling.

So obviously, the Elmwood New Church, that building, was a significant place. That place on that day was packed, and many people shared what the church had meant to them. But what I took away from that event were the ironies. Many of the people who came back and were missing the church and were angry and upset that the building was going to be torn down hadn’t set foot in that building for years or even decades, and hadn’t contributed anything for years or decades. And I also remember the irony that Rev. Donna Keane, pastor of the Elmwood Church, pointed out: that all of the sharing in the end wasn’t about the building; it was about the people remembered. It was about the relationships.

The church is the dwelling place of the Lord where we are known and held and are given the insights and the courage to make changes in our lives. The church is not a building—though certainly it can take place in a building. It is not any one particular order of worship—although, to be sure, it can take place in the worship experience. It is not any particular form of meditation, or prayer group, or class or workshop—though church can happen in all of those places. Church is the dwelling place of the Lord where we are known and we are given the insights we need to move forward in our lives. Wherever we find that, we have found church.

I am going to propose a couple of quotes from Paul as a spirituality for facing a future where there’s always going to be a church, but maybe not always the General Convention of the New Jerusalem. I pray that there always will be, but I agree with Ken: it is an open question. Paul in Romans says, “If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” And in Galatians, he says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, Christ lives within me.”

Now as a Swedenborgian theologian, when Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ,” I am not understanding that, of course, through the lens of atonement; I’m not understanding that through the lens of substitutionary sacrifice. Rather, if I am committing myself to following the path that Christ has opened up to me—relying not on my own strength but on the strength of the Christ that lives in me and in all of you—if I try to follow the path that Christ opens up to me, relying on Him for the wisdom and the strength and the courage I need, even maybe to the ultimate temptation, then I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.

The last couple of years, I’ve gotten back—selectively—into Paul. There’s a lot there that doesn’t need to be—shouldn’t be, I think—read in terms of atonement theology but a theology of living the life that Christ lived. If there was a person who had the right to say “It is no longer I who live, Christ lives in me,” before Paul said it, that person was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus died so that Christ would live within him. That is his path for us.

My greatest and eternal gratitude to the Swedenborgian tradition is, as I said, that it allowed me to self-identify as a Christian again. I think growing up there was one thing I never lost, and I swear this, I never lost my reverence for the actions of Jesus, the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, the path that he asked us to follow. I never lost that. But Christianity seemed like an obscene mistake in many ways. How could anyone imagine for a moment that this is what He was asking of us?

But then the Swedenborgian tradition gave me Christianity back again. It gave me the Bible back again. Being a Swedenborgian, for me, is first and foremost being a Christian, as I’ve come to understand being a Christian through Swedenborg’s writings and theology and as I have come to experience it through involvement in Swedenborgian gatherings. But it is all about following the path that Christ is leading me down. The word “Swedenborgian” is secondary. The Swedenborgian tradition is a means to an end.

There will always—there will always, the Bible promises us; there will always, as Swedenborg promises us—be a church. There will always be a church—it will always be open to us to be a part of that church. I pray for all of us that we dedicate ourselves to finding that church, wherever it appears in our lives, putting aside all of our preconceptions of what a church is, what it looks like, what it does externally, what is worship, what is prayer, what is meditation. Wherever you find that dwelling place with the Lord and especially in deep conversation and in community with your fellow human beings, that is church. There will always be that church. My prayer is that together we live into that church and that as we live into that church, the Swedenborgian Church will be one of the many places, and indeed a very powerful place, where the Lord dwells, one of the places where church powerfully happens. I pray that the Lord so guides us. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mitchell