Check out this recent piece published on the Swedenborg Foundation’s blog: https://swedenborg.com/showing-up/
As the days grow darker and Advent approaches, I find myself pondering the light and the dark, that which grows quietly under the soil and that which springs forth, that which gestates in a cozy womb, and that which is born. As we are anticipating the celebration of the birth of Christ, I am reflecting back on the process of birthing a church and how each one of you has been integral to that journey. You have come alongside the Garden Church at various stops along the way, and have helped us to become the beautiful and alive place that we are today. Four years ago this was just an idea, a wondering, a hope, and now each week we welcome all sorts of people from all walks of life through our gates to be fed and to feed together.
A couple of Sundays ago I was making the rounds around the dinner tables at our weekly community meal—saying hello, meeting new people, commenting on the delicious nature of the polenta that Linda had made—and I met Victoria. Victoria had come in with a friend during worship earlier and had sat intently throughout the sermon and prayers and singing. When I had shared communion with her, she looked deeply into my eyes and I watched tears form as I leaned in and said, “Beloved child of God, the bread of life, given for you.” When I introduced myself and learned her name over dinner, she looked up again and said, “I knew I was hungry, really hungry. Hungry for this…” as she pointed down at her plate loaded with food, “but what I didn’t know was that I was hungry for more. Thank you for worship Pastor, I didn’t know how much I needed to know that I was loved.”
Stories like this happen most every time we open the gates of our urban farm and outdoor sanctuary. Our motto, and the name of our newly formed non-profit, Feed and Be Fed, comes to life as people work and worship and eat together, as people see God’s light in each other’s faces, as people cultivate more peace and justice and goodness together. People are hungry and people want to feed each other. We are honored to continue to provide an opportunity for all to do both.
As my time on the pastoral staff is coming to a close, I want to personally thank you for believing in and supporting this vision in these early years. There were certainly times when I wondered and doubted along the way. Your prayers, your generosity, and your participation never waivered to keep us believing and moving forward. It is a great privilege now to invite you to continue your support of this growing and serving community under its next generation of leadership. I can think of no team I would rather hand the baton to than Rev. Jonathan, Rev. Amanda, and Rev. Asher. And I have every confidence that they, with this beautiful and vibrant congregation, will continue to feed in body, mind, and spirit.
As you consider both your end-of-year giving and look forward to your 2018 giving, we would be honored and grateful if you would continue to join us in cultivating a more just and generous world through this little plot of earth.
May the grace, the peace, and the love of God be with you all,
Rev. Anna Woofenden and the Garden Church team
Give at www.gardenchurchsp.org/donate
I have a good friend Athena, who can make friends anywhere, and usually does. My first memory of her was from the first day of college, freshman year at our dorm orientation. I had traveled all the way across the country from northwest Washington, to Philadelphia, knowing only a few people and starting off by myself in this new adventure. My roommate and I, both on the shy and reserved side, were literally sitting in a corner, watching everything going on around us, when this beautiful tall young woman in overalls bounded over and said, “Hi! I’m Athena, what’s your name?!”
That was the beginning of a life-long friendship Athena, and I’ve had the privilege of watching how she makes friends and connections, literally around the world. And I’ve learned a lot from her approach to other people and to life. Her passions and work continue to take her around the world, and I’ve watched how she’s able to serve in various cultures—not as an outside colonizing force, but because she goes into the community and makes friends first. She gets to know the people and the needs and the strengths. She asks about the family and the stories and the history. She connects and gives of herself and receives what they offer. And she sees each person as a potential friend. I’ve seen this skill get us out of dicey situations, such as a late-night machine-gun armed checkpoint late at night in Conakry, Guinea. I’ve seen it introduce me to community I wouldn’t have known otherwise, like the retired Catholic women in Longmont, Colorado who she went and did centering prayer with. This talent has helped Athena get to know the withered hard-core conservative owner of the eclectic corner store down the road from her farm. She has taught me over and over, to approach people as potential friends, to look for the humanity in all kinds of people, and to see the joy, connection, and even self-preservation, that come from approaching the world with a wise and open heart.
I thought of Athena when I read this story of Abraham this week. This story of how Abraham leaps out of his sleepy afternoon nap to greet these unknown guests and give them a welcome, and then learns he was greeting “the Lord.”
Retrospect is everything isn’t it? We read this ancient story of Abraham, with the frame, with the context. The scene starts off with these words, “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Marme, as he sat by his tent in the heat of the day.” The text we read says, “the Lord appeared,” and then that, “He, Abraham, looked up and saw three men standing near him, and he ran from his tent entrance, to meet them and bowed to the ground.”
Well, to us, reading this story now, that seems to make sense—right?—because we were just told that the Lord was going to visit Abraham and then three men show up. And maybe that’s a little odd, but then Abraham confirms to us that it must be something special like the Lord, because he ran out and greeted them and bowed to them.
But context is everything, isn’t it? I’d like to posit, to imagine, how this story might have gone down in real-time with Abraham.
Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, the scorching afternoon heat was intense and he was taking a much-needed break in the shade. He was just dozing off when he saw figures in the distance, three of them. Visitors were not necessarily very common out in the desert by the oaks of Marme, and it could have as easily been lost travelers, conniving bandits, friends, or foes. Of course we don’t know what went through Abraham’s head, but I am imagining myself in that situation and it seems to me that he demonstrated a philosophy that he had chosen, over and over again to respond to visitors, and that he immediately put it into action in this story. It reminds me of Athena, making friends wherever she goes. It doesn’t say Abraham ran into his house and hid, or sent a servant out to check them out, or lazily sat and waited for them to approach him. No, he ran out to them, greeted them, bowed down. He treated these unknown people who approached him as honored guests, as welcomed friends, as the Lord, in whom it appears they were.
We’re entering a time in our liturgical calendar called “Ordinary Time.” We’ve been in the season of event after event, from Advent, to Lent, Holy Week and Easter, through Pentecost. Here at the Garden Church, we’ve added in Earth Day expos and two-year birthdays with Membership Sundays. I admit, there’s a part of me that thrives on that—the adrenaline, the hustle, the coming together, and the community that’s built when we all pitch in. This is a gift for a season. But today as we enter into it, I give thanks for ordinary time, because leaning into that right now, friends, is exactly what I believe we need.
Author and wise teacher Sister Joan Chittister wrote this about ordinary time: She says, “It’s what we do routinely, not what we do rarely, that delineates the character of a person. It is what we believe in the heart of us that determines what we do daily. It is what we bring to the nourishment of the soul that predicts the kind of soul we nurture. It’s what we do ordinarily, day by day, that gives an imitation of what we will do under stress. It is our daily actions—the way we act ordinarily, not rarely—that defines us as either kind, or angry, or faithful, or constant. No doubt about it: the daily, the normal, the regular, the common is what gives clarity to the essence of the real self.”
It’s in the ordinary time, that we focus on establishing these patterns, these practices, these ways of life that help us to respond to, and approach the world from a place of faith, of God, of love.
