A Sermon for Pentecost preached in Cambridge, MA on May 20th, 2018 by Rev. Anna Woofenden
A Sermon for Pentecost preached in Cambridge, MA on May 20th, 2018 by Rev. Anna Woofenden
It was a joy to explore the idea of God as the Divine Composter with the good people of Wake Forest Divinity School this week. You can listen to the audio here.
I have a good friend Athena, who can make friends anywhere, and usually does. My first memory of her was from the first day of college, freshman year at our dorm orientation. I had traveled all the way across the country from northwest Washington, to Philadelphia, knowing only a few people and starting off by myself in this new adventure. My roommate and I, both on the shy and reserved side, were literally sitting in a corner, watching everything going on around us, when this beautiful tall young woman in overalls bounded over and said, “Hi! I’m Athena, what’s your name?!”
That was the beginning of a life-long friendship Athena, and I’ve had the privilege of watching how she makes friends and connections, literally around the world. And I’ve learned a lot from her approach to other people and to life. Her passions and work continue to take her around the world, and I’ve watched how she’s able to serve in various cultures—not as an outside colonizing force, but because she goes into the community and makes friends first. She gets to know the people and the needs and the strengths. She asks about the family and the stories and the history. She connects and gives of herself and receives what they offer. And she sees each person as a potential friend. I’ve seen this skill get us out of dicey situations, such as a late-night machine-gun armed checkpoint late at night in Conakry, Guinea. I’ve seen it introduce me to community I wouldn’t have known otherwise, like the retired Catholic women in Longmont, Colorado who she went and did centering prayer with. This talent has helped Athena get to know the withered hard-core conservative owner of the eclectic corner store down the road from her farm. She has taught me over and over, to approach people as potential friends, to look for the humanity in all kinds of people, and to see the joy, connection, and even self-preservation, that come from approaching the world with a wise and open heart.
I thought of Athena when I read this story of Abraham this week. This story of how Abraham leaps out of his sleepy afternoon nap to greet these unknown guests and give them a welcome, and then learns he was greeting “the Lord.”
Retrospect is everything isn’t it? We read this ancient story of Abraham, with the frame, with the context. The scene starts off with these words, “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Marme, as he sat by his tent in the heat of the day.” The text we read says, “the Lord appeared,” and then that, “He, Abraham, looked up and saw three men standing near him, and he ran from his tent entrance, to meet them and bowed to the ground.”
Well, to us, reading this story now, that seems to make sense—right?—because we were just told that the Lord was going to visit Abraham and then three men show up. And maybe that’s a little odd, but then Abraham confirms to us that it must be something special like the Lord, because he ran out and greeted them and bowed to them.
But context is everything, isn’t it? I’d like to posit, to imagine, how this story might have gone down in real-time with Abraham.
Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, the scorching afternoon heat was intense and he was taking a much-needed break in the shade. He was just dozing off when he saw figures in the distance, three of them. Visitors were not necessarily very common out in the desert by the oaks of Marme, and it could have as easily been lost travelers, conniving bandits, friends, or foes. Of course we don’t know what went through Abraham’s head, but I am imagining myself in that situation and it seems to me that he demonstrated a philosophy that he had chosen, over and over again to respond to visitors, and that he immediately put it into action in this story. It reminds me of Athena, making friends wherever she goes. It doesn’t say Abraham ran into his house and hid, or sent a servant out to check them out, or lazily sat and waited for them to approach him. No, he ran out to them, greeted them, bowed down. He treated these unknown people who approached him as honored guests, as welcomed friends, as the Lord, in whom it appears they were.
We’re entering a time in our liturgical calendar called “Ordinary Time.” We’ve been in the season of event after event, from Advent, to Lent, Holy Week and Easter, through Pentecost. Here at the Garden Church, we’ve added in Earth Day expos and two-year birthdays with Membership Sundays. I admit, there’s a part of me that thrives on that—the adrenaline, the hustle, the coming together, and the community that’s built when we all pitch in. This is a gift for a season. But today as we enter into it, I give thanks for ordinary time, because leaning into that right now, friends, is exactly what I believe we need.
Author and wise teacher Sister Joan Chittister wrote this about ordinary time: She says, “It’s what we do routinely, not what we do rarely, that delineates the character of a person. It is what we believe in the heart of us that determines what we do daily. It is what we bring to the nourishment of the soul that predicts the kind of soul we nurture. It’s what we do ordinarily, day by day, that gives an imitation of what we will do under stress. It is our daily actions—the way we act ordinarily, not rarely—that defines us as either kind, or angry, or faithful, or constant. No doubt about it: the daily, the normal, the regular, the common is what gives clarity to the essence of the real self.”
It’s in the ordinary time, that we focus on establishing these patterns, these practices, these ways of life that help us to respond to, and approach the world from a place of faith, of God, of love.
As we go out from communion here at the Garden Church, we pray these words, “Seeing the face of God in all we meet and engaging your love in all we do.” We pray those words after coming around this table, with people who we might otherwise have not sat with, shared with, prayed with, or eaten with. Each week, one of my favorite parts of being in this community is the honor of walking around this circle and looking into each of your eyes. Without this time, I might not have the honor of seeing that Divine Light shining out of faces, looking at the deep tanned lines or crumbling teeth, or looking deeply at the face that is usually up on stage or testifying at city council. When we gather around this table, when we greet each other in this space, I feel the truth of that thing that Abraham does, that thing that my friend does, when we approach the world with belief that the people we meet have the potential to be friends, that we have our humanity in common. Language, or culture, or class, or race, or ideology may divide us, but that there is something we share together in our shared humanity that is beyond that.
Isn’t this what we need in the world today?
There’s another story that has been very present with me this week— agitating and disturbing me—it’s a hard story, and a painful story, it’s a story that I believe needs to be told alongside the story of Abraham, and our stories here.
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was fatally shot by Jeronimo Yanez, a St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer, after being pulled over in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul. Castile was driving a car with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter as passengers when he was pulled over by Yanez and another officer. According to Reynolds, after being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer he was licensed to carry a weapon, and had one in his pants pocket. Reynolds said Castile was shot while reaching for his ID after telling Yanez he had a gun permit and was armed. The officer shot at Castile seven times.
Diamond Reynolds live-streamed a video on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. It shows her interacting with the armed officer as a mortally injured Castile lies slumped over, moaning slightly and his left arm and side bloody. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office ruled Castile’s death a homicide and said he had sustained multiple gunshot wounds. The office reported that Castile died at 9:37 p.m. CDT in the emergency room of the Hennepin County Medical Center, about 20 minutes after being shot.
On November 16, 2016, John Choi, the Ramsey County Attorney, announced that Yanez was being charged with three felonies: one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. Choi said, “I would submit that no reasonable officer knowing, seeing, and hearing what Officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force under these circumstances.”
I have been struggling with these two stories, the story of Abraham and the story of Philando Castile and Jeronimo Yanez, the past few days. And I’ve been replaying both of them in my head. It was yesterday morning as I was lying in bed feeling so agitated that yet another police officer, after murdering an innocent black man, was let free, that I began to see the parallel with our text for today.
