Revolutionary Love

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Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
December 4, 2016
Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-10
11:1 & Matthew 3:1-12

Listen to the Audio

 
First Coming
He did not wait till the world was ready,

till men and nations were at peace.

He came when the Heavens were unsteady,

and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.

He came when the need was deep and great.

He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.
He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came 
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame

he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.

In the mystery of the Word made Flesh

the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane

to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Madeleine L’Engle

(Christ) did not wait till the world was ready,
till (people) and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.

We come together today, here on this Sunday of Advent, this time of waiting, this time of preparation. We have lit the Advent Candle of Love and perhaps we feel like that’s exactly what we need, what we are longing for. For something beyond whatever the chaos we may feel in our own lives, in the world around us.

We reach for and long for that Love we talk about that overcomes fear, that Light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome. Maybe we long for what we might hope Advent can be, a peaceful time set apart, some twinkling candles, and re-lived childhood memories.

And then we get this passage. “Repent!” “Prepare the way!” “Make paths straight!”

We can read this and superimpose our own ideas of God and the Light and our own criteria for what it takes for it to come. “Prepare the way!” That must mean I need to have my house clean, all the gifts bought and wrapped, my finances in order, my inner-life in pristine condition. Probably in order for God to show up, I need to pray for long periods of time, every day, not make any questionable moral decisions, and never question or doubt. Probably if we were really doing good Advent preparation, we need to have everything in order, and have it all figured out—right?!

But no, this is not the Advent we find in the gospel, this is not the Advent we need today. The Advent we find comes into the middle of dark and messy, into a world that was engulfed in fear and chaos. Emmanuel, “God with us,” entered into a time in history when things where dark and grim, where fear and uncertainty ran rampant, and when people were crying out for another way.

John comes in from the wilderness and calls for repentance, calls to prepare a way for the Lord. This may seem counter to what we picture the preparation for Christ ought to be, but maybe John might be answering the question of “what are you waiting for?” more than he is trying to scare people into submission like a loud street preacher. At the very least, I think he’s showing us where our values are, and what it is that we actually need.

As my friend Alex pointed out, John shows up in the aftermath of Jesus’ birth, and the aftermath of Herod’s slaughter of hundreds of children. He shows up to people who are hurting and grieving that the empire had just murdered their babies. He shows up in the midst of the shrieking of Rachel and all the mothers whose children were taken from them.

But he also shows up right after the hope of the whole world has just been born. He shows up when God came into our world. And he comes out of the wilderness to talk about that hope. John came to proclaim a hope to people who were oppressed, proclaiming the kingdom of God over the kingdom of the empire. Offering the possibility that there is something more than capitalism, and that security in physical things won’t save us.

And Emanuel, God with us, comes to us in the middle of all the uncertainty and through Christ’s very presence—vulnerable in infant flesh—and opens up another way. With God with us, lions and sheep will lie down together. With God with us, and we’ll be able to sit across from that relative at the Christmas dinner table and find humanity beyond our differences. With God with us we will find that actually the kingdom of God—the love, the hope—is bigger and stronger and more pervasive and more immediately present than any of the chaos and fear. In fact, it is right here, God with us. Love with us.
God comes in the middle of dark and messy.

Jesus took bread and broke it, and the crumbs cascaded to the floor.

God comes in and amongst the mundane, the normal, the sacred.

God doesn’t wait until things are all cleaned up to come in. She doesn’t wait until we have everything in our lives perfectly in order to bring us some burst of joy, a flash of Light. No, God’s love and presence does not require an absence of the messy, it requires an openness to noticing and embracing the Love and Light. Prepare the way, repent, open up, clear out, turn, embrace the love.

My love, David, and I got engaged this past week, and we are so joyfully happy. This is something we have both been waiting for and praying for many many years—to find that partner to walk through life with. We had three days after our engagement in a total love bubble. I didn’t read the news, I didn’t worry about the church bank account, I didn’t look at the to-do lists. I only read the congratulatory comments on our announcement post on Facebook, and ignored all the political posts,

I even told people that we weren’t going to start trying to decide the wedding date until Monday because that scheduling felt stressful, and I wanted to bask in that deep and pure place of love and celebration.

On Monday, we began to re-enter the regular world life, and work, and the full email boxes, and work needs, and trying to find a wedding date that worked for everyone, and looking at the news again and wondering at the darkness and chaos and hate, and on top of it all, sneezing and coughing from a cold.

And I felt the love bubble beginning to fade. It was so tempting to just slide all the way away from it and to go the lowest common denominator of stress and worry and fear. I could feel myself succumbing to the chaos and the darkness…

But then, that idea of revolutionary gratitude caught up with me from a few weeks ago and the phrase “revolutionary love” crossed my path and a new image was offered me. I don’t need to “come down” from my love bubble high, and wallow in the chaos and fear. I need to hold strong to that incredible love, because that is the stuff of life. I need to expand that love bubble out and over the pain and the lists and the questions and fear.

Because love, in all its forms, is the thing that heals, and transforms, and comforts, and propels us forward. It was love that John was preparing the way for; it’s love that came into the world, Emmanuel, God with us. It’s love that we each need to claim and live and be in and with, here today.

Love is actually our greatest protest against empire and chaos and fear. And sometimes our work is to focus in on the simple things. The day-to-day acts of love that we keep showing up to. My friend Sara is planting bulbs. Our dear friend and new mom Tania is posting baby pictures. I’m determined not to lose the joy of the engagement glow. These are not things separate from the world, we’re not living apart and oblivious to the world around us, no—we’re defiantly claiming the power of love, here with us.

Jesus came into a dark world. And he came in innocence. Simply. As a baby. Revolutionary love is in the simple things, the innocence, and the vulnerable. Revolutionary love keeps its eyes open, to those who are vulnerable. Love stands together. Revolutionary love stands with the water protectors at Standing Rock. Revolutionary love gently cares for a partner as they support an aging parent. Revolutionary love goes across the street and checks on a neighbor. Revolutionary love shows up. And digs in. And embraces the love.

