“Beloved” Sermon from 1/24/2016



The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Psalm 19
Luke 4:14-21

Link to Audio

When I was 11 years old I spent a week, seven whole days, away from home at Camp Firwood. Camp Firwood was one of those church camps in the area, for elementary and middle school campers, complete with packed schedules of boating and ropes course and bonfires, and cabin bonding and drama, and worship and a whole lot of pressure from staff to “get saved.” On one of the last afternoons of camp, my cabin counselor sat me down on the big front lawn overlooking the lake, and with her bible open on the blanket and her gentle, but insistent voice giving me the words, I shyly prayed that “sinner’s prayer” as she gave me the words, line-by-line.

Everyone back in my cabin was teary and excited when we gathered for nighttime cabin meeting that night. I’d been saved. Wasn’t that wonderful? I guessed it must be, though some part of me wondered if repeating those words had really changed me so profoundly or could really have such a drastic impact on my life and even on my eternal life? But they all seemed so into it, so I went with it and accepted the affirmation and then quietly wondered and pondered it all in my own head and heart.

And then I went home. And no one got it. I tried telling my mom, and I think she tried to listen and be supportive, but this was not within her religious comfort or sensibilities. I tried telling some close friends, but it didn’t connect. And so I quietly retreated, kept reading my Bible that I’d been reading since my parents had given it to me a few years prior, and wondered if anything had changed. It had seemed to mean so much to that camp community, in that religious context, but back in my normal life, back in my hometown, it didn’t seem to have changed anything.

In our gospel today, Jesus returns to his hometown after an intense and transformative set of experiences. As a young adult, he’s just been baptized by John in the Jordan River, and heard the words from above saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” And then, directly after the baptism, he spent 40 days in the desert wrestling with himself, the devil, and what he is supposed to do and believe and who he is. And now, after all that, he comes back to his hometown, back to where he is from, and claims and proclaims who he is and what he’s called to do.

The first thing I notice about this story is that he went to the temple, as was his custom. This was part of his regular ritual. Scholars tell us it was pretty normal for men in the Jewish temple system to read, and even request a specific text. It’s likely this was not the first time he read, as he picked these powerful words from the book of Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

It’s after the reading that things get dicey. When he said: “Now the scriptures have been fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s at this moment in time that Jesus tells his hometown, these people he’s grown up with and have known him for years—“here’s who I am.” I’m Joseph and Mary’s son, yes, I’m that kid next door, but something else is going on here too. I’m claiming these words to describe what I’m called to do, defining my identity, proclaiming the work to be done in the world, of releasing captives, recovering sight, bringing good news to the poor, bringing freedom to the oppressed. Jesus saying: “this is what I’m here to do, this is who I am.” The people of his hometown knew the prophecies of the Messiah, the anointed one that they were waiting for. And here’s Jesus saying, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” “I am the one who is here to do these things.”

Who did Jesus think he was? Wasn’t he just the carpenter’s son? Jesus stands up and takes this text from an abstract concept in scripture, something that generations had been waiting for and longing for, to the embodiment of it, “the scripture today is fulfilled….” “I’m going to do this…this is who I am.”

And this is where the people start to get ruffled. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask? And then when Jesus goes on to give some stark examples of who God has used unexpected prophets in the past and who God’s favor often rests on (foreigners, the marginalized, the unexpected) the people begin to get more upset, and the texts tells us that the people in Jesus’ hometown are “filled with rage” and “led him to the brow of the hill…so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

So, we might ask, “Why?” Maybe the friction comes in who we look to for our self-definition, who gets to tell us who we are and what our work is in the world. Where do we draw our worth, our sense of self, our understanding of our purpose for existence and being in the world? From the people’s opinions around us? Or from some Love greater than ourselves?

I had the honor of baptizing a little baby girl yesterday morning, and as I said the words of preparation, I thought about this text. I shared the reminder with her parents that these early years are formative and that the way that they speak to her, treat her, and model love in the home, will have a lasting imprint on who she believes she is and how she interacts with others, with the world, with God. The sacrament of baptism is this profound reminder of who we are, created and beloved by a loving God. And that this belovedness, this knowing of who we are and our worth is at the core of our creation, foundational in the weaving of the universe, true now, true tomorrow, true forever, no matter what. We are loveable and loved and God’s own, no matter what the people around us think or say or try to convince us of otherwise.

To know who we are, and to live authentically, to claim that, to proclaim prophetic words before your own relatives in your hometown requires courage. Maybe it’s to choose a different political party than your parents and be able to have a conversation with them about it. Perhaps it was the day when you told your family you were gay, or when you first shared with your conservative friends that you’re going to be a minister—as a female. Maybe it’s that moment at the holiday dinner table where you take an active stand against racism in your predominantly white hometown, or when you voice an opinion that is not held by the rest of your family. These are acts that require courage.

The courage to know who we are, and keep choosing that, keep speaking and acting authentically, even when the reception isn’t friendly, or when we feel like we’re going to be pushed of a cliff.

Sometimes these voices and pressures are outside us, the hometown voices questioning who we are and how we’re living our lives. And then, so often, these voices and pressures are within us. The difference between our ideal self in our own eyes and our actual self that we experience day in and day out, wreaks havoc on our lives as we strive to be better, thinner, neater, more patient, more accepting, more loving, more loveable, and as hard as we work at it and try, we struggle to bridge between the idea of who we want to be and who we are. We wonder how we can be come “acceptable” to ourselves, to others, to God.

The quote from the Psalms today, is one that I’ve quoted over the years, but it hit me a little differently this week. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

That word “acceptable” I’ve spent so much of my life trying to figure out how to be “acceptable in God’s sight” and approved of by others. From that sunny summer day at Camp Firwood where I said the “right words” to be now be “accepted by God” to the endless years of working on my spiritual growth, trying to be spiritually good enough, to piles of moral opinions that if I followed properly, could lead me to love and acceptance, that I’d be okay.

