When I moved to Los Angeles in 2014 to start a church that connected people with food, the earth, each other, and God, I envisioned a sanctuary created around the table. It would not be built out of stones and stained glass and wood but would be circled by vegetable beds and fruit trees, with sky for ceiling and earth for floor. The vision was to create an urban farm and outdoor sanctuary feeding people in body, mind, and spirit.
Before we had a plot of land to cultivate together, we asked our team: What do we have? What are the resources that are already here and how can we use them to nurture this dream?
There are a lot of things I could preach about today. Father’s Day. Summer Solstice. We go through what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary for our scripture texts, a series that walks through the Bible, along with churches all over the world. And today we have David and Goliath, the story of the young boy who faces and defeats the enormous giant; we have Jesus calming the storm. And some of these things would be more fun to preach about than what God has on my heart to preach about today.
A wise preacher is often quoted, “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” We might say now, “Preach with the Bible in one hand and the Facebook feed and the newsfeed and the Twitter feed in the other hand.”So if I’m going to preach with these in my hands this week, we have to talk about racism and we have to talk about violence. And that’s not fun—I quake and pray, and others have been praying about how we can best have these conversations. Because it’s hard and messy and painful. But I believe that if we can’t have these conversations in church, with the infusion of God’s love and wisdom amongst us, well then I don’t know why we have church.
So friends, I invite you to enter into a hard topic today. And to try to find, where is the gospel in it? Because I do believe that God is present, and that Jesus shows us that there always is gospel—good news. Sometimes to find that gospel we have to be willing to engage the hard and the painful, and the things that we’d rather just gloss over.
Thursday morning, I woke up to a news feed filled with articles and shock and grief. The night before, a young white man who has since been identified as Dylan Storm Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where a Bible study was taking place. He sat around the tables with the community for over an hour and then, as they were wrapping up, pulled out a gun and shot nine people.
I read and I watched and I sat down and I wrote.
A person, Killed another person. And my heart aches.
A white person, Killed another black person. And my lungs contract.
A young white man person, Killed nine black women and men, people. And my back stiffens. My heart pounds. My fingers tighten. My feet press into the ground.
All the words scroll by, “Enough is enough”…“Lord, have mercy”…“When will this end?”…“Stop racism”…“When will we have peace?”
Scrolling, scrolling, images flush, other faces, Trayvon and Michael, Eric, young girls and old men, the marches, the media, this gaping wound of racism, violence, pain, and hate.
I keep scrolling. Someone urges us not to “jump to conclusions” and then black clergy colleague asks, “Will you be silent when it’s me?”
My hands go to my forehead. Again.
To keep feeling, to keep being present, every time there is another giant public witness to racism and white supremacy in our nation. I want to ignore, to numb.
Not to be silent because I don’t care, but because it’s so much work to stay present with the suffering. And name that there are giants in our land. There are giant gaping wounds of racism and inequality, hunger and violence. There are systems and ideologies, structures and places within me that continue to benefit from the oppression of others. And I know, that I, as a white woman, am mostly on the benefiting end. And I worry about this beautiful big-hearted little boy that I know, who I’ve known since he was an itty-bitty infant, who has beautiful beautiful black skin and I know that he is in more and more risk with each inch that he grows. And that, my friends, is so painful to sit with. It’s too much. It’s giant.
We heard today the story of a giant—Goliath—a big, huge, intimidating enemy. When we hear this story, this story of a giant that is so gigantic, so overpowering, the giant who has all the armor and weapons and a reputation to go with it, a story of impossibility. Maybe we can relate. The stories we read in the Word can mix and layer with the stories of our lives. We see ourselves in these stories as we let them come alive, and we see ourselves and the world in the text.
There are giants that we face. Racism. Violence. The insurmountable. The very large that seems so dangerous and impossible to even begin to approach.
There were giants in the land. Send someone else. There are giants in our land. I want to run away, to hide, to make it be someone else’s problem, to explain away why this is none of my business or could never affect me.
But then there’s David, this young shepherd boy, innocent, strong, wise, dedicated and trusting in the Lord’s work in the world and in his life. And he steps forward. He says, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”
David, and so many courageous people, before and after, who step up and say, “yes, there’s a giant, but there’s also the Lord, and step out in faith and trust and with the courage to face what we all want to hide from.”
Rather than hiding, avoiding, glossing over, I need to show up. Be present to it. I need to continue to listen. I need to particularly listen to my colleagues and friends of color and know and honor that they have wisdom from their lived experience, that I do not, and that I have privilege merely by the skin that I’m born in. I need to listen.
