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

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

Audio:

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!

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Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
10.26.14

Picking up the Manna

Sermon by Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
September 28th, 2014

Exodus 16:1-15, John 6:22-35

“This is the bread which God has given you to eat” signifies that this is the good which must be taken and integrated into our lives. In the ultimate sense, this is the Lord in you. Because “bread” signifies heavenly and spiritual good, in the supreme sense, it is the Divine itself. In this passage, “the manna” signifies good, which is God itself. That this is good when it is taken into oneself and made part of our life, is shown by the action of “eating”; for the good which is from God makes the life of heaven with people and nourishes and sustains it.” Excerpts from Heavenly Secrets 8465, Emanuel Swedenborg)

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Over the course of the last seventeen years, and particularly the last four, I have moved a lot. I have done a lot of packing and unpacking. Setting up homes, meeting people, wondering “Will I find friends?” “Where should I hang that picture?” “Will I find a place to belong?” And it’s those things that I notice, that tell me, “You are home.” I look for the signs that it is becoming home, that I belong.

Like instinctively reaching to open the silverware drawer and opening the one that actually has the silverware in it, or driving to the grocery story without using the GPS. That moment when I have a spontaneous outing with a new friend and realize that I DO have community and placing the picture of three little children who mean the world to me, where it belongs on my bedside table.

We began our worship together by naming how we are a community on the move, we are a community that is becoming, forming, exploring who it is that God is calling us to be, together in this community. And we began by unpacking our Garden Church tabernacle. That funny word, “tabernacle.” I like the way it roles off my tongue, tabernacle. In Hebrew the word is: mishkan, “residence” or “dwelling place” of God.

The image, the story of the tabernacle goes back to the ancient stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, the part of the Bible that’s often referred to as the “Old Testament.” The tabernacle comes into the story of the Children of Israel when they were wandering in the desert, having just escaped from slavery in Egypt and heading towards the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. Now this journey went on for forty years, and they were not always so keen about it, as we heard in our scripture today.

They would complain about their circumstance, whine about God and Moses and even wish that they were back in slavery, rather than out in the desert. But every time they stopped on their journey, they would set up the tabernacle.

They would stop. And take the time to painstakingly place each pole in its proper place, each carefully measured support, the specific layers of cloth, and then the sacred objects. In the outer part of the tent they would place an oil lamp, a table for bread, the altar of incense, and then in the inner tent, the holy of holies, you’d find the Ark of the Covenant, with the two stone tablets that held the Ten Commandments, God’s words to them. And a golden urn holding the manna. These sacred objects, reminding them who they are as a community, who God is, and the way God leads and provides and is present with them.

I imagine it something like me putting that photo on my bedside table, or us setting up our table with the bread and the Word, the candle and the cup.

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Here’s home for this moment. Here’s God with us. Here’s where we belong.

This story of the Children of Israel is packed with rich images and reminders of how the Divine interacts with humanity. The story of the manna that we read today is one that I never tire of telling. Probably because it’s just so totally human and seems like something I would do.

So they’re hungry. And God say’s there will be bread from heaven. They wake up in the morning and they saw, “when the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.”

And they did not say, “Oh, look, God provided for us.” Or, “I always knew and believed the Lord was looking out for us and would give us all we needed.” No, instead they said, “Manna?” Or “What is it?” They called it “Manna” because this literally means, “What is it?” and they DIDN’T EAT IT AND CONTINUED TO GO HUNGRY!

Then Moses comes and points out to them, “hey people, duh, THIS is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat” (okay, that’s my paraphrase) and it’s then that they begin to stop, to notice, to realize, and bend down, scoop it up, and take it to their tents to prepare and eat.

Friends, this is as true for us today, as it was for our ancestors centuries ago. What we need is all around us; God is everywhere and moving in all things. It’s not that there is not enough for us, or for the world that leads to scarcity in our lives, or loneliness, or hunger on any level. It’s that we, individually and collectively, so often get stuck in the greed, the selfishness, the apathy, the isolation, and the slavery. Like the children of Israel enslaved in Egypt, we become enslaved by our fears, by our prejudices, by the collective systems that favor some and oppress others. We become enslaved by thinking that we are all alone, that no one is struggling like we are, that we don’t belong. We can look around at the world around us and see suffering and pain and wonder, “What’s the point? Where’s God? Is there hope?”