But here’s the thing, dear ones. Here’s the thing. Yes, words and intentions have power, yes there is good in working on our spiritual lives, yes the actions we take and values we espouse have an effect on our lives and the lives of those around us.

But none of these have any power over this simple fact. You are beloved by God. The God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who’s creative love emanates through and animates the universe, the God who has loved you before you were born, and will love you endlessly in her warm embrace, this love, this is where our truest identity is held, in God’s expansive and immediate love.

And I know that this is not necessarily the message we’ve always gotten, from church, from parents and community, from the world around us. There are so many voices to quiet—the ones telling us we need to work harder, be better, believe a certain way, act a certain way, and then we’ll earn God’s love. Then we’ll be acceptable in God’s sight. I know many of us have had voices of religion and people speaking on behalf of religion, using the God stamp, with words that condemn and separate, and systems of belief and salvation that set us up in ways that we feel we can never measure up to this love. And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry that we live in a world where fear and scarcity and condemnation so easily co-opts and corrupts our experiences.

I can’t change that in the past for any of us, but I, and we, can continue to name and claim the transformative, formative, deep knowing that I long for and believe to be true.

God loves us. The source of Life and Wisdom and Love, the Higher Power, the Spirit that moves in all things, the God of the heavens and the earth, loves us for who we are. We are acceptable in God’s sight as our birthright, as beloved humanity, as creations of God. Not because of what we do, but because of who we are. And if this becomes our touchstone, the ultimate reality that we continue to be drawn back to, that we reach for as we stumble (because we will) that we are reminded of over and over, as we start to compare ourselves to others or go into a shame spiral about how we messed up again.

If this is the ultimate reality, if our ultimate self-definition is as beloved by God, then we may start walking back into our hometowns differently. Feeling a bit of the sting when someone we used to be close to can no longer connect because of who we have become, but not letting it take down our knowing of who we are.

If this is the ultimate reality, all humans being beloved by God, then we may find ourselves proclaiming things that we never imagined, like freedom and release for the parts of ourselves that have been held captive by old belief systems, and having our eyes opened to see ourselves and the world around us in new ways.

If this love of God is the ultimate reality, then we gather together in community, not to download the book of rules of how we can climb the ladder to God’s love and acceptance; we gather to remind each other, and to remember together, as we say in our words of confession and assurance each week, that we come together in the presence of a God who is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God who loves us, each one of us, all of you, loves us as we are. Amen.

Peace in the Chaos

The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Readings: Luke 1:26-55

Link to Audio

Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace. Advent this time of waiting, of preparing for Christmas, this time of longing for the dawn of light and peace in the world. Peace in our own lives, peace in our families, in our communities, peace in the world. The scriptures use the word peace often, and we find it in the Christmas story. When we read these stories that may be familiar to us, I find that it’s easy to let them waft past our ears gently and fill in the surrounding sights, and make the stories that surround Jesus’ birth echo and match our desires and longings for some perfect Christmas moment, the silent, the peaceful scene. And yet…have your read these stories? Maybe the coming of peace is not actually as serene as we thought.
Take Mary for example. Mary the mother of Jesus. A figure who in our lore and tales so often is depicted in this peaceful glow, seemingly apart from anything trying or chaotic. And yet, did you hear the story we read today? The story of the Angel coming to Mary, likely as she was just going about her everyday business, and telling her that she was going to conceive a son in her womb and name him Jesus and he would be the Son of the most high, to reign over the house of David forever…

When we have the soft blue lenses with the “all is quiet and peaceful” on, we often skip straight to the last sentence, when Mary says “let it be to me as you have written” and the angel departs.

Okay, let’s think for a moment about this Mary. Maybe the story has become so common to us over the years that we forget how shocking this is. First, Mary is just going about her everyday life, from all we know. We have no reason to believe that she was asking for this or expecting it. The fact that the angel said to her, “do not be afraid” implies that her reaction at first was, understandably, one of fear. But she sticks with it. She listens. And then she does something that I find striking.

She asks a question. She’s not meek and mild. She’s actually pretty kick-ass. She has the courage and audacity to ask this angel who shows up. “How’s this going to happen?” “I’m a virgin.”

Now yes, this means what you think it means. And at that time and in the culture the idea of being pregnant without being married to the father of the child was no small thing. She was taking a major risk, particularly as she was engaged to Joseph at this time. But she keeps listening. And when she hears that it is God that will do this work, and that nothing will be impossible with God. She replies with these beautifully well worn words, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me, according to your word.”

And Mary’s song—these words of response, of praise, of proclamation that Mary sings in our gospel reading today—these are not sanitized comfy, and set-apart-from-the-world words. These are strong and powerful words about how the incarnate God’s coming into the world breaks into the systems of oppression and the hunger and the violence, and calls for another way.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
… has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
… has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.

Maybe Mary is more like you and me than we thought. Seeking to follow God in the midst of chaotic times. Calling for a world where hungry bellies are filled and those who are abusing power are humbled, a turning of our economic disparity and a world where peace is tangible for all. Making choices that were incredibly risky to her own being, to courageously follow the call of God—to engage God with us, coming into her life and into the world.

In the orthodox tradition Mary is called the “theotokos” a Greek word that means “God-bearer” or “birth-giver of God” and “the one who gives birth to God.” This is different, in my mind than being the “Mother of God.” And it opens up interesting possibilities and curiosities about the theological traditions of immaculate conception. That to be the theotokos maybe is not about being pure and already divine, but actually about being fully human and responding with a courage and strength to carry the divine.
There’s a passage in Swedenborgian theology that strikes me as relevant in this conversation…

“Before anything is brought back into order, it is quite normal for it to be brought first into a kind of confusion, a virtual chaos.” (Secrets of Heaven 842) This passage goes on to say that is through this process that we experience as confusion, even chaos, that the Lord re-arranges things, sorts things, and puts them in order.
This leads me to believe that in order to find the peace, that sense of God’s presence with us, we have to be willing to engage the chaos, the reality of the world around us, not to hide from it or avoid it, instead—to see it, to listen, to name it and then go to the Lord and offer our willingness to respond.

