All Will Be Well–A Sermon for Weary Times

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Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
10.16.16
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Luke 18:1-8

I’m tired. And not just because Bree and I just got back this morning from meetings in Seattle, after canceled flights and epically early morning trips to the airport. I was tired before we left early Friday morning.

I am tired of my newsfeed being filled with triggering posts and conflicting rhetoric. Tired of the tension that rises in me as I read people’s comments on political candidates. Tired of living in a country and world where misogyny and isms of all kinds are alive and well. Tired of my own wounds and traumas being triggered. Tired of entering into conversations on tiptoes or avoiding interacting with some relative or friend altogether because we don’t want to talk about politics. Tired of incessantly looking to God and wondering what on earth is going on while repeating over and over, “all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”

“All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things, shall be well.” These words from Julian of Norwich have been running through my head like a mantra. Some moments, I actually feel and believe them, but mostly I find myself repeating them over and over, willing them to be true.

I have been hearing from many of you this week that I am not alone in being tired this week and you have shared with me your own anxiety and feelings of fear and conflict and tension, whether from the upcoming election, struggles in our world and community, things going on in your own personal lives, or a concoction of all of the above.

And as I hear your stories, so much of me just wants to just calm and soothe us and just say, what I do believe to be true: that in the big picture, in the eternal view, God has got all of this, and it’s going to be okay. And I do hope that we can hear that and find that comfort in God and each other today. I hope that as we come together around God’s table and we feed and are fed together, that church can be a little respite of rest, a place of nurture, and a place where we can be reminded of God’s assurance and presence and care, and that we are not alone.

And yet, we hold this tension together and know that we can’t with integrity say “all will be well” and then just put our heads in the sand and pretend that if we just hide long enough everything will magically change. Because we know there are so many things in our world that are not well. There are things in each of our lives that are not well. And as long as all is not well in us and around us, how can we turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering and the things that need to change? We know we need to keep showing up and being part of the work in our world, and yet, dear ones, we come together and we admit and confess in this sanctuary together, we are worn, we lose heart at times, and we are so very tired.

Our gospel story today starts out with Jesus saying, “This is a parable about the need to pray and not lose heart.” I think this may be a parable we need to hear today.

In a certain city there was a judge, Jesus says. A judge—a cop, a corporation, a system, a conglomerate, a legislator—who neither feared God, nor had respect for people. And in that city, there was a widow who kept coming to him. A widow likely being in a vulnerable and marginalized position not having authority or respect within the patriarchal culture of the day. And this widow, she kept (over and over and over) coming to him and saying, “grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while, the judge refused. But later he thought to himself, “though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

Not because the judge had some change of heart, not because he was good or just, but because of the persistence of this widow, because of her insistence, because she kept bothering him, her request was granted.

I have this picture in my head of this widow, a scrappy woman with worn and determined lines on her face, showing up at the door of this judge, day after day after day, and knocking on his door. “I’m still here.” “I want justice.” “Don’t forget about me.” “I’m not giving up.”

It seems a little bit like my insistent humming of this mantra, “all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things, will be well.” Looking to God, hoping She’s paying attention and that somehow this will be true, showing up in the world, making being part of change, believing that this needs to be true. And then keeping showing up in the world, showing up to each other and encouraging each other to look again, showing up here and insisting on being community together with all kinds of people, showing up to the hard conversations and continuing to insist that God is in it.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and certainly within rabbinic tradition, reminding God of God’s covenants is a normal practice. “God you promised us….don’t forget.” “God you said you’d take care of us, but it sure doesn’t seem like it right now.” “God, are you paying attention?” “God, I don’t understand it, I’m tired, I’m scared, I don’t know any more. Help.” “Will all really be well?”

Our friends in the book of Jeremiah were having a pretty rough time; they had much to worry about and cry out about and remind God of. And then the Lord reminds them, “I am making a new covenant with you, and I will put my law within you and write it on your hearts and I will be your God and you will be my people.”

This covenant is one that God offers and promises and is with us here today. I will make a new covenant with you, ______, _______, _______, and I will put my law within you ______, ______, _______, I will write it on your hearts, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. I will be your God, and you will be my people. And God shall be with you. And in this, all will be well.

In a passage from Emanuel Swedenborg, we learn that on a deeper level the words “And God shall be with you” are telling us about the Lord’s Divine Providence—the way God leads and guides us and governs the universe. And that Divine Providence is the assurance that the Lord is with everyone, leading us and providing that all things that happen—whether sad or joyful—befall each person for good. That all things that happen, whether sad or joyful, befall us for good. (Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #6303)

God has made a new covenant with us and written it on our hearts and put God’s law inside us, and God’s laws supersede all of human laws. Not that we’re above or don’t need to abide by laws of the land and nature, but our ultimate identity, our ultimate place within the universe is gently held within the loving laws of God’s providence. Yes, because of our individual and collective freedom, hard and sad and painful things do happen. As we interact with other people and systems and the natural world, we encounter injustice and pain and loss. The presence of suffering is real. The need to be part of alleviating it for all of humanity is essential. And deep within us, far extending beyond us, this ultimate covenant is promised. And it’s that ultimate covenant that we can rest in.

That no matter no matter how hard it gets, no matter how tired we are, God is with us in it. No matter how many things need to change in the world around us, no matter how dark it looks, God is with us. This expansive force of Love is always drawing us individually and collectively towards the good. God is always making good on Her promise that, right here in this very moment and in the expanse of the eternal view “all (really will) be well.”

