The Garden Church and Common Ground were recently featured on the Love in a Dangerous Time online radio show. Listen and hear Rev. Anna Woofenden and Rev. Sarah Buteux talk about the way that they are re-imagining church in their communities.
Sermon by Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
September 28th, 2014
Exodus 16:1-15, John 6:22-35
“This is the bread which God has given you to eat” signifies that this is the good which must be taken and integrated into our lives. In the ultimate sense, this is the Lord in you. Because “bread” signifies heavenly and spiritual good, in the supreme sense, it is the Divine itself. In this passage, “the manna” signifies good, which is God itself. That this is good when it is taken into oneself and made part of our life, is shown by the action of “eating”; for the good which is from God makes the life of heaven with people and nourishes and sustains it.” Excerpts from Heavenly Secrets 8465, Emanuel Swedenborg)
Over the course of the last seventeen years, and particularly the last four, I have moved a lot. I have done a lot of packing and unpacking. Setting up homes, meeting people, wondering “Will I find friends?” “Where should I hang that picture?” “Will I find a place to belong?” And it’s those things that I notice, that tell me, “You are home.” I look for the signs that it is becoming home, that I belong.
Like instinctively reaching to open the silverware drawer and opening the one that actually has the silverware in it, or driving to the grocery story without using the GPS. That moment when I have a spontaneous outing with a new friend and realize that I DO have community and placing the picture of three little children who mean the world to me, where it belongs on my bedside table.
We began our worship together by naming how we are a community on the move, we are a community that is becoming, forming, exploring who it is that God is calling us to be, together in this community. And we began by unpacking our Garden Church tabernacle. That funny word, “tabernacle.” I like the way it roles off my tongue, tabernacle. In Hebrew the word is: mishkan, “residence” or “dwelling place” of God.
The image, the story of the tabernacle goes back to the ancient stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, the part of the Bible that’s often referred to as the “Old Testament.” The tabernacle comes into the story of the Children of Israel when they were wandering in the desert, having just escaped from slavery in Egypt and heading towards the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. Now this journey went on for forty years, and they were not always so keen about it, as we heard in our scripture today.
They would complain about their circumstance, whine about God and Moses and even wish that they were back in slavery, rather than out in the desert. But every time they stopped on their journey, they would set up the tabernacle.
They would stop. And take the time to painstakingly place each pole in its proper place, each carefully measured support, the specific layers of cloth, and then the sacred objects. In the outer part of the tent they would place an oil lamp, a table for bread, the altar of incense, and then in the inner tent, the holy of holies, you’d find the Ark of the Covenant, with the two stone tablets that held the Ten Commandments, God’s words to them. And a golden urn holding the manna. These sacred objects, reminding them who they are as a community, who God is, and the way God leads and provides and is present with them.
I imagine it something like me putting that photo on my bedside table, or us setting up our table with the bread and the Word, the candle and the cup.
Here’s home for this moment. Here’s God with us. Here’s where we belong.
This story of the Children of Israel is packed with rich images and reminders of how the Divine interacts with humanity. The story of the manna that we read today is one that I never tire of telling. Probably because it’s just so totally human and seems like something I would do.
So they’re hungry. And God say’s there will be bread from heaven. They wake up in the morning and they saw, “when the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.”
And they did not say, “Oh, look, God provided for us.” Or, “I always knew and believed the Lord was looking out for us and would give us all we needed.” No, instead they said, “Manna?” Or “What is it?” They called it “Manna” because this literally means, “What is it?” and they DIDN’T EAT IT AND CONTINUED TO GO HUNGRY!
Then Moses comes and points out to them, “hey people, duh, THIS is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat” (okay, that’s my paraphrase) and it’s then that they begin to stop, to notice, to realize, and bend down, scoop it up, and take it to their tents to prepare and eat.
Friends, this is as true for us today, as it was for our ancestors centuries ago. What we need is all around us; God is everywhere and moving in all things. It’s not that there is not enough for us, or for the world that leads to scarcity in our lives, or loneliness, or hunger on any level. It’s that we, individually and collectively, so often get stuck in the greed, the selfishness, the apathy, the isolation, and the slavery. Like the children of Israel enslaved in Egypt, we become enslaved by our fears, by our prejudices, by the collective systems that favor some and oppress others. We become enslaved by thinking that we are all alone, that no one is struggling like we are, that we don’t belong. We can look around at the world around us and see suffering and pain and wonder, “What’s the point? Where’s God? Is there hope?”