As much as we want to sanitize these stories, to make them something outside of our realm—clean, pretty, peaceful—it’s difficult once you read them. And listen again. Because we find out what the Incarnation, the coming of the Christ was not about.
It was not about something separated from the reality of humanity, of the suffering and questioning, joy and human feeling and vulnerability. It’s about the Light coming into the darkness, and the Prince of Peace showing up in the chaos of the world.
It’s like the bell at the beginning of our worship time together.

That silence that we find inside even with the chaos happening around us, God’s still small voice with us. Here’s the thing about peace—real peace, internal peace, lasting peace—it’s not about getting away or avoiding what is around us. It’s about finding God in the midst of it.

Because yet again, we’re shown how Emmanuel, God with us does not behave the way we might expect or show up in the pretty tidy picture we expect. The angels did not go to the rulers in the center of town, or the rabbis in the temple to share the good news. Instead they showed up in the darkness, in the cold, on the margins, in and amongst the daily tasks that were being done, bringing “good news of great joy… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all people!”
And this, my friends, is the message these stories of Advent keep returning me to this year—it’s not about finding peace “out there,” or about one perfect fix for our life struggle or the world—“if I just___”. “If we just….” The story of Advent invites us, reminds us, calls us to be people of hope, people of life, people who continue to show up and look for and work for goodness and transformation.
Because yes, there is darkness, there is hunger—spiritually and naturally. We live in a world where we see division and isolation, poverty of body and spirit. We each are living real human lives and we carry with us loss and longing along with our desires and hopes. And it is in and amongst all of this that Emmanuel, God of incarnation offers us hope.
Hope not devoid from the trouble and pain, just as silence is not devoid of sounds, and peace is not devoid of chaos. No the hope, the peace, comes as the Prince of Peace comes, in and amongst all the messiness of life. In and amongst our family systems, in and amongst a world that’s experiencing hunger and poverty. Showing us again and again that God isn’t far away and inaccessible.
And that God came down, Love incarnate, right here, as a human, with humans, born by a human because divinity and humanity are inexplicably intertwined, God is right here. In that moment when we open our eyes and see the light in a new way. As one hand reaches out to another, offers that gentle squeeze of knowing. In the silence, amid the sounds of voices and questions and confusion, Christ is born. The presence of love come to earth, then and now. Emmanuel. God is with us. Amen.

A Sermon About Fear and Love and Courage and God with Us


The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-8, Luke 3: 3-6

Link to Audio

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, God with us.

I find myself grasping for words to respond after another act of violence strikes, and this time so close to us, while we try to distance ourselves to keep the horror away. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how to make it all better. I struggle with the rage that rises in me every time one human being inflicts violence on another human being. I don’t want to live in fear. And yet, I am afraid. I find myself looking at people differently when I walk into a public space. I open up the news browser and I tense, not knowing what will be there. I feel fear. I do not want to. But I do.

Today is the Second Sunday in Advent. Advent is a term we use in the Christian tradition for the weeks leading up to Christmas, a time of preparation for the birth of Christ, of the coming of Light into the world. Advent is a time of waiting and anticipating, Advent is a time of preparation, of clearing out a space for God’s love and light to enter the world and enter our lives.

When we think about “preparing for Christmas,” I know what often comes first to mind are the lists of gifts to purchase and events to go to, cards to write and parties to plan. And certainly this is all part of this season and can bring joy to us and the people around us. Yet while we’re doing that, let us consider some deeper layers of preparation that we’re being invited to. Preparing for more Light shining into our lives and the world, clearing out and opening up spaces for love. Preparing the way for the Lord.

In our gospel reading today, we hear from John, the baptizer, this prophet who went ahead of Jesus, ahead of the Light coming into the world, and called people to repentance.

Now I need to give a quick explanation of this word “repentance” because it’s one of those religious words we can—understandably—be allergic to, picturing fisted preachers slamming the Bible down on the pulpit demanding our repentance—or else. Or we might think of sandwich board signs on the street corners, with people calling for us to repent because the end is near. No, my friends, this is not the repentance we talk about here or what we find in this gospel message. The word “repentance” in the gospel is the word “metanoia”—to change our minds, to turn, to be transformed.

The preparation is one of intention and purpose, noticing where crooked ways in us need to be made straight, where mountains and hills need to be leveled, where rough places can be gently smoothed.

The repentance, the preparation we are called to is maybe quite simple really, yet revolutionary. We’re called to open up to the way of Love, to the way of Light in the world. Dear ones, how we need this. This promise of Love, of Emmanuel, God with us.

Not the God somewhere far away who makes bad things happen or snaps his fingers and fixes things. Not the God who loves one group of people or religious path and smites another. No, the promise we long for and claim today is that promise of Emmanuel, God with us. The God of complete and expansive love, a love for all that She has created. The God of our Muslim brothers and sisters, the God of those who are living in poverty, the God who weeps over every act of violence and harm we inflict on each other in the human family, and the God who slipped into human skin and in the body of Jesus showed us by his actions what God looks like as he reached out across barriers and touched and interacted and healed those that others shunned, as he fed people and questioned the crushing power of those in authority, and exuded love for the least of these.

God’s coming into the world did not eliminate or annihilate all the pain and suffering in the world, but it gives us the possibility to be transformed by it, to be part of the force for healing, and to no longer be defined by it.

Marin Tirabassi, in writing a poem titled “O antiphon for our fears”, gives us these words:

O Emmanuel, hailed by clueless Gabriel,
who thinks we can
shake off being afraid,
Come to us in our fear.
We fear the past and the future.
We fear those who are unlike us
in any way,
and we fear family members
who should not hurt us but do.
We fear chemo and COPD,
and any kind of mental illness diagnosis.
We fear heroin.
We fear small spaces and high ones,
food and poverty and bullies,
dirt and death,
dangerous work places, joblessness,
and being asked to play.
We fear forgetting people,
being forgotten,
not being able to retrieve a name.
We fear labor and delivery
and the impossible responsibility
of being a parent.
We fear naming autism,
claiming a gender identity,
or a recovery or a religious faith,
not to speak of falling in love,
being late,
or enjoying solitude.
We fear for our children,
and for our parents.

