Rev. Anna Woofenden
Presbyterian New England Congregational Church, Saratoga Springs, NY
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Presbyterian New England Congregational Church, Saratoga Springs, NY
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon “Teach Us To Pray”
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Scripture: Genesis 18:20-32 and Luke 11:1-13
Prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God, and some internal view at the time of the matters of the prayer, to which there answers something like an influx into the perception or thought of the mind, so that there is a certain opening of the person’s interiors toward God; but this with a difference according to the person’s state, and according to the essence of the subject of the prayer. If the person prays from love and faith, and for only heavenly and spiritual things, there then comes forth in the prayer something like a revelation (which is manifested in the affection of the person that prays) as to hope, consolation, or a certain inward joy. –Emanuel Swedenborg Secrets of Heaven #2535
Last week I was talking to a woman who was seriously questioning her faith. She began sharing some of her story with me, and giving me the background, and then she stopped and said, “Last year there was something in my life that I really really deeply wanted, and I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed for it. And it didn’t happen. And now, I just don’t know. If God is out there and supposed to care, why would God not answer my prayer?”
When I was a hospital chaplain, I spent a fair amount of time praying with people, and most of the time it was in intense situations—life and death for the individual or their families. I would usually start by asking, “What do you want us to pray for?” and the conversations would unfold. And most often, people would have a pretty specific ask. “Pray that my mom’s cancer will go away.” “Pray that I will not die from this tumor.” “Pray that my baby’s lung will heal.” All of these prayers made perfect sense. Of course. Of course these were the things to pray for. Of course this was what they desperately and fervently wanted, and what I wanted for them—but how to pray?
Teach us Lord, how to pray.
I stood in those hospital rooms, or sat in the ER waiting room, and I would have these moments playing the scenario out in my head—yes, I could pray for the cure of the loved one, and it could happen, but it also was just as likely that the patient would die, and then what? Then God doesn’t answer prayers and was this prayer not just setting people up to sever their relationship with God along with their heartbreak and loss?
I wrestled with how to pray with wholehearted belief in the power of a healing God and with hope, while praying with the deep knowledge that God needed to be big enough, close enough, loving enough, that even if the worst thing happened, that there was space in the prayer, in the theological constructs that we weave with our words of prayer, for God to still be there and for God to still be the force of love in the universe.
And so, I found myself praying for the words to pray, and then praying the grief and the worry, praying the assurance of God’s presence in the room, praying the sobs and praying the hopes. I found myself exploring prayers for healing vs. prayers for cures, as healing comes in so many forms, including the peace that comes along with trusting and walking with God through even the most impossible situations.
I found prayers becoming times to squeeze the hands of family gathered round the bedside of the patient on the ventilator, and let the tears flow, to breathe, to sigh deeply and to feel God’s presence there with us. Bringing God from a high place of decision-making in the sky, the force that can wave his finger and say, “heal” or “not”—immediately changing the course of events—to the God who’s presence of love and comfort are immediately there in the hospital room, as we walk the halls. This is the God who is with us in our grief and in our joy, the God who holds all of it, and encompasses the breadth of our lives.
Being with people in these rooms, they taught me to pray. Flowery lofty prayers don’t go very far in the linoleum floored hospital room, with the green heartbeat monitor going up and down by the bedside and the IV fluids dripping through the tubes. In those rooms, it was about as real life as you can get, and God was certainly present. Teaching us how to pray.
“Lord, teach us how to pray” the disciples ask Jesus and he does. He doesn’t give them a five-point plan or specific rules; instead he gives them a prayer, a piece of poetry to guide us for generations after in the movements of prayer…
From the “Our Father… to the “…forever and ever, amen.” This prayer shows us the character of God, the conversations with God, the way that prayer weaves heaven and earth together, humanity and our creator, us and God.
Emanuel Swedenborg, the theologian and Christian mystic this church is dedicated to said it this way: “Prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God.” Prayer, is a conversation with our creator. Prayer, in itself, is a conversation. A back and forth. Speaking and listening, giving and receiving in an active relationship.
Lord, teach us to pray…
And Jesus says, “Pray to your Divine parent and pray collectively, “Our father…” Pray with conviction and trust in God’s provision, “give us this day our daily bread.” Pray with surrender, surrendering our idea that we can know the will of God without engaging in the conversation. Pray with humility, ask forgiveness, give forgiveness; pray with persistence, pray with hope, pray with trust, forever and ever, amen.
This prayer holds within it this interplay, this dance, this conversation between God and us. When asked, “Lord, teach us how to pray,” we’re given a conversation.
