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?

“Sermon Tapas” Revs. Anna Woofenden, Gemma Sampson, Sylvia Miller-Mutia, Asher O’Callahan and Alex Raabe

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The Garden Church, San Pedro
Revs. Anna Woofenden, Gemma Sampson, Sylvia Miller-Mutia, Asher O’Callahan and Alex Raabe
Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Luke 14:25-33

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon “Sermon Tapas” a collective sermon from our preaching group at the beginning of our yearly preachers retreat.

All the People, All the Tables

 

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A sermon for the Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
Rev. Anna Woofenden

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon “All the People, All the Tables”

Scriptures: Jeremiah 2:4-13
 and Luke 14:1, 7-14


I just got back from a wonderful road trip vacation to the Northwest, with my love. We drove up through California, spending a few days wondering at the redwoods and walking the rocky beaches before heading north to visit much of my family in Oregon and Washington, and then heading back south to see friends and chosen family in San Francisco. As we stayed in many different people’s homes and visited with loved ones, we found ourselves most often, around a dinner table—be it the picnic table by the pond on the property I grew up on, or the little table tucked in my grandmother’s kitchen. Around these tables, we heard stories, got caught up on each other’s lives, made small talk, and inevitably, someone would ask about you all, the Garden Church, and how it’s going.

And we found ourselves talking about this table. And that table. And how all different kinds of people keep coming around them and sharing and eating together. Yes, we’d share about how much produce we’re growing and the great discussions over theological Thursdays, and the cute Little Sprouts, and then we’d more often than not come back to stories about the table. Recounting how people who are living in the parks and people who work for multi-million dollar corporations come around this table together and find connection and friendship together.

I told them about how one of my favorite parts of communion is when we take it around this circle and then out, into the garden, to the person hanging by the front gate who thinks they’re “too smelly” to get any closer, to the parents chasing after their toddlers, and to the toddlers, to the teenager lurking in the shade. I told them about a few weeks ago when Jarret had brought his friend for the first time and when I leaned over to serve him communion, Jarret whispered, “his name is Joel” ensuring that I could serve him communion with his name. I told them about how some weeks I am sure there’s not going to be enough food, and then you all start walking through the gates and someone brings an unexpected dish and another something else… And how just about every week I stand back at some point during dinner and look at you all eating and talking and am just down-right amazed at how beautiful it all is. To have all kinds of people—eating together.

You’ll notice that I preach on this whole eating together—and Jesus eating together with people—thing a lot. You might ask, “Rev. Anna, don’t you have any other topics you could talk about?” But seriously, it keeps coming up in the gospel reading, because Jesus eats with people. A lot. And usually it’s with unexpected people and in unexpected places, and it does things that turn the social order upside-down. And this week’s gospel is no exception. Jesus is having dinner with some Pharisees (religious people who distinguished themselves by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity), and when Jesus noticed that some of them sat at the head of the table, vying for the best spots, he told this parable:

14:8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;

14:12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.

14:13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite those people that you know will invite you back, but instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite the people around your tables that you would least expect, the ones who might not have dinner otherwise, the ones who you don’t know, the ones who don’t usually get invited over for dinner.

Every week, we celebrate one of Jesus’ meals, a meal that has become known as “the last supper.” It’s the meal that the sacrament of Holy Communion arose from—when we come around the table and remember what Jesus left us to remember him, and his love—bread and cup, broken, and blessed, and passed and eaten together.

And that meal, I believe, was no expectation to Jesus’ turning things upside-down by eating with all different kinds of people.

Yet, at times that meal has become emblazoned into our collective imagination, into artwork and legends, as a pretty contained picture, such as the Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, with twelve well-behaved disciples, neatly gathered around a table, having a proper meal.

But stories like today’s gospel should tip us off to this not being Jesus’ way, and that even this meal that has become reenacted in such specific ways, likely was much more alive and messy and overflowing with all the wrong people than our ritualized tellings include. Likely it was much more like this feast that Jesus describes in this parable, a table filled with all the unlikely people—the ill and the lame and the disenfranchised and those who wouldn’t have been invited to the table and the ones who couldn’t spend Passover with their own families and the ones who didn’t have families to spend it with.

