Redefined

Hello!  It is so wonderful to be back after a week away.  I have to say, I’m kind of digging this whole more-official-podcast thing that I’ve got going on.  I am hoping that my dad might have some time now that his musical has closed (hi, Dad!) to create some theme music for me.  Right now I record Jordan or the choir if something sounds like it could work (although I love listening to them sing/play so I’m okay with that, too!).

Here is this morning’s sermon.  We are halfway through our sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul.  Today’s theme is redefined.  Enjoy!

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Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 26, 2017

1 Samuel 16:1-15
John 9:1-41

Redefined (Sermon Series: Boot Camp For The Soul)

When I was in college, I dyed my hair brown.

This change elicited a whole slew of responses, which ranged everywhere from, “Oh my gosh, this highlights your face and matches your eyebrows and it is absolutely perfect!” to my boss at the time, who said, “Well, this is about the dumbest thing you could have possibly done.”

I did not really have a good reason for doing this; I just sort of needed a change. I felt like I needed to speak to whatever quarter-life crisis I was going through at the time. I think, in a way, I was trying to redefine a piece of who I was (albeit a cosmetic one).

This morning we are on week four of our Lenten sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul and this morning the theme is, redefined.

We just heard two scripture readings, the story of the anointing of King David in 1 Samuel and the story of the blind man who gained his sight in the gospel of John.

These stories are both captivating narratives about men whose lives were redefined in powerful and God-sized ways. These stories bear witness to the great possibilities God can achieve in our lives if we have faith and allow ourselves to be who God is calling us to be. These stories allow us to believe transformation is possible in our lives; they help us grab ahold of the hope that we can shed pieces of who and what defines us now and boldly claim a new identity.

Take David, for example. Samuel had traveled to Bethlehem to anoint a new king; God told Samuel to invite Jesse and his sons to the sacrifice where one of them would be anointed. But David, himself, was not even part of this sacrifice at first. He was the youngest of Jesse’s sons and had been given the task of keeping the sheep, so that was what he was doing. It was not until Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” that Jesse even mentioned David; and even then, Samuel was the one who had to say, “Send and bring him.”[1] And in the moment that followed, David was redefined.

The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.[2]

Who would have ever thought the youngest of Jesse’s sons – that small, rosy-cheeked shepherd boy – would have been the one anointed king?

God’s imagination is quite something sometimes, is it not?

God said to Samuel, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”[3] God looked into David’s heart and did not see a meek and mild boy; he saw a king.

In the same way, Jesus’ disciples looked at the blind man and saw a sinner. “Rabbi,” they said to Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”[4] The disciples only saw this man’s outer appearance; they only saw a sinner.

But Jesus saw that something greater was at work within this man; Jesus saw that, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”[5] Jesus spat on the ground, made mud that he wiped onto the blind man’s eyes and told man to wash it off in the pool of Siloam.[6]

And in that moment, a change happened. The blind man was refined. The man was no longer blind; he was transformed and given a new definition in life. He shed the identity of a sinner and humbly asked Jesus to help him believe in the Son of Man.

Again, I say: God’s imagination is quite something, is it not?

A small and inexperienced shepherd boy was anointed king. A man who was blind his entire life could suddenly see clearly. Transformation is not only possible with God; it is spectacularly probable. It happened extraordinarily in the lives of these two men.

And it can happen in our lives, as well.

In both of these scriptures, there is a poignant emphasis on what we see on the outside versus what God can see on the inside. God did not see a young boy or a blind man, God saw a king and a man who could not only see, but also reveal God’s works within him. God saw the potential, power and presence of these two men long before anybody else did.

This makes me wonder: What does God sees in us, as well?

So often, we look in the mirror and see who we are, who we have been up until this point in our lives and who other people want us to be. But how often do we look into our own hearts, as God looked into David’s, and see the great potential of who God is calling us to be? How often do we, like the blind man, see the way God’s works can be revealed in us?

We have to open our eyes to see this potential. We have to believe in God’s transformative power. We have to believe that we, too, can be redefined.

Sometimes I get nervous when I start preaching about personal change, because I would never want someone to think they are not good enough or worthy of God’s love just the way they are. You are enough; your faith is enough.

In fact, I think that is what these stories are trying to teach us.