IMG_5893And this is why we’re gathering together to be a community that works together, that worships together, that eats together, because we believe that there is hope, there is goodness and healing, reconciliation, hope, joy, fun, laughter, connection and food enough for everyone. This is why we’re re-imagining church, because we believe that God, Love, is in all things, animating all things, moving through all things, and we are charged with seeing it and claiming and engaging love put into action in the world.

We get to be reminded how God says, stop, look, ask “what is it?” and then bend down and pick up that heavenly goodness, that which sustains, God’s love available and amongst us and manifesting in so many ways.

Going out into our communities and asking, “what is it?” “Where is the goodness and hope? Where are the needs and struggles? Who are my neighbors that I am called to love? How are we called to be church, to bring more heaven to earth, in this place?

Last week some of us went out and spent the morning walking the streets of San Pedro, with the Garden Church and the community on our hearts and minds. We went out on a mission to look, to wonder, to ask, “What is it?” Where is the Spirit moving in this community? Where is there land? Who are the people? What are the needs? Where can you get fresh vegetables? We were looking, watching, listening, asking, “What is it?” Where is God moving? Where do we fit into this web?

10612938_1548932688672767_7053978693020902921_nWe came back from our community mapping adventure and sat around my dining room table and heard each other’s stories.

“I saw two grandpa men sitting in chairs by the sidewalk and chatting and saying hello to everyone that passed…”

Another said: “I encountered friendly people, and people were excited about the idea of a Garden. I stopped at a retirement home and the people had ideas for the residents to join us in the dirt.”

Another noticed that the street they were walking on has a great deal of socio economic shift as you go up the hill.

One of you talked about your neighbors who live in the park next to you and how you want to invite them in, but don’t, and your eyes got teary as you talked about being able to soon invite them to share in our community meal of the Garden Church.

Another reported that they found no place to buy groceries, and another wondered why so many vacant lots are filled with parked cars, and who’s cars are they? We saw women walking to yoga, and little children pausing to play on the sidewalk. Old and young, all colors and shapes and sizes of people, humanity in our community.

I met a man who was sitting on the steps of the post office, who I see often when I’m checking the mail. And this time I stopped and went over and introduced myself. When I asked him his name, he mumbled something I couldn’t understand, and when I asked again he said, “how about you call me Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson the rapper” and his face burst into a huge grin as he said it. “Okay, Michael Jackson the rapper it is, I said.” We both were laughing as I said goodbye and walked on. Manna, manna from heaven.

These simple human connections when we stop, we look, and we engage another part of God’s humanity, when we bend down, pick it up, look around, where is God working in the world, how can we be part of it.

And that’s why we Gather here, as the Garden Church, that’s why we believe that God is always making things new and we are honored and privileged to be re-imagining church for this time and place, because the provision is there, the dew is stretched over the ground, it’s up to us to look around and ask, “what is it” and to bend down and pick it up and have this bread from heaven.

And that’s why we will celebrate the Sacred Meal, Communion, Eucharist, Holy Supper, however you name it. Because as we follow in the traditions of the Passover meal that our ancient ancestors ate, and the manna they bent down and picked it up and ate. And we follow in the tradition of Jesus, the Christ. Jesus, incarnate love, who said when he was on earth, “I AM the bread of life” and then fed, and healed, ate with and was in community with the people that others deemed “outsiders” and who Jesus saw and claimed as friends. And then, who on his last night before he was betrayed, took bread and broke it and shared it around a table and took bread, blessed it and broke it, saying “this is my body”, “I am the bread of life,” “do this in remembrance of me.”

