Cultivation Series Part One: Prayer

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

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we pray for the people here and now.

Pray for those who are searching.

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

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

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

“Sermon Tapas” Revs. Anna Woofenden, Gemma Sampson, Sylvia Miller-Mutia, Asher O’Callahan and Alex Raabe

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The Garden Church, San Pedro
Revs. Anna Woofenden, Gemma Sampson, Sylvia Miller-Mutia, Asher O’Callahan and Alex Raabe
Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Luke 14:25-33

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon “Sermon Tapas” a collective sermon from our preaching group at the beginning of our yearly preachers retreat.

All the People, All the Tables

 

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A sermon for the Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
Rev. Anna Woofenden

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon “All the People, All the Tables”

Scriptures: Jeremiah 2:4-13
 and Luke 14:1, 7-14


I just got back from a wonderful road trip vacation to the Northwest, with my love. We drove up through California, spending a few days wondering at the redwoods and walking the rocky beaches before heading north to visit much of my family in Oregon and Washington, and then heading back south to see friends and chosen family in San Francisco. As we stayed in many different people’s homes and visited with loved ones, we found ourselves most often, around a dinner table—be it the picnic table by the pond on the property I grew up on, or the little table tucked in my grandmother’s kitchen. Around these tables, we heard stories, got caught up on each other’s lives, made small talk, and inevitably, someone would ask about you all, the Garden Church, and how it’s going.

And we found ourselves talking about this table. And that table. And how all different kinds of people keep coming around them and sharing and eating together. Yes, we’d share about how much produce we’re growing and the great discussions over theological Thursdays, and the cute Little Sprouts, and then we’d more often than not come back to stories about the table. Recounting how people who are living in the parks and people who work for multi-million dollar corporations come around this table together and find connection and friendship together.

I told them about how one of my favorite parts of communion is when we take it around this circle and then out, into the garden, to the person hanging by the front gate who thinks they’re “too smelly” to get any closer, to the parents chasing after their toddlers, and to the toddlers, to the teenager lurking in the shade. I told them about a few weeks ago when Jarret had brought his friend for the first time and when I leaned over to serve him communion, Jarret whispered, “his name is Joel” ensuring that I could serve him communion with his name. I told them about how some weeks I am sure there’s not going to be enough food, and then you all start walking through the gates and someone brings an unexpected dish and another something else… And how just about every week I stand back at some point during dinner and look at you all eating and talking and am just down-right amazed at how beautiful it all is. To have all kinds of people—eating together.

You’ll notice that I preach on this whole eating together—and Jesus eating together with people—thing a lot. You might ask, “Rev. Anna, don’t you have any other topics you could talk about?” But seriously, it keeps coming up in the gospel reading, because Jesus eats with people. A lot. And usually it’s with unexpected people and in unexpected places, and it does things that turn the social order upside-down. And this week’s gospel is no exception. Jesus is having dinner with some Pharisees (religious people who distinguished themselves by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity), and when Jesus noticed that some of them sat at the head of the table, vying for the best spots, he told this parable:

14:8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;

14:12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.

14:13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite those people that you know will invite you back, but instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite the people around your tables that you would least expect, the ones who might not have dinner otherwise, the ones who you don’t know, the ones who don’t usually get invited over for dinner.

Every week, we celebrate one of Jesus’ meals, a meal that has become known as “the last supper.” It’s the meal that the sacrament of Holy Communion arose from—when we come around the table and remember what Jesus left us to remember him, and his love—bread and cup, broken, and blessed, and passed and eaten together.

And that meal, I believe, was no expectation to Jesus’ turning things upside-down by eating with all different kinds of people.

Yet, at times that meal has become emblazoned into our collective imagination, into artwork and legends, as a pretty contained picture, such as the Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, with twelve well-behaved disciples, neatly gathered around a table, having a proper meal.

