Well Worn Words: A Sermon on Psalm 23

Oh the 23rd Psalm. Those who prepared the lectionary texts, the series of scriptures that churches throughout the world work their way through each week, had no idea that we’d be in the middle of a global pandemic this week and desperately need to hear these well-worn words. 

They had no idea that we would have spent the last ten days scrambling to move from our campuses back to home, wonder where “home” is, have our lives thrown into turmoil, wonder and worry about our families and friends and finances, be asked to move much of our lives and study and work online, and hear the words “abundance of caution” and “unprecedented times” everywhere we turn.

Those wise souls who brought these bible texts together, and placed the 23rd Psalm on this fourth week of Lent, they didn’t know about the coronavirus, they didn’t know about the need for social distancing, they didn’t know (as we are desperately reminded) how vitally important ventilators and proper protective gear for healthcare workers are.

They didn’t know the moment we would encounter this psalm in our three-year cycle of scripture. What they did know, and what we know and lean into this evening  is this: God is always with us. God is with us in scripture. God is with us in our prayers. God is with us in our deepest struggling and unknowing. God is with us in it all. And this well-worn psalm brings us back to that deep and needed truth: Even in the hardest of times, we are not alone.

I have been craving the well worn psalms and prayers in these past days. Craving the words that pray for me when I’ve run out of prayers in myself. Craving words that have been repeated over and over, prayed by the faithful throughout time, sung across the globe and throughout history.

I find comfort in these words, as they speak to us here, in March of 2020. I find comfort in these words because I know they have been prayed and sung and repeated in other hard times. The faithful sang this Psalm in monasteries as millions of people suffered and died during the Black Death that swept through Eurasia from 1347 to 1351. The faithful have repeated this Psalm at deathbeds and funerals, clinging to the words through times of struggle and times of famine. Soldiers in various wars repeated it while in foxholes, and many of us may have said it as children in Sunday School, or before we went to bed. 

These are well worn words.

These are words that have stood the test of time, these are words and images and promises that we can lean on, that can lead us through.

The Lord is my shepherd:

This psalm starts right at the core of things, naming who God is, and who we are. 

The Lord is our shepherd, the one who shepherds us, who leads us, who guides us.

God is loving, and present, fiercely and tenderly holding all of us whom God lovingly created. 

In a time of suffering, as we’re trying to make sense of it all, we can project on God to try to make sense of hard and painful things. You may be hearing people say that this virus is God’s punishment to specific people, or divine retribution for the evils humans are doing.  I GET that when something terrible and hard happens, we want to make sense of it. We want to make sense of it in a way that we can be assured that we, our family, our loved ones won’t be hurt. We want to distance ourselves from it and so we attribute the suffering as a one-to-one equation with belief or behavior so that we are sure to draw the lines in a way that we are safely outside the circle of harm. 

But dear ones, while I understand each of our desire to keep ourselves and loved ones out of harm’s way, that is just not how God works. God created ALL of us. God loves all whom God created, and God is not in the business of isolated punishment or divine pinpointing of suffering.

This virus is not from God, and it is not God’s way of inflicting suffering on anyone. If this virus isn’t proof of that, I don’t know what is. Unlike a natural disaster that might hit one area, where we could start making up stories about the morality of the people there and try to create some narrative that connects the dots to reason for punishment, this virus couldn’t care less who it infects. Getting sick is not the result of one’s beliefs or moral behavior, it’s the result of touching a doorknob, and then your face, of being in the same space as someone who is infected, of unknowingly having these germs shared. This is not punishment, this is not from God. This is a dangerous and destructive little virus that is wreaking havoc on people’s bodies and on the interconnected global family. The interconnected global family that God created and God loves so deeply.

So who is the Lord in the middle of a global pandemic? The Lord is our shepherd. The Lord is the one that is watching over us. The Lord is the one who is guiding us. The Lord is the one who is walking with us, though it all.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

These words, “I shall not want” are becoming further and further away to some people as communities scramble to provide food and supplies. These are words that were already so far away for so many in our communities, where “want” for the basic necessities was already a daily experience. 

And this line of this well worn psalm reminds us that God provides, yes, and that one of the main ways that happens is as we provide for one another, as we are God’s hands and feet in the world.


Jesus shows us an example of this… What a shepherd does so that we won’t “want.”

