Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?

Hi friends!  Since the Year of Mark is over, we are taking a few weeks to talk about hospitality before we kick off the fall with a new sermon series.  I’m not sure where we will go next – the Year of Mark was compelling because of the continual narrative, which we all really liked.  We’ll see!  I’m still trying to think through some stuff.  To be continued!

We kicked off our summer sermon series on hospitality with a very hot and humid day and worship in the air conditioned Fellowship Hall!  It was definitely a wonderful alternative and a nice example of how sometimes you have to adjust your plans if circumstances change!  The topic was, why is the important anyway?

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 21, 2019

Romans 15:1-21

Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?

When I looked at the forecast this week and saw that the temperature was supposed to hit 98° degrees on the same Sunday we were scheduled to start a sermon series on hospitality, I decided the most hospitable thing we could possibly do would be to move worship into Fellowship Hall. I figured whatever point I might have tried to make in the sanctuary likely would have been lost as we sat sweltering, 25 feet from a room with functioning air conditioning, just because we are used to worshiping in a specific location.

And so this might be the first lesson that we all learn during this sermon series:  Hospitality means that sometimes we might have to change our plans and do things a little bit differently if the circumstances change.

And that is okay.  God is still with us even though we are sitting on folding chairs instead of old pews.

A few months ago, every single member of the Executive Board looked at me as if I had lost my mind when I was ten minutes into my defense on why I thought we needed better-smelling hand soap in the bathrooms.

“This is a hospitality issue!” I said as I vigorously shook my finger at the table of people sitting around me.  “We do not want people to remember us by how badly their hands smell after they wash them here.”

Admittedly, it was not one of my finer moments in ministry.

However, I have had some time to reflect on my soap-ocalypse of 2019 and what I have come to realize is that my escalating opinion about soap scents really was not just about the soap – it was about the experience I wanted people to have when they walked through our doors.

Last fall, my entire family spent a week at Disney. And what always amazes me about Disney is the way that no detail is left unturned.  For example – our first full day there, we went to Animal Kingdom. Bruce and I spent a lot of time in Dino-Land that day, because there was a lot of stuff for little kids to do and it was perfect for Harrison.  I had never been in this particular part of the park before, so I was looking around and I remember my gaze fell to the ground at one point and I realized that when they build this part of the park they intentionally molded tire tracks into the sidewalk to make it look like there were these big excavating trucks driving around digging up the roads.

No detail left unturned.

When I returned to Rehoboth I started noticing things more and thinking about the ways that we could be more attentive to the details that surround us as we gather every week.  And I realize we do not have the budget or the bandwidth to do what Disney does, but I also think there is a reason that millions of people visit their parks every year; it is about an experience.

And I think there is an important lesson in this for us.  Because we have a really important story to share with the world, right?  But we need to think carefully about how we tell the story so that people feel compelled to listen.  We need to pay attention to the details.  We have to create an experience; an experience that touches people as they walk through our doors and enables them to connect with God and strengthen their faith.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Letter to the Romans.

Now – we are officially done with the Year of Mark, which means that, for the next six weeks, anyway, as we work through a topical sermon series, we are not going to be looking at a linear story or piece of writing, we are going to be jumping around the bible a little bit.  But context is still important, right?  So before we get into the passage we just heard, let’s first let’s talk about Romans.

If you start at the beginning of the New Testament, the first four books are the Gospels, which are the narratives of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  The next section of books are called, epistles, which are letters; letters written to churches and communities that were later canonized as part of scripture. Many of these letters were written by the Apostle Paul and they were arranged in order of length – from longest to shortest.  The letter to the Romans is the longest of the epistles, so it is the first in this section.

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome, however this was not actually a church that Paul, himself, established, so he really did not know the people he was writing to on a personal level.  But he wrote this letter addressing rumors of tensions between the Christian Gentiles and the returning Christian Jews – tensions about how to interpret the Gospel and now live out this mission in community with others.

