Our Midterm Exam

Hi everyone!  I hope those of you who are getting hit with this storm in the northeast are safe, dry and warm!  We did gather for worship at RCC this morning – it was a small crowd, but where two or more are gathered, right?

Here is my sermon!  Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
January 20, 2019

Mark 8:27-9:1

Our Midterm Exam

I have this reoccurring nightmare where I am back in school and I have to take a final in a class that I forgot to attend all semester and therefore did no work for.  I am not sure what this says about me (other than the fact that I am disorganized and forgetful sometimes), but every time I have this dream, I am overwhelmed with this feeling of intense angst, because I know I will never be able to get caught up on all the work and I am about to take a test that I am not at all prepared for.

The disciples might not have realized it at the time, but in this morning’s scripture reading, they were about a take a test that they were not necessarily prepared for, either.  If they were taking a course in Christology – the theology of Christ – this would have been their midterm; an exam part-way through their class, testing them to see what they had learned up until this point about who Jesus is, why he is here and what it means to follow him.

We have reached the halfway point in the Gospel of Mark.  Up until now, Jesus’ ministry has taken place in small boats and in cities and villages along the Sea of Galilee.  Now their journey is about to point towards Jerusalem.  Things are starting to get more serious; this is not just about Jesus’ life, but about his death and resurrection.  For the disciples to truly follow Jesus, it was going to require more of them than just words or actions; it was going to require their whole lives, in the most humble and devoted way.

This exchange between Jesus and the disciples is one of the more fascinating exchanges in the Gospel partially because while we are starting to understand the messianic nature of Jesus (as opposed to Jesus as a teacher or a healer), but also because we do not know what, exactly, this means and who is supposed to know.

Jesus wants to know who people think that he is and also who the disciples think that he is.  Peter answers and tells Jesus that he is the Messiah; but instead of affirming Peter’s response, Jesus sternly orders Peter and the other disciples not to tell anyone.[1]

Now, if you remember, this is not the first time Jesus tried to downplay the messianic nature of who he was.  At the very beginning of the gospel, in chapter 1, after Jesus cleansed a leper, he sternly warned the man not to tell anyone what had happened.[2]  There was a mystery to what Jesus was doing, one that – for whatever reason – Jesus was not quite ready to share with everybody.

But then Jesus goes on to teach (of course) and he tells the disciples what is going to happen next; he says that the Son of Man was going to have to undergo great suffering and be rejected, killed and then – three days later – come back to life.  Peter, despite telling Jesus earlier that he believed Jesus was the Messiah, rebuked Jesus; in other words, he disapproved and was critical of what Jesus was saying.[3]

But then Peter gets in trouble with Jesus; Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”[4]

You kind of have to feel bad for Peter in this scenario; there was always that one kid in school that always thought they knew the right answer, but they just kind of missed the point and I feel like that was Peter in this scenario.  He understood that there was more to Jesus than just the man in front of them and the ministry they were taking part in, but he did not actually know what that meant.

And that’s okay, right?  Because it is only the midterm!  He still has time to get ready for the final exam.  But things are about to get real; and Jesus has some teaching to do.

Jesus decides to take a little bit of a different approach.  Instead of just speaking to the disciples, he calls a crowd to gather around him and then begins to speak to them.  “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[5]

I said earlier that the exchange between Jesus and Peter was fascinating to me, because we are not quite sure what this messianic nature of Jesus means and, in this moment – when Jesus gathers the crowd and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” – we get another piece of the messianic puzzle.

First of all, I think it is really important to note here that Jesus calls a crowd; he is not just talking to the disciples anymore.  And he says, “If any want to become my followers” – meaning this invitation is open to all.  Christianity is not for the chosen ones; it is for allwho seek the grace and redemption that Christ has to offer.  You do not have to be chosen; you have tochoose to follow.