There are so many things that need to change in our justice system, in the way that laws and sentencing happen, with who we elect, etc.—that is overwhelming in itself. We see this locally, we see this nationally, we see this globally. And alongside the intertwined work that needs to happen, there is also a deeper layer that is true—our hearts and minds need to change. The way each of us have been formed in ways of and prejudice—be it white supremacy or against immigrants or Muslims, all those who are “other” than who we are, of fear of what we don’t know and assumption about the hearts and motivations of others before seeing them as a precious human being—need to change.
What if Officer Yanez had approached Philando Castile as our ancestor Abraham approached his unknown guests? What if we all saw the face of God first and foremost in others?
I know, I know, this is tricky, because yes, in each of us humans there is both the face of God and the potential for evil and harm. And please hear me, I am not suggesting that we stop being wise and discerning, trusting our gut when we feel something might be dangerous to ourselves or our loved-ones. But don’t you think, don’t you think the world would be a better place if we could move our minds and hearts from a primary place of suspicion, and fear and defense to a place of offering wise and open-hearted trust? To move our hearts from the place where our first reaction is to differentiate ourselves from other people—sorting in our heads how we are not like them—to a place where we first look for how they too are beloved children of God?
This is deep work, friends, and work that we are each called to over and over and over again. It’s one of the reasons I believe it is so crucial that we keep coming around this table, because we keep getting changed as we share the sacrament and the meal with each other, with people that maybe in the past we would be quick to classify. That guy in a suit who walks quickly by the corner, that woman who clutches her purse when she walks by me in the alley, that rich person who drives the fancy car, that conservative with the Trump sign in their front yard, that homeless person, that black person, that Hispanic person, that white person, that straight white male, that big black man, you finish this list for yourself.
Ordinary time is the spiritual invitation to cultivate in ourselves and in our community not just the big exciting things, but the deeper things, the everyday things, the things that sustain us and keep us strong and together. To notice and cultivate as Sister Joan invites us to, “the kind of soul we nurture.” How is it that we are nurturing our souls, individually and collectively, to be people that respond to the world around us with compassion and justice and the good of all people in mind?
It’s a time to consider your prayer practice, a time to explore what it means to pray together as a family. It’s a time to commit to going on that daily walk, or getting a spiritual director, or finally going to therapy to give yourself space to sort through the things you need to sort through. It’s a time for us to consider how we nurture one another in this spiritual community, to notice how our practices and our time together is spent, to pay attention to how God is at work through us together and how we are fed as we feed each other.
Ordinary time is a time to see, and feel, and believe, that this is actually exactly where we find God, in the ordinary, in the every day, in the face of the people we interact with and meet. The thing about the ordinary is, that within it we find the most sacred. The bread, the cup. The faces around this circle, the interaction on the sidewalk. In our deep breaths, in our prayers too deep to utter.
We focus and remember in ordinary time how these simple acts are deeply profound. Sabine and Avila serving communion. The grubby hands reaching out for a blessing. The depth of pain in those who are experiencing loss. The inner churning as we yearn for justice. The tender look between parent and child, or between lovers. The simple touch. God is in the ordinary. God is in the day to day. God is here. And so, in this ordinary time, may we practice our faith, seeing God’s face in each we meet, and engaging God’s love in all we do. Amen.
April 13th 2017 Maundy Thursday
The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
“On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom.” These words from a communion liturgy have been haunting me.
A meal that tasted of freedom. Faltering friends gathered, for a meal that tasted of freedom. This evening we gather to remember the Last Supper, that Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before he was crucified the next day. This evening we gather to mark the next movement in the unfolding story of Holy Week, to touch the dust, the feet, to break the bread, and pour the water, to take the towel and bend down and wash each other’s feet.
When we were last together, we gathered with Jesus on Palm Sunday, this triumphal entry, as the people who were struggling and oppressed flooded to the streets crying out “Hosanna! Lord save us!” We walked these steps, praying and longing for the coming of justice and compassion, seeking the peace of the city, calling for people to be fed, and for mourning to be turned into joy. We held our palm branches high and claimed the promises of a kingdom that is beyond the brokenness of this world, while directly embedded in it. And as the people in Jerusalem longed for Jesus to come and save and change it all, we cried out for a king to save us, while knowing that the story has a twist coming.
I wonder by the time the disciples got to this Thursday Passover if they might have started getting wind of the plot twist. That this king, this savior, would not be rescuing them in the way they had thought and that the freedom he was offering was something beyond the economic bondage of empire they were stuck in. As they sat down to share the Passover Meal together, gathered in that upper room, I wonder if that longing for freedom was still lingering in the room as they celebrated the Passover that their ancestors had been cerebrating since the exodus so many generations ago, and that they desired now.
And here, again, Jesus doesn’t give them what they are looking for in the way they were looking for it. Instead, he tells them that the bread is his body, the cup his blood, and that if they really love each other, to wash each other’s feet.
And here’s the thing that slays me: As he shared these poignant moments and gave these acts of love, not only did he know he was going to be crucified, he knew that some of them would betray him. He knew that people were still fallible, fickle, human people, and even while knowing that, he loved them. And shared a meal with them. And washed their feet. He knew that he wasn’t going to change everything about their economics or the systems that oppressed them. And yet he knew that the freedom he offered—the resurrection, the love, the new life he pointed to—was beyond that, and right there in it.
He knew that right there in the bread, the wine, the dirty feet and the warm water, there is a freedom beyond their comprehension. Freedom that doesn’t come from dropping bombs or inciting violence, a freedom that isn’t won by building walls or removing “those people” from our community. No, it is the freedom to share a meal, and love and forgive and wash the feet of the very people that may betray you. The freedom to not be afraid. A freedom that comes in the messy, in the confusion, and even to the very death. A freedom in which we participate fully in the revolutionary acts of love and forgiveness. Jesus shows us, gives us, and invites us to participate in this freedom with him, and with each other.
“On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom.” May it be.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
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Scripture: Genesis 12:1-4 and John 3:1-8
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
This passage from the book of Genesis is one that makes me a bit twitchy, even when I just hear the beginning words of it; “Now the Lord said to Abram…” some part of my psyche knows what might be coming next. Even my subconscious remembers what this verse has done to my life in the past.
It’s been a powerful enough scripture in my life that I got it tattooed on my foot, leading and stepping me forward each day.
It’s always been symbolic that some journey was ahead. I heard those words back in undergrad when I felt the callings to spend time in West Africa and do ministry there.
I remember that there was such fear and so many unknowns that came right along with it. It was like going into a wilderness in many ways. We didn’t know the people, the geography, or the culture. The official national language is English, but most people speak Twi or Ewey, or some other tribal language as well, and maybe solely. The food was unknown, and we copiously did our research to learn what we should peel, what we should wash and how, and what we should avoid—to hope to not get filled with parasites right away.
For three out of five of us on the trip, this was our first time out of North America and in a developing world country. I remember the night before we left, our close friends and family had a gathering to pray for us and wish us well, and while I felt surrounded by so much love and support, I also felt the vastness of the unknown, the fear and wonder of what we would find in this distant land, and who and how God would be with us.
These words between God and Abram felt so poignant, so real. Go from your country, from our community, from your family, from what is familiar to you, go to a land that I will show you. And, I will bless you, and because I will bless you, you will also be a blessing.