As we go out from communion here at the Garden Church, we pray these words, “Seeing the face of God in all we meet and engaging your love in all we do.” We pray those words after coming around this table, with people who we might otherwise have not sat with, shared with, prayed with, or eaten with. Each week, one of my favorite parts of being in this community is the honor of walking around this circle and looking into each of your eyes. Without this time, I might not have the honor of seeing that Divine Light shining out of faces, looking at the deep tanned lines or crumbling teeth, or looking deeply at the face that is usually up on stage or testifying at city council. When we gather around this table, when we greet each other in this space, I feel the truth of that thing that Abraham does, that thing that my friend does, when we approach the world with belief that the people we meet have the potential to be friends, that we have our humanity in common. Language, or culture, or class, or race, or ideology may divide us, but that there is something we share together in our shared humanity that is beyond that.
Isn’t this what we need in the world today?
There’s another story that has been very present with me this week— agitating and disturbing me—it’s a hard story, and a painful story, it’s a story that I believe needs to be told alongside the story of Abraham, and our stories here.
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was fatally shot by Jeronimo Yanez, a St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer, after being pulled over in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul. Castile was driving a car with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter as passengers when he was pulled over by Yanez and another officer. According to Reynolds, after being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer he was licensed to carry a weapon, and had one in his pants pocket. Reynolds said Castile was shot while reaching for his ID after telling Yanez he had a gun permit and was armed. The officer shot at Castile seven times.
Diamond Reynolds live-streamed a video on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. It shows her interacting with the armed officer as a mortally injured Castile lies slumped over, moaning slightly and his left arm and side bloody. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office ruled Castile’s death a homicide and said he had sustained multiple gunshot wounds. The office reported that Castile died at 9:37 p.m. CDT in the emergency room of the Hennepin County Medical Center, about 20 minutes after being shot.
On November 16, 2016, John Choi, the Ramsey County Attorney, announced that Yanez was being charged with three felonies: one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. Choi said, “I would submit that no reasonable officer knowing, seeing, and hearing what Officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force under these circumstances.”
I have been struggling with these two stories, the story of Abraham and the story of Philando Castile and Jeronimo Yanez, the past few days. And I’ve been replaying both of them in my head. It was yesterday morning as I was lying in bed feeling so agitated that yet another police officer, after murdering an innocent black man, was let free, that I began to see the parallel with our text for today.
There are so many things that need to change in our justice system, in the way that laws and sentencing happen, with who we elect, etc.—that is overwhelming in itself. We see this locally, we see this nationally, we see this globally. And alongside the intertwined work that needs to happen, there is also a deeper layer that is true—our hearts and minds need to change. The way each of us have been formed in ways of and prejudice—be it white supremacy or against immigrants or Muslims, all those who are “other” than who we are, of fear of what we don’t know and assumption about the hearts and motivations of others before seeing them as a precious human being—need to change.
What if Officer Yanez had approached Philando Castile as our ancestor Abraham approached his unknown guests? What if we all saw the face of God first and foremost in others?
I know, I know, this is tricky, because yes, in each of us humans there is both the face of God and the potential for evil and harm. And please hear me, I am not suggesting that we stop being wise and discerning, trusting our gut when we feel something might be dangerous to ourselves or our loved-ones. But don’t you think, don’t you think the world would be a better place if we could move our minds and hearts from a primary place of suspicion, and fear and defense to a place of offering wise and open-hearted trust? To move our hearts from the place where our first reaction is to differentiate ourselves from other people—sorting in our heads how we are not like them—to a place where we first look for how they too are beloved children of God?
This is deep work, friends, and work that we are each called to over and over and over again. It’s one of the reasons I believe it is so crucial that we keep coming around this table, because we keep getting changed as we share the sacrament and the meal with each other, with people that maybe in the past we would be quick to classify. That guy in a suit who walks quickly by the corner, that woman who clutches her purse when she walks by me in the alley, that rich person who drives the fancy car, that conservative with the Trump sign in their front yard, that homeless person, that black person, that Hispanic person, that white person, that straight white male, that big black man, you finish this list for yourself.
Ordinary time is the spiritual invitation to cultivate in ourselves and in our community not just the big exciting things, but the deeper things, the everyday things, the things that sustain us and keep us strong and together. To notice and cultivate as Sister Joan invites us to, “the kind of soul we nurture.” How is it that we are nurturing our souls, individually and collectively, to be people that respond to the world around us with compassion and justice and the good of all people in mind?
It’s a time to consider your prayer practice, a time to explore what it means to pray together as a family. It’s a time to commit to going on that daily walk, or getting a spiritual director, or finally going to therapy to give yourself space to sort through the things you need to sort through. It’s a time for us to consider how we nurture one another in this spiritual community, to notice how our practices and our time together is spent, to pay attention to how God is at work through us together and how we are fed as we feed each other.
Ordinary time is a time to see, and feel, and believe, that this is actually exactly where we find God, in the ordinary, in the every day, in the face of the people we interact with and meet. The thing about the ordinary is, that within it we find the most sacred. The bread, the cup. The faces around this circle, the interaction on the sidewalk. In our deep breaths, in our prayers too deep to utter.
We focus and remember in ordinary time how these simple acts are deeply profound. Sabine and Avila serving communion. The grubby hands reaching out for a blessing. The depth of pain in those who are experiencing loss. The inner churning as we yearn for justice. The tender look between parent and child, or between lovers. The simple touch. God is in the ordinary. God is in the day to day. God is here. And so, in this ordinary time, may we practice our faith, seeing God’s face in each we meet, and engaging God’s love in all we do. Amen.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
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Scripture: Psalm 23 & John 9:1-41 9:1
I’ve spent more hours awake in the middle of the night in the last few weeks than I prefer. I won’t get into all the details of all the things that decide that the middle of the night is prime time to worry about them, but maybe you have your own set. I find that at first when I wake up, it’s a steady stream, worry after worry after worry. It’s as if my awareness wakes up right in the middle of a full onslaught of data processing that my brain was in the middle of, and goes from zero to 80 in the moment it takes to be jolted awake.
The problem is, that I’m still actually super sleepy and not very conscious or purposeful at this point, so I dive right in. “Oh, we’re worrying, I know how to do that!” And I send my full adrenaline rushed resources straight in to help out. “I’m awake, I’m awake, let’s worry!”
It’s not until I’m awake a bit more that I have the insight and consciousness to remember that actually, it is not that helpful to worry in the middle of the night, and that these things are real worries, but we have a plan and we’re working on trust, and that really, sleeping is a much better idea in the end. But at this point, I’m awake. So then it’s time to get back to sleep, to pray, or to check Facebook or watch another episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” Something to calm my mind, breathe, and let go of the spinning enough to fall back asleep.
Our two texts this week have me thinking about rest and about wakefulness, about the need for calm and peace and sleep, and the need to have our eyes opened, to be awake, to see.