We fear terrorism, injustice, war,
and global warming,
guns in the hands of those who are unstable,
and guns in the hands of police,
and we correctly fear angels who invite us
to choose to make a difference.
Come to us in all our fears,
so they do not define us. Amen

Come to us in all our fears, Emmanuel. Not because God magically eliminates our fears, but because we must not be defined by them.

When we become defined by our fears, we perpetuate them. We begin to act from them. We shut down and we clamp down and we want to close off to the world.

Close our borders, close our eyes, close our hearts, close our minds. I find this is what fear calls out in me. To shut down. And shut all people out. And the world out.

Thomas Aquinas once said: “fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.”

And this, dear ones, in unacceptable. It is unacceptable to let fear drive compassion right out of our hearts. I believe that our well being and the well being of the world rests in this hard truth. We may be afraid, but we cannot let ourselves be defined by it.

It’s not about not having fear. It’s about admitting that we have fear, and then choosing to stand in truth and in love. The way of Emmanuel, the God with us, was not to avoid the dark and difficult places of our world, it was not to stay far away up in a heaven far away, Emmanuel come to earth born as a vulnerable baby, in the middle of a world that was struggling with forces and powers of oppression and terror.

Emmanuel come to earth in this state of utter and complete vulnerability, and calls us not to ignore our fears, but to name them and see God coming to us in them, so they don’t define us.

Because this Jesus, this Christ that we are anticipating, that we are preparing for, this is the Light that is always pressing and urging to come into the world. This is the love that takes our fearful and hardened hearts and cracks them open to engage in the world.

And so as we prepare for the way of the Lord, as we align ourselves to welcome the Light and the Love, to receive and to share the Light and the Love, we notice and we name our fears. We notice those parts of our path where we need God’s help to make crooked places straight. We look at the world around us and breathe and take in the depths of the valleys that need to be filled with healing and change, and the egos and agendas standing on mountaintops that need to be brought low. As we prepare for the way of the Lord, we ask for holy sandpaper to make those rough places in us smooth, to work over the places in us that get prickly and push away that which is vulnerable, to break off those hooks that snag us in a way of thinking and feeling that is not aligned with love.


We lay strips of yarn on the altar, representing our fears…


…surrounding the advent wreath, which we light…


…remembering the Light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome and the Love that is beyond all fears.


Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice


The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
Rev. Anna Woofenden

Gratitude is a funny thing really. We likely can all get on board with the general idea; it’s good to be grateful. This time of Thanksgiving we get prompted all over the place to be “thankful” to “give thanks.” It gets us thinking about it, which is excellent, and then it can invite us in to looking at gratitude more deeply, and looking at what it actually mean in our lives, and how engaging a life of gratitude can actually change us.

I’ve noticed something in myself when it comes to words of gratitude—sometimes it’s authentic and genuine, and sometimes it’s totally a cover up. Cover up for something that’s really hard and painful and I don’t really want to deal with. “Yup, yup, that hard painful thing happened, but I shouldn’t complain, I know I should be grateful for.” Rather than feeling the pain or the sadness, I find myself using words like “I should be grateful” and some other cover up. Maybe you use it to smooth over conversations we need to have, or to brush off acknowledging vulnerability “I’m grateful I’m not that person, or group of people, or life situation.

This time of Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to explore gratitude, and explore the words we use as we look at our own expressions of gratitude, and commit or recommit to a practice of gratitude.

Because when we actively practice gratitude, things change in us, and around us. Our orientation to the world, how we see people and situations changes, I’m told even our brain chemistry changes. As we actively practice a life of gratitude, we start to notice things differently; we connect with people and the world with more attentive eyes.

In my tradition we talk about how God is always drawing good out of any situation. That God is an expansive, loving, God, a God who values our freedom, a God who does not cause the pain, the broken places, the sadness, these come from our individual and collective actions and choices as a world, but God is always present in all of it, and as the source and force of love and goodness in the world. And that as the Source of this love and goodness, this force is always drawing us to bring healing and hope, reconciliation and goodness out of every situation and in the daily actions of life.

So what if we use Gratitude not as a Band-Aid or a Thanksgiving tag line, but actually a deep spiritual practice.

A deep spiritual practice that taps into God’s goodness ever moving and loving and showing up and surprising us in the world.

And when we are in this spiritual practice, and we all fall and get up again multiple times a day, we might notice that good is, being brought out of the difficult things. We might notice that we stopped long enough to engage another person and something beautiful came out of the connection. We might have a difficult situation come up in our lives and rather than being sure that it’s all helpless, we might open up to there being redemption in it, through the neighbor who shows up to help change the tire, to the emotional muscles that are stretched and exercised when we’re dealing with an illness or the illness of a loved one.

Having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean that suddenly our lives are all peachy and we never have hard days. And having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention to the pain and brokenness in the world.

No, I think having a practice of gratitude is having a practice of paying attention…paying attention to where love is breaking through, paying attention to where we are called to see differently, to be instruments of compassion, to be curious and to be the vessels by which God infuses more love into the world.

Edwin Arlington Robinson said, “There are two kinds of gratitude:  The sudden kind we feel for what we take; the larger kind we feel for what we give.” 

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we will see our own lives differently, we’ll see the gifts and how we’re being taken care of, in little ways and big. We’ll pause and notice the colors in the sky, the rich flavors of the food in our mouths and the light in each other’s eyes.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the people around us differently, we see how we might have not noticed privilege and inequality that we’d been taking for granted, we’ll see the people in front of us, not as other or different, but as fellow-human-beings, all on the path together, hungry for some more love and compassion in the world.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the world differently. We see the world not as a place to fear or shirk from, but as a precious human family, with it’s deeply broken and cracked places, and always with flowers urging and pushing to grow out of the cracks.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we may just find that we are noticing more, noticing the goodness, and noticing where we can be bearers of that goodness, compassion and light.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the face of God.