This is actually a reoccurring theme in a lot of Paul’s letters – on the one hand, you have Christian Jews were raised with rules and traditions who now believe in the promise and hope of resurrection and redemption in Jesus Christ, but who also believe you still have to follow the old rules and traditions.  On the other hand, you have this community of new believers, who are drinking up as much of the Gospel as they can and do not understand why they also have to follow the structure of this old religion that they do not claim as their own.

And so the reason I chose this particular passage to kick off our six weeks of talking about hospitality is because, in the midst of conflict between two different groups of people, Paul did not take sides or try to bring everyone to one opinion; instead, Paul called the Roman people to simply welcome one another as they built this community together.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.[1]

I realize it might be a stretch to say that my newfound soap obsession is for the glory of God, but think about it for a second – we want to put our best face forward.  We want people to walk through our doors and see the pride we have for our community and our space.  We want people to know that we love this church so much that we do not leave an detail unturned.  We want it to look like we believe this story is still worth telling – and still telling well.  We want people to feel like this is home, like there is a place for them here.  We want to create a space where we can, like Paul told the Romans, build one another up.

And this we do for the glory of God.

We are coming off of the Year of Mark, which means we know what it means for Christ to welcome us.  We saw Jesus put the needs of others before the needs of himself; we saw him feed people who were hungry, heal people who were sick and welcome all people into his ministry.

Paul said that mimicking this welcome with one another is one of the foundational pieces of what it means to be in community as the Body of Christ.  This is how we transcend differences and find unity.  This is how we build churches that not only thrive, but change people’s lives. This is how we share the Gospel and invite others into the narrative of Jesus.

Paul never held back in his letters and, while this is certainly one of the things that often challenges me about Paul, it is also one of the things that I admire and respect about him, as well.  Because he was unapologetic about who he was and the story that he was telling.  At the end of this passage he told the Roman people that he was writing “rather boldly by way of reminder … to be a minister of Christ Jesus.”

We should all be so bold.

We should all be so bold in how we tell this story, how we welcome people into our space and how we work together as a community, for the glory of God.

I think the details matter.  I think paying attention to the details is a testament to just how important you think something is.  And so while people still may think I am off my rocker when it comes to the soap thing, I think we can all agree that, as a church, we need to be bold in how we welcome others.

I think we need to be bold in how we welcome one another and bold in how we welcome people who walk through our doors for the very first time.  I am talking about everything from the soap in the bathrooms to the bulletins people are handed before worship.  I am talking about the name tags we wear to the coffee they drink.  I am talking about what people see, hear, taste and smell when they are here and also what people feel when they are here.

This summer we are going to talk about hospitality. We are going to talk about why it is so important, celebrate what we are already doing and then think about how we can be better.  We are going to try to practice what we preach throughout the summer and then (hopefully!) kick off the new program year with a renewed vision and focus in the fall.

So may we all welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Romans 15:7, NRSV

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Our Commissioning

We did it!  We finished the Year of Mark!  I am not really sure what’s next – a sermon series on hospitality for the rest of the summer and then, who knows?  The Year of Mark has changed me in a lot of ways, and it certainly has changed my preaching.  It’s very unlike me not to have a plan, but I think that is just where I need to be right now!  Let’s see where the spirit moves …

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 14, 2019

Mark 16:1-20

Our Commissioning

I was telling Bruce that I had a little bit of writer’s block this week and he suggested that, if I was preaching on the Easter story, I should take the same approach in this sermon that I do when I write Easter sermons.

And this approach stems from a theory I have the no one ever complained about an Easter sermon being too short.

So – make a point, but make it quick.

For what it’s worth, I think my theory also rings true when you are preaching on the Easter story in the middle of the summer in a sanctuary without air conditioning.

It is the last Sunday of the Year of Mark. On July 17thof last year, we started this journey.  And I have to admit, I always assumed that I would treat this last Sunday of the Year of Mark like a mini-Easter, of sorts; that we would hire brass, sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” and set off confetti canons.  I envisioned dance parties that not only celebrated the resurrection, but also the fact that we made through an entire year of preaching through one gospel.

