Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-15, Revelation 19:4-9, True Christianity 791 (see below)
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Today is a day that is holding a lot, practically bursting with celebration and joy! It is Juneteenth, as well as New Church Day, and Father’s Day. And let’s not forget that it is falling in June, which is Pride month. Such a lot to celebrate!
So today, I want to focus on the thematic connection between Juneteenth and New Church Day.
Juneteenth is a holiday that originated in Texas as a celebration of the day in 1865, when a Union Army General proclaimed freedom for the enslaved people of that state. Now, the Emancipation Proclamation had indeed already been issued two years earlier on January 1st 1863 but its enforcement was inconsistent, and relied on the presence of Union troops. Texas, the most remote of Confederate states, lagged far behind on implementation and actively tried to avoid implementation, and thus we have the importance of this second, state-focused proclamation in 1865.
Local celebrations of that day started immediately and continued to gain momentum, especially in the safer spaces that churches provided, eventually becoming a day for not only celebrating emancipation but also celebrating African American culture.
Now, New Church Day has also been celebrated by the Swedenborgian movement for a very long time. It commemorates the day, June 19th 1770, that Swedenborg reports the disciples traveling far and wide in heaven to proclaim: The Lord God Jesus Christ Reigns, whose kingdom shall be forever and ever.
On the face of it, this seems like a fairly basic theological thing to proclaim; why is it so important as to be celebrated by the church every year? Well, this statement comes as a postscript at the end of Swedenborg’s work True Christianity, his two volume survey of the theology of his revelation. And in particular, the statement comes as the capstone to Swedenborg’s treatment in that book of the rise of a new church in human culture and history.
Swedenborg didn’t really understand this “new church” as being an organization, he understood it as a new way for humanity to be in relationship with God. Again and again throughout his final section on the new church, he states that for our salvation, people need to be in active and personal partnership with God. This was in contrast to all the ways that religion throughout the ages had tried to convince people how they would be saved: enacting sacrifices in a certain way or in a certain place or to a certain god, enacting certain rituals or sacraments, believing the “right” theology and saying the “right” creeds.
Instead, our salvation (note: not our chosen-ness, not our get out of jail free card) but rather our happiness to eternity, rests on us choosing to engage with a personal God who we believe cares about *us*. And, Swedenborg believed that it was really hard to have that kind of relationship with a God unless we could “see” (meaning conceptualize) God as human, and not human in a limited way, but human as in someone kindred with whom we can feel safe and understood.
Therefore, Jesus, the human incarnation of an infinite and invisible God, becomes an integral part of us human beings being able to buy into and participate in this kind of relationship. It helps us to recognize ourselves in Jesus, to see the same struggles, the same human shape of body and life, to know that he experienced much of what we experience. God came to us as Jesus so to increase our capacity and our openness for the type of engaged partnership that Swedenborg understood to be so important to our salvation.
Our reading from Revelation uses the metaphor of marriage in order to communicate the closeness, commitment, and free choice, that is involved in this partnership between each of us and God. In verse 7, For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Now, marriage is certainly not the only relationship that can model these characteristics of course, but through this metaphor, we get a taste for the kind of engaged steadfastness that God is going for with us.
And so perhaps we can see now the import of declaring The Lord God Jesus Christ Reigns. This very simple statement contains the acknowledgement that God and Jesus are one, and so contains the potentiality for our humanness and God’s humanness to be in a spiritually productive and personal relationship. And in addition, the fact of Jesus being God and God being Jesus communicates to us the enormity of God’s Divine Love, and God’s single-mindedness in bringing that love to us, to every person, in a meaningful and progressively transformative way.
Which brings us back around to Juneteenth. Swedenborg saw the New Church as something that would progressively emerge in the world the more that individuals chose to engage in partnership with God. The more individuals engage in partnership with God, the more they would see the truth of God’s love for everyone, the more they would value humility, diversity, equality, and see the potential and value of each human soul the way God sees it.
Slavery itself was the opposite of that. In its essence, it proclaimed that some people are less worthy than others, so much less worthy that they did not deserve basic autonomy or dignity, or the power to choose their own path, and that conversely some people were more worthy and tasked with dominion over others. There couldn’t be anything more opposite to the basic tenets of New Church Day, in that God’s Divine Love seeks a relationship with all souls, holding them all with equal importance, and that all have an equal place in God’s vision of the future.
And so Swedenborgians would understand the abolition of slavery as one more sign (among many!) that the New Church is coming into the world, that the metaphorical New Jerusalem from the Book of Revelation is descending from heaven to become manifest and real in the here and now. The hope contained within New Church Day is that there will many more Juneteenths to be celebrated, large and small, and that ultimately one day there will no longer be a need to free people from injustice because injustice will no longer exist.
But as we look to that future, we have to recall that Juneteenth only exists because of the *work* of people, (and not only their work but their suffering and sacrifice) responding in faith to the God, or the highest moral imperative, of their understanding. New Church Day celebrates the beginning declaration of *what could be*, and now it is up to all of us to bring it about. And this is why I chose to include the final verse in our Daniel reading: “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.” The celebration of New Church Day should trouble us a little, certainly even a lot, for the ways in which the characteristics of the Holy City are yet to be manifest.
Part of engaging in relationship, with God but also with anyone, is seeing through another’s eyes not only our strengths but also how we can improve, how we can love more effectively. This means relinquishing many things our ego would rather not relinquish, changing our mindset from serving ourselves to serving others. As it is with us personally, so it is with our society and world at large. The impulses that built institutional slavery have not gone away, instead these forces of racism and domination have been woven into the fabric of our society. For white folks, Juneteenth should serve as an opportunity for learning, as we reflect on how we can help to make things better. We can choose, together, to weave a new pattern, but there is still so much work to do and we cannot turn away from doing our part.
Let us also remember though, that God is helping. What is so moving about New Church Day for me is to deeply feel the import of God’s dream for humanity. When we love someone, we want what is best for them, we want them to exist in a context that allows them to thrive, we want them to be supported in ways that help to build them up, and we want them to be challenged in ways that help them to grow into the amazing souls that we know them to be. This the way God feels about us, all of us. And so God dreams for us The New Jerusalem, The Holy City, a place we only know about through the metaphor of scripture, but a place that I think we all feel in our hearts. New Church Day, and I imagine Juneteenth too, are about celebration but also about yearning, about longing for what could be. There is something very bittersweet about seeing with one eye that which is still broken, and with the other a restoration that still is to come.
So today, let us inhabit fully this in-between space, let us feel both reproach and hopefulness, both criticism and promise, for that is where we can get things done. Let us be as faithful Daniel “troubled in spirit” while also as in our Revelation reading, part of the “great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.”
Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-15
9 “As I looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.
14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
15 “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.
Revelation 19: 4-9
4 The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: “Amen, Hallelujah!”
5 Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who revere him, both great and small!”
6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
9 Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
True Christianity 791. Postscript
After this work was finished, the Lord called together the twelve disciples who followed him in the world. The next day he sent all of them out to the entire spiritual world to preach the gospel that the Lord God Jesus Christ reigns and that his kingdom will last for ages of ages, as foretold by Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14) and by the Book of Revelation (Revelation 11:15); also that "people who come to the wedding feast of the Lamb are blessed" (Revelation 19:9). This occurred on June 19, 1770. This is what the Lord was referring to when he said, "He will send out his angels, and they will gather his chosen people from one end of the heavens to the other" (Matthew 24:31).