In the gospel stories we hear about the hungry crowds and the five loaves and two small fish that the little boy brought to Jesus, and Jesus blessed them and then gave them to the disciples to distribute.

That is a whole sermon in itself, but the point to take with us today is that we don’t want, not because the Lord magically shows up on our doorstep with delivery from our favorite restaurant. 

We don’t want because we are living in generosity and solidarity with our neighbors. 

We don’t want when we sit down to our simple dinner of leftover soup that we’re making stretch for a few days, because we know that staying home and not running out to the grocery store for that “one more thing” is a way that we can love our neighbors right now. 

We don’t “want” as we donate to our local food banks, as we support those who are feeding the thousands of children who relied on school breakfasts and lunches for their food, and as advocates for the care of our unhoused neighbors. 

We don’t want, when we or our loved one, heaven forbid, needs hospital care and maybe even a ventilator, because as a society we discover how to be generous with our medical supplies, we take seriously the task of extreme physical distancing, we listen to the imploring of our medical professionals and we stay home and sacrifice a little, to play our part in easing the suffering and sacrifice of the whole.

“Want” is a crucial concept right now. And one I invite us to continue to explore. “Want” and “need” are so different. We so easily can get caught up in the consumerism of “wanting,” and we may be pretty used to the instant gratification of “wanting” something and getting it. This, dear ones, is an opportunity for us to re-orient, to turn and be transformed, to have our “wants” changed from our own self-interest, to the wants and needs of our global family, to let go of our desire for instant gratification, and instead act for the greater  health and wholeness for our communities and our world.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

The Lord leads me through green pastures. The Lord leads me beside quiet waters. 

So this is a little embarrassing, as someone whose job it is to work with scripture, I have degrees in this stuff. But I JUST got something really basic about this Psalm this week, and it kind of changed everything. So if you have known this since you were five, just nod and smile and remember that God is always revealing God’s self through scripture, and sometimes it just takes some of us longer than others.

Okay, here’s the thing. This whole psalm starts out with the establishment of an analogy, “The Lord” equals shepherd, therefore the “I” that doesn’t want, must be the sheep. I have heard many a sermon, okay I’ve also preached many a sermon, on sheep and shepherds and are sheep dumb, and why would God compare us to dumb sheep, or maybe sheep are okay, and it’s okay to be compared to them, etc. God equals shepherd, we equal sheep. Got it. For the first line.

But then there’s the next two stanzas.

The Lord leads me through green pastures. The Lord leads me beside quiet waters. I’d hear these, and I’d immediately turn into a person again. Ah, I can smell and wander through these beautiful green pastures, I can skip and run, enjoy the fresh spring colors. And that quiet water…isn’t it peaceful? Doesn’t the creek make a nice gentle sound as I go by? But friends, this is still a metaphor right? 

And we’re the sheep. And to a sheep, what is a green pasture? Food! 

And what is a quiet water? Drink. Drink that a sheep can safely and easily drink from. The basic necessities of a sheep’s life. God leads us to those basics. Green pastures. The food we need. Still waters. The drink we need. 

These two may remind you of another pairing that we often share, when we gather together to be fed as a church. The bread and the cup, the shared sacrament of communion. God leads us, and God feeds us. And this is still true in this strange time apart. We might be fed differently than we’re used to. We’re on zoom rather than in person, our food may not be our very favorite, or it might be extra special because we took the time to cook it with our loved ones. But God will keep feeding us, and we’ll keep feeding one another. And God will continue to restore our souls as we do.

The Lord restores my soul.

The Lord leads us in the path of righteousness for the Lord’s name sake.

Yeah, though I walk through the valley, of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me.

Dear ones, God is with us in the dark valleys. God is with us in the wilderness. As we entered into this Lenten wilderness together just four weeks ago, none of us really had any idea what we were going to be facing. But we did know, as we hear from the psalmist again tonight: That God is with us. Through our most difficult struggles and our darkest valleys, God is with us. Reminding us that yes, there are going to be hard times, yes, there is going to be loss, yes, we will likely be called on to grieve, and to support one another as multiple people are grieving. This path will not be easy, but we are not alone. The Lord’s rod and staff will comfort us. 

The Lord will prepare a table before us, in the presence of our enemies. 

