A Sermon by Rev James P. Cooper
Preached in Mitchellville, Maryland
February 5, 1995

“Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you” (Deut. 16:17).

One of the most precious images of the Christmas story is that of the wise men presenting their gifts to the Christ Child. They gave Him gifts as a symbol of their recognition of Him as their King, and their submission to His rule. We note that giving gifts to the king is an ancient custom, and the Heavenly Doctrines teach that this was done to represent the acknowledgment that the Lord, the King of Kings, is the giver of all gifts.

It is also true that this representative was perverted and led to human sacrifice as people lost sight of what the act represented, and began to think naturally and so believed that sacrificing what they valued most, their own children, would please God and bring them even greater wealth. We also know that the Lord instituted animal sacrifice with the Jews not because He enjoyed the sacrifices, but because this was a lesser evil than sacrificing their own children.

We know that He taught through Samuel that it was not the sacrifices that He loved, but our obedience. Unfortunately, the Jews did not want to obey; they wanted to be able to remain in the simple requirements of the covenant, to perform certain rituals and enjoy the Lord’s protection in return. We also know that they were unable to do even that, and repeatedly fell into idolatry and other sins. These things happened to them because they loved the things of the world so much that they didn’t even believe that spiritual things existed.

Aside from the various offerings made at special occasions such as the birth of a child, the Jewish Church required an offering of a tithe, or a minimum of ten percent of each person’s produce. The practical reason was the need to support the priesthood, which could in turn organize and perform the various rituals of the church, which were quite varied and complicated, and required a large number of people with specialized skills to serve the needs of the congregation of Israel. The spiritual reasons were that through their rituals the angels of heaven were inspired to genuine, internal worship of the Lord, and that men would be compelled to learn simple charity.

We are asked to contribute to the church for exactly the same reasons: It is of spiritual value for each of us to sacri- fice what we value to the Lord, and it is absolutely essential that the uses of the church be supported.

It has become the practice in most Christian churches to support the building of churches and a specifically trained, professional clergy through contributions. By the end of the Reformation in Europe, Sweden, like many European countries, had a state religion. A state religion received the financial support of the state, that is, churches were built and the clergy were paid by funds collected as taxes and administered by the government. This was certainly the case in Swedenborg’s day, as indicated in our lesson from the True Christian Religion where it says, “Taxes . . . are collected for the preservation and protection of their country and the church” (TCR 430).

This also helps to explain why more is not directly said about contributions to the church in the Heavenly Doctrines: in those days it was the common practice to support the church from public funds.

We have no intention of even thinking about the implications of having a state religion and state-administered funds today. The whole concept of spiritual freedom set forth in the Heavenly Doctrines warns us against such a system.

Doctrinally, spiritually, it is far better for us to be left in freedom to join and support a church according to our own conscience and needs. But with such freedom comes responsibility. The day of the state religion is over, and with it the financial support of the church by the state. The freedom of choice is ours, and we earn that freedom by taking the financial support of our church upon our own shoulders.

It is quite clear from the sense of the letter of the Word that we are to contribute to the physical and material welfare of the physical embodiment of the church. We read in Exodus 25:2 “Speak to the Children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering.” And 35:22 “They came, both men and women, as many as had a willing heart, and brought earrings and nose rings, rings and necklaces, all jewelry of gold, that is, every man who offered an offering of gold to the Lord.”

The people came willingly, giving of their own treasure so that the tabernacle could be built. And we are told that they gave generously so that there was more than enough to complete the job. The Children of Israel, so often complaining and difficult, were capable of acknowledging their debt to Jehovah for bringing them out of the slavery of Egypt and leading them across the wilderness into the promised land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. As for us, while we may not have been slaves making bricks in Egypt, we certainly have been enslaved by our evils; we have had to pass through a wilderness of temptation, and, with the Lord’s constant guidance and help, can look forward to eventually entering the spiritual land of Canaan. We too have a great deal for which to be grateful to the Lord. We should, therefore, heed the words of our text, that every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you.

