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?

Gathering Around the Table | A Sermon for The Garden Church

November 23rd, 2013
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Psalm 100 & Matthew 25:31-45

“For whatever you do for the least of these, whatever you do to one who is a member of my family, you do to me.”

Last month when we gathered down by the docks in a grassy spot after walking the streets of our community together, we talked about this thing called the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a series of readings that walk preachers and congregations through the Bible in a three-year cycle. And I shared how I, as your preacher, have chosen to use this calendar of scripture for our worship services. Now, there are a variety of reasons for this choice, one of the main ones being that it makes it so I don’t just pick the readings that I like—or that especially speak to me—and use them over and over and over again. I want to, and to have us all, be challenged by reading the breadth and variety of Biblical texts, and to have a shared accountability that we don’t just keep going back to the same scriptures, and preaching the same sermon over and over again.

With all this in mind, you can laugh with me when I tell you about our gospel text for this week, Matthew 25:31-45, the parable of the sheep and the goats. This scripture more than any other, is the one that I have preached on, wrestled with, been inspired by, and worked with in the forming and developing of this church. I’ve read it backwards and forwards, written papers on it, had it preached to me at pivotal moments, chosen it as the text for my ordination sermon, and, and—I’m not making this up—I have it engraved on the back of my iPad. “For I was hungry…” Matthew 25.

And seriously, it is integral to why we’re here today, starting a church that integrates the natural and spiritual, individual and communal needs, and a church that is committed to working together for changed spirits and hearts, in conjunction with changed physical lives. It has led me to believe that the spiritual and the natural work are inter-connected, and that Jesus is pointing to this reality when he equates one’s eternal place with what one does for “the least of these who are members of God’s family.”

So, out of all the Sundays of this three-year cycle of scripture, out of all the passages of the Bible that we could explore. it’s today, at our third Gathering, that the Revised Common Lectionary lands on this passage. And I laugh and I wonder at the movement of God and the confirmation that there is such a thing as Divine Providence leading and guiding all things. You with me?

This story has been following me around for years. But it first came into my life in a meaningful way when I was in an undergrad psychology course in 1998. Dr. Sonia Werner, a brilliant psychologist and Swedenborgian scholar, made a chart that changed my view of the world and of what church and ministry and following God might mean.

Along one side of the chart she put:
For I was hungry and you fed me
I was thirsty and you gave me drink
I was a stranger and you welcomed me in
I was naked and you clothed me
I was sick and you cared for me, and
I was in prison and you visited me.

Along the other side of the chart she had outlined what Emanuel Swedenborg, the Christian mystic and theologian whose teaching our tradition turns to, and outlined what he calls, “the levels of the neighbor.”

So along the top of the chart she wrote:
Spiritual useful services—love toward God and love for the neighbor
Moral and civic services—love for the society in which a person resides
Natural useful services—love of the world and its necessities
Corporal useful services—self-preservation for the sake of higher uses

Dr. Werner’s offering, carried in the Swedenborgian teaching that there is an internal meaning, or layers upon layers of teaching that we can find in the Biblical text. It awoke something in me as it moved from being an edict on what boxes I had to check off to “inherit eternal life,” to a story that Jesus is telling us about how engaging others is how we engage the spiritual life, in an interconnected and multi-layered way.

The intersection of these two series—the natural, mental, emotional, spiritual and the call of Jesus to give food, offer drink, clothe, visit, care, and welcome—are at the core of vision of the Garden Church.

To re-imagine church as an entity that cares about people—mind, body, and spirit—and to be a body that engages individual transformation within the context of communal, societal, and global relationships. Because I really do believe that it is in these actions, of feeding those who are hungry, and clothing those who are naked, and caring for the sick, and so on, that we also find spiritual transformation.

And so when people ask us, “is a church or is it a garden?”, the answer is always, “Yes” because we’re about the transformation of mind, body, and spirit. We’re about the transformation of earth, food, health, and community. They are all intertwined.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Just the way that when Jesus was asked how to inherit eternal life, he didn’t talk about just what you believe, or a certain formula of morality codes, he talked about actions and the way we treat one another as the way we interact with God.