My Spiritual Director, Sister Julia, the 90-year-old nun I go and see for an hour once a month for guidance and prayer told me recently, “Anna, you need to get more chatty with God.” We’d been talking about a number of decisions I was trying to make, and the things that weigh heavy on the heart of a pastor—those things I lie awake at night and worry about. “Get more chatty with God. Tell God about these things, tell God your worries, ask God to help, tell God that you can’t do it on your own, chat with God.”
This immediate and intimate way of engaging with the expanse of the Divine is one that I see and appreciate with Sister Julia, and with the pillars of strength and faith I have witnessed in various people of faith. When there is a depth of faith and spiritual wisdom, there is a foundation, a breadth and encompassing web of prayer. People who have strong relationships with God have active and engaging conversations with their God. God is not some force so far away that we cannot engage it, but instead, God is intimately here and available to converse with and is interested in and can handle our prayers and our lives.
Like the bargaining between Abraham and God that we heard in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, like the persistence in the prayer parable in our gospels, these stories of prayer offer us a blueprint—an opening—to the way we too can interact with our Creator.
It’s an invitation to honestly interact with this great God of the Universe, who wants to be in a conversation with us—there is nothing we can do or say that will change that. When we pray to a God, we are in conversation with a God who while we may not be able to even begin to comprehend Her expanse and wisdom, whose love is immediate and present. We pray to a God who is faithful to us, not always in the ways that we see or what in the moment, but always, always in the eternal view, in the overarching sweep of the story. God is there, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, caring for us and listening and engaging when we pray.
So, it’s up to us, to keep praying. Praying consistently, praying regularly, getting “chatty with God.” Not just when we’re in trouble, or when we’re at church, but in a back-and-forth of relationship, in regular communication.
I forget so often. But then I am reminded. Sister Julia calls it “fidelity to prayer”—to be faithful, to keep turning back, picking it up again, because God is always still there.
I don’t always feel God’s presence, but I find a growing trust in the fidelity of God. That God is in this relationship for the long haul and isn’t going to disappear on us. When we reach out to the Divine, the Divine is present, not always altering the course of what is playing out in front of us, but always, always, with us in it.
And as we pray, we know that we are not alone. God is with us, and we pray in community together.
When I wake up in the middle of the night, or I’m in a place of deep worry, when I just don’t have the words to pray, these are the words I pray. “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
As I pray, sometimes I think about all the other people across the globe and throughout the millennia who have prayed this prayer, who are praying this prayer along with me. Woven throughout time and space, we are not alone as we pray in unison to and with our Divine Parent. We pray with the saints who have gone before us, and our neighbors on the streets; we pray with our sisters and brothers and siblings across the globe, in every language and place of life. When we pray, we pray for ourselves, but we also pray for and with each other, forgiving each other and asking for forgiveness from God. We believe in the daily bread and being called to share it with others, imploring in a collective voice that God’s way in heaven be done here on earth, and that all things being God’s, will infill God’s kingdom with power and glory, forever and ever, amen.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon at The Garden Church
“In the Ditch”
May 1 2016
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro CA
Scripture: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
“And the spirit carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God…
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord…and then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
These words and images are ones that we are familiar with—we invoke them every week as we begin worship and unpack the objects that remind us why we are here. They include our icon of the tree of life, and we remember how God is everywhere and moving in all things, and how God is right here with us, right here in our little plot of earth in the middle of the city where we are cultivating more love and healing, peace and justice, as we are feeding each other and being fed. We look to this image of the heavenly city, of this tree of life, and we are reminded why we gather, how we gather around this table—God’s table—where all are welcome to feed and be fed.
On this, our one year anniversary since placing this table and anointing it, it’s a beautiful gift of divine leading that the lectionary cycle gives us this text today, and in praying and studying and reflecting on it this week, something jumped out at me that I hadn’t really heard before. It’s that very first line, “And the spirit carried me away to a great high mountain, and showed me the holy city.” The spirit carried me away to a great high mountain, and from there showed me the city.
The spirit carries us up to the mountaintop, where we have the 5,000-foot view. The spirit carries us up above the details and daily nitty-gritty, to see the big picture, to see our community as a whole, to see the ups and downs of our life journeys in context. It’s that invitation to zoom out and see how our specific intentions and choices echo out into the larger movement of God.
And so I invite us to go to the mountaintop today, to zoom out, and look over this past year and how we have been collaborating with each other and with our creator.
