Check out this recent piece published on the Swedenborg Foundation’s blog: https://swedenborg.com/showing-up/
November 13th, 2013
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
Scripture: Isaiah 35:3-8, Luke 17:20-21
“The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves, but loving others and being united to them through love.” Divine Love and Wisdom 47 Emanuel Swedenborg
As a church, we don’t stand with a particular political view; as people of faith, there is not one right partisan expression. What we stand behind, no matter what, is love. And being people who are anointed to love.
Love goes beyond who we voted for, or how that is expressed. Love looks out into the world to see who is suffering, who is experiencing fear and loss, who is consumed by hate. Love looks inward at parts of ourselves—at what is underneath our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Love isn’t always comfy or pretty. Often love calls us to go beyond our comfort zones.
Glennon Doyle Melton writes “Love is not warm and fuzzy or sweet and sticky. Real love is tough as nails. It is having your heart ripped out, putting it back together, and the next day offering it back to the same world that just tore it up.”
Love is fierce. Love is persistent. Love puts our bodies in between, beside, and behind bodies that are threatened. Love combats the hate and words of condemnation that come into our own heads, and stops us when we want to lash out at other people.
I think love also gently wraps a blanket around us. It encourages us to care gently, for ourselves and for each other. Love reaches out and checks in, “How are you doing?” “How can I support you today?” “How can I stand with you today?” Love calls out to that Divine love, and welcomes it into this place.
This message is nothing new friends; it’s what you hear from me most every week—love God and love each other, honor the dignity of all human beings, we belong to God, we belong to each other, we are loved and we are called to love. This is not new information, nor a new call. But today we have the opportunity to be reminded of its imperative. We have a reminder that love is not easy, but it must be our consistent commitment, for the long haul. The work of courageous love has been the work, is the work, and will continue to be the work. All the resolve we feel now—we must keep that, and continue to stay awake.
We must be awake to where there is hell and negativity that is working to divide us and twist things. We must be awake when it urges us to flare up in anger or take us to the pit of despair, and when it tells us there’s no point and to just stop.
We must stay awake to heaven and its powerful force for compassion and justice and healing in the world. Because heaven is with us and among us—urging and infilling us, anointing us to love.
And this is why we need to keep gathering together, praying and listening and acting. We need to educate ourselves in how to love more effectively and to encourage each other. We need to hold each other accountable. We need to widen our circles and expand our friendships. We need to look more deeply at things we might have assumed we know, and question narratives that have been presented as the singular truth. We need to consistently do our internal work of rejecting hell and welcoming heaven and to show up and stand with courage and compassion in the face of injustice and hate. We need to be kind to each other and gentle to each other. We need to call together on God, for the strength and comfort and resolve. We need to come around God’s table where all are welcome, and remember together that we are beloved and we are anointed to love.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear.”
For God is here.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon
Scripture: Genesis 41 and Luke 12:13-21
Before I begin, a disclaimer: I know it’s not Christmas, but I’m going to use a story from “It’s a Wonderful Life” anyway.
Do you remember the scene at the very end of the movie? After Uncle Billy loses the Bailey Building and Loan’s $8,000 deposit and the small bank fails the bank examiner’s inspection, George Bailey is at his total and complete wits’ end. Where will he come up with the money to save the town and save his family? He sees no hope, and is preparing to end his life when an angel comes along and leads him through visions of what life would have been like if he hadn’t been in it. He saw how his brother would have drowned, how his mother would have suffered, how the town would have gone downhill had he not been part of it. Having seen how his life really did matter, he runs back to his family where his wife Mary has been rallying the town, and they collectively have come up with enough money and good will to get through the crisis together.
Now, you could say that this story is all about money, or a lack of money, that this plot line is all about economics. Yet, as anyone who watches it knows, the narrative invites us deeper. There’s something else going on here, something that holds both the reality of the physical needs and the deeper truths about spirit and heart and community.
