The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
When I was 11 years old I spent a week, seven whole days, away from home at Camp Firwood. Camp Firwood was one of those church camps in the area, for elementary and middle school campers, complete with packed schedules of boating and ropes course and bonfires, and cabin bonding and drama, and worship and a whole lot of pressure from staff to “get saved.” On one of the last afternoons of camp, my cabin counselor sat me down on the big front lawn overlooking the lake, and with her bible open on the blanket and her gentle, but insistent voice giving me the words, I shyly prayed that “sinner’s prayer” as she gave me the words, line-by-line.
Everyone back in my cabin was teary and excited when we gathered for nighttime cabin meeting that night. I’d been saved. Wasn’t that wonderful? I guessed it must be, though some part of me wondered if repeating those words had really changed me so profoundly or could really have such a drastic impact on my life and even on my eternal life? But they all seemed so into it, so I went with it and accepted the affirmation and then quietly wondered and pondered it all in my own head and heart.
And then I went home. And no one got it. I tried telling my mom, and I think she tried to listen and be supportive, but this was not within her religious comfort or sensibilities. I tried telling some close friends, but it didn’t connect. And so I quietly retreated, kept reading my Bible that I’d been reading since my parents had given it to me a few years prior, and wondered if anything had changed. It had seemed to mean so much to that camp community, in that religious context, but back in my normal life, back in my hometown, it didn’t seem to have changed anything.
In our gospel today, Jesus returns to his hometown after an intense and transformative set of experiences. As a young adult, he’s just been baptized by John in the Jordan River, and heard the words from above saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” And then, directly after the baptism, he spent 40 days in the desert wrestling with himself, the devil, and what he is supposed to do and believe and who he is. And now, after all that, he comes back to his hometown, back to where he is from, and claims and proclaims who he is and what he’s called to do.
The first thing I notice about this story is that he went to the temple, as was his custom. This was part of his regular ritual. Scholars tell us it was pretty normal for men in the Jewish temple system to read, and even request a specific text. It’s likely this was not the first time he read, as he picked these powerful words from the book of Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It’s after the reading that things get dicey. When he said: “Now the scriptures have been fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s at this moment in time that Jesus tells his hometown, these people he’s grown up with and have known him for years—“here’s who I am.” I’m Joseph and Mary’s son, yes, I’m that kid next door, but something else is going on here too. I’m claiming these words to describe what I’m called to do, defining my identity, proclaiming the work to be done in the world, of releasing captives, recovering sight, bringing good news to the poor, bringing freedom to the oppressed. Jesus saying: “this is what I’m here to do, this is who I am.” The people of his hometown knew the prophecies of the Messiah, the anointed one that they were waiting for. And here’s Jesus saying, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” “I am the one who is here to do these things.”
Who did Jesus think he was? Wasn’t he just the carpenter’s son? Jesus stands up and takes this text from an abstract concept in scripture, something that generations had been waiting for and longing for, to the embodiment of it, “the scripture today is fulfilled….” “I’m going to do this…this is who I am.”
And this is where the people start to get ruffled. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask? And then when Jesus goes on to give some stark examples of who God has used unexpected prophets in the past and who God’s favor often rests on (foreigners, the marginalized, the unexpected) the people begin to get more upset, and the texts tells us that the people in Jesus’ hometown are “filled with rage” and “led him to the brow of the hill…so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
So, we might ask, “Why?” Maybe the friction comes in who we look to for our self-definition, who gets to tell us who we are and what our work is in the world. Where do we draw our worth, our sense of self, our understanding of our purpose for existence and being in the world? From the people’s opinions around us? Or from some Love greater than ourselves?
I had the honor of baptizing a little baby girl yesterday morning, and as I said the words of preparation, I thought about this text. I shared the reminder with her parents that these early years are formative and that the way that they speak to her, treat her, and model love in the home, will have a lasting imprint on who she believes she is and how she interacts with others, with the world, with God. The sacrament of baptism is this profound reminder of who we are, created and beloved by a loving God. And that this belovedness, this knowing of who we are and our worth is at the core of our creation, foundational in the weaving of the universe, true now, true tomorrow, true forever, no matter what. We are loveable and loved and God’s own, no matter what the people around us think or say or try to convince us of otherwise.
