Friday, March 9, 2012

CHURCH SPOTLIGHT: Church Of The Good Shepherd (Swedenborgian)

Church of the Good Shepherd is located at the corner of Queen and Margaret streets near downtown Kitchener.  I have visited this church on a number of occasions and have always felt welcome and enjoyed conversations with the leadership. Here is a closer look at the church, starting with a sit-down interview with Rev. John Maine:

Senior Pastor, Rev. John Maine

Rev. Alison Longstaff (Minister of Family Outreach) & Lay Leader Steve Thomas

Gorgeous Stained Glass Window in the balcony @ Good Shepherd

A Closer Look...

Certificate from the Premier of Ontario marking Good Shepherds 175th Anniversary in 2008.

Before becoming Good Shepherd, the Swedenborgian congregation was Church of the New Jerusalem

A sermon by: Lay Leader Steve Thomas
Sunday, March 4th, 2012

       On this second Sunday of Lent we continue with our theme of covenant and commitment. Last week we learned of God’s covenant with Noah and commitment from God that never again will all living things be destroyed by a flood, never again will a flood destroy the earth. And as a sign of this everlasting covenant which God is making with Noah and all living beings, I am putting my bow in the clouds, which is a sign of my covenant with the world. Further to Noah, God says that whenever a rainbow appears in the clouds, it will serve as a reminder of God’s  everlasting covenant and promise which he makes with all living beings. 
       This promise from God proceeds to drop right into the lives of Sarah and Abraham. Unexpected, difficult to believe, and beyond their deepest imaginings, but, also right at the heart of their longing. The promise to Abraham and Sarah was one of legacy, to be passed on from generation to generation. We hold that same promise, whether through children and grandchildren or through our life’s work or passionate pursuits. That is our part of the covenant with God, the same covenant God made with Sarah and Abraham, to grow this covenant to include people of all walks of life, all faiths, creeds, colours. Maybe not quite as dramatic as what God instructed to Abraham and Sarah, but we can relate to our OT reading. (We will look at this covenant shortly).  Promises come into our lives in all shapes and sizes, all forms and means. Some are as firm as rungs on a ladder, leading up to new perspectives. Some are whispers and shadows. We strain to hear, to see, to believe, to trust what God is promising us and the covenant that he offers to us to be part of no matter the scale or size of that covenant.
     Covenants can take many forms. Recently I have entered into a covenant agreement with the Lutherwood youth mental health center on Benjamin road. I have been enlisted to coach the young teens in a learn to run program which will culminate with them running a 5k road race in Kitchener in May. Now one might say well is that really a covenant, is that what God is talking about growing the covenant. For me, the answer is a clear yes. I say this because if you believe that a covenant is an agreement between either individuals or organizations, then it is. More importantly and from a spiritual perspective it is definitely a covenant. For I believe it is God asking me to expand the covenant he made so long ago to Abraham and Sarah to include those on the so-called outer fringes of society. To expand the tent of humanity, to include all those who feel left out or who society tends to shun. Lutherwood has fulfilled their part of the covenant by providing me with the resources through their own manpower and through shoe and clothing donations from a local running store and individuals. I am sure you all have your own personal examples of covenants you have been involved in or are in at the present moment.
    For now, let us return to our reading from Genesis. Abraham was a patriarch to History’s three great monotheistic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We learned great stories about Abraham in Sunday School. God calling him from his ancestral home. “Leave your country, your people, your father’s house and go to a different land.” “I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you, a covenant. God has many plans, many covenants for Abraham including a son at the age of 100 with Sarah his wife of 90. This was in fulfillment of God’s promise that Abraham’s offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. God’s side of the covenant is a promise to give Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan. For Abraham, Sarah and those who come after them, us, there is a willingness, a trust and commitment to turn their lives over to God and follow his commandments as part of the covenant. There is mutual trust and compatibility. Common interests in preserving the Kingdom. 
       It is interesting to note that God tells Abraham that you will no longer be Abram which means exalted father. Your name will be Abraham, meaning the father of many nations. I will make nations of you and Kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between you and me and your descendants after you for generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. Sarah is part of this covenant as well, a princess of many a great prince. God will bless her and surely give you a son by her. She will be the mother of nations. Kings of many peoples will come from her. By giving new names to these two folks, God is affirming a certain relationship with them. We can think of this in relation to our own lives. Something similar occurs in marriage. When a wife or husband both take a new family name, when we name our children, our pets, other things that are precious to us, we are accepting a special relationship that will nurture and care for one another.