While on the one hand it is clear that it is extremely important for each of us to give as we are able, it is also extremely important that we not be compelled to give, for true freedom comes only through self-compulsion (see AC 1947). You may be able to compel people to attend a church service, but you cannot compel them to listen with attention. You can compel external worship, but you can never compel internal worship. That is why all the sacrifices that were commanded in the Mosaic Law were called “gifts” and “offerings,” for the offerings of that church represented internal worship (see AC 1947).

The problem is that our intellectual acknowledgment of the need to contribute to the church for our own good and for the good of the church is neatly balanced by our loves of acquiring and holding onto the riches of the natural world to the point of refusing to acknowledge the gifts we daily receive from God by any kind of gift in return. Even the disciples themselves, being first of all Jews, had great difficulty understanding the importance of symbolically giving up the things of this world for the sake of spiritual life. We read from Matthew: 26:7,8 A woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “To what purpose is this waste?”

We need to see clearly and rationally that, in the long run, it is in our own best interest to give up the things of the world for the sake of spiritual things. We read from Luke 12:33-34: “Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Our reaction to the necessity of giving money to support the public good is actually a measure of our own spiritual states, a way to see who the neighbor is that we love, for as we read in our third lesson: “The spiritual pay [taxes] from good will, because they are collected for the preservation of their country, and for its protection and the protection of the church . . . . Those, therefore, to whom their country and the church are the neighbor pay their taxes willingly and cheerfully, and regard it as iniquitous to deceive or defraud” (TCR 430).

It becomes a question of whom we regard as the neighbor. A person who is wholly involved in natural things regards only his own household and his own family as the neighbor. A spiritual man sees that the church is the neighbor in a greater sense because it is made up of many people and therefore able to perform greater uses. The natural man contributes “unwillingly and with resistance” (TCR 430).

In the Word, when it speaks of gifts being offered to the Lord, it signifies the things that we offer to the Lord from our hearts, the things that we do from our own will because we love to do them. In themselves, gifts to the Lord through the church are like all the things we do: if they are regarded apart from the intention behind them, they are nothing but gestures devoid of life. On the other hand, if a person’s actions and the intention behind them are considered at the same time, the actions are a way of making the will manifest, and the actions testify as to the character (see AC 9293).

The case is the same with gifts to the church in that it is the will or intention behind these gifts that the Lord looks at, for ” . . . everyone will receive judgment in the other life according to his deeds, namely, that it will be according to those things which are of the heart, and from this of the life. Gifts offered to the Lord were testifications of such things as are offered by the heart, which are those of faith and charity” (AC 9293).

And in confirmation of this, the Writings offer the following passage from Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:6,7 “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

The New Church is both internal and external. The internals of the church are the doctrines and the intentions behind our various actions, but such internals rest on the externals of the church as a foundation. You can have all the good intentions in the world, but you must, eventually, give them life by committing them to action or they don’t really exist. It’s like a marriage without hugs and kisses. The internal truths of the church derive their life and constancy from the sense of the letter of the Word. Our love for the Lord needs to express itself through worship. The Lord’s church, spiritual and heavenly in origin, needs to have a physical manifestation in order to exist, and that can happen only when men in the world work together to build it and support it.

“Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.” Amen.

Lessons: Malachi 3:1-10, Luke 6:27-38, TCR 429, 430

True Christian Religion


429. The benefactions of charity and the duties of charity are distinct, like the things done from choice and the things done from compulsion. But by the duties of charity official duties in a kingdom or state are not meant as the duties of a minister to minister, of a judge to judge, and so on but the duties of everyone whatever his employment may be. Thus these duties are from a different origin, and flow forth from a different will, and are therefore done from charity by those who have charity, and on the other hand from no charity by those who have no charity.

430. The public duties of charity are especially the payment of tribute and taxes, which ought not to be confounded with official duties. Those who are spiritual pay these with one disposition of heart, and those who are merely natural with another. The spiritual pay them from good will, because they are collected for the preservation of their country, and for its protection and the protection of the church, also for the administration of government by officials and governors, to whom salaries and stipends must be paid from the public treasury. Those, therefore, to whom their country and also the church are the neighbor pay their taxes willingly and cheerfully, and regard it as iniquitous to deceive or defraud. But those to whom their country and the church are not the neighbor pay them unwillingly and with resistance, and at every opportunity defraud and withhold; for to such their own household and their own flesh are the neighbor.

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