November 13th, 2013
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
Scripture: Isaiah 35:3-8, Luke 17:20-21
“The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves, but loving others and being united to them through love.”Divine Love and Wisdom 47 Emanuel Swedenborg
As a church, we don’t stand with a particular political view; as people of faith, there is not one right partisan expression. What we stand behind, no matter what, is love. And being people who are anointed to love.
Love goes beyond who we voted for, or how that is expressed. Love looks out into the world to see who is suffering, who is experiencing fear and loss, who is consumed by hate. Love looks inward at parts of ourselves—at what is underneath our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Love isn’t always comfy or pretty. Often love calls us to go beyond our comfort zones.
Glennon Doyle Melton writes “Love is not warm and fuzzy or sweet and sticky. Real love is tough as nails. It is having your heart ripped out, putting it back together, and the next day offering it back to the same world that just tore it up.”
Love is fierce. Love is persistent. Love puts our bodies in between, beside, and behind bodies that are threatened. Love combats the hate and words of condemnation that come into our own heads, and stops us when we want to lash out at other people.
I think love also gently wraps a blanket around us. It encourages us to care gently, for ourselves and for each other. Love reaches out and checks in, “How are you doing?” “How can I support you today?” “How can I stand with you today?” Love calls out to that Divine love, and welcomes it into this place.
This message is nothing new friends; it’s what you hear from me most every week—love God and love each other, honor the dignity of all human beings, we belong to God, we belong to each other, we are loved and we are called to love. This is not new information, nor a new call. But today we have the opportunity to be reminded of its imperative. We have a reminder that love is not easy, but it must be our consistent commitment, for the long haul. The work of courageous love has been the work, is the work, and will continue to be the work. All the resolve we feel now—we must keep that, and continue to stay awake.
We must be awake to where there is hell and negativity that is working to divide us and twist things. We must be awake when it urges us to flare up in anger or take us to the pit of despair, and when it tells us there’s no point and to just stop.
We must stay awake to heaven and its powerful force for compassion and justice and healing in the world. Because heaven is with us and among us—urging and infilling us, anointing us to love.
And this is why we need to keep gathering together, praying and listening and acting. We need to educate ourselves in how to love more effectively and to encourage each other. We need to hold each other accountable. We need to widen our circles and expand our friendships. We need to look more deeply at things we might have assumed we know, and question narratives that have been presented as the singular truth. We need to consistently do our internal work of rejecting hell and welcoming heaven and to show up and stand with courage and compassion in the face of injustice and hate. We need to be kind to each other and gentle to each other. We need to call together on God, for the strength and comfort and resolve. We need to come around God’s table where all are welcome, and remember together that we are beloved and we are anointed to love.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear.”
For God is here.
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.”
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
October 2nd, 2016
Scriptures: Micah 6:6-8, Acts 2:42-47 Listen to the Audio
Thursday morning I went on an early morning walk and I walked to a place on what I like to call, “the Garden Church historical tour.” I went to the shady patch under the trees where we had our very first Garden Church Gathering, two years ago last week. I stood and thought about all the people who have been part of this work at different parts of this adventure, from the founding board members to the people who showed up when we were meeting once a month in the parks and walking around the community, to those who showed up here once we opened our gates and keep showing up. All the different beautiful people who have shown up to make church together.
Last night, when so many of you and so many wonderful members of our community gathered together in this space to celebrate and support the Cultivation of community, I stood and looked around: at the beauty under the sparkling lights, at the amazing spread, at the event that this awesome team pulled off…at all the people from all different parts of our community, those who have been with the Garden Church since it was just an idea, those who have been working and loving the San Pedro community all their lives, those who just came in the gate that evening. And all of them, all of us had in common that we showed up.
And that’s what I want to talk about together today, showing up. As we wrap up our three-week Cultivation series, looking at what it means to be church and make church together, we look at our third marker-point of being a Cultivator—Participation. Two weeks ago, we talked about our first marker of being a Cultivator—Prayer—and explored our spiritual commitment, and committing to regularly pray on our own and together, because our hearts and lives are changed by commitment to regular spiritual practice. Last week we talked about pledging, how we are all interconnected and how the way we use our financial resources is part of our spiritual practice and being part of the interconnected whole together. And finally this week, we’re looking at our third marker-point of being part of this community—Participation. Being involved. Showing up.
