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
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.
Check out this recent piece published on the Swedenborg Foundation’s blog: https://swedenborg.com/showing-up/
As the days grow darker and Advent approaches, I find myself pondering the light and the dark, that which grows quietly under the soil and that which springs forth, that which gestates in a cozy womb, and that which is born. As we are anticipating the celebration of the birth of Christ, I am reflecting back on the process of birthing a church and how each one of you has been integral to that journey. You have come alongside the Garden Church at various stops along the way, and have helped us to become the beautiful and alive place that we are today. Four years ago this was just an idea, a wondering, a hope, and now each week we welcome all sorts of people from all walks of life through our gates to be fed and to feed together.
A couple of Sundays ago I was making the rounds around the dinner tables at our weekly community meal—saying hello, meeting new people, commenting on the delicious nature of the polenta that Linda had made—and I met Victoria. Victoria had come in with a friend during worship earlier and had sat intently throughout the sermon and prayers and singing. When I had shared communion with her, she looked deeply into my eyes and I watched tears form as I leaned in and said, “Beloved child of God, the bread of life, given for you.” When I introduced myself and learned her name over dinner, she looked up again and said, “I knew I was hungry, really hungry. Hungry for this…” as she pointed down at her plate loaded with food, “but what I didn’t know was that I was hungry for more. Thank you for worship Pastor, I didn’t know how much I needed to know that I was loved.”
Stories like this happen most every time we open the gates of our urban farm and outdoor sanctuary. Our motto, and the name of our newly formed non-profit, Feed and Be Fed, comes to life as people work and worship and eat together, as people see God’s light in each other’s faces, as people cultivate more peace and justice and goodness together. People are hungry and people want to feed each other. We are honored to continue to provide an opportunity for all to do both.
As my time on the pastoral staff is coming to a close, I want to personally thank you for believing in and supporting this vision in these early years. There were certainly times when I wondered and doubted along the way. Your prayers, your generosity, and your participation never waivered to keep us believing and moving forward. It is a great privilege now to invite you to continue your support of this growing and serving community under its next generation of leadership. I can think of no team I would rather hand the baton to than Rev. Jonathan, Rev. Amanda, and Rev. Asher. And I have every confidence that they, with this beautiful and vibrant congregation, will continue to feed in body, mind, and spirit.
As you consider both your end-of-year giving and look forward to your 2018 giving, we would be honored and grateful if you would continue to join us in cultivating a more just and generous world through this little plot of earth.
May the grace, the peace, and the love of God be with you all,
Rev. Anna Woofenden and the Garden Church team
Give at www.gardenchurchsp.org/donate
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: Psalm 23 & John 9:1-41 9:1
I’ve spent more hours awake in the middle of the night in the last few weeks than I prefer. I won’t get into all the details of all the things that decide that the middle of the night is prime time to worry about them, but maybe you have your own set. I find that at first when I wake up, it’s a steady stream, worry after worry after worry. It’s as if my awareness wakes up right in the middle of a full onslaught of data processing that my brain was in the middle of, and goes from zero to 80 in the moment it takes to be jolted awake.
The problem is, that I’m still actually super sleepy and not very conscious or purposeful at this point, so I dive right in. “Oh, we’re worrying, I know how to do that!” And I send my full adrenaline rushed resources straight in to help out. “I’m awake, I’m awake, let’s worry!”
It’s not until I’m awake a bit more that I have the insight and consciousness to remember that actually, it is not that helpful to worry in the middle of the night, and that these things are real worries, but we have a plan and we’re working on trust, and that really, sleeping is a much better idea in the end. But at this point, I’m awake. So then it’s time to get back to sleep, to pray, or to check Facebook or watch another episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” Something to calm my mind, breathe, and let go of the spinning enough to fall back asleep.
Our two texts this week have me thinking about rest and about wakefulness, about the need for calm and peace and sleep, and the need to have our eyes opened, to be awake, to see.
This Psalm, well worn throughout the decades, maybe the one you memorized as a child or have heard at many a memorial service. The Lord is my shepherd, God as comfort, and protector, and guide. I shall not want, God as provider and nurturer, this can be that scripture that calms us, that assures us, that invites us to lie down in green pastures and rest. It’s one that we turn to in those moments when we need comfort. The tough moments of struggle, when we need to lean back and be held. The times in the middle of the night when we need to be assured, comforted, and to be able to rest.
And then, there’s the times when we need our eyes opened, when we need to stay awake. Our gospel text today is all about that. But maybe not just in the way we first see it.
We see that Jesus spitting in the dirt and wiping mud on the man’s eyes and telling him to go wash in the pool of Siloam is central to what happens in this story. But, I don’t think that it’s just about this man being healed. He receives sight, yes. Yet, I wonder if it’s also the crowd watching who receives healing, even if it’s painful and awkward for them. Here is this person that they are used to seeing in a particular context—“Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Others are saying, “No, no, it can’t be him, it must be someone like him,” while the man is insisting, “That’s me, that’s really me that Jesus just healed.” They see something they don’t want to see.
Jesus opens the people’s eyes to the humanity of the person right in front of them, the person who they likely had been just walking by beforehand, judging him as “that blind man who begs.” And now their eyes are being raised to see as Jesus sees him, loves him, and grants him sight. This is what seems to happen when we hang out with Jesus, when we try to see through the eyes of love—our eyes are opened to the people around us, even the ones we don’t want to see. And we’re healed, because as we become awake, as we see, we are healed of our indifference and apathy and fear.
Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” And when we hang out with the Christ, he starts to shine his light around, and we have flashes of seeing the world and the people around us through the eyes of love.
It reminds me of an experience described by modern day mystic and saint, Thomas Merton. He had a moment in 1958 as he was walking through the busy streets when his eyes were opened and he saw through these eyes of love. He writes:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
When we encounter love and encounter others, and have this light shining on a situation—if even for a moment—our blind spots are taken away, and we wake up. We see the humanity in someone we didn’t before. We open and wonder to how God is at work in us and each other.
There’s a lot to wake up to in the world right now. A lot of hard things to see. There are so many things to highlight that we need to be awake about in our community, in our nation, in our world. Just this weekend I’m aware that we can be marking National Weekend of Prayer for Transgender Justice, that today is Epilepsy Awareness Day, and that it’s Women’s History Month.
My heart and mind have been thinking a lot this week about our undocumented neighbors as I met with an activist to talk about how our San Pedro congregations could come together to offer sanctuary and support, and also hearing from one of you about witnessing an ICE raid of a grandmother at the local park.
I can celebrate the continuing of healthcare for millions, while strengthening a resolve for its improvement and the dignity and care of all. All this while being acutely attuned to many of you who are living on the street, those of us who struggle with physical and mental illness, family stress, finances, hard decisions, and the wisdom and energy to keep going. There is so much to be awake to, and it is in painful and uncomfortable to keep our eyes open…
Which leads me back around to the Psalm and the hope and belief and prayer that sometimes opening our eyes means that we see this Shepherd God, leading us through.The line in our Collective Confession that we’re focusing on this week is this: We have neglected prayer and worship, and have failed to commend the faith that is in us.
Sometimes when we wake up in the middle of the night with the world on our shoulders, we are gently reminded to lie down in the green pasture, with the gentle sounds of the still waters in the background. And sometimes when we open our eyes we find ourselves standing in the prayer garden, witnessing the tears of a precious broken soul and find the brokenness and preciousness in our own hearts. We have failed to commend the faith that is within us. It is there, it is in us, it is available, we are gently reminded to keep waking up to it. And when we do, we might begin to find this liberation that Merton talks about, “I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are.”
In God waking us, when our eyes are opened, it’s not just to the pain and suffering in isolation—it’s to the whole picture. We can awake to see how the gift of humanity is that we are in it together, leaving behind our preconceived notions and perceptions of each other. And we may just find that if we reach out, we’ll find another human being on the other side. When the mud is cleaned off our eyes, we can start to see each other as God sees us, all precious flaws and fears and warts and all. I mean, even in the healing Jesus uses mud.
Jesus could have spoken a word, or touched the blind man. Instead, he bends down and scoops up the dust of the earth, turns it to mud, spreads it on his eyes and tells him to go wash. Dirt and dust mixed with human spit, the most elemental pieces of the earth, that ash and the humanity of saliva, mixed together, washed clean, and then he sees.
There’s something so elemental about this mud. It takes me back to the ashes of Ash Wednesday that remind us that we are dust. And to the water and washing that Rev. Asher used last week to remind us that we are also beloved. Dust and rocks and water and ash—God is in it all, reminding us that we are beloved children of God.
This gospel story, this well-worn Psalm, take us back to these elemental realities of the Divine with us. Green pastures and still waters, overflowing oil and tables spread out before even the people we consider enemy, eyes open after mud is mixed and water cleanses. God is no sterile removed deity, only interested in abstract ideas or staying far removed, God is right here in it with us, ready to enter the messy muck with us, because that’s where the sacred shows up, that’s where we see the face of God, that’s where, as Jan Richardson writes, “the sludge becomes sacramental, and through grimy eyes we begin to behold the face of Love, beholding us right back.”
Rev. Anna Woofenden
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
Listen to the audio
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.
Last year for my Grandmother’s 90th birthday I wrote this piece: 90 for 90 in Honor of Grandma Gladish. Today we have the joy of celebrating her 91st birthday and in honor of it, I offer this addendum…
Another year of Grandma here with us has been a gift. It’s been a year where I needed her wise words and gentle guidance and assurance. A year where I would have missed her deeply had she moved on to cheering from the other side. This was the year where I called her and said, “So, there’s this man that I’m getting to know….” And she said, “I’ve been praying for someone to come along.”
This was the year when I got to take that same man to meet Grandma and delight in how the two of them hit it off and soon were deep in conversation about nuanced details of shared interests and history. And later, Grandma would offer me her deep wisdom and blessing to continue to grow with and commit to this man.
This was the year that we went through an election cycle like no other and the year that I called Grandma after proudly voting for the person we hoped would be the first woman president and celebrated this step forward for women. And this was the year that I called her after the election and she reminded me of the ebb and flow and cycles of life and history and encouraged me to keep going.
This was the year my now fiancé and I called her to share the good news and this was the year I got to send her photos of my wedding dress and learn what her favorite flowers are to use in the wedding in her honor.
This was the year that I have received emails encouraging me in my ministry and preaching and affirming the work I’m doing each day. And the year that she sent me news articles and quotes to support the work I’m doing.
This was the year I saw day after day of the sweetness and relationship between my mom and my grandmother continue to grow and the year I saw Grandma’s continued gifts in the world.
Every day with a Grandma around is a gift, and this year is no exception.
Happy Birthday Grandma Gladish, I love you!