A Sermon About Fear and Love and Courage and God with Us


The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-8, Luke 3: 3-6

Link to Audio

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, God with us.

I find myself grasping for words to respond after another act of violence strikes, and this time so close to us, while we try to distance ourselves to keep the horror away. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how to make it all better. I struggle with the rage that rises in me every time one human being inflicts violence on another human being. I don’t want to live in fear. And yet, I am afraid. I find myself looking at people differently when I walk into a public space. I open up the news browser and I tense, not knowing what will be there. I feel fear. I do not want to. But I do.

Today is the Second Sunday in Advent. Advent is a term we use in the Christian tradition for the weeks leading up to Christmas, a time of preparation for the birth of Christ, of the coming of Light into the world. Advent is a time of waiting and anticipating, Advent is a time of preparation, of clearing out a space for God’s love and light to enter the world and enter our lives.

When we think about “preparing for Christmas,” I know what often comes first to mind are the lists of gifts to purchase and events to go to, cards to write and parties to plan. And certainly this is all part of this season and can bring joy to us and the people around us. Yet while we’re doing that, let us consider some deeper layers of preparation that we’re being invited to. Preparing for more Light shining into our lives and the world, clearing out and opening up spaces for love. Preparing the way for the Lord.

In our gospel reading today, we hear from John, the baptizer, this prophet who went ahead of Jesus, ahead of the Light coming into the world, and called people to repentance.

Now I need to give a quick explanation of this word “repentance” because it’s one of those religious words we can—understandably—be allergic to, picturing fisted preachers slamming the Bible down on the pulpit demanding our repentance—or else. Or we might think of sandwich board signs on the street corners, with people calling for us to repent because the end is near. No, my friends, this is not the repentance we talk about here or what we find in this gospel message. The word “repentance” in the gospel is the word “metanoia”—to change our minds, to turn, to be transformed.

The preparation is one of intention and purpose, noticing where crooked ways in us need to be made straight, where mountains and hills need to be leveled, where rough places can be gently smoothed.

The repentance, the preparation we are called to is maybe quite simple really, yet revolutionary. We’re called to open up to the way of Love, to the way of Light in the world. Dear ones, how we need this. This promise of Love, of Emmanuel, God with us.

Not the God somewhere far away who makes bad things happen or snaps his fingers and fixes things. Not the God who loves one group of people or religious path and smites another. No, the promise we long for and claim today is that promise of Emmanuel, God with us. The God of complete and expansive love, a love for all that She has created. The God of our Muslim brothers and sisters, the God of those who are living in poverty, the God who weeps over every act of violence and harm we inflict on each other in the human family, and the God who slipped into human skin and in the body of Jesus showed us by his actions what God looks like as he reached out across barriers and touched and interacted and healed those that others shunned, as he fed people and questioned the crushing power of those in authority, and exuded love for the least of these.

God’s coming into the world did not eliminate or annihilate all the pain and suffering in the world, but it gives us the possibility to be transformed by it, to be part of the force for healing, and to no longer be defined by it.

Marin Tirabassi, in writing a poem titled “O antiphon for our fears”, gives us these words:

O Emmanuel, hailed by clueless Gabriel,
who thinks we can
shake off being afraid,
Come to us in our fear.
We fear the past and the future.
We fear those who are unlike us
in any way,
and we fear family members
who should not hurt us but do.
We fear chemo and COPD,
and any kind of mental illness diagnosis.
We fear heroin.
We fear small spaces and high ones,
food and poverty and bullies,
dirt and death,
dangerous work places, joblessness,
and being asked to play.
We fear forgetting people,
being forgotten,
not being able to retrieve a name.
We fear labor and delivery
and the impossible responsibility
of being a parent.
We fear naming autism,
claiming a gender identity,
or a recovery or a religious faith,
not to speak of falling in love,
being late,
or enjoying solitude.
We fear for our children,
and for our parents.

We fear terrorism, injustice, war,
and global warming,
guns in the hands of those who are unstable,
and guns in the hands of police,
and we correctly fear angels who invite us
to choose to make a difference.
Come to us in all our fears,
so they do not define us. Amen

Come to us in all our fears, Emmanuel. Not because God magically eliminates our fears, but because we must not be defined by them.

When we become defined by our fears, we perpetuate them. We begin to act from them. We shut down and we clamp down and we want to close off to the world.

Close our borders, close our eyes, close our hearts, close our minds. I find this is what fear calls out in me. To shut down. And shut all people out. And the world out.

Thomas Aquinas once said: “fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.”

And this, dear ones, in unacceptable. It is unacceptable to let fear drive compassion right out of our hearts. I believe that our well being and the well being of the world rests in this hard truth. We may be afraid, but we cannot let ourselves be defined by it.

It’s not about not having fear. It’s about admitting that we have fear, and then choosing to stand in truth and in love. The way of Emmanuel, the God with us, was not to avoid the dark and difficult places of our world, it was not to stay far away up in a heaven far away, Emmanuel come to earth born as a vulnerable baby, in the middle of a world that was struggling with forces and powers of oppression and terror.

