Faith Construction

Good afternoon!  Sorry for the delay in posting this week.  I have no other excuse other than I am two weeks away from my due date and we are busily getting ready for my maternity leave at church and the baby at home.  And holy cow, spring is in full swing and things are BUSY at church!  I think I have something going on every night this week – all good things, but I’ve been trying to keep track of everything and I keep thinking I’m going to miss something.

I won’t be preaching this weekend, so I won’t post another sermon until Memorial Day weekend.  Our Children’s Day & Choir Sunday is this Sunday, so the children are leading worship and we have some special music planned.  We’re looking forward to a great celebration with the theme, It Takes A (Church In The) Village!

Have a great week, everyone!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
May 14, 2017

1 Peter 2:4-10

Faith Construction

Has anyone driven across the Tappen Zee Bridge lately? They are building a new one; construction began in 2013 and the project – which is estimated to cost $3.9 billion – should be completed in April 2018.

Bruce and I have taken a few trips down to Pennsylvania in the last year or so and every time we make the trip, we get almost geekily excited to see the progress that has been made on the bridge since we saw it last. I do not know about the rest of you, but bridge construction has always fascinated me. I understand it is an engineering process but, from my background of theology and church, it just seems like only a series of divine miracles could construct something so sturdy over such a large body of water.

There is just something about construction – any kind of construction – that seems so daunting to me. Think about it: You start with materials that, individually, really do not look like much or have all that much function, and yet somehow, by the end of the process you have something not only functional, but, most of the time, sturdy as well.

My parents had a sunroom put on their house a few years ago and I remember sitting and watching their contractor – who is a good friend of ours – work one afternoon. Eventually I looked at him and said, “So you just took a bunch of wood and put it together and made a whole new room on their house, didn’t you?”

He looked perplexed by, what I can only imagine from his perspective was one of the stupidest questions he had ever heard, and said, “Well, yeah, that’s the idea.”

But, again, not knowing how to do it myself, I really am just fascinated when I observe the construction process! It is methodical, it is intentional, it is creative, it is adaptable, it is collaborative and it is visionary.

Which is why the metaphor used in this morning’s scripture has always been so compelling to me.

This morning’s reading comes from First Peter, which is a letter written during the first century addressed to various churches facing religious persecution. The author of the letter draws from the Prophet Isaiah, who said:

thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
‘One who trusts will not panic.’[1]

The author of this letter makes a promise to the persecuted Christians he is writing to; a promise that their sacrifices are not being made in vain. He assures them that Jesus Christ, even though he was rejected, is a living stone; and, like Isaiah prophesied, that living stone is tested, precious and a sure foundation. He tells the people that they are building something on this foundation; something not only functional and sturdy, but life changing, as well.

And even more than that, the author tells these struggling churches that they, too, are living stones; they are called to allow God to build them into this church – into this “spiritual house” – where they can offer themselves to God. It is here in this church, the author says, that they can gather together, learn and grow in their faith and invite others into the narrative of the Gospel.

This is not a passive religious experience. The author is describing the difference between attending a church and being a church. “Now you are God’s people,” the author writes. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[2] Yes, Jesus is the cornerstone and the sure foundation of our faith, but we – we, the persecuted Christians who first read these words 2,000 years ago and we, those of us reading them today – are not only building the church, but we are the pieces of the church as it is built, as well.

I think this is where the engineering process stops and the series of divine miracles begin.

So what does this mean for us? As a church, we are not necessarily building something out of nothing at the moment. We are part of the Christian faith that has been around for 2,000 years, a protestant tradition that has been around for almost 500 years, a denomination that was formed 60 years ago and a church that was incorporated nearly 300 years ago. The situation we face today is different than the Christians this letter was first written to.

But I would argue that there is still very much a sense of urgency to the work that needs to be done in our generation. We live in an increasingly secular society; we, especially, feel this in New England, where we yield some of the lowest percentages of church attendance countrywide at 10%-15%. It is not easy to be a Christian in a world where the culture rejects the very notion that faith is something that should be valued. Being part of a church is no longer something that necessarily fits easily into the routine of our lives. We have to fight hard to make church “work” in our schedule and, even then, sometimes we struggle to find balance.

This is why I think it is imperative for all of us to keep in mind that this scripture is not just talking about building the institutional church; it is also referring to the more widespread notion of building the Church universal and sharing our faith with the world.

I believe the authors identifies us as living stones not simply so we can walk into a church and be members, but so that we can nurture our own personal faith, as well.