Imagine with me for a moment the last scene for example: that iconic moment where George is receiving baskets full of money and his old high school friend calls from London and pledges $25,000… if you took that snapshot at face value, one might say it was all about the money, and yet, what is the feeling in that scene? It’s so far from greed, or being hung up on material possessions. The feeling is all about the people, the closeness that comes after desperation, the preciousness of family when you’ve glimpsed your life without it, the generosity of community coming together and offering the little they had to make together enough, enough to save the family and the town.
Some who read our parable of the rich man today might read it purely on the physical level, and go on to conclude that, “money is the root of all evil,” but I don’t think it’s that simple (besides, it is misquoting the original phrase which is, “the love of money is the root of all evil”). Instead, I would posit, selfishness and greed are the roots of evil, and whenever we are selfish, whenever we are greedy, this is the problem. Money, material things, clothing, houses, cars, any material possession are not innately good or evil; it’s what we do with it, why we do what we do, who we are serving, and how we interact that matters.
We had two parallel stories in our scripture readings today, both having to do with the storing up of grain—of material things—but each with drastically different intentions and markedly different results.
In the story of Joseph in the Hebrew Scriptures, we see how God guided Joseph to not only save the people of Egypt from starvation, but also save his own family, as he was led in the interpretation of dreams that there would be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Joseph was a good leader and an efficient manager. He organized storing up grain during the years of plenty, most certainly building barns and putting away the grain, in order to be ready to feed the community during the seven years of famine.
Then in the parable, Jesus tells us in the gospel of Luke that this very same action is not good. Jesus gives the example of a rich man who has an abundant harvest, and doesn’t have the storage facilities to keep it. The rich man asked himself, “What will I do? I know, I’ll build bigger barns, then I’ll store the abundant harvest so that then I’ll be set and I can relax and eat, drink, and be merry.” But then God replies to this rich man, “Fool, this very night your life will be taken from you, and these things you have prepared, then whose will they be?” Jesus ends the parable with these words: So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
So what do we do with these two stories? What do we do when the Bible seems to contradict itself, to be telling us two completely different messages?
This is one of the many places where we have the opportunity to hold the “both/and” that we often talk about here in our community. Not holding one exclusive or particular way of reading the text, but instead knowing that God is in the complicated, in the messy, and is always drawing out that which helps us to love God and love neighbor. When we hold these two texts together within a both/and reading, some interesting themes and messages start to emerge.
Here we have very similar situations and actions—an abundant harvest and storing up into barns—yet the motivation is different. In the story of Joseph, his reason for gathering up the harvest during the seven years of plenty and storing it away is for the common good. Whereas the rich man’s response to an abundant harvest is self-centered; his storing up is only for his own enjoyment and false sense of security, and doesn’t take into account God or others.
What arises for me from these two parallel stories is this: Motivation matters, intention matters, and the reasons we do the things we do matter.
It’s not the storing up that’s bad—but the question is, for what purpose? Saving for future material needs is one component of proper stewardship of God’s bounty. Appropriate concern for the future is balanced, however, with awareness of how the love of God and neighbor are involved. To be aware of how our choices affect all facets of our interconnected system, to make choices that take the marginalized into account, to give freely and generously of what we have to others, to be good stewards of what we’ve been given.
The rich man is not set as a negative example because he had the abundant harvest, or even because he was going to build bigger barns, but because with all the excess in his life, he turns to only pleasing himself. He gets stuck in that trap that we so easily can as well—that the goal in life is the abundance of possessions. We are encouraged to spend more, have more, use more, supersize and maximize. We start to believe that these are the signs of a good life, yet these are the signs of the external. What actually goes with us—what lasts? This parable reminds us, it’s our hearts, our interactions with others, our intentions and loves that endure—where your treasure is, your heart will be also.
In one of Emanuel Swedenborg’s books, he talks about what people are asked after death as they prepare to gravitate towards heaven or hell. Rather than asking, “What is your belief?” or “What are the things that you think about faith and religion?”, we are instead asked, “What is your life?” What is the life you lived? How did your faith and beliefs lead you to a life of useful service, a life in relationship with God, a life of serving our neighbor? It’s not whether we have grain in barns or material wealth, it’s really how we live and operate within whatever we have.
