For the past few years, I held Earth Day as a holiday—a high-holy day. While pastoring the Garden Church, we raised Earth Day up in our church calendar and took it on as our own. It made sense, seeing that we were a church in what had been a barren lot in the middle of Los Angeles and was now an urban farm. Our mission: to reconnect people with each other, God, their food and, wait for it, the earth. It is no surprise that Earth Day was a big deal for us.
On Earth Day we’d do it up big. It would start with the Expo that filled up our lot with beekeepers and environmental activists and samples from the raw foods restaurant and everyone’s favorite: chickens to hold. This led into an interfaith worship service where we invited our Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Baha’i, Unitarian Universalist, and various Christian neighbors to share from their traditions as we looked to the earth, to our faith, and to the earth again. After worship, we’d gather around the big picnic tables and share food from our various backgrounds and cultures and gardens and share in community together.
I know that we weren’t ending global climate change or coal plants with these gatherings, but I felt clear we were doing something. And we were doing it throughout the year too. When we paused to celebrate Earth Day, it was in keeping with the work we were doing the other 364 days of the year, the education, the growing of food, the composting of waste, the daily nurture and care of this little plot of land in our care.
This Earth Day I woke up a little out of sorts. As I saw the posts from my former church encouraging people to attend Earth Day at the Garden Church, I felt acutely the 3,000 miles between us and that I was no longer the pastor there. My husband and I got up and went to the lovely church we’ve been attending in New York. There was a table set up after worship and a few mentions of Earth Day in the program. We left right after the service and headed out to take a hike in the Adirondacks.
It was beautiful. What an appropriate way to celebrate Earth Day, right? Out enjoying Mother Nature?
Yet a part of me still felt agitated. Am I really doing my part to curb this environmental free-fall we’re in right now? Should I be enjoying this pristine mountain trail when the chances of it still being here for our great-great-grandchildren look bleak?
As I stopped to catch my breath in the crisp mountain air I thought about how most of the people on the planet are breathing polluted air. As I climbed over a stretch of boulders in the midst of the last of the snowpack, I kept seeing that haunting image of the bedraggled polar bear with skin and fur hanging on its malnourished body as it struggled for survival with its ecosystem melting around it.
And I knew, as you do, that just lamenting it all isn’t going to change it.
I do what I can, I think. As we move from apartment to apartment, with no soil to grow our food in and not enough time to root for change in the local community. We drive our gas-efficient car and walk as much as we can, use energy-saving light bulbs and turn off the overheads. And then I get on another airplane for work and we use another plastic garbage bag. And I feel caught in the insidious cycle of it all.
Maybe it’s why I am now verging on compulsive about composting wherever we are. Even risking marital peace when my spouse becomes annoyed at the freezer full of bags of food scraps that are waiting for me to take them to our friend’s farm or to the neighbor’s worm bin down the street.
“It’s one of the few things I feel like a can do for our grandchildren,” I tell my husband when he, understandably, grumbles while trying to find the ice cream.
I keep paying attention to the despair, to the beautiful warm sun on my feet, to the banana peels and slimy spinach. Earth Day is indeed a high-holy day, one that, wherever I am, I want to honor all year long.
First Coming He did not wait till the world was ready, till men and nations were at peace. He came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release. He did not wait for the perfect time. He came when the need was deep and great. He dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. He did not wait till hearts were pure. In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt. To a world like ours, of anguished shame he came, and his Light would not go out. He came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn. In the mystery of the Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain, He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
(Christ) did not wait till the world was ready, till (people) and nations were at peace. He came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release. He did not wait for the perfect time. He came when the need was deep and great.
We come together today, here on this Sunday of Advent, this time of waiting, this time of preparation. We have lit the Advent Candle of Love and perhaps we feel like that’s exactly what we need, what we are longing for. For something beyond whatever the chaos we may feel in our own lives, in the world around us.
We reach for and long for that Love we talk about that overcomes fear, that Light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome. Maybe we long for what we might hope Advent can be, a peaceful time set apart, some twinkling candles, and re-lived childhood memories.
And then we get this passage. “Repent!” “Prepare the way!” “Make paths straight!”
We can read this and superimpose our own ideas of God and the Light and our own criteria for what it takes for it to come. “Prepare the way!” That must mean I need to have my house clean, all the gifts bought and wrapped, my finances in order, my inner-life in pristine condition. Probably in order for God to show up, I need to pray for long periods of time, every day, not make any questionable moral decisions, and never question or doubt. Probably if we were really doing good Advent preparation, we need to have everything in order, and have it all figured out—right?!