Emmanuel come to earth in this state of utter and complete vulnerability, and calls us not to ignore our fears, but to name them and see God coming to us in them, so they don’t define us.

Because this Jesus, this Christ that we are anticipating, that we are preparing for, this is the Light that is always pressing and urging to come into the world. This is the love that takes our fearful and hardened hearts and cracks them open to engage in the world.

And so as we prepare for the way of the Lord, as we align ourselves to welcome the Light and the Love, to receive and to share the Light and the Love, we notice and we name our fears. We notice those parts of our path where we need God’s help to make crooked places straight. We look at the world around us and breathe and take in the depths of the valleys that need to be filled with healing and change, and the egos and agendas standing on mountaintops that need to be brought low. As we prepare for the way of the Lord, we ask for holy sandpaper to make those rough places in us smooth, to work over the places in us that get prickly and push away that which is vulnerable, to break off those hooks that snag us in a way of thinking and feeling that is not aligned with love.

We lay strips of yarn on the altar, representing our fears…
…surrounding the advent wreath, which we light…
…remembering the Light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome and the Love that is beyond all fears.


The Compost Heap and the Church (Part Two)

Presented at Gathering Leaves 
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

2013-09-04 15.05.45Change
This word “change” is not a comfortable word. And it often makes for uncomfortable conversations. But, maybe being comfortable is not the point of spiritual life or church or being human. Maybe the church really isn’t about what our needs are and having our needs met. Being the church is about following the movement of God and community. Being the church is about being a collective embodiment of the two great commandments—loving God and loving the neighbor.

When Christ was on earth, he certainly didn’t preach comfort or stability, feeling good or that it’s about what we want. That was not Christ’s message, though I often want it to be. But that’s not the message the Lord taught or demonstrated with on earth or that we read about in scripture. Christ preached that we should sell all we have and give to the poor and follow him. Jesus’ call is to take up our mats and walk, to lay down our nets and follow.

It’s so tempting, especially perhaps as Swedenborgians, with our ideas of the internal sense of the Word, to spiritualize these phrases and to push them away into intellectual concepts to keep ourselves comfortable. But I have come to believe that these are direct teachings—God’s call on our lives. I don’t know what it means in your life to sell all you have and give to the poor. But there’s something in there about sacrificing our own comfort and stability to be part of following God and a community. Following the Lord probably doesn’t look like physically putting down fishing nets for most of us, but it might involve letting go of that which has been core to our daily existence, and trusting and following and being changed. Taking up our mats, these things we’ve learned and know, and actively engaging in the work of our lives of faith even when it’s not comfortable or how we’ve always known life to be.

2013-08-24 21.27.53
It’s God then, who seems to be all about change—process, transformation, death, life, letting go, and rebirth. And it’s God who says, “I’ll be with you through it.
” Isn’t that the beauty of the incarnation? God coming to earth in human form, taking on this life process of being born, living, struggling, having joy, being in community, teaching, serving, dying, and then being resurrected, glorified, and coming again. Is this not the call to us individually, this call to the repentance of spirit, to transformation, to death and rebirth, to change? And if this the call to us individually, is not this the call to us as a church?

I think it’s easier to be present to the process of change by looking at the life cycle of an individual. I’ve heard some beautiful stories this weekend about aging gracefully, as people shared about having the courage to let go in a different way in these stages of life. There is a deep wisdom that the generations in their second half of life hold about aging, and that wisdom is needed in this conversation. If I’m standing here speaking as a “voice for the next generation of the church,” it’s important for me to honor and say clearly: this is not about wanting everything to change, getting rid of the old, and swooping in with the new. No, the message is: we need to have some dialog between generations. Because the church is changing, and I believe we all need to be presentto each other and the conversation.

2013-08-24 23.07.00

Giant Rummage Sale
I’d like to zoom out for a moment, and think about not just our local churches or denominations, or even the churches in our neighborhood, but to look at the greater swaths of movement in this cycle. Phyllis Tickle, a scholar of religious history, wrote a book called The Great Emergence. In it she offers a theory that in the sweep of Christian history, every five hundred years there is a giant rummage sale, where things are thrown up in the air and questioned, and then it settles back down and the church is changed in the process.

Tickle posits that the last time this happened was the Protestant Reformation. There was upheaval against the Catholic church of the time, reformers such as Luther and Calvin wrote and preached, and radical break-off groups formed, such as the Quakers and the Methodists, Anabaptists, and a bit later, the Swedenborgians. That was the last giant rummage sale. These rummage sales don’t happen overnight, they stretch over decades. She suggests that we’re in another one of these giant rummage sales in Christendom as a whole. This idea resonates with me within a Swedenborgian framework, and the concept of the Second Coming moving into the world. Maybe what we’re seeing is the actualization of a New Christianity, alive and working in the world. When I look at what’s going on in Christendom as a whole, around the world, something is happening. Something is changing.

2013-08-24 22.36.52

And we’re all in the same boat. From each of our denominations we have story after story about declining membership and churches closing.  So something is changing around us. The way we’ve always done church is not how church is happening. Something is dying, and beginning to decompose.

To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole thing right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.  