Being rich in God transcends economics. Being rich in God does not deny our need for material provision, for homes and clothing, beauty and food. But being rich in God is not dependent on it. Being rich in God, is responding to whatever comes our way, whether it’s abundant harvest or deep financial hardship, with knowledge that in the end, it’s where our heart is and what our actions have been that matter. We are all interconnected, and the choices we make for ourselves are part of the effect for many.
When we have our community meal later in our gathering, we’ll sing our blessing song as we go to dinner, “there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.”
Our two stories today invite us to look at that fundamental question, a fundamental choice of how we show up in the world. Is there “enough and some to share?” Do we believe this?
Do we believe this when we’re living on the street? Or when our next child needs to go to college? When the car breaks down and then the refrigerator quits? What is our response when we encounter extra abundance in life? Is it to rush out and buy that thing we’ve been drooling over, or squirrel it away for a rainy day? Far be it from me to say that there is one right response to any of these scenarios. But what we have in this parable today is the invitation to pay attention to our responses and to our motivations and intentions in the choices we make.
On some level, we can all get stuck in the trap of thinking that material resources will save us.—if we just get_____, it will all be okay, if I figure out how to pay for this thing, if, if, if… Ultimately, we know that being rich in God is what matters; where our heart is, our treasure will be also.
And this awareness of our motivations and intentions applies to times of abundance, and it applies to times of loss and lack and struggle too. Providing for basic needs, saving for the future, being able to enjoy life, these are important things, and I believe that they are within the realms of faithful following. And wanting these basic necessities, working for them, this is right and good.
Just as we are given the invitation to read and hold scripture with a both/and attitude, we are invited to hold life this way too.
We need money and resources in order to survive in this culture and world. Truly everyone should have a clean safe house to live in, to be able to eat, to have access to education and clean clothing. Everyone should have the opportunity to sleep peacefully and not worry every night about their safety or where their next meal will come from. And yet, we’re not there yet. Some of us live in nice homes, others of us are camping out in the parks, some of us have to keep a super close eye on the bank account each month before we write our rent check and worry about making ends meet, some of us never know where our next meal is coming from. There is a both/and reality in our world and a both/and reality in each of our lives. And, there is an interconnected reality—each of our lives is intertwined with the lives of others, as well as with God.
And so each one of us, all of us, individually and collectively, is called to pay attention to the both/and of these stories and the both/and in the world around us. We’re called to pay attention to what is our relationship is to the material things around us: How do we respond when we encounter abundance? How do we respond when we encounter scarcity? And this is another reason we need to be in community, to keep interacting with each other, because it reminds us that it’s not all about us. Each of our choices impact the greater web of economics, of systems, favoring some and not others.
And this is why we need to commit, and then re-commit ourselves to a life where we ardently believe in the provision and abundance of God, and take it upon ourselves to be faithful stewards with whatever is given us. And with whatever is given us, whether it is incredible material wealth, or a bowl of soup, we can take into account the needs of others and we share. Be it sharing a piece of our burrito with someone, giving a percentage of our income to the church and organizations we believe in, opening our home to a family member in need, or helping the person in front of you in line at the grocery store. These practices, these actions help to change us from the inside out. They shift our focus from the “it’s all about me” of the rich man in the parable, to “how can I faithfully be part of feeding the greater whole” of Joseph. Remembering that we are all connected—part of God’s interconnected web of life—and that somehow if we all engage it and show up to it, that there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.
Watch and listen to Rev. Anna Woofenden’s talk at New Church Live in Bryn Athyn, PA.
To support the ongoing ministry at the Garden Church…give your offerings here: http://gardenchurchsp.org/donate
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Scripture: 1 Kings 19:1-15
“God’s love goes forth not only to good people, but to evil people. God loves not only those who are in heaven, but also those who choose hell, for God is everywhere and forever the same.” –Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity 43
When I was a child, I was very afraid of wind, and earthquakes, and fire. My fear of fire was probably primary—growing up in a house with a wood stove and attention to fire safety, it was ingrained in my psyche at a very young age that fire was something to be careful with and that if it was out of control it could be very harmful. I remember having a reoccurring nightmare that people were marching around our house with gigantic rhubarb leaves, which were on fire. Strangely it wasn’t that there were people marching around our home, or the oversized produce that scared me, it was the fire.