My friend and colleague Diana Butler Bass shared this story on Facebook on Friday, and I asked her if I could share it with you to close this message today.

She writes:
“I’m in a hotel this morning in Florida where some sort of conservative conference is being held. At breakfast, four older white men were at the table next to me. One was a media activist-pundit (who I think I recognized). They were talking VERY loudly, bragging about how they have “total power,” and how they are going to destroy everything President Obama did, how easy it is to manipulate people to get them to vote for them, and how they planned on taking over every single county government in the state of Florida.

There was a young African-American woman waiting on them. She did her job with thoroughness and kindness. As I watched, they spoke of disgusting racist things in front of her—and seemed to think she was invisible. And the more they bellowed their retrograde views, her body actually recoiled as she tried to serve them.

I was VERY angry. VERY ANGRY.

When she came over to my table, I told her that those guys might be white and I might be white but I thought they were assholes and that I wasn’t on board with their plan, how sorry I am about what happened. I told her that I wanted to go over to their table and slap them upside the head. She laughed.

She said, “You know, one day all this hate will finally die out. It doesn’t bring life. It cannot survive the long term.” I said, “I kind of hoped it might die before I do.” She said, “Well, that’s probably a bit too soon! But I have hope. Hate has no life of its own. Another generation or two. It will die.”

And she went on, “And meanwhile, we work for our communities. We love our families, care for our neighbors, celebrate life. And them?” She gazed over to the table with a mixture of resignation and pain. “They are the last of a dying world.”

As she spoke to me, her back straightened, her eyes glowed, passion filled her voice. And finally she said, “It is really nice, however, that a white lady like you noticed how awful they are. Thank you. We all need to pay attention and do our part.”

Dear ones, we all need to pay attention and do our part. Advent is a time of preparation, and waiting yes, and it’s a time of paying attention. It’s a time of being vulnerable and then standing up to do our part. Care for each other. Love our loved ones. Stand with the vulnerable. Celebrate life. Love with revolutionary love.

(Christ) came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Revolutionary Gratitude

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11.20.16 The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Scripture: Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 1:68-79

Messenger
by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Fifth-century monk Nilus of Ancyra wrote, “We should remain within the limits imposed by our basic needs and strive with all our power not to exceed them. For once we are carried a little beyond these limits in our desire for the pleasures of life, there is no criterion by which to check our onward movement, since no bounds can be set to which exceeds the necessary.”

I think what he was really talking about here was Facebook ads. My nemesis. Here I am, just innocently trying to distract myself from the sermon I am trying to write with “just a quick scroll through the Facebook feed” when what do I see but this beautiful burgundy sweater, long and flowing, with these beautiful little knit patterns in it. “Ooo, I like that!” I think, and then I have to click on it, and start looking through the website… “That looks beautiful!” “And that.” “I need more winter sweaters.” “I don’t have something like that.”

I almost start to put something in the cart, when I remember. I’m supposed to be writing a sermon on revolutionary gratitude. I’m supposed to be articulating the ideas that have been present with me all week about how I believe gratitude can actually be the antidote to excessive consumerism, greed, and discontent. How I believe that taking on gratitude as a spiritual practice can actually change how we engage the world and change the world.

So I stopped. And went back to my Word document. And wrote this paragraph. And then I went to my bedroom and started folding laundry. And specifically noting all the sweaters I have. Not quite exactly that maroon flowery one, but plenty. And even one that IS maroon, and is pretty flowery. And they are warm and they are nice. And so I said, “Thank you for them.” And then I started to think about my friends and neighbors who don’t have sweaters. Or closets to put them in. And then I started making a pile, a stack of sweaters that I could pass on to others.

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

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

Practicing gratitude actually replaces the “I want, I want, I want,” with, “I am grateful, I have enough.”

And then what if we made it a personal habit to replace anger and resentment with gratitude? Or replace disappointment and grumpiness with gratitude?

This week I had an interaction with a loved one and a conflict came up. Later that evening I was texting with a friend and sorting through my reactions and realizing why my buttons had been pushed. As my heart softened I found myself texting, “I am so grateful to have a person I love with whom I can work through these kinds of conflicts with.” The next day when the loved one and I had a further conversation, the whole tone had shifted. As we listened deeply, I found myself no longer wrapped up in getting my own specific needs fulfilled, but instead trying to understand my loved one and see how I could care for them, as a response to my gratitude for being in relationship together and be able to care for one another.

The practice of gratitude takes us out beyond ourselves, to look around at others and show us how to care for one another.

Every week at the Garden Church, right before we share together in our Community Meal, we sing our blessing song:

There is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.

My friend Kerri Meyer wrote this song and I asked her why she wrote it and she told me this: “I wrote ‘There is Enough’ out of my heart’s response to reading the works of Wendell Berry and out of my own craving for a theology of abundance. These are the words of Creation, of Elijah visiting the woman, of the loaves and fishes, of the community of Acts, and I think of the Kingdom of God.

I want to be generous, so I have to believe these words. I want to be able to receive generosity, so I have to believe these words. ‘There is enough and some to share’ is the opposite of what the idol of capitalism demands we believe. It’s the motto of another possible world.”

There is enough, gratitude for what is—it’s the motto of another possible world. It’s that kingdom of heaven. It’s that promise of the light to those who sit in darkness—the guidance of our feet in the way of peace.

In this possibility of another world, we don’t think of ourselves first and put all of our energy and resources into amassing wealth and fulfilling our own desires. Yes, we take care of our bodies and our minds, an essential foundation, and as we do, we practice gratitude.

Emanuel Swedenborg reminds us that yes,
“We need to provide food and clothing for our bodies. This is a first and primary goal. But we do this so that we may have sound minds in sound bodies. We need to provide food for the mind as well, such things as relate to intelligence and wisdom, so that our minds may be in a state to serve God. If we do these things, we provide for our own good to eternity. We must provide for ourselves, yet not for ourselves.”

Practicing gratitude does not take away the reality that every one of us needs basic care for our bodies and our minds. Practicing gratitude in fact, reminds all of us that we are responsible to and for each other to have those foundational needs met.