A year ago we stood in this empty lot and believed in something. We believed in God’s promise of something, we had dreams—for ourselves, for our community, for our world. We saw things that were not as we want them to be. We saw boundaries that needed to be broken through. We saw people hungry. We felt a longing for community. We believed in this dream of growing food and connecting earth and people. And so we started showing up, and you all started showing up, and look around us now.
Think of the stories, the people, the connections, the meals, the tears, the laugher, and the joy.
And so here, on our one-year anniversary, we stand on the mountaintop and we remember what we have been called to dream and who we are called to be together. We remember this image, this dream of the holy city of Jerusalem settling upon the earth. The symbols used throughout that show us another way. Rivers, which have served throughout the biblical narrative as obstacles to be crossed, are no longer barriers. Temples to contain the divine are no more. The tree of life that stood in the Genesis garden is found to be growing on both sides of a single watercourse that flows from the throne of God. And the tree bears fruit all year long and has leaves that heal the nations. No one is to be left out. There is access for everyone without exception. God is everywhere. And all are welcome.
This is not the pristine Garden of Eden, that which is set apart, perfect, that is idealized, or only in the quiet of stained glass sanctuaries and specific religious rituals. It is the message that the Heavenly City is one where there is no temple, because God is everywhere, right here, in the middle of the city. God is the peace that is created within, the silence within noise, the force of reconnection within disconnection, etc.
God is Advocate, the Holy Spirit we heard about in our gospel, God is the parent, God incarnate in Jesus the Christ, showing us how the divine love is right here in action with us. It is this force of love—moving and blowing in the universe—that we gather around, that we are infused by, that calls us to transformation, to love.
And so, I would like to bring us back to our dedication. On May 1st, 2015. A few of you were there, and many of you have joined us since; all of us have been living it together. I’ve pulled up the liturgy that we used, right around this very table, and I invite us to participate in it. On this anniversary, to recommit ourselves to the work of this scared space and to God’s presence working amongst us.
Opening the Gates and Consecrating the Table
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
May 1st 2015
We’re gathered here to bless this church and to name it as a place where God is present and where people experience God’s embodied love as we feed and are fed.
We’ll bless through prayer and song, anointing and scattering of water. Between the prayers we’ll sing an alleluia.
Let us pray:
May the God of all creation, bless this space and its many parts, for the seeking of the peace of the city. This lot has been waiting for us, longing to be a life-giving element in our city and in the lives of the people who live here. It is our partner, our co-creator, our home for this season.
Almighty and everlasting God, grant us the grace of your presence in this sacred space, that you may be known as the inhabitant of this dwelling, and the defender of this community; we ask it in the name of the One God of heaven and earth, Amen.
Now let the mighty power of the Holy God accompany us as we bless this space. Banish from it every unclean spirit, cleanse it from every residue of evil, and make it a secure habitation for those who enter these gates, Amen.
As we open our gates, we ask you O Lord, to watch over our goings out and our comings in from this time forth, for evermore. May each who enters here feel Your love and the love of the Beloved Community. May this be a space of refuge and sanctuary, delight and abundance, honoring and peace.
At our center, we consecrate the table: the table that holds the symbols of our life together:
The Word of God, for the people of God.
The candle that is the light of Christ and the light in all people.
The water of life that nourishes and renews.
The bread and cup that feed us and reconcile us.
And the tree of life. Reminding us of why we are here…that our work here for garden and for spirit, be a piece of the heavenly way of being, right here in the dirt of earth.
We consecrate this table with the anointing of oil—the oil that runs over the head of those who are prophets and priests of God’s message in the world. We anoint our table with oil as it in itself, at the center of our worship space and of our life together as a community, bears God’s prophetic message to the world. All are welcome at this table. All people, in all expressions of humanity, are welcome at this table to feed and be fed. This is God’s table—all are welcome here.
And so we anoint and consecrate this as God’s Table. (Pour oil)
We honor those who have gone before, the ancestors and the communion of saints, those who make us who we are and who continue to be present as we plant their seeds.
(Placing of seeds and plants from Lara’s family seeds)
Emanating out from this table, we dedicate this as sacred space, God’s Church, a place that is a blessing for all who enter, and that we go out from these gates to be a blessing in the world.
