Are We God-Serving Or Self-Serving?

Hi friends!  This sermon should not have been a hard one to preach, but the timing of it falling the same week our stewardship packets were mailed made it much more challenging!  I had one thing in mind, but ended up scrapping it and taking a different course, which I actually think started some good conversations.

I’m curious – how do your churches handle stewardship?  Is it a quiet thing or are you encouraged to talk about it more?  I love hearing about other church’s stewardship practices – I’m kind of a stewardship nerd!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
October 13, 2019

Matthew 6:1-15

Are We God-Serving Or Self-Serving?

I ate, slept and breathed stewardship this week.

Like I mentioned during announcements, stewardship packets were mailed on Friday.  And so I spent a majority of the week writing letters, creating forms, pouring over budgets, coordinating with different people and doing more math than I have done since I was a business major that one semester in college.

On Friday morning, I sat in the Sadie Perry Room with a couple of kind and willing volunteers and, together, we stuffed, sealed and stamped 275 stewardship packets.  I said goodbye to everyone and walked into my office, finally able to switch gears and think about Sunday’s worship service.

And that was when I was struck with a very large dose of, what I like to call, ecclesial irony.

I walked into the office, holding my phone that had this week’s scripture pulled up on it.  “Kathy,” I asked.  “What is our theme for stewardship this year?”  “Shout it from the Mountaintop!” she said with great enthusiasm, pride and joy, echoing the sentiments I have been using talk about stewardship this year as I seek to create a culture where we celebrate our giving and what we can collectively do with our gifts.

“And what is our scripture for this week?” I followed up with.  She gave me a perplexed look as I started reading.

Beware of practicing your piety before others

in order to be seen by them;

for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you,

as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,

so that they may be praised by others.

Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

But when you give alms,

do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

so that your alms may be done in secret;

and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I could not believe I had just put together 275 stewardship packets using the theme, “Shout it from the Mountaintop,” two days before I was scheduled to preach on the passage of scripture where Jesus says we are supposed to give quietly.

To quote one of Bruce’s favorite movies, Caddyshack, “So I got that going for me, which is nice.”

I kind of huffed and said to Kathy, “Well clearly Jesus wasn’t trying to balance an operating budget,” and then stormed out of the office.

We wrestled a lot with our stewardship theme this year, not because we realized this passage would fall the same weekend we mailed out our stewardship packets (truth be told, if I had put that together ahead of time I might have come up with an alternate plan), but because this idea of being proud of what we give and of what we are able to do here, at the church, with our offerings seems counterintuitive to some of the basic biblical teachings we have learned throughout our lives (including the one Jesus talks about in this morning’s passage).

And yet, I kept coming back to it; I kept coming back to this line from one of my favorite hymns:

I’ll shout it from the mountaintop – I want the world to know.[1]

And I think there is a reason for that and there is also a reason for the fact that this passage fell on the same weekend that our packets got mailed out.  Because I think what Jesus is doing here is teaching about how to hold this tension between sharing our faith outwardly and being in community, but also doing so with reverence and humility.

Jesus addresses two things back to back here – the giving of alms and then prayer.  And what he is saying in both instances is that we should not do these things for credit or attention; we should do them for God and God alone.

The ironic part about Jesus’ teaching here is that after he says we should go into our room and shut the door and pray to God in secret, he teaches the disciples how to pray.

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases … pray then in this way.[2]

And then Jesus proceeds to teach the disciples the foundation of a prayer that will eventually become one of the most common prayers that is said in community.

And the thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that it is one of the greatest gifts Jesus gave to the church, because it has stood the test of time, it draws us together and it gives us words to speak when we are, sort of, humbled by the inadequacy of our own words and I could preach a whole other sermon on that.

BUT – I think as we read this passage today, one of the things we are called to do is to hold this tension between what Jesus is saying here, which is, don’t do these things for credit, and the reality of the world that we are living in today, which is sometimes showy and narcissistic and reward-seeking .

It’s funny, because when I complained to Kathy about Jesus not trying to balance an operating budget, I was obviously joking, but it got me thinking about the fact that what Jesus is saying here kind of goes against everything I was taught about nonprofit fundraising and evangelizing and marketing your church.

And so I have just kind of been stuck in this place of bewilderment for the past two days because I just cannot seem to reconcile it.

Part of me thinks I should have just preached the sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, itself, and ignored the part where Jesus says we are supposed to quiet about it, but I also think in these two sections Jesus is laying the foundation for a community of faith that is grounded in worship for God and not worship for people.