Because when I listen, I hear voices such as Rev. Emma Akapan, a black woman who wrote yesterday, “To my white Christian brethren, I don’t need for you to tell me how angry you are. I need you to tell your white family members, friends, and congregants. I need you to talk about your anger at racism and white supremacy from the pulpit. I need you to urge your congregants to address racism in their own family. White folks know who their racist family members and friends are—now is not the time sit idly by and ignore it. We must face those who we love, and challenge their prejudice. White folks must say, “no more” to racism, especially when it’s a system that they benefit from.”
And so here we are. I could have tried to get away with preaching a nice sermon on Father’s Day today, but I hope not, I hope that this community demands from each other and from your preacher that this is a place where we take our theology of the table, that all are welcome, we take our commitment to look into the eyes of each other and see the face of God, the humanity of all people, we take our charge seriously, to be a place that’s more like heaven, in and amongst the messiness of earth. Which means, to me, that we are willing to stop and wrestle deeply with what the gospel—the “good news”—is for our country still dealing with the festering wound of racism, violence, and division.
I believe hat the gospel calls us to have the courage to have these conversations, knowing that we’re not going to get it all right. I will say some things that offend some, and other things that offend others, I will likely make myself and others uncomfortable that I am preaching about racism from the pulpit, I may even say things that later I’ll have to go back and say, “I’ve learned more since then.” But I will not be silent. Because we need to speak our truth about these giants in the land.
The good news—the gospel—is in Jesus, as we watch him as he walked on earth, calling to repentance, a changing of our minds and heart, as he reached out across barriers and lines, calling us to pray for our enemies, to forgive the impossible, to knock over the tables of injustice, to stand with and walk with the oppressed and speak truth about oppressors.
Remember, Jesus came from a time when there were giants in the land, the Roman empire was crushing those who were not them, slavery and racism and classism were rampant. And Jesus called for a different way. Jesus didn’t put on the armor of Saul. He didn’t go to the palace and try to play with the power struggle of violence and aggression. He didn’t take up the sword and shield.
Like David before him, who when Saul offered him his bronze helmet and coat of mail and David tried to walk in them, and then said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. David took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
David didn’t use Saul’s armor. He went forward with what was more vulnerable, but true to him. He went out as his own vulnerable self. With the tools and skills he knew well.
Jesus, the all powerful God of Heaven and earth, didn’t come into the world protected by chain mail and with a sword. He came to earth as a vulnerable baby, grew and walked with the people. An itinerant preacher, sleeping here and there, going across the lake in boats, being with the people. Valuing, touching, feeding everyone he met. He didn’t hide behind the religious rule or the protection of Roman guards. He put on his own clothing,—vulnerable skin—and from that place engaged the giants.
Jesus wasn’t afraid of the hard conversations, of stirring things up, Or if he was afraid, he did it anyway, even when it resulted in his own death at the hands of Roman rulers.
And here’s where we reach out for and claim the gospel, where we repent and invite God to keep working to change our minds, to take off the ill-fitting armor of the stories we tell ourselves and put down our weapons of defense that come from fear and hate. Calling us to lament and repent. And then to tell the truth.
In the language of metaphor, stones remind us of truth, and if you think about stones as truth, these stones are smooth, and rounded from the water flowing over them, they’re well used, known, lived truths.
And its just one of these stones—one truth—that slays the giant in this story. Now I’m not suggesting that if we just land on just the right truth that we’ll end these major problems in our world. And I’m not suggesting that we use truth as a weapon. And though I’d really like to be able to wrap up our story as nicely as is the story of David and Goliath, I cannot. Because being human and living in the world today is just so much messier than than this story.
We can’t fix it all overnight. We can’t do one thing and make it all better. We can ignore it for so long, but then it will come back in our faces and in our hearts. Maybe we can start by telling the truth. By speaking the truth, we let the light in. We let God in. Tell the truth about the history of slavery that this country is built on. Tell the truth about the vastly un-equal incarceration rate of black men vs. white men who committed the same crime. Tell the truth about racially charged violence. Tell the truth about how economic and social systems benefit white people. Tell the truth about ourselves and how we are part of these systems. Be willing to engage and stand in hard conversations about race, and be honest and vulnerable and to cry out to God in and amongst it.
I wish I had some more uplifting gospel to give you. But maybe the gospel is just this: Embodying our liturgy and our faith. Speaking our prayers of confession and repentance. Being church side-by-side with people that are different than us. Coming around the table where all are welcome. And meaning it. Even when it’s messy. Even when we disagree. Even when we have to be honest and have hard conversations. That we come around God’s table and be the human family together.