And because it’s God’s table, not ours, we find a place around the table where we belong not because of what we do, or have accomplished, not because of our race or gender, our family history, or whether we feel we measure up. Belonging at God’s table is embedded in the very core of our spiritual DNA. Each of us, created in the image of God, embodiments God’s love and wisdom. Belonging comes not just with receiving, but knowing that you can give. We come around this Sacred Table, this Sacred Meal, to remember that we’re all part of this bigger interconnected whole.

We share in the bread, the cup, the food, the drink, because God is always present to us, available to us, and yes we can find this on our own, in the world, but something happens when we come together as a community, as the human family, as the church, and see each other, see the Spark of the Divine in each other and feed and are fed together.

And that’s why we are here, that is why we are reimagining church, because we’re hungry. We’re hungry for being part of something meaningful. We’re hungry to put our energy towards things that matter. We see the disconnection in the world, from ourselves, from nature, from each other, from God and we want to take a step towards connection.

We gather around the table, remembering who we are in God and in community. And then we go out, and we walk in our community. And we stop. And we notice. And we ask, “What is it?” and see how the Abundant God of heaven in earth is feeding us, and inviting us to feed others.

Amen.
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Ordination Sermon


Anna Woofenden
July 4, 2014
St. Louis, MO

Scripture Text: Matthew 25:31-40

“God created us in such a way that our inner self is in the spiritual world and our outer self is in the physical world. This is so that the spiritual part of us, which belongs to heaven, can be planted in the physical part the way a seed is planted in the ground.”
–Emanuel Swedenborg

When the ocean and I meet, we have a ritual. I walk to that salty shore and I bend down, right at the edge of the waves. I take a deep breath, and breathe a prayer to God as I look out on the vast ocean. And then I take the water, and with my fingers I make the sign of the cross on my forehead and on my chest, tracing the mark that was placed there so many years ago in my baptism. Something happens when flesh meets water. When my fingers meet that salt. In this act the internal, that which belongs to heaven, meets the physical reality of the natural world, of my body. In this physical act I experience and can name the presence of God with me, the revelation, the incarnation of God in the world.

Swedenborgian theology illuminates this idea that the natural world is infused with spiritual reality. That we, at our core, are spiritual beings, created for heaven, and as we’re living in this natural world we have the opportunity to increase our awareness and receptivity of God’s influx, infusion, and infilling in all things. In this framework we find an invitation not to reject or to conquer the physical, but instead to be conscious, aware, and appreciative of the world around us, as it is the conduit for the spiritual, the celestial, the heavenly. That the physical world around us and our very bodies are the skin that God’s love and wisdom can come together in to act in useful service.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. For whatever you do for the least of these, who are members of my family, you do this for me.

These words of Jesus invite us into the incarnational reality that the Lord embodied while walking on earth, when the One God of heaven and earth chose to come on earth not as a mere concept, as a set of rules to follow, or merely as an ethereal presence, but to come on earth as a human being. Feet, and dust, hands, and healing. Demonstrating what the kingdom of heaven looks like, mustard seeds and loaves of bread, bending down and washing feet, feeding and being fed. We may not know the ins and outs of the arguments of who God is and who we are. But we can know this: That God is in all things and created us to for a life of love and service. That in a hand reaching out to another God with us. That when we bend down and wash the feet of one whom we hesitate to even touch, Divinity is being incarnate. That when we take the bread and the wine, the water, God is incarnate with us. Cooking supper, writing poetry, wiping noses, digging in the dirt, love in action. As my late grandfather, Rev. Dr. Bill Woofenden, put it, “Love, by its very nature must be doing something.”

In doing these acts, love is revealed. Love is revealed, as the truth of all people being created and seen as beloved children of God is named. When you do this to the least of these, you do it for me.

My calling to ministry has been revealed to me through my body, through the spiritual reality of who God created me to be pressing and yearning to be manifest in the world around me.

For many years I had the honor to serve at a church congregation that I love, a church that was born into an organization that will not ordain me because of my gender, my body. I have much gratitude for this church and this organization and I hold them in great love and respect. And it was in that messy mixed bag of delight in service and the limits and prescribed roles of how I could serve, that my calling to ordained ministry became clear.