“Go in Peace”


The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Psalm 16 


After  a speaking/preaching/fundraising tour in the mid-west last week I popped down to Tennessee to visit good friends of mine who have recently bought land and are starting a small organic farm. I soaked up time tromping all over their property and getting to know the fields and the ridge, the woods and the stream, and even exploring the cave they have. I put my hands in the rich soil there and broke apart clumps of dirt as we planted apple and cherry trees, felt the earth seep into my fingernails as I pulled beautiful delicious carrots, and watched the sun move across the property from the front porch. There is a sense of connection there, paying attention to the way the soil interacts with the plants, how the ladybugs eat the destructive insects, how the sun moves across the sky. In some ways it is so simple there, peaceful and removed, but when I looked deeper it was so intricately connected and complicated.  Choices made in spacing of the planting of the beets are showing their results now a few months later. The mix and level of nutrients in the soil being balanced changes the quality of the plant. And interconnected with the broader planet. Weather patterns changing, people’s choices upstream, all being part of this interconnected world.

So when it came time to turn my phone back on and get caught up with all the news of the week, I was both prepared and unprepared.

As I sat in the Nashville airport I read and watched and saw photos of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad, devastating earthquakes in Japan and Mexico, protests in Seoul, and reminders of the violence and hurt and pain in the world. And I felt so tired. Another round of communal weeping. Another act of violence. And another. And part of me just wanted to go back to the farm where it was simple.

But another part of me knew, the farm held the truths and lessons that teach us to be part of this interconnected world, that remind us that we are all one, and that our lives are intertwined.  And so there it was, another week, another sermon, and my job as your preacher, to listen to the world around us and to listen to the scriptures and to wrestle the two until a word, a truth, a blessing from God emerges from the chaos and pain of the world, the confusion and wisdom of scriptures, a word for us today as we gather together as the church.

And so as I squeezed into the little airplane seat, I went back to the text again, and read this story of Hannah, longing and crying out and praying and petitioning God for a child. The direction this story had been taking me earlier in the week faded as Hannah’s longing intermingled with mine and the child she longed for overlaid with my longing for peace, a world where acts of creativity and love and compassion dominated the news cycles rather than more violence and fear.

As I listened to the story of Hannah again I heard the stories around us in her story…she was longing for something that was not, longing for a child, and so she went to the temple, and she cried out. She prayed. She wailed. The text tells us that: She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. I picture her bent down on the temple floor, maybe pounding her fists, raising her hands in the air, curling up, weeping and crying out to God.

And then Eli the priest came along and accused her of being drunk, as her prayers and her grief were spilling out.  But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

And Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made.”

“I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord…” Hannah says… Pouring out our souls before God.

As I looked at the photos of candles lit and flowers carefully laid on sidewalks and memorials around the world, as I see Facebook posts and profile pictures, articles, and comments, I see this stream of feelings being poured out…we’re pouring our souls before God.  As the psalmist cries out, “Protect me God, for in you I take refuge” as our hearts cry out #prayersforparis, as our hearts and minds are expanded and reminded, #prayers for Beirut and Bagdad, for Syria and Israel Palestine, for those in the wake of earth quakes and drought, for the religious extremists, for the many more faithful peaceful, for places where desperation has led to violence, where fear perpetuates fear, for the violence and pain in our communities, for the violence and pain in our families and homes.

We cry out. We pour our souls before God.

I’m reminded of the wisdom of grief therapists who share the idea that anger is unprocessed grief. And so I did some more reading on grief this morning and found an article where a chaplain named stages of anger in response to grief, that hit home and made sense to me, both in my own reactions and the ones I am seeing around me.

The first is PROTEST—“an attempt to ward of a reality which is seen as too devastating to one’s own sense of survival. This is an acute stage. Intense. Even frightening.

Anger is also a means of RETRIEVAL—it’s craves a target, someone to blame, someway to reverse the death and damage, someone to take the anger out on.

And anger is a means of CONTROL—we erupt in anger when we have lost control, as an emotional response to regain control, as the helplessness can often be the most painful piece in light of loss. (see source for more).

These three reactions ring true to me, personally as I respond to loss in the world and a world that is not as I wish it to be.

I notice my own responses when violence and anger strikes and how much I want to go to CHANGE IT, to control it, to DO something. And then Hannah’s voice comes to me…

No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.

Reactions—fear, helplessness, wanting to DO something, protect those we love. The waves keep coming and we tune out or tune in as we are able. And I think that’s important to note. We can’t hold all the pain of the world all the time, it can paralyze us. While at the same time, I believe it’s important for us to include a practice of feeling it, of breathing it, of engaging it to transform it.

This evening a few of us are attending the South Coast Interfaith Councils annual dinner. The director of the South Coast Interfaith Council, Milia Islam-Majeed posted this quote from a colleague last night: (Thank you Omid Safi bhia, for this perspective)

“When I got the news and had a chance to catch up with the grief, I then made a point of turning down media interview requests and actually took the time to mourn. I hope more of us do take this necessary time. How sad it is to see analysts on TV opining, when we have not yet buried the dead and mourned the loss of life. I am concerned when our response in times of crisis is to strike out, lash out, and express rage before we have had time to sit with, and process, sadness and grief. Unprocessed grief always lashes out in ignorant, unhelpful ways. “

Because here’s the thing that’s extra hard to remember in a time like this, when we feel fear rising and the desire to other and to separate ourselves, is that all human beings experience these human emotions, that “unprocessed grief always lashes out in ignorant, unhelpful ways.”