But stories like today’s gospel should tip us off to this not being Jesus’ way, and that even this meal that has become reenacted in such specific ways, likely was much more alive and messy and overflowing with all the wrong people than our ritualized tellings include. Likely it was much more like this feast that Jesus describes in this parable, a table filled with all the unlikely people—the ill and the lame and the disenfranchised and those who wouldn’t have been invited to the table and the ones who couldn’t spend Passover with their own families and the ones who didn’t have families to spend it with.

At one point, I took this question, “Who was at the table at the Last Supper?” to an in-depth reading of the gospel of Mark, wanting and wondering, because the traditional answer of the twelve male disciples just wasn’t sitting well with me. In part, my curiosity is with history and scripture, what happened, what stories were told, who told them, what has been suppressed, what has been remembered, but the question of “Who was at the Last Supper?” held more.

Because it’s quickly followed by the question that haunts me, troubles me, follows me around like a seven-year-old pulling on my sleeve and that is the question: “Who is around our table?”

Throughout Christian history, the sacrament of Communion, Eucharist, Holy Supper has been practiced. The blessing, breaking, and eating (or sometimes just viewing) the bread. The blessing and pouring, passing and drinking of the cup. This meal that Christ infused with incarnational memory—“Do this in remembrance of me.”

This is the meal that can be one of gathering together, breaking through our barriers, be they of class or race, denomination or creed.

And this is the meal that has precipitated barricades around the table, barring people from the table based on their profession of faith, denomination, moral standing, difference, sexual orientation, race, class or opinion. It has been used both to include and to exclude.

My own journey—as I am drawn to explore deeply this theology of the table—has led me not only to wanting all to be welcome at the table, but a theology of the table that names hierarchy and patriarchy, division and exclusion, and consciously breaks those patterns with the simple, yet revolutionary sharing of this sacrament. A theology of the table as a place of community, reconciliation, coming together, breaking down barriers and living and loving together as human family. And so, I took these questions—Who is around our table? And Who was at the Last Supper?—to the gospel of Mark and I found…the simple answer is, “the disciples.” Now I don’t know about you, but the first thing I picture is those twelve men gathered around this table, the twelve disciples, the disciples.

It wasn’t until I read the gospel of Mark. Cover to cover, and then I went through it again looking at every instance where “the disciples” are mentioned. And all of a sudden I’m quite sure, according to this author at least, that da Vinci did not get the proper guest list before he started mixing his paints.

In the Gospel according to Mark I counted the word “disciples” 53 times. As I meditated on these 53 mentions of “the disciples” there were a few themes that showed up. The first thing I noticed is that 20 of these mentions had something to do with eating. First who they ate with (Jesus, disciples, tax collectors and sinners), the breaking of eating laws (grain on the Sabbath, unwashed hands), and then we’ve got two miraculous feeding stories, we’ve got the disciples “forgetting the bread” when they’re out on the boat and then this story that we now know as “the last supper.”

Now with the exception of forgetting the bread (save one loaf) on the boat and the grain fields, and our text today, all of the other instances took place with three key players: 1. Jesus. 2. “The disciples.” 3. Crowds of people.

This leads me to my next noticing. Jesus certainly had a select following—people who traveled with him regularly. And then there were the crowds in each town. “The disciples” are a community. A group of people traveling with and learning from Jesus—followers of Christ. Distinct from “the crowd” certainly, but not as selective as only “the twelve” if my reading holds true.

The disciples, as I read through these passages, seem to clearly refer to a group of people, followers of Jesus.

It’s hard to know, because we weren’t there. But I can imagine from all I know of Christ’s counter-cultural, gender-breaking, gentile loving, tax-collector befriending ways. From where it says that just verses before this meal, he received an anointing by a woman at Bethany who poured out all that she had to perform the ritual act of prophetically claiming him as Christ, “the anointed one” calling him out as the priest and king with this abundant gift. This Christ, this Christ that seemed boarder-line obsessed with inclusion, breaking down barriers that held people apart, and abolishing anything that judged people on creed or skin, gender or class, this Christ is the one who called his disciples around the table. The disciples of Jesus.