One of you said to me recently, “Showing up” is a refrain you use often.” I hadn’t specifically noticed this before. I know that I preach ad nauseum about the power of all kinds of people eating together and the dignity of all human beings, and how we want to be part of cultivating more heaven, here on earth. But this “showing up” wasn’t something I had consciously taken on as a theme.
But when we started talking about it, I realized it was, it is, because somehow it’s actually at the base of all of these other values we are working to embody here at the Garden Church. In order to come around God’s table with all kinds of people, we need to show up. For dreams to be realized, for empty lots to turn into vibrant urban farms and sanctuaries, we need to show up. For us to find reconciliation in our relationships and families, between races and classes, we need to show up. For us to regenerate, or grow in our spiritual lives, we need to show up. For us to be changed by a conversation with someone we wouldn’t normally interact with, we need to show up. If you want to see God in the faces of all you meet, you need to be out in the world meeting people and showing up.
Showing up is something that we need to do for our own spiritual practice with God, and showing up is something we need to do together, as we love our neighbor. In the Swedenborgian tradition, we talk a lot about the trios, the trinities of the Divine and of spiritual life. One of the core trios described is Love, Wisdom, and Useful service. At the core of all things is love, but for it to be experienced in the world, it needs to be coupled with wisdom and put into action in useful service. But it doesn’t end there; it then circles back around, and as we engage in useful service, we need wisdom to guide us, we experience love, and the circle continues. And in order to encounter and engage the Divine, to be part of that cycle of love and wisdom and useful service, we need to show up.
Now I’m not saying that showing up in life is always easy. It’s a simple phrase that I believe is core and true, but it’s not easy. Showing up requires deep prayer, for strength and humility, showing up requires our commitment and practices. Showing up to open our gates and have each of your wonderful faces walk through them takes a lot of work behind the scenes, cultivating resources, nurturing the networks and relationship. Showing up for some people means a battle to get out of bed in the morning, to overcome mental and physical challenges. Showing up means doing the work to be present to each other, to look inside ourselves and examine the places in us that would prefer to stay walled off, not reach out, not be present. Showing up to God means being willing and humble to rest in God, to trust God, to believe in our value and worth as creations of a loving creator.
And showing up, while it’s not always easy, and it takes determination and choice and often hard work, is also so simple. And as this beautiful passage from Micah reminds us, it’s all God asks. God does not delight in the giving of oil and rams, of burnt offerings and sacrifices. It’s how we show up and what we show up to. Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.
Showing up doesn’t mean we always know the outcome or are going to be able to accomplish things exactly the way we had planned. Showing up is that humble walking, that surrender to God, being reminded step by step that She is the one who knows the way and is leading and providing and though we rarely know exactly what God is going to be up to, it seems that research shows that it will be more surprising and delightful and uncomfortable and transformative than anything we could come up with on our own. And here’s the magical thing, when we show up, and expect God to show up, God always does—and then other people show up too.
I have told some of you about how 4:05 on Sundays is my nemesis, but 5:20 is a joy. And you know why that is? Because you all show up. Often at 4:05 there are just a handful of us here (and oh so many blessings to those of you who are here then). And sometimes as I pray and ring the singing bowl, I have a little chat with God. Sometimes it’s more polite than other times and often includes the words, “Um, God, I showed up, where is everyone else??” But God is always faithful, because you all are here, and then more of you come in and then I see an interaction between two of you that brings me to tears. And then we all pray together, and by the time we’re sharing Holy Communion and then gathering around the dinner table with all sorts of neighbors loving each other, my faith in God and church is once again renewed, as we all show up at the table together and God totally shows up.
So what does it mean to be church together, what do we need to keep being church together? I think it’s pretty simple really. We need to pray in our own lives, walking more and more in the way of God. And pray together, for each other and with each other, to meet the world and its challenges and its joys with a spirit of prayer. We need to pledge. Paying attention to our resources and regularly practice giving them in a way that serves the well-being of the interconnected whole, knowing that we are all needed and that there is enough—enough and some to share. And we need to Participate. We need to show up. Literally, to be church together, to make church together, we need to show up. To walk through those gates, to be here regularly together. We need to show up with our whole selves, share our weakness and our stories, share our wisdom and our gifts. Show up with the humility to learn and to be changed, with the courage to be uncomfortable, with the tenacity to keep being curious and exploring.
