A sermon for Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Scripture: Isaiah 40 and Mark 1

 “As a “cry” also is an act that corresponds to a living confession or acknowledgment from faith, the rite of crying out was observed among the ancients when this confession was to be signified; and for this reason “crying” or “shouting” is frequently mentioned in the Word in connection with confession and acknowledgment from faith, as where it is said of John the Baptist:

John bare witness of Jesus and cried, saying, This was He of whom I said, He that cometh after me was before me; for He was prior to me. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord (John 1:15, 23)”. —Secrets of Heaven #5323 Emanuel Swedenborg


Last month we planted pots of lettuce seeds. I took two home. And something interesting happened. I call it: The Parable of the Lettuce Seeds, and it goes like this: “Once a community planted a bunch of pots with lettuce seeds in them. They took them home, placed them in a window and watered them faithfully for the next three weeks. One pot began to sprout just days after it went home and before long had grown a nice fuzz of green lettuce leaves. The other pot sat and sat, responding to the water and sunlight with a continuous sight of rich dark earth.”

I posted this parable on Facebook with an invitation to interpret the parable. Many interesting and helpful ideas came in, from the practical to the esoteric. But here’s the one that jumped out at me. Jana said, “Don’t fall for the dualist trap!”

Preaching this week brings up such tension in me. How do you preach about Advent while the headlines are filled with conflict and grief? How do we find “peace and joy” in the middle of the busy and the chaos.

At the Garden Church, we start each worship service by unpacking our Tabernacle, and setting the Word and the candle, the bread and the wine, the water and the icon of the Tree of Life that remind us of God’s dwelling place with us. And finally the bell. When we place the bell on the table, we talk about the difference between quiet and silence. We say something like: “And so we will let the bell take us to that place of silence now, because God is always speaking, but sometimes we forget how to listen. When the bowl bells ring, we enter the silence. Silence is different than quiet, and can be found in and amongst the sounds around us. In the silence, we listen for God not only with our ears, but with our whole bodies and with our hearts.”

I don’t presume to know what is going on in each of your lives, or how you’re responding to the world around us and the tensions in our country right now. How do we hold that paradox at this time of Advent, when we strive to find moments of peace and create that holiday moment of transcendence, sometimes succeeding, sometimes feeling helpless to find peace in a world that is not at peace? How do we hold the tension between the Light that is coming into the world and the hope and goodness and the darkness and the chaos and questions and uncertainty?Because in and amongst all the busyness of this season, the darkening of the days, the fight between consumerism and simplicity, there are chaos and pain and voices crying out. The voices that are hungry, the voices that are marching in the streets—crying for justice for all colors of skin, there are voices crying for understanding and respect, there are voices in our own families and communities, worries about finances or finding jobs, health, our children’s safety, and our own internal lives and process—we want peace, and we what we see is chaos.

I was sitting with a college recently, a Swedenborgian minister, and sharing with her these tensions I was feeling, as well as the joys of starting a brand new thing from scratch—and the challenges. Being an entrepreneur, etc. Having to do major readjustments in our funding and fundraising strategy, believing so passionately in this vision and work and working so hard every day—and not quite knowing how it’s all going to turn out.

She looked at me and then walked over to the shelf where the thirty volumes of Emanuel Swedenborg’s works sat and pulled out this quote.

“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.” (AC 842) This passage goes on to say that it is through this process that we experience as confusion, even chaos, that the Lord re-arranges things, sorts things, puts them in order.

This leads me to believe that in order to find the peace, 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.

Our scripture today comes from the prophet Isaiah and starts with the beautiful words, “Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Just the way the voice of the prophet rang out in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” And the voice of John, echoing hundreds of years later, “prepare a way for the Christ,” we cry out to prepare a way for peace, for light, for transformation. The prophet Jeremiah calls us to “ seek the peace of the city.”

And we all are called to respond to these cries in various ways, individually, collectively, in our families, in our jobs, and in our churches.

At the Garden Church are some of the cries that we’ve been hearing, and one example of how a community of people is responding as a church… We are seeing a world that is, among other things, disconnected from nature and the earth, disconnected from our food/health/bodies, disconnected from each other and disconnected from spirituality, from God. And so, through an amazing and ongoing process, we are developing a community—a church that is committed to engaging this work of bringing peace to our corner of the planet, to see the peace in our city and share this vision and work with the broader church and world.

As I see these flashes of what can be, and what is, I hear these words…

Prepare the way. Prepare the way.

Listen to the voices crying out in the wilderness

Prepare the way. Prepare the way.

Prepare the way for the Prince of Peace.

Crying out for an end of that which divides us.

Crying out for the peace and transformation, for that which brings together.

Because friends, 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. And we can feel despair. I feel despair and at times darkness. No hope. And there are times where I sit and I cry. But then I remember that there is a God of incarnation.

Because at the core of the incarnation, the loving God of the universe slipping into skin, and coming to earth in human form—as a tiny baby—is hope. Hope not devoid from the trouble and pain, just as silence is not devoid of sounds, and peace 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. Hope that comes in the lettuce seeds, the hands reaching out, a kind word and courageous stance.

Because The Light is coming into the world. The Light is always coming into the world. Breaking through the darkness, pushing through the cracks, sparking hope in the middle of despair, transformation and creation in the middle of chaos.

And God is making all things new.

And it is those moments, those things that bring me to tears, when I see the need for people to be connecting in love and respect for the human dignity of all, when I see people living lives that are isolated and lonely. When I discover that people in my own community are hungry on a regular basis, that I am moved to hope. Because hope comes as we engage the tools of transformation, of change. My friend Amy Butler, the new senior pastor of Riverside Church in NYC put it this ways this week:
“The greatest threat is throwing up our hands and saying—this is too big and too complicated; I don’t think we can do much to change things; I don’t know what to do; oh well. If we give in to apathy we will miss an opportunity to make a change.”

Because friends, we do not have the luxury of despair and no hope. Lament—yes, cries and tears—absolutely, but no hope? Not an option.

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.

The way to peace is not to cloister ourselves and disengage from the world. To create our “peaceful places” outside of the world we live in. The Garden Church wants to find land right smack dab in the middle of the city. This is tough. Because we are part of this humanity and we are the church. Called to love God and love our neighbor. A place to see the neighbor in each other.

At the Garden Church, one of the values we hold and are forming around is that we want to be in community with people we wouldn’t engage otherwise. So that when we come around the table we are looking into the eyes of people that we might have thought were foreign to us, and we find our neighbor, our friend, another human being to honor and love.

Jesus, coming as prince of peace, didn’t set up shop outside the city in a monastery, or somewhere outside of the realm of what was happening in the world. He came during a time where people were being required by the empire to travel at length to their home towns to be taxed. He was born into a time when there were deep tensions between authority and minorities. Into a city that was overflowing with issues of economics and power, oppression, and chaos. And he was born an infant, vulnerable and innocent. Not as someone who had it all figured out, or would have the authority to overhaul the system.

He came, into the chaos and darkness and engaged it. As the Light. The light that comes into the world.

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.

And so may we, each of us in our own ways and paths, listen to the cries in the wilderness, and each do our part to be present and prepare the way for the Lord.