This Psalm, well worn throughout the decades, maybe the one you memorized as a child or have heard at many a memorial service. The Lord is my shepherd, God as comfort, and protector, and guide. I shall not want, God as provider and nurturer, this can be that scripture that calms us, that assures us, that invites us to lie down in green pastures and rest. It’s one that we turn to in those moments when we need comfort. The tough moments of struggle, when we need to lean back and be held. The times in the middle of the night when we need to be assured, comforted, and to be able to rest.
And then, there’s the times when we need our eyes opened, when we need to stay awake. Our gospel text today is all about that. But maybe not just in the way we first see it.
We see that Jesus spitting in the dirt and wiping mud on the man’s eyes and telling him to go wash in the pool of Siloam is central to what happens in this story. But, I don’t think that it’s just about this man being healed. He receives sight, yes. Yet, I wonder if it’s also the crowd watching who receives healing, even if it’s painful and awkward for them. Here is this person that they are used to seeing in a particular context—“Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Others are saying, “No, no, it can’t be him, it must be someone like him,” while the man is insisting, “That’s me, that’s really me that Jesus just healed.” They see something they don’t want to see.
Jesus opens the people’s eyes to the humanity of the person right in front of them, the person who they likely had been just walking by beforehand, judging him as “that blind man who begs.” And now their eyes are being raised to see as Jesus sees him, loves him, and grants him sight. This is what seems to happen when we hang out with Jesus, when we try to see through the eyes of love—our eyes are opened to the people around us, even the ones we don’t want to see. And we’re healed, because as we become awake, as we see, we are healed of our indifference and apathy and fear.
Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” And when we hang out with the Christ, he starts to shine his light around, and we have flashes of seeing the world and the people around us through the eyes of love.
It reminds me of an experience described by modern day mystic and saint, Thomas Merton. He had a moment in 1958 as he was walking through the busy streets when his eyes were opened and he saw through these eyes of love. He writes:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
When we encounter love and encounter others, and have this light shining on a situation—if even for a moment—our blind spots are taken away, and we wake up. We see the humanity in someone we didn’t before. We open and wonder to how God is at work in us and each other.
There’s a lot to wake up to in the world right now. A lot of hard things to see. There are so many things to highlight that we need to be awake about in our community, in our nation, in our world. Just this weekend I’m aware that we can be marking National Weekend of Prayer for Transgender Justice, that today is Epilepsy Awareness Day, and that it’s Women’s History Month.
My heart and mind have been thinking a lot this week about our undocumented neighbors as I met with an activist to talk about how our San Pedro congregations could come together to offer sanctuary and support, and also hearing from one of you about witnessing an ICE raid of a grandmother at the local park.
I can celebrate the continuing of healthcare for millions, while strengthening a resolve for its improvement and the dignity and care of all. All this while being acutely attuned to many of you who are living on the street, those of us who struggle with physical and mental illness, family stress, finances, hard decisions, and the wisdom and energy to keep going. There is so much to be awake to, and it is in painful and uncomfortable to keep our eyes open…
Which leads me back around to the Psalm and the hope and belief and prayer that sometimes opening our eyes means that we see this Shepherd God, leading us through.The line in our Collective Confession that we’re focusing on this week is this: We have neglected prayer and worship, and have failed to commend the faith that is in us.
Sometimes when we wake up in the middle of the night with the world on our shoulders, we are gently reminded to lie down in the green pasture, with the gentle sounds of the still waters in the background. And sometimes when we open our eyes we find ourselves standing in the prayer garden, witnessing the tears of a precious broken soul and find the brokenness and preciousness in our own hearts. We have failed to commend the faith that is within us. It is there, it is in us, it is available, we are gently reminded to keep waking up to it. And when we do, we might begin to find this liberation that Merton talks about, “I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are.”
In God waking us, when our eyes are opened, it’s not just to the pain and suffering in isolation—it’s to the whole picture. We can awake to see how the gift of humanity is that we are in it together, leaving behind our preconceived notions and perceptions of each other. And we may just find that if we reach out, we’ll find another human being on the other side. When the mud is cleaned off our eyes, we can start to see each other as God sees us, all precious flaws and fears and warts and all. I mean, even in the healing Jesus uses mud.
Jesus could have spoken a word, or touched the blind man. Instead, he bends down and scoops up the dust of the earth, turns it to mud, spreads it on his eyes and tells him to go wash. Dirt and dust mixed with human spit, the most elemental pieces of the earth, that ash and the humanity of saliva, mixed together, washed clean, and then he sees.
There’s something so elemental about this mud. It takes me back to the ashes of Ash Wednesday that remind us that we are dust. And to the water and washing that Rev. Asher used last week to remind us that we are also beloved. Dust and rocks and water and ash—God is in it all, reminding us that we are beloved children of God.
This gospel story, this well-worn Psalm, take us back to these elemental realities of the Divine with us. Green pastures and still waters, overflowing oil and tables spread out before even the people we consider enemy, eyes open after mud is mixed and water cleanses. God is no sterile removed deity, only interested in abstract ideas or staying far removed, God is right here in it with us, ready to enter the messy muck with us, because that’s where the sacred shows up, that’s where we see the face of God, that’s where, as Jan Richardson writes, “the sludge becomes sacramental, and through grimy eyes we begin to behold the face of Love, beholding us right back.”
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
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Scripture: Exodus 24:12-18 24:12 & Matthew 17:1-9 17:1
A couple of Sundays ago at the Garden Church, I saw the scripture come to life in front of my eyes. We were reading the text from Isaiah where the prophet is calling out to the Lord about what kind of fast they should take.
The text reads: Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Then the verse goes on to say these powerful words:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Now, let me set the scene a little more. For those of you who haven’t been there, the Garden Church is not your typical church. We took an empty lot in the heart of San Pedro and transformed it into an active urban farm and outdoor sanctuary. We worship outdoors in the middle of the garden, with the ground beneath our feet and the birds and wind and sun above. And we work and worship and eat together right in the heart of our community. People are always walking by, all kinds of people, and we get to know our neighbors as we work and worship and eat together.
So on this particular Sunday…
I noticed a man hovering outside the gates; he stopped and stood at one side and I waved at him, but he didn’t come in. Then he walked a little further down the fence and looked through.
As I was passing the Bible to the next person to read, I whispered to Connie, “Would you go do your friendly welcoming thing?” and she popped up and went over.
As we were hearing the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah read, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
I watched as Connie tenderly listened to this man who was standing there in his slippers and tousled hair. After talking to him for a bit, she went back to the food table and walked back towards the gate with a full plate. I saw her gesture welcoming him in, but when he did not, she took the plate out to him. And as they were standing, Nora started to sing the interlude and he stopped, and he and Connie stood there and listened together, And then they said goodbye and he walked down the street with his plate of food.
When Connie came and sat down we were about to start the sermon, but rather than opening my prepared texted, it seemed right to first acknowledge the sermon that had just happened in front of our eyes. Connie shared that the man had not eaten for two days and was so hungry. He knew that The Garden Church was a safe place and wanted to come in and knew he was welcome, but “just wasn’t ready quite yet.”