At one point, I took this question, “Who was at the table at the Last Supper?” to an in-depth reading of the gospel of Mark, wanting and wondering, because the traditional answer of the twelve male disciples just wasn’t sitting well with me. In part, my curiosity is with history and scripture, what happened, what stories were told, who told them, what has been suppressed, what has been remembered, but the question of “Who was at the Last Supper?” held more.

Because it’s quickly followed by the question that haunts me, troubles me, follows me around like a seven-year-old pulling on my sleeve and that is the question: “Who is around our table?”

Throughout Christian history, the sacrament of Communion, Eucharist, Holy Supper has been practiced. The blessing, breaking, and eating (or sometimes just viewing) the bread. The blessing and pouring, passing and drinking of the cup. This meal that Christ infused with incarnational memory—“Do this in remembrance of me.”

This is the meal that can be one of gathering together, breaking through our barriers, be they of class or race, denomination or creed.

And this is the meal that has precipitated barricades around the table, barring people from the table based on their profession of faith, denomination, moral standing, difference, sexual orientation, race, class or opinion. It has been used both to include and to exclude.

My own journey—as I am drawn to explore deeply this theology of the table—has led me not only to wanting all to be welcome at the table, but a theology of the table that names hierarchy and patriarchy, division and exclusion, and consciously breaks those patterns with the simple, yet revolutionary sharing of this sacrament. A theology of the table as a place of community, reconciliation, coming together, breaking down barriers and living and loving together as human family. And so, I took these questions—Who is around our table? And Who was at the Last Supper?—to the gospel of Mark and I found…the simple answer is, “the disciples.” Now I don’t know about you, but the first thing I picture is those twelve men gathered around this table, the twelve disciples, the disciples.

It wasn’t until I read the gospel of Mark. Cover to cover, and then I went through it again looking at every instance where “the disciples” are mentioned. And all of a sudden I’m quite sure, according to this author at least, that da Vinci did not get the proper guest list before he started mixing his paints.

In the Gospel according to Mark I counted the word “disciples” 53 times. As I meditated on these 53 mentions of “the disciples” there were a few themes that showed up. The first thing I noticed is that 20 of these mentions had something to do with eating. First who they ate with (Jesus, disciples, tax collectors and sinners), the breaking of eating laws (grain on the Sabbath, unwashed hands), and then we’ve got two miraculous feeding stories, we’ve got the disciples “forgetting the bread” when they’re out on the boat and then this story that we now know as “the last supper.”

Now with the exception of forgetting the bread (save one loaf) on the boat and the grain fields, and our text today, all of the other instances took place with three key players: 1. Jesus. 2. “The disciples.” 3. Crowds of people.

This leads me to my next noticing. Jesus certainly had a select following—people who traveled with him regularly. And then there were the crowds in each town. “The disciples” are a community. A group of people traveling with and learning from Jesus—followers of Christ. Distinct from “the crowd” certainly, but not as selective as only “the twelve” if my reading holds true.

The disciples, as I read through these passages, seem to clearly refer to a group of people, followers of Jesus.

It’s hard to know, because we weren’t there. But I can imagine from all I know of Christ’s counter-cultural, gender-breaking, gentile loving, tax-collector befriending ways. From where it says that just verses before this meal, he received an anointing by a woman at Bethany who poured out all that she had to perform the ritual act of prophetically claiming him as Christ, “the anointed one” calling him out as the priest and king with this abundant gift. This Christ, this Christ that seemed boarder-line obsessed with inclusion, breaking down barriers that held people apart, and abolishing anything that judged people on creed or skin, gender or class, this Christ is the one who called his disciples around the table. The disciples of Jesus.

And so the painting that I used to know has faded. It was useful in its acceptable and predicable way, but it has faded. And on the canvas there are new strokes appearing. Much more messy and crowded, confusing and boisterous. The room is overflowing as the women and men, young and old, able bodies and slow, creaking ones, those who lived lives of luxury before they took their sandals to the dusty streets to follow this Christ alongside those who are glad when bread is multiplied, as hunger had been their way of life.

This Last Supper, this gathering around the table, it seems it may have been a more eclectic crew than we like to think. It may have rocked the foundations of culture and tradition, before the bread was broken or the wine was passed.