Isn’t that just how it is when we take these risks, when we step out in faith and take on a new adventure, a new job, a new location, a trip, a relationship, a journey of sobriety, a deeper look at our internal work and process, a new practice of service? When we hear God calling us forward, the terror is normal and real. But when it comes from God, there’s something promised beyond the fear.
The promise is God’s presence and blessing, and more than God’s blessing—that we will be a blessing. When we step out onto whatever journey we’re being called to, part of the calling from God is that our journey will bless others’ journeys.
In this interconnected web of life, each of us living and engaging our journeys is part of the act of blessing others on the path, a witness to God’s presence with us all. The person who starts the hard journey of healing after a trauma, God is with you. And as you journey, as you heal, you too will be able to be a blessing to others. The young adult starting off to college, learning and receiving instruction and being formed, will soon go forth and be a blessing. The young parent who enters into the new land of sleepless nights and the existential weight of the responsibility of a little person. The elderly saint moving into the age of bodies slowing down and minds letting go. The newly widowed, the divorced, the deployed and the returning. The start of housing, the end of housing, the start of a job, the end of a job. The ongoing, day-to-day challenge and work of getting up each morning and doing what we need to do to keep going. All of these lands, all of these journeys—our scripture is reminding us—God is in, God is blessing us, and God is calling us forward to be a blessing.
Collectively, we’re moving into the land of Lent, into and through these forty days of spiritual wilderness where we look and examine ourselves and remember our mortality. We remember our interconnectedness, and remember from Whom we have come and to Whom we will return, while we remember Easter. As we move into the land of Lent, we might be reminded of the fear or the dryness of the Lenten desert, and the questions and the unknowing of where it is that God is calling us, or how we are even to be faithful to this journey.
Here in our Garden Church community, we are using and inviting the Collective Confession from Ash Wednesday to guide us through Lent. We do this believing that God is always present and wanting to flow through us with love and wisdom, but sometimes we individually and collectively put things in the way that make that difficult.
Our work is to examine ourselves, to recognize and acknowledge those things that are blocking us from God’s love and from being able to love each other, pray to God to help us and to remove them, and then begin a new life—to start living differently.
This week the lines we’re focusing on are the following:
We have been selfish and greedy, and have taken advantage of others.
We have judged those unlike us, and acted without charity to the least members of our community.
Listen to those again:
We have been selfish and greedy, and have taken advantage of others.
We have judged those unlike us, and acted without charity to the least members of our community.
How do those strike you in your own life? Where are those desert areas that you kind of don’t want to examine, but maybe you need to journey into?
It was in my three months in Ghana that I was first exposed to abject poverty. It was the kind of poverty that leaves you with distended bellies, those who are crippled dragging themselves along, begging on the streets. I saw people sacrificing everything to garner an education for their children, and I experienced what actual starvation looks like.
It was there while I was in a distant land that I was first really awakened and activated to the reality of hunger and poverty, an awareness that has moved into a call ever since. And part of that process of waking up was looking deeply at my own discomfort with pain and suffering.
I came face-to-face with both my immense privilege and my drive to either run away or to quick figure out how to fix it so that I wouldn’t have to sit with the discomfort of the children with the their ribs poking through or the great-grandmother struggling to survive.
This external journey was directly tied with the internal journey, the work I needed to do, and continue to do years later to be willing to sit with both the pain and the hope, to both recognize my humble connection with all people and to recognize the places I am privileged and hold an awareness of how that impacts my life and actions towards others.
This process of learning and renewal and change and blessing is the continued work of our lives. It’s why we need to confess, to let go, to repent, and to change. And it’s why we need to remember God’s constant presence of blessing and rebirth.
One of my colleagues wrote this week, “Faith for me has never been about a singular event of being ‘born again,’ but about a staggering number of moments of being pushed out of comfort, growing into my full capacity for love, and midwifing and being midwifed into collective liberation. As our gospel text reminded us, this process of being born again—of changing—is not the obvious of being placed back in our mother’s womb and coming out her birth canal. Instead, the being born again is of water, and of spirit.”
We’re all born of the flesh. But it’s this birth of the spirit—this work to grow and change and be more and more a vessel of love—that is the ongoing birth of the spirit. That is what calls us to new things, what calls us to change something deep within us, what calls us forward.
Like Abram, God is always calling us forward.
And calling us forward even when it feels tough or dry and barren, internally or externally. Calling us forward because it is through continuing and engaging our journey that we find the blessings and can be blessings.
I was listening to a talk by Van Jones this week and he said,
“The worst day of your life, when you look back on it, that breakdown, was actually a breakthrough.” It made me think and look back on my own life, at those times when it was really rough, but then seeing the change and the blessings that came out of it.
Van went on to talk about how we can see and engage this collectively as well, when we look at things and feel overwhelmed and like everything is falling apart—breaking down—we can look for the ways that it is opening up to a breakthrough.
It reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes from Emanuel Swedenborg, when he writes: “Nothing, not the least thing shall occur that good cannot come out of it.” This is not saying that good will come out of every hard situation, but that it can come out of it. No matter what we are going through, no matter what desert we’re called to walk through, God is with us and drawing out the blessings.
The past week we, along with our friends in the San Pedro Faith Consortium, have been hosts for Family Promise. Family Promise is an organization that works with families with children who are experiencing homelessness. The organization provides wrap-around care for the families as they work to get housed again. Various faith communities provide the space for sleeping, breakfast, and dinner, and being hospitable community and friends. Last night was the Garden Church’s night, and David and Connie and Tim and I had a wonderful evening eating and playing games with the family we are supporting. As is the case so often when we have the opportunity to encounter people and hear their stories, we were all blessed and changed. I was struck by just the realness of it all. The journey, the desert that this family is walking through, going from house of worship to house of worship, strange land to strange land, meeting person after person and expressing gratitude graciously for the support, while I can only imagine the fatigue of this stage on their journey.
This morning over breakfast, the mom shared that they will be in housing soon, and how much she’s looking forward to it. “I’ll be able to burn my candles again,” she said. And have one place to be. “It’s the little things.” It’s the little things that are the blessings.
I want to be very careful not to get confused and suggest that if we’re in a tough place in life and don’t feel God’s blessing, that we might be doing something wrong. On the contrary, I believe what this scripture and these teachings remind us is that the blessings are in and amongst and hand-in-hand with the deserts, with the breakdowns, with the difficult journeys that we must walk through.
God calls us into new lands, into inner journeys, to “go.” Yes, God calls us, but never without the promise. God will be with us, giving us blessings, blessings of strength when we thought we couldn’t go on, blessings of that moment when we stop and notice a bluebird landing on the fence, or stop and feel the warmth of the sunshine on our face. God will give us the blessings of companions on the way, of a bowl of soup when we’re just so hungry, of that hug when we had forgotten how to be loved.
And God will call us to be blessings. Not out of any heroic act of saintliness, but out of us showing up with our whole selves in the world: with our wounds and our loves, our honestly and compassion. Showing up having walked through our own deserts and the willingness to be on the journey together, awake to God breaking through.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
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Scripture: Exodus 24:12-18 24:12 & Matthew 17:1-9 17:1
A couple of Sundays ago at the Garden Church, I saw the scripture come to life in front of my eyes. We were reading the text from Isaiah where the prophet is calling out to the Lord about what kind of fast they should take.