And as we practice gratitude, we find ourselves looking outward from our own fear and scarcity. We can begin to look out to the world around us and see the needs of others—see how we are all connected and intertwined with each other.

And we can see that God is always breaking through the cracks and raising us up, like that righteous branch, raising us up together, intertwined with each other.

The kingdom of heaven, that possibility of another world, is among us, and with us, and we have to work for where it is not. Because every human being created belongs to God and we belong to each other. And as God provides for us collectively, there always is enough—enough and some to share.

Jesus’ act in the paschal mystery was thanksgiving: Eucharist. Which literally means “thanksgiving.” When Jesus gathered his friends and followers around that table in the upper room, he took bread blessed it and broke it and gave thanks. And he took the cup and poured it and blessed and offered thanksgiving and passed it. And then said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Revolutionary gratitude isn’t the gratitude one practices or offers alone, but what one does with others. We can both remind each other of the power of gratitude and be lifted up, be fed when we share the Eucharist, the thanksgiving, together.

And so now, I want to invite us into a time of thanksgiving, of doing the spiritual practice of gratitude right here, right now together. Because what better way to start a habit than right here, right now?

Turn to your neighbor and take turns, back and forth, naming what you are grateful for. And we’re going to do this for a few minutes. Long enough that at some point you’re going to have to pause and really think about it for a moment. You might have to start looking past the obvious things and start finding gratitude in “the conflict I had with my loved one” or the struggle I’m having to keep showing up.

As you share, notice how your own experience of your life and things around you shift. And at the end, you’ll have an opportunity to share a bit with other neighbors around you about what the practice of gratitude felt like.

So this is a practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see that by the tender mercy, dawn will break. And we will say thank you. Amen.

Anointed to Love

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November 13th, 2013
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA

Scripture: Isaiah 35:3-8, Luke 17:20-21

“The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves, but loving others and being united to them through love.” Divine Love and Wisdom 47 Emanuel Swedenborg

As a church, we don’t stand with a particular political view; as people of faith, there is not one right partisan expression. What we stand behind, no matter what, is love. And being people who are anointed to love.

Love goes beyond who we voted for, or how that is expressed. Love looks out into the world to see who is suffering, who is experiencing fear and loss, who is consumed by hate. Love looks inward at parts of ourselves—at what is underneath our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Love isn’t always comfy or pretty. Often love calls us to go beyond our comfort zones.

Glennon Doyle Melton writes “Love is not warm and fuzzy or sweet and sticky. Real love is tough as nails. It is having your heart ripped out, putting it back together, and the next day offering it back to the same world that just tore it up.”

Love is fierce. Love is persistent. Love puts our bodies in between, beside, and behind bodies that are threatened. Love combats the hate and words of condemnation that come into our own heads, and stops us when we want to lash out at other people.

I think love also gently wraps a blanket around us. It encourages us to care gently, for ourselves and for each other. Love reaches out and checks in, “How are you doing?” “How can I support you today?” “How can I stand with you today?” Love calls out to that Divine love, and welcomes it into this place.

This message is nothing new friends; it’s what you hear from me most every week—love God and love each other, honor the dignity of all human beings, we belong to God, we belong to each other, we are loved and we are called to love. This is not new information, nor a new call. But today we have the opportunity to be reminded of its imperative. We have a reminder that love is not easy, but it must be our consistent commitment, for the long haul. The work of courageous love has been the work, is the work, and will continue to be the work. All the resolve we feel now—we must keep that, and continue to stay awake.

We must be awake to where there is hell and negativity that is working to divide us and twist things. We must be awake when it urges us to flare up in anger or take us to the pit of despair, and when it tells us there’s no point and to just stop.

We must stay awake to heaven and its powerful force for compassion and justice and healing in the world. Because heaven is with us and among us—urging and infilling us, anointing us to love.

And this is why we need to keep gathering together, praying and listening and acting. We need to educate ourselves in how to love more effectively and  to encourage each other. We need to hold each other accountable.  We need to widen our circles and expand our friendships. We need to look more deeply at things we might have assumed we know, and question narratives that have been presented as the singular truth. We need to consistently do our internal work of rejecting hell and welcoming heaven and to show up and stand with courage and compassion in the face of injustice and hate. We need to be kind to each other and gentle to each other. We need to call together on God, for the strength and comfort and resolve. We need to come around God’s table where all are welcome, and remember together that we are beloved and we are anointed to love.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear.”
For God is here.

All Will Be Well–A Sermon for Weary Times

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Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
10.16.16
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Luke 18:1-8

I’m tired. And not just because Bree and I just got back this morning from meetings in Seattle, after canceled flights and epically early morning trips to the airport. I was tired before we left early Friday morning.

I am tired of my newsfeed being filled with triggering posts and conflicting rhetoric. Tired of the tension that rises in me as I read people’s comments on political candidates. Tired of living in a country and world where misogyny and isms of all kinds are alive and well. Tired of my own wounds and traumas being triggered. Tired of entering into conversations on tiptoes or avoiding interacting with some relative or friend altogether because we don’t want to talk about politics. Tired of incessantly looking to God and wondering what on earth is going on while repeating over and over, “all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”

“All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things, shall be well.” These words from Julian of Norwich have been running through my head like a mantra. Some moments, I actually feel and believe them, but mostly I find myself repeating them over and over, willing them to be true.

I have been hearing from many of you this week that I am not alone in being tired this week and you have shared with me your own anxiety and feelings of fear and conflict and tension, whether from the upcoming election, struggles in our world and community, things going on in your own personal lives, or a concoction of all of the above.

And as I hear your stories, so much of me just wants to just calm and soothe us and just say, what I do believe to be true: that in the big picture, in the eternal view, God has got all of this, and it’s going to be okay. And I do hope that we can hear that and find that comfort in God and each other today. I hope that as we come together around God’s table and we feed and are fed together, that church can be a little respite of rest, a place of nurture, and a place where we can be reminded of God’s assurance and presence and care, and that we are not alone.