And it keeps rocking the foundations today.

As I sat around my friends Sara and Martha’s table on Monday evening, with another beautifully eclectic crew that gathers at their home for dinner on Monday evenings, I was asked again about our table here. And as I described it, it sounded again something a little like this Last Supper. All different kinds of people, from all different backgrounds. We don’t agree on everything or think the same way. We may not hang out together outside of church, or live in the same neighborhoods. But we keep being drawn together around this table. And around that table. And looking in each other’s eyes, and feeding and being fed.

We keep showing up to a place where we can gather together in our brokenness, in our vulnerability, in our humanity, and with the hope of encountering the sacred. Around a table that is not a place of questioning our worth, qualifications, or cultural shibboleths. The table is a place where disciples, followers of Christ, lovers of God’s way—all of us hungry to share together in this sacred meal—are drawn around the table in our wholeness and brokenness, putting down grudges and judgments, labels and divides. We come together around the table to take the bread, bless it, break it, and share it—the Bread of Life given for us. And to take the cup, bless it, pass it and drink it, the Cup of Salvation shed for all. Around this table, God’s table, where all can feed and be fed.

“Enough and Some to Share”

TGC10

Rev. Anna Woofenden
7/31/2016

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon 
Scripture: Genesis 41 and Luke 12:13-21

Before I begin, a disclaimer: I know it’s not Christmas, but I’m going to use a story from “It’s a Wonderful Life” anyway.

Do you remember the scene at the very end of the movie? After Uncle Billy loses the Bailey Building and Loan’s $8,000 deposit and the small bank fails the bank examiner’s inspection, George Bailey is at his total and complete wits’ end. Where will he come up with the money to save the town and save his family? He sees no hope, and is preparing to end his life when an angel comes along and leads him through visions of what life would have been like if he hadn’t been in it. He saw how his brother would have drowned, how his mother would have suffered, how the town would have gone downhill had he not been part of it. Having seen how his life really did matter, he runs back to his family where his wife Mary has been rallying the town, and they collectively have come up with enough money and good will to get through the crisis together.

Now, you could say that this story is all about money, or a lack of money, that this plot line is all about economics. Yet, as anyone who watches it knows, the narrative invites us deeper. There’s something else going on here, something that holds both the reality of the physical needs and the deeper truths about spirit and heart and community.

Imagine with me for a moment the last scene for example: that iconic moment where George is receiving baskets full of money and his old high school friend calls from London and pledges $25,000… if you took that snapshot at face value, one might say it was all about the money, and yet, what is the feeling in that scene? It’s so far from greed, or being hung up on material possessions. The feeling is all about the people, the closeness that comes after desperation, the preciousness of family when you’ve glimpsed your life without it, the generosity of community coming together and offering the little they had to make together enough, enough to save the family and the town.

Some who read our parable of the rich man today might read it purely on the physical level, and go on to conclude that, “money is the root of all evil,” but I don’t think it’s that simple (besides, it is misquoting the original phrase which is, “the love of money is the root of all evil”). Instead, I would posit, selfishness and greed are the roots of evil, and whenever we are selfish, whenever we are greedy, this is the problem. Money, material things, clothing, houses, cars, any material possession are not innately good or evil; it’s what we do with it, why we do what we do, who we are serving, and how we interact that matters.

We had two parallel stories in our scripture readings today, both having to do with the storing up of grain—of material things—but each with drastically different intentions and markedly different results.

In the story of Joseph in the Hebrew Scriptures, we see how God guided Joseph to not only save the people of Egypt from starvation, but also save his own family, as he was led in the interpretation of dreams that there would be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Joseph was a good leader and an efficient manager. He organized storing up grain during the years of plenty, most certainly building barns and putting away the grain, in order to be ready to feed the community during the seven years of famine.

Then in the parable, Jesus tells us in the gospel of Luke that this very same action is not good. Jesus gives the example of a rich man who has an abundant harvest, and doesn’t have the storage facilities to keep it. The rich man asked himself, “What will I do? I know, I’ll build bigger barns, then I’ll store the abundant harvest so that then I’ll be set and I can relax and eat, drink, and be merry.” But then God replies to this rich man, “Fool, this very night your life will be taken from you, and these things you have prepared, then whose will they be?” Jesus ends the parable with these words: So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

So what do we do with these two stories? What do we do when the Bible seems to contradict itself, to be telling us two completely different messages?