We went on to read and reflect on the scriptures, God’s call not to just do pious acts of worship, the acts of fasting are not what God asks, but that our fasts are fasts that break the yoke of injustice and share our bread with the hungry. Tears were in many of our eyes as we heard the scripture, as the Word came to life, it shimmered, in shown, it was transfigured in the face of this hungry neighbor at our gates and the simple act of sharing compassion and a meal.
Our scripture text today has me thinking about moments that change us, that shimmer, moments where something shines differently in the face or an interaction that we have come to be familiar with.
In the cycle of the church year, today is Transfiguration Sunday, marking the day in the cycle through the stories in the Word where we land on this powerful mountaintop moment where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John (his close disciples and friends) up onto a high mountain, apart, by themselves, and he was “transfigured” or transformed—he was “changed in face.” His clothing became dazzling white and then, up on that mountaintop with Jesus, Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking to Jesus.
Whenever I read this text, I have to put myself in the place of these disciples and wonder at what they might have been thinking and feeling. Here they are, hanging out on a mountain, just like any other day, and all of a sudden this guy they’ve been hanging out with, the one they have claimed as Messiah, anointed one, changes. And not just slight change, he in TRANSFIGURED, and the light that shone from him sounds as if it was beyond their experience of worldly like. Such dazzling white, “such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
And then with him are these figures from the scriptures, not just any figures, but the well-known and important ones: Moses, the receiver of the Ten Commandments, representing the law, and Elijah, the prophet. And there they are, all together on that mountaintop—with Jesus.
And it makes me wonder, what were the disciples thinking, witnessing this moment, wondering at this change in the one they thought they knew?
Now by no means have I ever had an experience quite like this mountaintop moment we read about in our scriptures. But I have seen the Divine shine through and take a face that I thought I knew about and change it to another. I experienced a face being transfigured back in 2004 when a woman walked into the women’s group I was leading at the time and began to share her story. Other women in the group pushed back and were impatient; this person wasn’t “a good fit” for the group and changed the tone. Until, a few months later, after we had prayed together, and eaten together, and shared life stories and we all learned to call each other friends.
I’ve seen a person transfigured who I had written off, along with a whole swath of other voters, when I had the opportunity to sit down at their kitchen table, experience their hospitality and welcome, and find the things that we connect on and mutually care about.
I saw myself change back in 2011 when I met my now good friend Brent at seminary, and heard his story about his transition from being Brenda, to embodying his gender identity as a male and finding peace and grounding and integrity in himself and with his God. Brent was so kind and gentle to me as I learned and asked questions and began to understand something that I had not encountered closely before. And through listening to his story of transformation, I too was transformed.
I see this change in people’s faces every time I have the privilege to hear someone’s story, to shift their identity from “that homeless person living on the street” to our neighbor with a story and a journey who becomes a friend. When I hear the stories of any of you, many of you, and we find the connection points, we listen to the particularities, we see the imprint of the Divine in each other’s eyes.
I’m sure you all have your stories. Stories about how you saw a person, or a group of people in one way, until something changed and shimmered, and your assumptions and ideas of that person or group changed.
Maybe it was when you had that long, real conversation with a relative who has a different political stance than you. Maybe it was sitting across the table from one of our un-housed neighbors and hearing their story. Maybe it was the time you met a Muslim for the first time and encountered them as a fellow-human being, rather than an unknown group. Maybe it was when you hear someone’s faith story, or learned you grew up in the same town, maybe it was through a photograph, or a piece of art. Maybe it was the quiet knowing that your heart needed to soften, to change, to be open to the many ways that the image of God shines and transforms humanity all around us.
These are the moments when a little wind blows the thin veil between heaven and earth out of the way. Like when Peter saw in his teacher the face of God, within the deep wrinkled flesh, the imprint of the divine. It’s fleeting, but it’s an experience that I think all of humanity shares. It’s something I find myself on the lookout for… These moments of transcendence. These moments where I can see beyond the everyday, or beyond my veil of prejudice and not knowing, and see in another person the face of the Divine. It’s a precious moment, something beyond what I can manufacture, something I long to replicate and hold on to.
I can’t blame Peter for wanting to build those little dwelling places, to keep the face of God preserved forever, for him (and others) to go look at as often as they needed to see God and the kingdom revealed, and restore their faith in humanity, in the earth, in God herself. I think that’s totally human. To want to cling as long as possible to moments where we see everything that’s bigger than ourselves so clearly and we glimpse the face of God.
And yet, like the disciples in the story, wanting to build a dwelling place, to capture this moment and not let it go, Jesus says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And then things are back to how they were. Moses and Elijah are gone and Jesus is no longer glowing like the sun. But something has changed. Something has shifted. We know that that moment of transcendence is possible and that God’s presence is shinning within the faces of all that she has created, whether we immediately see it or not.
And I can’t help but believe that something still shimmered as they sat there on the mountain and reflected on what had just happened. Everything returned to normal, yes, but something was also forever changed. Once we see the face of God in another, we really can’t ever go back. Once I have seen that person who I once despised, instead as a fellow human with a story, I can no longer dismiss their entire grouping or person. Once we see that spark of the Divine in that face we wanted to lower our eyes and walk by, it starts to sparkle elsewhere. And we might just find that these moments of transcendence, these moments of God shining through start happening more frequently, as we open our eyes and hearts.
When our hungry neighbor came by the gates later that week, I waved from the back where I was deadheading basil. He paused by the front gate, in his shorts and old bed slippers. He still wasn’t ready to come in. But as he paused, and waved, I saw a faint glimmer and glow in his face. God shining through. Amen.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Wayfarers Chapel 1.8.17
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
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A “star” symbolizes knowledges of good and truth, and in the highest sense, the knowledge respecting the Lord. –Emanuel Swedenborg
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you…
And wise men, the Magi, came from the east…looking for the child who has been born king of the Jews…because they had observed a star at its rising, and have come to worship him. And when they saw that the star had stopped over the place where the child was, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and they knelt down and honored him. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh…
Today we celebrate Epiphany, also sometimes called “three kings day”, a day where we remember the story of the Magi who follow the star to find the Christ Child, who at this point is likely a few years old and in exile with Mary and Joseph in Egypt. They were hiding from Herod the King ,who was out to kill him and any other young child who might be suspiciously deemed a threat to Herod’s throne, since Jesus’ birth was rumored to be proclaimed to be the “King of the Jews.”
This story has been given details over the centuries and legends have grown, such as the idea that these were kings, or that there were only three of them, or that they were all men. We really don’t know. “Magi” seems to be a good translation to me, because we don’t really know what that looks like. And it doesn’t exactly mean “wise men”—probably they were more like dicey Gentile spiritually eclectic people; or Persian astrologers, and certainly not kings. They were seekers, they were awake, they were paying attention and reading the signs and the stars. And when they showed up and followed that star to its unexpected resting place, they came into the house and offered their gifts (of which there were three). Gifts of gold. And frankincense. And myrrh.
