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.


A Sermon for the Garden Church

A sermon about Word, the Bible, and how as we want to consciously choose to engage it as a life-giving, rich, deep, wide text that points to loving God and loving our neighbor as we form a community and re-imagine church.

Audio complete with train whistles and the sound of the wind!



Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
San Pedro, CA

Judge Not

Sermon for Swedenborg Chapel
Cambridge, MA
May 26, 2013


1Samuel 16:1-13
Matthew 7:1-6

The Lord never judges anyone except from good; for God desires to raise all into heaven, however many they may be, and indeed, if it were possible; even to Godself; for The Lord is mercy itself and good itself. Mercy itself and good itself can never condemn anyone but as humans, we condemn ourselves when we reject the good.

On this account no person is ever allowed to judge concerning the quality of the spiritual life of another, for The Lord alone, as before said, knows this; but everyone may judge of another in regard to the quality of his moral and civil life, for this concerns society.
–Emmanuel Swedenborg (Secrets of Heaven 2335.32 and 2284.3)

Last Sunday was my first ride on the T during my time here in Boston. Riding up from Quincy to Harvard Square for church. There was construction on the way so at the JFK stop we got off, took and a bus up to UMass station where we spilled off of the busses into the parking lot, up the stairs, over the tracks, down the stairs, and onto the platform to wait for the next train.

I’m a fan of public transit for a number of reasons, not the least being the fabulous variety of people watching that one can encounter. As three bus-loads of people crammed simultaneously onto the platform, there was no shortage of faces and voices and conversations to observe.

The mother and daughter heading out for a shopping trip, the group of college students discussing graduation, the out of country tourists complete with cameras and languages that I could only understand the tones of. Amongst the hum of these crowds, two voices rose above, loud and insistent, abrasive in a tone that I heard before the costic words began to sink in.

The two older men moved closer to the pillar I was standing by and I began to listen to the words. Within the three to five minutes we stood waiting for the train, I witnessed a stream of judgment flowing from their lips. Judgment of women and Muslims, school teachers and Jews, educated and those who educate them, immigrants of all kinds (well, except, as I would learn later in this diatribe, those early waves of Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants), Quincy elementary school’s weekly schedule and Harvard’s willingness to accept non-Bostonians into the school and city. I wondered what group would be condemned next, who else they could think of to judge.

Judge not and you shall not be judged.

In your worship time together here at the chapel, for the last few weeks, you have been looking at the sermon on the mount, this series of teaching from Jesus that we find early on in the Gospel of Matthew.

The fact that they were giving on a mountain, the mount, is striking if you think about the spiritual context of such an image. In the language of correspondences that Emanuel Swedenborg opens up for us through his writing, a mountain represents a high plane of thought and feeling. A place where we feel near to the Divine and can gain perspective and then look at our everyday life and maybe interact a little differently with ourselves, God and the people around us.

These mountain moments, these high places, can be times where we can remember that we’re all made in the image of God and we are called to see theDivine working in everyone, the call to love God and love our neighbor.

It’s in this body of gospel teachings that we find these words, “Judge not.” One of the many messages in the Sermon on the Mount, and the message I hope to wrestle with together in this sermon.

As titles were added to the Bible, the term “the sermon on the mount” emerged, but according to my preaching professor, one would not be an effective preacher if we attempted to pack all that Jesus does in these three chapters into one sermon. In fact, as I’ve been mulling and researching these six verses over the past week, I have found a number of sermons in the richness of the text. But today, in honor of my profs words of, “focus in on one idea per sermon Anna”, we’ll focus here. Chapter seven, verse one: Judge not and you shall not be judged.” Seeing the image of God in all people.

Judge not.

Exhibit A I thought, as I listened to the judgement flowing out of this man’s lips as we waited for the train. Is not this man the one Jesus would have used this passage with? In response to the flow of characters and judgements that were being spewed from his mouth would Jesus have dived in and proclaimed these words to this man? “Judge not!” Silencing him and cutting off the diatribe?

There was part of me that wanted to. Each venomous word, directed at some “them” or “they”, reinforcing the “us” that he stood for. The harsh worlds about groups and people stirred up something inside me. Should I, could I, step in and say: “Judge not!”

Was it fear that held me back? Or wisdom? Or some of both? I don’t know. But I did not say anything. I did keep listening though. And breathing and began praying. Judge not and you shall not be judged. See all people as lovingly made in the image of God. Breathing in and out with that prayer enough times to crack open a willingness to attempt to see how The Lord might be looking at this grumpy old man on the T.