These fears subsided some over the years, though bits of them still remain. One can say, “Don’t be afraid” and work to not respond out of fear. But there is also some reality to these things. I learned that some of these of the fears were legitimatized, when a friend’s house burned to the ground, when the windstorm blew a tree onto a neighbor’s house, and seeing San Francisco after soon after the large earthquake in the late ‘80s. These things I was afraid of were real.
I have been struggling with feeling afraid this week, and walking with others who are afraid. Afraid for our communities, afraid for our nation, afraid of the ramifications of seemingly greater and greater divides between people and groups, afraid of guns, and violence. I’ve been feeling afraid for the children and teens I know who have come out or might. I’ve been hearing from my queer friends and people of color about their fears, and the fears that they live with day in and day out being confirmed. There are things to be afraid of.
The prophet Elijah in our scripture today was afraid. And he had good reason. After having a showdown with the prophets of Bael and winning, Queen Jezebel is not happy and is after him, and he’s on the run. He’s so afraid of being caught and killed that he runs out into the desert, prepared to die.
It was out there in the desert, in his place of utter despair, that an angel of the Lord comes to him. God meets him out there in the desert—fear and all—and provides for him. An angel brings him water and a cake baked on hot stones, and nourishes him and provides for the next leg of the journey.
And then the Lord asked, “What are you doing here Elijah?”
I kind of picture Elijah rolling his eyes and getting a little impatient, like, “Haven’t you been paying attention, Lord, to all that’s going on?”
And so Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He’s been through this big and difficult encounter and been faithful, and people are after him. He’s feeling desperate and afraid, and the Lord has the audacity to ask him “What are you doing?” “I’ve been very zealous!” is the prophet’s reply.Do something about this; I have been doing what you told me, but now I’m going to die. He’s afraid.
From an evolutionary perspective, the emotion of fear protected humans from predators and other threats to the survival of the species. So it is no wonder that certain dangers evoke that emotion, since fear helps protect us and is therefore adaptive, functional, and necessary. However, there is another important aspect of emotions to consider that, in the case of fear, may be important to decision making as well as survival. That is, when an emotion is triggered, it has an impact on our judgments and choices in situations.
What do you do when you’re afraid?
Push people away?
Go into a cave?
Try to fix it?
In the wake of the Orlando shootings early last Sunday morning, and witnessing the national grief and trauma this week, I’ve felt sadness and frustration and fear. And my response is that I want to fix it. Make it all better and make sure no one ever gets hurt again.
Maybe if I could rally enough signatures on gun control, or if I could have enough conversations about the need to be inclusive of all people in religious communities, or if I could change the mind of that person in my life who’s political views terrify me, or if I could craft the perfect Facebook post, maybe, just maybe then I could escape some of the fear and heartbreak that I am feeling.
On Wednesday I was talking to a dear friend and fellow preacher and we were sharing our fears and sharing our wrestling with our response. She was my water and fresh bread in the wilderness. She reminded me that, “our trust in God and our willingness to open our heart up to the heartbreak is the only thing you have to give your people.”
We are not always safe and there are things to fear. There is pain, there is suffering, there are things that need to change—and we are not alone. God meets us in the fear, God is present with us in the pain, God is the force of love that takes the heartbreak and despair and transforms it into defiant love that does not run away from the fear, but stays with it and audaciously claims God’s love is stronger.
Yes, like Elijah I’m so tempted to run away and hide in a cave. Or busy myself with things so I don’t have to really meet the fear or listen and feel the heartbreak.
But here’s the thing—even in the cave, God shows up.
God shows up to Elijah in the cave and asks, “What are you doing here Elijah?” And when Elijah gives his long list, God invites him to the entrance to the cave, because “the Lord is going to pass by.”