The potential to be redefined by God – to be changed, to be transformed – is within all of us. We are already not only who God created us to be, but also who God is calling us to be. Our faith is full of stories of individual men and women who sought wholeness and were redefined by God’s love and grace.

The truth is, we live in a broken world. As Christians, we believe Jesus came to this earth to intercede on behalf of our own brokenness. Part of our journey to the cross during the Lenten season is about reflecting on the enormity of what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means to us today. Part of Lent means looking at our own brokenness and discerning how God’s works can be revealed in our earthly lives. It is okay to seek change – to crave God’s redefining presence in our lives – because that is all part of this journey we are one.

We are all a collaborative work in progress. The church is in the business of changing lives; one of the reasons we come to church is because as human beings, we want our lives to be changed. And I am not talking about cosmetic changes, like a new hairstyle (although, those can be quite liberating). I am talking about real, palpable, God-sized changes. I am talking about changes that strengthen our faith and feed our spirit. I am talking about changes that teach us about who we are and draw out our best pieces so we can be confident and faithful ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am talking about changes that make us better husbands and wives, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, bosses and coworkers, neighbors and friends. I am talking about changes that enable us to be the very best versions of ourselves.

We are halfway through the Lenten season. There are three more weeks until Easter; three more weeks until we are reminded that in death there is resurrection, in darkness there is light, in hatred there is love and in sorrow there is hope. In three weeks, we will stand in awe of the bold and redeeming truth that God gives us second chances and third chances and fourth chances (and 15th chances, if we need them!).

So now is the time. We may not be redefined in the grandiose ways King David and the blind man were, but we have to believe in that possibility. We have to believe that we can achieve our goals, strengthen our faith, better ourselves and maybe even try something new along the way.

Friends, in our brokenness, it is by the grace of God that we are made whole again. Seeking change in our lives – trying to redefine pieces of who we are – does not make who we are bad or not enough; in fact, I think it just brings more power to the Christian story. As we work on who we are and redefine ourselves, I believe grace gets more and more powerful.

So take this time to think about who you are. Look in the mirror and think not only about who you see, but also who God sees. And let yourself be redefined by God.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] 1 Samuel 16:11, NRSV
[2] 1 Samuel 16:12-13, NRSV
[3] 1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV
[4] John 9:2, NRSV
[5] John 9:3, NRSV
[6] John 9:6-7, NRSV

Taking Back Evangelism

Enjoy this morning’s sermon!

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Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
January 18, 2015

1 Samuel 3:1-10
John 1:43-51

Taking Back Evangelism

Evangelizing. Witnessing. Giving your testimony. Proselytizing. Hearing God speak to you. Talking to God. Being saved. Born again. Prophesying. Sharing the Good News.

For mainline protestant Christians living in small town New England, these can be somewhat scary words and phrases for us to think about and especially to talk about. First of all, they kind of carry a negative connotation; they are often attributed with extreme traditions and Christian churches. And as the line between church and state grows wider and wider in our culture, no one wants to stand out in a crowd and be labeled by some sort of controversial belief system. We do not want to be stereotyped as a pushy Christian. We do not want someone who may not share our belief system to judge us for ours. So we just don’t talk about it.

I get it; I really do.

But aren’t we called as Christians to talk to God – in some way or another – and then to share our faith with the people around us?

When I was a hospital chaplain I was sitting in on an ethics panel where a psychiatric case was being presented. A patient in the hospital was very sick, but on top of that she was refusing to eat, stating that God was speaking to her and telling her not to eat.

So the question was simple: Should the hospital force her to eat by using a feeding tube – which would save her life – or should they respect her wishes – which would likely end in her eventual passing?

The answer to this question was anything but simple.

This woman claimed that God was speaking to her and telling her not to eat.

Doctors and nurses and social workers and hospital board members debated around in circles for what seemed like hours. Finally one doctor in the back of the room stood up and said, “Oh sure – like God just SPEAKS to people these days.” The entire room erupted in laughter.

Meanwhile, I was sitting in a row with 9 other chaplains; each one of us with a story to tell of the way that God spoke to us and called us into ministry.

Not one of us stood up to speak.

Here is the thing about talking about our faith: It’s scary. It is as simple as that: It’s scary. Even for a group of people whose sole purpose was to make sure there was a space to talk about God and faith in the hospital – it is still scary.