And yet, as this week approached, it just did not feel like Easter.  Reading through the Easter story through the lens of the Year of Mark made it seem less like a celebration and more like a charge.

A charge to now live out the gospel that Christ demonstrated in his own life.

We just read the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark.  I explained last week when we read the shorter ending that the shorter ending is presumed by most scholars to be the original ending.  The assumption is that scribes added verses 9-20 in the late second century as a way of reconciling the somewhat unsatisfactory nature of the original ending.

From an exegetical perspective – meaning if you look critically at this biblical text as a way of interpreting it – this makes sense.  The Gospel of Mark is the earliest recorded gospel; it is the spine in which both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke source their material from.

And yet, this section of Mark makes somewhat vague and passing references to stories found – with much greater detail – in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John.  This account mentions appearing first to Mary Magdalene, resurrection narratives found in the Gospels of Matthew and John, casting demons out of Mary Magdalene, which a story told in Luke and others not believing Mary, also a reference to Luke.  Jesus’ appearance “in another form” to two of his disciples is a brief synopsis of the Road to Emmaus and his commissioning of the disciples follows the same form as his commissioning in all three gospels AND Acts of the Apostles.

This means that whoever redacted Mark had access to the written accounts of these other gospels before writing the longer ending.

And so part of it just does not necessarily feel very Easter morning-y, because whoever wrote the scripture that we just heard was doing so long after the fact; and they were doing then exactly what we are trying to do today– reflecting on the gospel, summing up the story and trying to figure out what to do next.

When Jesus commissions the disciples, there is this sort of strange promise that signs will accompany those who believe – speaking in tongues, picking up snakes, the ability to drink poison without getting sick and healing others through the power of touch.  And not only does this rhetoric seem inconsistent from the rest of the gospel, it also is hard for us to relate to in the world we are living in today.

The snake thing, alone, is enough to push me over the edge. (although, now that I think about it, it might have made for an entertaining children’s sermon), I would not recommend drinking poison and we have talked about the fact that sometimes healing does not happen in the way or when we want it to.

But this is the world that theywere living in.  Verses 14-28, where Jesus commissions the disciples, is very clearly written from the perspective of the post-resurrectional ministry of the disciples; meaning, they were already living out this call to serve and experiencing these signs.  This is a commentary on what was already happening with the first generation of Christians.  This is as much an historical perspective as it is a theological one.

When we talk about understanding the context in which the bible was written, this is one of the reasons it is so important. Because theseare not necessarily the signs that we will accompany us.  This does not mean that we do not believe.  It just means that different signs are going to accompany us.

Yet I think part of being Christian and entering into this Jesus narrative is doingexactly what the Gospel writer does here – talking openly about what it means to be a Christian in the world that we are living in.

And so I think this longer ending of Mark is very much a commentary on what we do with this story today.  We learn about Jesus – about his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection; and then we are commissioned.  We are commissioned as disciples of Jesus Christ to live out the gospel in our own lives.  We are commissioned to tell this story, to declare love’s victory in this world and to pick up where Jesus left off – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, welcoming and blessing the most vulnerable people in our midst and standing up against the atrocities that threaten the widening of God’s kingdom.

So – I am not setting off confetti today. Because I am far more interested in getting my hands dirty and doing the work I am being called to do.

We have spent a year doing nothing but talking about Jesus.  We have been invited into this narrative of transformational love and suspended our disbelief as we bore witness to Jesus doing what we might otherwise have thought was impossible.

We watched as Jesus welcomed ordinary people into his ministry, healed people who were sick with a simple touch and even raised the dead.  When we thought that there would not be enough food for everyone that had gathered around Jesus to eat, he took mere morsels of food and created an abundant meal where thousands feasted and there was plenty leftover.  He traveled outside of the safety of the home that he knew and preached the Good News – sometimes in ways that made sense and sometimes in parables that made us scratch our heads.