Bruce and I have talked about this a lot recently, especially as we think about our growing family and how we can be intentional about building a life, as a family, on the foundation of our faith. We know it will not be easy. We see the struggle people of all generations and stages of life have to find balance and are under no illusion that we are somehow immune to it just because I happen to be a pastor.

But I think there are some things we can do – things all of us can do – to try. It might not necessarily look like “church” the way is has over the past 100 years, but it can and will be what God is calling us to do, today.

I believe the most important thing the author says in this passage is this:

Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house … to offer spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.[3]

I do not think the author is talking about elaborate and bizarre ritual sacrifices; I believe the author is reminding us to ask ourselves the question, “Will this bring glory to God?” as we set out to live each day.

Now, will this seem like a silly question when we are doing some of the more mundane tasks in life, like shopping for groceries or pumping gas or cleaning the house? Maybe, but I would also argue that these activities create a sense of home and stability in our lives. And maybe if we approach everything we do – even the seemingly mundane stuff – with this mindset and by asking the question, will this bring glory to God and how, we may find a better sense of balance in our lives.

It starts with the basics. Think about it: When my parents set out to build their sunroom, they did not start by picking out light fixtures and buying furniture and accessories; they started with the basic structure.

And I think as we all seek to live out our faith, to be the church of the 21st century and to continue to write this Christian story, we need to go back to the basics, as well. We need to make a commitment to break bread with our family and friends, find time for personal prayer and devotion, get involved at the church and give back to the community. We need to think about how the different pieces of our lives bring glory to God, in ways both big and small. This is how we will strengthen the foundation of our lives and our faith so it is sturdy enough to withstand everything else we put on top of it.

And I know this is not easy. People are busy, the world is crazy and faith is not exactly mainstream, these days. But here is something I do know about the building and construction process – it is adaptable.

When I was getting ready for my junior year of college, I asked my dad if he could build me a loft for my bed so my roommate and I could maximize our space a little bit more. He drew up some plans and build the loft according to them, but was not satisfied with how sturdy it was when he finished. I remember him saying, “You know, if this was scenery, I would just screw it into the stage to secure it,” and then shrugged, grabbed his drill, screwed the whole thing through the carpet and into the floor of my dorm and said, “There we go!”

We have to be adaptable in today’s world. If we truly want to build our lives on the foundation of our faith, we need to set attainable goals for ourselves, goals that bear in mind the craziness of the world we are living in today and set us up to succeed. For example, it might not be possible to have family dinners every night, but it might be possible to schedule them three or four nights a week. It might not be possible to completely disconnect from technology, but it might be possible to do this for an hour or two every day. It might not be possible to come to church every week, but it might be possible to come twice a month. It might not be possible to join a committee or take on a role at the church that requires hours of commitments every month, but it might be possible to participate in a few projects every year. Give yourselves some grace as you seek to grow in your faith in this crazy world.

I do not think that being the living stones of our faith is as complicated a process as building a nearly-$4 billion bridge; I think it starts at home, supported by our church family and surrounded by a God who is with us always.

So may we all be blessed as we embrace who we are as living stones, building this faith that sustains our lives and truly makes this world a better place. And may we, too, be assured, that our efforts are not being made in vain. May we always remember that we do have to always necessarily understand the process; that divine miracles are happening all around us.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Isaiah 28:16, NRSV
[2] 1 Peter 2:9-10, NRSV
[3] 1 Peter 2:5, NRSV

A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

Hi Everyone!

Sorry for the delay in posting this week.  The church hosted a baby shower for Bruce and me after worship on Sunday and we spent a lot of the day organizing everything!  We were truly overwhelmed and humbled by everyone’s generosity.

There were heavy shepherding themes this week – both the 23rd psalm and the parable of Jesus as the Good Shepherd were included in the lectionary.  I preached on them both and talked about what it means to ground our lives in the teachings of the Gospel and truly allow that to shepherd us every day.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
May 7, 2017

Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

In 2007, my mom was invited to introduce Lynn Redgrave when she gave her keynote address at a plenary session at General Synod, which is the biennial meeting of the United Church of Christ. Lynn had attended our church in Kent, CT for years; she began attending when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In a book she later co-authored with her daughter, she talked about the impact the church and her faith had on her during the dark days of her treatments. She reflected on this during her speech to the synod that July day; and in closing she said she was going to share one of her favorite scriptures. She read the 23rd psalm.

Now, I have to be honest: Part of me always thought Psalm 23 was something of a cliché. Nothing against it or anything, but it just seemed to get used over and over and over again and, with 149 other psalms in the book, part of me always wondered why people kept going back to that one.