And so, we bless this space with the sprinkling of water, the water of life, of renewal, the precious water that connects us all and makes all things new. And we use rosemary, for remembrance, as at this table we are called to remember Christ’s love. (Invite people to take rosemary branches and dip them in the water and share in the blessing)
We bless the gates at the North, to be a blessing of welcome to all who will enter. (Bless)
We bless the western wall, whose color from an artist’s eye, captures our own vision of precious water that nurtures the plants and the people. (Bless)
We bless the southern border, which allows our vision to not be boxed in, to keep us ever expanding in hope and purpose. (Bless)
We bless the eastern wall, (dino and all) where rises the morning sun, that is the bringer of life. (Bless)
We bless the sky above us, the rain and the sunshine, the expanse that connects us to all of life. (Bless)
We bless the earth beneath us, the earth that holds us and nurtures us and grants us life. (Bless)
Oh Holy God, provider of all good things, we know your presence to be here, right now, in our time. Bless the land we stand upon, dig into, grow from. Bless the food that will be grown, the tomatoes and spinach, the squash and thyme…bless the people who will be fed by nurturing, and sharing, and eating this sacred food. Bless the music, the teaching, the prayers and the relationships that will rise… Bless the laughter and the tears, bless the connection that comes as we work side-by-side, the hands that are held, the transformation of each of us as we live in love with each other. That all may be welcome to work, worship, eat. Feed and be Fed. Amen.
Thank you to Amy Gall Ritchie, Sara Miles, and Paul Fromberg for sharing words of prayer that are woven into this liturgy.
Easter Sunday 2016
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Readings: John 20:1-18, Luke 24:1-12
By Wendell Berry, (excerpts)
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Christ is risen, he has risen indeed!
Practice resurrection. Practice resurrection. These words from author, activist, and farmer Wendell Berry woke me up the other morning. They woke me up as I’ve been pondering and turning over and over in my mind, what to preach on Easter Sunday? Easter Sunday, this glorious celebration, this Sunday of all Sundays, this pinnacle of the Christian church calendar, the conclusion of the rich experiences of Holy Week. What is there to say on a morning like this? When signs of new life and joy and beauty and hope surround us, when it’s easy to see and believe in new life and re-birth and hope for new beginnings.
We say, “Christ has risen, he has risen indeed!” Our voices ring out, and maybe that’s the only message we need. In one way yes, it is the only message. But I long for a little more, or more texture and nuance to this proclamation. I long not for an isolated snapshot, just a moment of happiness in time, as genuine as it may be, and as essential as it is to notice and appreciate these moments. I long for something more than just one morning a year to celebrate new life and to remember that that which is dead can be renewed. I long for something that’s awakened with these words, “practice, practice resurrection.”
Because a practice, rather than an isolated snapshot, is something that is lasting—it’s transformative. Engaging a practice permeates what we do and how we act; it changes our engagement with the world around us. A practice is something that lives within a bigger cycle, a larger narrative, a life that is alive and aware of love and possibility.
I believe the same is true for these stories of Easter. They are more powerful when they are in the context of the larger narrative, when we take in the entire arch of the story. It’s tempting to think that Easter morning is the only story; it’s just all about the hope and new life of Christ rising. Yet, without the broader story, Easter is just a blip in on our calendar, a day of egg hunts and big hats (which are absolutely lovely!). But Easter within the context of the larger narrative, practicing resurrection in our lives, and engaging and noticing the way the Divine love is always working for good in the world, now that is one powerful story!
Because when we look at the arch of the stories leading up to and following Easter, we see hope, yes. But not hope tied up neatly in a fancy ribbon kind of way. No, in this larger story of Easter, we see a promise. A promise that God is always practicing resurrection and calling us to a life of the same. We see the promise as the seasons keep changing, we see the promise when that seed inside the husk pushes to burst forth into a plant, we see it when love comes after pain, and when that stone is removed from the tomb—the promise of resurrection, the promise that new beginnings are always possible.
The stories of Holy Week, the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection come as a whole, not to be parsed out into single claims or divisive moral or theological codes. The story of Jesus tells us the way of love. We see this throughout Jesus’ life, from his birth in a lowly manger on the outskirts of town, to the way he reached out across boundaries, healed and taught and ate with all sorts of people. His ministry—his life—was not one of power and control or trying to impress or be in line with the forces of the day; his life was about service and compassion. About being in and amongst the messy, reality of people’s lives, being in human skin and encountering the reality of humanity.
Even to the end. Jesus was relentless in his loving, and the stories of this Holy Week show that so starkly. From the love he showed as he mourned over the state of Jerusalem and then rode into the city on a donkey, with the crowds of peasants and disciples calling out to him and laying down palm branches to prepare a way. To the devotion he showed on that last supper, that Passover meal that he shared with his closest friends and companions, where he took bread, broke it, and said “this is my body given to you, do this in remembrance of me…” And then later after the dinner, he took a basin of water, bent down, as a servant would have, and washed his disciples feet setting an example, calling us to love one another as he loved.
