“Enough and Some to Share”

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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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“Listen Through the Fear” Sermon for 6/19/16

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Rev. Anna Woofenden
Audio:
Scripture: 1 Kings 19:1-15

“God’s love goes forth not only to good people, but to evil people. God loves not only those who are in heaven, but also those who choose hell, for God is everywhere and forever the same.” –Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity 43

When I was a child, I was very afraid of wind, and earthquakes, and fire. My fear of fire was probably primary—growing up in a house with a wood stove and attention to fire safety, it was ingrained in my psyche at a very young age that fire was something to be careful with and that if it was out of control it could be very harmful. I remember having a reoccurring nightmare that people were marching around our house with gigantic rhubarb leaves, which were on fire. Strangely it wasn’t that there were people marching around our home, or the oversized produce that scared me, it was the fire.

These fears subsided some over the years, though bits of them still remain. One can say, “Don’t be afraid” and work to not respond out of fear. But there is also some reality to these things. I learned that some of these of the fears were legitimatized, when a friend’s house burned to the ground, when the windstorm blew a tree onto a neighbor’s house, and seeing San Francisco after soon after the large earthquake in the late ‘80s. These things I was afraid of were real.

I have been struggling with feeling afraid this week, and walking with others who are afraid. Afraid for our communities, afraid for our nation, afraid of the ramifications of seemingly greater and greater divides between people and groups, afraid of guns, and violence. I’ve been feeling afraid for the children and teens I know who have come out or might. I’ve been hearing from my queer friends and people of color about their fears, and the fears that they live with day in and day out being confirmed. There are things to be afraid of.

The prophet Elijah in our scripture today was afraid. And he had good reason. After having a showdown with the prophets of Bael and winning, Queen Jezebel is not happy and is after him, and he’s on the run. He’s so afraid of being caught and killed that he runs out into the desert, prepared to die.

It was out there in the desert, in his place of utter despair, that an angel of the Lord comes to him. God meets him out there in the desert—fear and all—and provides for him. An angel brings him water and a cake baked on hot stones, and nourishes him and provides for the next leg of the journey.

And then the Lord asked, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

I kind of picture Elijah rolling his eyes and getting a little impatient, like, “Haven’t you been paying attention, Lord, to all that’s going on?”

And so Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He’s been through this big and difficult encounter and been faithful, and people are after him. He’s feeling desperate and afraid, and the Lord has the audacity to ask him “What are you doing?” “I’ve been very zealous!” is the prophet’s reply.Do something about this; I have been doing what you told me, but now I’m going to die. He’s afraid.

From an evolutionary perspective, the emotion of fear protected humans from predators and other threats to the survival of the species. So it is no wonder that certain dangers evoke that emotion, since fear helps protect us and is therefore adaptive, functional, and necessary. However, there is another important aspect of emotions to consider that, in the case of fear, may be important to decision making as well as survival. That is, when an emotion is triggered, it has an impact on our judgments and choices in situations.

(https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/intense-emotions-and-strong-feelings/201112/the-complexity-fear)

What do you do when you’re afraid?

Close off?

Run away?

Push people away?

Go into a cave?

Try to fix it?

In the wake of the Orlando shootings early last Sunday morning, and witnessing the national grief and trauma this week, I’ve felt sadness and frustration and fear. And my response is that I want to fix it. Make it all better and make sure no one ever gets hurt again.

Maybe if I could rally enough signatures on gun control, or if I could have enough conversations about the need to be inclusive of all people in religious communities, or if I could change the mind of that person in my life who’s political views terrify me, or if I could craft the perfect Facebook post, maybe, just maybe then I could escape some of the fear and heartbreak that I am feeling.

On Wednesday I was talking to a dear friend and fellow preacher and we were sharing our fears and sharing our wrestling with our response. She was my water and fresh bread in the wilderness. She reminded me that, “our trust in God and our willingness to open our heart up to the heartbreak is the only thing you have to give your people.”

We are not always safe and there are things to fear. There is pain, there is suffering, there are things that need to change—and we are not alone. God meets us in the fear, God is present with us in the pain, God is the force of love that takes the heartbreak and despair and transforms it into defiant love that does not run away from the fear, but stays with it and audaciously claims God’s love is stronger.