But then I heard Lynn read it.

And I was captivated.

Granted, some of my captivation might have been her British accent, but when I heard her read those words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” (Psalm 23:4) I started to cry.

Because I knew she had walked through that valley.

And, even more than that, I knew there were thousands of people in the Hartford Civic Center that day listening to her speak that had also walked through that valley. Some people might have even been walking through it then.

And they needed to hear those words: “For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)

Because, friends, when we are walking through those dark valleys, we need to know that God is with us. We need to know that we are protected. We need to know that we are not walking alone.

And that is exactly what this psalm promises us. It assures us that God’s presence in our lives is steadfast, never-ending and life-giving.

This morning’s Gospel reading comes from the Gospel according to John; this is where Jesus is identified as the Good Shepherd (we have all seen those artistic portrayals of Jesus holding his staff surrounded by sheep). But there is more to this parable than simply the image of Jesus and his flock. There is a call; a call to follow Jesus, to follow the shepherd who enters the sheepfold at the gate being held open by the gatekeeper.

Jesus says in this parable, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:7-9)

This morning we have two different, but equally compelling shepherding metaphors. And I think it is important to remember that when Jesus draws from this shepherding metaphor, he was speaking, in the flesh, to people who were very much alive and living in this human and imperfect world. The people Jesus was speaking to that day needed to know that God was not only with them in the valley of the shadow of death, but in their lives, as well.

And here, Jesus makes that promise. Jesus says that he is the shepherd; that people could follow him, in the flesh, and be safe and find pasture. Jesus says that we make a choice; we choose to follow Jesus or we choose to follow the thieves and the bandits and if we choose to follow Jesus, we will be kept safe and secure both in life and in death.

I believe those words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” ring true both when we are facing our own mortality and also when we are facing our own humanity.

It is not easy to live in this world sometimes; we all face difficult choices, heartbreaking realities and challenging situations. We walk through those dark valleys. But when we understand Jesus as the Good Shepherd, leading us into safe pasture, we know that it is possible to do the hard work that is required of us to travel this sometimes hard journey and live out our faith. We have the tools we need to help us; we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus may not be living in our flesh today, but we have the Good News that he proclaimed while he was living on this earth. If we ground our lives in his teachings, then the Good Shepherd is always with us.

Last week, when we were on the Road to Emmaus, I talked about the importance of the incarnational piece of our faith; that Jesus came into this world and lived as one of us, understanding our sufferings and our temptations. This morning, I remind you of this same incarnational power; God is not a distant God that is somehow shepherding from afar, but a God that is here with us, that walked along the journey we walk today and that has given us the beautiful gift of this faith to ground our lives in.

When I think of the image of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, I do not think it means we make the choice to follow him and then we’re done. Yes, the scripture says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved,” but it also continues on to say that when we enter the gate by Jesus, we will go out and find pasture, that we will continue follow Jesus and this Good News he taught throughout his lifetime.

Following Jesus is about more than simply proclaiming a belief in him; it is about putting those words into action. It is about being part of a church community, strengthening our faith and living out the Gospel in our day-to-day lives. We come to church not only to receive the comfort of God’s grace, but also the wisdom of God’s grace, as well.

And then we live out this wisdom, as best we can. We nurture our faith through growing our knowledge of the bible, actively participating in community life, giving back through missions and worshipping God, week after week. This is what sets the foundation for the lives we are living. This is how we are able to walk through those dark valleys – valleys that we will all walk through at some point or another – and know, without a doubt, that God is with us.

So friends, I invite you to take comfort in the words of this familiar psalm this morning. But remember there is still work to be done.

When we enter the sheepfold and follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we are doing so not only so that we might have eternal life, but also so that our lives here on earth might be made whole. Remember Jesus’ promise that when we follow him, when we weave the Gospel into the pieces of our lives, that we will not only have life, but that we will also have it abundantly.

And while it may not always be easy, if we do the hard work, surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Being That Incarnational Presence (A Tribute To The Rev. Charles Rice)

Hi friends – here is this week’s sermon.  Those of you who follow me on social media may have seen that my college chaplain, the Rev. Charles Rice, passed away very unexpectedly this week.  It did not feel right to preach, business as usual, without acknowledging not only this loss, but also the impact he had on my life.  In a moment of grace unexpected, the lectionary had us on the Road to Emmaus this week.  I could not have picked a more perfect scripture to preach on as I talked about the ways Rev. Rice embodied the incarnational love of God throughout his life and ministry.