And yet, we hold this tension together and know that we can’t with integrity say “all will be well” and then just put our heads in the sand and pretend that if we just hide long enough everything will magically change. Because we know there are so many things in our world that are not well. There are things in each of our lives that are not well. And as long as all is not well in us and around us, how can we turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering and the things that need to change? We know we need to keep showing up and being part of the work in our world, and yet, dear ones, we come together and we admit and confess in this sanctuary together, we are worn, we lose heart at times, and we are so very tired.

Our gospel story today starts out with Jesus saying, “This is a parable about the need to pray and not lose heart.” I think this may be a parable we need to hear today.

In a certain city there was a judge, Jesus says. A judge—a cop, a corporation, a system, a conglomerate, a legislator—who neither feared God, nor had respect for people. And in that city, there was a widow who kept coming to him. A widow likely being in a vulnerable and marginalized position not having authority or respect within the patriarchal culture of the day. And this widow, she kept (over and over and over) coming to him and saying, “grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while, the judge refused. But later he thought to himself, “though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

Not because the judge had some change of heart, not because he was good or just, but because of the persistence of this widow, because of her insistence, because she kept bothering him, her request was granted.

I have this picture in my head of this widow, a scrappy woman with worn and determined lines on her face, showing up at the door of this judge, day after day after day, and knocking on his door. “I’m still here.” “I want justice.” “Don’t forget about me.” “I’m not giving up.”

It seems a little bit like my insistent humming of this mantra, “all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things, will be well.” Looking to God, hoping She’s paying attention and that somehow this will be true, showing up in the world, making being part of change, believing that this needs to be true. And then keeping showing up in the world, showing up to each other and encouraging each other to look again, showing up here and insisting on being community together with all kinds of people, showing up to the hard conversations and continuing to insist that God is in it.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and certainly within rabbinic tradition, reminding God of God’s covenants is a normal practice. “God you promised us….don’t forget.” “God you said you’d take care of us, but it sure doesn’t seem like it right now.” “God, are you paying attention?” “God, I don’t understand it, I’m tired, I’m scared, I don’t know any more. Help.” “Will all really be well?”

Our friends in the book of Jeremiah were having a pretty rough time; they had much to worry about and cry out about and remind God of. And then the Lord reminds them, “I am making a new covenant with you, and I will put my law within you and write it on your hearts and I will be your God and you will be my people.”

This covenant is one that God offers and promises and is with us here today. I will make a new covenant with you, ______, _______, _______, and I will put my law within you ______, ______, _______, I will write it on your hearts, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. I will be your God, and you will be my people. And God shall be with you. And in this, all will be well.

In a passage from Emanuel Swedenborg, we learn that on a deeper level the words “And God shall be with you” are telling us about the Lord’s Divine Providence—the way God leads and guides us and governs the universe. And that Divine Providence is the assurance that the Lord is with everyone, leading us and providing that all things that happen—whether sad or joyful—befall each person for good. That all things that happen, whether sad or joyful, befall us for good. (Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #6303)

God has made a new covenant with us and written it on our hearts and put God’s law inside us, and God’s laws supersede all of human laws. Not that we’re above or don’t need to abide by laws of the land and nature, but our ultimate identity, our ultimate place within the universe is gently held within the loving laws of God’s providence. Yes, because of our individual and collective freedom, hard and sad and painful things do happen. As we interact with other people and systems and the natural world, we encounter injustice and pain and loss. The presence of suffering is real. The need to be part of alleviating it for all of humanity is essential. And deep within us, far extending beyond us, this ultimate covenant is promised. And it’s that ultimate covenant that we can rest in.

That no matter no matter how hard it gets, no matter how tired we are, God is with us in it. No matter how many things need to change in the world around us, no matter how dark it looks, God is with us. This expansive force of Love is always drawing us individually and collectively towards the good. God is always making good on Her promise that, right here in this very moment and in the expanse of the eternal view “all (really will) be well.”

Julian of Norwich knew that “all will be well” was not an isolated comment to keep her apart from the suffering of the world. This vision, or “seeing” as she called it, came in the midst of the depth of illness about which she says this:

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin (suffering and separation); but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved (or made whole).”

All shall be well. Dear ones, this promise is as true for us today, in this moment in time and in our world as it was for Julian of Norwich in her confined cell, in the 14th century. God does not promise us a life or a world devoid of pain and suffering and conflict. But God does promise that She will be with us and that everything, whether joyful or sad is held within the loving eternal embrace of God, and that in every moment we will have the opportunity to respond to the good God is drawing us to.

Because ultimately, we will find our identity and our security—our rest in God our creator—not in our political affiliation or physical security, not in being right or winning the argument, not in knowing what’s going to happen next or being able to fix all the ills we see all at once. God has written Her law on our hearts, He will be our God and we shall be God’s people. And in this, we can rest.

And then, even when we’re tired, we can keep showing up and knocking on the door of the world. We can continue to persistently believe that justice and change not only need to happen, but can happen as we wear the systems and powers of the world down, as we keep showing up and bothering them until they change. Because the kingdom of God, the way of heaven is always persistently breaking through. And all things, however difficult, can be used by our transformative God, for good.

And while we keep praying and staying awake to the needs of the world, we must also lean back and surrender into God’s loving embrace, resting in that covenant: we belong to God and we are always within God’s eternal holding and in God’s immediate loving presence. This covenant is for each of us, dear ones, each one of you, and us here together as we call out to God and believe together that: “all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things, will be well.”

Cultivation Series Part Three: Participation

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Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
October 2nd, 2016
Scriptures: Micah 6:6-8, Acts 2:42-47
Listen to the Audio

Thursday morning I went on an early morning walk and I walked to a place on what I like to call, “the Garden Church historical tour.” I went to the shady patch under the trees where we had our very first Garden Church Gathering, two years ago last week. I stood and thought about all the people who have been part of this work at different parts of this adventure, from the founding board members to the people who showed up when we were meeting once a month in the parks and walking around the community, to those who showed up here once we opened our gates and keep showing up. All the different beautiful people who have shown up to make church together.