And so the painting that I used to know has faded. It was useful in its acceptable and predicable way, but it has faded. And on the canvas there are new strokes appearing. Much more messy and crowded, confusing and boisterous. The room is overflowing as the women and men, young and old, able bodies and slow, creaking ones, those who lived lives of luxury before they took their sandals to the dusty streets to follow this Christ alongside those who are glad when bread is multiplied, as hunger had been their way of life.

This Last Supper, this gathering around the table, it seems it may have been a more eclectic crew than we like to think. It may have rocked the foundations of culture and tradition, before the bread was broken or the wine was passed.

And it keeps rocking the foundations today.

As I sat around my friends Sara and Martha’s table on Monday evening, with another beautifully eclectic crew that gathers at their home for dinner on Monday evenings, I was asked again about our table here. And as I described it, it sounded again something a little like this Last Supper. All different kinds of people, from all different backgrounds. We don’t agree on everything or think the same way. We may not hang out together outside of church, or live in the same neighborhoods. But we keep being drawn together around this table. And around that table. And looking in each other’s eyes, and feeding and being fed.

We keep showing up to a place where we can gather together in our brokenness, in our vulnerability, in our humanity, and with the hope of encountering the sacred. Around a table that is not a place of questioning our worth, qualifications, or cultural shibboleths. The table is a place where disciples, followers of Christ, lovers of God’s way—all of us hungry to share together in this sacred meal—are drawn around the table in our wholeness and brokenness, putting down grudges and judgments, labels and divides. We come together around the table to take the bread, bless it, break it, and share it—the Bread of Life given for us. And to take the cup, bless it, pass it and drink it, the Cup of Salvation shed for all. Around this table, God’s table, where all can feed and be fed.

“Enough and Some to Share”

TGC10

Rev. Anna Woofenden
7/31/2016

Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon 
Scripture: Genesis 41 and Luke 12:13-21

Before I begin, a disclaimer: I know it’s not Christmas, but I’m going to use a story from “It’s a Wonderful Life” anyway.

Do you remember the scene at the very end of the movie? After Uncle Billy loses the Bailey Building and Loan’s $8,000 deposit and the small bank fails the bank examiner’s inspection, George Bailey is at his total and complete wits’ end. Where will he come up with the money to save the town and save his family? He sees no hope, and is preparing to end his life when an angel comes along and leads him through visions of what life would have been like if he hadn’t been in it. He saw how his brother would have drowned, how his mother would have suffered, how the town would have gone downhill had he not been part of it. Having seen how his life really did matter, he runs back to his family where his wife Mary has been rallying the town, and they collectively have come up with enough money and good will to get through the crisis together.

Now, you could say that this story is all about money, or a lack of money, that this plot line is all about economics. Yet, as anyone who watches it knows, the narrative invites us deeper. There’s something else going on here, something that holds both the reality of the physical needs and the deeper truths about spirit and heart and community.

Imagine with me for a moment the last scene for example: that iconic moment where George is receiving baskets full of money and his old high school friend calls from London and pledges $25,000… if you took that snapshot at face value, one might say it was all about the money, and yet, what is the feeling in that scene? It’s so far from greed, or being hung up on material possessions. The feeling is all about the people, the closeness that comes after desperation, the preciousness of family when you’ve glimpsed your life without it, the generosity of community coming together and offering the little they had to make together enough, enough to save the family and the town.

Some who read our parable of the rich man today might read it purely on the physical level, and go on to conclude that, “money is the root of all evil,” but I don’t think it’s that simple (besides, it is misquoting the original phrase which is, “the love of money is the root of all evil”). Instead, I would posit, selfishness and greed are the roots of evil, and whenever we are selfish, whenever we are greedy, this is the problem. Money, material things, clothing, houses, cars, any material possession are not innately good or evil; it’s what we do with it, why we do what we do, who we are serving, and how we interact that matters.

