Sermon by Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
September 28th, 2014
Exodus 16:1-15, John 6:22-35
“This is the bread which God has given you to eat” signifies that this is the good which must be taken and integrated into our lives. In the ultimate sense, this is the Lord in you. Because “bread” signifies heavenly and spiritual good, in the supreme sense, it is the Divine itself. In this passage, “the manna” signifies good, which is God itself. That this is good when it is taken into oneself and made part of our life, is shown by the action of “eating”; for the good which is from God makes the life of heaven with people and nourishes and sustains it.” Excerpts from Heavenly Secrets 8465, Emanuel Swedenborg)
Over the course of the last seventeen years, and particularly the last four, I have moved a lot. I have done a lot of packing and unpacking. Setting up homes, meeting people, wondering “Will I find friends?” “Where should I hang that picture?” “Will I find a place to belong?” And it’s those things that I notice, that tell me, “You are home.” I look for the signs that it is becoming home, that I belong.
Like instinctively reaching to open the silverware drawer and opening the one that actually has the silverware in it, or driving to the grocery story without using the GPS. That moment when I have a spontaneous outing with a new friend and realize that I DO have community and placing the picture of three little children who mean the world to me, where it belongs on my bedside table.
We began our worship together by naming how we are a community on the move, we are a community that is becoming, forming, exploring who it is that God is calling us to be, together in this community. And we began by unpacking our Garden Church tabernacle. That funny word, “tabernacle.” I like the way it roles off my tongue, tabernacle. In Hebrew the word is: mishkan, “residence” or “dwelling place” of God.
The image, the story of the tabernacle goes back to the ancient stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, the part of the Bible that’s often referred to as the “Old Testament.” The tabernacle comes into the story of the Children of Israel when they were wandering in the desert, having just escaped from slavery in Egypt and heading towards the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. Now this journey went on for forty years, and they were not always so keen about it, as we heard in our scripture today.
They would complain about their circumstance, whine about God and Moses and even wish that they were back in slavery, rather than out in the desert. But every time they stopped on their journey, they would set up the tabernacle.
They would stop. And take the time to painstakingly place each pole in its proper place, each carefully measured support, the specific layers of cloth, and then the sacred objects. In the outer part of the tent they would place an oil lamp, a table for bread, the altar of incense, and then in the inner tent, the holy of holies, you’d find the Ark of the Covenant, with the two stone tablets that held the Ten Commandments, God’s words to them. And a golden urn holding the manna. These sacred objects, reminding them who they are as a community, who God is, and the way God leads and provides and is present with them.
I imagine it something like me putting that photo on my bedside table, or us setting up our table with the bread and the Word, the candle and the cup.
Here’s home for this moment. Here’s God with us. Here’s where we belong.
This story of the Children of Israel is packed with rich images and reminders of how the Divine interacts with humanity. The story of the manna that we read today is one that I never tire of telling. Probably because it’s just so totally human and seems like something I would do.
So they’re hungry. And God say’s there will be bread from heaven. They wake up in the morning and they saw, “when the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.”
And they did not say, “Oh, look, God provided for us.” Or, “I always knew and believed the Lord was looking out for us and would give us all we needed.” No, instead they said, “Manna?” Or “What is it?” They called it “Manna” because this literally means, “What is it?” and they DIDN’T EAT IT AND CONTINUED TO GO HUNGRY!
Then Moses comes and points out to them, “hey people, duh, THIS is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat” (okay, that’s my paraphrase) and it’s then that they begin to stop, to notice, to realize, and bend down, scoop it up, and take it to their tents to prepare and eat.
Friends, this is as true for us today, as it was for our ancestors centuries ago. What we need is all around us; God is everywhere and moving in all things. It’s not that there is not enough for us, or for the world that leads to scarcity in our lives, or loneliness, or hunger on any level. It’s that we, individually and collectively, so often get stuck in the greed, the selfishness, the apathy, the isolation, and the slavery. Like the children of Israel enslaved in Egypt, we become enslaved by our fears, by our prejudices, by the collective systems that favor some and oppress others. We become enslaved by thinking that we are all alone, that no one is struggling like we are, that we don’t belong. We can look around at the world around us and see suffering and pain and wonder, “What’s the point? Where’s God? Is there hope?”
And this is why we’re gathering together to be a community that works together, that worships together, that eats together, because we believe that there is hope, there is goodness and healing, reconciliation, hope, joy, fun, laughter, connection and food enough for everyone. This is why we’re re-imagining church, because we believe that God, Love, is in all things, animating all things, moving through all things, and we are charged with seeing it and claiming and engaging love put into action in the world.