Because when we show up, we’re not just showing up for ourselves, we’re showing up for others; our commitment to be here re-imagining church together impacts that interconnected web. What we’re doing individually matters, and who we are as a church together matters. Something powerful is happening here, as Jana said last night, it’s one of those “bright spots” in a world where it’s so easy to be engulfed in the polarization and struggle. And friends, so many people are engaged in this experiment and learning from it, gaining inspiration and lessons, rejoicing with us and praying with us. And already, in this short bit of time, you all have inspired others. There’s a dinner church that’s starting up in Boston in part because they heard me speak about our work here at a conference last year and thought, “we can do that.” There are people in our community who are growing things in their backyards and changing their food waste habits. There are churches and seminary students throughout our denomination and in our larger network that are asking questions about how one might re-imagine church in their context. There are churches here in our community who are partnering with us and asking questions about food security and our unhoused neighbors.
We’ve had visitors from as far as Australia and the UK, strangers that have become friends because they have heard of what we all are cultivating here together, and are touched and inspired by it. We don’t know who we will inspire or how our faithfulness will touch others, but we believe and trust a God who has a big interconnected picture in mind and calls us to be faithful to our part. Those early Jesus followers didn’t know that we’d be reading about them and talking about them two centuries later. They just were showing up, breaking bread together, saying prayers, learning and sharing things in common, being community together. But their faithfulness, their willingness to show up touches us today, in this long string of humanity that is choosing to show up and be curious, asking, “How do we love God and love neighbor together in community?”
Mother Gemma, who many of you met a couple of weeks ago, is a priest in the Church of England, and one of those people who has been praying, and pledging and participating from afar with us since the start. After being with us last month, her own visions for planting a church were re-affirmed and heightened. Last Sunday morning, she texted me and shared clarity of starting what she’s calling “Street Church.” Taking an old church and planting a church for “people who live and work on the streets. With a night shelter, showers for sex works, hot breakfasts, fresh coffee and mass every day for everyone.” We kept texting, and agreed that she should open up a bank account and that she and I at least would start giving to it regularly. I sent her her $20 via PayPal, and committed to continue to give monthly and pray, because Street Church needs to come into being. Mother Gemma needs to be able to show up to her ministry.
Because we’re all in this together and this work of re-imagining church is one that we share across oceans, across denominations, across cultures, as we’re all part of the Lord’s church on earth, the Universal Church that is looking to see, what does it mean to be faithful in this generation, what might happen if we keep showing up together? And as I look around this space, as I look at how this work is moving out into our community, as I look around at all of you, I’d say, “what happens when we keep showing up to make church together, to be church together?” Really good things. So dear ones, let’s keep it up. Let’s keep making church together, and being church together. Let’s keep showing up and trusting and believing and seeing and celebrating how when we show up, God shows up and the world is a better place for it. Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with our God.
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.”
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 proceedsto 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 generoushearts, 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?
Rev. Anna Woofenden The Garden Church Scripture: Psalm 5:1-8, Luke 7:36-8:3
Wild Geese By Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
So did you notice what Jesus was doing? Again? Eating. Always eating. And always eating with the wrong people. And this time not only is he eating with the wrong people, he brings the wrong people to the house of the other wrong people.
In our gospel text today Jesus accepts the invitation to the house of a Pharisee, a member of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity. Going to dinner there would certainly be considered dining with “the wrong people” according to some of his rag-tag followers. But Jesus is classically indiscriminate. And of course he doesn’t stop there. Not only is he going to the home of this Pharisee, he’s also breaking all the rules at the home he’s going to. With Jesus comes the people who are with him and following him. If you invite Jesus over for dinner, he’ll probably bring his friends. And in this case, a woman in the city, who was a sinner. We don’t know who this woman is—she’s not given a name—though the writer of the text identifies her and points out that she is a known sinner.