But no, this is not the Advent we find in the gospel, this is not the Advent we need today. The Advent we find comes into the middle of dark and messy, into a world that was engulfed in fear and chaos. Emmanuel, “God with us,” entered into a time in history when things where dark and grim, where fear and uncertainty ran rampant, and when people were crying out for another way.
John comes in from the wilderness and calls for repentance, calls to prepare a way for the Lord. This may seem counter to what we picture the preparation for Christ ought to be, but maybe John might be answering the question of “what are you waiting for?” more than he is trying to scare people into submission like a loud street preacher. At the very least, I think he’s showing us where our values are, and what it is that we actually need.
As my friend Alex pointed out, John shows up in the aftermath of Jesus’ birth, and the aftermath of Herod’s slaughter of hundreds of children. He shows up to people who are hurting and grieving that the empire had just murdered their babies. He shows up in the midst of the shrieking of Rachel and all the mothers whose children were taken from them.
But he also shows up right after the hope of the whole world has just been born. He shows up when God came into our world. And he comes out of the wilderness to talk about that hope. John came to proclaim a hope to people who were oppressed, proclaiming the kingdom of God over the kingdom of the empire. Offering the possibility that there is something more than capitalism, and that security in physical things won’t save us.
And Emanuel, God with us, comes to us in the middle of all the uncertainty and through Christ’s very presence—vulnerable in infant flesh—and opens up another way. With God with us, lions and sheep will lie down together. With God with us, and we’ll be able to sit across from that relative at the Christmas dinner table and find humanity beyond our differences. With God with us we will find that actually the kingdom of God—the love, the hope—is bigger and stronger and more pervasive and more immediately present than any of the chaos and fear. In fact, it is right here, God with us. Love with us.
God comes in the middle of dark and messy.
Jesus took bread and broke it, and the crumbs cascaded to the floor.
God comes in and amongst the mundane, the normal, the sacred.
God doesn’t wait until things are all cleaned up to come in. She doesn’t wait until we have everything in our lives perfectly in order to bring us some burst of joy, a flash of Light. No, God’s love and presence does not require an absence of the messy, it requires an openness to noticing and embracing the Love and Light. Prepare the way, repent, open up, clear out, turn, embrace the love.
My love, David, and I got engaged this past week, and we are so joyfully happy. This is something we have both been waiting for and praying for many many years—to find that partner to walk through life with. We had three days after our engagement in a total love bubble. I didn’t read the news, I didn’t worry about the church bank account, I didn’t look at the to-do lists. I only read the congratulatory comments on our announcement post on Facebook, and ignored all the political posts,
I even told people that we weren’t going to start trying to decide the wedding date until Monday because that scheduling felt stressful, and I wanted to bask in that deep and pure place of love and celebration.
On Monday, we began to re-enter the regular world life, and work, and the full email boxes, and work needs, and trying to find a wedding date that worked for everyone, and looking at the news again and wondering at the darkness and chaos and hate, and on top of it all, sneezing and coughing from a cold.
And I felt the love bubble beginning to fade. It was so tempting to just slide all the way away from it and to go the lowest common denominator of stress and worry and fear. I could feel myself succumbing to the chaos and the darkness…
But then, that idea of revolutionary gratitude caught up with me from a few weeks ago and the phrase “revolutionary love” crossed my path and a new image was offered me. I don’t need to “come down” from my love bubble high, and wallow in the chaos and fear. I need to hold strong to that incredible love, because that is the stuff of life. I need to expand that love bubble out and over the pain and the lists and the questions and fear.
Because love, in all its forms, is the thing that heals, and transforms, and comforts, and propels us forward. It was love that John was preparing the way for; it’s love that came into the world, Emmanuel, God with us. It’s love that we each need to claim and live and be in and with, here today.
Love is actually our greatest protest against empire and chaos and fear. And sometimes our work is to focus in on the simple things. The day-to-day acts of love that we keep showing up to. My friend Sara is planting bulbs. Our dear friend and new mom Tania is posting baby pictures. I’m determined not to lose the joy of the engagement glow. These are not things separate from the world, we’re not living apart and oblivious to the world around us, no—we’re defiantly claiming the power of love, here with us.
Jesus came into a dark world. And he came in innocence. Simply. As a baby. Revolutionary love is in the simple things, the innocence, and the vulnerable. Revolutionary love keeps its eyes open, to those who are vulnerable. Love stands together. Revolutionary love stands with the water protectors at Standing Rock. Revolutionary love gently cares for a partner as they support an aging parent. Revolutionary love goes across the street and checks on a neighbor. Revolutionary love shows up. And digs in. And embraces the love.