Last night, when so many of you and so many wonderful members of our community gathered together in this space to celebrate and support the Cultivation of community, I stood and looked around: at the beauty under the sparkling lights, at the amazing spread, at the event that this awesome team pulled off…at all the people from all different parts of our community, those who have been with the Garden Church since it was just an idea, those who have been working and loving the San Pedro community all their lives, those who just came in the gate that evening. And all of them, all of us had in common that we showed up.

And that’s what I want to talk about together today, showing up. As we wrap up our three-week Cultivation series, looking at what it means to be church and make church together, we look at our third marker-point of being a Cultivator—Participation. Two weeks ago, we talked about our first marker of being a Cultivator—Prayer—and explored our spiritual commitment, and committing to regularly pray on our own and together, because our hearts and lives are changed by commitment to regular spiritual practice. Last week we talked about pledging, how we are all interconnected and how the way we use our financial resources is part of our spiritual practice and being part of the interconnected whole together. And finally this week, we’re looking at our third marker-point of being part of this community—Participation. Being involved. Showing up.

One of you said to me recently, “Showing up” is a refrain you use often.” I hadn’t specifically noticed this before. I know that I preach ad nauseum about the power of all kinds of people eating together and the dignity of all human beings, and how we want to be part of cultivating more heaven, here on earth. But this “showing up” wasn’t something I had consciously taken on as a theme.

But when we started talking about it, I realized it was, it is, because somehow it’s actually at the base of all of these other values we are working to embody here at the Garden Church.
In order to come around God’s table with all kinds of people, we need to show up.
For dreams to be realized, for empty lots to turn into vibrant urban farms and sanctuaries, we need to show up.
For us to find reconciliation in our relationships and families, between races and classes, we need to show up.
For us to regenerate, or grow in our spiritual lives, we need to show up.
For us to be changed by a conversation with someone we wouldn’t normally interact with, we need to show up.
If you want to see God in the faces of all you meet, you need to be out in the world meeting people and showing up.

Showing up is something that we need to do for our own spiritual practice with God, and showing up is something we need to do together, as we love our neighbor. In the Swedenborgian tradition, we talk a lot about the trios, the trinities of the Divine and of spiritual life. One of the core trios described is Love, Wisdom, and Useful service. At the core of all things is love, but for it to be experienced in the world, it needs to be coupled with wisdom and put into action in useful service. But it doesn’t end there; it then circles back around, and as we engage in useful service, we need wisdom to guide us, we experience love, and the circle continues. And in order to encounter and engage the Divine, to be part of that cycle of love and wisdom and useful service, we need to show up.

Now I’m not saying that showing up in life is always easy. It’s a simple phrase that I believe is core and true, but it’s not easy. Showing up requires deep prayer, for strength and humility, showing up requires our commitment and practices. Showing up to open our gates and have each of your wonderful faces walk through them takes a lot of work behind the scenes, cultivating resources, nurturing the networks and relationship. Showing up for some people means a battle to get out of bed in the morning, to overcome mental and physical challenges. Showing up means doing the work to be present to each other, to look inside ourselves and examine the places in us that would prefer to stay walled off, not reach out, not be present. Showing up to God means being willing and humble to rest in God, to trust God, to believe in our value and worth as creations of a loving creator.

And showing up, while it’s not always easy, and it takes determination and choice and often hard work, is also so simple. And as this beautiful passage from Micah reminds us, it’s all God asks. God does not delight in the giving of oil and rams, of burnt offerings and sacrifices. It’s how we show up and what we show up to. Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.

Showing up doesn’t mean we always know the outcome or are going to be able to accomplish things exactly the way we had planned. Showing up is that humble walking, that surrender to God, being reminded step by step that She is the one who knows the way and is leading and providing and though we rarely know exactly what God is going to be up to, it seems that research shows that it will be more surprising and delightful and uncomfortable and transformative than anything we could come up with on our own. And here’s the magical thing, when we show up, and expect God to show up, God always does—and then other people show up too.

I have told some of you about how 4:05 on Sundays is my nemesis, but 5:20 is a joy. And you know why that is? Because you all show up. Often at 4:05 there are just a handful of us here (and oh so many blessings to those of you who are here then). And sometimes as I pray and ring the singing bowl, I have a little chat with God. Sometimes it’s more polite than other times and often includes the words, “Um, God, I showed up, where is everyone else??” But God is always faithful, because you all are here, and then more of you come in and then I see an interaction between two of you that brings me to tears. And then we all pray together, and by the time we’re sharing Holy Communion and then gathering around the dinner table with all sorts of neighbors loving each other, my faith in God and church is once again renewed, as we all show up at the table together and God totally shows up.

So what does it mean to be church together, what do we need to keep being church together? I think it’s pretty simple really. We need to pray in our own lives, walking more and more in the way of God. And pray together, for each other and with each other, to meet the world and its challenges and its joys with a spirit of prayer. We need to pledge. Paying attention to our resources and regularly practice giving them in a way that serves the well-being of the interconnected whole, knowing that we are all needed and that there is enough—enough and some to share. And we need to Participate. We need to show up. Literally, to be church together, to make church together, we need to show up. To walk through those gates, to be here regularly together. We need to show up with our whole selves, share our weakness and our stories, share our wisdom and our gifts. Show up with the humility to learn and to be changed, with the courage to be uncomfortable, with the tenacity to keep being curious and exploring.

Because when we show up, we’re not just showing up for ourselves, we’re showing up for others; our commitment to be here re-imagining church together impacts that interconnected web. What we’re doing individually matters, and who we are as a church together matters. Something powerful is happening here, as Jana said last night, it’s one of those “bright spots” in a world where it’s so easy to be engulfed in the polarization and struggle. And friends, so many people are engaged in this experiment and learning from it, gaining inspiration and lessons, rejoicing with us and praying with us. And already, in this short bit of time, you all have inspired others. There’s a dinner church that’s starting up in Boston in part because they heard me speak about our work here at a conference last year and thought, “we can do that.” There are people in our community who are growing things in their backyards and changing their food waste habits. There are churches and seminary students throughout our denomination and in our larger network that are asking questions about how one might re-imagine church in their context. There are churches here in our community who are partnering with us and asking questions about food security and our unhoused neighbors.