And this is why we’re gathering together to be a community that works together, that worships together, that eats together, because we believe that there is hope, there is goodness and healing, reconciliation, hope, joy, fun, laughter, connection and food enough for everyone. This is why we’re re-imagining church, because we believe that God, Love, is in all things, animating all things, moving through all things, and we are charged with seeing it and claiming and engaging love put into action in the world.
We get to be reminded how God says, stop, look, ask “what is it?” and then bend down and pick up that heavenly goodness, that which sustains, God’s love available and amongst us and manifesting in so many ways.
Going out into our communities and asking, “what is it?” “Where is the goodness and hope? Where are the needs and struggles? Who are my neighbors that I am called to love? How are we called to be church, to bring more heaven to earth, in this place?
Last week some of us went out and spent the morning walking the streets of San Pedro, with the Garden Church and the community on our hearts and minds. We went out on a mission to look, to wonder, to ask, “What is it?” Where is the Spirit moving in this community? Where is there land? Who are the people? What are the needs? Where can you get fresh vegetables? We were looking, watching, listening, asking, “What is it?” Where is God moving? Where do we fit into this web?
“I saw two grandpa men sitting in chairs by the sidewalk and chatting and saying hello to everyone that passed…”
Another said: “I encountered friendly people, and people were excited about the idea of a Garden. I stopped at a retirement home and the people had ideas for the residents to join us in the dirt.”
Another noticed that the street they were walking on has a great deal of socio economic shift as you go up the hill.
One of you talked about your neighbors who live in the park next to you and how you want to invite them in, but don’t, and your eyes got teary as you talked about being able to soon invite them to share in our community meal of the Garden Church.
Another reported that they found no place to buy groceries, and another wondered why so many vacant lots are filled with parked cars, and who’s cars are they? We saw women walking to yoga, and little children pausing to play on the sidewalk. Old and young, all colors and shapes and sizes of people, humanity in our community.
I met a man who was sitting on the steps of the post office, who I see often when I’m checking the mail. And this time I stopped and went over and introduced myself. When I asked him his name, he mumbled something I couldn’t understand, and when I asked again he said, “how about you call me Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson the rapper” and his face burst into a huge grin as he said it. “Okay, Michael Jackson the rapper it is, I said.” We both were laughing as I said goodbye and walked on. Manna, manna from heaven.
These simple human connections when we stop, we look, and we engage another part of God’s humanity, when we bend down, pick it up, look around, where is God working in the world, how can we be part of it.
And that’s why we Gather here, as the Garden Church, that’s why we believe that God is always making things new and we are honored and privileged to be re-imagining church for this time and place, because the provision is there, the dew is stretched over the ground, it’s up to us to look around and ask, “what is it” and to bend down and pick it up and have this bread from heaven.
And that’s why we will celebrate the Sacred Meal, Communion, Eucharist, Holy Supper, however you name it. Because as we follow in the traditions of the Passover meal that our ancient ancestors ate, and the manna they bent down and picked it up and ate. And we follow in the tradition of Jesus, the Christ. Jesus, incarnate love, who said when he was on earth, “I AM the bread of life” and then fed, and healed, ate with and was in community with the people that others deemed “outsiders” and who Jesus saw and claimed as friends. And then, who on his last night before he was betrayed, took bread and broke it and shared it around a table and took bread, blessed it and broke it, saying “this is my body”, “I am the bread of life,” “do this in remembrance of me.”
And because it’s God’s table, not ours, we find a place around the table where we belong not because of what we do, or have accomplished, not because of our race or gender, our family history, or whether we feel we measure up. Belonging at God’s table is embedded in the very core of our spiritual DNA. Each of us, created in the image of God, embodiments God’s love and wisdom. Belonging comes not just with receiving, but knowing that you can give. We come around this Sacred Table, this Sacred Meal, to remember that we’re all part of this bigger interconnected whole.
We share in the bread, the cup, the food, the drink, because God is always present to us, available to us, and yes we can find this on our own, in the world, but something happens when we come together as a community, as the human family, as the church, and see each other, see the Spark of the Divine in each other and feed and are fed together.