Yes, like Elijah I’m so tempted to run away and hide in a cave. Or busy myself with things so I don’t have to really meet the fear or listen and feel the heartbreak.

But here’s the thing—even in the cave, God shows up.

God shows up to Elijah in the cave and asks, “What are you doing here Elijah?” And when Elijah gives his long list, God invites him to the entrance to the cave, because “the Lord is going to pass by.”

And then comes all the chaos, the wind, the earthquakes, the fire. And Elijah didn’t hear God in any of it, there was too much noise. And then, then there was a sheer silence.

We talk each week at the Garden Church about the difference between quiet and silence. Quiet is devoid of any noise or chaos, set apart and separate from the world, safe from all that might interrupt it, which is never the case in our outdoor sanctuary, with the wind, and the traffic, the birds and the helicopters. Silence on the other hand is something much deeper, much more profound. Silence is about listening, silence is about intention; silence invites us, even in the middle of the noise of the city, even in the chaos of the world, even within the chatter of our own fears clattering around in our heads, to listen for God. Listen for, watch for how God is always passing by. It was after that sheer silence that God’s question came again: “What are you doing here Elijah?”

It is in these places of deep listening, of sheer silence, where we meet and face our deepest fears, where we encounter ourselves, where we can encounter God. Not through immediately trying to jump in and fix it, not by running away to hide in our own version of a cave, but through staying present, present to the heartbreak, present to the love, present to the human beings around us and listening.

As a straight ally, it is always, and particularly in a week like this, my most important job to listen. To listen to my LGBTQ friends share and tell me about how they are experiencing this act of violence, not to try to fix it or make it all okay, but to deeply listen to the pain and the suffering. Listen to the stories that are different than mine and hear God in silence, in the words of others. As we practice listening together, I want to share with you the words of my friend and colleague Amy Kumm-Hanson.

On being queer and being safe—by Amy Kumm-Hanson (please take the time to read this whole powerful piece here: http://amychanson.blogspot.com/2016/06/on-being-queer-and-being-safe.html)

I came of age in the ‘90s. I knew I was queer around the same time that Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. And Wyoming is not that far, geographically or ideologically, from where I was raised in Montana. This was before widespread usage of the Internet and way before the age of social media, so this publicized case was the only example I had of being gay.

This was before “It Gets Better.” Ellen DeGeneres had come out on network television, but to a teenager in Montana, the idea that you could be accepted and even loved for who you loved, was about as realistic as living on the moon.

(Years later) I have celebrated marriage equality in the capital building of Minnesota. I have marched in pride parades. I’ve spoken publicly about what it is to be queer, a Christian, and to be human. Just one week ago, I married the love of my life in a ceremony with over 200 of our friends and family present. I have been filled with life.

 And yet, just a mere seven days after I professed my love to my wife in front of my nearest and dearest, I was reminded again of death. I am not a child anymore, but that child inside of me who fears for her safety and her life is still there. 

I don’t have a solution. I don’t really have words right now. I need allies to speak the truth about the events in Orlando. I need allies to attend to my safety and those of my community. I need allies to continue to create safe spaces for all youth to feel loved, but especially queer youth, because the world can be cruel.”

Friends, we all need to work together to create spaces for all youth to feel loved, but especially queer youth, because the world can be cruel. We need to create a world where people are not shot, but especially people with colored skin, because the world can be racist. 

We need to create a world where all are housed and clothed and fed, but especially those that are suffering from mental illness and addiction, because the world can be apathetic. We need to work together to listen.

Hearing God in each other. Seeing God in each other. Responding to our fears by listening deeply, and as we listen deeply to see the humanity of all people.

In 1997, the Swedenborgian Church of North America, the denomination this church is a part of, ordained our first openly gay minister. But before that, in 1986, eleven years earlier, some important listening happened that led to a fundamental shift. In 1975, the first woman was ordained. Then in 1986, rather than adding another classification of people on the list that we ordain, men, now women, now gay as well as straight, there was a transformative change to the approach.