This is one of the many places where we have the opportunity to hold the “both/and” that we often talk about here in our community. Not holding one exclusive or particular way of reading the text, but instead knowing that God is in the complicated, in the messy, and is always drawing out that which helps us to love God and love neighbor. When we hold these two texts together within a both/and reading, some interesting themes and messages start to emerge.

Here we have very similar situations and actions—an abundant harvest and storing up into barns—yet the motivation is different. In the story of Joseph, his reason for gathering up the harvest during the seven years of plenty and storing it away is for the common good. Whereas the rich man’s response to an abundant harvest is self-centered; his storing up is only for his own enjoyment and false sense of security, and doesn’t take into account God or others.

What arises for me from these two parallel stories is this: Motivation matters, intention matters, and the reasons we do the things we do matter.

It’s not the storing up that’s bad—but the question is, for what purpose? Saving for future material needs is one component of proper stewardship of God’s bounty. Appropriate concern for the future is balanced, however, with awareness of how the love of God and neighbor are involved. To be aware of how our choices affect all facets of our interconnected system, to make choices that take the marginalized into account, to give freely and generously of what we have to others, to be good stewards of what we’ve been given.

The rich man is not set as a negative example because he had the abundant harvest, or even because he was going to build bigger barns, but because with all the excess in his life, he turns to only pleasing himself. He gets stuck in that trap that we so easily can as well—that the goal in life is the abundance of possessions. We are encouraged to spend more, have more, use more, supersize and maximize. We start to believe that these are the signs of a good life, yet these are the signs of the external. What actually goes with us—what lasts? This parable reminds us, it’s our hearts, our interactions with others, our intentions and loves that endure—where your treasure is, your heart will be also.

In one of Emanuel Swedenborg’s books, he talks about what people are asked after death as they prepare to gravitate towards heaven or hell. Rather than asking, “What is your belief?” or “What are the things that you think about faith and religion?”, we are instead asked, “What is your life?” What is the life you lived? How did your faith and beliefs lead you to a life of useful service, a life in relationship with God, a life of serving our neighbor? It’s not whether we have grain in barns or material wealth, it’s really how we live and operate within whatever we have.

Being rich in God transcends economics. Being rich in God does not deny our need for material provision, for homes and clothing, beauty and food. But being rich in God is not dependent on it. Being rich in God, is responding to whatever comes our way, whether it’s abundant harvest or deep financial hardship, with knowledge that in the end, it’s where our heart is and what our actions have been that matter. We are all interconnected, and the choices we make for ourselves are part of the effect for many.

When we have our community meal later in our gathering, we’ll sing our blessing song as we go to dinner, “there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.”

Our two stories today invite us to look at that fundamental question, a fundamental choice of how we show up in the world. Is there “enough and some to share?” Do we believe this?

Do we believe this when we’re living on the street? Or when our next child needs to go to college? When the car breaks down and then the refrigerator quits? What is our response when we encounter extra abundance in life? Is it to rush out and buy that thing we’ve been drooling over, or squirrel it away for a rainy day? Far be it from me to say that there is one right response to any of these scenarios. But what we have in this parable today is the invitation to pay attention to our responses and to our motivations and intentions in the choices we make.

On some level, we can all get stuck in the trap of thinking that material resources will save us.—if we just get_____, it will all be okay, if I figure out how to pay for this thing, if, if, if… Ultimately, we know that being rich in God is what matters; where our heart is, our treasure will be also.

And this awareness of our motivations and intentions applies to times of abundance, and it applies to times of loss and lack and struggle too. Providing for basic needs, saving for the future, being able to enjoy life, these are important things, and I believe that they are within the realms of faithful following. And wanting these basic necessities, working for them, this is right and good.

Just as we are given the invitation to read and hold scripture with a both/and attitude, we are invited to hold life this way too.

