Revolutionary Love

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

Listen to the Audio

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

till men and nations were at peace.

He came when the Heavens were unsteady,

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

He came when the need was deep and great.

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

To a world like ours, of anguished shame

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

In the mystery of the Word made Flesh

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

to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was VERY angry. VERY ANGRY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Our Prayer” Original Song

Recently a classmate, Wayne Williams, and I were asked to write a song in anticipation of Phil Gulley speaking at our seminary. We were given an advanced copy of the talk and between the two of us and a big dose of Divine help, this is what emerged.

I highly recommend Phil’s talk…inspiring and challenging.  A recording of it can be found here.

Audio only: This is Our Prayer-

“This is Our Prayer”

Music and lyrics by Anna Woofenden and H. Wayne Williams © 2012

What if every person received
all we have to offer,
our maximum attention,
and freedom unceasingly?

What if we could listen deeply
without expectations,
seeing Light in one another,
with gracious humility?

This is our prayer
for one another:
A holy heart
to hear each other.

What if Truth would grow and proceed,
questioning and doubting,
moving remnants forward,
and set the Gospel free?

What if we could just let God be
open and evolving,
above us and before us,
and in us creatively?

This is our prayer
for one another:
A holy heart
to hold each other.

What if prayer was living in peace,
in love with our Creator,
observing not dividing,
that grace would be increased?

This is our prayer
for one another:
A holy heart
to heal each other.

This is our prayer
for one another:
A holy heart
of gold!

Inspired by Philip Gulley’s message: “The Evolution of Faith” Earlham School of Religion 3.3.2012

The Slippery Slope

The core of this piece was written late Saturday night of the Wild Goose Festival, sitting under the stars at the campsite, reaching to comprehend and process my day by texting a dear friend and colleague. 


The warning has come in many forms over the years: watch out for the slippery slope.  If we dare to question what we’ve been taught, we cannot predict what could follow, what unearthly pit is around the corner. If we dare to question, before we know it we could be…well…something and surely hell and hand-baskets are involved.  Don’t raise those questions, don’t voice any doubts, you don’t know where it may lead.  I had been warned.

I didn’t listen.  I’ve had conversations with people whose views differ from mine.  I’ve gone to worship services that have stretched me beyond my comfort zone.  I’ve traveled to other cultures.  I’ve read those “edgy” theological books. I’ve spoken and ministered and led, even when eye brows were raised.  I’ve entered into conversations where I am challenged and uncomfortable.  And in January I left the church organization I love and had called home for many years, as a “radical”, looking to pursue ordination as a woman.  I’ve dared to open up the Bible without being preemptively sure of what it might have to say to me.  I’ve become friends with fellow seminarians who are seeking to serve God wholeheartedly who also happen to be lesbian, transgendered and gay.  I’ve begun to question the cultural assumptions that had defined my theological reality and am finding the Bible to be alive with humanity and contradiction and the gospels to be downright manifestos of radical living.  I continue to question the theology and church culture, as I understood it, while boldly stumbling along, pursuing God and spiritual community.

You open any of these doors, and before you know it, you’re led down a road where you’re speaking up for the marginalized, selling your possessions to give to the poor, and surrendering your life to something greater than yourself. It’s a slippery slope. If you open yourself up to revelation being alive and moving, letting it be more than a moral code or a patriarchal history lesson, then you slide.  You slide and find that you’re surrounded by revelation.  Poems, stories, myths, the writing and lives of Gandhi and Dr. King, Maya Angelou and Rumi, and the mountains, the people, silence, and yes, even the Scriptures are speaking to you.  All overflowing with the Breath of the Spirit and infused with Divine Voice.  Each offers pathways connecting the human and the Divine, enlivening and disturbing, moving you to action, bathing you in peaceful Love.

It’s a slippery slope, letting go of the lines that divide, seeing people different from yourself as human.  Let the walls that make me an “us” and they a “them” crumble, and there is a world of humanity to love.  No longer can you ignore the vulnerability, the humanity, the absolute sinner and saint in all of us.  No longer can you push others aside or arbitrarily categorize them.   Confronted by the humanity around us, we confront the humanity within us and expose our collective brokenness.  We come face to face with the things we are capable of, for ill or good.  We lose the ability to hide behind our self-righteousness or be cozy in our carefully constructed boxes of absolutism and superiority.

And then we might start caring. We might start exposing ourselves to the people in the world around us.  We might start seeing needs.  We might start owning and feeling the pain of the human family as our own story, a story that we are drawn into, that we now want to participate in.  It’s risky, this slippery slope of seeing humans as human. It’s transformative, God being Divine.