In the words of Dr. Jim Lawrence: “we don’t ordain gay people, nor straight people; we don’t ordain women, and we don’t ordain men, neither do we ordain persons of color or white folks: we ordain people who are trained and prepared to offer skilled ministry in the world.”

This change in the policy of one organization by no means has fixed all the problems or changed all our hearts and minds. But I believe it is an example of the shift that can happen when we begin to really listen, to show up, to see the humanity in everyone and see people first as people. To make this shift, over and over again, in ourselves and in our world, we have to deeply acknowledge and work on the areas where we, individually, and collectively, in our own prejudices and in our systemic systems are oppressing and marginalizing people.

In listening deeply to other people, especially those whose experiences of life and the world vary from our own, we come face to face with the ways that we are all interconnected. We realize that we need to—in the words of Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal woman from Australia—continue to work alongside each other for liberation, “because your liberation is tangled up in mine.”

We’re human first, children of God. We belong to God and we belong to each other. In the fear and the chaos we can forget that. Which is why we need to be with the silence. Even if it means coming face to face with our fears.

“What are you doing here Elijah?” God asks again.

Even after the chaos of the wind and earthquake and fire, when God asks him the same question, his answer is the same, “I am very zealous for the Lord.”

Okay, the Lord says, “Go, return on your way.”

It’s not necessarily epic or earth-shattering on the other side of silence, when God’s voice speaks to us,

“Go on your way.”

“Go on a walk.”

“Forgive.”

“Change your mind.”

“Be gentle.”

“Keep showing up.”

“Hug your children.”

“Slow down enough to see others.”

“Let your heart break.”

“Let your heart be transformed.”

“Go on your way.”

Or in the words of Mary Oliver:

“It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris,
it could be
weeds in a vacant lot,
or a few 
small stones; just 
pay attention,
then patch 

a few words together and don’t try 
to make them elaborate,
this isn’t 
a contest, but the doorway

 into thanks,
and a silence in which
 another voice may speak.”

Mary Oliver, Thirst

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“The Response is Love” Sermon for 6/12/16

IMG_1793Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Scripture: Psalm 5:1-8, Luke 7:36-8:3
AUDIO

Wild Geese
By Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

So did you notice what Jesus was doing? Again? Eating. Always eating. And always eating with the wrong people. And this time not only is he eating with the wrong people, he brings the wrong people to the house of the other wrong people.

In our gospel text today Jesus accepts the invitation to the house of a Pharisee, a member of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity. Going to dinner there would certainly be considered dining with “the wrong people” according to some of his rag-tag followers. But Jesus is classically indiscriminate. And of course he doesn’t stop there. Not only is he going to the home of this Pharisee, he’s also breaking all the rules at the home he’s going to. With Jesus comes the people who are with him and following him. If you invite Jesus over for dinner, he’ll probably bring his friends. And in this case, a woman in the city, who was a sinner. We don’t know who this woman is—she’s not given a name—though the writer of the text identifies her and points out that she is a known sinner.

What it meant in that context to be “a sinner” has a variety of possibilities, but what’s clear is that it was a culturally bound part of her identity at this point, it’s how people refer to her, how she is known in the community. This woman, a sinner, finds out that Jesus is there and comes into the house, bringing an alabaster jar of ointment. She stands behind him, at his feet, weeping, and begins to bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Now Jesus’ host comes in, the Pharisee. Remember, this is a man who distinguishes himself by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly has pretensions to superior sanctity. This man, the Pharisee, says, “If this man were really a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” If this guy is really a rabbi, a faithful teacher, a prophet, he would never go against the moral and religious codes, He wouldn’t be allowing a woman, especially one who is a known “sinner” be in the same room with him, let alone touch his feet and anoint him. If this man is actually a faithful person of God, he would never allow himself to interact with someone who was so clearly out of the order of everything that defines the religious and acceptable.

At this point I picture Jesus looking at him, looking him deeply in the eyes, maybe shaking his head just a bit, and addressing him by name, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And Jesus goes on to tell a short little moralistic tale—A creditor had two people who owed—one owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. And then he asks this question:

“Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon answers, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

“You have judged rightly,” Jesus said.