And then comes all the chaos, the wind, the earthquakes, the fire. And Elijah didn’t hear God in any of it, there was too much noise. And then, then there was a sheer silence.
We talk each week at the Garden Church about the difference between quiet and silence. Quiet is devoid of any noise or chaos, set apart and separate from the world, safe from all that might interrupt it, which is never the case in our outdoor sanctuary, with the wind, and the traffic, the birds and the helicopters. Silence on the other hand is something much deeper, much more profound. Silence is about listening, silence is about intention; silence invites us, even in the middle of the noise of the city, even in the chaos of the world, even within the chatter of our own fears clattering around in our heads, to listen for God. Listen for, watch for how God is always passing by. It was after that sheer silence that God’s question came again: “What are you doing here Elijah?”
It is in these places of deep listening, of sheer silence, where we meet and face our deepest fears, where we encounter ourselves, where we can encounter God. Not through immediately trying to jump in and fix it, not by running away to hide in our own version of a cave, but through staying present, present to the heartbreak, present to the love, present to the human beings around us and listening.
As a straight ally, it is always, and particularly in a week like this, my most important job to listen. To listen to my LGBTQ friends share and tell me about how they are experiencing this act of violence, not to try to fix it or make it all okay, but to deeply listen to the pain and the suffering. Listen to the stories that are different than mine and hear God in silence, in the words of others. As we practice listening together, I want to share with you the words of my friend and colleague Amy Kumm-Hanson.
On being queer and being safe—by Amy Kumm-Hanson (please take the time to read this whole powerful piece here: http://amychanson.blogspot.com/2016/06/on-being-queer-and-being-safe.html)
I came of age in the ‘90s. I knew I was queer around the same time that Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. And Wyoming is not that far, geographically or ideologically, from where I was raised in Montana. This was before widespread usage of the Internet and way before the age of social media, so this publicized case was the only example I had of being gay.
This was before “It Gets Better.” Ellen DeGeneres had come out on network television, but to a teenager in Montana, the idea that you could be accepted and even loved for who you loved, was about as realistic as living on the moon.
(Years later) I have celebrated marriage equality in the capital building of Minnesota. I have marched in pride parades. I’ve spoken publicly about what it is to be queer, a Christian, and to be human. Just one week ago, I married the love of my life in a ceremony with over 200 of our friends and family present. I have been filled with life.
And yet, just a mere seven days after I professed my love to my wife in front of my nearest and dearest, I was reminded again of death. I am not a child anymore, but that child inside of me who fears for her safety and her life is still there.
I don’t have a solution. I don’t really have words right now. I need allies to speak the truth about the events in Orlando. I need allies to attend to my safety and those of my community. I need allies to continue to create safe spaces for all youth to feel loved, but especially queer youth, because the world can be cruel.”
Friends, we all need to work together to create spaces for all youth to feel loved, but especially queer youth, because the world can be cruel. We need to create a world where people are not shot, but especially people with colored skin, because the world can be racist.
We need to create a world where all are housed and clothed and fed, but especially those that are suffering from mental illness and addiction, because the world can be apathetic. We need to work together to listen.
Hearing God in each other. Seeing God in each other. Responding to our fears by listening deeply, and as we listen deeply to see the humanity of all people.
In 1997, the Swedenborgian Church of North America, the denomination this church is a part of, ordained our first openly gay minister. But before that, in 1986, eleven years earlier, some important listening happened that led to a fundamental shift. In 1975, the first woman was ordained. Then in 1986, rather than adding another classification of people on the list that we ordain, men, now women, now gay as well as straight, there was a transformative change to the approach.
In the words of Dr. Jim Lawrence: “we don’t ordain gay people, nor straight people; we don’t ordain women, and we don’t ordain men, neither do we ordain persons of color or white folks: we ordain people who are trained and prepared to offer skilled ministry in the world.”
This change in the policy of one organization by no means has fixed all the problems or changed all our hearts and minds. But I believe it is an example of the shift that can happen when we begin to really listen, to show up, to see the humanity in everyone and see people first as people. To make this shift, over and over again, in ourselves and in our world, we have to deeply acknowledge and work on the areas where we, individually, and collectively, in our own prejudices and in our systemic systems are oppressing and marginalizing people.