Almsgiving and prayer are two very different things, but what connects them here is the fact that Jesus says we are supposed to do both of these things NOT to achieve some sort of human privilege, but to be drawn closer to God.  And so as Jesus begins his ministry with the disciples, he reminds them of just how important it is not to lose sight of what they are trying to accomplish in this faith and ministry while they are still living their day-to-day lives.

Our faith does not exist in a vacuum, right?  It exists in the real world and sometimes the two things are hard to reconcile.  I think this section in the Sermon on the Mount serves a bigger purpose than simply a conversation about almsgiving and prayer; I think it actually opens up a broader conversation about the motivation behind all the things that we do – in our lives and our faith.  What I think what Jesus is saying here is that we always need to remember what our values are and what our shared mission is.

And can we celebrate our victories along the way?  Absolutely!  Remember, Jesus says that we are the light of the world and that we need to let that light shine for everyone to see.  We do have to talk about our faith and our ministries and, yes, even our money.  But we need to do so in order that we can give glory to God and not get the approval, attention or praise of other humans.

So I want you to do two things for me this week.

Actually, I want you to do three.  The first is to keep your eye out for your stewardship packet in the mail; because a lot of time and love and brain power went into it last week and I do want it to be a useful resource for you as you think about your pledge for next year.  The Executive Board is in a place of dreaming about what the next fiscal year could bring and you all are a part of that; and I am so grateful for your love of this church and your commitment and devotion to your stewardship.

The second thing I want you to do is think specifically about this passage.  When it comes to how you give and how you pray, how do you do it?  How do you talk about it?  How do your own practices line up with what Jesus is saying to the disciples here?

And then the third thing I want you to do is to think more broadly about your life and the things you do on a regular basis.  Do you do them for God or do you do them for other human beings?  Do you keep things a secret or do you do things in order to be seen by others?  Are your actions God-serving or self-serving?

Some of these questions might be hard to answer – but I think the process of thinking about them and then trying to realign our priorities will help us all dig to a new depth of our faith.  And I think when we do this not only will our faith be strengthened, but our community of faith will grow stronger, as well.

So go, therefore, and give to God and pray to God, knowing that God sees you, knows you, is calling you blessed and is illuminating a light within you that will shine not so the world might be impressed, but so the world might be changed.

God will see you.  And God will reward you.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] From the hymn, Pass It On, by Kurt Kaiser
[2] Matthew 6:7, 9, NRSV

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The Community We Are Capable Of Creating

Hi friends!  I hope you all had a wonderful World Communion Sunday celebration.  We had a beautiful bread installation on the altar that made the chancel smell soooooooo good!

This Sunday we looked at the last three of the six antitheses, concerning oaths, concerning retaliation and love for enemies. Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
October 6, 2019

Matthew 5:33-48

The Community We Are Capable Of Creating

You can imagine my relief after last week’s sermon on anger, adultery and divorce when I opened my worship document on Tuesday morning and saw the heading, “love for enemies” as one of the headings in this week’s scripture.

Love.  I can do love.

It is actually perfect timing to settle here in the Sermon on the Mount this morning because today is World Communion Sunday, which is an ecumenical movement, that takes place on the first Sunday in October, where Christians all around the world pledge to celebrate communion in worship.  This is a Sunday where we, as Christians, lay aside the differences that threaten to divide us and gather around a table where all are welcome.

A table of forgiveness and love.

A table where enemies become friends.

A table where simple elements of bread and wine give us nourishment.

A table where we come together as the Body of Christ and do the work that God is calling us to do.

A table where grace is uncovered in the most unexpected ways and places.

Indeed it is a good Sunday to talk about love.

That being said, for some reason I was under the false assumption that a sermon on love would be easy.  But, of course, we talked last week about how stepping into some of these ancient texts and then trying to apply them in our own lives today is rarely easy.

And again, this is exactly what Jesus is trying to do.

Last week we looked at the first three of six antitheses, which are six concrete examples Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount of the moral behavior that is expected of his followers.  Jesus uses Jewish laws as his starting point and then expands on them to explain what he thinks they mean in his world.

The challenge, of course, for us today, is to do the same; to step into these ancient texts and then explain what they mean for us in our world.  Last week we wrestled with anger, adultery and divorce and this week we are turning our attention to the last three of the six antitheses – oaths, retaliation and love.

Like in last week’s text, Jesus starts each antitheses by saying, “You have heard that it was said,” then states a Jewish law, then follows it up by saying, “But I say to you,” and then talks about what this means for the disciples gathered around him.

