Taking Jesus Seriously

Hi all and Happy Sunday!  It was so nice to have clear skies for worship this morning.

Here is my sermon.  I was having a hard time coming up with a children’s sermon – there’s something about Jesus telling the disciples to cut off their hands and feet if they cause them to stumble that just doesn’t translate well to children’s ministry, ha!  Eventually I just gave up and asked Allison, our church school director, what their lesson was going to be.  They were learning about Daniel and how God makes us strong so I brought in a free weight and talked about different kind of strength.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
January 27, 2019

Mark 9:30-51

Taking Jesus Seriously

Jesus did not really mean that, right?

I mean, this is why we like the New Testament; violence in the Old Testament and (with the exception of the demon-possessed pigs plummeting to their deaths) love in the New Testament.  Up until this point, the Gospel of Mark has been filled with beautiful imagery where Jesus feeds people, heals people, teaches his disciples, prays for and with others and calms an angry sea.

This is the Jesus we all remember learning about as children.

Jesus love me, this I know;
for the bible tells me so

Well, wait; what is the bible telling us now?

Surely, Jesus did not actually mean that it would be better for us to cut off our hands and our feet than to have them cause us to stumble?  Surely Jesus would not suggest that, if we put a stumbling block – or a temptation – in front of someone else, that it would be better for us to have a mill stone tied around our neck and then be thrown out to sea?

It has to be a metaphor, right?

After all, this is the same Jesus saying this that, not even ten verses earlier, welcomed a child into his midst and then gently cradled them into his arms.

The juxtaposition of these two passages – interactions that appear to have happenedalmost one right after another – is striking.

So it is a metaphor, then; it has to be.  The hands and the feet, the eye-gouging  and the being pitched overboard – this is all a metaphor for something else, something softer and easier for us congregationally-rooted protestants who don’t like fire and brimstone preaching or theological guilt tactics to swallow.

Yes.  It is a metaphor.

I was all set to go with that approach this week and then I read a commentary that caused me to pause, step back and really think, not only about what Jesus was said here, but also what he meant.

It is tempting when reading this passage to default quickly to the assumption that Jesus is employing hyperbole merely to capture his audience’s attention. Various commentators reinforce this response.

(Which, let’s be real, is exactly what I was getting ready to do.)

Lest the force of Jesus’ radical claims be diluted, however, one dare not automatically and carelessly dismiss the shocking words Jesus pronounces as mere exaggeration.

Wherever one ends up on this matter, it is altogether clear that readers better take Jesus seriously and not slide into mealy-mouthed, easily swallowed encouragement to good behavior and responsible stewardship, or to a limp list of moral imperatives.  If Jesus did not intend his words to be taken literally, he most certainly intended that they be taken seriously.[1]

I have to be honest – passages like this make me uncomfortable.  I like the fact that people do not feel a lot of pressure to come and be part of our church community.  I like that this is a guilt-free space, that we do not put a lot of unnecessary obstacles in place for people to participate in the community and receive the gifts of God’s grace.

And yet, sometimes I think it might be too easy for us to use that as a crutch; as an excuse to not push ourselves and one another to grow in our faith and to be better and more faithful Christians.

I think one of the reasons it is hard for me to read this passage and not get a little bit defensive, is because I see myself in the one whom Jesus is admonishing.  I know that there have been many times in my life when I have caused myself or others to stumble, when I have made bad choices and when I have not lived up to the grace given to me.  And so this passage makes me uncomfortable, because I believe in the power of grace; of redemption and of second chances.  I believe that the Assurance of Grace is one of the most powerful moments in our worship service because it reminds us that, despite our imperfections, we are loved and forgiven.

After all, Jesus died to save us from our sins; why do we now have to cut limbs off because of them?

But the more that I think about it, the more I realize that the really powerful message in this passage is that there isa difference between believing in grace and knowing that we are overwhelming loved by God and also holding ourselves accountable for our actions and for our faith.

Because, in the end, we should always be seeking to be better, to dig deeper and to try harder.

This morning, instead of trying to explain away the harshness of Jesus’ words, I want to sit in the discomfort of them.  I want to dive in, headfirst, into what he was saying, even if it is hard and uncomfortable, learning and understanding what it truly means to be a follower of Christ.

Because I do not think I am doing anyone any favors if I get up here and say that the way we live our lives does not matter – because it does.  The way we live our lives matters.  Period.

And I do think it is important to highlight the point Jesus made to his disciples earlier when they told him they saw a man casting out demons who was not following them and so they tried to stop him. Jesus told the disciples not to stop the man; that just because the man was not following them did not mean that he was against them.

And then Jesus immediately went into this narrative about temptations and stumbling blocks, I think because he wanted to point out to the disciples that it was more important for them to focus on their actions and their faith than it was for them to be concerned about the actions and the faith of others.

After all, it is the way we live our lives that matters; and we need to take this seriously.  We need to seek to do God’s work in this world; listening to what God is calling us to do and not just doing what we want to do.  We need to constantly try to grow in our faith – whether it be through prayer or reading the bible or participating in the church community or getting involved in some sort of missions project.  We need to evangelize (even though that is kind of a scary word for us) so that the message of the Gospel – and of God’s love – can reach more people.  We need to seek reconciliation with those people in our lives for whom our relationships are strained; we need to bread together and lift up that which we hold in common, instead of dwelling on our differences.  We need to stop ourselves when we realize we are gossiping or speaking poorly of others.  We need to make doing church a serious priority in our lives, doing the basic things Jesus called his disciples to do – pray together, break bread together, feed the hungry, heal the sick and help the marginalized.  We need to set priorities in our lives based on faith and then be realistic about whether or not we are living up to them.  We need to look in the mirror – at ourselves, not at others – and make sure we are living up to the grace that has been given to us.

Remember that when Jesus said these things, the stakes were high; for the second time, he had foretold his death and resurrection, and yet his disciples did not understand.  But he understood; he knew what was going to happen.  Jesus knew that his time on earth was limited, that it was going to be up to the disciples to continue this ministry that he started after he was gone; there was a sense of urgency to his words that is palpable, even 2,000 years later.

But that sense of urgency is still true for us today.

Should we take these words literally?  No.  But should we take them seriously?  Absolutely.

I think we can all agree that the world is a little nutty right now.  So often I have to shut off the news, because I am overwhelmed thinking about what I need to do to try to fix everything or where to even begin.  But what I have learned over the years is that, in times of uncertainty, the best way that I can affect change is right here, in my local church.  It is here that I can grow in my faith; where I can hold myself accountable (and ask others to hold me accountable, as hard as that can be sometimes for me to hear). It is here that I have the opportunity to serve others.  It is here that I can join my voices with the voices of my brothers and sisters and Christ as we come together and worship the God who creates us, redeems us and sustains us.

This morning I encourage you to take these words seriously.  Come to worship.  Attend the reflections that Mike leads during Fellowship so you can talk more about the sermon and about what you think the scripture means and how it can apply to your life.  Get involved in the life the church community.  Pray on a regular basis.  Read scripture at home.  Be honest about who you are, but also who you want to be – knowing that grace will carry you from one point to another.

Let us take seriously the words and the call of Jesus, knowing that the stakes are just as high today as they were when he first spoke them.  Let us heed the call of the Gospel to be good and faithful Christians.  Let us, like Jesus called the disciples to, have salt in ourselves and be at peace with another.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Stern, Richard. Feasting on the Gospels: Mark (A Feasting on the Word Commentary). Page 291 – Homiletical Perspective.

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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! ⭐️