When I moved to Los Angeles in 2014 to start a church that connected people with food, the earth, each other, and God, I envisioned a sanctuary created around the table. It would not be built out of stones and stained glass and wood but would be circled by vegetable beds and fruit trees, with sky for ceiling and earth for floor. The vision was to create an urban farm and outdoor sanctuary feeding people in body, mind, and spirit.
Before we had a plot of land to cultivate together, we asked our team: What do we have? What are the resources that are already here and how can we use them to nurture this dream?
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church Listen to the audio 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
Wayfarers Chapel 1.8.17
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12 Listen to the audio
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.
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.
11.20.16 The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Scripture: Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 1:68-79
Messenger 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.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Scripture: 1 Kings 19:1-15
“God’s love goes forth not only to good people, but to evil people. God loves not only those who are in heaven, but also those who choose hell, for God is everywhere and forever the same.” –Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity 43
When I was a child, I was very afraid of wind, and earthquakes, and fire. My fear of fire was probably primary—growing up in a house with a wood stove and attention to fire safety, it was ingrained in my psyche at a very young age that fire was something to be careful with and that if it was out of control it could be very harmful. I remember having a reoccurring nightmare that people were marching around our house with gigantic rhubarb leaves, which were on fire. Strangely it wasn’t that there were people marching around our home, or the oversized produce that scared me, it was the fire.
These fears subsided some over the years, though bits of them still remain. One can say, “Don’t be afraid” and work to not respond out of fear. But there is also some reality to these things. I learned that some of these of the fears were legitimatized, when a friend’s house burned to the ground, when the windstorm blew a tree onto a neighbor’s house, and seeing San Francisco after soon after the large earthquake in the late ‘80s. These things I was afraid of were real.
I have been struggling with feeling afraid this week, and walking with others who are afraid. Afraid for our communities, afraid for our nation, afraid of the ramifications of seemingly greater and greater divides between people and groups, afraid of guns, and violence. I’ve been feeling afraid for the children and teens I know who have come out or might. I’ve been hearing from my queer friends and people of color about their fears, and the fears that they live with day in and day out being confirmed. There are things to be afraid of.
The prophet Elijah in our scripture today was afraid. And he had good reason. After having a showdown with the prophets of Bael and winning, Queen Jezebel is not happy and is after him, and he’s on the run. He’s so afraid of being caught and killed that he runs out into the desert, prepared to die.
It was out there in the desert, in his place of utter despair, that an angel of the Lord comes to him. God meets him out there in the desert—fear and all—and provides for him. An angel brings him water and a cake baked on hot stones, and nourishes him and provides for the next leg of the journey.
And then the Lord asked, “What are you doing here Elijah?”
I kind of picture Elijah rolling his eyes and getting a little impatient, like, “Haven’t you been paying attention, Lord, to all that’s going on?”
And so Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He’s been through this big and difficult encounter and been faithful, and people are after him. He’s feeling desperate and afraid, and the Lord has the audacity to ask him “What are you doing?” “I’ve been very zealous!” is the prophet’s reply.Do something about this; I have been doing what you told me, but now I’m going to die. He’s afraid.
From an evolutionary perspective, the emotion of fear protected humans from predators and other threats to the survival of the species. So it is no wonder that certain dangers evoke that emotion, since fear helps protect us and is therefore adaptive, functional, and necessary. However, there is another important aspect of emotions to consider that, in the case of fear, may be important to decision making as well as survival. That is, when an emotion is triggered, it has an impact on our judgments and choices in situations.
In the wake of the Orlando shootings early last Sunday morning, and witnessing the national grief and trauma this week, I’ve felt sadness and frustration and fear. And my response is that I want to fix it. Make it all better and make sure no one ever gets hurt again.
Maybe if I could rally enough signatures on gun control, or if I could have enough conversations about the need to be inclusive of all people in religious communities, or if I could change the mind of that person in my life who’s political views terrify me, or if I could craft the perfect Facebook post, maybe, just maybe then I could escape some of the fear and heartbreak that I am feeling.
On Wednesday I was talking to a dear friend and fellow preacher and we were sharing our fears and sharing our wrestling with our response. She was my water and fresh bread in the wilderness. She reminded me that, “our trust in God and our willingness to open our heart up to the heartbreak is the only thing you have to give your people.”
We are not always safe and there are things to fear. There is pain, there is suffering, there are things that need to change—and we are not alone. God meets us in the fear, God is present with us in the pain, God is the force of love that takes the heartbreak and despair and transforms it into defiant love that does not run away from the fear, but stays with it and audaciously claims God’s love is stronger.
Yes, like Elijah I’m so tempted to run away and hide in a cave. Or busy myself with things so I don’t have to really meet the fear or listen and feel the heartbreak.
But here’s the thing—even in the cave, God shows up.
God shows up to Elijah in the cave and asks, “What are you doing here Elijah?” And when Elijah gives his long list, God invites him to the entrance to the cave, because “the Lord is going to pass by.”
And then comes all the chaos, the wind, the earthquakes, the fire. And Elijah didn’t hear God in any of it, there was too much noise. And then, then there was a sheer silence.