As the fear of a raging storm began to swirly, Jesus calmed the storm and said to the disciples, “Why are you afraid?” and then defied gravity and walked on water.  When Jesus saw people plagued by evil spirits and diseases that were out of their control, he did not turn them away; rather he looked them in the eyes and, seeing their humanity, blessed them as a child of God.

Jesus knew how the story was going to end; he explained it to his disciples, over and over again.  And despite the fact that they never really got it, he never stopped teaching.  When his authority was questioned, he never lost his composure.  He taught his disciples that the most important commandment was to love God and then to love the heck out of the people around you.

And even as he faced death, itself, he blessed the people that he loved and made sure that they were nourished before it was time for him to leave this earth.

So today, as we finish the Year of Mark, this is our charge:  To continue the work that Jesus started, to live out the Gospel, to proclaim the bold and radical truth that love always wins and to remember that it is now our responsibility to write the next chapter of this Christian story.

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”

Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

This concludes the Year of Mark.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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A Realistic Expression Of What It Means To Encounter The Risen Christ

Christ is risen!  Love wins!  Resurrection is real!

… and yet the Year of Mark is not over yet. :)

This week I preached on the shorter ending of the Gospel of Mark and I talked about how, even thought this is probably the least satisfying resurrection story, it is also a really realistic one when it comes to how we experience the Risen Christ in our lives.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 7, 2019

Mark 16:1-8

A Realistic Expression Of What It Means To Encounter The Risen Christ

This is it!  Christ is risen!  God’s love has proven to be stronger than death, itself, and here we are at the, um, almost end of the Year of Mark.

You might be wondering why Christ is risen and, yet, we still have a week to go before we finish the Year of Mark.  Well, as it turns out, there are actually two endings to the Gospel of Mark.

I mean, technically, there is one ending – Christ is risen.  However, the jury is still out as to what happened next; after the women discovered that the tomb was empty.

If you were to open up your bible to the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, most likely there would be 20 verses.  However, verses 9-20 are notably missing from the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts of Mark.  Most scholars believe that verses 9-20 did not appear until the late second century, likely because the scribes recording the gospel were not satisfied with the original ending that we just heard.

In fact, it is commonly understood that Mark ends with that eight verse, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  The two sentences that follow this verse in brackets with the title, The Shorter Ending Of Mark, – “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter.  And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the scared and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” – were added no earlier than the fourth century.

The Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the four gospels – it is the earliest recorded history of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. You can understand why, perhaps, scribes recording this important piece of the history of their faith wanted something a little bit more resolved than what is at the end of verse 8, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  After all, this is supposed to be the defining moment of Christianity: Resurrection!  Redemption, eternal life, salvation for all who believe.

I have to admit, the original ending does seem a little anticlimactic.  The story does not end with reassurance and bold proclamation, but with fear and timid reticence.  This ending does not really lend itself to a confetti-filled sanctuary on Easter morning; rather there are still so many unanswered questions.

And yet, part of me thinks that this is the most realistic expression of what it means to encounter the risen Christ.  It is not always confetti flying through the air and science experiments demonstrating God’s overflowing love.  Sometimes it is fear and hesitation to tell others what we have seen and experienced.  Sometimes it is not resolved as nicely as we would like it to be.  Sometimes there are still unanswered questions.

One of the things that I love about the resurrection story is the unexpected nature of it.  Three women – Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, who is not identified in the Gospel of Mark, but is in the Gospel of Matthew as the mother of the sons of Zebedee – approach the tomb and expect nothing else but to find the stone rolled in front of the tomb with the body of Jesus inside.

There is no indication in this story that they even thoughtthey might arrive at the tomb and find something different. In fact, as they approached the tomb, they were so preoccupied with a conversation about how they were going to roll away the stone, that it was not until they arrived and “looked up” that they saw the stone had already been rolled back.