The urge to differentiate ourselves out of harms way, demonize the other, protect those that we deem “our own” is strong in us. And understandable…and we can choose to enter into our own experience of these feelings and be transformed by the larger truth in the world. That we are all connected, we are all created by our loving Creator, we are all part of the human family, and whatever our nationality, whatever our religion, whatever our skin color or financial mobility, ideology or opinion, we are created and beloved by God and we are all called to love our neighbor, and not only our neighbors that look like us, but the neighbors that we need to engage in conversation and get to know as the humans we all are, the neighbors in different parts of the world, the neighbors in that other part of town. Because it is in expanding and recognizing our interconnectedness, our humanness, that I believe we can engage in the work of transformation, of ourselves, our communities, our world. It’s in our willingness to look again and see each other and feel the pain of those across the world, to be curious and engage in the conversations with those we don’t understand. To put our hands in the earth and recognize how we are all connected.

Joanna Macy, an environmental activist, author, scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology puts it this way:

“Basic to most spiritual traditions, as well as to the systems view of the world, is the recognition that we are not separate, isolated entities, but integral and organic parts of the vast web of life. As such, we are like neurons in a neural net, through which flow currents of awareness of what is happening to us, as a species and as a planet. In that context, the pain we feel for our world is a living testimony to our interconnectedness with it. If we deny this pain, we become like blocked and atrophied neurons, deprived of life’s flow and weakening the larger body in which we take being. But if we let it move through us, we affirm our belonging; our collective awareness increases. We can open to the pain of the world in confidence that it can neither shatter nor isolate us, for we are not objects that can break. We are resilient patterns within a vaster web of knowing.”

She goes on to say:
“Because we have been conditioned to view ourselves as separate, competitive and thus fragile entities, it takes practice to relearn this kind of resilience. A good way to begin is by practicing simple openness, as in the exercise of “breathing through,” adapted from an ancient Buddhist meditation for the development of compassion.” (source)

And so we breathe. We breathe with this pain and we breathe with our fears. And we breathe with our connections and interconnections, how the pain of the world is our pain and how our pain is the pain of the world. And as we breathe and as we allow ourselves to feel and to be, we may find something emerging.

As our lungs inhale and exhale. As we take in life-giving oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. As we feel the breath of God pumping through our bodies and settling and sorting our thoughts and feelings, we feel our place in this larger web of life, in the longing for peace and the experiences of violence, in the fear, in the determination for hope.  We take it all and pour our souls out before the Lord….

And then, after Hannah poured herself out to the Lord, may we, as Hannah receives a blessing, “Go in peace, for the God of Israel will grant you your petition.”

Go in peace. Go in peace. Go in peace.

If there’s anything that church can be today, that this word of God and word of the people, that our gathering together and being in community together, I hope and pray that we can embody and be this blessing. Go in peace.

Not as some magic answer, a snapping of fingers, there’s not some set of words or ideas that’s going to “make it all better.”  No, we go in peace because this is at the heart of the expansive loving God of the universe, this is at the heart of all religious paths, this is at the heart of the work that we need to do, deep within ourselves and in each breath we take, Go in peace, be in peace.

Because yes, there is deep pain and suffering in the world and we are absolutely helpless and it is overwhelming and just too much. And yes, we are connected and interconnected and part of the web of the human family, this world where neighbors are people across the world as well as across the street. And yes, we feel helpless, and yes, we are part of the solution not in our outrage and anger and blame, but in our willingness to breathe with the pain and to go in peace.

Breathing in and out.

And then, when we leave this space, when we listen to the news on the way home, when we have a conversation with a family member later on or co-workers tomorrow, when we read people’s comments on Facebook and search through the multiple commentaries on the news…may we remember to breathe with it. Going in peace.

Going in peace as we confront the lies that any one group of human beings is less important than the one we identify with.

Going in peace as we question and confront extremism in any form, from any religious path.

Going in peace as we have the courage to look deeply at our own propensity to anger and violence, fundamentalism and judgment.

Going in peace as we own how each of our religious traditions and texts can and have been used for violence and go in peace as we look to the majority of our brothers and sisters across faith traditions that are committed to living the way of peace.

Going in peace recognizing the fragility and the resiliency of our interconnected web, how our reactions and actions ripple out and, calling us to choose wisely and act well.

Go in peace as we walk out into the world and engage those who are different than us without fear.

Go in peace knowing that God is with us.

Go in peace knowing that God is with all of humanity.

Go in peace.

Giants in the Land: A sermon on race, violence, gospel, and telling the truth

Planting rosemary for remembrance and sage for wisdom.

Planting rosemary for remembrance and sage for wisdom.

The Garden Church, June 21, 2015 6.21.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
Mark 4:35-41


There are a lot of things I could preach about today. Father’s Day. Summer Solstice. We go through what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary for our scripture texts, a series that walks through the Bible, along with churches all over the world. And today we have David and Goliath, the story of the young boy who faces and defeats the enormous giant; we have Jesus calming the storm. And some of these things would be more fun to preach about than what God has on my heart to preach about today.

A wise preacher is often quoted, “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” We might say now, “Preach with the Bible in one hand and the Facebook feed and the newsfeed and the Twitter feed in the other hand.” So if I’m going to preach with these in my hands this week, we have to talk about racism and we have to talk about violence. And that’s not fun—I quake and pray, and others have been praying about how we can best have these conversations. Because it’s hard and messy and painful. But I believe that if we can’t have these conversations in church, with the infusion of God’s love and wisdom amongst us, well then I don’t know why we have church.

So friends, I invite you to enter into a hard topic today. And to try to find, where is the gospel in it? Because I do believe that God is present, and that Jesus shows us that there always is gospel—good news. Sometimes to find that gospel we have to be willing to engage the hard and the painful, and the things that we’d rather just gloss over.

Thursday morning, I woke up to a news feed filled with articles and shock and grief. The night before, a young white man who has since been identified as Dylan Storm Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where a Bible study was taking place. He sat around the tables with the community for over an hour and then, as they were wrapping up, pulled out a gun and shot nine people.

I read and I watched and I sat down and I wrote.

A person,
            Killed another person.
                        And my heart aches.