Each of us have sheep and goats in us—ways that we act and engage the world around us from a place of love, wisdom, compassion, and action; and parts of ourselves that look inwards in ways that further our own selfishness and gain. We’re invited to hear this passage not dictating a specific set of delineated instructions that will let us know whether we pass or not. Instead, this story calls out as a herald of the interconnected whole. That the spiritual life is housed in the physical life. That tangible actions of goodness to those around us, are the way that we experience eternal life and where we see the way of Jesus, the face of God, in the world around us.

And so this call to action is not about, “Go, quick go! Sign up for one more ‘helpful’ volunteer opportunity to make sure you get enough points to get into heaven!” I believe it’s calling for something much more profound and beautiful than that. This story calls us to transform the way we see God and see our neighbor. It is telling us that how we interact with the people around us is also our interaction with God. It is telling us that when we look and truly see and connect with the humanity in front of us, we are seeing and connecting with the Divine.

This passage not only calls us to action, to the acts of feeding people, clothing people, engaging those who are imprisoned, and caring for those who are sick. It calls us to something even more profound and transformative. After the first half of this tale, when Jesus lays out these six areas of care, he says that the righteous will ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you drink, a stranger and welcome you in, naked and give you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or imprisoned and visited you and cared for you?” And Jesus says, “whenever you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it for me.” When we’re doing our own internal work towards compassion and goodness, it changes our external work. When we come together to work and serve with others on the physical level, our hearts and spirits are changed, transformed, saved from the draw to the insular, selfish, materialistic lives that we can all get caught up in.

In a few minutes we’re going to gather around the table and share in the sacred meal, in Communion. We come around the table every time we meet, because at the table we are reminded—in these physical, natural elements of bread and wine—of the profound spiritual realities. We will bless and share the bread and say, “the bread of life” and the cup and say, “the cup of salvation.”14a

Because in these acts, we remember, we experience the abundance of life and love, and that there is enough for all to feed and be fed. And we remember God’s new covenant that is made with this cup. That transformation, or salvation, for each of us, and all of us, as God is constantly drawing us together, making all things new.

And we come around the table because we look across the table, and we see each other, and the love and wisdom in each other, as we answer God’s call to see precious humanity in each face we meet. We engage these natural elements, bread and wine, flesh and dirt, water and lettuce seeds, because they are the container for the spiritual—as we are the containers for the spiritual. Each of us, the least of these, are interacting with Love Incarnate when we engage flesh and blood.

20 2And we come around the table, to share in this sacred meal, in a spirit of Thanksgiving. This ancient Christian practice of sharing the bread and wine as the Lord did with his last meal while he was on earth has been named throughout traditions as “the Eucharist”—the Great Thanksgiving. And so as we are in a season of collective Thanksgiving, of gratitude and awareness of the abundance, we come together and share this Sacred Meal in remembrance of the love that Jesus calls us to, and in Thanksgiving for that which feeds us to be present in the world.

Because bodies matter. Minds matter. Spirits matter. Relationships matter. Being in communion with one another, with the Divine Love, with our human family, matters. We come around the table every time we meet because we are reminded of the abundance of the love of God and the call to compassionate living between us.

As we follow Jesus call to feed, and nurture, welcome, and accompany each other and our human family in this interconnected web of life. Whatever you did for the least or these, who are members of my family, you do for me. Amen.


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What We Do with Our Life Matters | Sermon for Wayfarers Chapel

Rev. Anna Woofenden
November 16th, 2014
Readings: Psalm 90, Matthew 25:14-30 and
True Christianity 527 from Emanuel Swedenborg


This weekend I took part in the third of a three weekend series of intensive courses on public theology, taught up at Lavern University by one of my professors from seminary, Dr. Scott Holland. Looking at public theology through a number of lenses, we wrestled with issues of politics and religion. We discussed the generational shifts that are changing the face of the religious and cultural frameworks as we see the rise of the “spiritual, but not religious” and those who check the box marked “none” when asked about religion. We analyzed the marker points and turning points of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests, naming and unpacking the overt and intrinsic theological origins and narratives that shaped those movements.