We’ve had visitors from as far as Australia and the UK, strangers that have become friends because they have heard of what we all are cultivating here together, and are touched and inspired by it. We don’t know who we will inspire or how our faithfulness will touch others, but we believe and trust a God who has a big interconnected picture in mind and calls us to be faithful to our part. Those early Jesus followers didn’t know that we’d be reading about them and talking about them two centuries later. They just were showing up, breaking bread together, saying prayers, learning and sharing things in common, being community together. But their faithfulness, their willingness to show up touches us today, in this long string of humanity that is choosing to show up and be curious, asking, “How do we love God and love neighbor together in community?”

Mother Gemma, who many of you met a couple of weeks ago, is a priest in the Church of England, and one of those people who has been praying, and pledging and participating from afar with us since the start. After being with us last month, her own visions for planting a church were re-affirmed and heightened. Last Sunday morning, she texted me and shared clarity of starting what she’s calling “Street Church.” Taking an old church and planting a church for “people who live and work on the streets. With a night shelter, showers for sex works, hot breakfasts, fresh coffee and mass every day for everyone.” We kept texting, and agreed that she should open up a bank account and that she and I at least would start giving to it regularly. I sent her her $20 via PayPal, and committed to continue to give monthly and pray, because Street Church needs to come into being. Mother Gemma needs to be able to show up to her ministry.

Because we’re all in this together and this work of re-imagining church is one that we share across oceans, across denominations, across cultures, as we’re all part of the Lord’s church on earth, the Universal Church that is looking to see, what does it mean to be faithful in this generation, what might happen if we keep showing up together? And as I look around this space, as I look at how this work is moving out into our community, as I look around at all of you, I’d say, “what happens when we keep showing up to make church together, to be church together?” Really good things. So dear ones, let’s keep it up. Let’s keep making church together, and being church together. Let’s keep showing up and trusting and believing and seeing and celebrating how when we show up, God shows up and the world is a better place for it. Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with our God.

Cultivation Series Part Two: Pledging

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9.25.16
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Readings: Micah 6:6-8 and Acts 2:42-47
Listen to the audio 

On Tuesday evening, we met for our first Leadership Table meeting, the group of people who regularly sit around this circle and want to continue to come together to discover how we can make church together. Bree led us off with an exercise for our introductions. She took a ball of yarn and started off by introducing herself and saying why she was there, and then tossing the ball of yarn to the other side of the circle. Then Connie introduced herself and shared why she was there and then reached across the circle and gave the yarn to Stefan, who after introducing himself tossed it to Jedi, and so on. After all of us had spoken and each had a piece of the yarn in our hands, we looked at the web that had been created—beautiful gold threads weaving their way back and forth across the circle.

Then Bree invited us to notice how we are all interconnected. Referencing back to the prayer we pray each week in worship:
Living into your vision of more heaven,
Here on earth,
And naming our place in Your interconnected web of life,
We name our prayers to you.

And then she invited Peter to raise his arm really high, and then Nora to take her string across the circle, and Nancy to change places with Sarah, and as each person moved, we all noticed. We noticed how we all felt the movement on the string, the tug, the reverberations, as we are all interconnected.

Recognizing our interconnection and allowing the awareness of it to change our actions, change our hearts, is one of our core values here at the Garden Church, and leads us into this conversation today about who we are as a community as we make church together.

This week is the second in a three part series on what it means for us to make church together, to be church together, to cultivate church together. Each and all of us have the opportunity to be Cultivators, coming together to nurture and be nurtured by this community, to make and be church together. We have three markers of being a Cultivator, of making church together.

They are: Pray—our spiritual commitment, Pledge—our commitment of resources, and Participate—our commitment of our gifts and time and engagement. Last week we talked about prayer—or our spiritual commitment—and committing to regularly pray on our own and together as our hearts and lives are changed by commitment to regular practice.

As we move into talking about pledging—how we use our financial resources and how we financially support making church together—I invite us to think of it in terms of a practice that changes us, and in terms of acts of justice. Being a Christian, being part of spiritual community, gives us the constant opportunity to transform and change, our selves and the community we are part of. Including our relationship to money. Being part of a spiritual community can be what re-orients our relationship to money, positions, and things. As we increase our awareness to our interconnection and our commitment to love God and love neighbor, this actually leads to changes in what we swipe our credit card for and how we prioritize our giving.

This passage in our readings today from the Book of Acts about the founding of what we now know as the “Christian church” gives us a place to start as we too are discovering what it means to be church together. Last week we focused on the idea of prayer, this week, let’s turn our attention to this idea of sharing all things in common… I know, it sounds a little overly idealistic, like I’m suggesting we all move out into the woods and have a commune together. But I think actually this radical call is both available, and necessary within our current context here and now today, in the middle of the city. It’s the invitation to move beyond only our own needs and to be in community together. Because the truth is, we are all interconnected, and the choices I make have an impact on others.

Being part of community together is the constant reminder that we are all tied up in each other’s well being, and can change our priorities and re-orient our connection to each other and to money.

Our passage from Micah asks: What shall I bring before you, God? What makes God pleased? And it’s not all the things, all of our money, all of our position that pleases God, it’s our changed hearts, our transformed actions, our doing of justice, loving of mercy and compassion, and walking humbly with our God. Being part of a church together reminds us every time we gather of God’s deep truth that we are all tied up in each other’s wellbeing. Hearing and seeing God’s truth regularly together combats scarcity, and breaks down consumerism. God’s truth invites us to look honestly at our collective societal sins, and then it’s the voice that is constantly assuring us that “there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.”