Julian of Norwich knew that “all will be well” was not an isolated comment to keep her apart from the suffering of the world. This vision, or “seeing” as she called it, came in the midst of the depth of illness about which she says this:

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin (suffering and separation); but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved (or made whole).”

All shall be well. Dear ones, this promise is as true for us today, in this moment in time and in our world as it was for Julian of Norwich in her confined cell, in the 14th century. God does not promise us a life or a world devoid of pain and suffering and conflict. But God does promise that She will be with us and that everything, whether joyful or sad is held within the loving eternal embrace of God, and that in every moment we will have the opportunity to respond to the good God is drawing us to.

Because ultimately, we will find our identity and our security—our rest in God our creator—not in our political affiliation or physical security, not in being right or winning the argument, not in knowing what’s going to happen next or being able to fix all the ills we see all at once. God has written Her law on our hearts, He will be our God and we shall be God’s people. And in this, we can rest.

And then, even when we’re tired, we can keep showing up and knocking on the door of the world. We can continue to persistently believe that justice and change not only need to happen, but can happen as we wear the systems and powers of the world down, as we keep showing up and bothering them until they change. Because the kingdom of God, the way of heaven is always persistently breaking through. And all things, however difficult, can be used by our transformative God, for good.

And while we keep praying and staying awake to the needs of the world, we must also lean back and surrender into God’s loving embrace, resting in that covenant: we belong to God and we are always within God’s eternal holding and in God’s immediate loving presence. This covenant is for each of us, dear ones, each one of you, and us here together as we call out to God and believe together that: “all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things, will be well.”

Cultivation Series Part Two: Pledging

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9.25.16
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Readings: Micah 6:6-8 and Acts 2:42-47
Listen to the audio 

On Tuesday evening, we met for our first Leadership Table meeting, the group of people who regularly sit around this circle and want to continue to come together to discover how we can make church together. Bree led us off with an exercise for our introductions. She took a ball of yarn and started off by introducing herself and saying why she was there, and then tossing the ball of yarn to the other side of the circle. Then Connie introduced herself and shared why she was there and then reached across the circle and gave the yarn to Stefan, who after introducing himself tossed it to Jedi, and so on. After all of us had spoken and each had a piece of the yarn in our hands, we looked at the web that had been created—beautiful gold threads weaving their way back and forth across the circle.

Then Bree invited us to notice how we are all interconnected. Referencing back to the prayer we pray each week in worship:
Living into your vision of more heaven,
Here on earth,
And naming our place in Your interconnected web of life,
We name our prayers to you.

And then she invited Peter to raise his arm really high, and then Nora to take her string across the circle, and Nancy to change places with Sarah, and as each person moved, we all noticed. We noticed how we all felt the movement on the string, the tug, the reverberations, as we are all interconnected.

Recognizing our interconnection and allowing the awareness of it to change our actions, change our hearts, is one of our core values here at the Garden Church, and leads us into this conversation today about who we are as a community as we make church together.

This week is the second in a three part series on what it means for us to make church together, to be church together, to cultivate church together. Each and all of us have the opportunity to be Cultivators, coming together to nurture and be nurtured by this community, to make and be church together. We have three markers of being a Cultivator, of making church together.

They are: Pray—our spiritual commitment, Pledge—our commitment of resources, and Participate—our commitment of our gifts and time and engagement. Last week we talked about prayer—or our spiritual commitment—and committing to regularly pray on our own and together as our hearts and lives are changed by commitment to regular practice.

As we move into talking about pledging—how we use our financial resources and how we financially support making church together—I invite us to think of it in terms of a practice that changes us, and in terms of acts of justice. Being a Christian, being part of spiritual community, gives us the constant opportunity to transform and change, our selves and the community we are part of. Including our relationship to money. Being part of a spiritual community can be what re-orients our relationship to money, positions, and things. As we increase our awareness to our interconnection and our commitment to love God and love neighbor, this actually leads to changes in what we swipe our credit card for and how we prioritize our giving.

This passage in our readings today from the Book of Acts about the founding of what we now know as the “Christian church” gives us a place to start as we too are discovering what it means to be church together. Last week we focused on the idea of prayer, this week, let’s turn our attention to this idea of sharing all things in common… I know, it sounds a little overly idealistic, like I’m suggesting we all move out into the woods and have a commune together. But I think actually this radical call is both available, and necessary within our current context here and now today, in the middle of the city. It’s the invitation to move beyond only our own needs and to be in community together. Because the truth is, we are all interconnected, and the choices I make have an impact on others.

Being part of community together is the constant reminder that we are all tied up in each other’s well being, and can change our priorities and re-orient our connection to each other and to money.

Our passage from Micah asks: What shall I bring before you, God? What makes God pleased? And it’s not all the things, all of our money, all of our position that pleases God, it’s our changed hearts, our transformed actions, our doing of justice, loving of mercy and compassion, and walking humbly with our God. Being part of a church together reminds us every time we gather of God’s deep truth that we are all tied up in each other’s wellbeing. Hearing and seeing God’s truth regularly together combats scarcity, and breaks down consumerism. God’s truth invites us to look honestly at our collective societal sins, and then it’s the voice that is constantly assuring us that “there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.”