And then, when that very next day, being abandoned, abused, and ultimately crucified and left to die on the cross, in the deepest moments of abandonment and while subject to the depths of human violence he voices love as he calls out, “forgive them, they know not what they do.” And breathes his last. But with Divine love, the last, the death is never the final word.
In this larger story of love, love always is born anew, love persists through struggle, love overcomes pain, love is resurrected, transformed into life, and that is what we celebrate this morning. This whole story is the story of Divine Love embodied, showing us how to practice resurrection.
Now practicing resurrection, following the story of love, doesn’t mean that we understand it all, or that we suddenly don’t worry or doubt or wonder. Practicing resurrection is not devoid of the hard parts, and doesn’t avoid the messy and vulnerable places. Just as we washed each other’s feet and hands on Thursday, and allowed ourselves to be present both to the vulnerability and the power of love, practicing resurrection means opening ourselves up to God’s constant movement of making all things new, whether we understand it or not.
I mean, the disciples certainly didn’t get it. At the tomb, they are perplexed, unbelieving, terrified. They just don’t get it. They look around in the tomb for Jesus’ body. They ask each other what had happened—they don’t see how the empty tomb is the promise of new life. Yet, even in their state of wonder, of disbelief, they actually encounter this promise of resurrection.
We don’t always get it. Maybe rarely do we notice where God is bringing new things out of the dead and dying places in our lives. We don’t pay attention to how something that a few months or years ago seemed like the end of all things, has actually given birth to something new. We, like the disciples, often only see what is right in front of us, the empty tomb. And it’s only in retrospect that we can turn and see where the new life has come. Whether we understand it or not, God keeps practicing resurrection.
New life is not something that comes independently of the death or the struggle, the rejection or the pain. New life comes as the stone is rolled away, after three days in the depths of the tomb. New life comes when that part of ourselves we constantly struggle with finally lets go and dies, allowing something new to grow. It requires time in the tomb. It requires that time when the seed is in the dark womb under the dirt, looking withered and dead, before the plant is born.
Just as these seeds I’m holding are withered and hardened, and then have to be placed in the ground. And just as they have to stay there a while in the dark, in the seclusion, before they break out and become plants that will then bear fruit and become food, so is our process of life, death, and resurrection. As God gently stirs those parts of us we think have died, the place in you that you fear will never be able to breathe again, where there is no hope.
God is practicing resurrection, as relationships are reconciled that we thought were lost, when families and communities are transformed into places of hope. God is practicing resurrection right here in the garden, certainly in our lives and in our community.
Take this space for example. A year ago, it was a barren lot, an empty space, an empty hole in the middle of the block. Save Dino of course.
Now, we have all cultivated it together, practiced resurrection together, and here we are in a place that’s a little more like heaven here on earth. It’s a place where new life and possibility and hope are found as we’re honest with each other and share the struggles and the hard places, where we pray to have the stones removed from the tombs in our lives. Where we’re growing our own food and eating it together, resisting disconnection and division as we come together with all kinds of people, around this table to feed and be fed.
We come around this table today, each with our own stories. And we each have various expectations of what Easter is about and what we need on this day of new beginnings, of new life.
My word for you, and I believe God’s word for all of us on this day is not just the hope of hope, but it’s the promise of new life, not only in some far off time and ethereal place, but the promise—the practice—of resurrection right here and right now.
Yes, things die. Things crumble. Things fall apart. In our lives, and in the world around us. Parts of ourselves that are no longer serving us have to die. Plants die. Seeds fall. There is the darkness under the earth, the time in the tomb. Because this is part of the story.
But the story is always, always larger than that. In the overarching narrative is God’s constant promise: the promise of the cycles, of the seasons, the promise of new life, drawing new life forth from that which is broken, abandoned, abused, discarded. Taking that which is dead and raising it again, showing us that love always, always, is being reborn among us.
Spring comes after winter.
Old wounds are forgiven and new relationships forged.
Flowers grow out of the cracks in the sidewalks.
People change their minds and see the light in each other.
Things that end give life to new beginnings.
Dreams we never thought were actually possible, begin to blossom.
The sun comes up each morning.
We can choose the way of love each day.
Resurrection is happening everywhere, all around us, all the time.
God is always urging and pressing to be received, to renew, to reconcile, to bring new life.
The stone is rolled away.
And it’s our job to pay attention. To pay attention to where God is making all things new in the world, to see God alive and working outside of the tomb, and to respond, as Mary did, when we are called.