Jesus starts by talking about oaths.

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’[1]

When Jesus talks about swearing, he is referring to an ancient practice where two parties would “swear to God” – in other words, they would make an agreement and invoke God as the guarantor of the agreement.  If one of the parties did not fulfill their part of the oath, the assumption was that God would punish them.

The problem with this particular practice, however, is that human beings, as we all know, do not always make the right choices; and therefore sometimes these oaths were broken.

But people did not actually want God to punish them and so, over time, rabbis proposed, rather than swearing to God, perhaps to swear to some sort of substitute – heaven, earth, Jerusalem and a person’s head are ones that Jesus lists here, in the Sermon on the Mount, and were some of the most popular substitutes.

Here Jesus is saying, do not swear to anything; be honest about who you are and what your intentions are rather than making false promises – to God or anyone or anything else.  It is almost as if Jesus is saying that we do not need oaths; we have the promise of God’s love and truth and that is enough to hold us accountable.

Oaths existed in the first place as a way of protecting people from the lies and the deception of others.  But, Jesus says, if we ground ourselves, our relationships and our communities in this promise of God’s love and truth, then we do not need oaths.

Jesus then turns to the subject of retaliation – jus talionis.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’[2]

Jesus is referring to a very well-known Jewish law, one found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[3]  This law was established as a way of imposing proportionate justice when a wrongdoing occurred, as opposed to the wronged party taking it upon themselves to administer their own private revenge.

What Jesus does here is begin a conversation about nonviolent resistance.

If someone hits you, turn the other cheek.

If someone sues you and tries to take your coat, give it to them and give them your cloak, as well.

If someone forces you to go one mile (which was the legal limit Roman military personnel could require a civilian to go when they were forcing civilians to transport military gear by foot), go an extra mile.

Retaliation, Jesus implies, only perpetuates these systems of violence and injustice.  Perhaps we should not focus so much on proportionate justice, but on moving past the wrongdoing.

Then Jesus talks about love.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

I should probably point out that there is not actually a scriptural command to hate ones’ enemies; there are instances where it is implied, but it never comes right out and says it.  Jesus is likely referring to how people were justifying their behavior towards others, both good and bad.

But Jesus says, rather than hating your enemies, you should to take this practice of love one step further and pray for the people you stand in opposition to, remembering that you are all children of God.

As we think about what Jesus’ words mean for us today, I think it is important to remember who Jesus is talking to and when.  He is talking to the disciples; people he has called to be in ministry with him.  And he is talking to them at the very beginning of their ministry together.

The Sermon on the Mount can be found in the fifth and sixth chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.  The first chapter is Jesus’ genealogy and birth, the second chapter is the visit of the Wise Men and escape to Egypt, the third chapter is the proclamation of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism and the fourth chapter is when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, calls his disciples and then begins ministering to crowds of people.  It is at this point that Jesus goes up the mountain to give this sermon.

In other words, they have not been through a lot together yet, at least not on paper; they are just starting to have dreams and visions about what this world, this Kingdom, could look like.  And I think Jesus is using his interpretation of these laws as a way of sharing what he thinks they could build – what he thinks communities are capable of if they are grounded in love, kindness, grace, compassion, honesty and understanding.

Laws and traditions give structure and boundaries of course; but God is calling us into something so much deeper and greater than that.  Jesus is not throwing the rules away, but he is looking at a much bigger picture and asking what the goal is, where the vision lies, what the disciples are – what we are – capable of building.

These antitheses are powerful for us to read today as we seek to build our own Christian communities, because they show us the bigger picture and remind us what really matters in terms of how we live our own lives and how we exist in community with one another.

I thought about these words a lot this week and, I have to be honest, I am having a hard time finding my own words to sum up what I think they all mean for us.  And I think the reason I am having a hard time is because all of this stuff is way easier said than done.  Of course we should take the higher ground, we should trust others to do the right thing, we should resist the urge to retaliate and love everyone, regardless of how they feel about us.

But my goodness this is not easy.  In fact it is really, really difficult.  Our human tendency is to hold onto things, to want to be right and to punish people when they have hurt us.  To resist these tendencies very often feels like we are resisting what it means to be human.

But – these tendencies are the burdens that drag us down – as individuals, in relationships and in community.  These tendencies are the things that create division among us, that distract us from God’s call to spread the Gospel.   These tendencies are what Jesus is saying that laws and rules do not necessarily solve, but just distract from.