We were in Connecticut this week for my parent’s 4thof July party and Bruce and I were, unsuccessfully, trying to get Harrison to nap one afternoon at my sister’s house when I ran outside to get something out of my car and Harrison insisted on coming with me.  I had him in one arm and a bag in the other arm and was not at all paying attention to anything else happening around me when I looked up and realized we were standing ten feet from a black bear.

And, like the women who arrived at the tomb and looked up and unexpectedly saw that the stone had already been rolled away, I was not at all expecting to see a bear when I looked up (though the difference between the women and Harrison and me is that we told everybody what we had seen!).

But I think it is in the unexpected moments where we experience the Risen Christ in all of its glory; these are the moments of resurrection that remind us that God’s love is powerful and that grace is real. Even here at church, the most memorable encounters with grace often do not happen in the moments that I carefully orchestrate, week after week, but in the moments where I accidentally say, “angeltude” during the Christmas Cantata or look up and realize that a cat has run into the sanctuary at the end of my sermon.

This story teaches us that resurrection is quite often found in the unexpected.  It is sometimes nothing that we can plan for – but it is real and it is powerful and it is life-changing.

One of the reasons that I think people find this ending to be so unsatisfactory is that the very end goes against what we are taught as Christians – that we are supposed to proclaim the Good News that Christ is risen, that we are supposed to talk about our faith and tell others about the moments in our lives when we realize just how powerful God is.

But the women “said nothing to anyone” – they were afraid to tell people what they had seen.

And yet, again, what a realistic expression of what it means to encounter the Risen Christ and then figure out what to do next. How many of us sitting in this sanctuary today have hesitated to talk about our faith?  How many of us have been afraid to even tell someone that we come to church?

Running from the tomb boldly proclaiming that Christ is Risen makes for a victorious celebration on Easter morning, but, in reality, living this out every single day of our lives is not always easy.

And so, when I read this story, the original ending of the very first recording of Jesus’ life, I take heart in knowing that my own struggle with talking openly about my faith sometimes is something that Christians have struggled with since the very beginning.

Are we supposed to fervently declare the Good News of Jesus Christ?  Yes. Is that sometimes a scary thing for us to do?  Apparently it always has been.

Finally, I think what also makes this story such a realistic expression of what it means to encounter the Risen Christ is the way in which we really do not know how the story ends.  Jesus’ body is gone, the women encounter a young man dressed in white who tells them Jesus has been raised and they are supposed to tell Jesus’ disciples and Peter to meet Jesus in Galilee.  The women flee the tomb, but are afraid to tell anyone.  End scene.

So what happens next?

This ending has always reminded me of a television series that ends without really tying up all of the loose storylines.  Those shows often receive negative reviews afterwards because people want things to be resolved and they are not.

But also – neither is life sometimes.  There are things that happen in this world and in our lives and in our faith that we just cannot reconcile.  And I think part of being Christian and holding onto the hope of resurrection is believing that God’s triumphant love is just as present in the midst of the unresolved stuff as it is in the stuff that makes a lot of sense.

As we read this story today – the resurrection of Christ as told in the shorter ending of the Gospel of Mark, I encourage us all to put ourselves inside the narrative.  Because I do think that, on an ordinary, everyday level, this is a real and human expression of what it means to encounter the Risen Christ. Resurrection is not always confetti flying through the air and brass ensembles filling the sanctuary with some of our favorite Easter hymns.  Sometimes resurrection is unexpected, it is hard to talk about and it is unresolved. Sometimes resurrection can be found in grief and sadness, in mistakes and frustration, in stuff that just does not seem to be working itself out.  Sometimes resurrection can be found in the arguments that we do not win, the things we do not understand and the moments where we feel like we have failed.

But it is still resurrection.  It is still the bold proclamation the death did not, does not and will not have the final word.

And so while it might not be resolved and while it might not be satisfactory, it is still resurrection.  In this story, God’s love has still won.

Just like it does every single day of our lives.

Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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