On that very first Easter morning, Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. Her Lord had died and been taken away. “Why are you weeping?” Jesus said. Supposing him to be the gardener, she told him of her grief. Jesus then said to her “Mary!” and when she heard her name called, she exclaimed “Rabboni, teacher” and she recognized him and went out proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord.”
Friends, the loving expansive God of the universe is always reaching out to us, calling our name. Notice that he was not in the tomb, but outside of the tomb, calling us out of the darkness, the places of hopelessness, showing us the promises of new life, calling us to engage in the practice of resurrection.
Because here’s the thing about this practice, here’s the thing about the way that God works, nature works: the stories of scripture remind us, you can’t tell just one part of the story—wherever you are here, today is not the end. If you are here today and you feel stuck or in bondage, if you have a dream that you barely dare to dream, if you’re here today basking in the beauty and joy, if today is a bright snapshot, all of this is part of your bigger story.
The hope comes in the whole of the narrative, that your life story matters—it matters to God and it matters to the world. Your willingness to keep showing up, to keep getting up, to walk through the dark places, to reach out to others, your ability to engage joy and beauty, to cultivate goodness and peace, your story matters, as we show up and notice and engage the love and life, we are practicing resurrection.
So, friends, (in the words of Wendell Berry)
Every day do something that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world.
Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.
On Sunday, my family and I visited The Garden Church in San Pedro, California. Last May, they began transforming a vacant lot into a pop up, organic urban garden. Last semester, I had the opportunity to hear a little bit from Rev. Anna Woofenden about their vision and the journey the congregation has been on together when she came to share at the Hatchery. I was excited to connect with a local group that has recently launched and is passionate about re-imagining church. For them, this means viewing worship and service, church and community, physical and spiritual as interconnected rather than as opposites or separated from each other.
One of the things that was incredibly meaningful for me was that all (including my energetic 3 year old girls) were asked to participate. Allowing little ones to be part of watering and planting seeds is relatively low risk, as long as they’re supervised. My girls took their assigned tasks VERY seriously and absolutely loved it. However, allowing/asking them to be part of a service has slightly higher stakes. Not only were the people present incredibly open and warm, Rev. Anna also encouraged my girls to contribute during the service as they were able. They played (I use that term generously) instruments, helped to pass things out and were asked questions. Not to give the impression that we were transported to some eerily, perfect universe… there was definitely also a toy corner to help occupy the girls when needed. Part of their Sunday service is also sharing a meal. Their Sunday service intentionally includes work, worship and eating together.
What I loved about our time at the Garden Church was that fancy, super nerdy Christian words like the “incarnation” and “embodied spirituality” are not just talked about on their website and in the sermon. It’s practiced. That sounds cheesy, but when it’s actually experienced, it’s sort of disorienting (in an incredible way). When I first met Rev. Anna, she talked about all being welcome and encouraged to share their gifts. The first time we visited the Garden Church, my girls were included not just in the convenient parts like planting and watering, but in the entire service. It was a tiny and yet huge thing, sort of like a flower pushing stubbornly through a crack in the sidewalk. I’m so thankful for the time my family and I spent with them and for what I’ve been able to learn and experience already.
Over the last year the Garden Church has…
·Launched in our public space and transformed an empty lot into a vibrant
urban garden and gathering space.
·Welcomed over 6,000 people through our gates.
·Grown and distributed pounds and pounds of fresh produce.
·Met weekly for worship as we work together, worship together, and eat together, re-imagining church.
·Collected a half-ton of compostable materials from vendors and the local
community, kept out of landfills and turned into soil.
·Partnered with numerous local faith groups and community organizations.
·Been featured in local and national press as well as in the book
Grounded by Diana Butler Bass.
·Fed over 700 people as we have eaten dinner together in community.
·Engaged hundreds of children in watering, planting, and harvesting while
being cherished and useful together in community.
·Been a voice and beacon for peace and justice, hope and healing in the world.
·Prayed and grown and changed together as we see how God is working to transform each of us and transform our community and world.
See glimpses of the community in action here…
Your end-of-the-year gift is an integral part of us continuing, deepening, and expanding this work in 2016.
Thank you for being part of cultivating more love, justice, peace and goodness in the world,
The Garden Church team
Please donate today! Your continued commitment through monthly pledges and one-time gifts give us the support we need in these early years, as we scale and move into local sustainability. Thank you!
Note that you can choose to have your donation one-time, weekly, monthly, or annually. We welcome your generosity in any form!
