Annual Meeting Sunday
Rev. Kit Billings
October 3, 2004
On this Homecoming and Annual Meeting Sunday, let me begin by celebrating with you so many beautiful and wonderful things that have happened in our ministry here at the Church Of The Open Word thanks to God's support and inspiration. After briefly touching upon this important theme as we look back upon the last twelve months of ministry together, then I would like to address what I believe is really the core theological and spiritual reason why the New Christian Church is deeply needed in our world, and therefore, why it exists.
But first, to the really fun part of my sermon! And that is to lift up and praise God for His many, many wonderful deeds He has brought to fruition through every one of us. Now, let me add that there are way too many specific examples these past twelve months of the Lord's great works or deeds flowing through this ministry for me to mention every one of them, but still I'd like to share more than several.
First, that with all of your help, support and participation, we have been blessed by God to enjoy good quality, spiritually nourishing weekly Sunday worship fifty-two weekends in a row! Sunday Sabbath worship is useful and very good for our spiritual growth and nourishment. Our teachings support very much that the Sabbath day is served well when we take time each week to learn and reflect about God, when we worship together, pray, hear useful sermons, and the like. With that said, I admire the fact that our theology contains the view that the greatest form of worshipping God happens when a believer expresses her love for and faith in God by living a good life—a life of usefulness, a life of charity and compassion towards one's neighbor, a life of peace and mercy. We know this to be true since to spiritually worship the Lord means that we have God in us—thus, love is in us—and real, spiritual love has a desire to give itself to others. To worship the Divine from the heart means to worship God's essence and being, which is love—and obviously this kind of affection is best given life by allowing it to manifest in a life of charity and use.
Let us hear directly from our New Church theology or teachings on this point: “Divine worship consists, primarily, in a life of charity, and secondarily in a life of piety.” (New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine n. 124) Swedenborg learned that praying, singing songs in worship, listening to sermons, going to church, etc. is good and needed, but these forms of spiritual life are empty without a heart filling with love for God, others and one's self. He understood also: “Actual piety is to act in every work and in every function from sincerity and rectitude, and according to what is just and equitable, and this because it is commanded by the Lord in the Word; for thus in every work man looks to heaven and to the Lord with whom he is thus conjoined.” (Apocalypse Explained n. 325) “All worship that is truly worship is effected from the good of love through truths.” (ibid. n. 316.27) “Those err who believe that they can dispose themselves for the Lord's Divine influx by prayers, adorations, and the externals of worship: these are of no effect unless the man abstains from thinking and doing evils; and, through truths from the Word, as of himself, leads himself to good as to the life. If a man does these things, he then does dispose himself, and then his prayers, adorations, and external things of worship are of avail before the Lord.” (ibid. 248)
I could not agree more! The most important form of worshipping the Lord is to worship what He is in my everyday life outside of these church walls as well as inside of them whenever I am here—that is, while inwardly wanting spiritual communion with the Lord and looking toward Heaven, to love you and support you. To show and enjoy kindness. The greatest part of worshipping God is in wanting to support the well-being of others, which does include praying for others in the spirit of Divine love, and then dive in and help!
Personally, I have seen a great deal of this kind of worship of the Lord in our church these past twelve months, and so I celebrate that we have worshipped God well, in both forms or degrees of worship—that is, in Sunday piety as well as in everyday charity and kindness. Many of us have given God's love and kindness to others through our jobs, and I celebrate this immensely. Our two church musicians, Paul and Jenny, have given so very much love to the Lord and to all of us who attend worship here in our church by their dedicated practice and leading in worship through instrument and song. Paul and Jenny, we celebrate your musical ministry with us all. And those of us with children, either young or old, have loved them in many ways (and in your hearts) this past year, so well indeed, and I celebrate your worship of God in those ways. I want to thank our Women's Alliance for the 52 weekends of coffee hours you all so wonderfully provide every Sunday. There is something about first being fed spiritually (through the love we feel from the Lord and from within one another in worship) and then having this followed up by something good and tasty (in food and drink) after worship, which truly sooths the soul and mends the body. Ladies, we salute you! I want to thank everyone who has given of your time, your talent, and your finances to this ministry, which is inspired by the Lord. Christ said that His church on earth was vital, and each one of us has played a part in participating in and supporting this church. It is a joy to be a part of a church that really gets it that for faith in God to be real, it must be joined with both love for the Lord and our neighbors, which brings God's commandments to life!