Now we might stop there, just taking this as a simple moralistic tale, a bit of a smack down to this Pharisee, Jesus even somewhat accepting the premise that the Pharisee puts this woman, this “sinner” into, but calling for forgiveness. The creditor forgives both, the large debt and the small, indiscriminately. All are forgiven.  But then comes the kicker, the forgiveness is sure and complete and available for all, it’s how we receive it, what we do with it, what our response is—that is where the great love comes in.

IMG_1795On Thursday evening a number of us gathered over at the pub for Theological Thursdays and discussed the inexhaustible topic of—God. We started with this premise—that God is Love. Not just in a cheery Sunday School way, but God is love as the source of all things in the Universe, God is love as the ground of all being, God is love as the creative force that breathed over the waters, the one who’s image we’re made in, the spirit and breath that sustains us each moment. If the essence of God is this kind of love, then the way of the Pharisee, the way of delineation, separation, and judgment, is not the way of God.

We wrestled deeply together, tracing theological threads and seeing how our view of God matters. How we see God matters. How we see God affects how we see ourselves, and how we see each other.

Emanuel Swedenborg wrote that, “Our image of God is like the first link in a chain, on which all our theology depends on.” –Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity

If we believe that God is all about judgment and who’s in and who’s out; if we believe that God is routinely angry with us, or that our worth in God’s eyes is based on an adherence to a specific religious or moral code or system; if we believe that God’s primary concern is dividing out who is “good” and who is “bad”, who is a “sinner” and who is “righteous,” then we see how we also look at the world and ourselves and other human beings around us in this context as well.

If I believe that God will only love and accept me based on my adherence to specific behaviors, then I will do whatever it takes to assure myself of this love. As humans, we like to make sure that we’re okay. A very human way to do this is to make sure that others aren’t. The Pharisee is a classic example; we do this and see this all the time. Articulating a moral code, a delineation of the value of a group of people, and then claiming it as the way of God. Putting rules and hierarchy and separation between people and God.

And then we see how violence is justified in the name of God, if a person is of a different religion, or skin color, or sexual orientation. If one’s concept of who God is reinforced with ideology and a culture that allows and extols violent acts on other humans, on other creations of God, and uses the name of God or a specific moral context in this justification, friends, this is deeply problematic—this is dangerous.

It is harmful and dangerous when we have an image of God that creates and reinforces the shame that we feel about the parts of ourselves that are vulnerable. It is harmful and dangerous when our own shame and insecurity then leads us to need to shore ourselves up by distinguishing ourselves from others and assuring ourselves of our right-ness by defining ourselves against others. It is harmful and dangerous when one can then begin to justify anger and violence against other people, specifically people that have become deemed “sinners” or outcasts, or the “other side.”

IMG_1792I had such a twisted pit in my stomach when I woke up this morning to the newsfeeds of another mass shooting, 50 people dead, in a nightclub in Orlando, and not any nightclub, but a gay nightclub, a place where those of various sexual orientation can go and find sanctuary, and safety, and community, and joy in a world that is struggling to see and embrace all people as sacred and valued.

I feel outrage and grief about the hatred, and, as my colleague Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis tweeted this morning, “Hatred with a gun in hand is a murderer.” We don’t all the intentions, and more details are coming forward. But what I do know is that hate was acted upon and people’s lives were lost. There are people grieving deeply today, because of hate. I want to be very very clear, that hate needs to be seen as what it is, and be alert and aware of how it can manifest in ourselves as well. So let’s just stop right now, and commit to standing with the way of love, no matter who or what ideology this is ascribed to.

What we do know today, is that hate and division and violence was acted upon last night and that far too many lives were ended and that far too many people are grieving today, and that fear is present for so many. And what we do know is that building on that fear, attaching our fear to any group of people, this is not the way of God, this is not the way that Jesus shows us, this is not how we need to be treating our human family. Let’s stand with our Muslims brothers and sisters and siblings—this will be incredibly important as this dialog continues to unfold. Let us stand with our LGBTQ friends and family and community members as yet another attack at personhood is being felt. Let us stand, in ourselves, in our communities in love, stand and face the fear.

Throughout the gospels we are encouraged towards a different way, to a way of peace, a way that rejects division and violence, a way of the Divine Love, and love between all creation, a love that is so much greater than any hate or division or hurt.