What it meant in that context to be “a sinner” has a variety of possibilities, but what’s clear is that it was a culturally bound part of her identity at this point, it’s how people refer to her, how she is known in the community. This woman, a sinner, finds out that Jesus is there and comes into the house, bringing an alabaster jar of ointment. She stands behind him, at his feet, weeping, and begins to bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
Now Jesus’ host comes in, the Pharisee. Remember, this is a man who distinguishes himself by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly has pretensions to superior sanctity. This man, the Pharisee, says, “If this man were really a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” If this guy is really a rabbi, a faithful teacher, a prophet, he would never go against the moral and religious codes, He wouldn’t be allowing a woman, especially one who is a known “sinner” be in the same room with him, let alone touch his feet and anoint him. If this man is actually a faithful person of God, he would never allow himself to interact with someone who was so clearly out of the order of everything that defines the religious and acceptable.
At this point I picture Jesus looking at him, looking him deeply in the eyes, maybe shaking his head just a bit, and addressing him by name, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And Jesus goes on to tell a short little moralistic tale—A creditor had two people who owed—one owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. And then he asks this question:
“Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon answers, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
“You have judged rightly,” Jesus said.
Now we might stop there, just taking this as a simple moralistic tale, a bit of a smack down to this Pharisee, Jesus even somewhat accepting the premise that the Pharisee puts this woman, this “sinner” into, but calling for forgiveness. The creditor forgives both, the large debt and the small, indiscriminately. All are forgiven. But then comes the kicker, the forgiveness is sure and complete and available for all, it’s how we receive it, what we do with it, what our response is—that is where the great love comes in.
On Thursday evening a number of us gathered over at the pub for Theological Thursdays and discussed the inexhaustible topic of—God. We started with this premise—that God is Love. Not just in a cheery Sunday School way, but God is love as the source of all things in the Universe, God is love as the ground of all being, God is love as the creative force that breathed over the waters, the one who’s image we’re made in, the spirit and breath that sustains us each moment. If the essence of God is this kind of love, then the way of the Pharisee, the way of delineation, separation, and judgment, is not the way of God.
We wrestled deeply together, tracing theological threads and seeing how our view of God matters. How we see God matters. How we see God affects how we see ourselves, and how we see each other.
Emanuel Swedenborg wrote that, “Our image of God is like the first link in a chain, on which all our theology depends on.” –Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity
If we believe that God is all about judgment and who’s in and who’s out; if we believe that God is routinely angry with us, or that our worth in God’s eyes is based on an adherence to a specific religious or moral code or system; if we believe that God’s primary concern is dividing out who is “good” and who is “bad”, who is a “sinner” and who is “righteous,” then we see how we also look at the world and ourselves and other human beings around us in this context as well.
If I believe that God will only love and accept me based on my adherence to specific behaviors, then I will do whatever it takes to assure myself of this love. As humans, we like to make sure that we’re okay. A very human way to do this is to make sure that others aren’t. The Pharisee is a classic example; we do this and see this all the time. Articulating a moral code, a delineation of the value of a group of people, and then claiming it as the way of God. Putting rules and hierarchy and separation between people and God.
And then we see how violence is justified in the name of God, if a person is of a different religion, or skin color, or sexual orientation. If one’s concept of who God is reinforced with ideology and a culture that allows and extols violent acts on other humans, on other creations of God, and uses the name of God or a specific moral context in this justification, friends, this is deeply problematic—this is dangerous.
It is harmful and dangerous when we have an image of God that creates and reinforces the shame that we feel about the parts of ourselves that are vulnerable. It is harmful and dangerous when our own shame and insecurity then leads us to need to shore ourselves up by distinguishing ourselves from others and assuring ourselves of our right-ness by defining ourselves against others. It is harmful and dangerous when one can then begin to justify anger and violence against other people, specifically people that have become deemed “sinners” or outcasts, or the “other side.”
I had such a twisted pit in my stomach when I woke up this morning to the newsfeeds of another mass shooting, 50 people dead, in a nightclub in Orlando, and not any nightclub, but a gay nightclub, a place where those of various sexual orientation can go and find sanctuary, and safety, and community, and joy in a world that is struggling to see and embrace all people as sacred and valued.
I feel outrage and grief about the hatred, and, as my colleague Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis tweeted this morning, “Hatred with a gun in hand is a murderer.” We don’t all the intentions, and more details are coming forward. But what I do know is that hate was acted upon and people’s lives were lost. There are people grieving deeply today, because of hate. I want to be very very clear, that hate needs to be seen as what it is, and be alert and aware of how it can manifest in ourselves as well. So let’s just stop right now, and commit to standing with the way of love, no matter who or what ideology this is ascribed to.