The Lord will keep gathering us together, and feeding us, even in the depths of the valley, even when the enemy of this terrible virus is wreaking havoc around us. God’s table is here. 

The Lord will anoint our heads with oil.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow us—pursue us—all the days of our life and we’ll live in the house of the Lord forever.

Dear ones, this is hard now, but it is not forever. We’ll come through this changed, individually, and collectively. So may we let ourselves be changed by goodness, pursued by mercy. May we be the carriers of goodness, the givers of mercy. May we be filled and fed by goodness, held and comforted in the warm embrace of God’s mercy. Through this time, and for all the days of our lives. Amen.

Rev. Anna Woofenden, March 2020

Increase Church: Cease In-Person Gatherings (for now)

Anna Woofenden 3/12/20

I have spent the day working from home. This was already planned, as it’s the second Thursday of the month when I have coaching and consulting clients all day long. They are all pastors. They’re from different parts of the country, navigating different challenges. Usually my conversations with each of them are very different. But today everyone needed to talk about the same thing: their church and the coronavirus.

Out of our conversations, and in my reading and conversing with other pastors and leaders, these three points keep arising. I share them here in case they are helpful for others.

One: Feel the feelings and create space for others to feel them.

Somewhere in some psychology or pastoral care class someone once said something like (how’s that for lack of citations?) “underneath anger is usually sadness, pain, fear, disappointment, or shame.” This idea has been helpful for me this week, as I’ve sat with students and faculty processing the changes that are happening at our educational institutions, as I’ve listened to people online have a wide-range of reactions, and as I’ve noticed in myself the various feelings welling up and how I’d rather distance myself from most of those feelings. At these times, I spin out worse case scenarios. In other moments, I distance myself by indulging in denial and grasp for ways that the coronavirus will not impact the people I love and care about.

I was grateful to talk to my coach Tuesday morning and for her to give me a space, without any judgment, to voice all of my feelings. It was such a relief to speak my fears aloud, knowing that she was not going to judge me for having them or try to make it all better. After I had spoken this round of feelings out loud in a safe space, I was able to move into being a non-anxious presence for others, and I felt I could respond and act more clearly, rather than the muddle of feelings I’d been before. 

Find your person (or people) where you can be vulnerable. Or find your journal, a walk or a time of prayer. Give yourself space to feel, so that you can then show back up to the work in front of us with a grounded and non-anxious presence. Take time in nature, even if it’s a quick walk between things, and breathe deeply and ground yourself.

Two: Cancel All In-Person Gatherings

Experts in the field are making it clear that social distancing is one of the best ways we can collectively slow the spread of this virus, helping fewer people become infected and not overwhelming the healthcare systems so that those who need medical care will still be able to receive it. (If you want to learn more about this conclusion, a few good articles to start with are: From the Atlantic: Cancel Everything, and from Vox: How canceled events and self-quarantines save lives, in one chart.)

Taking decisive action on this, I believe, is for the care of the common good. It’s easy for me, as a relatively healthy almost 41-year-old, to say “Oh, I’ll be fine.” But what I don’t know is whether I’m carrying the virus and that I will unknowingly give it to others who are at risk. I’m seeing a lot of churches saying, “If you’re at risk, stay home” which makes sense, but also seems counter to our call as the body of Christ. Instead of this reaction, could we act in ways that support, and are in solidarity with, those who are most vulnerable? For many of us, it will be missing the joy we find from being in person together on a Sunday morning for a few weeks (we hope!), but for others it could be life or death. For many of our elderly members coming to church is a given in their weekly routine. Out of care and respect for them and others who have compromised immune systems, let’s make these health decisions together with the most vulnerable in mind, rather than put the onus on the vulnerable to choose to skip church. (If your church is outdoors and works primarily with more vulnerable members, there are other considerations at hand. There are a number of developing resources online. Here is one from San Francisco Street Sheet. If you are shutting down programs at the church that involve food, take into consideration the people who rely on meals and food that will be affected and find other ways to make sure they are fed and cared for.)

And Thirdly:  Increase Church! 

You are not canceling church; you are canceling in-person church. It’s time to actually increase and expand who we are and what we do as the church. Increase pastoral care, small group connections, and checking in on people. Pay particular attention to the most vulnerable in our communities; those living outdoors, those who are food insecure, those for whom “home” is not a safe place, those living alone, those who are dependent on their hourly wage and don’t have sick leave, etc. See how the strength of the church community can provide support for the community as a whole.