In listening deeply to other people, especially those whose experiences of life and the world vary from our own, we come face to face with the ways that we are all interconnected. We realize that we need to—in the words of Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal woman from Australia—continue to work alongside each other for liberation, “because your liberation is tangled up in mine.”
We’re human first, children of God. We belong to God and we belong to each other. In the fear and the chaos we can forget that. Which is why we need to be with the silence. Even if it means coming face to face with our fears.
“What are you doing here Elijah?” God asks again.
Even after the chaos of the wind and earthquake and fire, when God asks him the same question, his answer is the same, “I am very zealous for the Lord.”
Okay, the Lord says, “Go, return on your way.”
It’s not necessarily epic or earth-shattering on the other side of silence, when God’s voice speaks to us,
“Go on your way.”
“Go on a walk.”
“Change your mind.”
“Keep showing up.”
“Hug your children.”
“Slow down enough to see others.”
“Let your heart break.”
“Let your heart be transformed.”
“Go on your way.”
Or in the words of Mary Oliver:
“It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot,
or a few small stones; just pay attention,
then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate,
this isn’t a contest, but the doorway into thanks,
and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
―Mary Oliver, Thirst
Today is Palm Sunday, the day where we engage the story of Jesus riding on a donkey, followed by his ragamuffin crew, riding into Jerusalem while a bunch of peasants welcomed them by waving palm branches and shouting praise. As Jesus enters the city, a “whole multitude of the disciples” throng around, and spread their cloaks on the road, wave palm branches and lift loud their praise, ”blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” And “Hosanna!” “God save us!”
Zoom out for a moment to see the context of this story…. Passover week was a big deal in Jerusalem—Jews from all over gathered to share in this feast day, this feast of liberation together. Likely there were two processions that day. From the west came Pilate draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power—horses, chariots, and gleaming armor. He moved in with the Roman army at the beginning of Passover week to make sure nothing got out of hand. Insurrection was in the air as Passover was being celebrated, and the memory of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt was in people’s minds.
Then from the east came another procession, a commoner’s procession—Jesus in an ordinary robe riding on a young donkey. The careful preparations suggest that Jesus had planned a highly ritualized symbolic prophetic act. Showing in this act the coming of a new kind of king, a king of peace who dismantles the weaponry of war, the leader who shows power through reaching out and touching those who are untouchable, and healing and calling for justice and love. Jesus comes around a bend in the road and sees the whole city spread out before him. It makes him weep and we hear him say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… If only today you knew the things that make for peace…” Calling for peace, peace for all people, for the earth, for all living beings.
Luke’s Palm Sunday account echoes his Christmas story. When Jesus was born, the Gospel writer tells us that angels appeared to sing, “Peace on earth.” Now as Jesus rides his colt towards Jerusalem, the people look to the sky and sing, “Peace in heaven.” Peace on earth, peace in heaven, the cry echoing back and forth, echoing, reverberating to this day. Peace on earth, peace in heaven, peace on earth, peace in heaven….
Think back just a bit, to Christmas, to that story and promise of peace on earth, good will to all people. I’m remembering the darkness, physical darkness here in this space, and the darkness that I felt in the world around us, in my own journey, that deep longing for peace, for good will towards all people. Moving forward on our journey together, we have had these weeks of Lent… this season of repentance where we’ve been asking the question: What separates us from the immediate love of God and the reciprocal love with other people? As we look at what separates us, we’ve talked about the process of repentance, of changing our minds, of turning and doing and living life more open to love.
On this Palm Sunday, we have the opportunity to engage in some tangible reminders, ritual as we process into Palm Sunday, moving into Holy Week with our palm branches held high and the cries of “Hosanna! God save us!” echoing in our ears. As we call out “Hosanna! God save us!”, we claim the truth that we will not be saved by a particular political figure, or the one more thing we need, or if our spouse would just do this, or if we got a new boss, or if we lost some weight, or if we accomplish one more thing. It’s not a better insurance policy that saves us, or having the right home or car.