My friend and colleague Diana Butler Bass shared this story on Facebook on Friday, and I asked her if I could share it with you to close this message today.
She writes: “I’m in a hotel this morning in Florida where some sort of conservative conference is being held. At breakfast, four older white men were at the table next to me. One was a media activist-pundit (who I think I recognized). They were talking VERY loudly, bragging about how they have “total power,” and how they are going to destroy everything President Obama did, how easy it is to manipulate people to get them to vote for them, and how they planned on taking over every single county government in the state of Florida.
There was a young African-American woman waiting on them. She did her job with thoroughness and kindness. As I watched, they spoke of disgusting racist things in front of her—and seemed to think she was invisible. And the more they bellowed their retrograde views, her body actually recoiled as she tried to serve them.
I was VERY angry. VERY ANGRY.
When she came over to my table, I told her that those guys might be white and I might be white but I thought they were assholes and that I wasn’t on board with their plan, how sorry I am about what happened. I told her that I wanted to go over to their table and slap them upside the head. She laughed.
She said, “You know, one day all this hate will finally die out. It doesn’t bring life. It cannot survive the long term.” I said, “I kind of hoped it might die before I do.” She said, “Well, that’s probably a bit too soon! But I have hope. Hate has no life of its own. Another generation or two. It will die.”
And she went on, “And meanwhile, we work for our communities. We love our families, care for our neighbors, celebrate life. And them?” She gazed over to the table with a mixture of resignation and pain. “They are the last of a dying world.”
As she spoke to me, her back straightened, her eyes glowed, passion filled her voice. And finally she said, “It is really nice, however, that a white lady like you noticed how awful they are. Thank you. We all need to pay attention and do our part.”
Dear ones, we all need to pay attention and do our part. Advent is a time of preparation, and waiting yes, and it’s a time of paying attention. It’s a time of being vulnerable and then standing up to do our part. Care for each other. Love our loved ones. Stand with the vulnerable. Celebrate life. Love with revolutionary love.
(Christ) came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn. In the mystery of the Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain, He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Wow, wow WOW! We just ended a meaningful two hours of being the Garden Church at our Theology Group and found this amazing surprise awaiting us it 9:05p.m.! Not only has the goal been reached….the cup is overflowing! $4,035!
$1,055 of which are monthly pledges! Thank you. Thank you! Hearts are overflowing with the gratitude at this abundance and communal effort. The Garden Church is humbled, blessed, and committed to using your resources for good. Celebrating the end of #GivingTuesday and our three weeks of crowdfunding with huge gratitude and virtual fireworks!
We are committed to feeding people…in mind, body, and spirit.
On this #GivingTuesday, will you join us in making a difference in the world as we re-imagine church and engage in innovative ways to bring more heaven, here on earth?
Dear Garden Church friends and family!
Part of re-imagining church is re-imagining our funding sources and methods. The way the world works is changing, and the funding for new expressions of church aren’t primarily coming from our institutions any more.
Instead, we have the opportunity to build a community of supportmade up of individuals who share our passion. We believe there are people all over who want to be part of doing something to make the world a better place—perhaps including you!
We need to raise $2,000 a month for the next year from our Cultivation Team. That’s 200 people giving $10 a month, or 100 giving $20, or 50 people giving $40—you get the idea.Give what amount is right for you, monthly for the next year, and be an essential part of the team that is re-imagining church and bringing more heaven here on earth. (If you’re wondering why the bar graph says more, that’s because razzo counts one-time and monthly gifts as the same. We are recieving and appreciating both! And our overarching goal is $2,000 in monthly pledges).
We are so incredibly grateful for the stories and pledges that have been rolling in from across the world over the past few weeks as people are joining the team.
Today is the last day of our three-week crowd-funding goal. Will you join with others from across the globe to ensure the Garden Church has the support it needs to grow and thrive serve in this start-up season?
With deep gratitude and joy for all that is and for all that is to come,
Anna and the Garden Church team
“With every tree, there’s this incredible network of beauty. There are the limbs, the branches. And we see all of this springing up from the ground. Also, underneath the ground, there is an equally intricate network of roots, of support. This system that keeps the tree upheld…I decided that I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of growing something new, growing something beautiful. ” -Carol Howard Merritt, Author
November 23rd, 2013
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Psalm 100 & Matthew 25:31-45
“For whatever you do for the least of these, whatever you do to one who is a member of my family, you do to me.”