And let’s be creative together, finding ways to be spiritually connected while physically distanced. There are all sorts of good and creative ideas that are bubbling up, from using Zoom (which can be accessed live via the computer or the phone, as well as recorded and posted later on social media, etc), to phone call prayer trees, to online study groups, to encouraging new spiritual practices that can be done at home. (Here are some more ideas that Sojourners brought together from various pastors.) This is a time to be drawing together emotionally and spiritually, even while we are temporarily distanced physically.

I’ve been focusing a lot and finding church beyond the walls, on the streets, around dinner tables, and in gardens. Maybe now is a time to discover what the church looks like as we gather virtually, as we pray together with our families in our homes, as we share supplies and care for our neighbors, and as we increase our own spiritual practices.This is not forever. We will come back together in our sanctuaries again. Whether we like it or not, we’re being given  an invitation to walk through the rest of Lent differently that we expected. The world is hurting and we need one another, and we need the church. This is an invitation to be creative, to be church together in new ways, and to do it in ways that care for the health and wellbeing of all.


The Massachusetts Council of Churches put together a great set of 12 ideas of How to Stay Connected and Faithful during a Pandemic.

Ashes to Dust, Dirt to Soil

Excerpt from “This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls” by Anna Woofenden

I walked up to a teenage kid I had noticed before on the streets. “Ashes for Ash Wednesday?” I offered. 

“Yeah, okay, yeah,” he said. I asked him his name. 

“Daniel,” I spoke as I brushed a stringy curl off his forehead, “from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.” As I spoke the words from Genesis 3:19, I traced the sign of the cross on his forehead. 

He locked eyes with mine, showing the vulnerability and hunger of having someone say his name, see him. His eyes filled with tears. I moved my hand from his forehead to his shoulder and offered him a blessing, “May God be with you on your way.” 

“Thank you, thank you,” he mumbled as he walked off. 

For hundreds of years, Christians have been marking the beginning of Lent—the weeks leading up to Easter—with the receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Traditionally placed on heads or clothing, ashes are now most often smudged on foreheads in the sign of the cross. This ancient practice invites us to remember our mortality and it certainly comes with a long-standing power. This simple ritual, taken outside church walls, invited connection within our community in a new and primal way. 

On the first Wednesday morning of Lent, I stood under a shade tent in the Garden Church sanctuary, going over music and the order of worship for our first collaborative Ash Wednesday Service. I was glad to have a colleague with me today: Pastor Lisa from the Methodist church right down the street. Lisa got what it meant to minister to the community; she too considered everyone in the community her congregation. When I had suggested offering ashes on the streets of our neighborhood she’d said, “Yes, of course!” 

Lisa had first noticed the Garden Church on a First Thursday art night soon after being appointed the pastor at the San Pedro United Methodist Church. When we met for tea a few weeks later, she told me that her first thought when she saw it was, “Wow, they had an idea that I should have had—I could do that.” We had quickly become friends, and explored together what it meant to be pastors to all in this part of our town. 

At noon I rang the singing bowl we used in worship, and a few of us at the center of the garden raised our voices together in song as a signal for others to gather. When a group had congregated, we rose. Lisa’s voice rang out across the din of the traffic: 


Have mercy on me, O God.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:1, 10) 

As her voice rose over the cars going past and the helicopter overhead, I looked around at the faces in the circle. Alongside Garden Church regulars were people from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, along with those who had seen a flyer or received an invitation: the grandma with her two-year-old grandson, the owner of the gallery down the street on her lunch break, and the janitor from the Methodist church. I loved the collaboration and the spirit of openness and freedom we felt taking this ancient ritual outdoors, surrounded by soil and grit. 

After we read scriptures, I raised my hands over the ash and proclaimed: “‘From dust you have come, and to dust you will return.’ Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life. Amen.” 

People came forward one by one, brushing the hair away from their foreheads to expose their bare skin to this connection with mortality. Lisa’s red hair framed her face as she smiled and looked into the eyes of one of the neighbors that often slept on her church steps. After prayer and another song, we invited people to come out into the community with us. Most stayed or went back about their work in the garden, or returned to their offices, but a few were ready and joined us in taking the ashes out into the streets. 