Epiphany points us to God’s universal love and universal sovereignty. In light of Christ’s revelation to the Gentiles (those who were not part of the Jewish faith)—in this case, the magi from the east who came following a star and find a child—we find a theme of central importance in the Hebrew Bible suddenly crystallizes for us. We understand God’s self-revelation in the history of Israel differently and the God’s coming reign with renewed hope.
To understand this passage from the prophet Isaiah in the context of epiphany, we begin with the exiles from Judah as they wait in Babylon for the word that will send them home. This in the middle of the sixth century before Christ. Things seem as dark as they have ever been, and there is little to be hopeful for. They have been exiled from their land the temple has been destroyed; the reign of David has come to a disastrous end. And in the middle of all this, Isaiah is describing the joy, the promise as something that will happen in that time and place. The poverty and shame of exile will be overcome with rebuilding and blessing and the city of exiles will become a light to the nations. And so Isaiah calls to the people of Israel in exile: “Arise and shine; for your light has come.
But this light that has come to Israel is not for Israel alone. We read, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” In this passage and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—God uses foreigners, and outsiders, women, the least expected and sometimes most unsavory characters to show God’s love and presence. Although it’s so often been missed, the crucial truth is that God has always been the universal lover of all humanity, and from the beginning intended blessing for all people.
I think about this universal blessing of love when I look around me at our current landscape and see how religions have become polarized, where it’s so important to us to make sure that there’s a right way and a wrong way, and that we’re part of the right one.
I follow stories such as an upheaval at an evangelical college in Illinois, where a professor was recently suspended for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I see what I would deem the insanity of militia groups, or politicians, saying things like, “The Lord is telling me to…” (and then fill in the blank with something that I, personally, would consider complete crazy talk), and then point to their Christian faith as the source. I get so frustrated and disgusted when another news story comes out about how “Christians” are making some statement about being anti-Muslim, or judging people on our gender or sexual orientation or opinion and I really want to just throw up my hands and leave the faith all together.
So, I don’t know about you (well, I do know about some of you, because that’s why we even hang out), but it’s things like this that make me want to run as far away from Christianity as possible. I want to distance myself from “those crazy religious people,” and comfortably meld into the milieu of my spiritual-but-not-religious peers, and let being a follower of Christ be a past part of my identity.
But then it’s so annoying. Because this Jesus character stops me in my tracks. Not in any coercive way, but because this way of Jesus, this Light of Christ captivates me, and leads me to see, to wonder, can there be another way, and can we be part of it? There’s this thing that happens when I encounter the stories of Jesus. And every time, rather than re-enforcing division and superiority and crazy political antics, instead, the stories of Jesus hit me right in the gut, right in the heart, calling for the world to be turned upside-down. For the hungry to be fed and the naked to be clothed, for mourning to turn to laughter, for reaching out across boundaries and lines, for Light coming into the world in the cracks and crevices.
And really, not that I have any illusion that I have the final word on this, but really, it leads me to deeply ask the question, what does it mean to be a “follower of Christ” a “Christian”? Or, if that language is unhelpful to us, maybe we can just be another person who seeks out and follows the star, someone who looks for the signs in the world and asks, “where is the light being born?” A person who then travels, through trial and error, finding the place where the star shines, finding the child, and offering up deeply precious gifts of gold, of frankincense, of myrrh.
Emanuel Swedenborg, writes that everything in the physical world has a spiritual meaning, including the Magi’s gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. And these spiritual meanings may give us a glimpse into our own lives of seeking the light and giving our gifts to the world.
The gift of gold corresponds to pure love. We encourage the Light to be born into our lives, to become flesh and dwell among us, by choosing to open our hearts. Even though we know that when we open our hearts to ourselves, to one another, to the mineral world, plant world, animal world, to the stars, that there may be vulnerability, or pain, or loss. But we open ourselves up anyway, to the interconnected world of humanity and the web of life.
The gift of frankincense corresponds to the elevation of our minds. We encourage the Light to be born in our lives, to become flesh and dwell among us, by choosing to open our minds. By learning more, by considering another person’s perspective, by not believing everything we think, by knowing that we can sometimes be absolutely certain of something, and absolutely wrong. By letting in a larger horizon, opening ourselves to these epiphanies, the changing of our minds.
And then the gift of myrrh corresponds to the discipline of true effort. We encourage the Light to be born in our lives, to become flesh and dwell among us, by choosing to live what we know to be true, even when doing so is tough. It’s going where our open heart leads us, and following through on our higher thoughts and understandings and bringing them into action in the world.
All three gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh—are necessary. All three are part of the whole of living. Of showing up and being vessels of that light in the world. And this, I believe is one of the ways that we can follow the Christ, embody the light. Because it seems that this Christ, when I get down to it, is actually much more interested in the things that are happening outside the constraints of our religious boxes. Those who are working to elevate poverty in the developing world, doing racial reconciliation in rough neighborhoods, working to grow and share food across our own back-yards, this Christ seems to be much more interested in honoring and respecting all people, not just in a “there, there” way, but in active counter-cultural, interreligious acts of engagement, healing, hospitality, expansiveness and love.
And dear ones, this is really really important for us to hear and know in our current interfaith, inter-cultural, religious, non-religious, allergic to religion, eclectic, beautifully diverse world.
Epiphany reveals that even in his infancy, Jesus the Christ is for all humanity, not only for the chosen few. He is for the outsiders; he comes to draw people together; wise men from the East, Syrians from the north, Egyptians from the south, Romans from the west. The truth—the epiphany that can flash before us—is that Christ is shining for the Gentiles, for all the people. The Christ, the very love of God incarnate, that love cannot be confined to ethnic or national identity; it cannot be restricted by gender or claimed only by the powerful and privileged. To awaken to this light of Christ is not about being part of a certain group or being in the club, it’s not about converting to a specific set of moral codes or cultural norms. Awakening to this light, is a universal experience, whatever words or language or religious tradition (or not) we experience it through.
And everything about this story points us back to this universal principle of love and light. Love God—and if the word God is problematic to you, then if God is love, than Love is God, and you can just go with Love. And love our neighbor, love the other human beings around us. And if you really want to follow Christ, go out of your way to love the neighbors that are not like ourselves.
Seeing the light in the manger at church, or in the teen-age mothers and the homeless infants that will get the clothing that we are offering.
I might even have to try to see it in the faces of those Christians I deem crazy. Because we’re all actually created in the image of this loving God.
Let us find a light that doesn’t shine with superiority or exclusivity, but one that leads us to unexpected places, guides us to the outskirts of town, to a refugee family seeking shelter, to the Christ Child, where we come and bow down and offer ourselves, our love, our thoughts, our efforts to the nurture and care of the birth of the Light in the world.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 Revelation 21:1-6a
THE YEAR AS A HOUSE
Think of the year
as a house:
door flung wide
a graced spaciousness
opening and offering itself
Let it be blessed
in every room.
Let it be hallowed
in every corner.
Let every nook
be a refuge
and every object
set to holy use.