The text reads: Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Then the verse goes on to say these powerful words:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Now, let me set the scene a little more. For those of you who haven’t been there, the Garden Church is not your typical church. We took an empty lot in the heart of San Pedro and transformed it into an active urban farm and outdoor sanctuary. We worship outdoors in the middle of the garden, with the ground beneath our feet and the birds and wind and sun above. And we work and worship and eat together right in the heart of our community. People are always walking by, all kinds of people, and we get to know our neighbors as we work and worship and eat together.
So on this particular Sunday…
I noticed a man hovering outside the gates; he stopped and stood at one side and I waved at him, but he didn’t come in. Then he walked a little further down the fence and looked through.
As I was passing the Bible to the next person to read, I whispered to Connie, “Would you go do your friendly welcoming thing?” and she popped up and went over.
As we were hearing the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah read, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
I watched as Connie tenderly listened to this man who was standing there in his slippers and tousled hair. After talking to him for a bit, she went back to the food table and walked back towards the gate with a full plate. I saw her gesture welcoming him in, but when he did not, she took the plate out to him. And as they were standing, Nora started to sing the interlude and he stopped, and he and Connie stood there and listened together, And then they said goodbye and he walked down the street with his plate of food.
When Connie came and sat down we were about to start the sermon, but rather than opening my prepared texted, it seemed right to first acknowledge the sermon that had just happened in front of our eyes. Connie shared that the man had not eaten for two days and was so hungry. He knew that The Garden Church was a safe place and wanted to come in and knew he was welcome, but “just wasn’t ready quite yet.”
We went on to read and reflect on the scriptures, God’s call not to just do pious acts of worship, the acts of fasting are not what God asks, but that our fasts are fasts that break the yoke of injustice and share our bread with the hungry. Tears were in many of our eyes as we heard the scripture, as the Word came to life, it shimmered, in shown, it was transfigured in the face of this hungry neighbor at our gates and the simple act of sharing compassion and a meal.
Our scripture text today has me thinking about moments that change us, that shimmer, moments where something shines differently in the face or an interaction that we have come to be familiar with.
In the cycle of the church year, today is Transfiguration Sunday, marking the day in the cycle through the stories in the Word where we land on this powerful mountaintop moment where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John (his close disciples and friends) up onto a high mountain, apart, by themselves, and he was “transfigured” or transformed—he was “changed in face.” His clothing became dazzling white and then, up on that mountaintop with Jesus, Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking to Jesus.
Whenever I read this text, I have to put myself in the place of these disciples and wonder at what they might have been thinking and feeling. Here they are, hanging out on a mountain, just like any other day, and all of a sudden this guy they’ve been hanging out with, the one they have claimed as Messiah, anointed one, changes. And not just slight change, he in TRANSFIGURED, and the light that shone from him sounds as if it was beyond their experience of worldly like. Such dazzling white, “such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
And then with him are these figures from the scriptures, not just any figures, but the well-known and important ones: Moses, the receiver of the Ten Commandments, representing the law, and Elijah, the prophet. And there they are, all together on that mountaintop—with Jesus.
And it makes me wonder, what were the disciples thinking, witnessing this moment, wondering at this change in the one they thought they knew?
Now by no means have I ever had an experience quite like this mountaintop moment we read about in our scriptures. But I have seen the Divine shine through and take a face that I thought I knew about and change it to another. I experienced a face being transfigured back in 2004 when a woman walked into the women’s group I was leading at the time and began to share her story. Other women in the group pushed back and were impatient; this person wasn’t “a good fit” for the group and changed the tone. Until, a few months later, after we had prayed together, and eaten together, and shared life stories and we all learned to call each other friends.
I’ve seen a person transfigured who I had written off, along with a whole swath of other voters, when I had the opportunity to sit down at their kitchen table, experience their hospitality and welcome, and find the things that we connect on and mutually care about.
I saw myself change back in 2011 when I met my now good friend Brent at seminary, and heard his story about his transition from being Brenda, to embodying his gender identity as a male and finding peace and grounding and integrity in himself and with his God. Brent was so kind and gentle to me as I learned and asked questions and began to understand something that I had not encountered closely before. And through listening to his story of transformation, I too was transformed.
I see this change in people’s faces every time I have the privilege to hear someone’s story, to shift their identity from “that homeless person living on the street” to our neighbor with a story and a journey who becomes a friend. When I hear the stories of any of you, many of you, and we find the connection points, we listen to the particularities, we see the imprint of the Divine in each other’s eyes.
I’m sure you all have your stories. Stories about how you saw a person, or a group of people in one way, until something changed and shimmered, and your assumptions and ideas of that person or group changed.
Maybe it was when you had that long, real conversation with a relative who has a different political stance than you. Maybe it was sitting across the table from one of our un-housed neighbors and hearing their story. Maybe it was the time you met a Muslim for the first time and encountered them as a fellow-human being, rather than an unknown group. Maybe it was when you hear someone’s faith story, or learned you grew up in the same town, maybe it was through a photograph, or a piece of art. Maybe it was the quiet knowing that your heart needed to soften, to change, to be open to the many ways that the image of God shines and transforms humanity all around us.
These are the moments when a little wind blows the thin veil between heaven and earth out of the way. Like when Peter saw in his teacher the face of God, within the deep wrinkled flesh, the imprint of the divine. It’s fleeting, but it’s an experience that I think all of humanity shares. It’s something I find myself on the lookout for… These moments of transcendence. These moments where I can see beyond the everyday, or beyond my veil of prejudice and not knowing, and see in another person the face of the Divine. It’s a precious moment, something beyond what I can manufacture, something I long to replicate and hold on to.
I can’t blame Peter for wanting to build those little dwelling places, to keep the face of God preserved forever, for him (and others) to go look at as often as they needed to see God and the kingdom revealed, and restore their faith in humanity, in the earth, in God herself. I think that’s totally human. To want to cling as long as possible to moments where we see everything that’s bigger than ourselves so clearly and we glimpse the face of God.
And yet, like the disciples in the story, wanting to build a dwelling place, to capture this moment and not let it go, Jesus says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And then things are back to how they were. Moses and Elijah are gone and Jesus is no longer glowing like the sun. But something has changed. Something has shifted. We know that that moment of transcendence is possible and that God’s presence is shinning within the faces of all that she has created, whether we immediately see it or not.
And I can’t help but believe that something still shimmered as they sat there on the mountain and reflected on what had just happened. Everything returned to normal, yes, but something was also forever changed. Once we see the face of God in another, we really can’t ever go back. Once I have seen that person who I once despised, instead as a fellow human with a story, I can no longer dismiss their entire grouping or person. Once we see that spark of the Divine in that face we wanted to lower our eyes and walk by, it starts to sparkle elsewhere. And we might just find that these moments of transcendence, these moments of God shining through start happening more frequently, as we open our eyes and hearts.