When we put our attention to this awareness of our interconnection, life can suddenly become more complicated. Because choosing to follow Jesus, choosing to live lives of faith, is more than just adhering to a set of beliefs; it is an invitation to an entirely new way of living in the world. And this life calls us to care about the things that Jesus cared about: Seeking justice. Rescuing the oppressed. Living a life of love and transformation. When the Lord walked on earth, he mixed all sorts of things up when it came to people and wealth and possessions. Those words of the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, that we heard just now in song, turns things upside-down as the focus goes from things and wealth, to people and relationships, as the powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up, as the hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.

Hanging out with Jesus changes our relationship with things and money and each other and God and ourselves. Hanging out with Jesus means that we’re going to likely be uncomfortable, we’re going to be asked to look at places in ourselves that need to change, we’re going to be challenged to learn to love in new ways and to be part of seeking and doing justice. As Dr. Cornel West put it so well: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

“Love (ing) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27) means actively changing the way we interact with each other, with money, with things, with the world around us, and reorienting ourselves to the way of God, of justice, of being part of this interconnected web.

And friends, oh how we need this in our world right now. How desperately we need to shift this in our culture today. So much of the chaos and pain we see around us stems back to issues of greed and materialism, needing to accumulate money and power as the economic divide deepens and the distance between people increases. We see how fear and scarcity lead to hoarding and keeping resources all to ourselves. We see how poverty and oppression, racial discrimination, anti-immigration rhetoric, violence and marginalization are fed and reinforced the more we as a culture think that the resources are ours and ours alone.

Kerri Meyer, who many of you met a few weeks ago when she was in town for our preachers retreat, wrote “There is Enough,” the blessing song we sing each week. I asked her why she wrote it and she said:
“I wrote ‘There is Enough’ out of my heart’s response to reading the works of Wendell Berry and out of my own craving for a theology of abundance. These are the words of Creation, of Elijah visiting the woman, of the loaves and fishes, of the community of Acts, and I think of the Kingdom of God. I’ve been without an income, relying on Jen, and we’ve only been scraping by in a place where I swear the economy is weighted in favor of the Empire. I want to be generous and so I have to believe these words. I want to be able to receive generosity, so I have to believe these words. ‘There is enough and some to share’ is the opposite of what the idol of capitalism demands we believe. It’s the motto of another possible world.”

God did not make us to be servants and slaves to the world’s pleasures, and to sacrifice all our rams and oil on the altar. God calls us to this life of doing justice and loving mercy, and walking humbly, because it re-orients everything as we begin to believe and live more and more into these words: that there really is enough, enough and some to share. And so in this second week of our Cultivator Series, on pledging, I invite each of us to think seriously about our own financial choices and giving habits broadly, and also to look deeply at how giving to our church is part of our individual and collective transformation.

There’s no one right way to do this work of re-orienting our lives and choices to justice and generosity, which is why we need to keep coming back together in community and wrestling together, and seeing each other, and seeing God teach us. When one of you who I know is currently living in your car or struggling each month to barely make rent pulls out a few dollars and puts it in the offertory or when another of you writes a very large check when you know the church’s bank account is getting ridiculously low, this is living in interconnection. When we are paying attention to each other’s needs, and genuinely caring about the wellbeing of each other, this is being church together.

Yesterday afternoon I walked a few doors down to Farmer Lara’s house. I had in my hand a check for her, the not-nearly-large-enough stipend we give her every month for the immense amount of work she does to keep our farm running and growing here. And I had a bucket of compostables, extra ready to go on the heap from the juicing I’d done that morning. I got to her house amidst a play date and the kids running around, but she had ready for me the big pot that I’d sent the leftovers of soup home with her on Tuesday along with a lovely lunch-sized jar of soup that she’d made, ready for me to take home and eat today.

As I was walking back over, big soup pot in hand, this sermon and our topic today was present with me. “This is kind of what it’s all about,” I thought. It’s this exchange, this sharing, this interconnection. It’s having enough in the church bank account to be able to write the check, enough time while feeding your family of four to make up a single serving jar to feed your neighbor, enough to make the effort to compost those food scraps instead of putting them in the landfill, enough to walk down the street and give a hug and check-in and make these exchanges.

Committing to covenantal community, to being and making church together, and particularly when we talk about money and pledging, is not about forcing giving or shaming you or reinforcing a culture of scarcity. Being church together is an opportunity to be transformed, changed, and to do our part in the transformation of the interconnected web of community and society as a whole. Making the choices and living in gratitude and trust and abundance, loving mercy and doing justice so that more and more we can look at the world around us and find us all singing together, “there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.”

Cultivation Series Part One: Prayer

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Cultivation Series Part One: Prayer
A Sermon for the Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
Rev. Anna Woofenden
9.18.16
Readings: Micah 6:1-8 and Acts 2:42-47

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon

 

I remember the smell. A warm, sweet pipe tobacco. Just strong enough to be distinctive, but lingering enough not to overpower. He’d pick me up when I had a question to ask and listen intently, taking seriously the deep theology of my four-year-old self. I don’t remember the questions. But I do remember asking. Asking my pastor, Rev. Kent Junge, and him looking me in the eye and wondering how to answer.

The pipe-smoke smell melds with the smell of fresh-cut grass in my four-year-old religious associations. Rolling down the huge hill outside of church with the other children that I saw only on the Sundays we came, and occasionally for special social events. We drove 2.5 hours each way to go to church. It was the closest Swedenborgian church to us, and the place my parents chose to worship. The consistency and dedication were not lost on me. I loved church. The people. The stories. The music. The candles. The snacks. And rolling down that hill.

I don’t know exactly how old I was when we stopped attending regularly. But I remember missing it and not understanding or knowing why it wasn’t the thing to do anymore. We had family worship at home for a time. We would pull the chairs around in a circle and sing and read the Word and say the Lord’s Prayer. I always wanted to be involved, and likely was the bit bossy biggest sister, as shared how I thought it “should go”.

Sometimes we’d gather with other Swedenborgians in the neighborhood. Old friends, extended family, and we’d create worship together. One year we even put on a Nativity play. I helped my aunt direct it and I think played Mary. I remember delving deeply into the story and wanting to perform it well. I loved those gatherings and cherished the shared spiritual community. Each of those gatherings fed me. And I wished for more.