It’s God who saves us. God who saves us from our self-doubt, saves us from our over-inflated egos, saves us from brushing by and ignoring another human being, and from diminishing our own possibility for being loved in the world. While I certainly believe things need to change and be attended to in the world around us, ultimately, happiness, contentment, peace on earth and good will to all people, must be felt and experienced inside each one of us—God with us. And from that place, we can be vessels of peace and love in the world.
And so on this day of celebration, but also on this day of statement, of claim, Jesus is showing us another way of how love comes into the world, how love drives out all fear, how the way of peace overcomes the way of power, how reaching out across the boundaries and seeing the light in other people is always.
The entrance on Palm Sunday was a protest. It was a statement that the ways of the Roman Empire were not the way of peace. The procession on Palm Sunday was both protest of what was happening around them and example of the way forward, “Hosanna! God save us!” It was appealing to the Divine Love, Jesus entering into the city and going to the heart of where the people were, and even in their response shows us the way. As Jesus rode into the city, they took off their outer garments and laid them down, they took palm branches and waved them, they engaged in this ritual of protest, this proclamation of there being another way.
We gather together here at the Garden Church, we make church together, we grow our own food and welcome all to the table each week because we’re moved by the same call—engaging in a ritual of protest against the forces of consumerism and fear, isolation and division, apathy and hate. As we commit each week to cultivating our plot of earth, our place of more peace and justice, love and reconciliation, in the middle of our city, we’re engaging in a ritual of protest, a protest for the way of love and removing—repenting—of the things that keep us from actively engaging that love.
And so as we move into our own procession, our protest around the garden, we’re invited to think about this question we’ve been working with… “What separates you from the immediate love of God and the reciprocal love of other people?” What do I need to let go of, change, and engage to walk forward in the way of love?
We’re going to go on this journey together around the garden, in our own act of ritual protest, of sacred movement. We’ll stop at three stations around the space and have a time of ritual and prayer at each one of them—we’ll raise our palm branches and ribbons, lay down garments, compost old ideas, tie ribbons of new hope, and give it all over to the One who saves us.
Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace. Advent this time of waiting, of preparing for Christmas, this time of longing for the dawn of light and peace in the world. Peace in our own lives, peace in our families, in our communities, peace in the world. The scriptures use the word peace often, and we find it in the Christmas story. When we read these stories that may be familiar to us, I find that it’s easy to let them waft past our ears gently and fill in the surrounding sights, and make the stories that surround Jesus’ birth echo and match our desires and longings for some perfect Christmas moment, the silent, the peaceful scene. And yet…have your read these stories? Maybe the coming of peace is not actually as serene as we thought.
Take Mary for example. Mary the mother of Jesus. A figure who in our lore and tales so often is depicted in this peaceful glow, seemingly apart from anything trying or chaotic. And yet, did you hear the story we read today? The story of the Angel coming to Mary, likely as she was just going about her everyday business, and telling her that she was going to conceive a son in her womb and name him Jesus and he would be the Son of the most high, to reign over the house of David forever…
When we have the soft blue lenses with the “all is quiet and peaceful” on, we often skip straight to the last sentence, when Mary says “let it be to me as you have written” and the angel departs.
Okay, let’s think for a moment about this Mary. Maybe the story has become so common to us over the years that we forget how shocking this is. First, Mary is just going about her everyday life, from all we know. We have no reason to believe that she was asking for this or expecting it. The fact that the angel said to her, “do not be afraid” implies that her reaction at first was, understandably, one of fear. But she sticks with it. She listens. And then she does something that I find striking.
She asks a question. She’s not meek and mild. She’s actually pretty kick-ass. She has the courage and audacity to ask this angel who shows up. “How’s this going to happen?” “I’m a virgin.”
Now yes, this means what you think it means. And at that time and in the culture the idea of being pregnant without being married to the father of the child was no small thing. She was taking a major risk, particularly as she was engaged to Joseph at this time. But she keeps listening. And when she hears that it is God that will do this work, and that nothing will be impossible with God. She replies with these beautifully well worn words, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me, according to your word.”