Listen: No one wants to stand out in the crowd for having a strange belief system. No one wants to go against what other people in their culture and society are doing. No one wants to wear a label that gives people a reason to judge. No one wants to be the reason that an entire auditorium full of hospital employees erupts in laughter.

But if we will not do it – then who will?

The bible is full of scriptures that tell stories of moments in people’s lives – ordinary people’s lives – where God came into their midst and spoke to them. Where God called them into ministry. Where God asked them to take a leap of faith. Where God illuminated the vision of a path not yet travelled. Where God asked them to stand out in a crowd; to go out on a limb and trust that their faith was strong enough to hold them up.

In this morning’s reading from the Old Testament, God appeared to Samuel, who was only a young boy at the time. God called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and at first Samuel assumed it was Eli calling him so he went to Eli to see what he wanted. Eli told Samuel he had not called him. This happened again. But by the third time God called to Samuel, Eli realized what was happening; he told Samuel to go lie down and respond the next time God called, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”

In this morning’s Gospel reading, early on in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus was in Galilee and found Phillip. He told Philip to follow him; and he did. Phillip encountered Nathanael and told him about Jesus and when Nathanael questioned Phillip, Phillip said, “Come and see.” Nathanael followed Phillip to see for himself.

These two stories are very different, but they both share similar themes of moments in time where God came into a person’s life in one way or another and they were changed. God came to Samuel and called him. Eli encouraged Samuel to answer God’s call. Phillip encountered Jesus. Phillip asked Nathanael to follow him to Jesus. Nathanael followed Phillip to see for himself who Jesus was.

I believe that we all have these moments in our lives.

These moments might look different for us. I would be willing to bet that most of us probably will not physically encounter Jesus throughout our lives or hear God speaking to us in the earthly sense that we hear people speaking to us.

But that does not make our moments any less real; any less powerful; any less transformative.

Some of us have moments in our lives where we feel like we are being called to do something, oftentimes requiring us to make a big change or take a leap of faith. Some of us have moments in our lives where we are scared or sick or in pain and find peace and comfort by something unexplainable. Some of us have moments in our lives where we suddenly have the strength to do something that we never thought would be possible. Some of us have moments in our lives where we feel like we should pledge to take the road less travelled, knowing that it is a road that leads to justice, righteousness and peace. Some of us have moments in our lives where we step into leadership roles in our churches and communities, excited to see and be part of new growth and possibilities. Some of us have moments in our lives where we feel led to teach or be a parent or volunteer. Some of us have moments in our lives where an opportunity comes to us that we never thought would.

I am not talking about earth-shattering, ground-splitting, God-appearing-in-a-burning-bush types of moments. I am talking about the ordinary moments that define our lives. We all experience them.

Sometimes the moments are easy. Sometimes the moments are hard.

But these are not just moments in our lives; these are moments that define our faith. And even if it may not be obvious to the casual observer, God is working within us in all of these moments.

And I think we need to talk about them.

Because I think when we talk about these moments, we see just how powerful they are. And when we see how powerful these moments are, we believe in just how much they are transforming us. And when we believe that we are being transformed, we can show others that that they can be transformed as well.

This is the Good News that needs to be shared with an oftentimes broken world.

I think that oftentimes we are afraid to talk about our faith because of some of the stereotypes that are out there. We do not want to be one of “those” Christians. But we practice a faith that encourages us to ask questions, that allows us to have doubts and that rests on the principles of forgiveness and second chances.

This is not a faith to be ashamed of. This is not a faith that we should be afraid to share with other people.

In fact, I think the people around us – the people in our community, the people who we work with, who we see in our day-to-day lives – are craving a faith like this. They just do not know that it is out there.

So let’s tell them.

As we leave this place today, let us all pledge to, let us commit to – okay, let us try to live out our faith, proclaiming to the world without fear how God is speaking to us, teaching us, leading us, calling us and strengthening us in our faith.

Let us be like Samuel, who heard a call from God and answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Let us be like Phillip, who followed Jesus and then encouraged others to do the same. Let us be like Nathanael, who followed Phillip and believed that Jesus was the Son of God.