And that’s why we are here, that is why we are reimagining church, because we’re hungry. We’re hungry for being part of something meaningful. We’re hungry to put our energy towards things that matter. We see the disconnection in the world, from ourselves, from nature, from each other, from God and we want to take a step towards connection.
We gather around the table, remembering who we are in God and in community. And then we go out, and we walk in our community. And we stop. And we notice. And we ask, “What is it?” and see how the Abundant God of heaven in earth is feeding us, and inviting us to feed others.
The Garden Church gathered this Sunday to be church as we worked and worshiped and ate together.
People were greeted in the parking lot of a local park, with a “Welcome to the Garden Church!” and handed a trash bag and gloves.
Soon the hill was filled with people with black plastic bags in one hand, bending down and gathering up the litter and debris that was covering the area.
And in what seemed like no time, the area went from a messy dumping ground to a clean slice of nature. I watched as people went from individually picking up trash in various areas, then slowly migrating together to form a trash-collecting cluster of community caring for the earth.
After celebrating how much trash we’d picked up in a short half hour, we washed our hands, grabbed our picnic stuff, and headed over the hill to a grassy spot under a tree.
Our youngest community members helped me to begin our time of worship together by setting out the objects that mark our worship space together. We set out the Word, the bread, the cup, the light, the water, the bell, and the tree of life. As we unwrapped each one we talked about the meaning and the vision for who we are as a church and how God is present amongst us.
As we moved into worship we spent time in silence that our bell ushered us into, finding silence in and amongst the sounds and movement around us. We noticed the wind blowing, the feel of the grass, and how the ocean had places that looked purple in it.
We then shared the story of the Children of Israel and how when they traveled, they set up their tabernacle and we heard the story of the Manna, the bread of life that God gave them in the wilderness. And we talked about what this story means in our community, and our lives.
Which led us into sharing the Sacred Meal, Communion, Holy Supper together, gathered around God’s table and feeding and being fed by each other.
Good to be church together. Let’s do it again soon.
Yup, we’re ready to do what the Garden Church does when we Gather: work together, worship together, and eat together.
All we need now is the people!
This Sunday, September 28th at 3:00 p.m.
Come one, come all, invite your friends, feed and be fed.
In this beginning stage of putting down roots and forming as a community, we will have a Garden Church Gathering once a month (always the fourth Sunday) to explore and experiment with re-imagining church together. As we discover what it looks like to work, and worship, and eat together we will move to meeting every other week, and by Easter of 2015 we hope to have a Gathering every Sunday.
Our September Gathering will take place on Sunday, September 28th from 3:15pm—5:15pm at the small park just down the hill from the Korean Friendship Bell in Angels Gate Park at Pt. Fermin in San Pedro. *See below for detailed directions.
3:15-4:00pm Work Together—Grab some gloves and a trash bag and do some park clean up. (Cleanup is done at the risk of each individual. We will provide gloves and trash-bags). Or sit and meditate for the sake of all under a tree.
4:00pm Worship Together—Bring your camping chair, blanket, or find a seat on the grass and we’ll join our voices together in song, engage in some scripture and a message, pray together and share the Sacred Meal (Communion) with God, each other, and the earth beneath us.
4:45-5:15 Eat Together—The Sacred Meal will lead into our shared Community Meal. Everyone is invited to bring something to share in a simple potluck. Sign up here: http://www.prepatrip.com/t/3jk4i8/potluck/1 As we eat, we will talk about what it means to each of us to re-imagine church and discuss where it is that God is leading this unfolding community.
Contact us if you have any questions:
We look forward to Gathering together!
*If you’re a GPS type, program it for Pt. Fermin Park. Then, drive past Pt. Fermin park, down below the Korean Friendship bell, and you will see a parking lot on your right (away from the water). You can then pull in and park in the parking lot there. We will be working together to clean up some of the hillside near the parking lot. We’ll then gather together in the shade near the other end of the park for worship and our picnic.
What blessing of a start for the Garden Church! Fifteen people gathered this Sunday to share in re-imagining church as we worked together, worshipped together, and ate together.
We opened with invoking the image of… in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and was God and God came and dwelt among us, or pitched Her tent among us, or tabernacled among us. Harkening back to the Children of Israel traveling in the wilderness and setting up their tangible reminders of the Holy One every time they stopped. This is community in its beginning stages. This is a community on the move. When we Gather, we will set up our tabernacle as the reminders of God with us and of the community we are forming.