Let it be here
that safety will rest.
Let it be here
that health will make its home.
Let it be here
that peace will show its face.
Let it be here
that love will find its way.
let the weary come
let the aching come
let the lost come
let the sorrowing come.
let them find their rest
and let them find their soothing
and let them find their place
and let them find their delight.
And may it be
in this house of a year
that the seasons will spin in beauty,
and may it be
in these turning days
that time will spiral with joy.
And may it be
that its rooms will fill
with ordinary grace
and light spill from every window
to welcome the stranger home.
New Year’s Day….it holds such a momentous ring to it, doesn’t it? We can put such power and pressure on New Year’s Day. It’s the time I’m finally going to start that new exercise program, or start a regular prayer practice, or budget better.
We put these high expectations on the power of those digits changing over, as if the change in the calendar somehow wipes clean all of the things that have gone before. But then, we woke up this morning and we were still the same people we were yesterday, maybe a bit more tired than usual, after staying up past our bed-time. We still have that annoying habit we want to change, we still have that debt that gives us a pit in our stomach, we still have that routine we want to do differently.
The world seems to be pretty similar to what it looked like yesterday as well—we’re still anticipating what this new year will bring, wondering at how the changes in the political leadership will shape our world. We look around with trepidation, or hope, or resolve, wondering if this new year brings forth a change in everything. But then we see that some of our neighbors still slept outdoors last night, acts of violence happened around the world even before we woke up, and while we hold hope for the new year to bring transformation and change, the world looks quite a lot like what it looked like yesterday.
In our scripture from the book of Revelation today, from the very end of the Bible, we hear these words that are reminiscent of the new year, about all thing being made new. The text reads:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s people, and God Herself will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also God said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Then God said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
This is in the same passage that we invoke each week as we begin our worship together, thinking about this heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, descending on earth, this new way of being in the world, the river of the water of life, the tree of life, these images that inspire us to be cultivating this land and cultivating more peace and justice in our community and in the world.
This image of all things being made new is one that is appealing and has been used throughout Christian history in a multitude of ways. Readings of this text can lead to apocalyptic constructs about the return of Jesus and the destruction of this earth. Or the text can be taken completely symbolically, that this is something that is a myth or story with a message. These images can and have been used to dismiss the physical needs of the world, to focus only on the spiritual, or to urge on natural destruction to hasten the new heaven and new earth.
It probably won’t surprise any of you who’ve been hanging around the Garden Church for long that we have a different take on this passage and what these images and stories are calling us to.
I hear the message of this passage as something that is a little less clear cut than it being all about the destruction of this physical world or only about some spiritual realm. I hear a message that is a little more inclusive of the messiness of humanity and the power and beauty of divinity and the heavenly influence.
The vision of a new heaven and a new earth is a vision both of what the future may bring, and a vision that calls us to engage right here, right now—today—in this new year.
We need to be active and engaged in bringing this vision into reality, a vision of a new way of being is not something that is beyond our human efforts to attain. And it is also not solely a human endeavor. There is a God and force of creative and healing love in the universe that is the source of this work, and whose transformative Divine Love is reaching and pulsing through the universe, and always urging and pressing to be received and to work through us for healing and peace in the world. Engaging this vision shows up in so many ways.
This past week, I had the opportunity to meet a wise sage named Andrew, who is a pastor in the Community of Christ, my fiancé’s faith tradition. Andrew and his wife Jewel have spent their lives dedicated to the work of the church, and particularly to work of peace and justice in the world. They now live in Harvest Hills, an intentional community built in the 1970s outside of Kansas City by a dedicated group of people who wanted to experiment with what it might mean to live the peaceable kingdom in a neighborhood.
Before we had lunch together, we took the tour of the community. We walked out onto the circle, a lovely grassy area surrounded by the town houses, and down into the room where the community meets for worship. Andrew took us straight over to a banner hanging on the wall and said: “This, this is where it all starts.”
We looked up and read these words:
“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them;” [Community of Christ Doctrine and Covenants, Section 36:2h-i]
For Andrew, a man who has dedicated his life to the work of peacemaking and ministry in many forms, this passage is a guiding principle. It tells him that there is both a hope and a vision of a future that is beyond what we see among us right now, and that it is realized by the tangible and present work of engaging each other in one heart and one mind, living in right-relations with God and each other, and doing the very real work of justice and equity that will bring our world to a place where no one is lacking in basic human needs.
As he spoke about it, I could feel the resonance in myself and in the call on my life, the work we’re doing here, the work so many people throughout the world are dedicated to, in so many ways. And the tension.
The tension between the image, the vision, the Divine narrative of making all things new, and the day-to-day reality of the world we’re living in, and the struggles and things that need to change here and now.
Some apocalyptic theories operate out of the idea of everything being washed away, taken away, people rising out of graves and disappearing from beside you. This is one way to interpret some of this imagery. But many traditions—from the Quakers to the Community of Christ, the Swedenborgians, to main-line theologians—explore what in technical theological terms is called: realized eschatology.
This new heaven, and new earth are here and now as much as they are in a future and spiritual realm. The kingdom of heaven is not something that is beyond us, or a completely different realm. It is in all the places where heavenly ways of acting and being and treating each other prevail. That the peaceable kingdom—Zion, the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God—these images are not simply ethereal, but tangible. They include people being fed and an end of violence and war, respect for all people, and the honoring of the many ways to engage love in the world.
This does not take away the spiritual part of it, the heavenly realm beyond the physical, and the imperative of the Divine doing this work with us. But it brings all of that into focus in the here and now around us. We are each part of doing the work of this transformation. The peaceable kingdom, the New Jerusalem comes, not all in a flash in one moment of apocalyptic time; it is the work that we are constantly called to.
And this is what it seems appropriate to focus on here, together in worship, on this New Year’s Day.
The kingdom of God is within us, between us, among us, God is here. How are we each going to engage the Divine Love with us as we step forward into this New Year?
Because yes, we were still the same people when we woke up this morning. But it also is a new day, a new start, a new moment to listen and commit to the work that God has in front of us this year. Listening to what we are each called to—individually and collectively—in this new season we are entering into.
We are still the same people, but we also are the people who have the opportunity to begin anew, to turn, turn, turn as the passage from Ecclesiastes tells us. This turning reminds me of the Greek word “metanoia” which is often translated “repent” or “repentance,” while one of its other simple messages is a “change of mind” or to turn. As we enter into this new year, we are reminded of the ever present offer from God to turn, to turn towards love and away from hate, to start anew, to turn away from that selfish habit that commandeers generous loving in a relationship, to turn towards respect and mutual care. To turn from the things that hold us back from being present to the work in the world, from believing our belovedness in God, from connecting with other people.
And so, as we close out one year and start the next, we can offer gratitude together, for all the lessons and gifts and blessings this last year gave. And we can let the rest fade a bit. The slate does not get wiped all the way clean, but we’re given a moment to pause and remember that God is in all of it, and holding all of it, and that God is always making all things new. Always offering us the opportunity to be made new. It doesn’t clear everything away, but we can always turn and receive.