We then moved forward into more recent history, exploring the analysis and prognosis offered by Van Jones of the Obama era in his work, “Rebuilding the Dream,” and the interfaith movement being propelled forward by Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Young Corps. And through each of these conversations, we kept coming back to questions of theology—of how we make meaning in our lives. How can our view of who God is, our exchanges with humanity, the way we work for the common good or against the common enemy be seen throughout history to catalyze or concretize a movement for brief or lasting change?

At about 11:30 yesterday morning, nearing the end of these hours we’d spent together over the last three months I leaned against a desk, where I had been standing to stretch my back, and I had what must have been a troubled look on my face.

“Yes Anna” Scott said to me quizzically, “Do you have a question?”

I took a deep breath, and said,
“So here’s the thing: this is all so fascinating and our study has been grounded in powerful stories of leaders and theologians, prophetic voices who shape the shared narrative, people who changed the arch of history through their reach. And we’re naming the urgent issues in our world today—the polarization and extremism in various cultures, the trauma and harm we are seeing from extremists in various religious traditions who are engaging in acts of terror, threat and war in the name of God and religion. We talked about the way racism and sexism and classism, and so many other -isms divide us from each other and feed the desire to create a barrier and a separation from each other, and we’ve read and discussed a powerful diagnosis of the past and current struggles we face in the world. We have the analysis and diagnosis, and they are profound, inspiring, concerning, and move me to action. And yet, in this moment, these conversations, they are all theoretical.

But I sit here, as I’m listening and engaging the wisdom of the public theologians and I’m thinking, ‘How does this apply to this new church that I’m planting?’ How do I interact with the man who sits outside the post office and greets me most days when I walk in to get the mail, asking for money for something to eat? Or how do I hold the fact that one of the humans I love most is growing up in a country where soon his likelihood of being judged and harmed is exponentially higher because of the color of his skin? How do I lead an entrepreneurial community that cares about social change and work for the common good? How do we bring this theory into reality for personal and collective transformation, for change—for more heaven here on earth?”

I felt myself choking up a bit as I pointed to the books spread out across my desk, “Where’s the five step for the cultural climate we are facing today, November 2014? Where’s the blue print? The one right way? The five best practices? Give me my simple clear marching orders, and I’ll do it.”

Scott looked at me and said, “Ahh…but you are doing it. And the story is being written.” 

We read a short story of Jesus this morning, the parable of the talents. This is one of many short stories that Jesus tells throughout his ministry—parables of talents and sheep, landowners and servants, parents and prodigal children, pearls of great price, and the smallest of mustard seeds. When Jesus is asked questions, even direct ones like, “Who is my neighbor?” he rarely responds with a logical scientific answer, or easy and clear three-point plans. His responses often come in the form of these parables, or a short story that de-centers the questioner and rather than answering the query with a simple “Do this. Don’t do this.” He probes and incites something more profound—an invitation into a deeper and more dynamic way of engaging life and scripture, a public theology.

So this parable… Well first, let’s talk for a minute about parables. Parables are not, contrary to popular belief, simply morality tales that Jesus told so that we know how to “be good” or what was “bad.” No, parables are much more confusing, intriguing, and exciting than that. 

Theologian John Dominic Crossan, in his book, The Power of Parable, writes about the difference between myth and parable, He describes myths as being agents of stability, while parables are agents of change. In other words, according to Crossan, Jesus wasn’t telling these stories to continue the status quo, or to tell his audience how to be “good religious people.” Jesus was telling these parables to stir things up, to give rise to healthy debate, to engage the Jewish rabbinical tradition of theological banter, and truth being discovered in the conversation, in what might be seen to us as an argument, but often resulted in collective divine understanding as scripture and ideas where thrown back and forth and questioned and wrestled with and explored.

The word parable comes from a Greek word, “parabole”, meaning “to put parallel or cast alongside.” It implies a process of comparison, or two things being thrown together, some translated it “smash together.” So it’s more than saying, “this means this, that means that.”