A white person,
           Killed another black person. 
                       And my lungs contract.

A young white man person,
            Killed nine black women and men, people.
                        And my back stiffens.
                        My heart pounds.
                        My fingers tighten.
                        My feet press into the ground.

All the words scroll by, “Enough is enough”…“Lord, have mercy”…“When will this end?”…“Stop racism”…“When will we have peace?

Scrolling, scrolling, images flush, other faces, Trayvon and Michael, Eric, young girls and old men, the marches, the media, this gaping wound of racism, violence, pain, and hate.

I keep scrolling. Someone urges us not to  “jump to conclusions” and then black clergy colleague asks, “Will you be silent when it’s me?”

My hands go to my forehead. Again.

To keep feeling, to keep being present, every time there is another giant public witness to racism and white supremacy in our nation. I want to ignore, to numb.

Not to be silent because I don’t care, but because it’s so much work to stay present with the suffering. And name that there are giants in our land. There are giant gaping wounds of racism and inequality, hunger and violence. There are systems and ideologies, structures and places within me that continue to benefit from the oppression of others. And I know, that I, as a white woman, am mostly on the benefiting end. And I worry about this beautiful big-hearted little boy that I know, who I’ve known since he was an itty-bitty infant, who has beautiful beautiful black skin and I know that he is in more and more risk with each inch that he grows. And that, my friends, is so painful to sit with. It’s too much. It’s giant.

We heard today the story of a giant—Goliath—a big, huge, intimidating enemy. When we hear this story, this story of a giant that is so gigantic, so overpowering, the giant who has all the armor and weapons and a reputation to go with it, a story of impossibility. Maybe we can relate. The stories we read in the Word can mix and layer with the stories of our lives. We see ourselves in these stories as we let them come alive, and we see ourselves and the world in the text.

There are giants that we face. Racism. Violence. The insurmountable. The very large that seems so dangerous and impossible to even begin to approach.

There were giants in the land. Send someone else. There are giants in our land. I want to run away, to hide, to make it be someone else’s problem, to explain away why this is none of my business or could never affect me.

But then there’s David, this young shepherd boy, innocent, strong, wise, dedicated and trusting in the Lord’s work in the world and in his life. And he steps forward. He says, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”

David, and so many courageous people, before and after, who step up and say, “yes, there’s a giant, but there’s also the Lord, and step out in faith and trust and with the courage to face what we all want to hide from.”

Rather than hiding, avoiding, glossing over, I need to show up. Be present to it. I need to continue to listen. I need to particularly listen to my colleagues and friends of color and know and honor that they have wisdom from their lived experience, that I do not, and that I have privilege merely by the skin that I’m born in. I need to listen.

Because when I listen, I hear voices such as Rev. Emma Akapan, a black woman who wrote yesterday, “To my white Christian brethren, I don’t need for you to tell me how angry you are. I need you to tell your white family members, friends, and congregants. I need you to talk about your anger at racism and white supremacy from the pulpit. I need you to urge your congregants to address racism in their own family. White folks know who their racist family members and friends are—now is not the time sit idly by and ignore it. We must face those who we love, and challenge their prejudice. White folks must say, “no more” to racism, especially when it’s a system that they benefit from.”

And so here we are. I could have tried to get away with preaching a nice sermon on Father’s Day today, but I hope not, I hope that this community demands from each other and from your preacher that this is a place where we take our theology of the table, that all are welcome, we take our commitment to look into the eyes of each other and see the face of God, the humanity of all people, we take our charge seriously, to be a place that’s more like heaven, in and amongst the messiness of earth. Which means, to me, that we are willing to stop and wrestle deeply with what the gospel—the “good news”—is for our country still dealing with the festering wound of racism, violence, and division.

I believe hat the gospel calls us to have the courage to have these conversations, knowing that we’re not going to get it all right. I will say some things that offend some, and other things that offend others, I will likely make myself and others uncomfortable that I am preaching about racism from the pulpit, I may even say things that later I’ll have to go back and say, “I’ve learned more since then.” But I will not be silent. Because we need to speak our truth about these giants in the land.

The good news—the gospel—is in Jesus, as we watch him as he walked on earth, calling to repentance, a changing of our minds and heart, as he reached out across barriers and lines, calling us to pray for our enemies, to forgive the impossible, to knock over the tables of injustice, to stand with and walk with the oppressed and speak truth about oppressors.

Remember, Jesus came from a time when there were giants in the land, the Roman empire was crushing those who were not them, slavery and racism and classism were rampant. And Jesus called for a different way. Jesus didn’t put on the armor of Saul. He didn’t go to the palace and try to play with the power struggle of violence and aggression. He didn’t take up the sword and shield.

Like David before him, who when Saul offered him his bronze helmet and coat of mail and David tried to walk in them, and then said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. David took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

David didn’t use Saul’s armor. He went forward with what was more vulnerable, but true to him. He went out as his own vulnerable self. With the tools and skills he knew well.

Jesus, the all powerful God of Heaven and earth, didn’t come into the world protected by chain mail and with a sword. He came to earth as a vulnerable baby, grew and walked with the people. An itinerant preacher, sleeping here and there, going across the lake in boats, being with the people. Valuing, touching, feeding everyone he met. He didn’t hide behind the religious rule or the protection of Roman guards. He put on his own clothing,—vulnerable skin—and from that place engaged the giants.

Jesus wasn’t afraid of the hard conversations, of stirring things up, Or if he was afraid, he did it anyway, even when it resulted in his own death at the hands of Roman rulers.

And here’s where we reach out for and claim the gospel, where we repent and invite God to keep working to change our minds, to take off the ill-fitting armor of the stories we tell ourselves and put down our weapons of defense that come from fear and hate. Calling us to lament and repent. And then to tell the truth.

In the language of metaphor, stones remind us of truth, and if you think about stones as truth, these stones are smooth, and rounded from the water flowing over them, they’re well used, known, lived truths.