To know who we are, and to live authentically, to claim that, to proclaim prophetic words before your own relatives in your hometown requires courage. Maybe it’s to choose a different political party than your parents and be able to have a conversation with them about it. Perhaps it was the day when you told your family you were gay, or when you first shared with your conservative friends that you’re going to be a minister—as a female. Maybe it’s that moment at the holiday dinner table where you take an active stand against racism in your predominantly white hometown, or when you voice an opinion that is not held by the rest of your family. These are acts that require courage.
The courage to know who we are, and keep choosing that, keep speaking and acting authentically, even when the reception isn’t friendly, or when we feel like we’re going to be pushed of a cliff.
Sometimes these voices and pressures are outside us, the hometown voices questioning who we are and how we’re living our lives. And then, so often, these voices and pressures are within us. The difference between our ideal self in our own eyes and our actual self that we experience day in and day out, wreaks havoc on our lives as we strive to be better, thinner, neater, more patient, more accepting, more loving, more loveable, and as hard as we work at it and try, we struggle to bridge between the idea of who we want to be and who we are. We wonder how we can be come “acceptable” to ourselves, to others, to God.
The quote from the Psalms today, is one that I’ve quoted over the years, but it hit me a little differently this week. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
That word “acceptable” I’ve spent so much of my life trying to figure out how to be “acceptable in God’s sight” and approved of by others. From that sunny summer day at Camp Firwood where I said the “right words” to be now be “accepted by God” to the endless years of working on my spiritual growth, trying to be spiritually good enough, to piles of moral opinions that if I followed properly, could lead me to love and acceptance, that I’d be okay.
But here’s the thing, dear ones. Here’s the thing. Yes, words and intentions have power, yes there is good in working on our spiritual lives, yes the actions we take and values we espouse have an effect on our lives and the lives of those around us.
But none of these have any power over this simple fact. You are beloved by God. The God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who’s creative love emanates through and animates the universe, the God who has loved you before you were born, and will love you endlessly in her warm embrace, this love, this is where our truest identity is held, in God’s expansive and immediate love.
And I know that this is not necessarily the message we’ve always gotten, from church, from parents and community, from the world around us. There are so many voices to quiet—the ones telling us we need to work harder, be better, believe a certain way, act a certain way, and then we’ll earn God’s love. Then we’ll be acceptable in God’s sight. I know many of us have had voices of religion and people speaking on behalf of religion, using the God stamp, with words that condemn and separate, and systems of belief and salvation that set us up in ways that we feel we can never measure up to this love. And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry that we live in a world where fear and scarcity and condemnation so easily co-opts and corrupts our experiences.
I can’t change that in the past for any of us, but I, and we, can continue to name and claim the transformative, formative, deep knowing that I long for and believe to be true.
God loves us. The source of Life and Wisdom and Love, the Higher Power, the Spirit that moves in all things, the God of the heavens and the earth, loves us for who we are. We are acceptable in God’s sight as our birthright, as beloved humanity, as creations of God. Not because of what we do, but because of who we are. And if this becomes our touchstone, the ultimate reality that we continue to be drawn back to, that we reach for as we stumble (because we will) that we are reminded of over and over, as we start to compare ourselves to others or go into a shame spiral about how we messed up again.
If this is the ultimate reality, if our ultimate self-definition is as beloved by God, then we may start walking back into our hometowns differently. Feeling a bit of the sting when someone we used to be close to can no longer connect because of who we have become, but not letting it take down our knowing of who we are.
If this is the ultimate reality, all humans being beloved by God, then we may find ourselves proclaiming things that we never imagined, like freedom and release for the parts of ourselves that have been held captive by old belief systems, and having our eyes opened to see ourselves and the world around us in new ways.
If this love of God is the ultimate reality, then we gather together in community, not to download the book of rules of how we can climb the ladder to God’s love and acceptance; we gather to remind each other, and to remember together, as we say in our words of confession and assurance each week, that we come together in the presence of a God who is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God who loves us, each one of us, all of you, loves us as we are. Amen.