Rev. Jenn Tafel’s Sermon From June 9, 2019 at the New Church of Montgomery
What Exactly Are You Saying?!
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Good morning! I’m excited to be with you all for worship once again.
It’s been a while since I’ve shared my call to ministry story. It was the “thing” to do in theological school. We compared these stories time and again. Each time someone shared their story, there were new elements to it. Now it’s not like a traditional “fish story” where the size of the fish grows or the depth of the water deepens each time or whatever. The new elements added come from a place (hopefully) of thoughtful reflection. We knew (or maybe everyone else did) that people would ask about this part of our journeys as ordained clergy—and so it was important to hone and craft the story for the years of storytelling to come. There were moments when I didn’t think anyone would be that interested; but, we are talking about the Creator of the universe working through humans in a particular fashion (allegedly)—so yes, as it turns out—people have been interested in my story. Now, with all that build up you would think I had a fantastic or jaw-dropping story. I mean, how else does the Creator of the universe work, right?! To be honest, I’ve had more significant dreams, meditation experiences, and shamanic journeys since theological school, but this is a story that came to mind when reflecting on the lessons from Scripture and Swedenborg’s exegesis.
I floundered after college. Well, I floundered in college and before college, too. I thought I wanted to be a teacher and that’s how I got back to school full time at the age of twenty-three. And then I realized I had no business being in a classroom with the youth of America. I graduated with a degree in Communications and Theater. Super marketable by the way (if you’re interested!). I moved to the Boston area and tried to find gainful employment and I ended up in the travel industry for a time. I lived with Bill and Louise Woofenden for part of my time there. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Bill taught at the seminary for years. I attended church at the Swedenborgian church in Elmwood while I lived in that area—so did Bill and Louise.
I participated in the Sunday School program and organized that year’s women’s retreat. Louise would ask me quite often when I was going to answer the call to ministry. I returned the question with a blank stare. The women at that retreat asked me the same question. I drove teens to a Memorial Day Retreat in 2001 and realized how much I enjoyed the experience as staff. I was emailing Jim Lawrence (Dean of our theological school) about information for articles I was writing for our national church magazine and other material. Jim is a known recruiter for the school and has been for some time. He would reply to my emails asking when I was going to answer the call to ministry. I attended our annual convention that year and at a mixer with ministers (because doesn’t everyone go to those?!)—I asked one of my (now colleagues), “Don’t I have to have a call to ministry or something?” He replied, “You also have to answer the call if it comes in.” I was dumbfounded. I thought that a call to ministry would be cosmic and all the details would be handled or some such thing. I did not anticipate hearing that I had a part to play in the process—I mean I fully grasp that now, but I was taken back by this concept because I somehow negated my participation.
I had lunch with Jim during the convention and it appeared that my fate was sealed. And then I had to break the news to my parents (cue dramatic organ music). I honestly think it was easier to come out as queer identified and bi than to tell them I was going into what is known as the family business.
After I shared this story in circles with classmates and professors—I was kind of jealous of other people’s stories. I heard folks share profound dreams and mountain top experiences as their call to ministry—life events that shook people to their cores. My story feels rather matter of fact and boring. Now, I do remember asking my step dad (also a minister) at dinner one night when I was nineteen what the process was for becoming a minister. I needed a bachelor’s degree to begin the educational component. Well, that wasn’t where I was at that point in my life so I didn’t pursue things then. I remember a time at one of our church camps when I was nine or ten and I looked around my environment wondering how it all came to be. I wondered why I was there and why any of us were here. It was beyond the buildings I was next to—I wanted to know the story behind what I was experiencing. I still have this sense of wonder about the universe and construct of reality—but that’s a story for another time. The point of me sharing this is that while my actual call to ministry (and the answering of it) seems bland to me—it is part of a much larger journey.
For me, this is an illustration of the dynamic and subtle ways that God works through humanity and this is the connection to the lessons from Scripture. While incredibly distinct and different stories from Scripture—a common thread that I heard was God’s desire to speak to humankind and through humankind and this is where my call to ministry story fits into the equation for me. God speaks continuously through a variety of methods. As one of my mentors would say, “If you are not someone who reads Scripture or other books don’t you think God is still trying to reach you? There are movies, songs, conversations with others that can be the vehicle for God’s communication. The point is that we have to be open to the ways God is communicating.”