The Word of God…that leads us, guides us, and continually brings us back to the stories of God and the stories of humanity.
Candle…the Light that comes into the world and is the lamp unto our feet and the Divine Light that we strive to see in each and every person.
The bread and wine…the sacred meal shared for and with all.
The bell… calling us together and inviting us into worship, silence, and collective harmony of sound.
And the Tree of Life…a reminder of what we’re working for, the heavenly city and a heavenly way of life, the tree with the leaves that will heal the nations.
We shared the Garden Church story and vision and had wonderful conversations, as everyone shared why they were there, their interest, journey, and gifts to offer.
We concluded our time together by sharing the Sacred Meal and felt God’s presence forming us as community.A blessed beginning and we look forward to cultivating this growing church plant.
July 4, 2014
St. Louis, MO
Scripture Text: Matthew 25:31-40
“God created us in such a way that our inner self is in the spiritual world and our outer self is in the physical world. This is so that the spiritual part of us, which belongs to heaven, can be planted in the physical part the way a seed is planted in the ground.”
When the ocean and I meet, we have a ritual. I walk to that salty shore and I bend down, right at the edge of the waves. I take a deep breath, and breathe a prayer to God as I look out on the vast ocean. And then I take the water, and with my fingers I make the sign of the cross on my forehead and on my chest, tracing the mark that was placed there so many years ago in my baptism. Something happens when flesh meets water. When my fingers meet that salt. In this act the internal, that which belongs to heaven, meets the physical reality of the natural world, of my body. In this physical act I experience and can name the presence of God with me, the revelation, the incarnation of God in the world.
Swedenborgian theology illuminates this idea that the natural world is infused with spiritual reality. That we, at our core, are spiritual beings, created for heaven, and as we’re living in this natural world we have the opportunity to increase our awareness and receptivity of God’s influx, infusion, and infilling in all things. In this framework we find an invitation not to reject or to conquer the physical, but instead to be conscious, aware, and appreciative of the world around us, as it is the conduit for the spiritual, the celestial, the heavenly. That the physical world around us and our very bodies are the skin that God’s love and wisdom can come together in to act in useful service.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. For whatever you do for the least of these, who are members of my family, you do this for me.
These words of Jesus invite us into the incarnational reality that the Lord embodied while walking on earth, when the One God of heaven and earth chose to come on earth not as a mere concept, as a set of rules to follow, or merely as an ethereal presence, but to come on earth as a human being. Feet, and dust, hands, and healing. Demonstrating what the kingdom of heaven looks like, mustard seeds and loaves of bread, bending down and washing feet, feeding and being fed. We may not know the ins and outs of the arguments of who God is and who we are. But we can know this: That God is in all things and created us to for a life of love and service. That in a hand reaching out to another God with us. That when we bend down and wash the feet of one whom we hesitate to even touch, Divinity is being incarnate. That when we take the bread and the wine, the water, God is incarnate with us. Cooking supper, writing poetry, wiping noses, digging in the dirt, love in action. As my late grandfather, Rev. Dr. Bill Woofenden, put it, “Love, by its very nature must be doing something.”
In doing these acts, love is revealed. Love is revealed, as the truth of all people being created and seen as beloved children of God is named. When you do this to the least of these, you do it for me.
My calling to ministry has been revealed to me through my body, through the spiritual reality of who God created me to be pressing and yearning to be manifest in the world around me.
For many years I had the honor to serve at a church congregation that I love, a church that was born into an organization that will not ordain me because of my gender, my body. I have much gratitude for this church and this organization and I hold them in great love and respect. And it was in that messy mixed bag of delight in service and the limits and prescribed roles of how I could serve, that my calling to ordained ministry became clear.
In our congregation we had an annual family camp. And every year on Saturday evening we would have a Holy Supper, Communion, service. Now, every year, I would prepare for this. Being the lead on the camp, I would have gathered together the staff, prepared the program, set the theme and so on. And then when the evening arrived I always took great joy in setting that sacred table. Spreading the white linens, creating the shape and space of the service, sprinkling candles and flowers, silk and stones, and setting out the bread and wine. Preparing a table for our community to gather around.