Crying out—telling the truth in the midst of it all. Being willing to put on our own clothing, our vulnerability, voice our confusion and doubts, engage in the hard conversations and cry out to God and to each other.
The disciples out on the boat are in the great storm and afraid. And Jesus was asleep in the stern. The disciples are freaking out and say, “Jesus, Jesus, don’t you care that we are perishing?” And he woke up, and said, “Peace, be still” and the waves stopped. He then said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Let us keep crying out, “Jesus, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Crying out in lament for sisters and brothers, crying out as we repent, crying out for healing and reconciliation. And Jesus, just for that moment, calms the storm. Peace. Be still.
Announcing The Garden Church Pop-up Garden and Gathering Space
Dear Friends,It’s an exciting week in the land of The Garden Church! We signed a six-month lease for a lot right in the heart of old-town San Pedro. We are thrilled to be moving into phase three of our church planting strategy, having a space to plant our edible urban sanctuary, and fling open our gates to welcome people to feed and be fed!We will be opening the gates on May 1st and together we will put in a pop-up garden and gathering space for a six month growing season. Starting May 3rd we will be meeting weekly for our Sunday Gathering (3 pm Work, 4 pm Worship, 5 pm Eat) and we look forward to being a community gathering space and communal garden throughout the week in many forms.We’re delighted to be working with our fantastic collaborators at Green Girl Farms, who bring their gardening expertise and inspiration and dedication to bringing organic edibles and education to our community.It is a moment to pause and express gratitude to all of you for the ways that you have held and contributed to this vision so far. We would not be here without you, and we look forward to sharing together as this church grows into a living sanctuary where God’s love is made visible as people feed and are fed in body, mind, and spirit.Looking forward to being together in the garden,Rev. Anna
Mark Your Calendars
Sunday, April 26thGarden Church Gathering 3:00-5:30 pm We’ll work together to prepare to “pop-up” in our new home the first week of May. Friday, May 1stOpening the Gates Placing of the Table and blessing the space. Time and details to be announced. Other Work Times: We will be bringing in straw and stock tanks on Friday, May 1st and Saturday, May 2nd. If anyone has a truck and would like to participate, let us know! Also, straw bales are heavy, and we could use all the people power we can get! Contact us at email@example.com to participate. Sunday, May 3rdBuild Day Stuffing straw into burlap tubes, creating garden beds, moving dirt, creating a prayer corner, we’re going to pop this garden church up! Work: Noon-4:00 pm Worship: 4:00 pm Eat: 5:00 pm Sunday, May 10thGarden Church Gathering—Special Mother’s Day Service Work: 3:00 pm Worship: 4:00 pm Eat 5:00 pm Sunday, May 17thPlanting Day Time to plant the seeds, seedlings, and plants into the dirt. Work: 3:00 pm Worship: 4:00 pm Eat: 5:00 pm Garden Church Gathering Every Sunday afternoon for the rest of the season Work 3:00 pm Worship 4:00 pm Eat 5:00 pm Theology Group is on hiatus for the month of April as we focus on preparing to grow our new home. We’ll reconvene in May in the garden. If you have an idea for an activity, group, or event, please email us at: gardenchurchsp.@gmail.com
O Holy One, Who stirs over the face of the waters, Who created at the beginning, the garden, Who gives us this vision of a heavenly city, With a garden in the middle of it.
May we, each individually and collectively, be present, with the journey of compost.
May we be present with the decomposition, to grieve, to celebrate, to let go.
May we be courageous and active to being fertilizer for the next generations. May we be purposeful and bold, making choices not out of survival or comfort, but from our love for all that is good and true.
And may we be curious, engaged, and on the lookout for new growth. May we be delightfully surprised, and touched to the core of our heart, When we see how you, O Holy One, are birthing Your New Church.
We see a garden ahead of us, The garden of the New Jerusalem, with the river that flows through the city, giving truth and quenching thirst, to all who seek it.
The trees with leaves that heal the nations. We see twelve gates, welcoming all to enter and come and take the water of life freely.
This garden, where there is no temple, where God is the center of the city. And in this garden, I do believe, there probably is a Compost Heap. Read The Compost Heap and the Church
Presented at Gathering Leaves September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine
It seems in general that we’re more comfortable with changing seasons than we are with change in our own individual lives. We are more comfortable with the leaves dying while displaying their vibrant tones than we are with facing our own mortality, or the mortality of those we love. And then when we move from our own mortality, or the mortality of those we love, to the death of our churches, it brings up another collection of responses. The idea that our churches may be dying stirs up emotions and reactions for all of us, and I believe it’s important to recognize and name that.