Second of all, the stakes are higher.  Up until this point, Jesus and his disciples had been traveling and he had been teachingthem, but now he is asking people to do morethan learn; he is asking them to follow.  It is no longer simply about speaking or thinking or doing, it is about following; it is about making a conscious decision to deny yourself and take up the cross and follow Jesus.

And that is what we are being asked to do, today.  It is not just about professing a belief in Christianity or even about speaking or acting a certain way; it is about following Jesus.  Jesus says we are supposed to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him and this notion of following surpasses any human understanding we might have of it.

Let’s talk about context; the Gospel of Mark was written during some of the worst persecution the church has ever experienced. So when the Gospel writer recounted this story, he understood on a real level what it meant to take up his cross and follow Jesus.  He knew it was not going to be easy; he knew that he would be questioned, threatened, mocked – that, at times, his life would be in danger.

The magnitude of what Jesus was and is asking people to do was not something they could comprehend at the time; truth be told, it is not something we can even comprehend today.

But we do have to remember that there is an intentionality to following Jesus that we need to take seriously.  And yes, it is different today than when Jesus first spoke those words and even when the Gospel writer wrote these words.  The church is not being persecuted, per say, and we have the freedom to practice our faith openly.  But I would argue that the stakes are just as high.

The Church is in a very vulnerable place right now; not our church, specifically, but the Church universal, the institutionalized Body of Christ.  People are questioning its relevance and its importance in their lives.  New England, alone, has an astonishingly low percentage of people who attend church – I saw a statistic once that said only 10% of people in New England attend church.

It is up to us to change that statistic.  We have to do our part to follow Jesus, to spread the Gospel and proclaim its relevance.

What does it mean to follow Jesus today?  It means believing in the hope of grace and resurrection, even when you are walking through some of the darkest moments of your life; believing in the power of God’s healing love, even when you are grieving and in pain.  It means not passively coming to church, but actively soaking up opportunities to learn, serve and grow in your faith.  It means reading and praying and listening and talking and breaking bread and serving and learning and cultivating.  It means not being ashamed to claim your identity as a Christian, but to tell others that you attend church, to boldly and unapologetically talk about how your life has been changed by the church and to invite someone who might be searching for something attend worship sometime.

And remember this is something that we can alldo.  You don’t have to pass this one off to me, because I am the pastor or even to one of the Deacons; we can allfollow Jesus.  Jesus was not just talking to the disciples, he gathered a crowd to hear this lesson and because of this we know that this kind of discipleship is accessible to allof us.

I don’t want to scare you into thinking that you showed up to church today and now have to take a test that you are unprepared for, but, friends, this is our midterm.  The stakes are just as high.  The messianic nature of Jesus is no longer a secret.  It is time to tell the world who Jesus is and what the Church is capable of doing.

We need to take the call to follow Jesus seriously – for the sake of our own faith and for the sake of others, so that they, too, might have the opportunity to know and follow Jesus.  We cannot be passive observers as God works in this world, but active participants in the work that needs to be done to transform our brokenness and make us whole again.  We have to be willing to take up our cross; to let go of a piece of who we are so that we can fully be who God is calling us to be and not only reach our capacity as Christians, but extend beyond it.

The time to follow Jesus is now.  The test is about to begin.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Mark 8:27-30
[2]Mark 1:40-44
[3]Mark 8:31-32
[4]Mark 8:33, NRSV
[5]Mark 8:34, NRSV

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Star Sunday Star Installation

A few years ago, RCC jumped on the Star Word bandwagon.  If you are unfamiliar with it, essentially what happens is, on Epiphany, everyone receives a star with a word on it.  You blindly choose the star, so you do not get to pick your own word.  This word – your Star Word – is meant to guide your year.  Sometimes it is a word that seems fitting, sometimes it is a word that will challenge you and sometimes it is a word that might not make sense for you, but might also teach you a lot about yourself.  Here is my sermon the first year we did it.

