July 4, 2014
St. Louis, MO
Scripture Text: Matthew 25:31-40
“God created us in such a way that our inner self is in the spiritual world and our outer self is in the physical world. This is so that the spiritual part of us, which belongs to heaven, can be planted in the physical part the way a seed is planted in the ground.”
When the ocean and I meet, we have a ritual. I walk to that salty shore and I bend down, right at the edge of the waves. I take a deep breath, and breathe a prayer to God as I look out on the vast ocean. And then I take the water, and with my fingers I make the sign of the cross on my forehead and on my chest, tracing the mark that was placed there so many years ago in my baptism. Something happens when flesh meets water. When my fingers meet that salt. In this act the internal, that which belongs to heaven, meets the physical reality of the natural world, of my body. In this physical act I experience and can name the presence of God with me, the revelation, the incarnation of God in the world.
Swedenborgian theology illuminates this idea that the natural world is infused with spiritual reality. That we, at our core, are spiritual beings, created for heaven, and as we’re living in this natural world we have the opportunity to increase our awareness and receptivity of God’s influx, infusion, and infilling in all things. In this framework we find an invitation not to reject or to conquer the physical, but instead to be conscious, aware, and appreciative of the world around us, as it is the conduit for the spiritual, the celestial, the heavenly. That the physical world around us and our very bodies are the skin that God’s love and wisdom can come together in to act in useful service.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. For whatever you do for the least of these, who are members of my family, you do this for me.
These words of Jesus invite us into the incarnational reality that the Lord embodied while walking on earth, when the One God of heaven and earth chose to come on earth not as a mere concept, as a set of rules to follow, or merely as an ethereal presence, but to come on earth as a human being. Feet, and dust, hands, and healing. Demonstrating what the kingdom of heaven looks like, mustard seeds and loaves of bread, bending down and washing feet, feeding and being fed. We may not know the ins and outs of the arguments of who God is and who we are. But we can know this: That God is in all things and created us to for a life of love and service. That in a hand reaching out to another God with us. That when we bend down and wash the feet of one whom we hesitate to even touch, Divinity is being incarnate. That when we take the bread and the wine, the water, God is incarnate with us. Cooking supper, writing poetry, wiping noses, digging in the dirt, love in action. As my late grandfather, Rev. Dr. Bill Woofenden, put it, “Love, by its very nature must be doing something.”
In doing these acts, love is revealed. Love is revealed, as the truth of all people being created and seen as beloved children of God is named. When you do this to the least of these, you do it for me.
My calling to ministry has been revealed to me through my body, through the spiritual reality of who God created me to be pressing and yearning to be manifest in the world around me.
For many years I had the honor to serve at a church congregation that I love, a church that was born into an organization that will not ordain me because of my gender, my body. I have much gratitude for this church and this organization and I hold them in great love and respect. And it was in that messy mixed bag of delight in service and the limits and prescribed roles of how I could serve, that my calling to ordained ministry became clear.
In our congregation we had an annual family camp. And every year on Saturday evening we would have a Holy Supper, Communion, service. Now, every year, I would prepare for this. Being the lead on the camp, I would have gathered together the staff, prepared the program, set the theme and so on. And then when the evening arrived I always took great joy in setting that sacred table. Spreading the white linens, creating the shape and space of the service, sprinkling candles and flowers, silk and stones, and setting out the bread and wine. Preparing a table for our community to gather around.
I loved this worship, and looked forward to the profound moments I witnessed in the lives of our congregation during this yearly ritual. But after a few years, another tradition developed. I would cry. Before, after, sometimes during the service. And I’m not talking a few tears, a tissue, and a “oh, isn’t it beautiful when the Spirit moves us” kind of crying.
No. These tears exploded out of me, taking over my body and catching even me, especially me, off guard.
The inevitable trigger: When it came time to start the service and I could not stand beside my colleague, the minister of our congregation, to serve Communion to our community. There was something about the elements of the sacrament–the bread, the wine, handed, received–that transcended the rational arguments of why I could not be an ordained minister and exposed to me the truth of my calling.