Last month when we gathered down by the docks in a grassy spot after walking the streets of our community together, we talked about this thing called the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a series of readings that walk preachers and congregations through the Bible in a three-year cycle. And I shared how I, as your preacher, have chosen to use this calendar of scripture for our worship services. Now, there are a variety of reasons for this choice, one of the main ones being that it makes it so I don’t just pick the readings that I like—or that especially speak to me—and use them over and over and over again. I want to, and to have us all, be challenged by reading the breadth and variety of Biblical texts, and to have a shared accountability that we don’t just keep going back to the same scriptures, and preaching the same sermon over and over again.
With all this in mind, you can laugh with me when I tell you about our gospel text for this week, Matthew 25:31-45, the parable of the sheep and the goats. This scripture more than any other, is the one that I have preached on, wrestled with, been inspired by, and worked with in the forming and developing of this church. I’ve read it backwards and forwards, written papers on it, had it preached to me at pivotal moments, chosen it as the text for my ordination sermon, and, and—I’m not making this up—I have it engraved on the back of my iPad. “For I was hungry…” Matthew 25.
And seriously, it is integral to why we’re here today, starting a church that integrates the natural and spiritual, individual and communal needs, and a church that is committed to working together for changed spirits and hearts, in conjunction with changed physical lives. It has led me to believe that the spiritual and the natural work are inter-connected, and that Jesus is pointing to this reality when he equates one’s eternal place with what one does for “the least of these who are members of God’s family.”
So, out of all the Sundays of this three-year cycle of scripture, out of all the passages of the Bible that we could explore. it’s today, at our third Gathering, that the Revised Common Lectionary lands on this passage. And I laugh and I wonder at the movement of God and the confirmation that there is such a thing as Divine Providence leading and guiding all things. You with me?
This story has been following me around for years. But it first came into my life in a meaningful way when I was in an undergrad psychology course in 1998. Dr. Sonia Werner, a brilliant psychologist and Swedenborgian scholar, made a chart that changed my view of the world and of what church and ministry and following God might mean.
Along one side of the chart she put: For I was hungry and you fed me
I was thirsty and you gave me drink
I was a stranger and you welcomed me in
I was naked and you clothed me
I was sick and you cared for me, and
I was in prison and you visited me.
Along the other side of the chart she had outlined what Emanuel Swedenborg, the Christian mystic and theologian whose teaching our tradition turns to, and outlined what he calls, “the levels of the neighbor.”
So along the top of the chart she wrote: Spiritual useful services—love toward God and love for the neighbor
Moral and civic services—love for the society in which a person resides
Natural useful services—love of the world and its necessities
Corporal useful services—self-preservation for the sake of higher uses
Dr. Werner’s offering, carried in the Swedenborgian teaching that there is an internal meaning, or layers upon layers of teaching that we can find in the Biblical text. It awoke something in me as it moved from being an edict on what boxes I had to check off to “inherit eternal life,” to a story that Jesus is telling us about how engaging others is how we engage the spiritual life, in an interconnected and multi-layered way.
The intersection of these two series—the natural, mental, emotional, spiritual and the call of Jesus to give food, offer drink, clothe, visit, care, and welcome—are at the core of vision of the Garden Church.
To re-imagine church as an entity that cares about people—mind, body, and spirit—and to be a body that engages individual transformation within the context of communal, societal, and global relationships. Because I really do believe that it is in these actions, of feeding those who are hungry, and clothing those who are naked, and caring for the sick, and so on, that we also find spiritual transformation.
And so when people ask us, “is a church or is it a garden?”, the answer is always, “Yes” because we’re about the transformation of mind, body, and spirit. We’re about the transformation of earth, food, health, and community. They are all intertwined.
Just the way that when Jesus was asked how to inherit eternal life, he didn’t talk about just what you believe, or a certain formula of morality codes, he talked about actions and the way we treat one another as the way we interact with God.
Each of us have sheep and goats in us—ways that we act and engage the world around us from a place of love, wisdom, compassion, and action; and parts of ourselves that look inwards in ways that further our own selfishness and gain. We’re invited to hear this passage not dictating a specific set of delineated instructions that will let us know whether we pass or not. Instead, this story calls out as a herald of the interconnected whole. That the spiritual life is housed in the physical life. That tangible actions of goodness to those around us, are the way that we experience eternal life and where we see the way of Jesus, the face of God, in the world around us.