When we put our attention to this awareness of our interconnection, life can suddenly become more complicated. Because choosing to follow Jesus, choosing to live lives of faith, is more than just adhering to a set of beliefs; it is an invitation to an entirely new way of living in the world. And this life calls us to care about the things that Jesus cared about: Seeking justice. Rescuing the oppressed. Living a life of love and transformation. When the Lord walked on earth, he mixed all sorts of things up when it came to people and wealth and possessions. Those words of the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, that we heard just now in song, turns things upside-down as the focus goes from things and wealth, to people and relationships, as the powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up, as the hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.

Hanging out with Jesus changes our relationship with things and money and each other and God and ourselves. Hanging out with Jesus means that we’re going to likely be uncomfortable, we’re going to be asked to look at places in ourselves that need to change, we’re going to be challenged to learn to love in new ways and to be part of seeking and doing justice. As Dr. Cornel West put it so well: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

“Love (ing) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27) means actively changing the way we interact with each other, with money, with things, with the world around us, and reorienting ourselves to the way of God, of justice, of being part of this interconnected web.

And friends, oh how we need this in our world right now. How desperately we need to shift this in our culture today. So much of the chaos and pain we see around us stems back to issues of greed and materialism, needing to accumulate money and power as the economic divide deepens and the distance between people increases. We see how fear and scarcity lead to hoarding and keeping resources all to ourselves. We see how poverty and oppression, racial discrimination, anti-immigration rhetoric, violence and marginalization are fed and reinforced the more we as a culture think that the resources are ours and ours alone.

Kerri Meyer, who many of you met a few weeks ago when she was in town for our preachers retreat, wrote “There is Enough,” the blessing song we sing each week. I asked her why she wrote it and she said:
“I wrote ‘There is Enough’ out of my heart’s response to reading the works of Wendell Berry and out of my own craving for a theology of abundance. These are the words of Creation, of Elijah visiting the woman, of the loaves and fishes, of the community of Acts, and I think of the Kingdom of God. I’ve been without an income, relying on Jen, and we’ve only been scraping by in a place where I swear the economy is weighted in favor of the Empire. I want to be generous and so I have to believe these words. I want to be able to receive generosity, so I have to believe these words. ‘There is enough and some to share’ is the opposite of what the idol of capitalism demands we believe. It’s the motto of another possible world.”

God did not make us to be servants and slaves to the world’s pleasures, and to sacrifice all our rams and oil on the altar. God calls us to this life of doing justice and loving mercy, and walking humbly, because it re-orients everything as we begin to believe and live more and more into these words: that there really is enough, enough and some to share. And so in this second week of our Cultivator Series, on pledging, I invite each of us to think seriously about our own financial choices and giving habits broadly, and also to look deeply at how giving to our church is part of our individual and collective transformation.

There’s no one right way to do this work of re-orienting our lives and choices to justice and generosity, which is why we need to keep coming back together in community and wrestling together, and seeing each other, and seeing God teach us. When one of you who I know is currently living in your car or struggling each month to barely make rent pulls out a few dollars and puts it in the offertory or when another of you writes a very large check when you know the church’s bank account is getting ridiculously low, this is living in interconnection. When we are paying attention to each other’s needs, and genuinely caring about the wellbeing of each other, this is being church together.

Yesterday afternoon I walked a few doors down to Farmer Lara’s house. I had in my hand a check for her, the not-nearly-large-enough stipend we give her every month for the immense amount of work she does to keep our farm running and growing here. And I had a bucket of compostables, extra ready to go on the heap from the juicing I’d done that morning. I got to her house amidst a play date and the kids running around, but she had ready for me the big pot that I’d sent the leftovers of soup home with her on Tuesday along with a lovely lunch-sized jar of soup that she’d made, ready for me to take home and eat today.

As I was walking back over, big soup pot in hand, this sermon and our topic today was present with me. “This is kind of what it’s all about,” I thought. It’s this exchange, this sharing, this interconnection. It’s having enough in the church bank account to be able to write the check, enough time while feeding your family of four to make up a single serving jar to feed your neighbor, enough to make the effort to compost those food scraps instead of putting them in the landfill, enough to walk down the street and give a hug and check-in and make these exchanges.

Committing to covenantal community, to being and making church together, and particularly when we talk about money and pledging, is not about forcing giving or shaming you or reinforcing a culture of scarcity. Being church together is an opportunity to be transformed, changed, and to do our part in the transformation of the interconnected web of community and society as a whole. Making the choices and living in gratitude and trust and abundance, loving mercy and doing justice so that more and more we can look at the world around us and find us all singing together, “there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.”

Cultivation Series Part One: Prayer

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Cultivation Series Part One: Prayer
A Sermon for the Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
Rev. Anna Woofenden
9.18.16
Readings: Micah 6:1-8 and Acts 2:42-47

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon

 

I remember the smell. A warm, sweet pipe tobacco. Just strong enough to be distinctive, but lingering enough not to overpower. He’d pick me up when I had a question to ask and listen intently, taking seriously the deep theology of my four-year-old self. I don’t remember the questions. But I do remember asking. Asking my pastor, Rev. Kent Junge, and him looking me in the eye and wondering how to answer.

The pipe-smoke smell melds with the smell of fresh-cut grass in my four-year-old religious associations. Rolling down the huge hill outside of church with the other children that I saw only on the Sundays we came, and occasionally for special social events. We drove 2.5 hours each way to go to church. It was the closest Swedenborgian church to us, and the place my parents chose to worship. The consistency and dedication were not lost on me. I loved church. The people. The stories. The music. The candles. The snacks. And rolling down that hill.