But clearly, in order for us to understand who the Lord is and what spiritual charity is through an engagement with God's Word, a church community needs to learn about and discuss the Bible, for this brings us into contact with God's truth, and the Lord's truth powerfully leads us back into His love. Thus, I'm deeply grateful for the ways in which we engage God's Word together, by means of our Sunday morning Bible study, through our church programming (such as when we deeply studied the literal and inner meaning of the Ten Commandments), as well as through praying together, by listening intently to sermons, and more. I'm also thankful for the dedication our teenagers continue to show by their commitment to coming together once a month for spiritual and theological reflection. Religious education in childhood and in the teen years is profoundly important for our development as spiritual beings, and I celebrate what God is doing through our Sunday School for children (with Emily Harris' devotion) and through our Youth League. Many spiritual seeds get planted through religious education, and I'm proud of these aspects of our ministry this past year. It is my earnest hope that our Youth League will continue to grow and expand, and that we can get other adults to enjoy this aspect of the ministry of our church.
There are other aspects of our ministry in our church that deserve to be lifted up on our Annual Meeting and Homecoming Sunday, such as the great blessings that happen in the lives of so many people, by means of our Wedding Ministry. And there are many lives deeply affected by that ministry we do here nearly every weekend of the year…and I praise God for His good deeds through our Wedding Ministry.
Indeed, this New Christian Church is needed, not only for how it helps its worshippers to better know and love the Lord, but also with how (by means of the God's movement in and through every aspect of our ministry here) we are all deeply fed spiritually by the Lord. There is so much that happens here every week that helps God to feed us with His love and truth, and this helps the Lord to save and regenerate us, one blessed day at a time, as we are molded daily into His image and likeness, which is gradual preparation for life in God's kingdom.
Lastly this morning in my reflections with you, I would passionately like to lift up with you a second vital reason why the New Church in general is needed, I believe. And that is the awesome vision or understanding we are blessed to enjoy about the core nature of God, of God's being—which is none other than pure, infinite, steadfast Divine Love, which is not divinely merciful and loving one day and then wrathful and punishing and condemning another day.
You see, part of the cosmic, Spirit-centered Second Coming of Christ our church celebrates having happened back in the Age of Enlightenment is a purification about our understanding of who God is and what the nature of the Lord really is. Put simply, we hold deeply in this church that the Lord God is only Divine Love and Wisdom Itself, in perfect distinguishable Oneness, which pours Itself into life with power and Light. We understand that God's nature does not change. God is love, pure and simple. Divine love is never angry nor wrathful. God only wants to give himself fully to those whom He has created. God is not purely loving and merciful and desirous of being closely spiritually joined with us today, and then tomorrow after we have sinned perhaps then becomes rejecting, punishing and hurtful, ready to send someone to hell forever against their will. No, in the Lord's New Christian Church we do not teach and represent a God who motivates through fear and damnation. We preach and teach about God who loves us unconditionally, forever, and ever, and ever—whether you wind up choosing the life of heaven or of hell.
In this church, we also teach that the Lord is so fully and steadfastly loving that He will always allow you to experience the repercussions and results of your choices—for indeed, a God who is truly loving and wise does not force Himself upon anyone, but works to support a mutually loving relationship between you and Him. For indeed, real, spiritual love can only take root and grow if it is sown through freedom of choice, not through fear, but through love…freely and personally given. In the New Church, we understand that God from the start birthed you into existence so that you would inherit your birthright of God's kingdom of heaven. You were born to inherit heaven, not hell. And every day is an opportunity to share in, receive and give God's heavenly kingdom to your neighbor. With this said, every day is also a choice to choose the life and energies of evil, of hell—of selfishness, bitterness, coldness, hatred, and shallowness—which also are a part of you (in the natural degree of self you experience).