I felt a tightness in my chest as we walked towards the gates. It was one thing to proclaim boldly the words and sacrament inside our own sanctuary; it felt a bit frightening to do so on the street. You’d think I’d be used to it by now—having a church outdoors in an empty lot turned urban farm, where people stuck their heads in during worship and wondered aloud what was going on. 

But my insides quaked as I readied myself to make that first step beyond the garden gate. I’d read about this, I’d heard about others doing it, but I’d never actually taken ashes to the streets before. What if people said no? What if it was embarrassing? What was I leading my congregation into? I calmed myself with the knowledge that in this heavily Catholic neighborhood, at least some people would know what these ash smudges were for. 

I didn’t get a step beyond our front gate when someone came asking for ashes. It was Gabe, from the barbershop next door. “Do you have ashes even though I missed the service? Can I have some?” 

“Of course!” I answered and reached out my hand. 

“Thank you so much, I was worried I wouldn’t get off work to get to church on time.” We started walking up the street and popped our heads into shops along the way. We offered ashes to the people on the sidewalk as we passed. My fears were quickly allayed. The people we encountered received the ashes gratefully. 

Halfway up the block we met a couple of men in their twenties in torn jeans and unbuttoned shirts. “Ashes for Ash Wednesday?” I asked. 

“Uh, no thanks,” one said. We all kept walking. 

But the other man turned around and gave me a longing look. I raised my thumb in silent offering. He turned back towards me, lifted his shaggy bangs, and looked down shyly at the sidewalk. 

“From dust you have come and to dust you will return,” I said quietly as I pressed my ash covered thumb into his forehead in the shape of a cross. 

 “Thanks a lot,” he mumbled as he turned to join his friend. 

Next we saw three older men in their lawn chairs, on the corner near the cross-walk. “Ashes for Ash Wednesday?” 

“Nope, we’ve already been to mass,” was the answer. This was the most connection I’d ever gotten from them. 

“Blessings to you!” we chorused as we walked on. 

“Let’s go to the shops in the walkway.” Connie knew every business on the block. “I know Mary will want some,” she added. We started with the jewelry shop. Indeed, the owner was glad to see Connie. 

“I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it to Mass today,” she said. “This is so perfect.” 

Next the hairdresser and her customer halfway through her appointment, jumped up and said, “Oh really? We were just talking about Ash Wednesday, thank you so much!” Her eyes filled with tears as I held up the foils on her bangs and crossed her forehead with ash. 

Then her neighbors came over. “I was worried I wasn’t going to get off work in time to get ashes,” one of them said. “Thank you for bringing them to me.” 

As we made our way through the streets, I felt my love for this quirky town grow with each encounter. Even the people who did not want ashes appreciated the gesture. The kid at the bus stop: “I don’t want the ashes to make my skin break out, but can you give me a blessing anyway?” 

Each time I pressed the slightly oily ash onto someone’s forehead, I felt—even if just for that moment—a dissolving of the things that separated us from each other. I generally considered myself relatively open to the people I met, but this practice stretched me to places I didn’t usually tread. It was the people washing dishes in the back of the hole-in-the-wall taco joint who wanted the ashes, not the people sitting at the tables where I usually sat. The guys having a smoke out behind the mechanic’s garage wanted them too. Honoring each person—whoever they were and whatever they were doing—opened up a world of connection. 

I found out later that Connie, a beloved teacher of English as a second language, had continued to share the ashes that evening. As she was teaching, a student asked her about the ash cross on her forehead. “It’s for Ash Wednesday,” she replied and when half her class gave her confused looks, she shared about this holiday while teaching vocabulary words. 

A couple of students approached her after class. “We know Ash Wednesday, but we weren’t able to get to Mass today because we had to work and then go straight to class.” Connie’s face fell, wishing she’d brought a container of ashes with her. 

“Wait, I have an idea!” she said as she reached up to her own forehead, removing some of the ash to make the sign of the cross on her students’ foreheads. “Del polvo viniste … y al polvo regresarás,” she said softly in Spanish. “From dust you have come and to dust you will return again.” 

Writer and monk Thomas Merton tells a well-known story about the moment he stood on a street corner and felt unbelievable love for humanity. He writes, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world.”