We had two parallel stories in our scripture readings today, both having to do with the storing up of grain—of material things—but each with drastically different intentions and markedly different results.

In the story of Joseph in the Hebrew Scriptures, we see how God guided Joseph to not only save the people of Egypt from starvation, but also save his own family, as he was led in the interpretation of dreams that there would be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Joseph was a good leader and an efficient manager. He organized storing up grain during the years of plenty, most certainly building barns and putting away the grain, in order to be ready to feed the community during the seven years of famine.

Then in the parable, Jesus tells us in the gospel of Luke that this very same action is not good. Jesus gives the example of a rich man who has an abundant harvest, and doesn’t have the storage facilities to keep it. The rich man asked himself, “What will I do? I know, I’ll build bigger barns, then I’ll store the abundant harvest so that then I’ll be set and I can relax and eat, drink, and be merry.” But then God replies to this rich man, “Fool, this very night your life will be taken from you, and these things you have prepared, then whose will they be?” Jesus ends the parable with these words: So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

So what do we do with these two stories? What do we do when the Bible seems to contradict itself, to be telling us two completely different messages?

This is one of the many places where we have the opportunity to hold the “both/and” that we often talk about here in our community. Not holding one exclusive or particular way of reading the text, but instead knowing that God is in the complicated, in the messy, and is always drawing out that which helps us to love God and love neighbor. When we hold these two texts together within a both/and reading, some interesting themes and messages start to emerge.

Here we have very similar situations and actions—an abundant harvest and storing up into barns—yet the motivation is different. In the story of Joseph, his reason for gathering up the harvest during the seven years of plenty and storing it away is for the common good. Whereas the rich man’s response to an abundant harvest is self-centered; his storing up is only for his own enjoyment and false sense of security, and doesn’t take into account God or others.

What arises for me from these two parallel stories is this: Motivation matters, intention matters, and the reasons we do the things we do matter.

It’s not the storing up that’s bad—but the question is, for what purpose? Saving for future material needs is one component of proper stewardship of God’s bounty. Appropriate concern for the future is balanced, however, with awareness of how the love of God and neighbor are involved. To be aware of how our choices affect all facets of our interconnected system, to make choices that take the marginalized into account, to give freely and generously of what we have to others, to be good stewards of what we’ve been given.

The rich man is not set as a negative example because he had the abundant harvest, or even because he was going to build bigger barns, but because with all the excess in his life, he turns to only pleasing himself. He gets stuck in that trap that we so easily can as well—that the goal in life is the abundance of possessions. We are encouraged to spend more, have more, use more, supersize and maximize. We start to believe that these are the signs of a good life, yet these are the signs of the external. What actually goes with us—what lasts? This parable reminds us, it’s our hearts, our interactions with others, our intentions and loves that endure—where your treasure is, your heart will be also.

In one of Emanuel Swedenborg’s books, he talks about what people are asked after death as they prepare to gravitate towards heaven or hell. Rather than asking, “What is your belief?” or “What are the things that you think about faith and religion?”, we are instead asked, “What is your life?” What is the life you lived? How did your faith and beliefs lead you to a life of useful service, a life in relationship with God, a life of serving our neighbor? It’s not whether we have grain in barns or material wealth, it’s really how we live and operate within whatever we have.

Being rich in God transcends economics. Being rich in God does not deny our need for material provision, for homes and clothing, beauty and food. But being rich in God is not dependent on it. Being rich in God, is responding to whatever comes our way, whether it’s abundant harvest or deep financial hardship, with knowledge that in the end, it’s where our heart is and what our actions have been that matter. We are all interconnected, and the choices we make for ourselves are part of the effect for many.

When we have our community meal later in our gathering, we’ll sing our blessing song as we go to dinner, “there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.”

Our two stories today invite us to look at that fundamental question, a fundamental choice of how we show up in the world. Is there “enough and some to share?” Do we believe this?