Truth be told, I’m not really sure how the words, themselves, are chosen.  Some clergy choose their own words when they make the stars, but there are also several Star Word documents floating around online that people use.  When we started Star Words in 2017, a friend of mine graciously forwarded the document they used.  It has 120 stars with different words on them.  We print out two copies on card stock (we’ve done a different color every year so people can keep track of their stars) so we have 240 stars to hand out and then cut them out.

Last year one of my church members came to church after the New Year and she told me about something her home church in New Jersey had done for Christmas – they had suspended paper stars (using fishing line strung from the balcony).  She told me she immediately thought of me and told me we should try it one Christmas.  My first thought was – Star Sunday!  She emailed me some photos and this year I enlisted a few people to make it happen.  It was whimsical!

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Our pile of stars! We made 130 in different sizes following this tutorial.  Make sure you punch a hole in the stars before you start gluing them together!  It makes it so much easier to hang.

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Since we don’t have a wrap-around balcony (the church we got the idea from did and they just strung the fishing line from one side of the balcony to another) we strung them from the lights, instead.  Once we got those up, we strung more from the lights on the sides to the windowsills, so it looked like it filled the entire sanctuary.

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Once we started to get them suspended from the ceiling, we used the rest to fill in the rest of the sanctuary – on the altar, in the windows, etc. They were everywhere!

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The glass bowls on the altar had the star words in them.

The pictures didn’t even do it justice.  You just had to experience it!

It was so much fun to stand in the narthex and watch people walk into the sanctuary that Sunday!

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One of my Deacons told me that as she was driving to church, she was kind of bummed because she knew the decorations would be down and the sanctuary would be empty and then she walked in and saw this!  It was definitely an amazing way to kick off the year.

Before we were even finished hanging them, we started talking about next year.  Do we want to do them again?  Yes!  We’ve got some ideas to bring in other kinds of stars.  We let people take the stars that were loose around the church so we will have to make some more next year, but making 50 or so won’t be as bad, considering we made 130 this year!

This was easy, it just required a little bit of help!  Get a group together and give it a shot at your church next year for Epiphany! ⭐️

 

Looking For Signs

Hi friends!  I know it’s been awhile.  We closed on our house at the beginning of the summer and then my computer crashed and then I just couldn’t pull it together to get my sermons uploaded.  But I’m back and ready to try again!  I really love connecting with everyone, so thank you for being patient with me!

Now onto Sunday’s sermon …

Back in mid-July we embarked on a year-long sermon series called The Year Of Mark.  Inspired by my dear friend Jon Chapman, we literally started at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark and just steadily began to preach through it.  It’s been amazing!  I do have all of my Year Of Mark sermons (and I will at least post the text, if not the audio eventually!) and it will be fun to have that collection one day.  But for the time begin, we’re picking up in the middle of it and talking about God’s signs.  Enjoy!

***

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

Mark 8:11-21

Looking For Signs

I feel like I have been on the longest non-vacation vacation of my life.

After a six-week, let’s call it a, “winter hiatus,” we are jumping back into the Year of Mark this morning.

For those of you who might be new around here, back in the middle of July (when it was not quite so cold outside), we embarked on a year-long sermon series through the entire Gospel of Mark.  For the most part – with the exception of a few stories that we combined on certain Sundays because the themes were similar – we started at the very beginning and have just steadily worked our way through the Gospel, chapter by chapter.  It has been a great way for us to see the narrative of Jesus’ life as a whole unit, all at once, so that we have a better understanding of scripture.

That being said, when Advent arrived, it made sense to hit the pause button the Year of Mark so we could just immerse ourselves in the magic of the Advent and Christmas seasons.

And so, for six weeks, instead of preaching out of Mark, I preached on some of my favorite passages that we often read on Christmas Eve, I reflected on the Advent season, I wrote a Christmas pageant, I made up the word, “Angeltude,” I led a New Year’s devotional that encouraged us to float our hopes and sink our fears and then, last week, not only shared my own star story, but also talked about Epiphany and what it means to let our star words guide us this year.