And so this call to action is not about, “Go, quick go! Sign up for one more ‘helpful’ volunteer opportunity to make sure you get enough points to get into heaven!” I believe it’s calling for something much more profound and beautiful than that. This story calls us to transform the way we see God and see our neighbor. It is telling us that how we interact with the people around us is also our interaction with God. It is telling us that when we look and truly see and connect with the humanity in front of us, we are seeing and connecting with the Divine.
This passage not only calls us to action, to the acts of feeding people, clothing people, engaging those who are imprisoned, and caring for those who are sick. It calls us to something even more profound and transformative. After the first half of this tale, when Jesus lays out these six areas of care, he says that the righteous will ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you drink, a stranger and welcome you in, naked and give you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or imprisoned and visited you and cared for you?” And Jesus says, “whenever you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it for me.” When we’re doing our own internal work towards compassion and goodness, it changes our external work. When we come together to work and serve with others on the physical level, our hearts and spirits are changed, transformed, saved from the draw to the insular, selfish, materialistic lives that we can all get caught up in.
In a few minutes we’re going to gather around the table and share in the sacred meal, in Communion. We come around the table every time we meet, because at the table we are reminded—in these physical, natural elements of bread and wine—of the profound spiritual realities. We will bless and share the bread and say, “the bread of life” and the cup and say, “the cup of salvation.”
Because in these acts, we remember, we experience the abundance of life and love, and that there is enough for all to feed and be fed. And we remember God’s new covenant that is made with this cup. That transformation, or salvation, for each of us, and all of us, as God is constantly drawing us together, making all things new.
And we come around the table because we look across the table, and we see each other, and the love and wisdom in each other, as we answer God’s call to see precious humanity in each face we meet. We engage these natural elements, bread and wine, flesh and dirt, water and lettuce seeds, because they are the container for the spiritual—as we are the containers for the spiritual. Each of us, the least of these, are interacting with Love Incarnate when we engage flesh and blood.
And we come around the table, to share in this sacred meal, in a spirit of Thanksgiving. This ancient Christian practice of sharing the bread and wine as the Lord did with his last meal while he was on earth has been named throughout traditions as “the Eucharist”—the Great Thanksgiving. And so as we are in a season of collective Thanksgiving, of gratitude and awareness of the abundance, we come together and share this Sacred Meal in remembrance of the love that Jesus calls us to, and in Thanksgiving for that which feeds us to be present in the world.
Because bodies matter. Minds matter. Spirits matter. Relationships matter. Being in communion with one another, with the Divine Love, with our human family, matters. We come around the table every time we meet because we are reminded of the abundance of the love of God and the call to compassionate living between us.
As we follow Jesus call to feed, and nurture, welcome, and accompany each other and our human family in this interconnected web of life. Whatever you did for the least or these, who are members of my family, you do for me. Amen.
What a beautiful Gathering we had yesterday! Here’s a glimpse of it for those of you who couldn’t be with us in person.
When you’re making church from scratch, the trunk of the car is key. Those leading arrived early and scouted out our meeting place…. ...and then enlisted people to help set up as they arrived. One of the mottos we are engaging is, “give the work away.” Feeling useful and being a part of something engages us in a way that many other things don’t. It’s part of our whole “feed and be fed” bit. And so, as tempting as it was to get everything set up before people arrived, we restrained ourselves and had the joy of an entire artistic “name tag team” form, bonding over a “fill the watering cans” run, and worship space designers preparing the table. We then gathered around, ready to “make church together.” Janis and Rachel shared with us how to plant and care for our lettuce seeds.
And then we got to work! People shared about the people in their lives that they were going to give their second pot to. Neighbors who they’d been wanting to connect with, homebound grandparents, close friend who is going through a loss. The Garden Church goodness spreading out into the world. Meanwhile, Lisa led the Garden Church Choir (“that’s you!”) in learning a song to sing during worship.Our youngest gardener won the prize… and made six pots! At the Garden Church, we work together….We moved into our time of worship and unpacked our Tabernacle, the marker points of God dwelling with us as we are a community on the move. Helpers were at the ready and set out the Bible, the candle, the bread and wine, the water and our icon of the Tree of Life. We then rung the gong and entered into the sacred silence where we can hear the Divine speaking to us. Hearing stories form the Word. And reflections on how we can engage our spiritual lives.
