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.

You Are a Pumpkin | Being Emptied Out

“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” When I hear these familiar lines, I’m drawn to the second-half of the equation. Let’s talk about the dancing and this joy-filled clothing. “You brought me up from the grave, you spared me from going down into the pit.” Rescue and new life—excellent! I’ll avoid even acknowledging that the pit is there…thank you very much. Let’s stick with the new life, the joy and the springtime states. They’re pretty, new and shining, light and fluffy.

But look outside for a moment.  Fall is upon us. Look outside. The leaves are dying and falling to the ground, the plants are curling up and drawing in. Things are rotting, decomposing, returning, dying. The cycle of the seasons around us reminds us… Surrender comes before growth. Cycles and seasons are part of the journey. The pathway to life is through death. Death to our self, to our agendas, to our need to control. Birth to the idea that God is God and we are not.  Nature displays in front of us, that part of spiritual life is the process of being emptied out. There are internal parts of us that need to die, in order for the Divine Life to flow through more freely.

Or another way of framing it: You are a pumpkin.

A pumpkin, filled with the seeds and muck, mixed with hope and new possibility, and baggage and old stories. Terrified of the pain of carving, while yearning to shine brightly.  You are a pumpkin. A pumpkin in the hands of the Carver. Anticipating the scooping out, to make space for the light.

Stephanie Eden, a friend and brilliant singer/songwriter paints it this way:
She says: These are the lyrics to a song I wrote this past October while carving pumpkins with my children.  It is inspired by a sermon given by Pastor Jonathan Rose a number of years ago on the process of being emptied out, and it’s titled: Hollow Me

Hollow Me
By Stephanie Eden

One October a pumpkin grew
Full of seeds and thoughts
She said I don’t wanna be one of those
That sits around and rots
Pick me now cause I wanna be
Like other pumpkins I’ve seen
With a picture and a warming light
For the kids on Halloween
But the other pumpkins warned her
It’s a process you can’t handle
Being scraped and carved right to the flesh
Till you’re cleaned out for a candle

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
And make me shine
Make me shine

The pumpkin she was determined
Her fate was in decoration
But with the first stab of the knife she thought
Time for reconsideration
They were right she thought I’d be better off
As a pie or on the vine
Why wasn’t I satisfied as a big orange squash
Why did I want to shine?
But the carvers hands were gentle
And she could sense the jubilation
As he held her and he made his plans
In great anticipation

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
and make me shine
make me shine

As he began to scrape inside she found
To her seeds she was attached
She was afraid without all her junk inside
She’d be more likely to get smashed
But she noticed too a feeling
Of freedom as she was emptied
All the space and possibilities
Like holding light instead of seeds
Though she never had felt pain
As a pumpkin on the vine
The pain could not come close to how
Good it felt to shine

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
and make me shine
follow me follow me follow
if you wanna shine
make me shine

You are a pumpkin.  You have a choice. Each of one of us have a choice. We can stay on the vine. Comfortable and secure, yes, but in the end, probably just a waste, rotting away.  You have a choice. Each one of us have a choice. We have a choice to allow, or in moments of bravery and insanity, even invite the Carver to take out the knife and begin to hollow. To open up to the emptying out that Christ calls us to, and that Christ walked. Welcome and invite brokenness and being emptied out? Careful what you wish for…but Christ did. Or at a minimum, Christ boldly and deeply accepted this path, wrestled with it and brought new life from it. Christ rose again.

I think that in our culture we often like to try to put a little more space between these polarities—to separate the dying from the rising again. We put space between the scooping out of the insides of the pumpkin to the brightly shining jack-o-lantern. We want to create distance from re-birth to the death. We can be drawn to only focus on the newness of life, spring, flowers, shining lights twinkeling from the pumpkins. These are all lovely things to focus on, but I believe that in separating the pieces of the cycle, death and life, light and dark, springtime and fall, we can loose the profound message for each of us in our spiritual paths.

Swedenborgian theology, my faith background, talks about the process that Jesus went through throughout his life, culminating with death on the cross.

It outlines this process into two states: One, being emptied out and
two glorification or resurrection, new life.
A passage from Swedenborgian theology states:

“The reason why Christ experienced these two states, the state of being emptied out and the state of being glorified, is that no other method of achieving union could possibly exist.  This method follows the divine design.

The divine design is that we arrange ourselves for receiving God and prepare ourselves as a vessel and dwelling place where God can enter and live as if we were God’s own temple. We have to do this preparation by ourselves, yet we have to acknowledge that the preparation comes from God. This acknowledgment is needed because we do not feel the presence or the actions of God, even though God is in fact intimately present and brings about every good love and every true belief we have. This is the divine design we follow to go from being earthly to being spiritual.”  True Christianity 105, Emanuel Swedenborg

In order for God to flow through us, the vessel needs to continue to be cleaned out and cleared out. The shining of our light requires being emptied out, being carved, being formed. We can probably all probably pretty quickly think of a time in our lives or an area of our personal and spiritual growth where we have felt the carving, the cutting, the spiritual surgery, the scooping of the goop. Maybe when we lost a loved one, or transitioned jobs. It came upon us when we came up against challenges in relationships, experienced a health crisis, a spiritual crisis. We wrestle when we encounter doubt, struggle in the day to day work.