I will soon not be with you

Originally published on “Echoes from the Edge” at: http://www.beatitudessociety.org/ 

African grandmother, Gogo, patterned scarf covering the closely shaved tight curls, once pure dark, now a contrasting silver-gray. Gogo holding her granddaughter, one hand clasped over the other, providing a seat for her round little bottom and a shelf for her eyelet white dress.

The mama is at a distance. Inside the house, she leans on the edge of the window opening, her arm receiving the sun and her face hardened in the shadow. Removed from the firewood that needs to be gathered, the mud-caked shoes, and the toddler arms reaching to be picked up.

She did her part. She went through 27 hours of childbirth; she’ll be quick to remind you. And it’s her breasts the little one crawls to in the middle of the night, feeling for the source of sustenance and comfort.

In the dark of the night, the hand gently stroking the back of her daughter’s head betrays her feelings of love. When daylight comes she puts on her defensive shell.

She won’t be here long. She knows it. Who’s it going to help if she allows herself to get attached? Surely it’s better to keep her distance and spare her little one the grief of losing her mother so young. Bond to Grandma, she’ll be there. But me, cling to me not, I will soon not be with you.

Is this not one more powerful quality of Jesus, the Christ? He chose to stay present in the moment and to love the people in front of him—even as he is preparing for death.

I think of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples, his chosen family. We call it “the last supper.” But the disciples probably called it “Passover” or “dinner.” Still not understanding this one amongst them was so soon going to die

Jesus told them. And showed them. And all the while gently prepared his friends for the loss they would soon encounter. Infusing meaning into the daily elements of bread and wine—remember me—casting a vision for reunions in heaven in a house with rooms for all, praying for the world and his closest friends.

In the preparation of leaving, Christ was present, in the nurture and care for his children. Through the deep pain of loss, in mud-caked sandals Christ present to nurture, heal, and caress our broken places. Offering presence through the ages, “Take, eat, this is my body.”

Divine Tension of Anticipation

Anticipate: to realize beforehand; foretaste or foresee: to anticipate pleasure.
Anticipate: to expect; look forward to; be sure of; to anticipate a favorable decision

The advent season is one of anticipation. Of waiting… Of preparation… Of looking forward to the special Christmas day… When the concepts of anticipation and Christmas come together, I picture the look on a child’s face when December 1st rolls around. Waiting for Christmas becomes a month-long celebration. Some wake up each morning, ready to open the next door of the advent calendar. People scurry around making gifts and tucking them at the back of the closet or in that hidden spot in the crawl space, waiting for their Christmas morning unveiling. As children, the month of December can seem like an eternity, 24 whole doors on the advent calendar to open before one can wake up to the delight of Christmas morning.

Parents in the month of December are called to work with their children on discipline. “Nope, you can’t open doors for December 17th and 22nd today—today is December 3rd.” “You can shake and poke the presents from Grandma under the tree, but don’t think about peeling the tape back on the corner of the box”.  There’s something charged and magical in the waiting along with the frustration and restraint.

What of our discipline in advent?  What do we anticipate as we approach the celebration of Christ’s birth, Divinity Incarnate on earth? I’ll admit that I’m not so far from the ways of childhood, when it comes to Christmas. I get excited when the lights start going up on the trees and I’ve been madly knitting gifts for weeks now. I anticipate Christmas concerts and meals with friends and family and await the gentle glow of candlelight traditions.

Anticipate: to realize beforehand; foretaste or foresee: to anticipate pleasure.
Anticipate: to expect; look forward to; be sure of; to anticipate a favorable decision

There is something in the waiting that feels sacred to me. There’s a care in the preparations that speaks to the precious nature of the holiday we’re approaching. I am seeing God in this tension, in the waiting, the anticipation. Maybe anticipation is God’s gift to us, the foretaste of God’s goodness, the spark of light in a darkened world. We anticipate, prepare, and stay in the tension because we look forward to a dream being realized; we feel God’s vision of the future we are working towards.

When we live in the anticipation as a Divine gift, we can find the sacred, the joy of knowing that something beautiful is coming, the energy and excitement to persevere, the trust and patience to wait. We anticipate the end of a season. We anticipate a shift in our attitudes. We anticipate a change in a relationship, a new home, conquering an inner battle, mastering a skill, or the passing of time.

We can live into the anticipation as a gift, or we can see it as a burden. We can wake up each day and curse the fact that it is not yet Christmas morning, be bitter and twisted about the greener grass across the way and threaten to rip open all the gifts under the tree. We can live our lives in a way that would cause us to walk into a darkened room, throw on every bank of lights, and flood the room with a harsh fluorescent glare to see what’s there—RIGHT NOW.

Or… The people who walked in darkness, saw a great light. Those who dwelt in the shadow of death, upon them a light has shone. The light is out there—flickering in the darkness. The Christ light shines, beckoning us to draw near, to follow, to anticipate. In this advent season, we are reminded to walk in spiritual disciplines, to breathe in the tension between what we look towards and what is. To engage in the sacred dance of anticipation. To be present in each moment, each breath. To look for the Christ light shining in our midst.