When our hungry neighbor came by the gates later that week, I waved from the back where I was deadheading basil. He paused by the front gate, in his shorts and old bed slippers. He still wasn’t ready to come in. But as he paused, and waved, I saw a faint glimmer and glow in his face. God shining through. Amen.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Thursday morning it was foggy at my place. Dense thick fog—the kind you feel like you can almost feel between your fingertips—and it didn’t look like it was going away anytime soon. Inside, I was having one of those mornings. You know the kind. Where it just seems like nothing is going right. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say that by 8:15 when I went to throw toast in the toaster and found that my bread was moldy, it felt like it might be just about the last straw. I got in my car, dropped off some soup for my sick sister, and then headed through the fog, up the hill to Mary and Joseph Retreat center for my monthly Spiritual Direction appointment.
What comes next probably won’t surprise you, as I drove out the coast it was still super foggy, enough that I had to turn my headlights on, and it continued to be foggy a fair way up the hill. And then, within the course o an eighth of a mile or so, it went from socked-in-white, to brilliant clear sunshine, vibrant green trees, sparkling in the dew. Where the visibility before had been barely enough to see the stoplight a bit ahead, now I was looking out over the clouds and seeing the snow capped mountains across LA. Amazing.
What ran through my head was, “Wow, that would be a good sermon illustration about how God is always there, shining and offering us peace, even when we feel in the fog,” and I tried to take it in. But honestly, I still felt foggy and tired and flustered.
When I got up to the retreat center, I went and walked the labyrinth. Because that practice is supported to calm us, right? And bring peace and acceptance and clarity. As I walked my brain was still churning. I started singing, “Be still and know that I am God” over and over and over, willing for some silence, waiting for that wonderful spiritual experience to happen. I got to the middle, and my brain was still bouncing all over the place. From 501(c)(3) paperwork questions, to that conversation I had yesterday, to a wedding detail, to a theological pondering, to wondering whether I could squeeze in a haircut, to…
I took a deep breath, knelt down and put my head on the rock in the middle of the labyrinth. And listened.
And what did I hear? Chatter! Chaos! Chirping and squeaking and clattering, the, birds, the birds, all around me! They seemed to be making as much noise as my head was. But they, they seemed okay with it. They didn’t seem to be fighting it or being annoyed at it. In fact, they seemed quite joyful and full of life. They were all into the chatter, making the most of it, living it up, finding life in the middle of everything.
Our text from the Hebrew scriptures today is these well worn words of Deuteronomy, “I, (the Lord), have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity….choose life.”
As I was digging deeper into this text, I began to wonder about this word “life.” I went back to the Hebrew and found that the word—ha-hay-yim—that is translated here “life” is the same word that is found as the tree of life in Genesis. This is the word we hear in Numbers when the comparison is being given between the death of the plague and the living. This is the Deuteronomic call to choose the life of heaven and earth. This is the word that we find in Psalm 56 when we are assured that God is the light of the living, and in Psalm 116 that “the Lord is in the land of the living.” This “life” that we’re called to choose seems inextricably intertwined with the God who both gives the life and calls us to choose it.
When I think about choices, I pretty quickly go the direction of duality. There is one option or another, and likely one choice is right and the other wrong, We must write a pros and cons list to decide. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of pro and con lists, and in lists in general, but this text has got me wondering a little.
It gives us a choice, yes, but it doesn’t get very detailed, does it? It doesn’t define what “choosing life” is, or set out the one and only right way to choose it. In fact, what it asks is for us to do the things that keep us in alignment with God. To obey the commandments, to love God, to walk in God’s ways. These come down to tangible specific things, for sure, but they do not tell you which grocery store to go to, or what organization to give your charitable gift to, or what your next career step is, or whether you should take the time to get a haircut.
Nope, it just says this: “Choose life.”
And choosing life doesn’t mean it’s all clear, or simple and calm. In fact, it often means it’s messy and complicated, like the bird noises and the noises in my head. And the choice comes not in a way that erases that or eliminates the chatter immediately, but in the desire to keep showing up and trying to see the life in the world around us, pray for the life to make the compassionate choice, use a little humor instead of throwing the moldy bread at the wall.
Because it’s so easy to choose the death way. Not because we’re all about death, but because we’re tired, and sometimes lazy, and it’s just so ridiculously easy to get sucked into anxiety and worry.
But we’re offered this choice, over and over again. Like the waters of baptism remind us, that every day, every moment is a new beginning, an opportunity to turn and turn towards the God of life. And that God is always there with Her arms open wide, offering us that bigger perspective, reminding us that this is just one moment on the journey, drawing us towards love and life.
And this life, is this not what we need on each of our journeys and in our world together? It is so easy to get sucked into the death and despair, (and they are real, and need to be addressed). But not by being overcome by them, but by infusing ourselves and the world around us with life.
Because it’s this life that holds us; it’s this life that sustains us. The kind of life that doesn’t fight over which evangelist’s church you are part of, but reminds us as we read in the letter to the Corinthians, that we’re all in this together and the choice is to serve and love God and it is God who does the growing.
It’s not about a super clear-cut path, and it seems to be less important exactly how we identify or which rules we follow, or precisely how we parse doctrine. It’s about what we’re choosing, moment by moment and over the course of our lives, and how it is that we respond and face what we encounter on our way. And are we choosing the way of Love, the way of Life?
A little bit later, I sat on a bench at the retreat center, after realizing that I didn’t even have the right day for spiritual direction on my calendar and feeling overwhelmed by the complications and layers and so many things to keep track of in life. I prayed again for simplicity or peace or calm or something.
And then I looked up in the tree above me. And I noticed all the twisted layers and lines, the branches that overlapped and ran together and crisscrossed over each other. And I heard: it’s complicated too. But it’s choosing life. It’s complicated. And messy. And still you can choose life.
So maybe, maybe that’s the thing we can do. We may not be able to still our minds or keep track of everything going on or solve the world’s problems, but we can, each day, throughout the day, pause and remember God is nurturing us, God is caring and reminding us that the kingdom of heaven is needed here on earth and that the kingdom of heaven is within us, and among us. And if this is the case, we, need to choose life.
I’d like to end with a prayer from Thomas Merton, his words on choice and life:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church 1.29.17
Readings: Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12
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The Beatitudes, an Adaptation by Rev. Emily Scott:
Blessed are the poor.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are the refugees.
Blessed are the immigrants.
Blessed are the compassionate.
Blessed are the uninsured.
Blessed are those with preexisting conditions.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are the activists.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are the persecuted.
Blessed are those who have suffered oppression.
Blessed are those who speak the truth.
Blessed are those who seek liberation.
Blessed are those who cry, “Black Lives Matter.”
Blessed are those who are black and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are those who are indigenous and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are those who are differently abled, and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are those who are trans and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are those who are women and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are those who are LGBTQ and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are those who are Queer and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are those who are Muslim, and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are those who live below the poverty line.
Blessed are those who work two jobs.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
–Matthew 5:1-11, adapted by Rev. Emily Scott
Friends, it’s been a tough week. In one short week, our country has been bombarded with wave after wave of policy and rhetoric that flies in the face of the dignity and care of all people. I have woken up each morning lamenting the fact that I’m on the West Coast, and I haven’t even had my tea yet when I see what’s happened next. I need some caffeine in order to handle the news these days!
I want to respond—to do something—and then I feel paralyzed. Then I want to run away and hide, and then I want to go do something.