If God is the expansive force of love in the Universe, the very love and wisdom that comes into action and infills everything of creation, then Jesus, the Divine slipped into human skin, shows us this way of love. That the way of Divine Love is indiscriminate with who She eats with, the way of Divine Love breaks down all that human fear and shame and insecurity divides, the way of Divine Love forgives all without hesitation, and assures us of our belonging and worth by the very nature of being created out of this love.

When the woman, the known “sinner” in the community encountered Jesus, she encountered a return to herself, to her creator, to the wholeness that she was created in. Having become defined to the community, and likely even to herself, as this worthless “sinner” her return to wholeness, to being beloved, was monumental. This was not just an ideological or theoretical change for her, this forgiveness that she received and embraced from Jesus changed everything for her. No longer the outcast, the other, the shamed and shameful, she with grateful confidence walked straight into the house of that uptight, rule-based Pharisee and shamelessly expresses her gratitude for healing, for forgiveness, for love. She pours out her appreciation, and even in her expressions she’s returned to community, returned to wholeness.

She entered the house with the community, touched this teacher, this prophet, anointed him with oil, washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She knows the depth of the pain and anguish that comes when we are separated from God, separated from each other, separated from the deep knowing of our whole selves. She knows shame—shame from her choices and actions, shame from what others have placed upon her, shame from living on the edges of society.

“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

She knows what a big deal it is to receive and believe this deep and foundational love of the Divine, and her response is indicative of it. She pours out love. In response to deep love, she loves; in response to complete forgiveness, she loves; in response to a new start, she loves. “Go in peace” Jesus tells her.

Dear ones, this message of deep love, this challenge to forgive and be forgiven to our wholeness in our creator, this challenge is as crucial and imperative today as it was in our gospel text. Our personal work of spiritual growth and being healed and restored to our belonging to God and our belonging to each other is the work of healing the world. As we receive and deeply integrate the love and wholeness we are created in and for, we find our response is love—love to God and love to our neighbor. All our neighbors. Especially those that society has shamed and pushed to the edges. And when we receive that affirmation, that assurance of God’s expansive and unconditional love, when we clear out what separates and divides and accept that which is of God, we are changed. And we love. It’s not about the shame anymore or the suffering or as the poet Mary Oliver so powerfully said, “walk(ing) on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” When we embrace and receive this expansive love of God, we are changed, we are forgiven, and we respond to others in love.

IMG_1784And each time we respond in love, there is healing. There is healing each time we see other human beings and respond with love, truly believing that they too belong to God and that we belong to each other, each time that we choose compassion over violence, forgiveness over hate, each time we stand with those who are being separated and pushed to the edges in our community, each time we speak with the power of love in the face of hate, each time we let “the soft animal nature of our bodies love what it loves.” As we grieve together, as “I tell you my despair and you tell me yours.” There is healing as we lament and cry out for a world where hatred and fear and violence cease to dominate, all of this. All of this in the name of love.

And dear ones, I believe, not just in my head, but to the very core of my being, deep in that place where my very hope and purpose to keep getting up, to showing up, depends on it, that God is love. That the Divine force of Love that is the very essence of the universe is holding us, holding all of it, and is always reaching out, loving, forgiving, healing and calling us forward in the way of love. Divine Love is reminding us that we are not alone, that we belong to God, we belong to each other. No matter the harshness of the moment, the Spirit, like those wild geese, is calling out, over and over, announcing our place in the family of things.

Go in peace friends; go in love.
IMG_1797

“The Breath of Life” Sermon 6/5/2016

13332834_10153806002224094_1025933552022537007_nRev. Anna Woofenden, The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
Audio
Scripture: 1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24) and Luke 7:11-17

On Tuesday I was standing at my kitchen sink washing an endless pile of, wait for it, Swiss Chard. As my hands made the familiar movements of moving the big leaves through the water and smoothing off any dirt or bugs, I had a moment when something that had been dead in me was brought back to life. If you’d been standing in my kitchen, you wouldn’t have known it, I kept washing large green leaf after large green leaf, but inside of me something shifted. A culmination moment of conversations and prayers and ponderings and sortings, and I felt something in me that had been pushed so far to the side of my being that it felt like it had died, being brought back to center, to focus, given breath, a part of me was brought back to life.