Do we believe this when we’re living on the street? Or when our next child needs to go to college? When the car breaks down and then the refrigerator quits? What is our response when we encounter extra abundance in life? Is it to rush out and buy that thing we’ve been drooling over, or squirrel it away for a rainy day? Far be it from me to say that there is one right response to any of these scenarios. But what we have in this parable today is the invitation to pay attention to our responses and to our motivations and intentions in the choices we make.

On some level, we can all get stuck in the trap of thinking that material resources will save us.—if we just get_____, it will all be okay, if I figure out how to pay for this thing, if, if, if… Ultimately, we know that being rich in God is what matters; where our heart is, our treasure will be also.

And this awareness of our motivations and intentions applies to times of abundance, and it applies to times of loss and lack and struggle too. Providing for basic needs, saving for the future, being able to enjoy life, these are important things, and I believe that they are within the realms of faithful following. And wanting these basic necessities, working for them, this is right and good.

Just as we are given the invitation to read and hold scripture with a both/and attitude, we are invited to hold life this way too.

We need money and resources in order to survive in this culture and world. Truly everyone should have a clean safe house to live in, to be able to eat, to have access to education and clean clothing. Everyone should have the opportunity to sleep peacefully and not worry every night about their safety or where their next meal will come from. And yet, we’re not there yet. Some of us live in nice homes, others of us are camping out in the parks, some of us have to keep a super close eye on the bank account each month before we write our rent check and worry about making ends meet, some of us never know where our next meal is coming from. There is a both/and reality in our world and a both/and reality in each of our lives. And, there is an interconnected reality—each of our lives is intertwined with the lives of others, as well as with God.

And so each one of us, all of us, individually and collectively, is called to pay attention to the both/and of these stories and the both/and in the world around us. We’re called to pay attention to what is our relationship is to the material things around us: How do we respond when we encounter abundance? How do we respond when we encounter scarcity? And this is another reason we need to be in community, to keep interacting with each other, because it reminds us that it’s not all about us. Each of our choices impact the greater web of economics, of systems, favoring some and not others.

And this is why we need to commit, and then re-commit ourselves to a life where we ardently believe in the provision and abundance of God, and take it upon ourselves to be faithful stewards with whatever is given us. And with whatever is given us, whether it is incredible material wealth, or a bowl of soup, we can take into account the needs of others and we share. Be it sharing a piece of our burrito with someone, giving a percentage of our income to the church and organizations we believe in, opening our home to a family member in need, or helping the person in front of you in line at the grocery store. These practices, these actions help to change us from the inside out. They shift our focus from the “it’s all about me” of the rich man in the parable, to “how can I faithfully be part of feeding the greater whole” of Joseph. Remembering that we are all connected—part of God’s interconnected web of life—and that somehow if we all engage it and show up to it, that there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.

“How the Encounters Will Change Us” New Church Live, PA – Video 5/22/2016

Watch and listen to Rev. Anna Woofenden’s talk at New Church Live in Bryn Athyn, PA.

 

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“Listen Through the Fear” Sermon for 6/19/16

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Rev. Anna Woofenden
Audio:
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.

(https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/intense-emotions-and-strong-feelings/201112/the-complexity-fear)

What do you do when you’re afraid?

Close off?

Run away?

Push people away?

Go into a cave?

Try to fix it?

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.

On being queer and being safe—by Amy Kumm-Hanson (please take the time to read this whole powerful piece here: http://amychanson.blogspot.com/2016/06/on-being-queer-and-being-safe.html)

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.”

“Forgive.”

“Change your mind.”

“Be gentle.”

“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.”

Mary Oliver, Thirst

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“The Response is Love” Sermon for 6/12/16

IMG_1793Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Scripture: Psalm 5:1-8, Luke 7:36-8:3
AUDIO

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.

IMG_1795On 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.”

IMG_1792I 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.

IMG_1784And 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.

Go in peace friends; go in love.
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