Throughout scriptures, sacred texts, in the words of theologians and mystics, people across the ages, have asked the question: Does God judge us? How does God judge us?

Throughout Swedenborg’s teachings we can hear a refrain about who God is and God’s engagement with judgement. We read it this morning from Secrets of Heaven, “The Lord never judges anyone except from good; for God desires to raise all into heaven…
The Lord is mercy itself and goodness itself. Mercy itself and goodness itself can never condemn”
(Secrets of Heaven 2335.3).

Swedenborg describes this image of God–a God who is overflowing with goodness and mercy, unable to condemn or turn the Divine face away from the beloved creation, always drawing us to Godself and to connection with the goodness and love within our hearts and wills. God calls us to this well known phrase we heard in our scripture reading from 1st Samuel this morning: “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

And so, judge not and ye shall not be judged.

If we work from the premise that it is not the Divine who does the judging, as the Divine is mercy and goodness itself, which are incapable of judgment, then it turns the lens on humanity, on each of us, to engage the question.

If judgement is not a Divine attribute, then is it a human one. “The Lord can never condemn anyone but as humans we condemn ourselves when we reject good.” (Secrets of Heaven 2335).

Ah-ha–the crux of the matter, humans having the choice to accept or reject the good from the Divine. This is the place that we live as humans, receiving influence from heaven and influence from hell, as we live in the place of freedom, the place of tension between.

As many of you discussed the very end of the book Heaven and Hell at Thursday evening book group, this topic of spiritual freedom is central to this conversation. The freedom that comes in living between these heavenly and hellish influences. The influences of God, endless love and mercy and the influences of evil, selfishness greed and insecurity pulling us towards hell.

And God, out of love, holding us in the suspension between, giving us choice, the freedom, the spiritual space to build our loves over time, and choose our collective orientation towards heaven or hell.

And so, in this place of suspension that is the human experience, we can choose. Not a one time choice that we are then eternally judged on. And not a choice that is arbitrarily made by a judgmental deity. The choice of heaven or hell, both in our daily experience in in our eventual eternal state, is built on, multiple choices, time after time, choice after choice as we encounter ourselves and others and as we encounter our judgements.

Now before we go any further, I think it would be useful to wrestle with this term “judgment” for a minute. At first glance, we can hear this word in various ways. Judgment. Judgmental, critical, abrasive, crude. The man on the T spewing judgment for all to hear. Our passage implies something of this definition when we’re told “judge not.”

But there is another side to this word. We talk about having good judgment, we strive to “judge fairly” be it in court or in a child’s dispute over the favorite toy truck. We extol those who “judge well.”

How do we reconcile these two diametrically opposed definitions of this same word, and what is The Lord talking about in this passage? Judge not and you will not be judged, the standard you use in judging others is the standard by which you will be judged. So there’s some relation here to the judgment, there’s some place for it, but what is the standard we hold?

Here is where I turn again to a Swedenborgian concept to diagram this judgment chart. Swedenborg sketches out two types of judgement, internal judgment and external judgment. God interacts with each human, not looking at the external, but looking at the heart. We as humans on the other hand, cannot see someone else’s insides, we do not know another person’s story.

It is not our job, let alone our possible ability, to judge another person’s internal state. And it is never our job to deem someone less human, less a beloved child of God, less our neighbor to be loved, on any external expression, characteristic, or definition.

External states, actions, reactions, and interactions bring forth the opportunity for a different sort of judgment. This could be called reason, public judgment, street smarts, or wise choices. The ways that we make observations, choices and actions based on our experience, knowledge and, well, judgement. Or as Swedenborg says, “Everyone is allowed to judge concerning another as to the quality, as to the moral and civil life, for this is of import to society” (Secrets of Heaven 2284).

Listening to our intuition, proactive planning, locking doors, being aware of risks, using good judgment, this is a gift. A gift from The Lord as we navigate this word in which we are all left in freedom, suspended between heaven and hell and encounter a mix of heavenly acts and hellish acts. There is a time, a place, and a use in good judgement in terms of the external actions of individuals and collective forces.

The invitation I hear in this sermon from Christ, this mountaintop call, is to not stop with the act of external judgment. Instead, this call not to judge is an invitation to open ourselves up to seeing something deeper in the hearts of those around us, to look for the glimpses of God, to see all created in God’s image.