This is the work. To be emptied out and to be filled up. The emptying is painful. And powerful. It’s part of the design. It’s part of the cycle. The seasons.

But the other pumpkins warned her
It’s a process you can’t handle
Being scraped and carved right to the flesh
Till you’re cleaned out for a candle

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
And make me shine
Make me shine

This link between the suffering, pain and death and the new life, resurrection and hope is one of the cruxes of the human experience. Recently I’ve been reading a number of memoirs and autobiographies and I’ve been struck by this theme. I’m touched by the honesty and vulnerability that is brought forth in these human stories and it leads me to reflect on and wonder about my own story.  If I was writing my life auto-biography, would I have the guts to lay out this level of honesty? To expose my seeds and goopy insides to others?

Sure, it’s easy to be open about the mountaintop moments and the ah-ha’s in our spiritual life. The challenge is, do we share about the places where we are broken, where we’re being emptied out, the times when we wondered about this whole “God thing”, the days when we continued to make the same mistakes, listen to the same old stories and live in ways that were far less than saintly. It’s this that sticks with me and challenges me.

The pumpkin she was determined
Her fate was in decoration
But with the first stab of the knife she thought
Time for reconsideration 

They were right she thought I’d be better off
As a pie or on the vine
Why wasn’t I satisfied as a big orange squash
Why did I want to shine?

A few weeks ago, in worship, a colleague offered his vulnerability to the group and invited us into the story of Jesus’ healing the man with the withered hand in the gospels.  He pointed out that before the man was healed, Jesus asked him to stand up before everyone and reach out his hand, and show his vulnerabilities.  My whole body tensed as he recounted the text, just imagining God calling me to stand up and articulate my brokenness, my wounds, my scars to the people around me. So much of me resists this, and yet, somewhere inside I feel the wisdom. Not to spew my life history at every turn as if spiritual community is one big therapy session. But to, in those moments of sacredness, present with God and human community, to be strong and courageous and reach out to the Healer in the presence of others. To acknowledge that part of the process of spiritual life IS the emptying out, that that is intrinsic in the process of shining. The call, the challenged, is to look honestly in ourselves and see what is blocking the Divine Light from shining through. What are the places in us that are stuck and stagnant? Where do we need to look a little deeper and see how our places of challenge and struggle can be transformed into wisdom and strength by the Great Carver? Or as Rumi puts it: “Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure”

I wonder if that’s what these authors did, in sharing their stories.  Is this part of the spiritual process of Anne Lamott, John Woolman, Roberta Bondi, Thomas Merton, Pema Chodron, Dorothy Day and so many others who share their life stories, their spiritual journeys, in the pages of autobiographies, memoirs, blogs and journals.  In the written word they walk through the suffering, line by line, in snapshots and in full-color. The dialog of the challenges, the pain and doubt lead to places of transformation. In these lives laid before us, a sacred offering to the larger community of faith, we can see God at work.  We can see God working through the life of a brilliant, addicted, depressed writer as she bares a child, finds God in a new way and steps into a daring journey of discovering faith. We can see God in the workings of at early church leader, as we see Christ’s light shining through division and mis-understanding, in leading and being silent.

Be it through the written word, honest preaching, held conversation, or solitary prayer, we can feel Spirit beckoning. Beckoning us to surrender to the Carving. Urging us to bravely look inside and examine and begin to let go of the things that are blocking the Light. Bravely inviting the Carver to hollow us, cleanse us, and shine Divine Light through us.

Because this healing is not just for each of us. This call to vulnerability is not about me or you. There is a greater call to healing through our brokenness, restoration through our vulnerabilities, resurrection through inner-death. This challenge to dig into our muck and guck and be cleared out is not simply a personal exercise. There is a world of brokenness, there is a God of Healing. As we walk through this process individually, we can be part of changing the collective. As the Light shines more and more brightly through each one of us, the Light in the world strengthens and spreads, widens and enlivens. The baptism of spirit offers all new life, cleansing and hope, each and every day. As we die to our own ideas of how life should be, as we loosen our grip that clings to the past and the future, as we release our needs to be in control and have it all together…God seeps in, rushes in, moves in our midst. Moves to bring healing to the all.

 Though she never had felt pain
As a pumpkin on the vine
The pain could not come close to how
Good it felt to shine 

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
and make me shine
follow me follow me follow
if you wanna shine
make me shine

“You Are a Pumpkin” or “Being Emptied Out”
by Anna Woofenden
A sermon for Joint Seminary Chapel
(Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary)
Preached 9.30.2011