And even though it is hard, what Jesus is saying makes sense.  It is beautiful and inspiring.  It is what I want the world to look like.  It is what I believe we are capable of creating.  We are capable of creating a community grounded in love, kindness, grace, compassion, honesty and understanding and I believe with my whole being that, when we do this, then together, we can change the world.

So today, on World Communion Sunday, as we all gather around a table and find unity, strength and wholeness, I would encourage you to really let these words settle within your hearts.  Rise up against the need for oaths, retaliation and hatred of enemies.  Acknowledge the depth of what Jesus is asking you to do.  Know that it will not be easy.  Give yourself grace if you stumble.  Be patient as you try again.

And remember to love.  Love God.  Love others.  And love yourself.  For you are a child of God.  And together we are called to be one Body.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Matthew 5:33, NRSV
[2] Matthew 5:38, NRSV
[3] Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21

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Wrestling With Ancient Texts

Guys.

Weeks like this are the ones where I miss the lectionary and the ability to say – let me see what the epistle is this week, ha!

It wasn’t an easy week to walk up to the pulpit, but it’s week’s like these that are making me a better preacher – and we are all learning more!

Here is this week’s sermon!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 29, 2019

Matthew 5:21-32

Wrestling With Ancient Texts

On Tuesday morning at the end of bible study, everyone was packing up and getting ready to leave when the subject of this morning’s sermon came.  The general consensus from the group was, “Well good luck with that.”

I read a commentary this week that said:

Many passages within the Sermon on the Mount are delights awaiting a deft homiletical hand.  This is not one of them.  These words from Jesus are charged with theological and pastoral landmines.[1]

All I have to say is, I am glad there is not a baptism today.

The challenge in preaching this kind of a text is that there is a really fine line between responsible biblical interpretation and self-righteous judgment from the pulpit when the reality is that we live in a broken world where life is not always as easy as “do this” or “don’t do that”.  Sometimes we fall short and we need the promise of forgiveness and redemption more than we need self-righteous judgement from a well-meaning person interpreting a biblical text.

And yet, we still have these texts in scripture that we cannot ignore, that are important to the narrative of our faith and that do mean something in our lives today.  So I am going to say the same thing I said when I preached my sermon on the divorce passage out to the Gospel of Mark last year – please trust me.  This morning, we are going to look at things like context and references to try to understand not only what Jesus is saying, but also what it means for us in our own lives, today.

The cool part is that what we are doing today is exactly what Jesus is doing in this passage.  Here in this passage Jesus is engaging ancient ethics from Hebrew scriptures and trying to make sense of them in his own world, which is exactly what we are trying to do as we read his words today.

I wrestled with this text a lot this week.  To give you a little bit of insight into my process, let me show you what my first set of notes looks like; when I start my sermon writing process, I usually print out the scripture and read through it while I am looking at study bibles and commentaries, jotting down notes directly on the paper.  Eventually, I move away from the paper and write out an outline using some of the information I gathered in my first set of notes – then I start writing the actual sermon.  Usually my first set of notes has four, maybe five points on it.

This is what my notes look like this week.

Like I said, I wrestled with this text a lot this week.  And so today I want to take a little bit of a different approach to my sermon.  Instead of building towards one big point, I want to first go through the entire scripture and look at what we know the be true, then again and look at what that might mean and then a third time to think about what we can take out of this text today.

So what do we know to be true about this text?  What is actually going on when Jesus says these words in the Sermon on the Mount and what is he referring to?

First of all, like I said last week, the Gospel of Matthew was primarily written for a Jewish Christian audience – meaning the people initially reading this Gospel are people who have spent their lives adhering to Jewish law.  They believe in God’s new covenant through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but still want to hold on to their old traditions.

Because of this, the Gospel writer is carefully reinforcing the narrative that Jesus is not trying to come in and wipe the slate clean; but rather that Jesus is, in fact, an observant Jew who knows Jewish laws, making him relevant to these Jesus Christian readers.  Jesus is talking about murder, adultery and divorce – all things that Moses talked about and was recorded in Hebrew law.

Jesus begins two of these sections with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said” and then says, “But I say to you.”  This was actually a common practice in rabbinic preaching; rabbis would cite a passage from Hebrew scriptures and then offer a fresh perspective.  Again, this reinforces the point that Jesus is an observant Jew, but it also reminds us that Jesus is talking about ancient scriptures; his commentary on anger, adultery and divorce are not things he, himself, is bringing up, but he trying to make sense of his own existing religious texts and framework.