If we assigned a little post-it-note reminder to this word in our bibles, we might put beside any reference of “parable”: “Remember! Be aware that it doesn’t usually mean what we think it means.”

We are so prone to domesticate our religious resources, our stories, to make them something that confirms what we already know, or reinforces that which makes us right. But maybe, these stories are not actually about a moralistic conclusion, but instead alive texts with deeper meanings and an invitation to interact with the question of the text and life, scripture and culture.

You, like I, may have this desire for the five-point plan, the one way of looking at right and wrong, especially if we always work it to end up right. And there’s a part of us that desires not having to wrestle with how to think, feel, respond, not having to learn new things about other people, or ourselves, or the world, just sticking with our status quo and embedding ourselves deeper into our world-view.

But um, here’s the deal. If you want to do that, I’d recommend staying away from Jesus and the parables. Because it seems that actually, never is a parable—or Jesus’ words in general—a call to status quo, but instead a call to change.

So, what does this have to do with this parable that we read from the Gospel of Matthew, this parable of the talents? I am not suggesting that there is one right way to read this parable; there are many useful interpretations of this text. What I’m inviting us into is to wonder what is it that Jesus is calling forth to wrestle with in conversation, to wonder about, to engage in a dialog with life and culture, the spiritual journey and the way of faith? 

If we read this parable as Jesus stirring things up, inciting discussion, challenging the status quo, we may get something out of it that we didn’t see before. And if we read this parable within its historical and cultural context, we also see something there that I for one, don’t read at first glance.

First, what is a “talent”? This is not, as we may first read it, referring to your ability to play golf or paint with watercolors; it’s not even referring to your surgical skills or your strength as a writer. Talents, in this context are referring to an amount of money.

A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth about 6,000 danarii—with a single denarius representing a laborer’s daily pay. In modern terms, we’re talking millions of dollars. Jesus is capturing the attention of the listeners by presenting what would have been a “fairy-tale” amount of money (Crossen, pg. 99). Like, “So there was this land-owner, and he gave his first servant three bazillion dollars.” 

So what happens in this story? The first slave gets five talents, invests it, and gets five more. The second slave gets two talents, invests it, and gets two more. The third slave gets two talents and buries them in the ground; when his master gets back, he has some words with him.

He says: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seedso I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

To which the Master was quite angry, and threw him out and took his money away and gave it to the other one.

So if this is not a simple morality tale, though certainly we can find truths in the simple story. It’s an opportunity for question, debate, to have things “smashed together” as we begin to wonder what in Jesus might have been trying to stir up in the telling of this story. 

A couple of things jump out at me; the first is this idea of interest. We hear this story in terms of our modern economics and we can say, “well look, that was the sound business decision, invest and get interest.” But at the time, this was not the whole picture. The Torah, the religious teachings of the Jewish people, brought up a lot of questions about interest and when interest was taking advantage of another person. At the time of Jesus there was mixing and division “between the Roman pro-interest tradition within the empire and the Jewish anti-interest tradition within the followers of Torah” (Crossen pg.105). If Jesus’ intention were to stir up some good conversation, this parable would have done it quickly. “Is the good/right/just thing to get interest? Or is it about following the principles of faith?” But likely this wasn’t the end of the debate, Jesus wasn’t just going for a financial integrity conversation. He was a rabbi, he cared about the spiritual aspects—the kingdom of heaven.

And so we can imagine that he was stirring up a conversation not just about interest, but about the people, the tradition, the empire, their interactions with theology and the world around them. Who benefits from interest and gain? Whose law do you follow? Do you live by the Torah or the practices of Rome? Do you live under God’s laws or Roman Customs?” The parable asks me the question; what do I live for—the things of this world or the thing that last? How do the choices I make now have an impact on eternity?

Our centering quote from Swedenborg, the theologian and Christian mystic that the Wayfarers Chapel is a memorial to says: “Even the smallest moment of our lives involves a series of consequences extending to eternity. Each moment is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so with each and every moment of our lives.” Emmanuel Swedenborg Secrets of Heaven 4690

The choices we make, the actions we take, the way we engage the world, other people, our religion, our work, our lives, they matter. The voices we listen to matter, the questions we ask matter, the willingness to engage the complexity, the ambiguity, the dialog, the parable, they all matter.