I don’t know exactly how old I was when we stopped attending regularly. But I remember missing it and not understanding or knowing why it wasn’t the thing to do anymore. We had family worship at home for a time. We would pull the chairs around in a circle and sing and read the Word and say the Lord’s Prayer. I always wanted to be involved, and likely was the bit bossy biggest sister, as shared how I thought it “should go”.

Sometimes we’d gather with other Swedenborgians in the neighborhood. Old friends, extended family, and we’d create worship together. One year we even put on a Nativity play. I helped my aunt direct it and I think played Mary. I remember delving deeply into the story and wanting to perform it well. I loved those gatherings and cherished the shared spiritual community. Each of those gatherings fed me. And I wished for more.

This longing and looking for places of spiritual home, a place of belonging, being in community where faith and God and questions and wonder are present—places where encountering the sacred together is not just permissible, but accepted—has followed me throughout my life.

This longing has informed my call to ministry, to the various communities I’ve been called to nurture, and to the founding of this community. My own longing and looking for places where people are gathering together to love God and love neighbor in authentic ways certainly has fueled my work in being part of movements that are creating and nurturing communities and church plants.

And in leading and nurturing in various settings across the country, as well as right here in San Pedro, I continue to discover that I am not alone in this longing, this longing to be part of something that is bigger than oneself. This longing to be people of faith not only on our own, but within community. Finding that something happens when we bring our selves together in community and we let ourselves get a little bit real, and a little bit vulnerable, when we rub shoulders with people we wouldn’t otherwise, being committed enough to each other that we can get annoyed, work through it, and hug each other as we pass the peace. Finding that hearing each others’ stories of faith and doubt, struggle and trust are what give us the strength and the courage to keep showing up.

I don’t know why each of you specifically have been drawn around this table and keep coming around this table, but I have some guesses that we all share a similar longing, a similar desire to, if even just for an instant, brush against the sacred in the presence of all these other humans—making church together.

This week is the first in a three part series on what it means for us to make church together, to be church together, to cultivate church together. You could call it a “membership series” but here at the Garden Church as we re-imagine church, we’re reimagining some of the structures and vocabulary. So we’re using the word “Cultivators.” Each and all of us have the opportunity to be Cultivators, coming together to nurture and be nurtured by this community, to make and be church together.

Here at the Garden Church, we have three markers of membership, of mutual commitment, They are: Pray—our spiritual commitment, Pledge—our commitment of resources, and Participate—our commitment of our gifts and time and engagement.

We will spend the next three weeks exploring these three markers and what it means to make and be church together. And we’re going to let these two scriptures sink in and live with us for these three weeks, as I believe they will help inform us of both what it means to be faithful to following God and what it means to faithfully be church together.

As we think this week about the marker point “Prayer,” I invite us to reflect on both our own spiritual commitments, maybe explored through those stories from your childhood, from throughout our lives where we have felt that longing for spiritual community, where we have glimpsed the Sacred amongst community together, and what our commitment is to each other, as we are being and making church together.

We chose this short passage from the book of Acts, as it’s a striking parallel to where we are as a community today. The book of Acts is the telling of the stories of the early Christian Church, before they were called Christians, before it was called a church. Jesus had recently lived, and taught, and healed, and then been crucified and then rose again and here was a growing collection of people, Jesus’ followers, who were gathering together. Gathering together and discovering what it meant to be faithful together, what it meant to be community together, what it meant to make church together. And in this passage, we get a snapshot of some of the ways that they were individually and collectively responding to the way of Jesus:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common;  they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:42-47)

One of the first things I notice about these stories from the early Christian church is how much doing, how much engagement there is. Walking in the way of Jesus in these early days was not signing your name to a particular creed or set of beliefs.

The maker point was in the actions… “Devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The breaking of bread and the prayers…

Coupling this image with this beautiful passage from Micah, where the Lord is recounting the journey and the stories of the people and ends with these well worn words:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?(Micah 6:8) 

I am struck by the action that is invited, implicit even, in this life of faith, in this following of God and being spiritual community together. What does God require of us: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

The invitation, as we explore together what it means to be a church, is to think about our spiritual lives—to think about our own spiritual practices and spiritual journey and how that connects to our collective spiritual journey.

The invitation is to reconnect with that longing you have somewhere inside you, maybe one that you haven’t been in touch with for years, that desire to come together in community, to belong, to encounter the sacred in the breaking of bread and the sharing of prayers.

The invitation is to be in touch with that longing and to respond to it. Those early Jesus followers had these longings it seems, and they responded to them and devoted themselves to the way of collective spiritual life. They devoted themselves to learning the teachings, and they devoted themselves to the prayers. I’m struck by the term “the prayers.” This was regular prayer, individually, and collectively—spiritual practice that was consistent and that they were devoted to.

It invites us to the question of what our prayer practice is, individually and collectively together, and reminds us of the importance of regular prayer and spiritual development. Each of us doing our own spiritual practice every day is important. All of us coming together to pray each week is important. Being devoted to our spiritual practices is essential…. Prayer, our connection and conversation with the Divine, is what fuels us, what keeps us connected, what turns the world up-side-down.

This, what we know as the Garden Church, was born out of prayer and has taught me so much about the power of prayer and collective listening. And it continues to teach me how all of this, all of this, is actually of God and lead by God and though it certainly has required a lot of human work, it is the vision and action of God.