We talk each week at the Garden Church about the difference between quiet and silence. Quiet is devoid of any noise or chaos, set apart and separate from the world, safe from all that might interrupt it, which is never the case in our outdoor sanctuary, with the wind, and the traffic, the birds and the helicopters. Silence on the other hand is something much deeper, much more profound. Silence is about listening, silence is about intention; silence invites us, even in the middle of the noise of the city, even in the chaos of the world, even within the chatter of our own fears clattering around in our heads, to listen for God. Listen for, watch for how God is always passing by. It was after that sheer silence that God’s question came again: “What are you doing here Elijah?”
It is in these places of deep listening, of sheer silence, where we meet and face our deepest fears, where we encounter ourselves, where we can encounter God. Not through immediately trying to jump in and fix it, not by running away to hide in our own version of a cave, but through staying present, present to the heartbreak, present to the love, present to the human beings around us and listening.
As a straight ally, it is always, and particularly in a week like this, my most important job to listen. To listen to my LGBTQ friends share and tell me about how they are experiencing this act of violence, not to try to fix it or make it all okay, but to deeply listen to the pain and the suffering. Listen to the stories that are different than mine and hear God in silence, in the words of others. As we practice listening together, I want to share with you the words of my friend and colleague Amy Kumm-Hanson.
I came of age in the ‘90s. I knew I was queer around the same time that Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. And Wyoming is not that far, geographically or ideologically, from where I was raised in Montana. This was before widespread usage of the Internet and way before the age of social media, so this publicized case was the only example I had of being gay.
This was before “It Gets Better.” Ellen DeGeneres had come out on network television, but to a teenager in Montana, the idea that you could be accepted and even loved for who you loved, was about as realistic as living on the moon.
(Years later) I have celebrated marriage equality in the capital building of Minnesota. I have marched in pride parades. I’ve spoken publicly about what it is to be queer, a Christian, and to be human. Just one week ago, I married the love of my life in a ceremony with over 200 of our friends and family present. I have been filled with life.
And yet, just a mere seven days after I professed my love to my wife in front of my nearest and dearest, I was reminded again of death. I am not a child anymore, but that child inside of me who fears for her safety and her life is still there.
I don’t have a solution. I don’t really have words right now. I need allies to speak the truth about the events in Orlando. I need allies to attend to my safety and those of my community. I need allies to continue to create safe spaces for all youth to feel loved, but especially queer youth, because the world can be cruel.”
Friends, we all need to work together to create spaces for all youth to feel loved, but especially queer youth, because the world can be cruel. We need to create a world where people are not shot, but especially people with colored skin, because the world can be racist.
We need to create a world where all are housed and clothed and fed, but especially those that are suffering from mental illness and addiction, because the world can be apathetic. We need to work together to listen.
Hearing God in each other. Seeing God in each other. Responding to our fears by listening deeply, and as we listen deeply to see the humanity of all people.
In 1997, the Swedenborgian Church of North America, the denomination this church is a part of, ordained our first openly gay minister. But before that, in 1986, eleven years earlier, some important listening happened that led to a fundamental shift. In 1975, the first woman was ordained. Then in 1986, rather than adding another classification of people on the list that we ordain, men, now women, now gay as well as straight, there was a transformative change to the approach.
In the words of Dr. Jim Lawrence: “we don’t ordain gay people, nor straight people; we don’t ordain women, and we don’t ordain men, neither do we ordain persons of color or white folks: we ordain people who are trained and prepared to offer skilled ministry in the world.”
This change in the policy of one organization by no means has fixed all the problems or changed all our hearts and minds. But I believe it is an example of the shift that can happen when we begin to really listen, to show up, to see the humanity in everyone and see people first as people. To make this shift, over and over again, in ourselves and in our world, we have to deeply acknowledge and work on the areas where we, individually, and collectively, in our own prejudices and in our systemic systems are oppressing and marginalizing people.
In listening deeply to other people, especially those whose experiences of life and the world vary from our own, we come face to face with the ways that we are all interconnected. We realize that we need to—in the words of Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal woman from Australia—continue to work alongside each other for liberation, “because your liberation is tangled up in mine.”
We’re human first, children of God. We belong to God and we belong to each other. In the fear and the chaos we can forget that. Which is why we need to be with the silence. Even if it means coming face to face with our fears.
“What are you doing here Elijah?” God asks again.
Even after the chaos of the wind and earthquake and fire, when God asks him the same question, his answer is the same, “I am very zealous for the Lord.”
Okay, the Lord says, “Go, return on your way.”
It’s not necessarily epic or earth-shattering on the other side of silence, when God’s voice speaks to us,
“Go on your way.”
“Go on a walk.”
“Change your mind.”
“Keep showing up.”
“Hug your children.”
“Slow down enough to see others.”
“Let your heart break.”
“Let your heart be transformed.”
“Go on your way.”
Or in the words of Mary Oliver:
“It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot,
or a few small stones; just pay attention,
then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate,
this isn’t a contest, but the doorway into thanks,
and a silence in which another voice may speak.”