We need money and resources in order to survive in this culture and world. Truly everyone should have a clean safe house to live in, to be able to eat, to have access to education and clean clothing. Everyone should have the opportunity to sleep peacefully and not worry every night about their safety or where their next meal will come from. And yet, we’re not there yet. Some of us live in nice homes, others of us are camping out in the parks, some of us have to keep a super close eye on the bank account each month before we write our rent check and worry about making ends meet, some of us never know where our next meal is coming from. There is a both/and reality in our world and a both/and reality in each of our lives. And, there is an interconnected reality—each of our lives is intertwined with the lives of others, as well as with God.

And so each one of us, all of us, individually and collectively, is called to pay attention to the both/and of these stories and the both/and in the world around us. We’re called to pay attention to what is our relationship is to the material things around us: How do we respond when we encounter abundance? How do we respond when we encounter scarcity? And this is another reason we need to be in community, to keep interacting with each other, because it reminds us that it’s not all about us. Each of our choices impact the greater web of economics, of systems, favoring some and not others.

And this is why we need to commit, and then re-commit ourselves to a life where we ardently believe in the provision and abundance of God, and take it upon ourselves to be faithful stewards with whatever is given us. And with whatever is given us, whether it is incredible material wealth, or a bowl of soup, we can take into account the needs of others and we share. Be it sharing a piece of our burrito with someone, giving a percentage of our income to the church and organizations we believe in, opening our home to a family member in need, or helping the person in front of you in line at the grocery store. These practices, these actions help to change us from the inside out. They shift our focus from the “it’s all about me” of the rich man in the parable, to “how can I faithfully be part of feeding the greater whole” of Joseph. Remembering that we are all connected—part of God’s interconnected web of life—and that somehow if we all engage it and show up to it, that there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.

“Teach Us To Pray” Rev. Anna Woofenden 7/24/2016

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Rev. Anna Woofenden

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon “Teach Us To Pray”

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Scripture: Genesis 18:20-32 and Luke 11:1-13
Prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God, and some internal view at the time of the matters of the prayer, to which there answers something like an influx into the perception or thought of the mind, so that there is a certain opening of the person’s interiors toward God; but this with a difference according to the person’s state, and according to the essence of the subject of the prayer. If the person prays from love and faith, and for only heavenly and spiritual things, there then comes forth in the prayer something like a revelation (which is manifested in the affection of the person that prays) as to hope, consolation, or a certain inward joy. –Emanuel Swedenborg Secrets of Heaven #2535

Last week I was talking to a woman who was seriously questioning her faith. She began sharing some of her story with me, and giving me the background, and then she stopped and said, “Last year there was something in my life that I really really deeply wanted, and I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed for it. And it didn’t happen. And now, I just don’t know. If God is out there and supposed to care, why would God not answer my prayer?”

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 individual 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. Of course these were the things to pray for. Of course this was what they desperately and fervently wanted, and what I wanted for them—but how to pray?

Teach us Lord, how to pray.

I stood in those hospital rooms, or sat in the ER waiting room, and I would have these moments playing the scenario out in my head—yes, I could pray for the cure of the loved one, 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 and was this prayer not just setting people up to sever their relationship with God along with their heartbreak and loss?

I wrestled with how to pray with wholehearted belief in the power of a healing God and with hope, while praying with the deep knowledge that God needed to be big enough, close enough, 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, for God to still be there and for God to still be the force of love in the universe.

And so, I found myself praying for the words to pray, and then praying the grief and the worry, praying the assurance of God’s presence in the room, praying the sobs and praying the hopes. I found myself exploring prayers for healing vs. prayers for cures, as healing comes in so many forms, including the peace that comes along with trusting and walking with God 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, and let the tears flow, to breathe, to sigh deeply and to feel God’s presence there with us. Bringing God from a high place of decision-making in the sky, the force that can wave his finger and say, “heal” or “not”—immediately changing the course of events—to the God who’s presence of love and comfort are immediately there in the hospital room, as we walk the halls. This is 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.

Being with people in these rooms, they taught me 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. In those rooms, it was about as real life as you can get, and God was certainly present. Teaching us how to pray.