The very first thing that was done in the forming of this church, before there was a location picked, before we had a Board of Directors, before it even had a name was to form a Prayer Team. It was the first official act of forming the Garden Church. A group of people who I emailed and asked if they would help to hold and pray for God’s guidance in this creative venture and exploration of what re-imagining church. And so, we began to pray together. Every two weeks I would send out a list of prayers and an update on how prayers were being answered. And we collectively prayed and worked and prayed and received, and prayed and were lead as this church was planted into being. And prayer continues to lead us forward.

So as we gather here today, drawn together around this table, we continue to pray together and to reflect on the place of prayer in our lives and this work.

What is the place of prayer within us, between us, and outside of us? How do we pray? What are we praying for?

And as we pray, we walk humbly with our God.

As we pray together, God transforms us and the world around us.

As we pray for the people here and now.

Pray for those who are searching.

Pray for our leaders, our future, our landlord, our land, our staff, our neighbors, our neighborhood, our friends, our enemies, the soil, the rain, the earth beneath our feet.

As we pray, we’re not merely inviting God’s presence into our lives and into the life of our community. It is in our prayers that we realize that God is already here. It’s God who is drawing us together, it’s God who placed that longing in our hearts, it’s God who’s table we gather around, it’s God who invites us to share this meal together, to pray together, to be church together.

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

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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Peace Be With You, Sermon 4.3.16

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4.3.16 Sermon
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Scripture: Psalm 34, John 20:19-31

Audio

Yesterday evening I had the profound honor of officiating a memorial service of a young vibrant woman whose life ended tragically in a small craft plane crash last week. As a pastor, it’s certainly not the first tragic death I’ve encountered and needed to be present to, but I never really get used to it. Especially when someone still has so much life to live, so much more spirit to share. A fiancée she was planning a wedding and life with, a plethora of life goals that she was actively pursuing, and a community of people she loved and nurtured that was so big that we had to set up a screen on the back lawn of the chapel to accommodate the hundreds of people that showed up for her service.

As I rose to open the service. I looked out at all of the faces, faces already wet with tears, faces expectant, faces waiting for some word, some comfort, someone to reach out and touch them and let them know they weren’t alone. I opened by sharing that we were there together to celebrate, celebrate the amazing life and spark and vibrancy of this woman and we were there to grieve, to grieve the incredibly hole that such a large life leaves in the world. As people spoke and as the service went on we laughed and we cried, so many tears were cried, and people kept speaking to these two things.

Celebrating and honoring the legacy and the mandate that this life left: “Be strong,” “Live fully,” “Don’t let anyone quiet your voice,” “Be yourself,” “Care deeply for your loved ones,” “Live joyfully”

And weeping, deep deep grief, because this friend, daughter, lover is no longer there, is not there for them to reach out and touch.

“If only I could hug her one more time, if only I could reach out and hold her hand.”

Stories from The Garden Church 1

Being immersed in the deep grief of a community in shock and loss, it put a different lens on this gospel text and I had to go home and re-write much of this sermon. Witnessing this large and varied community experiencing loss after a shocking death, I wondered again about the disciples and about Thomas, and our gospel text today, and about how Thomas longed to reach out and touch Jesus.

Now, you may have heard of Thomas, you may have heard him referred to as “doubting Thomas,” which frankly, I think, is an unfair rap. Thomas was not the only disciple who didn’t get it after the resurrection, who was still confused by this whole “Jesus coming back to life” bit, and who certainly wasn’t confidently living in the hope and reality of new life.

After Jesus was crucified, those early followers of Jesus—the disciples—didn’t hold their breath, despite Jesus’ telling them of his death, and promising that it was not the end, they were not expecting his resurrection. They were not waiting for Easter. After Jesus died, they were stunned. Sobbing. Fearful. Running away. What they had known had crumbled, the one they loved was dead. They weren’t waiting for his return; they weren’t looking for resurrection.

And so when it came, when they found the tomb empty and Jesus risen from the dead, they were stunned, caught off guard, shocked, and in the various accounts we hear these closest disciples “didn’t even recognize him.”

Until he reached out and spoke Mary’s name, and she recognized him and exclaimed, “Rabboni! Teacher!” Until, after walking for hours talking with them, the disciples recognized him as he lifted and broke the bread. Until, he appeared to Mary, until Peter saw the empty tomb. And still so many of the disciples did not believe—they did not see him. And so they hid away, huddled together in grief and fear of the people and the powers of the empire that had crucified their rabboni, their teacher.

And it’s here, in this week after Easter, that we find the disciples in our scripture today. The tomb has been found empty, Mary has reported seeing the risen Lord, resurrection has been proclaimed. And what is the disciple’s response? Well, it seems from our story today that a good collection of the disciples are huddled together inside a house, with the doors locked, afraid. And it’s here that Jesus comes in. Jesus came and stood among them, and said “Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you” Jesus says to his frightened disciples, and then, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced as they saw and recognized the Lord. And Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

And with this greeting and blessing—Peace be with you—Jesus filled the disciples with his very breath of the Spirit, the Divine Proceeding, and proclaimed that he was sending them out, with this spirit, to spread peace and to forgive and disciple to all they met.

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On Easter Sunday we celebrate new life and hope and spring and resurrection, right here in our church. And we were given the invitation to “practice resurrection.” That resurrection, transformation, bringing new life out of that which has died, new growth out of withered seeds, new hope in places of our being where we didn’t know if we could have hope, that resurrection is a practice. It’s something we engage in.