We get to be reminded how God says, stop, look, ask “what is it?” and then bend down and pick up that heavenly goodness, that which sustains, God’s love available and amongst us and manifesting in so many ways.
Going out into our communities and asking, “what is it?” “Where is the goodness and hope? Where are the needs and struggles? Who are my neighbors that I am called to love? How are we called to be church, to bring more heaven to earth, in this place?
Last week some of us went out and spent the morning walking the streets of San Pedro, with the Garden Church and the community on our hearts and minds. We went out on a mission to look, to wonder, to ask, “What is it?” Where is the Spirit moving in this community? Where is there land? Who are the people? What are the needs? Where can you get fresh vegetables? We were looking, watching, listening, asking, “What is it?” Where is God moving? Where do we fit into this web?
We came back from our community mapping adventure and sat around my dining room table and heard each other’s stories.
“I saw two grandpa men sitting in chairs by the sidewalk and chatting and saying hello to everyone that passed…”
Another said: “I encountered friendly people, and people were excited about the idea of a Garden. I stopped at a retirement home and the people had ideas for the residents to join us in the dirt.”
Another noticed that the street they were walking on has a great deal of socio economic shift as you go up the hill.
One of you talked about your neighbors who live in the park next to you and how you want to invite them in, but don’t, and your eyes got teary as you talked about being able to soon invite them to share in our community meal of the Garden Church.
Another reported that they found no place to buy groceries, and another wondered why so many vacant lots are filled with parked cars, and who’s cars are they? We saw women walking to yoga, and little children pausing to play on the sidewalk. Old and young, all colors and shapes and sizes of people, humanity in our community.
I met a man who was sitting on the steps of the post office, who I see often when I’m checking the mail. And this time I stopped and went over and introduced myself. When I asked him his name, he mumbled something I couldn’t understand, and when I asked again he said, “how about you call me Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson the rapper” and his face burst into a huge grin as he said it. “Okay, Michael Jackson the rapper it is, I said.” We both were laughing as I said goodbye and walked on. Manna, manna from heaven.
These simple human connections when we stop, we look, and we engage another part of God’s humanity, when we bend down, pick it up, look around, where is God working in the world, how can we be part of it.
And that’s why we Gather here, as the Garden Church, that’s why we believe that God is always making things new and we are honored and privileged to be re-imagining church for this time and place, because the provision is there, the dew is stretched over the ground, it’s up to us to look around and ask, “what is it” and to bend down and pick it up and have this bread from heaven.
And that’s why we will celebrate the Sacred Meal, Communion, Eucharist, Holy Supper, however you name it. Because as we follow in the traditions of the Passover meal that our ancient ancestors ate, and the manna they bent down and picked it up and ate. And we follow in the tradition of Jesus, the Christ. Jesus, incarnate love, who said when he was on earth, “I AM the bread of life” and then fed, and healed, ate with and was in community with the people that others deemed “outsiders” and who Jesus saw and claimed as friends. And then, who on his last night before he was betrayed, took bread and broke it and shared it around a table and took bread, blessed it and broke it, saying “this is my body”, “I am the bread of life,” “do this in remembrance of me.”
And because it’s God’s table, not ours, we find a place around the table where we belong not because of what we do, or have accomplished, not because of our race or gender, our family history, or whether we feel we measure up. Belonging at God’s table is embedded in the very core of our spiritual DNA. Each of us, created in the image of God, embodiments God’s love and wisdom. Belonging comes not just with receiving, but knowing that you can give. We come around this Sacred Table, this Sacred Meal, to remember that we’re all part of this bigger interconnected whole.
We share in the bread, the cup, the food, the drink, because God is always present to us, available to us, and yes we can find this on our own, in the world, but something happens when we come together as a community, as the human family, as the church, and see each other, see the Spark of the Divine in each other and feed and are fed together.
And that’s why we are here, that is why we are reimagining church, because we’re hungry. We’re hungry for being part of something meaningful. We’re hungry to put our energy towards things that matter. We see the disconnection in the world, from ourselves, from nature, from each other, from God and we want to take a step towards connection.
We gather around the table, remembering who we are in God and in community. And then we go out, and we walk in our community. And we stop. And we notice. And we ask, “What is it?” and see how the Abundant God of heaven in earth is feeding us, and inviting us to feed others.