In the story of the Tower of Babel the citizens of the planet decided they wanted to reach God and the best way they could do that was by building a structure that would reach up to heaven. While Swedenborg has specific explanations of this story that unpack each verse of this story, the bottom line is that because they spoke one language it means that they were upholding one doctrine. Because they decided what was best—building a tower to reach God, their self-hood was leading the way rather than allowing for God to be the driving force. The result was that they no longer understood one another on many levels because their language was muddled. This confusion is a state of being that is necessary when breaking the hells apart from a heavenly state. What we once knew is distorted because a new way of operating needs to take hold. Rather than build a structure “up to heaven,” our spiritual growth requires that we look inward and break the structures that already exist as barriers to the leading of God in our lives.
The story of Pentecost is not one that I grew up hearing while raised in this tradition. I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you that the story holds significance for me as I have attended ordinations of friends and colleagues on this day or with the color red (the liturgical color of the day) in the sanctuary. As we celebrate this Christian holy day and pair it with the story of the Tower of Babel, listening to God would potentially be fear inducing. I mean, the disciples and friends are in a room not exactly settled and really uncertain about the future. It’s fifty days from Easter and then they have this other worldly experience occur. While accused of drinking—because that’s an easy thing to say that causes altered states of consciousness, it’s really a direct experience of God through the Holy Spirit. So we move from not being open to God because of barriers and self-hood leading the way to God saying, “Listen up folks!” The barriers of denial become apparent in this story. However, there were enough people in the crowd hearing a message from the Divine in their native language that could dispute the need to deny.
I return to the story of my call to ministry where it was pointed out that I needed to be a participant in how God was speaking to me and ultimately leading me. To be honest, I was afraid of how this decision was going to change my life. I knew that I would have to make sacrifices and twelve years later I am still actively changing course as needed in order to follow where God is leading me. I have moved around the country (and most recently across town), established and dissolved relationships, attended countless workshops on honing skills on all levels, and more. The desire to listen, hear, and act on how God is leading in my life is far from what would be considered easy by most folks. However, at this point in the game there is no going back to any iterations of who I once was.
So where do you find yourself in the stories? Are you able to hear God? Do you have a desire to hear where God is leading you? Are there barriers to you taking action?
Pentecost is in many ways a birth story—the birth of a movement. We all have the ability to bring forth life no matter our circumstances. May the fire of the Holy Spirit burst forth within each of you here today! Amen
Lessons from Scripture
Genesis 11: 1-9
1 Throughout the earth, people spoke the same language and used the same words. 2 Now, as they moved eastward, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They all said to one another, “Let us make bricks and bake them in the fire.” They used bricks as building stones, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top can reach to heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, to keep us from being scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 5 Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower these mortals had built. 6 “They are a single people with a single language,” Yahweh said. “And this is but the beginning of their undertakings! Now there will be nothing too hard for them to do. 7 Come, let us go down and baffle their language so that they can no longer understand one another.” 8 So Yahweh scattered them over the face of the earth, and they had to stop building the city. 9 It was named Babel, because Yahweh made humans babble different languages throughout the world. It was from there that Yahweh scattered them over the whole earth.
Acts 2: 1-21
1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. 2 Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. 3 Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them. 5 Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, 6 and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. 7 They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! 8 How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue?
9 We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome— 11 all Jews, or converts to Judaism—Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!” 12 All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.” 14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “Women and men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! 15 These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 No, it’s what Joel the prophet spoke of: 17 ‘In the days to come— it is our God who speaks— I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. 18 Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. 20 The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. 21 And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’
Message from Swedenborg
“The fact of the matter is that the more self-love or a misplaced sense of independence worms its way into our worship, the more internal worship recedes, or becomes nonexistent. Inward devotion consists in an affection for what is good and an acknowledgment of truth, but the more egoism or self-dependence advances or enters, the more an affection for goodness and the acknowledgment of truth withdraw or leave. Holiness can never coexist with profanation, just as heaven cannot coexist with hell. The one needs to separate from the other; that is what conditions in God’s kingdom, and the way it is organized, require. This is the reason why inward worship does not exist in those whose worship is called “Babel.” Instead they worship something dead and even cadaverous that lies within. It is evident, then, what outward worship is like when something like this lies at its core.”
Secrets of Heaven 1326