I don’t want to pat us on the back or anything, but I do think we had a wonderful extended holiday season here at the church. The church really was a safe place where we could come and experience allthe emotions that come with the holidays, and also know that we were and aresurrounded and upheld by a community built in God’s love – the Body of Christ.

And for that I am thankful.  So – thank you to everyone who helped make the season what it was.

That being said – I have to admit, it was kind of weird to open up my commentary on the Gospel of Mark this week.  It felt familiar, yet almost as if I was out of practice a little bit.  I actually went back to the beginning of the Gospel to review what we had read up until this point so I could put this morning’s scripture in better context. It was really helpful; and I think might be for you all as well.  So I am going to start this morning by doing an abbreviated version of that review, kind of like they do on TV shows after they come back from a hiatus.

SO – previously on the Year of Mark …

We began with a proclamation by John the Baptist and then Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, where, afterwards, he was immediately driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit and tempted for 40 days.  When Jesus came out of the wilderness, he went to Galilee to begin his public ministry.  The first thing he did in Galilee was call his disciples.[1]

“Follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fish for people.”[2]

Immediately, we saw the capacity Jesus had within him to heal through the many healing stories that are in this Gospel.  Jesus healed people with unclean spirits, fevers and leprosy.  It was because of Jesus that a paralyzed man was able to walk, a man with a withered hand was able to stretch out his hand and a girl whose family thought she was dead stood up and walked.[3]

And who could forget the time Jesus cast a demon out of man and into a herd of pigs who, unfortunately for them, then met their demise when they fell off a cliff?[4]

(I’m not sure any of us have completely recovered from that Sunday.)

Jesus spoke in parables as he taught; parables about sowing seeds in good soil, not hiding light under a bushel basket and what a small mustard seed can grow into.[5]  He calmed an angry sea not once, but twice, the second time actually walking on water towards the boat where his disciples were astonished.[6]

And finally, Jesus fed his people.  The Gospel of Mark contains not one, but two loaves and fishes story, the first where Jesus fed five thousand people and the second where he fed four thousand people, using mere morsels of bread and fish.[7]

And this is where we pick up this morning; Jesus was in the district of Dalmanutha surrounded by Pharisees who were feeling argumentative and asking him for a sign from heaven.  Frustrated at the request, Jesus sighed and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign?”[8]  Then Jesus left; he got into a boat and went across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.[9]

I think I should interject one more time and mention that one thing we have noticed throughout the Year of Mark is that sometimes the disciples – as well-intentioned as the are – just don’t quite get it.  They don’t understand the parables, they miss the signs, they don’t recognize Jesus at times and they don’t believe in this capacity Jesus had within him OR the capacity they had within themselves to heal and to perform miracles.

Which brings me back to this morning’s scripture; Jesus, frustrated with the Pharisees, got in his boat to travel to Bethsaida and the disciples realized they had forgotten to bring bread to eat.[10]

Forever the teacher, however, Jesus used this as a teachable moment to talk about the dangerous political power that was starting to rise up around them.  “Watch out,” Jesus said, “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”[11]

Pop quiz:  Does anybody think Jesus was actually talking about bread here?  No!

However, bless their hearts, the disciples said to one another, “Oh, geeze, he’s talking about yeast because we forgot to bring the bread!”[12]

Jesus was not talking about the bread; he was talking about a pervasively corrupt group of people that were threatening the ministry that they were doing.

What is funny to me about this story is that it never really gets resolved.  Jesus is trying to get the disciples to understand that there are things happening in the world that are far greater than what they could tangibly see.  He asked them about both the loaves and fishes stories:  “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” he asked the disciples and they responded, “Twelve.” Then Jesus asked, “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you college?” and they answered, “Seven.”  Then Jesus said, “Do you not yet understand?”[13]

AND THAT IS WHERE THE STORY ENDS.

And – spoiler alert – we do not find out next week. I can only imagine the disciples all just kind of shrugged, looked at one another awkwardly and then just paddled faster.