The community furthers the sermon in their reflections. And then we share together in the Sacred Meal. The bread of life… …and the cup of salvation. Feed and be fed. Our Sacred Meal led into our community meal, where we enjoyed delightful food and good company. We enjoyed the beauty of the choir singing and then teaching us, “This Pretty Planet” and by the end had the whole circle singing it as a three-part round, complete with movements and an ode to the scene behind us as we sang, “Golden sun going down, gentle blue giant, spin us around.” May the Lord bless you and keep you….as we go out to love and to serve. Everyone take your pots of future salad… Packing up and leaving with full hearts under the glorious blessing of creation and our Creator. Let’s be church together again soon!
Add your offering to the basket for the work of the Garden Church.
Wayfarers Chapel Rev. Anna Woofenden November 16th, 2014 Readings: Psalm 90, Matthew 25:14-30 and
True Christianity 527 from Emanuel Swedenborg
This weekend I took part in the third of a three weekend series of intensive courses on public theology, taught up at Lavern University by one of my professors from seminary, Dr. Scott Holland. Looking at public theology through a number of lenses, we wrestled with issues of politics and religion. We discussed the generational shifts that are changing the face of the religious and cultural frameworks as we see the rise of the “spiritual, but not religious” and those who check the box marked “none” when asked about religion. We analyzed the marker points and turning points of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests, naming and unpacking the overt and intrinsic theological origins and narratives that shaped those movements.
We then moved forward into more recent history, exploring the analysis and prognosis offered by Van Jones of the Obama era in his work, “Rebuilding the Dream,” and the interfaith movement being propelled forward by Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Young Corps. And through each of these conversations, we kept coming back to questions of theology—of how we make meaning in our lives. How can our view of who God is, our exchanges with humanity, the way we work for the common good or against the common enemy be seen throughout history to catalyze or concretize a movement for brief or lasting change?
At about 11:30 yesterday morning, nearing the end of these hours we’d spent together over the last three months I leaned against a desk, where I had been standing to stretch my back, and I had what must have been a troubled look on my face.
“Yes Anna” Scott said to me quizzically, “Do you have a question?”
I took a deep breath, and said,
“So here’s the thing: this is all so fascinating and our study has been grounded in powerful stories of leaders and theologians, prophetic voices who shape the shared narrative, people who changed the arch of history through their reach. And we’re naming the urgent issues in our world today—the polarization and extremism in various cultures, the trauma and harm we are seeing from extremists in various religious traditions who are engaging in acts of terror, threat and war in the name of God and religion. We talked about the way racism and sexism and classism, and so many other -isms divide us from each other and feed the desire to create a barrier and a separation from each other, and we’ve read and discussed a powerful diagnosis of the past and current struggles we face in the world. We have the analysis and diagnosis, and they are profound, inspiring, concerning, and move me to action. And yet, in this moment, these conversations, they are all theoretical.
But I sit here, as I’m listening and engaging the wisdom of the public theologians and I’m thinking, ‘How does this apply to this new church that I’m planting?’ How do I interact with the man who sits outside the post office and greets me most days when I walk in to get the mail, asking for money for something to eat? Or how do I hold the fact that one of the humans I love most is growing up in a country where soon his likelihood of being judged and harmed is exponentially higher because of the color of his skin? How do I lead an entrepreneurial community that cares about social change and work for the common good? How do we bring this theory into reality for personal and collective transformation, for change—for more heaven here on earth?”
I felt myself choking up a bit as I pointed to the books spread out across my desk, “Where’s the five step for the cultural climate we are facing today, November 2014? Where’s the blue print? The one right way? The five best practices? Give me my simple clear marching orders, and I’ll do it.”
Scott looked at me and said, “Ahh…but you are doing it. And the story is being written.”
We read a short story of Jesus this morning, the parable of the talents. This is one of many short stories that Jesus tells throughout his ministry—parables of talents and sheep, landowners and servants, parents and prodigal children, pearls of great price, and the smallest of mustard seeds. When Jesus is asked questions, even direct ones like, “Who is my neighbor?” he rarely responds with a logical scientific answer, or easy and clear three-point plans. His responses often come in the form of these parables, or a short story that de-centers the questioner and rather than answering the query with a simple “Do this. Don’t do this.” He probes and incites something more profound—an invitation into a deeper and more dynamic way of engaging life and scripture, a public theology.
So this parable… Well first, let’s talk for a minute about parables. Parables are not, contrary to popular belief, simply morality tales that Jesus told so that we know how to “be good” or what was “bad.” No, parables are much more confusing, intriguing, and exciting than that.