These stories today are kind of complicated to preach on. And kind of really simple. They’re complicated because, well what do we do with these texts that talk about people being raised from the dead? What do we make of such stories, fact or fiction? These miracles seem to be a time and place away, and are beautiful in many ways. They are also painful, because why didn’t Elijah show up for your niece who died of cancer or the child shot by the police? Where is Jesus at our loved ones funeral?

It’s complicated because I haven’t literally seen Jesus or a prophet raise someone from the dead, and I would personally feel out of integrity as your pastor and preacher to suggest that we can expect such things. But then, it’s also super simple: God brings dead parts of us to life all the time.

God has always been in the business of raising the dead, feeding people, making a lot out of a little, giving us just what we need for the day, providing for us moment-by-moment. From the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, to when the Lord walked on earth and raised people up and fed thousands with loaves and fishes, to the way our community meal always seems to be enough for everyone who shows up, to moments like I had in my kitchen, where parts of ourselves that we thought had gone dormant and died, have life breathed into them and we feel God’s presence with us.

I asked my Facebook feed, “What’s an example in your life of something that you felt was dead in you that was brought back to life?”

And so many powerful answers flowed in:

One friend shared:  True caring about others.

Another: My passion for writing

  • Performing in a band.
  • It took asking God to help me let go of addiction to get life back.
  • My ability to be loved and loveable. That changed when I met my husband and he proved me wrong.
  • What came back to life for me was: Feeling. For 30 years I was almost emotionless. Getting involved in community theater brought it all back.
  • My vocation!
  • Who I was after my kids grew up.
  • My faith
  • Art. There was a chapter in my life that I wasn’t creative. No time or some other excuse. Once I put colors on paper again there was a spark!
  • Laughter!
  • Faith in people caring for others
  • Belief in myself.

And then one woman wrote: I felt dead inside after my son died. It hurt too much to be alive. Over time with God’s help and love of family and friends, I learned to trust living again. Ten years later, it is one step at a time, one day at a time.

Both of our stories from scripture today tell of a widow, a woman whose husband had died, with an only son, who has died as well. A woman who not only had lost her husband, but now also has just lost her only child, her son. In the culture at this time, this was not only a deep loss relationally, it was also economically fraught.

A woman, and a widow was not the most financially stable person at these points in history, and losing her son, her only child, put her on even more shaky ground. She no longer had someone to help her pay the bills, or grow the food. Basic needs were a big worry for her. They are for most people. But now she was faced to deal with them alone, without any other immediate family members, to return to her home all-alone and without any hope for security, companionship, provision.

Do you know anything about uncertainty? About longing? About loneliness and desire? Where your next meal is coming from? How your child is going to be able to thrive? Maybe it’s wondering about our aging parents’ health, or our own body’s struggle. Are you going to find that relationship that you long for, or the new job, or sobriety?

In a world ridden by conflict and urgent need, we thirst for such miracles. The story of Elijah and the widow of Zaraephath and this gospel text dramatizes the miracle of divine compassion that unfolds when we dare to receive the prophetic into our midst.

The miracle of the oil and flour not running out, can remind us that the Lord provides every day, but rarely as far ahead as we would like to see it, or with the guarantees of what it’s going to look like. The refills happen daily, just as when the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, the manna came every night, but if you gathered it up and tried to keep it, it would go bad. Just as we pray in the Lord’s prayer, give us this day, our daily, bread, give us today, enough bread for today.

The Lord provides as we need it, but rarely in the timing or the way we want and expect. But these stories in the Bible and in people’s lives remind us: provision always comes, in one form or another.

Elijah the prophet provided a widow with an endless flow of flour and oil, Jesus fed thousands, and there were baskets of fragments left over, widow’s sons are raised from the dead. These are stories that show us the nature of Divine Love, that remind us, in the words of a insightful 11-year-old after he heard this story read at Noontime Prayer on Friday:

“That if you need help, you can always ask the Lord for help because he will always help you, no matter who you are, what you do, the Lord will always help you.” —Malik

Even when we’ve hit total bottom, even when we think all is lost, even when we don’t even have the desire to have a desire for hope or new life. Jesus has the audacity to say, “Do not weep”

Not because weeping and grief are not incredibly important and appropriate responses to loss and pain, and recommended. But because in this moment in our gospel story, Jesus knows what’s coming next. Jesus knew, knew that bit further.