I’ve heard from many of you that I am not alone in this. There was a big part of me that just wanted to cancel church and go to LAX to march today. And I know some of our community did, which I fully support, I believe God is there too. And I also believe that it’s essential for us to gather here, now, in this sanctuary as well. What happens here, and how we go out from here is actually crucial in the sustained and grounded work of justice and love in the world. We come together to make church together, not because it takes us away from the world or to avoid it, but because we come together to be reminded of the gospel mandate—to love our neighbor, to welcome the stranger, to be part of the movement that turns the world up-side-down so the poor are blessed and merciful are lifted up.
In a week where there are no words and too many words, our lectionary texts really seem to say it all.
We read together this first sermon recorded from Jesus’ public ministry, where we find the Beatitudes front and center. And as we read it, we remember that this sermon is set in the midst of a world ravaged by unrest and fear of a tyrannical leader. We might picture the people surrounding Jesus would have their protest signs in the making, looking to this leader to give them a message of hope, something to cling to, to act on. And then Jesus preaches this message of who is blessed, and it is a shocking reorientation of what people were hearing from the propaganda of their government. It showed the disciples that Jesus was here to preach an agenda of peace; an agenda of mercy, an agenda of blessing, and it showed the disciples that Jesus had a preferential option for those who were in places of oppression and powerlessness.
Friends, here we stand in this moment. If you identify as a Christian, or a person of faith, a human being, an advocate of love, we are in that moment. As we are painfully reminded by leaders such as Dr. King, when he says: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
The option for us to just sit by and wring our hands and watch is, well not in my best understanding a faithful response. We need to take active part in the works of love and justice in our communities, in our nation, in the world. So, how do we do that?
This is where I invite us to turn back to our first text, from the Hebrew scriptures, from the prophet Micah:
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?
This is our call, as individuals, as a church, as human beings.
We need to do justice—we can’t do everything, but we have to be strong and consistent with what we can do. Focused. Vigilant. Courageous. Tackle the issues right here in our community, and also, as a faith community and people of faith, be right there in the public square making a stand for justice in the broader world.
We’re called to love mercy—we have to keep being that sanctuary friends, that place where people who wouldn’t interact otherwise are coming together and seeing each other as beloved children of God. This work is imperative. We need to keep working together, side-by-side with people from different backgrounds and races, housed and unhoused, and worshiping together, from different faiths and traditions and ideologies, teaching and preaching and living a faith that is rooted in a just and a generous Christianity. We need to continue being people of faith who are grounded in inclusivity, honoring and loving our neighbors and the stranger, and all people. And we need to keep eating together, week after week. That powerful, so simple, so incredible, tool for transformation—to break bread together.
We need to be that place where people can come and know that they are going to be treated with mercy and kindness and respect, no matter who they are, or what their story is. The world needs sanctuaries like this.
And finally, we need to walk humbly. We need to listen, we need to be gentle, we need to be that community place where we can both be lifted up, and where we can gain the perspective to be in the world. We need our comminutes, we need to get our hands in the dirt, to be with others, to seek solace in God and community, we need to be listening, and discerning, and being wise about how we engage and show up, so that we can keep doing justice and loving mercy.
The world needs us. We can’t be taken down by the overwhelming feelings outside us or inside us.
And in order to do this, to keep showing up, we’re going to need to find places of renewal and of care. I’m afraid this movement—the need to love courageously and fiercely—is not going anywhere soon, so we need to be wise and pace and prepare ourselves. Our bodies and minds and spirits can’t sustain a state of emergency consistently, and we are being collectively re-traumatized every time we turn on the news or scroll through Facebook. As we work tirelessly for justice, we need to factor places of rest and gentle care into our rhythm. We need to keep Sabbath as part of our plan for resistance and response. We’re given Sabbath in the very beginning of the Bible, in that great story of creation, we find Sabbath….
After vibrant images of stars and moon, tender herbs, and sorting birds we find these words…“On the seventh day God had finished all the work of creation, and so, on that seventh day, God rested. God blessed the seventh day and called it sacred.” Genesis 2:2-3
Swedenborgian theology is often inviting us to look deeply into scripture. As we know well, the Genesis account is no exception. As we discover the unfolding of the story of Creation as one that is more than the creation of the natural world, we find that it’s a metaphor for our unfolding, our spiritual creation, regeneration, recreation. This is no ordinary week we’re talking about in the beginning of Genesis, this is the weaving of creation, the cosmic blueprint of being and life, as the Divine moves over the face of the waters, speaking into existence mountains and trees, animals and people. And it is here that we find, in these sacred and creative words, written into the Divine cycle…rest and blessing. God rested, blessed that day and called it sacred. Imprinted onto the very fibers of our beings in creation is the time of rest, is a space of ceasing from working and creating, is an invitation to be present to the sacred.
As we show up for justice and actively engage kindness and mercy, we need to weave into the patterns of our lives these times of humble walking with God, times to be quiet and rest in God. This might be a walk on the beach, or digging in the dirt, it might be a yoga class, or an early morning time of meditation and prayer.
This humble rest in God can manifest in many different ways. What is important is the reminder of its imperative in our ability to keep showing up to the work that is ahead of us. We need these practices because they are what shape us to be able to be people of courageous love.
Because this work of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly is a spiritual practice. It is something that we choose, and we choose again, and we don’t suddenly attain over night. Like any spiritual practice, we have to build our muscles over time.
The author and theologian Brian McLaren puts it this way:
”A way of life is formed by practices. By practices we mean doable habits or rhythms that transform us, rewiring our brains, restoring our inner ecology, renovating our inner architecture, expanding our capacities. We mean actions within our power that help us become capable of things currently beyond our power.”
So friends, the practices we create, the things that we choose to do, they shape us, and they shape our world.
I want to give us a little time to work on this together, to make church together.
You each have a little booklet to think about how we can integrate these practices into our lives.
Do justice—What are you going to commit to doing for justice this week?
Love mercy—How are you going to commit to acts of mercy and compassion and love?
Walk humbly—What Sabbath practices are you going to work into your lives to keep sustained through this work?
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Wayfarers Chapel 1.8.17
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
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A “star” symbolizes knowledges of good and truth, and in the highest sense, the knowledge respecting the Lord. –Emanuel Swedenborg
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you…
And wise men, the Magi, came from the east…looking for the child who has been born king of the Jews…because they had observed a star at its rising, and have come to worship him. And when they saw that the star had stopped over the place where the child was, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and they knelt down and honored him. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh…
Today we celebrate Epiphany, also sometimes called “three kings day”, a day where we remember the story of the Magi who follow the star to find the Christ Child, who at this point is likely a few years old and in exile with Mary and Joseph in Egypt. They were hiding from Herod the King ,who was out to kill him and any other young child who might be suspiciously deemed a threat to Herod’s throne, since Jesus’ birth was rumored to be proclaimed to be the “King of the Jews.”
This story has been given details over the centuries and legends have grown, such as the idea that these were kings, or that there were only three of them, or that they were all men. We really don’t know. “Magi” seems to be a good translation to me, because we don’t really know what that looks like. And it doesn’t exactly mean “wise men”—probably they were more like dicey Gentile spiritually eclectic people; or Persian astrologers, and certainly not kings. They were seekers, they were awake, they were paying attention and reading the signs and the stars. And when they showed up and followed that star to its unexpected resting place, they came into the house and offered their gifts (of which there were three). Gifts of gold. And frankincense. And myrrh.