Following in the way of resurrection means changing the way we interact with each other. It means greeting each other with a sign of peace, and being willing to consider what it really means to follow this radical example of love and compassion that the risen Lord gives us.

Thomas was not there when Jesus first appeared and gave the disciples instructions. And I wonder if maybe his doubt is less about Jesus, and more about his fellow followers response to the resurrection. “Let me see, show me, what is the result of this resurrected Christ?”

If this resurrection thing is real, if Jesus really showed up and breathed on you and gave you this message of peace and sent you out to grant forgiveness and work towards reconciliation and humanity in the world, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you scattered out into the community, across the countryside, embodying this work? What are you doing huddled up in fear locked in a house? Maybe he’s asking the question: How is life different after Easter? What does life look like when we’re following in the way of resurrection? And frankly, I have the same question today.

It’s on a regular basis that I read a news article of some conflict where those who claim the name “Christian” are acting in ways that would make me ask, “What is the positive result of this resurrected Christ?” I can relate to this. Ghandi who said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.”

Maybe what Thomas offers us is not as much a question of doubt. (Though let me go on the record and say that I believe the process of “doubt” is deeply important part of our faith journey, and being a community where we can question and doubt is deeply important. Disciples, please don’t kick Thomas out. It’s okay that he doesn’t believe. We’re all on our path.) But what if this is less about blind belief vs. needing tangible proof, and more about raising the question of, “Okay, what’s next?” How does this embodiment of love continue to impact the world?

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One of my favorite Swedenborgian theologians and writers, Helen Keller once said: “No matter from what angle Jesus started, He came back to this fact, that He entrusted the reconstruction of the world, not to wealth or caste or power or learning, but to the better instincts of the human race—to the nobler ideas and sentiments of people—to love, which is the mover of the will and the dynamic force of action. He turned His words every conceivable way and did every possible work to convince doubters that love—good or evil —is the life of their life, the fuel of their thoughts, the breath of their nostrils, their heaven or their destruction. There was no exception or modification whatever in His holy, awesome, supreme Gospel of Love.”

Who am I and how am I’m supposed to be part of this resurrection movement? What does it mean to follow the way of Jesus, to show love, to reach out and touch, to, as the psalmist says, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

We began to see in those first followers of Christ, as they integrated the message of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that something was different. They interacted with the world differently. In the early church, they shared for the common good of all the community. People were fed. Widows and orphans were cared for. People gathered together to pray and to worship and share a meal, and care for each other. “Peace be with you, as my Father sent me, I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” People reconcile with estranged family. Places of conflict in our cities are transformed into havens of peace. People love, and nurture, breathe and find hope. Peace be with you. People reach out and wash each other’s feet, and hands.

In our post-Easter morning state, we look for these tangible things, as well as the etherial, these signs of resurrection about us. We look, as the psalmist offers us, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” We listen for that voice of embodied love when Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” Not to remove our feelings and responses, but to be in them with us.
Peace be with you as you continue to grieve. Peace be with you as you discover what “new life” looks like. Peace be with you as you learn to curb your anger. Peace be with you as you open to the possibility of love. Peace be with you as you courageously look into another person’s eyes. Peace be with you as you take a deep breath and respond differently. Peace be with you as you reach out and touch, and see—this is how Jesus shows love. Peace be with you as you practice resurrection.

We’ve all Got Feet–A sermon for Maundy Thursday

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Maundy Thursday 2016
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA

Listen to the Audio

In 2008 I came down with a debilitating illness, one that put me on disability for months, and for many weeks of that had me lying on my friends’ couch, only able to walk tentatively to the bathroom and back, the rest of the time only able to lie on the couch. I had always prided myself in being a self-sufficient person, living on my own, taking care of my home, traveling solo, unplugging clogged disposals and changing car tires, taking meals to those who needed them, and being the one who was always available to help others. I didn’t need help, I didn’t need other people, I could do it all myself.

Until… I couldn’t do any of it myself. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t cook for myself. Or do laundry. Or drive. I couldn’t work. Or be productive. Or useful. Or accomplish things. And all I could do was be there. And receive. And be taken care of. And receive the love and care from others.

I will never forget the Maundy Thursday service that year. Even in my weak state, I didn’t want to miss the service. So a friend picked me up and drove me to church. She helped me walk slowly inside, where I was able to direct the final decorating and setting up of this service that every other year I had been intimately involved in preparing for and leading, and giving to others. It was a joy to be around the table with these people I loved, and to participate in worship with them. I soaked up the candles and the taste of the lamb in my mouth, and preciousness of being together in community.

And then it came time for foot washing. We drew names out of a bowl, and one by one, people came and took the hand of another and brought them up to the front of the sanctuary and washed their feet. I sat there in the candlelight, waiting and wondering. And then, a familiar hand came towards me. It was the pastor, but not just our pastor; this was my colleague, and dear friend. The person who, along with his wife and family (who already had a house filled with small children at the time) had been taking care of me during the months of my illness.

This was the person who had been cooking food that I could eat, and making sure I ate it. This was also the person who had been without a co-worker for all these weeks and months, and had been doing both his job and mine at church. The person who, probably more than anyone else, had been affected by my illness, and by the fact that I was not able to be doing things for others, let alone take care of myself. This was the person who was reaching out to follow Jesus’ example, love one another as I have loved you, wash each other’s feet. And I was the person who was to receive it.