I needed to be presiding over this meal, alongside my colleague serving our community together as we did throughout the year. My being ached to be breaking the bread and pouring the wine, telling the story of the Lord’s feast with us, offering spiritual food and drink and blessing these people I held so dear.
Afterwards I would find myself curled up with close friends, crying and going back over the evening. Picking apart the trigger phrases and being sure I was over-reacting to un-intentional words and actions of exclusion and ignorance. We were all ignorant. I was ignorant of how the fibers of my being were shouting out my call, my call to serve at the table. My friends were ignorant, comforting the pain in the specific situation, but not knowing, not seeing and naming the question of what God was stirring inside me.
The next year my body didn’t wait and contain itself until after the service. I found myself pounding up the hill to the bathrooms after setting up the space. I scared myself as I slammed stall doors, stomped my heavy boot-clad feet. This emotion that was pressing out of my body was not something I was used to, or comfortable with. I assumed since it was so strong, intense, it must be something bad
I can see and ask the question now–Was it God? Was it God letting every fiber of my being know that there is something powerful, deep and sacred about sharing the bread and cup, and that not only was I called to do it, but that I’m called to stand for an opening of the sacred table, that for the Lord’s table to be open to all, not only must it be available to all to receive, it also must be open for all who are called to be trained, gifted, and ordained to serve, to serve.
Whether I like it or not, I know what it’s like in the very fiber of my being, to be told–be it in words or systems, cultural norms, or well intentioned theories–that I am not hearing the Lord properly, that I am inadequate and unlovable, that I am fundamentally flawed. I know what it feels like to question whether I am wholly created in the image of God, whether I am loved and okay. I know this wholly human experience of questioning who we are in relation to God and the world.
It is out of these times of struggle and doubt, pain and darkness that we can find the clarity, truth, love and light of the Lord and claim who we are in God. It is the sacred charge that I stand here today, to claim for myself, and to claim for others whose call may be different, but who are also called to do and be incarnations of God’s love in the world. All of us are whole. All of us are loved and all of us are created in the sacred image of God. And God created us to embody love and wisdom, and made us to be changed and transformed.
And I stand here before you because you have seen me, and claimed me, and given me a home to serve from. I stand here today with a grateful, passionate, and peaceful heart as I step forward to serve from a this denomination and tradition that is embodying love in action, seeing the Lord at work in the beauty of creation, the variety of humanity, and is committed to the work of being receptors of heaven here on earth.
This is what propels me forward in my future ministry to re-imagine church, to facilitate and serve a church that is attuned to the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of our community. I am stepping forward as an ordained minister to plant a church, the Garden Church in San Pedro, California–church that is founded on the principles of interconnection, embodied theology, and seeing all people as whole and precious creations of God. I am stepping forward to take the charge to feed those who are hungry, visit those in prison; clothe those that are naked as the incarnational charge that it is–finding the incarnate God as we bend down and look in the eyes of the withered woman huddled on the street corner; finding the incarnate God as we watch the toddler pulling a carrot out of the dirt; finding the incarnate God as we work together, worship together, and eat together. Naming the dance between the spiritual reality of heaven and the physical alignment and un-alignment of earth as we claim people—each person–as an expression of God’s presence in the world. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.
In a few minutes, hands will be laid, words will be spoken, and a mantle will be taken on. It is with deep gratitude and humility that Elizabeth and I thank this gathered body and church for seeing us and seeing the Lord’s call on our lives and for providing the container for our inner selves to be fully expressed in the world as we step into the role of ordained ministry.
We stand here today, called, prepared, and ready to commit to the life of serving the Holy One and the holy humanity. Dually broken, wholly healed, prepared, and nurtured, called, and ready for this holy work.
Here is my body, here is my mind, and here is my spirit. Wise, loving, and useful, here I am, send me.
Watch the Rite of Ordination and Prayer of Blessing or the Full Ordination Service
5 Replies to “Ordination Sermon”
Anna, thanks for posting! This was so beautiful and I am so glad I got to see it live!
Godspeed on your ministry, Anna!
Thank you so much!