Entertaining the idea that God is untamable, uncontainable and immersed in all we know, might just lead us to respond. To ask what Jesus taught and at least play with the possibility, maybe for the first time, that we’re actually called to follow these teachings, is a daring and radical notion.  Maybe Jesus had something right when he told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Maybe there’s something to this command to take care of the widows and orphans. Maybe Jesus wasn’t being metaphorical when he told us to feed, clothe and heal our human family.

Maybe, just maybe, this whole Jesus on earth thing, this spark of Divinity walking among us, is something to pay attention to.  Maybe model our lives after.  And maybe when we go back to the gospels we might find that most of what Jesus was interested in were the marginalized, the poor, those that need healing, and those broken parts of each of us. We could find that this radical Messiah came to speak and live out an alternative to ruling over others, to consuming, to living only for ourselves. We may begin to entertain the notion that there’s something more to live for. We could start to hear the gentle breeze whispering in our ears that there’s a force of Creative Love calling.  Calling us to act.  Moving us to live in harmony.  Drawing us to follow this Radical Christ. And that, that my friend is damned uncomfortable. Watch out for the slippery slope.

This entry was part of the Synchroblog on the Wild Goose Festival. Check out some of the others.

Rob Bell: Stirring up Conversation about Heaven and Hell

I’ve been interested in reading the strong and varied reactions around the upcoming release of Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  Rob Bell is the founding pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids Michigan and has written a number of books and seems to be known for shaking things up theologically and asking great questions. I got his book “Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile” a number of years ago and was struck by Bell’s raw, honest and fresh way of approaching faith, Christianity and people.

This weekend Bell released the following video.

I watched this after reading a couple of blog posts where authors pointed out the overwhelming response there has been in the last 48 hours or so to the release of this book. It seems that this subject of heaven and hell, and especially who gets to go where (if there even are such places) is one that catches the attention of many. And it seems it’s a topic that brings out strong feelings and opinions. As Bell points out in the video, the question of heaven and hell and who gets in quickly brings up the question of who God is and who and how God loves.

Coming from a Swedenborgian faith background, I’m particularly intrigued to hear these topics and theological claims being discussed in a broader context. The rich theology around the afterlife and the question of “who goes where and why?” that are found in Swedenborg’s writings are so ingrained in me that I appreciate the reminder of the wrestling around this topic and question.  I’m particulars thinking about the concepts that are taught in Swedenborgian theology around the idea that one spends eternity in a place where the core loves they have developed over their lives can be expressed. Those who love people selflessly, who want to help others, who love a Divine Being outside of themselves will hang out with others who have similar loves. Sounds pretty heavenly?

The more universal view of God and specifically of who’s “saved” or who “gets to go to heaven” is one that is a pillar of the Swedenborgian faith tradition and my personal faith.  It is interesting and enlivening to me to hear this type of conversation gaining traction in the broader Christian stage.  I’m looking forward to reading the book. And it also makes me want to pick up Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell again as well.

Embracing the Questions | Learning from One Another

This evening I participated in a webinar (online audio/video/visual presentation) by Peter Rollins (http://peterrollins.net/blog/) on a practice that he calls the Evangelism Project.  The purpose of the Evangelism Project is to visit different faith communities in order to BE evangelized. The basic idea is to gather a group of people together who are interested in truly learning about and experiencing people and faiths that are different from what they are used to and comfortable with. To purposefully enter into situations where people hold other faiths, other views and other ideas then we have held. The experience is about listening and observing. Not about defending or explaining one’s faith.

I’m intrigued and inspired by the conversation and find myself energized by the thoughts. Peter talked a lot about the process of doubt and humility and the willingness to let go of being right and to be open to being changed. This is a theme that I want to take into my seminary time. And a theme that I feel God has been working in me over the past 8 months particularly.

As I have allowed myself to question more, to doubt, to wonder, I am finding my spiritual path and awareness of the Lord growing and strengthening and unfolding. I am finding that as I embrace the questioning, I am simultaneously feeling more sure of and present with the Lord and with God’s presence in the Word. I am finding myself willing to open up to the Word being full of paradox AND being God with us. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… (John 1:1). I am growing to see the Word less as a rulebook, and more of a Divine Narrative of how the human race and the Creator interface.  And for me, it’s coming alive with a growing Vibrancy and Life.

I find myself fearful at times, particularly as I put voice to pieces of my process. I wonder if exploring the paradox might break down the careful construct that I have built for exactly how I should build my life—and then what? And then the Still Small Voice comes… It’s in those moments where I let the Lord take over and surrender to all He’s revealing and creating in this present moment that I get a glimpse. A glimpse of I’m not even sure what. But it seems to be good.

This evening’s discussion was good. I’m intrigued to see what ideas and experiences the Lord will bring tomorrow.