10152019_1773450689554298_796215167823181571_nWe gather around tables tonight, to celebrate Maundy Thursday, Maundy, the mandatum, the mandate, the command to love one another, picturing and creatively wondering what it would have been like to be with Jesus that last night before his crucifixion as they gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem to share the Passover meal together.

This Passover meal had been being celebrated over the decades and centuries, since the Children of Israel, held as slaves in Egypt had first celebrated this meal on the eve of their liberation. Remembering how on God’s command, they had marked the doorposts of their homes with the blood from a lamb, as a sign that the angel of death should pass over them. They had eaten the bitter herbs and baked the unleavened bread, all eaten in preparation, as they were ready to make their move to freedom the next day. And this feast, remembered and celebrated every year since, in the years as they wandered through the desert, through the decades, to the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples, through the centuries to this day. The Passover is celebrated, and the God of liberation, the God who calls us to free those in bondage and free each other, is always moving in the way of liberation for captives, and freedom from the things that hold each of us in bondage.

As we share in our Passover meal together, we’re invited to continue to reflect on these questions as we share this meal of invitation, of liberation, of freedom. As we eat the lamb, we’re reminded of the innocence that God places within each one of us, the innocence that believes that joy is possible, the innocence that despite all the painful and hard things we’ve experienced, can still reach out for freedom and hope. We share the bitter herbs, reminding us of the temptations, the struggles along the way. That there are struggles, and they are part of the meal as well. We share the bread, the bread of life, God’s love incarnate in the world, and we remember the Love that is present here and present in our world, available to all.

12670549_1773483089551058_6020044807004343430_nIt’s during this feast of Passover, as Jesus and his disciples celebrated it in Jerusalem that year, around that table in the upper room that what we now refer to as “the Last Supper” was celebrated. It was during that meal that Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

And so, for the years and decades and centuries since, people have been gathering together around tables, throughout the world, in different languages and places and cultures, and doing this in remembrance of Jesus. In remembrance of these acts of love. Sometimes humans have gotten hung up on the who and the how and what of this sacred act. But the Spirit persists, and keeps calling us back to the table—God’s table—where all are welcome to feed and be fed. Expressing and experiencing the expansive love of God and the reciprocal love of other people.

And then, on that Last Supper Passover evening, Jesus takes the embodiment of love a step further, showing us how to love one another, as vulnerable as it can be. That last evening with his disciples, he took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. After he had washed their feet, put on his robe, and returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

5515_1773450799554287_3634859720897877678_nJesus gives us this command, to love one another, and then shows us an example of what that looks like. By humbling ourselves to each other, being willing to wash each other’s feet, yes, but maybe even more difficult for many of us, by being willing to have our feet washed by others.

Receiving the expansive love of God and the reciprocal love of others, means being vulnerable, admitting that we can’t do it all ourselves, to need each other, to care for each other. And that isn’t always easy, and it’s usually messy, and we may feel a little uncomfortable, vulnerable, shy. Because really seeing each other, following Christ’s example to love one another, it’s the real deal. It’s not something that can be kept clean and pristine, something we just talk about or think about. Following Jesus’ command to love one another means engaging with the messiness of life, helping others and letting them help us.

This vulnerability, this realness, is embedded in this very act of washing feet, because friends, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet because they were dirty. They hadn’t gone out to get their Maundy Thursday pedicures in preparation for this service. These men and women had been walking in the hot, dusty, Palestinian streets, wearing sandals; no doubt their feet were probably filthy, and dry, and in need of some attention. Jesus washed His disciples’ feet because they needed washing. And He told them, “as I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet, for I have set you an example…do as I have done to you.”

12524248_1773483266217707_8263322057590132625_nFriends we all have feet. We all have feet. And we all have the parts of our lives that have been walking through the dust. That are messy, that are dirty, and that we don’t want to share with anyone. And being willing to take off our shoes, even our socks, and say to another person, “Yup, I’ve got feet just like you, I’ve got parts of my life that aren’t as pristine and put together as I would like to be.” I’ve got parts of myself that I have to say, “I can’t do it all by myself.” I have to receive. “These are the feet that Jesus washed, these are the feet that we’re commanded to love and wash for each other.

Just as the disciples let their teacher, their guide, their friend, bend down and wash their feet, as he saw them for who they are—messy, vulnerable, hurting, beautiful, and beloved people. Not loved because of how they got it right, because certainly the disciples rarely did. Not because of following the rules perfectly; Jesus was often breaking the cultural norms himself. Not because of what they had accomplished, or how they looked, or any other thing that we believe makes us worthy to be loved. No, Jesus bent down and washed his disciple’s feet just because he loved them. As they were. Dirty toe nails and all. Whole and messy, vulnerable and beautiful, loved, loved, loved. And then Jesus tells us to love each other, and do likewise.

12799411_1773464592886241_5030245574190186351_nOn that Maundy Thursday in 2008, I felt this love. As my friend and colleague came and took my hand and asked, “May I wash your feet?” and then bent down and carefully poured the warm water over my weak feet and dried them with a towel.

In a place of deep vulnerability, where I could not do it all myself or be “just be fine on my own,” I was shown love. Shown the love that is always available from God, no matter whether we feel we deserve it or not, and shown the love that the Lord invites us to show each other.

The love that we have we have an opportunity to share with each other, to be in community together, as we follow this command of Christ, love one another as I have loved you. Go now and do likewise…

Amen.