In our congregation we had an annual family camp. And every year on Saturday evening we would have a Holy Supper, Communion, service. Now, every year, I would prepare for this. Being the lead on the camp, I would have gathered together the staff, prepared the program, set the theme and so on. And then when the evening arrived I always took great joy in setting that sacred table. Spreading the white linens, creating the shape and space of the service, sprinkling candles and flowers, silk and stones, and setting out the bread and wine. Preparing a table for our community to gather around.

I loved this worship, and looked forward to the profound moments I witnessed in the lives of our congregation during this yearly ritual. But after a few years, another tradition developed. I would cry. Before, after, sometimes during the service. And I’m not talking a few tears, a tissue, and a “oh, isn’t it beautiful when the Spirit moves us” kind of crying.

No. These tears exploded out of me, taking over my body and catching even me, especially me, off guard.

The inevitable trigger: When it came time to start the service and I could not stand beside my colleague, the minister of our congregation, to serve Communion to our community. There was something about the elements of the sacrament–the bread, the wine, handed, received–that transcended the rational arguments of why I could not be an ordained minister and exposed to me the truth of my calling. 

I needed to be presiding over this meal, alongside my colleague serving our community together as we did throughout the year. My being ached to be breaking the bread and pouring the wine, telling the story of the Lord’s feast with us, offering spiritual food and drink and blessing these people I held so dear.

Afterwards I would find myself curled up with close friends, crying and going back over the evening. Picking apart the trigger phrases and being sure I was over-reacting to un-intentional words and actions of exclusion and ignorance. We were all ignorant. I was ignorant of how the fibers of my being were shouting out my call, my call to serve at the table. My friends were ignorant, comforting the pain in the specific situation, but not knowing, not seeing and naming the question of what God was stirring inside me.

The next year my body didn’t wait and contain itself until after the service. I found myself pounding up the hill to the bathrooms after setting up the space. I scared myself as I slammed stall doors, stomped my heavy boot-clad feet. This emotion that was pressing out of my body was not something I was used to, or comfortable with. I assumed since it was so strong, intense, it must be something bad

I can see and ask the question now–Was it God? Was it God letting every fiber of my being know that there is something powerful, deep and sacred about sharing the bread and cup, and that not only was I called to do it, but that I’m called to stand for an opening of the sacred table, that for the Lord’s table to be open to all, not only must it be available to all to receive, it also must be open for all who are called to be trained, gifted, and ordained to serve, to serve.

Whether I like it or not, I know what it’s like in the very fiber of my being, to be told–be it in words or systems, cultural norms, or well intentioned theories–that I am not hearing the Lord properly, that I am inadequate and unlovable, that I am fundamentally flawed. I know what it feels like to question whether I am wholly created in the image of God, whether I am loved and okay. I know this wholly human experience of questioning who we are in relation to God and the world.

It is out of these times of struggle and doubt, pain and darkness that we can find the clarity, truth, love and light of the Lord and claim who we are in God. It is the sacred charge that I stand here today, to claim for myself, and to claim for others whose call may be different, but who are also called to do and be incarnations of God’s love in the world. All of us are whole. All of us are loved and all of us are created in the sacred image of God. And God created us to embody love and wisdom, and made us to be changed and transformed. 

And I stand here before you because you have seen me, and claimed me, and given me a home to serve from. I stand here today with a grateful, passionate, and peaceful heart as I step forward to serve from a this denomination and tradition that is embodying love in action, seeing the Lord at work in the beauty of creation, the variety of humanity, and is committed to the work of being receptors of heaven here on earth.

This is what propels me forward in my future ministry to re-imagine church, to facilitate and serve a church that is attuned to the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of our community. I am stepping forward as an ordained minister to plant a church, the Garden Church in San Pedro, California–church that is founded on the principles of interconnection, embodied theology, and seeing all people as whole and precious creations of God. I am stepping forward to take the charge to feed those who are hungry, visit those in prison; clothe those that are naked as the incarnational charge that it is–finding the incarnate God as we bend down and look in the eyes of the withered woman huddled on the street corner; finding the incarnate God as we watch the toddler pulling a carrot out of the dirt; finding the incarnate God as we work together, worship together, and eat together. Naming the dance between the spiritual reality of heaven and the physical alignment and un-alignment of earth as we claim people—each person–as an expression of God’s presence in the world. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.