With each person whose face I looked into and touched, I felt a Merton moment—overwhelmed by a love for each person that went beyond what I could produce on my own, overwhelmed by knowing that we were all in it together. The ash on my hand and their forehead burned through my illusion that we are anything other than all in this together, mortal and human, created and beloved, dust, dirt, heart, and spirit.

We walked next to a diner where a woman joyfully bounded around the counter, “Yes, please! I want ashes! Thank you for bringing them to me!” 

She turned and called to her co-workers, “Ashes!” and an old man, a young boy, the dishwasher, and the cook streamed out from the kitchen. 

As we walked out, we saw an old woman in the parking lot with her life belongings loaded on a shopping cart looking up and asking for this blessing on her rugged forehead. 

It is amazing to me that the desire to connect, to be seen, to be blessed, is so strong that having black ash smudged on your forehead seems like a good idea. Why would a reminder of the inevitability of death be welcomed and embraced? Perhaps it is because the ritual of the ashes brings so many dichotomies together: life and death, despair and hope, human and divine, all woven together in this sacred tactile act. Ash Wednesday is the connecting thread that takes us from the hopeful waiting of Advent to the new birth of Christmas, walks us through Epiphany and into the depths of Lent, then goes with us all the way to the death on the cross, and finally, to the new life of resurrection.

Excerpted from This is God’s Table: Finding God Beyond the Walls by Anna Woofenden. © 2020 by Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Used with permission. All rights reserved. www.heraldpress.com.

Today is a great day to pre-order This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls!

At Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/a/1150/9781513804835

At your local bookstore:
https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781513804835

Or on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/This-Gods-Table-Finding-Church/dp/1513804847/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=this+is+gods+table&qid=1581115238&s=books&sr=1-1

Press-Release for “This is God’s Table”

Planting a church, literally

Woofenden shares how she started a church in an empty lot in This Is God’s Table

“If you are close to giving up on the church, or if you, like Anna Woofenden, feel an irrepressible seed of hope for the church growing in you, this is the book you’ve been waiting for.” —BRIAN D. MCLAREN, speaker, activist, and author of The Great Spiritual Migration

“This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls”
by Anna Woofenden, Foreword by Sara Miles

When Anna Woofenden decided to start a church in an empty lot in Los Angeles, she had no idea what she would encounter. In her new book, This Is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls (Herald Press, April 2019), Woofenden shares the story of what happened when she gardened, worshiped, and ate with anyone who would join her.

“The Garden Church,” writes Woofenden, “is the main character of this book. In these pages you will meet many of the people who nurtured, tended, and grew it alongside me. It has been my privilege and my work to plant this church, and now to tell the story of how it grew.”

Woofenden gathered the wealthy and the poor, the aged and the young, the housed and unhoused, to form the Garden Church in a once-empty lot. Together they planted and sustained a thriving urban farm, worshiped God, and shared a weekly meal.

“If this was where people were hungry, if this was where people were in need of being fed in body and mind and spirit, if this was where the middle- and upper-class people on the hill wouldn’t come at night, then this was exactly where we were being called to create a sanctuary,” Woofenden says.

As churches across the Western world wither, what would it take to find a raw, honest, gritty way of doing church–one rooted in place, nurtured by grace, and grounded in God’s expansive love? What would it take to carry the liturgy outside the gates? What if we were to discover that in feeding others, we are fed? This is God’s table. Come and eat.

Anna Woofenden is a writer, speaker, pastor, and leading voice in the food and faith movement. She is the founding pastor of the Garden Church in San Pedro, California, the founder of Feed and Be Fed Farm, and the cohost of the Food and Faith podcast. She serves as the Protestant chaplain at Amherst College and lives with her husband, David, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Woofenden is passionate about spirituality, justice, food, the earth, and community, and is driven by a calling to reimagine church. Connect with her at AnnaWoofenden.com.

on abundance and the agency marketplace

Guest Post from Jess Kotnour

Preface: I want to note the Agency Marketplace is for approved non-profits to get food from. I have not gone to the Community Food Bank as an individual or family hoping to get food, so I cannot speak to if this sense of abundance that I experience can extend to that. 

Each Thursday at 9:30, I drive to the south side of Tucson and get food at the Agency Marketplace of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.  I use the word “get,” because I do not shop; there is no exchange of money.  

After making sure I am wearing closed-toed shoes, I grab a warehouse cart and get what I need for the next week for our work.  