I loved this worship, and looked forward to the profound moments I witnessed in the lives of our congregation during this yearly ritual. But after a few years, another tradition developed. I would cry. Before, after, sometimes during the service. And I’m not talking a few tears, a tissue, and a “oh, isn’t it beautiful when the Spirit moves us” kind of crying.
No. These tears exploded out of me, taking over my body and catching even me, especially me, off guard.
The inevitable trigger: When it came time to start the service and I could not stand beside my colleague, the minister of our congregation, to serve Communion to our community. There was something about the elements of the sacrament–the bread, the wine, handed, received–that transcended the rational arguments of why I could not be an ordained minister and exposed to me the truth of my calling.
I needed to be presiding over this meal, alongside my colleague serving our community together as we did throughout the year. My being ached to be breaking the bread and pouring the wine, telling the story of the Lord’s feast with us, offering spiritual food and drink and blessing these people I held so dear.
Afterwards I would find myself curled up with close friends, crying and going back over the evening. Picking apart the trigger phrases and being sure I was over-reacting to un-intentional words and actions of exclusion and ignorance. We were all ignorant. I was ignorant of how the fibers of my being were shouting out my call, my call to serve at the table. My friends were ignorant, comforting the pain in the specific situation, but not knowing, not seeing and naming the question of what God was stirring inside me.
The next year my body didn’t wait and contain itself until after the service. I found myself pounding up the hill to the bathrooms after setting up the space. I scared myself as I slammed stall doors, stomped my heavy boot-clad feet. This emotion that was pressing out of my body was not something I was used to, or comfortable with. I assumed since it was so strong, intense, it must be something bad
I can see and ask the question now–Was it God? Was it God letting every fiber of my being know that there is something powerful, deep and sacred about sharing the bread and cup, and that not only was I called to do it, but that I’m called to stand for an opening of the sacred table, that for the Lord’s table to be open to all, not only must it be available to all to receive, it also must be open for all who are called to be trained, gifted, and ordained to serve, to serve.
Whether I like it or not, I know what it’s like in the very fiber of my being, to be told–be it in words or systems, cultural norms, or well intentioned theories–that I am not hearing the Lord properly, that I am inadequate and unlovable, that I am fundamentally flawed. I know what it feels like to question whether I am wholly created in the image of God, whether I am loved and okay. I know this wholly human experience of questioning who we are in relation to God and the world.
It is out of these times of struggle and doubt, pain and darkness that we can find the clarity, truth, love and light of the Lord and claim who we are in God. It is the sacred charge that I stand here today, to claim for myself, and to claim for others whose call may be different, but who are also called to do and be incarnations of God’s love in the world. All of us are whole. All of us are loved and all of us are created in the sacred image of God. And God created us to embody love and wisdom, and made us to be changed and transformed.
And I stand here before you because you have seen me, and claimed me, and given me a home to serve from. I stand here today with a grateful, passionate, and peaceful heart as I step forward to serve from a this denomination and tradition that is embodying love in action, seeing the Lord at work in the beauty of creation, the variety of humanity, and is committed to the work of being receptors of heaven here on earth.
This is what propels me forward in my future ministry to re-imagine church, to facilitate and serve a church that is attuned to the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of our community. I am stepping forward as an ordained minister to plant a church, the Garden Church in San Pedro, California–church that is founded on the principles of interconnection, embodied theology, and seeing all people as whole and precious creations of God. I am stepping forward to take the charge to feed those who are hungry, visit those in prison; clothe those that are naked as the incarnational charge that it is–finding the incarnate God as we bend down and look in the eyes of the withered woman huddled on the street corner; finding the incarnate God as we watch the toddler pulling a carrot out of the dirt; finding the incarnate God as we work together, worship together, and eat together. Naming the dance between the spiritual reality of heaven and the physical alignment and un-alignment of earth as we claim people—each person–as an expression of God’s presence in the world. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.
In a few minutes, hands will be laid, words will be spoken, and a mantle will be taken on. It is with deep gratitude and humility that Elizabeth and I thank this gathered body and church for seeing us and seeing the Lord’s call on our lives and for providing the container for our inner selves to be fully expressed in the world as we step into the role of ordained ministry.
We stand here today, called, prepared, and ready to commit to the life of serving the Holy One and the holy humanity. Dually broken, wholly healed, prepared, and nurtured, called, and ready for this holy work.
Here is my body, here is my mind, and here is my spirit. Wise, loving, and useful, here I am, send me.