Theologian John Dominic Crossan, in his book, The Power of Parable, writes about the difference between myth and parable, He describes myths as being agents of stability, while parables are agents of change. In other words, according to Crossan, Jesus wasn’t telling these stories to continue the status quo, or to tell his audience how to be “good religious people.” Jesus was telling these parables to stir things up, to give rise to healthy debate, to engage the Jewish rabbinical tradition of theological banter, and truth being discovered in the conversation, in what might be seen to us as an argument, but often resulted in collective divine understanding as scripture and ideas where thrown back and forth and questioned and wrestled with and explored.
The word parable comes from a Greek word, “parabole”, meaning “to put parallel or cast alongside.” It implies a process of comparison, or two things being thrown together, some translated it “smash together.” So it’s more than saying, “this means this, that means that.”
If we assigned a little post-it-note reminder to this word in our bibles, we might put beside any reference of “parable”: “Remember! Be aware that it doesn’t usually mean what we think it means.”
We are so prone to domesticate our religious resources, our stories, to make them something that confirms what we already know, or reinforces that which makes us right. But maybe, these stories are not actually about a moralistic conclusion, but instead alive texts with deeper meanings and an invitation to interact with the question of the text and life, scripture and culture.
You, like I, may have this desire for the five-point plan, the one way of looking at right and wrong, especially if we always work it to end up right. And there’s a part of us that desires not having to wrestle with how to think, feel, respond, not having to learn new things about other people, or ourselves, or the world, just sticking with our status quo and embedding ourselves deeper into our world-view.
But um, here’s the deal. If you want to do that, I’d recommend staying away from Jesus and the parables. Because it seems that actually, never is a parable—or Jesus’ words in general—a call to status quo, but instead a call to change.
So, what does this have to do with this parable that we read from the Gospel of Matthew, this parable of the talents? I am not suggesting that there is one right way to read this parable; there are many useful interpretations of this text. What I’m inviting us into is to wonder what is it that Jesus is calling forth to wrestle with in conversation, to wonder about, to engage in a dialog with life and culture, the spiritual journey and the way of faith?
If we read this parable as Jesus stirring things up, inciting discussion, challenging the status quo, we may get something out of it that we didn’t see before. And if we read this parable within its historical and cultural context, we also see something there that I for one, don’t read at first glance.
First, what is a “talent”? This is not, as we may first read it, referring to your ability to play golf or paint with watercolors; it’s not even referring to your surgical skills or your strength as a writer. Talents, in this context are referring to an amount of money.
A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth about 6,000 danarii—with a single denarius representing a laborer’s daily pay. In modern terms, we’re talking millions of dollars. Jesus is capturing the attention of the listeners by presenting what would have been a “fairy-tale” amount of money (Crossen, pg. 99). Like, “So there was this land-owner, and he gave his first servant three bazillion dollars.”
So what happens in this story? The first slave gets five talents, invests it, and gets five more. The second slave gets two talents, invests it, and gets two more. The third slave gets two talents and buries them in the ground; when his master gets back, he has some words with him.
He says: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
To which the Master was quite angry, and threw him out and took his money away and gave it to the other one.
So if this is not a simple morality tale, though certainly we can find truths in the simple story. It’s an opportunity for question, debate, to have things “smashed together” as we begin to wonder what in Jesus might have been trying to stir up in the telling of this story.
A couple of things jump out at me; the first is this idea of interest. We hear this story in terms of our modern economics and we can say, “well look, that was the sound business decision, invest and get interest.” But at the time, this was not the whole picture. The Torah, the religious teachings of the Jewish people, brought up a lot of questions about interest and when interest was taking advantage of another person. At the time of Jesus there was mixing and division “between the Roman pro-interest tradition within the empire and the Jewish anti-interest tradition within the followers of Torah” (Crossen pg.105). If Jesus’ intention were to stir up some good conversation, this parable would have done it quickly. “Is the good/right/just thing to get interest? Or is it about following the principles of faith?” But likely this wasn’t the end of the debate, Jesus wasn’t just going for a financial integrity conversation. He was a rabbi, he cared about the spiritual aspects—the kingdom of heaven.
And so we can imagine that he was stirring up a conversation not just about interest, but about the people, the tradition, the empire, their interactions with theology and the world around them. Who benefits from interest and gain? Whose law do you follow? Do you live by the Torah or the practices of Rome? Do you live under God’s laws or Roman Customs?” The parable asks me the question; what do I live for—the things of this world or the thing that last? How do the choices I make now have an impact on eternity?