And Mary’s song—these words of response, of praise, of proclamation that Mary sings in our gospel reading today—these are not sanitized comfy, and set-apart-from-the-world words. These are strong and powerful words about how the incarnate God’s coming into the world breaks into the systems of oppression and the hunger and the violence, and calls for another way.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
… has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
… has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.
Maybe Mary is more like you and me than we thought. Seeking to follow God in the midst of chaotic times. Calling for a world where hungry bellies are filled and those who are abusing power are humbled, a turning of our economic disparity and a world where peace is tangible for all. Making choices that were incredibly risky to her own being, to courageously follow the call of God—to engage God with us, coming into her life and into the world.
In the orthodox tradition Mary is called the “theotokos” a Greek word that means “God-bearer” or “birth-giver of God” and “the one who gives birth to God.” This is different, in my mind than being the “Mother of God.” And it opens up interesting possibilities and curiosities about the theological traditions of immaculate conception. That to be the theotokos maybe is not about being pure and already divine, but actually about being fully human and responding with a courage and strength to carry the divine.
There’s a passage in Swedenborgian theology that strikes me as relevant in this conversation…
“Before anything is brought back into order, it is quite normal for it to be brought first into a kind of confusion, a virtual chaos.” (Secrets of Heaven 842) This passage goes on to say that is through this process that we experience as confusion, even chaos, that the Lord re-arranges things, sorts things, and puts them in order.
This leads me to believe that in order to find the peace, that sense of God’s presence with us, we have to be willing to engage the chaos, the reality of the world around us, not to hide from it or avoid it, instead—to see it, to listen, to name it and then go to the Lord and offer our willingness to respond.
As much as we want to sanitize these stories, to make them something outside of our realm—clean, pretty, peaceful—it’s difficult once you read them. And listen again. Because we find out what the Incarnation, the coming of the Christ was not about.
It was not about something separated from the reality of humanity, of the suffering and questioning, joy and human feeling and vulnerability. It’s about the Light coming into the darkness, and the Prince of Peace showing up in the chaos of the world.
It’s like the bell at the beginning of our worship time together.
That silence that we find inside even with the chaos happening around us, God’s still small voice with us. Here’s the thing about peace—real peace, internal peace, lasting peace—it’s not about getting away or avoiding what is around us. It’s about finding God in the midst of it.
Because yet again, we’re shown how Emmanuel, God with us does not behave the way we might expect or show up in the pretty tidy picture we expect. The angels did not go to the rulers in the center of town, or the rabbis in the temple to share the good news. Instead they showed up in the darkness, in the cold, on the margins, in and amongst the daily tasks that were being done, bringing “good news of great joy… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all people!”
And this, my friends, is the message these stories of Advent keep returning me to this year—it’s not about finding peace “out there,” or about one perfect fix for our life struggle or the world—“if I just___”. “If we just….” The story of Advent invites us, reminds us, calls us to be people of hope, people of life, people who continue to show up and look for and work for goodness and transformation.
Because yes, there is darkness, there is hunger—spiritually and naturally. We live in a world where we see division and isolation, poverty of body and spirit. We each are living real human lives and we carry with us loss and longing along with our desires and hopes. And it is in and amongst all of this that Emmanuel, God of incarnation offers us hope.
Hope not devoid from the trouble and pain, just as silence is not devoid of sounds, and peace is not devoid of chaos. No the hope, the peace, comes as the Prince of Peace comes, in and amongst all the messiness of life. In and amongst our family systems, in and amongst a world that’s experiencing hunger and poverty. Showing us again and again that God isn’t far away and inaccessible.
And that God came down, Love incarnate, right here, as a human, with humans, born by a human because divinity and humanity are inexplicably intertwined, God is right here. In that moment when we open our eyes and see the light in a new way. As one hand reaches out to another, offers that gentle squeeze of knowing. In the silence, amid the sounds of voices and questions and confusion, Christ is born. The presence of love come to earth, then and now. Emmanuel. God is with us. Amen.