“Lord, teach us how to pray” the disciples ask Jesus and he does. He doesn’t give them a five-point plan or specific rules; instead he gives them a prayer, a piece of poetry to guide us for generations after in the movements of prayer…

From the “Our Father… to the “…forever and ever, amen.” This prayer shows us the character of God, the conversations with God, the way that prayer weaves heaven and earth together, humanity and our creator, us and God.

Emanuel Swedenborg, the theologian and Christian mystic this church is dedicated to said it this way: “Prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God.” Prayer, is a conversation with our creator. Prayer, in itself, is a conversation. A back and forth. Speaking and listening, giving and receiving in an active relationship.

Lord, teach us to pray…

And Jesus says, “Pray to your Divine parent and pray collectively, “Our father…” Pray with conviction and trust in God’s provision, “give us this day our daily bread.” Pray with surrender, surrendering our idea that we can know the will of God without engaging in the conversation. Pray with humility, ask forgiveness, give forgiveness; pray with persistence, pray with hope, pray with trust, forever and ever, amen.

This prayer holds within it this interplay, this dance, this conversation between God and us. When asked, “Lord, teach us how to pray,” we’re given a conversation.

My Spiritual Director, Sister Julia, the 90-year-old nun I go and see for an hour once a month for guidance and prayer told me recently, “Anna, you need to get more chatty with God.” We’d been talking about a number of decisions I was trying to make, and the things that weigh heavy on the heart of a pastor—those things I lie awake at night and worry about. “Get more chatty with God. Tell God about these things, tell God your worries, ask God to help, tell God that you can’t do it on your own, chat with God.”

This immediate and intimate way of engaging with the expanse of the Divine is one that I see and appreciate with Sister Julia, and with the pillars of strength and faith I have witnessed in various people of faith. When there is a depth of faith and spiritual wisdom, there is a foundation, a breadth and encompassing web of prayer. People who have strong relationships with God have active and engaging conversations with their God. God is not some force so far away that we cannot engage it, but instead, God is intimately here and available to converse with and is interested in and can handle our prayers and our lives.

Like the bargaining between Abraham and God that we heard in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, like the persistence in the prayer parable in our gospels, these stories of prayer offer us a blueprint—an opening—to the way we too can interact with our Creator.

It’s an invitation to honestly interact with this great God of the Universe, who wants to be in a conversation with us—there is nothing we can do or say that will change that. When we pray to a God, we are in conversation with a God who while we may not be able to even begin to comprehend Her expanse and wisdom, whose love is immediate and present. We pray to a God who is faithful to us, not always in the ways that we see or what in the moment, but always, always in the eternal view, in the overarching sweep of the story. God is there, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, caring for us and listening and engaging when we pray.

So, it’s up to us, to keep praying. Praying consistently, praying regularly, getting “chatty with God.” Not just when we’re in trouble, or when we’re at church, but in a back-and-forth of relationship, in regular communication.

I forget so often. But then I am reminded. Sister Julia calls it “fidelity to prayer”—to be faithful, to keep turning back, picking it up again, because God is always still there.

I don’t always feel God’s presence, but I find a growing trust in the fidelity of God. That God is in this relationship for the long haul and isn’t going to disappear on us. When we reach out to the Divine, the Divine is present, not always altering the course of what is playing out in front of us, but always, always, with us in it.

And as we pray, we know that we are not alone. God is with us, and we pray in community together.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, or I’m in a place of deep worry, when I just don’t have the words to pray, these are the words I pray. “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

As I pray, sometimes I think about all the other people across the globe and throughout the millennia who have prayed this prayer, who are praying this prayer along with me. Woven throughout time and space, we are not alone as we pray in unison to and with our Divine Parent. We pray with the saints who have gone before us, and our neighbors on the streets; we pray with our sisters and brothers and siblings across the globe, in every language and place of life. When we pray, we pray for ourselves, but we also pray for and with each other, forgiving each other and asking for forgiveness from God. We believe in the daily bread and being called to share it with others, imploring in a collective voice that God’s way in heaven be done here on earth, and that all things being God’s, will infill God’s kingdom with power and glory, forever and ever, amen.

“How the Encounters Will Change Us” New Church Live, PA – Video 5/22/2016

Watch and listen to Rev. Anna Woofenden’s talk at New Church Live in Bryn Athyn, PA.

 

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