It’s amazing to look back and see all that has happened since last year at this time, when we launched our Seed Money campaign. All of those wonderful seeds have grown into a beautiful reality—the Garden Church has been planted and grown. We are so grateful for your support, and invite you to celebrate with us all that your prayers, pledges, and participation have cultivated!
As we’re looking towards our second year, we are focusing on putting down roots. Putting down roots in the earth as we continue to cultivate and grow food for the local community, putting down roots in our community as we continue to bring people together for individual and communal transformation, and putting down roots in our faith as we re-imagine church and loving God and neighbor.
Your continued commitment through monthly pledges and one-time gifts give us the support we need in these early years as we scale and move into local sustainability. We believe that this work is part of something much bigger than the people who come through our gates. We know that we’re part of an interconnected community and conversation with people all over the world who are committed to bringing more love and justice, compassion and peace to the world. We want to keep showing up and cultivating this piece of earth. Thank you for joining us in this work.
If you would prefer to write a check, you can send it to:
The Garden Church, PO Box 5257, San Pedro, CA 90733
Communion of Saints
Rev. Anna Woofenden
25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
11:35 Jesus began to weep
11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
11:39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.
11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!”
11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and let him go.”
“No one becomes an angel, that is, comes into heaven, unless we carry with us from the world something of the angelic character; and in this there is present a knowledge of the way from walking in it, and a walking in the way through a knowledge of it.” Divine Providence 60 Emanuel Swedenborg
A few Thursdays ago, at a very long stoplight on Oceanside Blvd, I received sad and shocking news. A friend and colleague of mine that I know from seminary had died suddenly and unexpectedly.
I pulled my car over and parked in a lot next to the beach—frozen in disbelief and needing to know more. Through texts and Facebook messages, this impossible truth was confirmed—my young vibrant, full-of-spirit and life friend had died that morning, from very unexpected complications while recovering from surgery.
When something like this happens, it seems like the light is suddenly different. The filter on life sharpens and feels so precious and so precarious. The line between life and death—the physical and the spiritual—thins. It feels like the world should stop turning and we should be allowed to just sit and stare and not understand.
How can someone so full of life, be gone?
Today we honor the Feast of All Saints, also known as All Saints’ Day, All Hallows, Day of All the Saints, among other names. This is a feast day; a religious holiday that has been celebrated in various forms across traditions throughout the ages. A day to pause and remember those who have lived and died and gone before us.
It’s a day to celebrate those Saints who have been officially sainted, the great leaders of the faith. To celebrate the stories of Mother Theresa and Saint Francis, Hildegard of Bingen and Joan of Ark. It’s a time to think of other saints in the world and in our lives of faith, ones that may not be recognized by the church per se, but are influential in our lives of faith. Some of mine are Dr. King and Helen Keller, Gandhi and Dorothy Day. And then, it is a time to remember those ordinary saints, those saints that we knew and loved who have died, the ones we called Grandpa, Great Aunt Gertrude, or Tracy.
It’s a day to remember. It’s a day to honor those lives. It’s a day when we allow ourselves to stop, to pause the world, if but for a few moments and feel. Feel the loss. Feel the preciousness of life. Feel the inspiration and wisdom of the amazing humans who have walked the earth. Feel ourselves here and now. Feel the connection with that communion of saints, the angels that surround us. Feel God holding all of it, the death and the promise of resurrection.
In our gospel today, we get a glimpse of how God, incarnate in Jesus, responds to life and death
We have the story of Lazarus, this good friend of Jesus’, who, with his sisters, are part of Jesus’ inner circle, and who died while he was out of town.
Jesus arrives on the scene and is immediately met with, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother wouldn’t have died.”
Jesus saw her <who?> weeping and the friends who were with her also weeping, and he was deeply moved and disturbed and began to weep with them.
So often our response to death, be it of a loved one, another school shooting on the news, or even the death of a part of ourselves that needs to die and change, is to go straight to trying to fix it, to make it better. To explain it away, to figure it out. We try to figure out how we and the people we love can never have to go through that kind of pain again. We have all sorts of ways that this happens within our religious conversation and communities. Phrases like, “she’s in a better place now” or “that was part of God’s plan” make me generally want to shake the person saying them and cry out, “don’t try to make it all better; death sucks and is sad and painful and that’s all there is to it!”
Jesus grieves. Jesus weeps. Jesus stops and takes the time to feel all the feelings, to acknowledge the loss, the pain, the life lived.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there—because while death is hard and sad and real and painful—the proclamation of God is that death is not the final word.