I’ve spent much of my career in outreach and evangelization, and I was often the person who would come into a congregation or denominational setting and say, “There’s hope! Try this, try that!” And I do believe there is a place for that. There are positive things that are happening and there are good places to put our attention. I have come to believe that in order to be healthy organisms, we also need to be able to see and name the places that are dying and where things need to end. It gets confusing when the cycles of life and death are going on in our churches and our denominations at the same time. Within a community, it’s not always clear what part of the life of the church is on hospice and what is coming to life.
Church Hospice Being aware of what is going on in our churches and having the courage to name it is a call to all of us. When a hospice chaplain walks into a room with a family, often the job to be done is to name the thing that no one is going to say, which usually is, “Your loved one is dying.” This is a hard and painful job, but I find that often this honesty is the greatest gift you can give. To name what everyone in the room is thinking and feeling—and not saying.
And so I invite us—collectively—to be hospice chaplains for each other, and to acknowledge and say, “There are things in our church that are dying.” Aspects of our churches are changing—whether it be it a congregation, a way of doing things, or an idea we’ve held onto. We are called to acknowledge that some of our congregations have died or are going to die in this season, in this giant rummage sale that we are going through. We can be honest by acknowledging that this movement and change is held within the Divine cycle of life.
I believe that one of our callings in this time of change is to be hospice chaplains. A good hospice chaplain is present with the cycle of death, not rushing it and not prolonging it. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to come in and say, “Let’s celebrate and then let go.” To be able to say together, “ You know what, we’ve always done our worship service this way, and we know it’s time to change.” It doesn’t need to be an abrupt cutting it off, and it also doesn’t need to be drawn out on life-support. We could say, “For 100 years we have said that same litany, with those same words. Let’s celebrate that… and then let it go and see what is waiting to be created anew.” This gets harder when it’s our congregations and our buildings—these places and communities we love. I know some of you have been through this, where you’ve had to let go and say goodbye. Let’s be good hospice chaplains together. Let’s celebrate, let’s look at the legacy, let’s claim the memorial, and then let it die.
I believe we need to be open to the possibility that our denominations hold this process of death as well. I do not know what next season is going to look like. I’m not predicting whether our denominations are going to disappear or not. But what I do know is that something is changing in them, and that there are ways of being, systems, concepts, and cultures, within all our denominations that need to die. How can we be present to that? How can we differentiate between the new growth that is alive and from the Lord and the things that we’re clinging onto, trying to survive?
How can we accept that death is part of the cycle, and remember that death is not a failure? When our elders die, do we criticize them on their deathbed, telling them how they should have lived longer? No, we celebrate their lives, and then lay their bodies in the ground to decompose and go back to be part of the dust from which we all come. Could we not treat our churches, our worship services, or dwindling programs with such dignity and respect? Could we celebrate the years of legacy, the people, the pastors, the buildings, the events, the marriages, the deaths, the service to the community, the heritage of worship? Grieve the loss of something we love, celebrate life well lived, and accept that our churches have a life cycle. Death is not a failure. Death is a part of life.
To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole piece right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.
My mom tells the story that when I was a child I would often come into a room, bouncing up and down, and tell her, “Mom, Mom, I have the best new idea!” I would then proceed to describe my business plan for selling fresh-brewed mint tea at the end of the driveway, or sketch out how to set up a full-fledged post-office in the living room for all the family communication needs.
As an adult, when I come into a meeting room, or into a conversation with a new colleague, I have learned to control myself from bouncing up and down. But I am still filled with that entrepreneurial spirit, and drawn to others for whom creativity and innovation bring excitement as well.
When I look at our current cultural landscape, it is clear to me that the world is changing and that the church is changing. Change can be unsettling or unknown, and we can become paralyzed by it. Or change can call us to our creative and courageous selves. Change can lead us to re-imagining church, to inventing new ways of encountering faith community, and to being prophetic in the work of seeing all people as precious children of God.
It is that courage and passion—joined with entrepreneurial spirit and deep faith—that I see in the faces of the Beatitudes fellows and in the staff and supporters of The Beatitudes Society. I see people who are actively wrestling with the realities of the culture we are living in and being present in the church in transition, while holding an acute awareness of the culture of the communities and world around us. And I see a community that is leveraging opportunities to weave these conversations together, combining the church and the public square—the life of faith being a life active in the world.
It is my honor to be joining this team and the network of people who share a passion for this vision, and I look forward to engaging in this work together. And sometimes I may just have to bounce.