Please keep the friends and family of Rev. Rice in your prayers, as well as the entire Ursinus College community.  As I post this sermon, they are preparing for his funeral in Collegeville, PA.  I so wish I could be there, but at this point in my pregnancy I just can’t travel that far by myself.

<3

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-35

Being That Incarnational Presence

My college chaplain, the Rev. Charles William Rice, died very unexpectedly this week. To say that I am shocked and devastated is an understatement. Today, as I think about the impact he had not only on me, but also on the tens of thousands of students he counseled throughout his 20-year tenure at Ursinus College, I am humbled by the inadequacy of words and am not entirely sure where to begin.

When Rev. Rice’s youngest son, Martin, was born, he asked me to do the welcome during worship on the Sunday he was dedicated. And, while I don’t remember why, for some reason, I was running late the morning of the dedication. So I ran into chapel about ten minutes after we were supposed to begin, clearly flustered, apologetic and upset. I stood behind the pulpit and looked down, because I was so mad at myself and embarrassed that I was that late. And I heard his voice, in this unmistakably commanding, yet calm tone that he always spoke in, say: “Breathe. Take your time. We’re not going anywhere.”

And so this morning I am remembering that moment and heeding those same words as I try to share with you all what this man meant to me, how he helped shape me into both the pastor and the person I am today and how we all can learn from his life and legacy.

Rev. Rice was born in Brooklyn in 1957. He went to New York City public schools and graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1979. He received his master of divinity in historical theology from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and continued on to do his doctoral studies at Syracuse University. He was ordained by the National/American Baptist Churches and later held standing with the United Church of Christ when he arrived at Ursinus in 1997.

I met Rev. Rice in 2004. I had gone through a process of discernment during my freshmen year of college and entered my sophomore year with a declared major of Philosophy & Religion, with the intent to go to seminary. Before I left for school that year, my mom asked me, “Have you met the chaplain yet?” When I told her no, but I had heard he was nice, she said, “You know, when you apply to seminary, they might think it’s weird if you went through four years of college and never actually met the chaplain.”

She had a point.

So I sent Rev. Rice an email and set up a meeting with him when I got on campus, which he ended up being over an hour late to because he got caught up in a conversation with a student on his way to the office.

Which, if you knew him, would not surprise you one bit.

Rev. Rice captivated my ministry-hungry heart from that very first conversation. He had an enormous passion for bringing students together, normalizing faith and creating conversation on campus. He enthusiastically encouraged our weekly student-run chapel service, which often times was something of a comedy of errors, but was always grace-filled and life-giving. When I arrived in Rehoboth six year ago, my Saturday night sermon writing made people nervous and kind of became a running joke. But the thing I never explained to you all was that when I was president of the chapel my senior year, Saturday night sermon writing was not a bad habit, it was a necessary survival skill, as Rev. Rice would commonly call me on Saturday, mid-late afternoon and say, “So I’m not going to make it to chapel tomorrow – any chance you can preach?”

Rev. Rice pushed his students, drawing out all of our potential, both as individuals and as groups. He not only talked about the importance of building bridges that would unite us, he showed us how and helped us out when things got hard.

Rev. Rice taught me the importance of gathering around a table and breaking bread with one another. At least once a month, we would all pile into his minivan after Sunday chapel for brunch. Other weeks, we would commandeer a group of tables in the dining hall and eat there. I always wondered what the tables full of hung-over students thought of us when we all walked in, dressed in our church clothes with a various assortment of bibles and music in tow.

I don’t think Rev. ever wondered that. He would just walk up to them, playfully slap them on their arms and backs and say good morning.

It did not have to be brunch, either. Rev. and I discussed theology over sushi while he taught me how to use chopsticks and told the waitress she was not allowed to bring me the fork I had asked for. On my 21st birthday, a blizzard shut down the east coast and prevented my parents from driving to Pennsylvania to take me out to dinner, so when the roads were finally cleared that night, Rev. called me and said he and his wife were taking me out instead.

Rev. Rice introduced me to Black Theology. He taught me that the Civil Rights Movement was about more than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. He filled my library with the brilliant and prophetic writings of James Baldwin, James Cone and Howard Thurman. He humbly, yet never apologetically, told me his story of what it was like to be a black man in America. He never his lost patience with my white-girl-from-Connecticut naivety as I stumbled to learn about and understand my own privilege. He is the reason that I believe today that black lives matter, even though, in an attempt to stay neutral, I have never once said those words from the pulpit or on social media.