     Our reading today is about our relationship with God, what God will do for us and what we must do for God in return. It is also about our relationship with one another as well. God is promising us the land of Canaan and he is promising us a relationship with Himself. These two are the same. Spiritually speaking Canaan is Heaven and Heaven is a relationship. It is a loving relationship with the Lord and a loving relationship with other angels in the heavenly community. Think about it, heaven is all about community and relationships both with one another and God. This relationship is in the form of a covenant. It is an agreement. In modern business terms we would call it a contract, an agreement signed by two parties. One party agrees to do something and the other agrees to do something in return. The most common example is for pay for services rendered. Of course in our Bible reading God is offering spiritual currency for the commitment and work we do to build his Kingdom on earth. And while the covenant we make with others in work is really words on paper, it is more than that. It is about a relationship between the two parties.
      When we covenant with one another, there are certain criteria that must be met for that relationship to take place. The most important being common interests. We form relationships with like-minded people who share our same beliefs and goals. We make covenants with people who will want to work with us on a reasonable and friendly basis. There is a certain level of mutual care and thoughtfulness that make up this covenant whether it be individuals, organizations and ultimately God. We make covenants with people who we believe will fulfill their side of the deal. If one side or the other does not fulfill the covenant, that breaks not only the covenant, but the trust. The same with relationships. If we form a friendship with someone and build up a certain amount of trust and then one of us violates that trust, then it is very difficult to rebuild that relationship. Trust is an essential part of any relationship or covenant. When a covenant is fulfilled everyone wins. Everyone is richer in one way or another, whether it be monetarily or spiritually. There is self-fulfillment and we all benefit.
      Our Swedenborgian theology provides some very valuable insights into the spiritual nature of covenants. Rev.John in this month’s Tender expressed our beliefs when talking about covenants. In spiritual terms the covenant between God and Abraham and all covenants with God is a n understanding and a commitment that informs the union of human and divine. Swedenborg wrote that every covenant is about the union or conjunction of two parties. Its terms govern and guide their relationships together. Swedenborg says we speak of a marriage covenant. Such a union he says, can only be real it is loving. No one can connect or relate to the Lord in any other way because the Lord is love. We unite with the Lord through love to the Lord and the neighbour. This is the very essence of what a covenant is about, according to Swedenborg. Simply put love and commitment should be the basis of an everlasting covenant. A union of human and divine as the presence of the Lord within us.
     God gives us this promise. He tell us, if you will follow me, that is our side of the covenant, I will give you peace and joy in relationships and in community. I will give you a fulfilling and happy life in friendship with others. I will give you a sense of mission in life. You will know why you are here. You will know what you love to do and you will be able to do it and fulfill your deepest dreams. God will give us all his love and along with it the understanding of the issues that we struggle with. We can use this love and understanding that god gives to root out everything that blocks us from treating others well and serving them out of love. This is our part of the covenant and how we grow it. When we fulfill this covenant our relationship with God and others strengthens and grows. What a wonderful promise not only to Abraham, but to all of us who are descendants of Abraham. When we can look at the people we form relationships with from the perspective and feel of God’s love, then everyone benefits. God’s love and truth will radiate from the center of our very being. Of course like anything in life, God’s covenant is never forced on us. It is a choice, choosing how we want to live, it is a call, an invitation to be part of something wonderful, so full of love and spiritual living. An invitation to be part of something wonderful brings to mind the Harmonia project that will be launched here in the fall and that was so eloquently presented at the Annual meeting. Reaching out to the community, inviting various groups to be part of our community, maybe not necessarily sitting in the pews on Sunday, nice as that would be, using our church, growing, sharing. Is this not a part of expanding the covenant. My sense is that there is a deep commitment to see this project through.
      A few closing thoughts. God cares very deeply about having solid, sure covenants with each and every one of us. In part this is so that we may start each day feeling at peace that the Lord has an eternal and true arrangement with us and it is so we understand that a covenant  means that we have a vital and important part in our relationships with God. It matters greatly to the Lord that we understand very deeply how passionately he cares for us. It most certainly matters to God that we have this spiritual contract with him. God has a covenant with every living thing on this earth. Animals, plants, nature, us. He uses us to help fulfill and grow this covenant and our responsibility is to nurture these things, to care for this earth and all who inhabit it. That is in part our role in this covenant. To be in a covenantal relationship with God, truly means that this covenant is made real and live through love with Him and for Him. By entering into deeply and passionately to the covenant God offers and having the will to walk forward, ever forward, every day, we are assured that God will always be true to his side of the covenant. Like Abraham and Sarah, are we prepared to answer the call and be true to our side of the covenant?

Church of the Good Shepherd
116 Queen St. North
Kitchener, Ontario