This longing and looking for places of spiritual home, a place of belonging, being in community where faith and God and questions and wonder are present—places where encountering the sacred together is not just permissible, but accepted—has followed me throughout my life.

This longing has informed my call to ministry, to the various communities I’ve been called to nurture, and to the founding of this community. My own longing and looking for places where people are gathering together to love God and love neighbor in authentic ways certainly has fueled my work in being part of movements that are creating and nurturing communities and church plants.

And in leading and nurturing in various settings across the country, as well as right here in San Pedro, I continue to discover that I am not alone in this longing, this longing to be part of something that is bigger than oneself. This longing to be people of faith not only on our own, but within community. Finding that something happens when we bring our selves together in community and we let ourselves get a little bit real, and a little bit vulnerable, when we rub shoulders with people we wouldn’t otherwise, being committed enough to each other that we can get annoyed, work through it, and hug each other as we pass the peace. Finding that hearing each others’ stories of faith and doubt, struggle and trust are what give us the strength and the courage to keep showing up.

I don’t know why each of you specifically have been drawn around this table and keep coming around this table, but I have some guesses that we all share a similar longing, a similar desire to, if even just for an instant, brush against the sacred in the presence of all these other humans—making church together.

This week is the first in a three part series on what it means for us to make church together, to be church together, to cultivate church together. You could call it a “membership series” but here at the Garden Church as we re-imagine church, we’re reimagining some of the structures and vocabulary. So we’re using the word “Cultivators.” Each and all of us have the opportunity to be Cultivators, coming together to nurture and be nurtured by this community, to make and be church together.

Here at the Garden Church, we have three markers of membership, of mutual commitment, They are: Pray—our spiritual commitment, Pledge—our commitment of resources, and Participate—our commitment of our gifts and time and engagement.

We will spend the next three weeks exploring these three markers and what it means to make and be church together. And we’re going to let these two scriptures sink in and live with us for these three weeks, as I believe they will help inform us of both what it means to be faithful to following God and what it means to faithfully be church together.

As we think this week about the marker point “Prayer,” I invite us to reflect on both our own spiritual commitments, maybe explored through those stories from your childhood, from throughout our lives where we have felt that longing for spiritual community, where we have glimpsed the Sacred amongst community together, and what our commitment is to each other, as we are being and making church together.

We chose this short passage from the book of Acts, as it’s a striking parallel to where we are as a community today. The book of Acts is the telling of the stories of the early Christian Church, before they were called Christians, before it was called a church. Jesus had recently lived, and taught, and healed, and then been crucified and then rose again and here was a growing collection of people, Jesus’ followers, who were gathering together. Gathering together and discovering what it meant to be faithful together, what it meant to be community together, what it meant to make church together. And in this passage, we get a snapshot of some of the ways that they were individually and collectively responding to the way of Jesus:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common;  they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:42-47)

One of the first things I notice about these stories from the early Christian church is how much doing, how much engagement there is. Walking in the way of Jesus in these early days was not signing your name to a particular creed or set of beliefs.

The maker point was in the actions… “Devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The breaking of bread and the prayers…

Coupling this image with this beautiful passage from Micah, where the Lord is recounting the journey and the stories of the people and ends with these well worn words:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?(Micah 6:8) 

I am struck by the action that is invited, implicit even, in this life of faith, in this following of God and being spiritual community together. What does God require of us: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

The invitation, as we explore together what it means to be a church, is to think about our spiritual lives—to think about our own spiritual practices and spiritual journey and how that connects to our collective spiritual journey.

The invitation is to reconnect with that longing you have somewhere inside you, maybe one that you haven’t been in touch with for years, that desire to come together in community, to belong, to encounter the sacred in the breaking of bread and the sharing of prayers.

The invitation is to be in touch with that longing and to respond to it. Those early Jesus followers had these longings it seems, and they responded to them and devoted themselves to the way of collective spiritual life. They devoted themselves to learning the teachings, and they devoted themselves to the prayers. I’m struck by the term “the prayers.” This was regular prayer, individually, and collectively—spiritual practice that was consistent and that they were devoted to.

It invites us to the question of what our prayer practice is, individually and collectively together, and reminds us of the importance of regular prayer and spiritual development. Each of us doing our own spiritual practice every day is important. All of us coming together to pray each week is important. Being devoted to our spiritual practices is essential…. Prayer, our connection and conversation with the Divine, is what fuels us, what keeps us connected, what turns the world up-side-down.

This, what we know as the Garden Church, was born out of prayer and has taught me so much about the power of prayer and collective listening. And it continues to teach me how all of this, all of this, is actually of God and lead by God and though it certainly has required a lot of human work, it is the vision and action of God.

The very first thing that was done in the forming of this church, before there was a location picked, before we had a Board of Directors, before it even had a name was to form a Prayer Team. It was the first official act of forming the Garden Church. A group of people who I emailed and asked if they would help to hold and pray for God’s guidance in this creative venture and exploration of what re-imagining church. And so, we began to pray together. Every two weeks I would send out a list of prayers and an update on how prayers were being answered. And we collectively prayed and worked and prayed and received, and prayed and were lead as this church was planted into being. And prayer continues to lead us forward.

So as we gather here today, drawn together around this table, we continue to pray together and to reflect on the place of prayer in our lives and this work.

What is the place of prayer within us, between us, and outside of us? How do we pray? What are we praying for?

And as we pray, we walk humbly with our God.

As we pray together, God transforms us and the world around us.

As we pray for the people here and now.

Pray for those who are searching.

Pray for our leaders, our future, our landlord, our land, our staff, our neighbors, our neighborhood, our friends, our enemies, the soil, the rain, the earth beneath our feet.

As we pray, we’re not merely inviting God’s presence into our lives and into the life of our community. It is in our prayers that we realize that God is already here. It’s God who is drawing us together, it’s God who placed that longing in our hearts, it’s God who’s table we gather around, it’s God who invites us to share this meal together, to pray together, to be church together.

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?