The Divine Love is that Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end and holding out the vision for each of our lives and our world that is both beyond what is right in front of us, and grounded in it. And because of this loving presence, we can walk forward with courage. The message of “do not be afraid” from the Christmas story is still here with us. Calling us forward, as we walk into this new year knowing that, Emmanuel, God is with us. Amen.
When I was a child I loved Christmas. The candles, the carols, the filled stockings, and the way the presents appeared under the tree on Christmas morning, but something that I remember most vividly was this—
We had a nativity set in which the baby Jesus was it’s own piece and so at the beginning of December we’d set up the whole nativity scene, the blue back-drop with the stars embroidered onto it, the wooden stable, the magi and the shepherds, the little sheep, Mary and Joseph and the little twig manger. But then, we wouldn’t put baby Jesus in the manger. Instead, Baby Jesus would stay safely wrapped in tissue and gently stowed behind the manger, waiting for Christmas morning.
The job of baby Jesus placement was coveted, being the oldest it was my task for a number of years before others were old enough to take turns or sneak down hand-in-hand together to do the sacred task. We would tiptoe into the living room, the light of the wood stove giving a soft warm glow. Reaching our little hands behind the stable we’d pull out the Christ Child and gently place the swaddled body in the manger, ready for Christmas morning and the proclamation that, “Christ indeed is born!”
On this Christmas Eve, people gather across the globe, anticipating tomorrow. People gather with family around a dinner table, in churches with candles, around the lit tree. People gather huddled up under awnings on the street–sharing that extra holiday warmth, people alone might light a candle and mark this evening with longing. Waiting, anticipating, longing…what is it we’re longing for?
The longings, the hope of the spirit of Christmas and Christmas Eve, that reaching and looking for the Hanukah lights, the presence of the darkest day of solstice–permeate far beyond those who consider themselves people of faith, reaches across the barriers from devout, to spiritual but not religious, to the atheists or agnostics that come to church because they know how important it is to Grandma.
This spirit, these longings, these desires, are human and they are wrestled with and answered, in beautifully various ways, in different faith traditions, in many human and divine responses across the globe.
In the frame of the Christian tradition, this longing is expressed through these stories of Christ, Divine Light, being born here and walking on earth with us. Christianity has gotten itself a bad name over the centuries by making this story be a singular one, that Christ is the one and only expression of God in the world. This exclusivism has led many people to leave Christianity and the church, and I understand this. I, like many of you, am reaching for a way of faith where we don’t have to have choose one way in exclusion to other ways.
As a Christian, who strives to be rooted in my tradition, with wide-open arms and deep respect for other traditions, I can ask: How is the birth of Christ, the icon of my religious tradition, important for the world as a whole?
And more and more I believe that the answer is not that Christ is special because of his uniqueness. It’s not about Christ being the ONE way to God, instead—the story of Christ’s incarnation here on earth is powerful because of the embodiment of a universal principle, a pattern: the pattern of love incarnate.
This principle of incarnate Love, the sacred with us, is what has been practiced in faith traditions throughout time, it’s the very thing that is etched in the mountain peeks, it’s what breaks through in the darkest places, it is the Divine Love is always pressing and urging to be received, through whatever venue we can hear and feel and receive it.
In the Swedenborgian tradition, the lens through which I practice Christianity, we’re taught that the entire natural world is infused with spiritual reality, and that the Divine is always pressing and urging to be received. That the Divine come to earth, to this natural world in the body of Jesus Christ, yes, and that the Divine is infused in all things of this natural, bodily world.
God’s presence, Emmanuel God with us, is here with us. The Love, the Light, always breaking in, even here and now.
When the Gospel according to John tells of the Christmas story we hear these words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word Was God.
Through the Word all things came into being and apart from the Word nothing came into being that has come into being.
In the Word was life,
And that life was humanity’s light—
A Light that shines in the darkness,
A Light that the darkness has never overtaken.
Then later in the passage we read: “The Word become flesh and dwelt among us; and we saw God’s glory.
What do you think when you hear this passage? What are there words and images that jump out at you? Light, darkness, word, flesh? I was talking to one of you the other day and we were remarking on the strangeness of this language, “word” becoming “flesh”? And wondering if that image is off-putting to some, as is potentially the word “incarnation.” “In-flesh”? What does that even mean?
So I went and dug back to the original Greek text of the gospels to see if that could help us out and I found that the word for flesh, sarx, is more than just this flesh of bodies. Some of the definitions we’re given are yes; body and bodily condition, but then we get earth, earthly, fellow humans, and kindred. Material reality, matter its very self.
So the Word, the Logos became flesh, sarx, and dwelt among us. The Word, the logos, divine utterance, comes and dwells among us, the Divine making itself visible here and now in the natural world.
As one of my favorite poets and theologians Madeleine L’Engle said:
“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”
The incarnation, seen in this birth of Christ, gives witness to this expansive truth–God is always trying to make love visible, and tangible, and present. Showing us in yet another way that the sacred, the Divine, the Love, is always urging and pressing to be received, never forcing itself on us, but inviting us, stirring our hearts, moving in our longings, inviting us to draw towards and be vessels of the Light. And the continued miracles pulse through our faith stories and traditions throughout time, the Divine love that is right here, right now, that Light is constantly breaking into the world.
We certainly can see this force at work in the garden around us, as plants continue to reach their roots down and leaves and flowers reaching for the sun. We see this force alive in the people who are working for good in the world, from white helmeted volunteers who are pulling people out of the rubble in Aleppo, to Annette’s open arms and big hugs to all of our neighborhood.
We see and feel this in-breaking of the Love and the Light when we look at the cozy candles or tip-toe down to the fire-lit living room on Christmas morning. And this in-breaking goes so much further than that…it goes out to the broken bodies, the battered hearts, the abused land, love is constantly pushing and urging and renewing and healing. The promise of incarnation is this pattern—that God shows up in the midst of it all, and loves, and this love is born inside each of us and calls us to love.
So this evening, as we hear the stories of Christ’s birth read, as we sing familiar Christmas hymns, look for the pattern of love breaking through, listen to the story with an ear for the sacred in the ordinary, God’s messengers coming to grubby shepherds and humble sheep. Divinity coming into the world as a vulnerable baby, light coming into the darkest places. And as we go out from here, and into whatever the evening, tomorrow, this New Year brings, look for the Light breaking through, be part of the Love breaking though, keep your eyes and hearts and minds open, because that universal pattern of incarnation is here, the Source of Love and Light expansive, and the immediacy of the sacred pervasive. Emmanuel, God is with us.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
December 4, 2016
Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-10 11:1 & Matthew 3:1-12
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!
(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.
“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!
by Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Fifth-century monk Nilus of Ancyra wrote, “We should remain within the limits imposed by our basic needs and strive with all our power not to exceed them. For once we are carried a little beyond these limits in our desire for the pleasures of life, there is no criterion by which to check our onward movement, since no bounds can be set to which exceeds the necessary.”