In a few minutes, hands will be laid, words will be spoken, and a mantle will be taken on. It is with deep gratitude and humility that Elizabeth and I thank this gathered body and church for seeing us and seeing the Lord’s call on our lives and for providing the container for our inner selves to be fully expressed in the world as we step into the role of ordained ministry.

We stand here today, called, prepared, and ready to commit to the life of serving the Holy One and the holy humanity. Dually broken, wholly healed, prepared, and nurtured, called, and ready for this holy work.

Here is my body, here is my mind, and here is my spirit. Wise, loving, and useful, here I am, send me.

1Watch the Rite of Ordination and Prayer of Blessing or the Full Ordination Service 

 

Ordination Rite, Prayer of Blessing and Benediction

 
Ordination of Anna Woofenden and Elizabeth Blair
The 190th session of the General Convention of the New Jerusalem–The Swedenborgian Church of North America

Webster University, St. Louis, MO
July 4, 2014

Watch the Full Ordination Service or Anna’s Ordination Sermon

Ordination Service Video

Ordination of Anna Woofenden and Elizabeth Blair

The 190th session of the General Convention of the New Jerusalem–The Swedenborgian Church of North America
Webster University, St. Louis, MO
July 4, 2014

Holy Week Contradictions

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Reposted from A Palm Sunday Sermon given at the Montgomery New Church 4/1/2012

I heard an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently.  In it he talked about the ongoing deep work that is needed as South Africa moves from Apartheid and three centuries of oppression and domination of people with white skin over people with black skin. Krista Tippet, the interviewer, posed the conversation of how one would know whether the work Bishop Tutu had been doing had “achieved” it’s goals and what “recovery” looked like for the people of South Africa.  Archbishop Tutu responded with this story: I recommend listening to the interview. The story is from: 22:52-25:21

TRANSCRIPT: “I think that we have very gravely underestimated the damage that apartheid inflicted on all of us. You know, the damage to our psyches, the damage that has made —I mean, it shocked me. I went to Nigeria when I was working for the World Council of Churches, and I was due to fly to Jos. And so I go to Lagos airport and I get onto the plane and the two pilots in the cockpit are both black. And whee, I just grew inches. You know, it was fantastic because we had been told that blacks can’t do this. And we have a smooth takeoff and then we hit the mother and father of turbulence. I mean, it was quite awful, scary. Do you know, I can’t believe it but the first thought that came to my mind was, “Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit. Are those blacks going to be able to make it?” And well of course, they obviously made it — here I am. But the thing is, I had not known that I was damaged to the extent of thinking that somehow actually what those white people who had kept drumming into us in South Africa about our being inferior, about our being incapable, it had lodged somewhere in me.”

This story stopped me in my tracks and brought home the deep contradictions that each one of us hold in our beings, in our words, in our history, in our actions, thoughts and feelings. Here is a man who has dedicated his life and his work to breaking down oppression, bringing justice and raising up the worth of all people.  A man who himself has rich black skin and a heritage of the people’s that he is dedicated to opening up a way for, even this man wrestles with the contradictions inside himself when the very thing he’s fighting against bubbles up in his own being.

Contradiction.

Here’s another example: The next day the huge crowd that had arrived for the Feast heard that Jesus was entering Jerusalem. They broke off palm branches and went out to meet him. And they cheered: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Yes! The King of Israel!” (John 12:14).

In the same city, just a few days later, the same Jesus Christ was raised up in question in front of crowds of people.  The story goes something like this:
“Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death.  Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.”

But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!”(Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)

Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.”

But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed.  So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will (Luke 23:13-24).

It’s uncomfortable to place ourselves in this story, particularly if we are part of the crowd on both days.  But are we not part the crowd? Is there not a place inside each of us that sings praises and asks for God to save us one day and then calls for crucifixion a few days later? Have we not stood in the shoes of Bishop Tutu? Seeing inside ourselves the very things that we have been working to change in the world around us? We are filled with these contradictions between how we want to live and how we speak and act and think and feel.