Rev. Rice flew me all over the country so I could attend conferences that would expand my education and help me discern my call to ministry. And while I know those conferences were supposed to be about education and enrichment, he never expected anything in return; he just wanted me to have a positive experience. In fact when I called him once from a layover in Charlotte to let him know that my roommate, who attended the conference with me, and I had been “bumped” from our flight – and I used quotes around the word “bumped”, because what actually happened was that the gate attendant offered a free flight to anyone willing to give up their seats and since we 1) did not want to go to class that night and 2) loved the prospect of a spring break getaway, jumped quickly at the opportunity – he simply said, “Did you at least get a free flight out of the deal?”

And when I sheepishly admitted that yes, in fact, we did get a free flight out a flight that was originally paid for by the school, he said, “Huh. Well, good for you.”

I have never met a man with so much discipline, but also compassion. He was not afraid to tell me one day that the paper I turned in was one of the worst things he had ever read, but then call me the next day to tell me how wonderful my sermon had been in chapel that morning. He pushed me to the limits of my own boundaries and then helped me find new ones. He encouraged me when I needed encouragement, scolded me when I needed scolding and loved me – and all of us – unconditionally, all the time.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Gospel of Luke; it is known as the Road to Emmaus and it describes an encounter between two disciples – one by the name of Cleopas – and Jesus. The two disciples were traveling to the village of Emmaus when Jesus appeared to them, but they did not recognize him. They told him what had happened over the past several days, that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified, but then three days later the tomb was found empty. They told Jesus that the women had astounded them when they told everyone they saw the angels at the tomb, but that they still had not seen for themselves what had happened.

When they arrived in Emmaus, the two disciples invited Jesus to stay with them. While he was there, Jesus sat down to eat with them; he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them and “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him”

That is one of my favorite lines of scripture – “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” – because I think more often than not, we – all of us, in our lifetime – also need to open our eyes and recognize the presence of the resurrected Christ in our midst.

I was listening to a podcast last year and one of the hosts was commenting on internet bullying and how easy it is to type something offensive, insensitive or snarky to someone and hit submit without thinking twice. She said something that has stuck with me to this day: “I think we all need to sit down and have actual conversations, where we can look into each other’s eyes and see one another’s humanity.”

Christianity is about this exact incarnational presence that she as describing. Jesus came into this world so that God could live in human flesh, understand human suffering, temptation and imperfections and yet find a way to redeem us anyway. The God in the Gospel narrative is not a far away and distant God, but a God that walks with us on our journey, that stands in our presence and that never gives us on us.

This is incarnational love. This is what the disciples saw when they opened their eyes and recognized Jesus in Emmaus. This is what they experienced when Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it.

I believe, as people of faith, we are called to not only open our eyes and see this incarnational love all around us, but to also be that presence to one another, as well. We are called to show up and to be present, just like Jesus did throughout his life and especially here on the road to Emmaus.

The day Rev. Rice died, a friend of mine from college texted me. She mentioned that she wished she had emailed him more recently and thanked him for everything he had done for her. I had a similar sentiment, but pointed out that, knowing him, he was never really great with the whole email thing anyway. She agreed and said, “He was always focused on the here and now. Late to everything, but gave you his all when you were with him.”

And that, my friends, is incarnational love. That is what it means to show up and be present with someone in the moments when they need it most, to give them a space where they can recognize the see and recognize God’s resurrecting power. That was what Rev. Rice did for us. That is what he demonstrated to us and tried fervently to teach us how to do in our own lives, as well.

I believe that, as Christians, this is what we are called to do. We are called to show up, to be the incarnational presence of the resurrected Christ to our friends and even to our enemies. We are called to be present, to give one another our all in the moment, because that might be exactly what they need. We are called to stand in the imperfectly human presence of one another, because that is what Jesus demonstrated through his life, death and resurrection.

People need to know that resurrection is possible. They need to believe that God is in their midst. They need to feel like they are not alone. When Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, the disciples saw this for themselves.

And today, we are called to ensure others see this for themselves as well.

So friends, as I remember and grieve the loss of a man that had a profound impact on me, as both pastor and person, I encourage you all to think about what this incarnational presence means, both for you and also for the people you meet along your journey.

And then meet one another on the road to Emmaus. Be the presence of the resurrected Christ so that others will open their eyes and recognize it in their midst. Know that you can and will make a difference in the lives of the people you meet along your journey.

Believe in that incarnational love. Recognize that incarnational power. Be that incarnational presence of the resurrected Christ.

And have confidence that someone will open their eyes and recognize God’s work in you. And together we will continue to write this Christian story.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.