When I first began here in Tucson, the deacon of my parish would go with me, explaining to me how it works. 

Some days, he tells me, there’s no meat. other days there are freezers full. 

Some days, he tells me, there are pallets of fresh tomatoes. Other days there are pallets of canned tomatoes. 

Although the deacon didn’t explicitly say it, there was an unspoken, but there is always enough. 

There may not always be enough of that one specific ingredient, but there is always enough.

There may not always be meat in the freezer, but there is always enough

There may not always be vegetable stock, but there is always enough.

There may not be enough this week, but there is always enough.

The deacon soon trusted me enough to go to the Marketplace solo.  

So each Thursday morning, I head to the Agency Marketplace by myself, yet I have never felt alone there.

The staff at the marketplace have quickly learned my name. 

There is one man who works there, who I call Randy because I have not actually learned his name, who reminds me of my goalkeeper coach growing up.  

Rarely when we talk to someone, do we use their name in the sentence, directly addressing them. 

Randy-not-Randy does this in the same way that my goalkeeper coach did. 

What’s good, Jess?

Lots of pork today, Jess.

There is a lightheadedness to him, to the entire marketplace.  

There is enough food for all here.

There is enough time to use a person’s name. 

There is always enough.

Some weeks, the agency marketplace is the place that is most similar to God’s kingdom to me, or at the very least the place that always causes me to pause and walk into abundance.  When I leave, I often want to call someone, to tell them about this abundance.  I want to tell them that the scarcity that capitalism and America sell us is a lie.  There is so much damn food, and we know this.  We know that we produce enough food to feed everyone on earth.  Lack of actual food is not the issue. 

When we enter into this lie of scarcity and lack, we take more than we need.  We hoard.  We save up.  When we take two servings of daily bread, someone goes without.  Not because there wasn’t enough bread, but because we took more than what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer.  

When we have enough, all have enough.  When all have enough, we have enough.  

As I drive back to the church, I often have the refrain I first heard at the Garden Church stuck in my head:

there is enough and some to share.

there is enough and some to share.


Jess Kotnour is an Episcopal Service Corps Member with Beloved in the Desert in Tucson, Arizona. They are in the discernment process for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church and are interested in food, faith, and how to make churches outside of what we consider church.

“This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls” available for pre-order!

“This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls” by Anna Woofenden, forward by Sara Miles

Can a barren city lot become a church? 

This is the story of an audacious journey. It’s the story of what happens when people garden, worship, and eat together—and invite anyone and everyone to join them. In This Is God’s Table, writer and pastor Anna Woofenden describes the way that the wealthy and the poor, the aged and the young, the housed and unhoused become a community in this once-empty lot. Together they plant and sustain a thriving urban farm, worship God, and share a weekly meal. Together they craft a shared life and a place of authenticity where all are welcome. Readers of Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sara Miles, and Diana Butler Bass will find here a kindred vision for a church without walls.     

As churches across the Western world wither, what would it take to find a raw, honest, gritty way of doing church—one rooted in place, nurtured by grace, and grounded in God’s expansive love? What would it take to carry the liturgy outside the gates? What if we were to discover that in feeding others, we are fed?

This is God’s table. Come and eat.

Coming April 21st, 2020… pre-order today!

“Growing a garden church from food scraps and compost”–Article in the Christian Century

When I moved to Los Angeles in 2014 to start a church that connected people with food, the earth, each other, and God, I envisioned a sanctuary created around the table. It would not be built out of stones and stained glass and wood but would be circled by vegetable beds and fruit trees, with sky for ceiling and earth for floor. The vision was to create an urban farm and outdoor sanctuary feeding people in body, mind, and spirit.

Before we had a plot of land to cultivate together, we asked our team: What do we have? What are the resources that are already here and how can we use them to nurture this dream?


Read the rest of the article on the Christian Century page.

Solstice

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Solstice

One candle

in the dark of the darkest morning.

This evening two,

a double blessing, will be lit

and Shabbat prayers prayed.

Three on the Advent wreath,

hope, peace, and joy.

Christmas tree lights will sparkle,

and fireplaces blaze.

But this morning there is just

one candle

flickering in the still gray light.

7:47, sunrise, passes without some

blaze of glory.

No splendid rays of sunlit hope.