What we do know today, is that hate and division and violence was acted upon last night and that far too many lives were ended and that far too many people are grieving today, and that fear is present for so many. And what we do know is that building on that fear, attaching our fear to any group of people, this is not the way of God, this is not the way that Jesus shows us, this is not how we need to be treating our human family. Let’s stand with our Muslims brothers and sisters and siblings—this will be incredibly important as this dialog continues to unfold. Let us stand with our LGBTQ friends and family and community members as yet another attack at personhood is being felt. Let us stand, in ourselves, in our communities in love, stand and face the fear.
Throughout the gospels we are encouraged towards a different way, to a way of peace, a way that rejects division and violence, a way of the Divine Love, and love between all creation, a love that is so much greater than any hate or division or hurt.
If God is the expansive force of love in the Universe, the very love and wisdom that comes into action and infills everything of creation, then Jesus, the Divine slipped into human skin, shows us this way of love. That the way of Divine Love is indiscriminate with who She eats with, the way of Divine Love breaks down all that human fear and shame and insecurity divides, the way of Divine Love forgives all without hesitation, and assures us of our belonging and worth by the very nature of being created out of this love.
When the woman, the known “sinner” in the community encountered Jesus, she encountered a return to herself, to her creator, to the wholeness that she was created in. Having become defined to the community, and likely even to herself, as this worthless “sinner” her return to wholeness, to being beloved, was monumental. This was not just an ideological or theoretical change for her, this forgiveness that she received and embraced from Jesus changed everything for her. No longer the outcast, the other, the shamed and shameful, she with grateful confidence walked straight into the house of that uptight, rule-based Pharisee and shamelessly expresses her gratitude for healing, for forgiveness, for love. She pours out her appreciation, and even in her expressions she’s returned to community, returned to wholeness.
She entered the house with the community, touched this teacher, this prophet, anointed him with oil, washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She knows the depth of the pain and anguish that comes when we are separated from God, separated from each other, separated from the deep knowing of our whole selves. She knows shame—shame from her choices and actions, shame from what others have placed upon her, shame from living on the edges of society.
“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
She knows what a big deal it is to receive and believe this deep and foundational love of the Divine, and her response is indicative of it. She pours out love. In response to deep love, she loves; in response to complete forgiveness, she loves; in response to a new start, she loves. “Go in peace” Jesus tells her.
Dear ones, this message of deep love, this challenge to forgive and be forgiven to our wholeness in our creator, this challenge is as crucial and imperative today as it was in our gospel text. Our personal work of spiritual growth and being healed and restored to our belonging to God and our belonging to each other is the work of healing the world. As we receive and deeply integrate the love and wholeness we are created in and for, we find our response is love—love to God and love to our neighbor. All our neighbors. Especially those that society has shamed and pushed to the edges. And when we receive that affirmation, that assurance of God’s expansive and unconditional love, when we clear out what separates and divides and accept that which is of God, we are changed. And we love. It’s not about the shame anymore or the suffering or as the poet Mary Oliver so powerfully said, “walk(ing) on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” When we embrace and receive this expansive love of God, we are changed, we are forgiven, and we respond to others in love.
And each time we respond in love, there is healing. There is healing each time we see other human beings and respond with love, truly believing that they too belong to God and that we belong to each other, each time that we choose compassion over violence, forgiveness over hate, each time we stand with those who are being separated and pushed to the edges in our community, each time we speak with the power of love in the face of hate, each time we let “the soft animal nature of our bodies love what it loves.” As we grieve together, as “I tell you my despair and you tell me yours.” There is healing as we lament and cry out for a world where hatred and fear and violence cease to dominate, all of this. All of this in the name of love.
And dear ones, I believe, not just in my head, but to the very core of my being, deep in that place where my very hope and purpose to keep getting up, to showing up, depends on it, that God is love. That the Divine force of Love that is the very essence of the universe is holding us, holding all of it, and is always reaching out, loving, forgiving, healing and calling us forward in the way of love. Divine Love is reminding us that we are not alone, that we belong to God, we belong to each other. No matter the harshness of the moment, the Spirit, like those wild geese, is calling out, over and over, announcing our place in the family of things.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
We 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.
It’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.”
Jesus 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.”
Friends 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.
On 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…
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.
Luke’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.
And 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.