To ask questions such as: What is the story of this man on the T? Where are the glimpses of the Divine in and amongst the hurt and anger? Where has he been wounded and shut down, how are the words coming from his mouth asking for something that he is not getting? Crying out to be heard and valued as a beloved child of God, seen as a respected member of the human race. How are his critiques of others a reaching and a grasping for creating his own sense of identity by distancing himself from the many “others,” the “them’s,” the “those people,” that are not him?

Before coming to Cambridge last week, I was in Nashville at a preaching conference, the Festival of Homiletics. Brian McLaren, a favorite writer, preacher and theologian, was there and during his talk he engaged this idea of judgement and how often as humans we work to form our identity by defining ourselves by all the things we are not in other people or groups.

He was looking at this phenomena specifically in terms of groups of people, such as religious gatherings, churches, movements and denominations. I would posit that we could both identify with that and that the some principles occur in us as individuals.

McLaren offered the idea that groups tend to build an identity around something good initially. A mission, a sacred text, a shared culture, land, or a space. There is one thing they all have in common. But then quickly it seems to be the human condition, or something, that if the group starts to question their identity, rather than returning to the center, there’s a tendency to look outside of the group and begin to create a strong sense of collective “us”, by creating a “them” out there to dislike, be hostile towards and differentiate from. James Alison puts it this way, “Give people a common enemy and you will give them a common identity.”

We see this phenomena throughout history, in our neighborhoods, churches, families, interactions in the word, in our personal development of identity of who we are, and yes, as we ride the T.

Each time we cover over the image of God in others based on externals, be it race or gender, opinion, physical appearance, culture, ideology, religion, or dress, we engage in what I hear The Lord speaking against in our text today. It is not our place to judge. It is not our place to quantify another persons worth. And in judging not, we then are not judged. By the same measure we judge others, we will judge ourselves.

Rather than building up our own self worth by defining ourselves by all that we are not, we’re invite to see ourselves as beloved children, formed in God’s image, and from that place, to see the image of God in all people.

As we look for God’s image in others, compassion can arise and the desire to dig deeper and imagine what might be going on in another’s life, or in a collective of people, that has led to actions that display in ways that are abrasive to our sensibilities.

We can be called to imagine what it might look like to develop a strong and benevolent identity, as we individually and collectivity move towards those that we have labeled as “them” or “other” in the past and see them as neighbor and fellow child of God.

Naming, as the prophet did, the choice we each have to follow our own flawed judgement (as Saul did) or to follow the Lord’s judgement, as the prophet Samuel called for. To look at others as The Lord looks, with mercy and goodness, wisdom and humility.

When I began to breath and pray as we settled in on the train, sitting a few seats over and down from our loud friend, I began to wonder about his life and mine and see the places of hypocrisy in my reactions. Yes, he was spewing judgement out loud in public in ways that we can easily deem as inappropriate and harmful. But what was I building in the judgements inside me about his words?

I happen to have enough filter, or fear of what others may think, not to be exposing my judgements and thoughts to our fellow passengers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have judgments. And I am blessed to have safe, healthy places where people listen to my sorting out and to be seen and heard by others. I don’t feel need to vent loudly on the T to all that will listen in order to feel heard.

But maybe this man doesn’t. Maybe he isn’t privileged to be surrounded by people who listen to him, who see him, who hold up and remind him of his preciousness as a child of God. Is each word that escapes his lips a reaching and grasping to be seen–to have it reflected back to him that he, he too, is a beloved child of God, created in the image of the one who does not judge, the one who is mercy itself, goodness itself and who loves us all, eternally.


Praying the News

Last night in class my professor used the term “praying the news”. We were discussing the devastating effects of the hurricane and our various reactions. Drop everything and get in our cars and go help? Retreat into the overwhelm of our own end of semester worlds of papers and coursework? Pray the news? She offered the idea watching/listening/reading the news with a prayerful heart and noticing if there is a specific story that tugs on our hearts and then to hold that story in Light and prayer.

I’ve been praying in paint recently.

An expression of “praying the news” today.

The story of the babies in the NYU Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit that had to be transfered during the hurricane has been lodged in my heart since the storm.  

Sitting with the loss and chaos,
the fear and uncertainty of the storm,
and the fragility and vulnerability of each tiny baby. 

Picturing Light and Warmth surrounding those that are vulnerable.
Offering honor and thanksgiving for the medical and emergency staff.
Honoring the tenacity and strength of human life–even the tiny-tiny ones.
Praying for comfort and healing for families.

O Holy One, hear our prayers.