Epiphany points us to God’s universal love and universal sovereignty. In light of Christ’s revelation to the Gentiles (those who were not part of the Jewish faith)—in this case, the magi from the east who came following a star and find a child—we find a theme of central importance in the Hebrew Bible suddenly crystallizes for us. We understand God’s self-revelation in the history of Israel differently and the God’s coming reign with renewed hope.
To understand this passage from the prophet Isaiah in the context of epiphany, we begin with the exiles from Judah as they wait in Babylon for the word that will send them home. This in the middle of the sixth century before Christ. Things seem as dark as they have ever been, and there is little to be hopeful for. They have been exiled from their land the temple has been destroyed; the reign of David has come to a disastrous end. And in the middle of all this, Isaiah is describing the joy, the promise as something that will happen in that time and place. The poverty and shame of exile will be overcome with rebuilding and blessing and the city of exiles will become a light to the nations. And so Isaiah calls to the people of Israel in exile: “Arise and shine; for your light has come.
But this light that has come to Israel is not for Israel alone. We read, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” In this passage and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—God uses foreigners, and outsiders, women, the least expected and sometimes most unsavory characters to show God’s love and presence. Although it’s so often been missed, the crucial truth is that God has always been the universal lover of all humanity, and from the beginning intended blessing for all people.
I think about this universal blessing of love when I look around me at our current landscape and see how religions have become polarized, where it’s so important to us to make sure that there’s a right way and a wrong way, and that we’re part of the right one.
I follow stories such as an upheaval at an evangelical college in Illinois, where a professor was recently suspended for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I see what I would deem the insanity of militia groups, or politicians, saying things like, “The Lord is telling me to…” (and then fill in the blank with something that I, personally, would consider complete crazy talk), and then point to their Christian faith as the source. I get so frustrated and disgusted when another news story comes out about how “Christians” are making some statement about being anti-Muslim, or judging people on our gender or sexual orientation or opinion and I really want to just throw up my hands and leave the faith all together.
So, I don’t know about you (well, I do know about some of you, because that’s why we even hang out), but it’s things like this that make me want to run as far away from Christianity as possible. I want to distance myself from “those crazy religious people,” and comfortably meld into the milieu of my spiritual-but-not-religious peers, and let being a follower of Christ be a past part of my identity.
But then it’s so annoying. Because this Jesus character stops me in my tracks. Not in any coercive way, but because this way of Jesus, this Light of Christ captivates me, and leads me to see, to wonder, can there be another way, and can we be part of it? There’s this thing that happens when I encounter the stories of Jesus. And every time, rather than re-enforcing division and superiority and crazy political antics, instead, the stories of Jesus hit me right in the gut, right in the heart, calling for the world to be turned upside-down. For the hungry to be fed and the naked to be clothed, for mourning to turn to laughter, for reaching out across boundaries and lines, for Light coming into the world in the cracks and crevices.
And really, not that I have any illusion that I have the final word on this, but really, it leads me to deeply ask the question, what does it mean to be a “follower of Christ” a “Christian”? Or, if that language is unhelpful to us, maybe we can just be another person who seeks out and follows the star, someone who looks for the signs in the world and asks, “where is the light being born?” A person who then travels, through trial and error, finding the place where the star shines, finding the child, and offering up deeply precious gifts of gold, of frankincense, of myrrh.
Emanuel Swedenborg, writes that everything in the physical world has a spiritual meaning, including the Magi’s gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. And these spiritual meanings may give us a glimpse into our own lives of seeking the light and giving our gifts to the world.
The gift of gold corresponds to pure love. We encourage the Light to be born into our lives, to become flesh and dwell among us, by choosing to open our hearts. Even though we know that when we open our hearts to ourselves, to one another, to the mineral world, plant world, animal world, to the stars, that there may be vulnerability, or pain, or loss. But we open ourselves up anyway, to the interconnected world of humanity and the web of life.
The gift of frankincense corresponds to the elevation of our minds. We encourage the Light to be born in our lives, to become flesh and dwell among us, by choosing to open our minds. By learning more, by considering another person’s perspective, by not believing everything we think, by knowing that we can sometimes be absolutely certain of something, and absolutely wrong. By letting in a larger horizon, opening ourselves to these epiphanies, the changing of our minds.
And then the gift of myrrh corresponds to the discipline of true effort. We encourage the Light to be born in our lives, to become flesh and dwell among us, by choosing to live what we know to be true, even when doing so is tough. It’s going where our open heart leads us, and following through on our higher thoughts and understandings and bringing them into action in the world.
All three gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh—are necessary. All three are part of the whole of living. Of showing up and being vessels of that light in the world. And this, I believe is one of the ways that we can follow the Christ, embody the light. Because it seems that this Christ, when I get down to it, is actually much more interested in the things that are happening outside the constraints of our religious boxes. Those who are working to elevate poverty in the developing world, doing racial reconciliation in rough neighborhoods, working to grow and share food across our own back-yards, this Christ seems to be much more interested in honoring and respecting all people, not just in a “there, there” way, but in active counter-cultural, interreligious acts of engagement, healing, hospitality, expansiveness and love.
And dear ones, this is really really important for us to hear and know in our current interfaith, inter-cultural, religious, non-religious, allergic to religion, eclectic, beautifully diverse world.
Epiphany reveals that even in his infancy, Jesus the Christ is for all humanity, not only for the chosen few. He is for the outsiders; he comes to draw people together; wise men from the East, Syrians from the north, Egyptians from the south, Romans from the west. The truth—the epiphany that can flash before us—is that Christ is shining for the Gentiles, for all the people. The Christ, the very love of God incarnate, that love cannot be confined to ethnic or national identity; it cannot be restricted by gender or claimed only by the powerful and privileged. To awaken to this light of Christ is not about being part of a certain group or being in the club, it’s not about converting to a specific set of moral codes or cultural norms. Awakening to this light, is a universal experience, whatever words or language or religious tradition (or not) we experience it through.
And everything about this story points us back to this universal principle of love and light. Love God—and if the word God is problematic to you, then if God is love, than Love is God, and you can just go with Love. And love our neighbor, love the other human beings around us. And if you really want to follow Christ, go out of your way to love the neighbors that are not like ourselves.
Seeing the light in the manger at church, or in the teen-age mothers and the homeless infants that will get the clothing that we are offering.
I might even have to try to see it in the faces of those Christians I deem crazy. Because we’re all actually created in the image of this loving God.
Let us find a light that doesn’t shine with superiority or exclusivity, but one that leads us to unexpected places, guides us to the outskirts of town, to a refugee family seeking shelter, to the Christ Child, where we come and bow down and offer ourselves, our love, our thoughts, our efforts to the nurture and care of the birth of the Light in the world.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 Revelation 21:1-6a
THE YEAR AS A HOUSE
Think of the year
as a house:
door flung wide
a graced spaciousness
opening and offering itself
Let it be blessed
in every room.
Let it be hallowed
in every corner.
Let every nook
be a refuge
and every object
set to holy use.
Let it be here
that safety will rest.
Let it be here
that health will make its home.
Let it be here
that peace will show its face.