Jesus begins this section about anger by talking about murder, referencing Exodus 20:14, the commandment, “You shall not murder” in verse 21.  Then he continues to reference the Ten Commandments in verse 27, “You shall not commit adultery,” which can be found in Exodus 20:14.  While his somewhat graphic suggestions about what to do with your body if you are tempted are likely a hyperbole for effect, it is important to note that the punishment for adultery is actually death in this context, so tearing out an eye and cutting off a hand may seem like more of merciful punishment.

His discussion on divorce, however, is not something out of the Ten Commandments.  Similar to his discussion on divorce in the Gospel of Mark, he is most likely referencing the passage in Deuteronomy 24 where Moses says that it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife if she does not please him.

So that is what we know – here is what I think some of it means.

First of all, Jesus talks about murder, but he immediately opens up the discussion to talk more broadly about anger.  And when talks about anger, it is clear that he not necessarily condemning anger itself, but our response to it.  I think that is why he starts with murder and then moves to anger – he is looking at the motivation behind murder.

Anger, I think, is a natural emotional response to our surroundings and circumstances.  But what we do with our anger, Jesus says, is what really matters.  We need to reconcile ourselves with our brothers and sisters, come to terms quickly with our accusers – and not let it escalate further than that.

Second of all, when Jesus talks about adultery, again, he is not really talking about the act of adultery, itself, but the motivation behind it – lust.  And so what I think Jesus is doing here, like with the discussion about murder and anger, is pointing out that it is not necessarily just about following commandments, but about taking five giant steps back and thinking about why we need to follow these commandments in the first place.

Jesus is asking us to look at the motivation behind our transgressions and then to do the hard – and sometimes daily – work of reconciliation and demonstrating faithfulness with and to the people who we are in relationship with.

And it is not easy; we are not just in relationship with our brothers, sisters, husbands and wives.  We have close relationships with our friends, our coworkers, our church members.  And so we have to approach all of these relationships with respect, humility, patience and love.  We must resist the motivations around us that cause us to be unfaithful, whether it is unfaithfulness in marriage or family relationships or friendship or colleagueship.  Jesus is saying that we should not not do these things simply because it is the law, but that we should not do these things because we are called into this covenant, not just with God, but with one another.

And that means something.

We all fall short sometimes – we fall short as individuals and also in our relationships with one another and in community.  But I believe one of the reasons Jesus came into this world was so God could know what it feels like to live in human flesh and to understand the struggles, temptations and imperfections we, as humans face.  Jesus knows what he is asking us to do – he knows how hard this is.

I think the whole point of this section of the Sermon on the Mount is meant to remind us of just how important reconciliation is when it comes to being in covenant with one another.  The system is broken – Jesus is pointing that out when he talks about the complexities of the consequences of adultery and divorce.  And so when he tries to untangle some of this stuff, it is almost as if he is saying that it is just not as simple as saying something is right or wrong.

And, to be clear, I do not think Jesus is saying we should commit adultery or get divorced.  But I do think that Jesus, like we all are today, is trying to leap back into time and engage an ancient ethic and try to make sense of it in his world, which is just not an easy thing to do.

So what does this mean for us, today?

Good question.

Well, for starters, I do think that the discussion about motivation reminds us that, even if we have not committed one of these specific transgressions, we likely have, at one point or another, experienced the motivation behind them.  And so this is why introspection and reconciliation are so important in our day-to-day lives, because it not only helps us catch the small things before they become the big things, but it also reminds us that we were meant to be in relationship – in covenant – with one another and it helps us see beyond our own world.

And even more than that, I think Jesus is reminding us that people matter more than anything; and so we do have to work hard on our relationships with people, even in those moments when it is hard.  Because it is through our reconciliation with others that we are able to full reconcile ourselves with God.

It is really hard to read scriptures like these.  But it is also important to remember where Jesus started – reminding us that we are blessed in the eyes of God.  And so not matter what we have gone through in life or what we are currently struggling with, we are still created, redeemed and sustained by a God who knows us and loves us and wants to make us whole again.

So I would encourage you all, as you leave the safety of this sanctuary today, to first of all think about how you can reconcile yourself with others.

And then keep wrestling with this text; because it is just as important to talk about the hard scriptures as it is the easy ones.  Jesus did not turn away from the hard stuff – neither should we.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Gospels (A Feasting on the Word Commentary). Matthew, Volume 1, Chapters 1-13. Edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Page. 99 – Homilectical Perspective. Written by Gary W. Charles.

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