In the willingness to engaging the unsettling nature of parables, and the de-centering way that Jesus likes to tell stories and ask questions can lead us to think of things differently. To repent—literally the Greek word, metanoia, is to change our minds—to look at the world differently and change how we think, feel and act. It is in this process that so often, we find the face of God.

We see the nature of God, not in a moralistic code, or in a three-point plan, or in one—and only one—way. No, we find God, the God who is moving and present in all things, when we allow ourselves to put our spirituality parallel, smashed together, with our experience of life, of our current culture. When we commingle the stories of scripture, with the stories of our lives, when we engage sacred scripture and Divine curiosity, seeking the desire for transformation personally and collectively. It’s in this curiosity, in this wrestling and wondering and engagement with the story of God and the story of our lives, that we find a surplus of meaning, we find the call to self-examination, to repentance/change, to a way of being that integrates the force of Divine Love and Wisdom in and through, the culture, the movement, the challenges and maybe we find the courage to keep showing up and asking the questions and engaging change internally and externally.

Because this is how change and transformation happens in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our worlds. When we can engage both. When we can put the ways of the world and the ways of heaven next to each other and question the discrepancies, and then work to change things. When we are willing to look at racism and sexism and classism and superiority and the desire to be right and the desire to have it all figured out, and have those dislodged by the startling and audacious love of God and call to compassion and action. When we’re willing to look at ourselves and be willing to turn, to be changed, to be made new.

A few years ago I was working in Washington DC, doing faith based food and hunger advocacy work. Immersed in the politics of Capital Hill I was constantly engaging this question of public theology from various angles.

One Saturday, I got up super early and got on the metro from the basement room where I was staying in Alexandria. I got off at McFerson Square stop and walked up to the lawn in front of the White House to hear a public theologian who is changing the world—his Holiness the Dali Lama. I found a few friends who I was meeting there and settled down on the blanket they had spread out on the lawn with thousands of others, awaiting the words of this wise teacher.

He talked about how world peace comes through inner peace. He talked about how every human craves for inner peace and seeks it in many ways and he reminded us of our shared humanity and that every person is part of the global solution to peace. He challenged us to look inside and think about how we are seeking peace in our own heads, in our internal dialog, and asked asked how we are treating the people who we share a home with, our spouses, children, parents, our co-workers, the people we meet on the street. And how it is in these interactions that the ripple will start and move outward, meeting other peaceful currents and sweep the nations with a tsunami of compassion and peaceful living.

His Holiness didn’t let any one path off the hook, or offer the “right” way. He spoke eloquently about the variety of religious (and non-religious) paths, the many tools and system changes that can lead to a life and word of compassion. He spoke of the importance of growing an intelligent mind and a warm heart. He spoke of teaching compassion in all contexts, sacred and secular and how embodied compassion is the way of religious life. He reminded me of one of the Swedenborgian teachings I hold dear, “All religion is of life and the life of religion is to do good.” It is the life we live from what we believe that matters. Regardless of our life circumstances, religious holdings, or stages of life, we have a part to play. His Holiness broke down any walls of excuses or “not me,” and with his raw humanity and humility called all of us to a higher place of compassion, justice, and peace.

I can’t remember the specific last words he said. I do remember his smile though, kind and wide on the big monitor and moving with the bright red of his robe that I see getting up from the chair on the stage. It was still shining as he walked down through the crowed and the music began to play. We packed up our things and rolled our blankets. A quiet fell over the crowd. I looked around and I saw the faces around me a little differently than I had a few hours before. I felt the breath of God breathing in us together, and an openness to God working in and amongst us. Open to the Spirit. Open to one another. Open to the life that is in front of us to live. May we live it. Amen.

A Sermon for the Garden Church

A sermon about Word, the Bible, and how as we want to consciously choose to engage it as a life-giving, rich, deep, wide text that points to loving God and loving our neighbor as we form a community and re-imagine church.

Audio complete with train whistles and the sound of the wind!



Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
San Pedro, CA