Let it be here
that love will find its way.
let the weary come
let the aching come
let the lost come
let the sorrowing come.
let them find their rest
and let them find their soothing
and let them find their place
and let them find their delight.
And may it be
in this house of a year
that the seasons will spin in beauty,
and may it be
in these turning days
that time will spiral with joy.
And may it be
that its rooms will fill
with ordinary grace
and light spill from every window
to welcome the stranger home.
New Year’s Day….it holds such a momentous ring to it, doesn’t it? We can put such power and pressure on New Year’s Day. It’s the time I’m finally going to start that new exercise program, or start a regular prayer practice, or budget better.
We put these high expectations on the power of those digits changing over, as if the change in the calendar somehow wipes clean all of the things that have gone before. But then, we woke up this morning and we were still the same people we were yesterday, maybe a bit more tired than usual, after staying up past our bed-time. We still have that annoying habit we want to change, we still have that debt that gives us a pit in our stomach, we still have that routine we want to do differently.
The world seems to be pretty similar to what it looked like yesterday as well—we’re still anticipating what this new year will bring, wondering at how the changes in the political leadership will shape our world. We look around with trepidation, or hope, or resolve, wondering if this new year brings forth a change in everything. But then we see that some of our neighbors still slept outdoors last night, acts of violence happened around the world even before we woke up, and while we hold hope for the new year to bring transformation and change, the world looks quite a lot like what it looked like yesterday.
In our scripture from the book of Revelation today, from the very end of the Bible, we hear these words that are reminiscent of the new year, about all thing being made new. The text reads:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s people, and God Herself will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also God said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Then God said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
This is in the same passage that we invoke each week as we begin our worship together, thinking about this heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, descending on earth, this new way of being in the world, the river of the water of life, the tree of life, these images that inspire us to be cultivating this land and cultivating more peace and justice in our community and in the world.
This image of all things being made new is one that is appealing and has been used throughout Christian history in a multitude of ways. Readings of this text can lead to apocalyptic constructs about the return of Jesus and the destruction of this earth. Or the text can be taken completely symbolically, that this is something that is a myth or story with a message. These images can and have been used to dismiss the physical needs of the world, to focus only on the spiritual, or to urge on natural destruction to hasten the new heaven and new earth.
It probably won’t surprise any of you who’ve been hanging around the Garden Church for long that we have a different take on this passage and what these images and stories are calling us to.
I hear the message of this passage as something that is a little less clear cut than it being all about the destruction of this physical world or only about some spiritual realm. I hear a message that is a little more inclusive of the messiness of humanity and the power and beauty of divinity and the heavenly influence.
The vision of a new heaven and a new earth is a vision both of what the future may bring, and a vision that calls us to engage right here, right now—today—in this new year.
We need to be active and engaged in bringing this vision into reality, a vision of a new way of being is not something that is beyond our human efforts to attain. And it is also not solely a human endeavor. There is a God and force of creative and healing love in the universe that is the source of this work, and whose transformative Divine Love is reaching and pulsing through the universe, and always urging and pressing to be received and to work through us for healing and peace in the world. Engaging this vision shows up in so many ways.
This past week, I had the opportunity to meet a wise sage named Andrew, who is a pastor in the Community of Christ, my fiancé’s faith tradition. Andrew and his wife Jewel have spent their lives dedicated to the work of the church, and particularly to work of peace and justice in the world. They now live in Harvest Hills, an intentional community built in the 1970s outside of Kansas City by a dedicated group of people who wanted to experiment with what it might mean to live the peaceable kingdom in a neighborhood.
Before we had lunch together, we took the tour of the community. We walked out onto the circle, a lovely grassy area surrounded by the town houses, and down into the room where the community meets for worship. Andrew took us straight over to a banner hanging on the wall and said: “This, this is where it all starts.”
We looked up and read these words:
“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them;” [Community of Christ Doctrine and Covenants, Section 36:2h-i]
For Andrew, a man who has dedicated his life to the work of peacemaking and ministry in many forms, this passage is a guiding principle. It tells him that there is both a hope and a vision of a future that is beyond what we see among us right now, and that it is realized by the tangible and present work of engaging each other in one heart and one mind, living in right-relations with God and each other, and doing the very real work of justice and equity that will bring our world to a place where no one is lacking in basic human needs.
As he spoke about it, I could feel the resonance in myself and in the call on my life, the work we’re doing here, the work so many people throughout the world are dedicated to, in so many ways. And the tension.
The tension between the image, the vision, the Divine narrative of making all things new, and the day-to-day reality of the world we’re living in, and the struggles and things that need to change here and now.
Some apocalyptic theories operate out of the idea of everything being washed away, taken away, people rising out of graves and disappearing from beside you. This is one way to interpret some of this imagery. But many traditions—from the Quakers to the Community of Christ, the Swedenborgians, to main-line theologians—explore what in technical theological terms is called: realized eschatology.
This new heaven, and new earth are here and now as much as they are in a future and spiritual realm. The kingdom of heaven is not something that is beyond us, or a completely different realm. It is in all the places where heavenly ways of acting and being and treating each other prevail. That the peaceable kingdom—Zion, the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God—these images are not simply ethereal, but tangible. They include people being fed and an end of violence and war, respect for all people, and the honoring of the many ways to engage love in the world.
This does not take away the spiritual part of it, the heavenly realm beyond the physical, and the imperative of the Divine doing this work with us. But it brings all of that into focus in the here and now around us. We are each part of doing the work of this transformation. The peaceable kingdom, the New Jerusalem comes, not all in a flash in one moment of apocalyptic time; it is the work that we are constantly called to.
And this is what it seems appropriate to focus on here, together in worship, on this New Year’s Day.
The kingdom of God is within us, between us, among us, God is here. How are we each going to engage the Divine Love with us as we step forward into this New Year?
Because yes, we were still the same people when we woke up this morning. But it also is a new day, a new start, a new moment to listen and commit to the work that God has in front of us this year. Listening to what we are each called to—individually and collectively—in this new season we are entering into.
We are still the same people, but we also are the people who have the opportunity to begin anew, to turn, turn, turn as the passage from Ecclesiastes tells us. This turning reminds me of the Greek word “metanoia” which is often translated “repent” or “repentance,” while one of its other simple messages is a “change of mind” or to turn. As we enter into this new year, we are reminded of the ever present offer from God to turn, to turn towards love and away from hate, to start anew, to turn away from that selfish habit that commandeers generous loving in a relationship, to turn towards respect and mutual care. To turn from the things that hold us back from being present to the work in the world, from believing our belovedness in God, from connecting with other people.
And so, as we close out one year and start the next, we can offer gratitude together, for all the lessons and gifts and blessings this last year gave. And we can let the rest fade a bit. The slate does not get wiped all the way clean, but we’re given a moment to pause and remember that God is in all of it, and holding all of it, and that God is always making all things new. Always offering us the opportunity to be made new. It doesn’t clear everything away, but we can always turn and receive.
The Divine Love is that Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end and holding out the vision for each of our lives and our world that is both beyond what is right in front of us, and grounded in it. And because of this loving presence, we can walk forward with courage. The message of “do not be afraid” from the Christmas story is still here with us. Calling us forward, as we walk into this new year knowing that, Emmanuel, God is with us. Amen.