And its just one of these stones—one truth—that slays the giant in this story. Now I’m not suggesting that if we just land on just the right truth that we’ll end these major problems in our world. And I’m not suggesting that we use truth as a weapon. And though I’d really like to be able to wrap up our story as nicely as is the story of David and Goliath, I cannot. Because being human and living in the world today is just so much messier than than this story.

We can’t fix it all overnight. We can’t do one thing and make it all better. We can ignore it for so long, but then it will come back in our faces and in our hearts. Maybe we can start by telling the truth. By speaking the truth, we let the light in. We let God in. Tell the truth about the history of slavery that this country is built on. Tell the truth about the vastly un-equal incarceration rate of black men vs. white men who committed the same crime. Tell the truth about racially charged violence. Tell the truth about how economic and social systems benefit white people. Tell the truth about ourselves and how we are part of these systems. Be willing to engage and stand in hard conversations about race, and be honest and vulnerable and to cry out to God in and amongst it.

I wish I had some more uplifting gospel to give you. But maybe the gospel is just this: Embodying our liturgy and our faith. Speaking our prayers of confession and repentance. Being church side-by-side with people that are different than us. Coming around the table where all are welcome. And meaning it. Even when it’s messy. Even when we disagree. Even when we have to be honest and have hard conversations. That we come around God’s table and be the human family together.

Crying out—telling the truth in the midst of it all. Being willing to put on our own clothing, our vulnerability, voice our confusion and doubts, engage in the hard conversations and cry out to God and to each other.

The disciples out on the boat are in the great storm and afraid. And Jesus was asleep in the stern. The disciples are freaking out and say, “Jesus, Jesus, don’t you care that we are perishing?” And he woke up, and said, “Peace, be still” and the waves stopped. He then said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Let us keep crying out, “Jesus, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Crying out in lament for sisters and brothers, crying out as we repent, crying out for healing and reconciliation. And Jesus, just for that moment, calms the storm. Peace. Be still.


Confronted by Resurrection

Easter 2015
The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden

So here’s the thing about resurrection. It comes when we least expect it. And in fact, when we don’t expect it. It confronts us–right smack-dab in the middle of our confusion and grief and despair. Like Mary, weeping outside of the tomb, I picture her, head down, in utter despair. And Jesus reaches out and asks, “Why are you weeping?” She looks up, and she doesn’t even recognize him. She doesn’t see the resurrection in front of her. Until he says her name, “Mary” and she is shocked, jumps up and exclaims, “Rabboni, teacher!” Confronted by the resurrection.

Walking through these stories, it’s hard for us to remember that the followers of Jesus didn’t know about the Easter part. Today on Holy Saturday, we’re walking through the whole story of Holy Week, but we also hold this space for what this Saturday day is–a place of waiting, and wondering, not knowing how the story will end, longing for resurrection.

This week one of my hometowns and church communities where I hold many dear suffered a quick succession of tragic and shocking losses. They entered into the darkness and pain of these narratives a few days early as they are wrestling up close and personal with darkness. As I spent time this week being present, via phone and text, I witnessed questions of how humanity can be in such pain, and how is it that we continue to inflict it on each other, where is God in all of this? As I sat with these questions and felt the deep pain and darkness, I kept coming back to these stories, to the scriptures of Holy Week. The stories of how the Loving God of the Universe, incarnated and walked among us in the vulnerability of human flesh, encountering pain and darkness and suffering. And somehow, these stories are able to hold it all.

This song we’ve been singing today kept living with me. “Within our darkest night, You kindle the fire, that never dies, that never dies, within our darkest night, you kindle the fire, that never dies.” Because darkest nights are part of life. And they’re part of this narrative of Holy Week. In fact, they’re right there in the story. Dark, sad, violent, hard stuff. Stuff that I don’t really even like to read out loud in church, stuff that makes me cringe as the words are spoken, because who wants to have to face it? And yet in holding it as part of the story, we find that God is facing it with us. Emmanuel, God with us, holding us, suffering with us, and loving us through it all.

Because pain and suffering and death is not the whole story, and that is not the final message. Because with God, there’s always resurrection, there is always hope. With God there is that flame that never dies, that divine impulse of new life is God’s signature act. Now I want to be really clear, believing in resurrection doesn’t mean that we skip over the hard stuff. It doesn’t mean that we pretend it’s all going to be fine. What God shows us in the ability to be present, by walking through it, fully embodying it, and then transforming it and giving new life.   And it’s that “God with us,” the God who kindles that flame within humanity, within creation, constantly with us, constantly calling us towards love as God makes all things new. And this newness is often not some clean-cut bookend on the other side of the story; life doesn’t operate Palm Sunday, then Easter. Life is more like the whole week together, the powerful acts of love when bending down to wash another’s feet, the triumphal shouts with palms held high, the dark depths of the violence of the crucifixion, the shock and joy of the resurrection, the holy waiting of this day. All mixed up together.

The hope of resurrection is that we know and are being held by a God who is with us in it. In the pain and the suffering, in the blah days and the wondering, in the times where we know and the times when we don’t, and this God, God with us—is always, always, always working towards resurrection, transformation, hope, reconciliation and love. 

This is the God that willingly walked the paths that encountered suffering, every kind of human temptation, and experienced the depth of violence and pain and hurt in the world. And then said, “this is NOT the end of the story.” And, when his followers least expected it, they found an empty tomb and the Christ shining brilliantly and calling them forward in the way of resurrection.

And Christ is still calling us forward, God continues to be the God that is making all things new, brings healing in despair, calls us to rise together and address the suffering in the world, holds us in all things. And continues to show us, to confront us with the beauty and light of resurrection. And likely, it will come and confront us when we least expect it. In the brilliance of a glowing bed of flowers on a dark dark day, in a reconciliation that we never thought would come, in the pieces and places in ourselves and our world where we name and claim the beauty, the hope, the love coming into being in the world.

The word is very near us, it is in our hearts and in our beings, let’s continue our reflection together…how have you, or are you, being confronted by resurrection?