Instead,

I look down at the page

and can see just a little bit better.

The greens and grays out the window are

a bit clearer.

The slick wet streets reflect the

grainy light.

The silhouette of damp bare trees

show the contrast

backlit by the subtle illumination,

where the leaves are no more.

–Anna Woofenden 2018

Are Thoughts and Prayers Enough?

By Anna Woofenden
July 2018
First published on swedenborg.com

I know that I am not alone in eye-rolling to outrage when something terrible happens and politicians and celebrities respond with proclamations of their “thoughts and prayers.” It’s not that I have anything against people thinking of and praying for whatever hard thing is happening in the world. It’s just that it seems that the subtext under these phrases is often “and we’re not going to do a darn thing about it.”

According to Emanuel Swedenborg, “prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God” (Secrets of Heaven §2535). Prayer, in itself, is a conversation with our Creator, a dynamic back and forth—speaking and listening, giving and receiving. And then, may I add, prayer leads us to take action. It’s often said that prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us; I believe Swedenborgian theology would agree. It gets back to who we think God is and how God operates. Offering “thoughts and prayers” seems to have become the thing to say when you want to express some kind of acknowledgment of what has happened, but you don’t want anyone to expect that you’re going to make a shift in policy or invest in creating a world where tangible action for change is taken as a response to tragedy. Along with this response, it seems there is, understandably, a growing cynicism toward both prayer itself and people’s expressions of prayer. I understand this cynicism and often share the root of the reaction, yet I’m not willing to throw out prayer with this murky bathwater and so limit its definition to all that comes with the expression “thoughts and prayers.”

When I was a hospital chaplain, I spent a fair amount of time praying with people, and most of the time it was in intense situations—life and death for the individuals or their families. I would usually start by asking, “What do you want us to pray for?” and the conversations would unfold. And most often, people would have a pretty specific ask. “Pray that my mom’s cancer will go away.” “Pray that I will not die from this tumor.” “Pray that my baby’s lung will heal.” All of these prayers made perfect sense. Of course, these were the things to pray for. Of course, this was what they desperately and fervently wanted, and it was what I wanted for them. But how to pray?

I stood in those hospital rooms, and I would have these moments where the scenario would play out in my head: Yes, I could pray for the loved one to be cured, and it could happen; but it also was just as likely that the patient would die, and then what? Then God doesn’t answer prayers. So was this prayer not just setting people up to sever their relationship with God alongside their experience of heartbreak and loss?

I wrestled with how to pray with hope and with the wholehearted belief in the power of a healing God. At the same time, I prayed with the deep knowledge that God needed to be big enough, close enough, and loving enough—that even if the worst thing happened, that there was space in the prayer, in the theological constructs that we weave with our words of prayer—to still be there and to still be the force of love in the universe and in the lives of the people we love.

And so, I found myself praying for the words to pray; and then I prayed the grief and the worry, the assurance of the presence of love in the room, the sobs and the hopes. I found myself exploring prayers for healing versus prayers for cures, as healing comes in so many forms, including the peace that comes with trusting and loving through even the most impossible situations.

I found prayers becoming times to squeeze the hands of family gathered round the bedside of the patient on the ventilator; they were times to let the tears flow, to breathe, to sigh deeply, and to feel God’s presence there with us. It was about bringing down the decision-making God—the force that can wave a finger to heal or not, immediately changing the course of events—from that high place in the sky to be the God whose presence of love and comfort are immediately felt there in the hospital room, as we walk the halls. Prayer is a conversation and a connection with the God who is with us in our grief and in our joy, the God who holds all of it and encompasses the breadth of our lives.

The people I spent time with in these rooms taught me how to pray. Flowery, lofty prayers don’t go very far in the linoleum-floored hospital room, with the green heartbeat monitor going up and down by the bedside and the IV fluids dripping through the tubes. What happens in these rooms is about as “real life” as you can get; and God was certainly present, teaching us how to pray. Our prayers didn’t just end with some vague hope for some far-off force to do something but to not involve us in the process. Instead, our prayers were woven in with hands on shoulders offering comfort, with tears being cried and Kleenex being given, with donated bone marrow and the deep wisdom and experience of a surgeon’s lifetime of work. These thoughts and prayers have flesh on them, and they change us and move us to acting for good so that we can change for the better the world around us.