This infinitely loving, constantly warm and merciful nature of the Lord is reflected wonderfully in our Scripture readings today. In Matthew, the Lord reveals that His Divine sun, (that is, His Divine love) rises and shines over both the evil and the good. This reflects the poetry quoted by Joshua from the Book of Jashar, as he led his armies into battle against the five Amorite kings, which reads: “O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon. So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, `till the nation avenged itself on its enemies.”
“So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped.” As is sometimes the case in Biblical text, we are not being led to put faith in its literal meaning but instead in its spiritual meaning, which ancient Hebrew spirituality and faith was often grounded in. As Swedenborg experienced in heaven for real (for twenty-seven years in fact, at various times of his waking life), the Lord in heaven is most often experienced as a Divine sphere of love radiating out into creation. And God's sphere of love and truth is seen and felt most often as a great, round, fiery, golden-reddish, brilliant Sun shining in the sky! God's sphere of warm Light is also before the face of every angel, creating a wonderful aura about every person there. Whatever direction an angel turns, there is God before them. The spirits or people of hell do not love God, so wherever they turn the Lord as a Divine Sun exists behind them, and so they live in their own shadow every day. In fact, their evil creates a sphere that the Lord and the angels see as great darkness and filth, yet in God's mercy He allows those evil spirits most of the time to experience their environment as generally comfortable and well-lit. A gross example of the bizarre comfort enjoyed by hellish people in their environment, which the angels see as filth, is the sort of “ho-hum” attitude we see in pigs who rejoice at living in their own excrement. For them, that awefulness is heaven! However, hell is really hell since it is a spiritual reality wherein one is living with or near other evil and selfish people. And it is this kind of companionship and eventual betrayal that produces places of fiery hatred and malice, why it is a place where people “gnash their teeth.” The people of hell create their own punishment, inflict their own pain, and injure out of sheer delight.
A primary difference between most of Christianity (based within the first Christian church doctrines, which contain areas of falsity to be sure) and the New Church, is that in our church we understand that you are the determining factor of whether you practically wind up in heaven or hell. All love and truth come from God, but we each must choose to receive the Lord and heaven within us in many diverse and varied ways throughout our years on earth. And, we are free to choose to invite evil and hell within our hearts and minds too. And it is one of the highest expressions of God's love for us that He constantly leaves us free inside to choose to love Him and others (to receive the Lord into our hearts and minds), or to hate Him, others and ourselves…to prefer distance and self-centeredness over goodness, spiritual bonding and innocence.
We can acknowledge that the doctrine and perspective of the first Christian Church era is helpful for many, many people—those who need a combination of God being loving and vengeful, which the literal level of the Bible (if taken only literalistically) supports. Fear and punishment for many is vital for their devotion to God, for their motivation to be a good person. A perspective of pure, steadfast, merciful Divine love (without any chance for wrath and punishment) is not inspiring for many, which is part of the reason why the New Christian Church is quite small in numbers. However, there comes a point in the spiritual development of people from religions (based within fear of God damning them to hell) when a new, much deeper, much more realistic perception of what the true nature of Divine love is enters their awareness—and then the New Christian Church (and others like it) becomes food for a starving soul. For now we may be small, and of less interest to the majority of Christian seekers, but nonetheless we are profoundly needed and important in the broad spectrum of God's presence and Light here on earth.
And so today, on our Homecoming and Annual Meeting Sunday, I celebrate with you the most essential and divine reason for our existence—and that is the wonderful, more perfect understanding we have about who God is and what the Lord's real nature is: God is a Divine Being of Love and Wisdom Itself, forever giving and inviting, forever healing and purifying, forever supportive and merciful, yet also strong and powerful in His commitment to allowing us to face the results and effects of our choices. Weakness, it turns out, is shown in responding to hatred with like hatred, or wanting to punish and seek revenge. No wonder, given the steadfastly loving nature of the Lord, that He once said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
May the Lord continue to lead and inspire us in the coming year ahead. Amen.