So here is the ironic thing about this story, which I kind of think gives a lot of insight into the nature of who we all are, as human beings – Jesus seems just as frustrated at the Pharisees for asking him for a sign as he is at the disciples for not seeing the signs that are happening all around them; signs of healing, signs of nourishment, signs of an unexplainable grace.

And yet, how often do we, today, miss these same signs?

During the children’s sermon, we talked about physical road signs, signs that we can see when we are driving and immediately interpret their meaning.

But God’s signs are not as easy to interpret.

My Tuesday morning bible study is finishing up a session on Genesis and one of the things we have commented on is the fact that, in parts of this story, God is physically present, at least as we understand it.  And how much easier would it be for us to do the right thing if God were here, in our face, telling us what to do?

(As it turns out, it doesn’t really help, but that’s a story for a sermon series on Genesis.)

The truth is, as people of faith, we have to pay attention for signs from God; signs that might not be tangible, signs that are rarely easy to spot, signs that we have to prayerfully interpret in our own lives.  Sometimes these signs are physical – seeing a rainbow or a beautiful sunset or a cloud in a certain shape or a cardinal or even an object that might remind us of a loved one.  Sometimes these signs come from music or from human interaction.  Sometimes these signs simply come from that still, small voice that is within all of us; the voice that gives us pause before we do something that, perhaps, we should not, the voice that affirms us when we are making good choices, the voice that reminds us that we are loved, cherished and made in the image of God.  Sometimes these signs encourage us to vote a certain way or volunteer for something new.

Sometimes these signs help us make big choices and sometimes these signs help us make the smaller, everyday choices.

Oftentimes these signs are very challenging to explain to other people.

But these signs are real; and they are all around us.

But we have to, as Jesus eluded to, open our eyes to see these signs and open our ears to hear them, as well.[14]  We have to pay attention to what we are being taught and understand the lessons behind the stories.

Now, here’s the deal:  This is not easy.  It is not like you can buy a bag of chocolates where signs from God are printed inside of the wrapper in easy-to-read catch phrases; it does not work like that (although I wish that it did).  But we can try to structure our lives in a way that creates time and space for us to recognize and start to understand these signs.

Coming to church is one of the ways that we do this; every week we come to worship and we spend time singing and praying and reading scripture and listening so that we can be more aware of – or open to – the signs when they come upon us, whether they happen here or somewhere else.

Our monthly Taizé worship is another great way to create that time and space in your life.  We spend 15 minutes in absolute silence at the end of every service.

Stepping away from technology, even for a day – even for an hour! – can be a transformational way of quieting the noise that is coming from all over the place and really be present in the moment. Journaling does the same thing – and also allows you to set intentions and document some of the signs you are noticing so you can go back later and see the progress that you have made.

Living life at a little bit of a slower pace means that we are not rushing past the signs that might be waiting for us, calling us into the grace of God.

The new year is upon us; a lot of us are setting new goals or, perhaps, re-setting old goals.  Last week we received our star words for the year and so a lot of have been thinking about – perhaps looking for signs – what this word might mean for us this year.  And so this morning I want to encourage you to pay attention.  Signs of God’s miraculous and healing and transformational grace are all around us.  Ask yourself these questions:  What do these signs mean for me?  Where will these signs lead me this year?

May you open your eyes so that you might see; open your ears so that you might hear; open your mind so that you might learn; and open your heart so that you might feel God’s loving presence.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Mark 1:1-20
[2]Mark 1:17, NRSV
[3]Mark 1:21-34, 40-45, 2:1-12, 3:1-6, 5:21-43, 6:53-56
[4]Mark 5:1-20
[5]Mark 4
[6]Mark 4:35-41, 6:45-56
[7]Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-10
[8]Mark 8:12, NRSV
[9]Mark 8:11-13
[10]Mark 8:14
[11]Mark 8:15, NRSV
[12]Mark 8:16, paraphrased from NRSV
[13]Mark 8:19-21
[14]Mark 8:18

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