Through these weeks of Lent, as part of my practice, I have been striving to name these contradictions, these tensions inside. It is uncomfortable work and makes me squirm to realize how much like these crowds I am.   How I can cry out to God, “save me” when life is feeling difficult and I think God could remove the challenges, and then soon after deny my need for God or even reject God’s presence in the people around me.  I have noticed disconnects between my words and my actions, between my ideals and my reactions.

There is something disturbing to consciously name these contradictions. There is something liberating and freeing in naming these contradictions.  To name that we carry selfishness and arrogance within us as we strive to do good and follow God and to admit that we are sinner and saint, villain and hero, benevolent and selfish and throughout it all—loved by God.

What’s this? Loved by God? Even when we speak critical words? Even when we are arrogant and vindictive? Even when we go against what we know we are called to?  And here is the gospel, the good news, and the power of the Lord in our Holy Week Contradictions.

Let’s go back over the stories…we’ve noted the contradictions between the crowds that cheers on Palm Sunday and to the ones that deny him and call for crucifixion just a few days later. We’ve noted the way we operate in these contradictions in our own lives and how we are continually in flux in our thoughts and actions.  Where is the Lord in all this? Jesus Christ, that of God, God Incarnate, gospel message to us, an example of how God acts in the world. How does Jesus respond throughout these stories in the gospel? Jesus consistently meets them where they are. With love and compassion. With truth and accountability. With forgiveness and reconciliation.

Even to the point on the cross where Jesus calls out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Can you imagine being called to that level of forgiveness and compassionate response? Can you imagine being embraced by that level of understanding for the contradictions we hold in ourselves and being gently held and encouraged to continue to show up, to observe and name the contradictions, to keep inviting the Lord into our lives and move us in ways of reconciliation and wholeness?

What does this look like? How do we do this? I believe each one of you have wisdom to bring to this conversation and I look forward to hearing your responses. To frame our conversation I’d like to offer us two doorways for receiving and connecting with God’s work in each of us.

Mystical theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg writes, “If we believed that—as is truly the case—everything good and true comes from the Lord and everything evil and false comes from hell, then we would not claim the goodness as our own and make it self-serving or claim the evil as our own and make ourselves guilty of it” (Divine Providence #320).

There is such freedom from suffering and guilt and freedom from arrogance and pride when we integrate this concept into our lives. We can integrate this teaching by holding and returning to an awareness of our thoughts, our words and our actions.  And as we live this teaching, we let go of the strength of the thoughts and habits that have been ingrained and plague us, or as Bishop Tutu said, the things that have become “lodged” in us. The misshapen ideas of who we are and our need to beat ourselves up or clamber to be better than others. We can spend more time dwelling in the land of wholeness and peace where we know that we are a vessel and that we want to surrender and have the Lord be the one who is forming that vessel.

And the second doorway that I want to suggest is to develop a practice of asking the question: “Where is the Lord in this?”   We asked this question of our gospel readings this morning and found the Lord being the constant presence of love and strength, healing and forgiveness, reconciliation, persistence, and hope.

And we can ask this question as we navigate our inner and outer lives.

Where is the Lord in a heated interaction?
In the deep breath we take?
In the flash of insight opening us up to a third way?

Where is the Lord in the contradictions of grief and loss?
In the comfort from a friend?
When we reach out to grasp at something in our places of great darkness?

Where is the Lord when we are convicted with a way that we are living in arrogance and pride?
In the challenge to be changed?
In the gentle spirit that we can be held in as we change?
Is it the humility of seeing ourselves in others?

As we walk into this Holy Week…let us notice the tensions and the contradictions, in the gospel story and in ourselves. And let us explore these two doorways. To remember that all good comes from God and all evil comes from hell. And to ask the question, “where is the Lord in this?” Drawing on God’s presence to be in us and through us and guide us. And loving us when we shout out “Hosanna” and loving and when we cry  “Crucify him”.