Readings: Psalm 33 (portions), John 17, 20-26, True Christianity 99 (see below)
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Photo credit: Anastasiya Lobanovskaya
Welcome to our new series: Exploring Mission. Each week we will be exploring an aspect of our church’s mission statement. Why is it important to do this? Certainly in the new year, we often reflect on how we are doing, examine our habits, our perspectives, and our values in order to make commitments to the things that are important to us. This can be just as important for groups to do as individuals.
Because, sometimes it is very easy to get caught up in the what, the when, and the how, without spending much time on the WHY. And the why really is the heart of it all. The why fuels the when the what and the how, the why gives these things their meaning and their urgency.
So, I thought we might spend each week for the next several weeks until Lent, looking at a piece of our church’s mission statement and connecting them to the spiritual ideas that drive them. And hopefully, this exploration will also feel relevant to our everyday lives, because the work of church isn’t separate from our daily lives, it is just an aspect of our spiritual lives that we choose to do together in community.
So let’s begin with our mission statement itself:
The Church of the Holy City exists to help people be open to God’s presence and to facilitate spiritual well-being.
We do this by:
Today we are going to focus on the first section: The Church of the Holy City exists to help people be open to God’s presence and to facilitate spiritual well-being.
While there are a couple of ideas that could be explored here, the one I’m going to focus on is God’s presence. The work we do here is to help people be *open* to God’s presence. Now, this implies that God is already present, and this is an important part of our theology. We believe in a loving God who is present for everybody, no matter who they are, no matter what faith or religion they might be, or even if they have no faith. So, not a distant God, not an angry God, not a judgmental or condemning God, not a transactional God. Swedenborg writes:
[The presence of God] appears to be far away. Yet God is actually close to each of us, for God is in us with his essence. (TC 22:2)
This is God’s default. To love us and be present with us. No secret passwords or creeds, no good enough or worthy enough. God’s steadfast love is referenced over and over again in the Bible, like in our Psalm for today, and this is what it means. God will never give up on us. We will always receive a baseline of love and acceptance because we are God’s beloved creation and nothing will ever change that.
But, it is important to note that presence is one thing and relationship is another. Presence is the gateway to relationship, it’s the table stakes. However, as we heard in our reading for today for two things or people to be in an actual relationship there needs to be reciprocity between them. God show up for us, and the next question is: what do we do in response.
Do we turn towards God and open ourselves up to relationship with God?
Because, if presence is all that we are willing to allow for God, then God will take it but that is not all that God wants. Swedenborg writes: love is nothing but an effort to forge a partnership. The essence of love is loving others who are outside oneself, wanting to be one with them…Divine love constantly aims to forge a partnership with us…it is what we were created for. (TCR 369:3)
So, yes, God’s presence is a given, but we can also choose how “open” and responsive we are to that presence. We can choose to enter into an active partnership with God, or we can choose not to. And this choice, is one that we make over and over again in our everyday lives. Some days we will be selfish and fearful and prideful, and we will stomp our feet and close our eyes to God. Some days we will be distracted and anxious, and we will get caught up in our cycles and our patterns and we will forget about God. Some days we will be focused and successful and driven, and perhaps we will feel satisfied and that we don’t even need God very much. This is what human beings do and we all struggle with it. And so, human beings over millennia have gathered together to help each other remember the presence of God in lots of different ways, when we have forgotten. Through useful work, though quiet retreat, through communal ritual and music, through forms of prayer and meditation and reflection, we gather to remember God together, we gather to support each other in creating open spaces in our hearts and minds into which God can flow.
When we remember, when we are able to create just a little distance from our own habits, our own self-obsession, our own self-ness, then there is space for us to feel God’s presence, a presence already there but sometimes made inaccessible by our own patterns.
And so this is why our mission statement begins with helping each other be open to God’s presence. This choice, this moment-by-moment spiritual practice, is the beginning from which all else comes. But it’s hard! The forgetting is so easy. Just like we might ask a partner, “Hey remind me to put out the trash later", so too we gather together with each other to say, “Hey, remind me about God.”
But as we end this message here today, I’ll be honest and say that I hesitated over this whole sermon series idea because it seemed like it might be too inward-looking. So I want to end each week with the question of “why does this all matter?”
Let’s be honest, life is absurd. The fact that we are all here and the world exists is absurd. But we do. We *are* here. And since we are, we may as well do something meaningful with our existence. This is the essential choice we are presented with: as we go about trying to create meaning, trying to survive and thrive, are we going to make ourselves and our desires primary or are we going to share the joy as much as possible, serve each other with love and care, knowing that we are all connected.
Of course, this commitment to service does not mean being a martyr, ignoring our own intuition or natural intelligence, thinking that being good always means putting ourselves last; it means that even when we do focus on ourselves, we are doing it in the context of community. My health leading to your health, my self-acceptance leading to your self-acceptance, my courage leading to your courage. There is an essential acknowledgement that we are all in this together and that we owe something to each other.
The beginning of this type of communal, connective mindset is the recognition that there is something essential outside of our own selfhood, our own ego, our own desires. In our tradition, we call that God. It’s not the only word that works for that purpose. But the essential point of being open to God’s presence means recognizing that *we* are not the whole world. It has to begin with that. When it does, when we recognize that the people around us are just as real as we are, just as beloved, just as complicated, then that becomes a place of wonderfully rich and dynamic learning, as well as useful service. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I’m here for.
Psalm 33 (portions)
1 Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
2 Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.
4 For the word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.
5 The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.
6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
7 He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses.
13 From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all humankind;
14 from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth--
15 he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do.
16 No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.
17 A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.
18 But the eyes of the LORD are on those who revere him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
20 We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.
21 In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.
22 May your unfailing love be with us, LORD, even as we put our hope in you.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,
21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one
23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me.
26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
True Christianity 99
The union is reciprocal because no union or partnership between two exists unless each party moves closer to the other. Every partnership in the entirety of heaven, in all the world, and throughout the human form is the result of two parties moving into a closer relationship with each other until both parties intend the same things. This leads to a similarity, harmony, unanimity, and agreement in every detail between the parties.
This is how our soul and our body form a partnership with each other…This is how the minds of people who deeply love each other form a partnership. It is an integral part of all love and friendship. Love wants to love and it wants to be loved…
If a given partnership is not the result of two things moving closer to each other in a mutual and reciprocal way, then a partnership develops that is only superficial rather than deep. In time, the partners in a superficial relationship drift away from each other, sometimes so far that they no longer recognize each other.