Ritual of Protest–A Palm Sunday Sermon


10294472_1770222679877099_6138238975058536742_nMarch 20th 2016, Palm Sunday
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
Rev. Anna Woofenden

Link to Audio

Today is Palm Sunday, the day where we engage the story of Jesus riding on a donkey, followed by his ragamuffin crew, riding into Jerusalem while a bunch of peasants welcomed them by waving palm branches and shouting praise. As Jesus enters the city, a “whole multitude of the disciples” throng around, and spread their cloaks on the road, wave palm branches and lift loud their praise, ”blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” And “Hosanna!” “God save us!”

Zoom out for a moment to see the context of this story…. Passover week was a big deal in Jerusalem—Jews from all over gathered to share in this feast day, this feast of liberation together. Likely there were two processions that day. From the west came Pilate draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power—horses, chariots, and gleaming armor. He moved in with the Roman army at the beginning of Passover week to make sure nothing got out of hand. Insurrection was in the air as Passover was being celebrated, and the memory of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt was in people’s minds.

Then from the east came another procession, a commoner’s procession—Jesus in an ordinary robe riding on a young donkey. The careful preparations suggest that Jesus had planned a highly ritualized symbolic prophetic act. Showing in this act the coming of a new kind of king, a king of peace who dismantles the weaponry of war, the leader who shows power through reaching out and touching those who are untouchable, and healing and calling for justice and love. Jesus comes around a bend in the road and sees the whole city spread out before him. It makes him weep and we hear him say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… If only today you knew the things that make for peace…” Calling for peace, peace for all people, for the earth, for all living beings.

735074_1770222439877123_7738148248014871312_nLuke’s Palm Sunday account echoes his Christmas story. When Jesus was born, the Gospel writer tells us that angels appeared to sing, “Peace on earth.” Now as Jesus rides his colt towards Jerusalem, the people look to the sky and sing, “Peace in heaven.” Peace on earth, peace in heaven, the cry echoing back and forth, echoing, reverberating to this day. Peace on earth, peace in heaven, peace on earth, peace in heaven….

Think back just a bit, to Christmas, to that story and promise of peace on earth, good will to all people. I’m remembering the darkness, physical darkness here in this space, and the darkness that I felt in the world around us, in my own journey, that deep longing for peace, for good will towards all people. Moving forward on our journey together, we have had these weeks of Lent… this season of repentance where we’ve been asking the question: What separates us from the immediate love of God and the reciprocal love with other people? As we look at what separates us, we’ve talked about the process of repentance, of changing our minds, of turning and doing and living life more open to love.

On this Palm Sunday, we have the opportunity to engage in some tangible reminders, ritual as we process into Palm Sunday, moving into Holy Week with our palm branches held high and the cries of “Hosanna! God save us!” echoing in our ears. As we call out “Hosanna! God save us!”, we claim the truth that we will not be saved by a particular political figure, or the one more thing we need, or if our spouse would just do this, or if we got a new boss, or if we lost some weight, or if we accomplish one more thing. It’s not a better insurance policy that saves us, or having the right home or car.

It’s God who saves us. God who saves us from our self-doubt, saves us from our over-inflated egos, saves us from brushing by and ignoring another human being, and from diminishing our own possibility for being loved in the world. While I certainly believe things need to change and be attended to in the world around us, ultimately, happiness, contentment, peace on earth and good will to all people, must be felt and experienced inside each one of us—God with us. And from that place, we can be vessels of peace and love in the world.

1474547_1770222449877122_5848041661451775731_nAnd so on this day of celebration, but also on this day of statement, of claim, Jesus is showing us another way of how love comes into the world, how love drives out all fear, how the way of peace overcomes the way of power, how reaching out across the boundaries and seeing the light in other people is always.

The entrance on Palm Sunday was a protest. It was a statement that the ways of the Roman Empire were not the way of peace. The procession on Palm Sunday was both protest of what was happening around them and example of the way forward, “Hosanna! God save us!” It was appealing to the Divine Love, Jesus entering into the city and going to the heart of where the people were, and even in their response shows us the way. As Jesus rode into the city, they took off their outer garments and laid them down, they took palm branches and waved them, they engaged in this ritual of protest, this proclamation of there being another way.

We gather together here at the Garden Church, we make church together, we grow our own food and welcome all to the table each week because we’re moved by the same call—engaging in a ritual of protest against the forces of consumerism and fear, isolation and division, apathy and hate. As we commit each week to cultivating our plot of earth, our place of more peace and justice, love and reconciliation, in the middle of our city, we’re engaging in a ritual of protest, a protest for the way of love and removing—repenting—of the things that keep us from actively engaging that love.

And so as we move into our own procession, our protest around the garden, we’re invited to think about this question we’ve been working with… “What separates you from the immediate love of God and the reciprocal love of other people?” What do I need to let go of, change, and engage to walk forward in the way of love?

We’re going to go on this journey together around the garden, in our own act of ritual protest, of sacred movement. We’ll stop at three stations around the space and have a time of ritual and prayer at each one of them—we’ll raise our palm branches and ribbons, lay down garments, compost old ideas, tie ribbons of new hope, and give it all over to the One who saves us.156222_1770222456543788_8081206631244357152_n

Beloved Sermon from 1/24/2016

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Sermon
1.24.16
The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Psalm 19
Luke 4:14-21

Link to Audio

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.