Our centering quote from Swedenborg, the theologian and Christian mystic that the Wayfarers Chapel is a memorial to says: “Even the smallest moment of our lives involves a series of consequences extending to eternity. Each moment is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so with each and every moment of our lives.” Emmanuel Swedenborg Secrets of Heaven 4690
The choices we make, the actions we take, the way we engage the world, other people, our religion, our work, our lives, they matter. The voices we listen to matter, the questions we ask matter, the willingness to engage the complexity, the ambiguity, the dialog, the parable, they all matter.
In the willingness to engaging the unsettling nature of parables, and the de-centering way that Jesus likes to tell stories and ask questions can lead us to think of things differently. To repent—literally the Greek word, metanoia, is to change our minds—to look at the world differently and change how we think, feel and act. It is in this process that so often, we find the face of God.
We see the nature of God, not in a moralistic code, or in a three-point plan, or in one—and only one—way. No, we find God, the God who is moving and present in all things, when we allow ourselves to put our spirituality parallel, smashed together, with our experience of life, of our current culture. When we commingle the stories of scripture, with the stories of our lives, when we engage sacred scripture and Divine curiosity, seeking the desire for transformation personally and collectively. It’s in this curiosity, in this wrestling and wondering and engagement with the story of God and the story of our lives, that we find a surplus of meaning, we find the call to self-examination, to repentance/change, to a way of being that integrates the force of Divine Love and Wisdom in and through, the culture, the movement, the challenges and maybe we find the courage to keep showing up and asking the questions and engaging change internally and externally.
Because this is how change and transformation happens in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our worlds. When we can engage both. When we can put the ways of the world and the ways of heaven next to each other and question the discrepancies, and then work to change things. When we are willing to look at racism and sexism and classism and superiority and the desire to be right and the desire to have it all figured out, and have those dislodged by the startling and audacious love of God and call to compassion and action. When we’re willing to look at ourselves and be willing to turn, to be changed, to be made new.
A few years ago I was working in Washington DC, doing faith based food and hunger advocacy work. Immersed in the politics of Capital Hill I was constantly engaging this question of public theology from various angles.
One Saturday, I got up super early and got on the metro from the basement room where I was staying in Alexandria. I got off at McFerson Square stop and walked up to the lawn in front of the White House to hear a public theologian who is changing the world—his Holiness the Dali Lama. I found a few friends who I was meeting there and settled down on the blanket they had spread out on the lawn with thousands of others, awaiting the words of this wise teacher.
He talked about how world peace comes through inner peace. He talked about how every human craves for inner peace and seeks it in many ways and he reminded us of our shared humanity and that every person is part of the global solution to peace. He challenged us to look inside and think about how we are seeking peace in our own heads, in our internal dialog, and asked asked how we are treating the people who we share a home with, our spouses, children, parents, our co-workers, the people we meet on the street. And how it is in these interactions that the ripple will start and move outward, meeting other peaceful currents and sweep the nations with a tsunami of compassion and peaceful living.
His Holiness didn’t let any one path off the hook, or offer the “right” way. He spoke eloquently about the variety of religious (and non-religious) paths, the many tools and system changes that can lead to a life and word of compassion. He spoke of the importance of growing an intelligent mind and a warm heart. He spoke of teaching compassion in all contexts, sacred and secular and how embodied compassion is the way of religious life. He reminded me of one of the Swedenborgian teachings I hold dear, “All religion is of life and the life of religion is to do good.” It is the life we live from what we believe that matters. Regardless of our life circumstances, religious holdings, or stages of life, we have a part to play. His Holiness broke down any walls of excuses or “not me,” and with his raw humanity and humility called all of us to a higher place of compassion, justice, and peace.
I can’t remember the specific last words he said. I do remember his smile though, kind and wide on the big monitor and moving with the bright red of his robe that I see getting up from the chair on the stage. It was still shining as he walked down through the crowed and the music began to play. We packed up our things and rolled our blankets. A quiet fell over the crowd. I looked around and I saw the faces around me a little differently than I had a few hours before. I felt the breath of God breathing in us together, and an openness to God working in and amongst us. Open to the Spirit. Open to one another. Open to the life that is in front of us to live. May we live it. Amen.
“As someone who’s thought a lot about faith, but never knew what it meant to engage in the Bible, and who wasn’t raised with religion at all, it’s been a real blessing to have a wonderful pastor like Anna. And to have a community that is supportive of difficult questions, and really intellectually stimulating conversations about what it means to believe in God.– Rachel Burrows, The Garden Church