When we’re in those places of despair or wondering, uncertainty or rock-bottom, the Divine love is there, gently stirring us. Swedenborgian theology talks about the laws of Divine Providence, the ways the Divine interacts with us and the universe, and gives us the idea that the working of Divine Providence can only be seen from behind, from after the fact, when we look back and say, “Wow, that time was really really difficult, but I see now how good came out of it.” We don’t know how the new life is going to be brought forth, how the new birth will come, but we can trust that God is a God of new life and is always working towards it.

As these mothers, these widows, weep in great despair, we can weep with them. Grieving the places of loss in our lives, acknowledging the places in our lives that feel dead, the hopes we’ve given up on, the parts of ourselves we haven’t been willing to give the time of day. Even in our weeping, we just may find the Divine at work, stirring in us, reminding us of the things we care about, opening us up to the possibility of life.

And when these parts of us that have gone dormant, parts of us that have died, are breathed back into life, it’s for a reason. God raises us for a purpose. We’re brought to life FOR something—to be happy, to be useful, to be present to the expansive love of God pulsing through the universe.

My cousin wrote in response to the question of what had been brought back to life for him: My zest for life. A few years ago my heart took a dive. I had to have the full open-heart surgery. I was sure that I wouldn’t make it off the table but then…..SURPRISE, I’m still alive. I’m not going to take this life for granted anymore. That’s when I made some major changes.

When we’re brought back to life, it’s for a purpose; it’s for a reason, and we are changed by it. It’s for us to show up and meet God where God meets us and choose to live in the ways of new life.

God meets us in the unexpected places, in the places where we are feeling hopeless, afraid, uncertain, alone, and She breathes new life into the cracks and crevices of our hearts. God meets us in the places that we’ve hidden away so deeply we don’t even admit them to our closest friends, God gently stirs the dreams and hopes that we have covered over with protective layers, God takes the most impossible situations and invites us to tilt our head to the side and say, “Oh, interesting, I hadn’t seen that angle and possibility before.”

One friend wrote: After my divorce I rediscovered trust through social dance. I started taking partner dance classes as a solo. I was uptight at first, but learned to relax and be completely carefree as I was as a child. I remembered it was ok to make mistakes. I allowed myself to become completely dependent on a partner to guide me in the dance with no fear of their expectations. A teacher told me it was simply a social engagement with no strings attached. We would rotate partners as the woman would form one circle moving clockwise and the men the opposite direction. These brief moments to share a dance completely changed my outlook.

God meets us in the places where there is uncertainty and fear…

Another friend writes: I thought my marriage was dead. Pretty much felt that way. The day I realized that is how I felt is seared into my memory. When my husband was in treatment I had taken off my betrothal ring….but left my tiny wedding band on. I made that promise very sincerely back in 1982….and at that bleak moment I realized I just had to consent each day…sometimes each hour. I chose my husband freely, I could choose freely to stay or not….but the covenant stayed with me. Little by little I said yes each day….and didn’t worry about the future. Eventually the seedling love took root again. I felt it was attending 12 steps that gave me my church and life back again. God never left me/us! That was the ONLY thing I was sure of during that horrible desert time. I could stay. I could say yes. We could say yes. We are alive and thrive, imperfectly today. No turning back.

When God gives us new life, we get to choose it, to receive it, to slog through the moment-by-moment stuff to continue to act and show up in it. God love us so fiercely and so relentlessly that God is always reaching out to meet us in the midst of our deepest longings and to meet our deepest needs. Divine Love that is so powerful and so big God can grab hold of us as we walk the beach, or are on the street, or in church or at the kitchen sink while washing Swiss chard.

God reaches out and meets our needs in the places within us where we never even imagined God could feed us, and loves us with abundance, with consistency, every single day. Giving us the nourishment we need each day, each moment, meeting us in the unexpected places and bringing us back to life.

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