Christ says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The expansive God of the universe, the incarnate God in Christ, is the resurrection and the life. God creates and animates our physical bodies yes, but more than that. The physicality of body and this world is indeed infused with a spiritual reality, spirit that goes beyond the physical, life that goes beyond death.
As Jesus calls out “unbind him” and Lazarus is raised from the dead, I believe Jesus is showing us that there is a larger principle at play here. That death and loss are intrinsic in life, and in our processes of faith, as are being unbound and brought back to life, death is followed by resurrection. That physical death is not the end, that loss is held within a bigger story, an eternal whole.
In the Swedenborgian tradition, we have a rich, extensive, and textured collection of theology of the afterlife and the nature of the natural and spiritual worlds.
In his mystical and theological writings, Emanuel Swedenborg describes the afterlife as a vibrant real place—“real” not in terms of its physicality, but “real” in terms of the spirit. That there is something about our spirit that goes beyond this physical life, this flesh and blood. That our loved ones live on in this realm. That there is something beyond death.
Even coming from a tradition that has rich ideas about the afterlife, I can’t tell you for sure what comes next. And I’m not here to try to prove heaven or a specific view of the afterlife to you.
But I can tell you what I have experienced and what I believe in my bones to be true: That there is a loving God holding all of us, our bodies and our spirits, life and death, all of it. And that this God is a God of continual resurrection.
It’s this resurrection that I see all around us, in the cycles of human lives and spiritual connection and in the wisdom of the earth. It’s the resurrection I see in these bulbs we planted today.
These withered, dark little things that look like they are dead. That we put under the ground, in the tomb, where they are going to stay for the cool winter months. With really no indication that there is any life, whatsoever. And then, we’re promised, come spring, beautiful daffodils and gladiolus will come up out of them, as God’s promise of resurrection. The reminder that death is not the final word.
That’s why we have spaces like All Saints Day, to pause and remember that death happens and that resurrection happens. Death and resurrection in this story of Lazarus. Death and resurrection in each of us as we have to die and let go of things on a daily basis. Death of our bodies and resurrection of our spirits in afterlife where we return to God, from whom we came.
Our tradition describes the afterlife as a place where the truest parts of our inner natures show themselves, where we continue to learn and grow in being the people we were created to be. And that heaven is place where all different kinds of people are together, from different faith paths and ideologies, different loves and ideas. That the way of heaven is the beauty of variety and expressions of the vastness of humanity. And that yes, heaven is a realm for our spirits after we physically die here on this earth, but that heaven is also right here, and right now. Wherever we engage in loving God and loving our neighbor, wherever we allow the death of our egos and the resurrection and new life of God’s love.
Maybe heaven is something like that feast described in Isaiah; this feast that the Lord prepares for us on the mountain, a feast of rich food, and well-aged wines, this table where God will destroy the shroud that is cast over all people, and will swallow up death forever. That the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all the faces and call us to rejoice.
As we come to the table today, and share in Holy Communion, we take this sacrament with all that have gone before, and all that God continues to prepare the feast for, all of our interconnected community of humanity, in body and in spirit.
On that Thursday a few weeks ago, I got out of my car and took off my shoes and started walking on the beach. And I kept walking and walking and walking. As if I could walk off the reality of this loss if I just kept going.
The sun was setting and there was a family with a few dark curly headed little ones playing in the waves. Gulls called out overhead. I looked out over the smog in the distance, tinged with golden rays. And you know, it’s just so absolutely obvious to me that there must be something beyond this physical reality. Not because I need to “prove” heaven or “make it all okay” by assuring myself or others about what might come next. No, in that moment there didn’t have to be heaven to make it all better, but I knew and felt that there must be something beyond this physical life because my friend’s spirit is so much brighter and lasting and shining than this earthy body can contain. And I know her spirit must live on, and that from God she came and to God she returns. I felt one of those “we’re all one/eternity is now” moments that sounds corny as soon as I share it out loud, but it was the most peaceful, beautiful, achingly true thing in the moment.
I walked down to the water and took the water, as is my ritual, and made the sign on the cross on my forehead, tracing the sign and words of my baptism. But this time, the words that came were “from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” The ashes of Ash Wednesday mixed with the salt of the ocean and the light of the setting sun
Dear ones, the Communion of Saints are with us. Showing up, in the butterfly, the flash of a memory, the feeling of closeness, the tinge of sadness, the love of loss. And dear ones, God is a God of resurrection, a God who created us, who is with us, who grieves with us, and who is always making all things new. This is the God who holds us all and who holds all things within Her huge embrace. Amen.