I think what he was really talking about here was Facebook ads. My nemesis. Here I am, just innocently trying to distract myself from the sermon I am trying to write with “just a quick scroll through the Facebook feed” when what do I see but this beautiful burgundy sweater, long and flowing, with these beautiful little knit patterns in it. “Ooo, I like that!” I think, and then I have to click on it, and start looking through the website… “That looks beautiful!” “And that.” “I need more winter sweaters.” “I don’t have something like that.”
I almost start to put something in the cart, when I remember. I’m supposed to be writing a sermon on revolutionary gratitude. I’m supposed to be articulating the ideas that have been present with me all week about how I believe gratitude can actually be the antidote to excessive consumerism, greed, and discontent. How I believe that taking on gratitude as a spiritual practice can actually change how we engage the world and change the world.
So I stopped. And went back to my Word document. And wrote this paragraph. And then I went to my bedroom and started folding laundry. And specifically noting all the sweaters I have. Not quite exactly that maroon flowery one, but plenty. And even one that IS maroon, and is pretty flowery. And they are warm and they are nice. And so I said, “Thank you for them.” And then I started to think about my friends and neighbors who don’t have sweaters. Or closets to put them in. And then I started making a pile, a stack of sweaters that I could pass on to others.
This time of Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to explore gratitude, and explore the words we use and the attitudes we have as we look at our own expressions of gratitude, and commit or recommit to a practice of gratitude.
Because we see, when we actively practice gratitude, things change in us, and around us. Our very orientation to the world—how we see people and situations—changes. I’m even told that our brain chemistry changes. As we actively practice a life of gratitude, we start to notice things differently; we connect with people and the world with more attentive and useful eyes.
Practicing gratitude actually replaces the “I want, I want, I want,” with, “I am grateful, I have enough.”
And then what if we made it a personal habit to replace anger and resentment with gratitude? Or replace disappointment and grumpiness with gratitude?
This week I had an interaction with a loved one and a conflict came up. Later that evening I was texting with a friend and sorting through my reactions and realizing why my buttons had been pushed. As my heart softened I found myself texting, “I am so grateful to have a person I love with whom I can work through these kinds of conflicts with.” The next day when the loved one and I had a further conversation, the whole tone had shifted. As we listened deeply, I found myself no longer wrapped up in getting my own specific needs fulfilled, but instead trying to understand my loved one and see how I could care for them, as a response to my gratitude for being in relationship together and be able to care for one another.
The practice of gratitude takes us out beyond ourselves, to look around at others and show us how to care for one another.
Every week at the Garden Church, right before we share together in our Community Meal, we sing our blessing song:
There is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.
My friend Kerri Meyer wrote this song and I asked her why she wrote it and she told me this: “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 want to be generous, 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.”
There is enough, gratitude for what is—it’s the motto of another possible world. It’s that kingdom of heaven. It’s that promise of the light to those who sit in darkness—the guidance of our feet in the way of peace.
In this possibility of another world, we don’t think of ourselves first and put all of our energy and resources into amassing wealth and fulfilling our own desires. Yes, we take care of our bodies and our minds, an essential foundation, and as we do, we practice gratitude.
Emanuel Swedenborg reminds us that yes,
“We need to provide food and clothing for our bodies. This is a first and primary goal. But we do this so that we may have sound minds in sound bodies. We need to provide food for the mind as well, such things as relate to intelligence and wisdom, so that our minds may be in a state to serve God. If we do these things, we provide for our own good to eternity. We must provide for ourselves, yet not for ourselves.”
Practicing gratitude does not take away the reality that every one of us needs basic care for our bodies and our minds. Practicing gratitude in fact, reminds all of us that we are responsible to and for each other to have those foundational needs met.
And as we practice gratitude, we find ourselves looking outward from our own fear and scarcity. We can begin to look out to the world around us and see the needs of others—see how we are all connected and intertwined with each other.
And we can see that God is always breaking through the cracks and raising us up, like that righteous branch, raising us up together, intertwined with each other.
The kingdom of heaven, that possibility of another world, is among us, and with us, and we have to work for where it is not. Because every human being created belongs to God and we belong to each other. And as God provides for us collectively, there always is enough—enough and some to share.
Jesus’ act in the paschal mystery was thanksgiving: Eucharist. Which literally means “thanksgiving.” When Jesus gathered his friends and followers around that table in the upper room, he took bread blessed it and broke it and gave thanks. And he took the cup and poured it and blessed and offered thanksgiving and passed it. And then said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Revolutionary gratitude isn’t the gratitude one practices or offers alone, but what one does with others. We can both remind each other of the power of gratitude and be lifted up, be fed when we share the Eucharist, the thanksgiving, together.
And so now, I want to invite us into a time of thanksgiving, of doing the spiritual practice of gratitude right here, right now together. Because what better way to start a habit than right here, right now?
Turn to your neighbor and take turns, back and forth, naming what you are grateful for. And we’re going to do this for a few minutes. Long enough that at some point you’re going to have to pause and really think about it for a moment. You might have to start looking past the obvious things and start finding gratitude in “the conflict I had with my loved one” or the struggle I’m having to keep showing up.
As you share, notice how your own experience of your life and things around you shift. And at the end, you’ll have an opportunity to share a bit with other neighbors around you about what the practice of gratitude felt like.
So this is a practice.
And when we are in this spiritual practice, and we all fall and get up again multiple times a day, we might notice that good is being brought out of the difficult things. We might notice that we stopped long enough to engage another person, and something beautiful came out of the connection. We might have a difficult situation come up in our lives, and rather than being sure that it’s all helpless, we might open up to there being redemption in it, through the neighbor who shows up to help change the tire, to the emotional muscles that are stretched and exercised when we’re dealing with an illness or the illness of a loved one.
Having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean that suddenly our lives are all peachy and we never have hard days. And having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention to the pain and brokenness in the world.
No, I think having a practice of gratitude is having a practice of paying attention…paying attention to where love is breaking through, paying attention to where we are called to see differently, to be instruments of compassion, to be curious and to be the vessels by which God infuses more love into the world.
Edwin Arlington Robinson said, “There are two kinds of gratitude: The sudden kind we feel for what we take; the larger kind we feel for what we give.”
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we will see our own lives differently, we’ll see the gifts and how we’re being taken care of, in little ways and big. We’ll pause and notice the colors in the sky, the rich flavors of the food in our mouths and the light in each other’s eyes.
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the people around us differently, we see how we might have not noticed privilege and inequality that we’d been taking for granted, we’ll see the people in front of us, not as other or different, but as fellow-human-beings, all on the path together, hungry for some more love and compassion in the world.
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the world differently. We see the world not as a place to fear or shirk from, but as a precious human family, with it’s deeply broken and cracked places, and always with flowers urging and pushing to grow out of the cracks.
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we may just find that we are noticing more, noticing the goodness, and noticing where we can be bearers of that goodness, compassion, and light.
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see that by the tender mercy, dawn will break. And we will say thank you. Amen.