Let us rise to the examples that have been set for us. Let us take back the words that carry such negative meaning in our society. Let us not be afraid to evangelize, to witness and to share the Good News, because – my friends – we have news that is worth sharing. We have news of a welcoming church, of a judgment-free faith and of worship that is designed to be meaningful, relevant and accessible. I know that it can be scary. But I know that it will also be transformative.

So let us be who God created us to be, who Jesus redeemed us to be and who the Holy Spirit sustains us to be.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

What Is Prayer?

I have thought about this sermon for weeks and came to the conclusion this week that I still don’t have a clue what prayer is!  But perhaps it is not something that is supposed to be defined …

1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10

What Is Prayer?

I do not think I will ever forget the first time I met most of the people in this church. The day was March 5, 2011; Fellowship Hall was filled to capacity, the smell of spaghetti and meatballs was in the air and there were three tables of incredible-looking desserts waiting to be auctioned off. I had a very important sermon to preach the next morning – and there was an even more important congregational meeting that was to follow worship. It was my candidating weekend at the Rehoboth Congregational Church.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

For many people, that night was unforgettable because it ended with me putting a pie in someone’s face. But my most vivid memory comes from a moment about three hours before the pie left my hand. It happened the second our moderator called for everyone’s attention, thanked people for coming and said, “And now, Rev. Sarah will say a prayer over our meal.”

At that moment my mind went blank.

I don’t know if I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in attendance, by the unfamiliar faces or by the enormity of the weekend as a whole, but as soon as I said, “Let us be together in prayer,” every other word or combination of words flew out of my head and I had no idea what I was going to say next.

So I (unintentionally) started with a moment of silence. A long one. Eventually I fumbled my way through a prayer, said “Amen” and prayed quietly to myself that nobody noticed.

I returned to my seat, sat down and Bruce immediately leaned over and said, “What was with the moment of silence?”

Apparently somebody noticed.

This story is a perfect example of why, when it comes time to bless a meal or an event, no one ever volunteers to pray. People often feel uncomfortable; that they do not know the correct words to say, that they will not sound eloquent enough or that they will pray in the “wrong” way.

Growing up my family always said a prayer before dinner. It was simple: “God is great; God is good; and we thank him for our food. Amen.” The summer before my senior year in college I proposed that we stop using the “canned” prayer and start taking turns blessing our meals. It did not go over very well; there was always an awkward moment as we decided who would pray, my sister would start giggling, my mom (the minister) and I (the philosophy and religion major) would argue over who was less qualified and eventually my dad would roll his eyes and start us praying, “God is great; God is good …”

Prayer.

It sounds like such a simple word, such an intuitive concept. Yet often times it is one of the most difficult things that we try to do as human beings. Why is that?

We read two scriptures this morning out of 1 Samuel, the first of two books in the Old Testament that tell the story of Israel’s developing nationhood in the Promised Land.

In our first reading, Hannah – a barren woman – prayed to God for a child. She pleaded with God; she wept, she begged and she bargained for a child. The NRSV says that Hannah was “deeply distressed” {1:10} when she began to pray; the Hebrew Bible translates this to say that her soul was bitter. Eli – the Priest – observed Hannah’s prayer; she was making such a spectacle that he thought she was drunk. “No,” Hannah said. “I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.”

A bitter Hannah poured out her soul before God.

In this morning’s second reading, we see a much different side of Hannah. This reading actually replaces the psalm in this week’s lectionary. Like so many psalms, it is a song; The Song of Hannah. “My heart exults [my heart rejoices] in the LORD,” Hannah sings. “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you.”

A joyful Hannah gave thanks to and praised God.

So, first of all, what changed in the twelve verses between Hannah’s bitter pleading and Hannah’s joyful song? She gave birth to her son, Samuel. It seemed that her fate as a barren woman had been reversed; her prayers had been answered.

Second of all (and much more important to the point that I am trying to make), look at these readings side by side. What was Hannah doing in both of these scriptures? She was praying. Each reading is an example of prayer; in both of these stories Hannah is completely opening herself up in prayer to God. But the prayers do not look like one another at all. In fact, they are completely opposite – in expression and in emotion – from one another.

So what is prayer?

I came to the conclusion this week that there really is no simple answer to that question.

I get asked to pray often; hazard of the profession, I suppose. I have prayed at meals, banquets, ceremonies and conferences. I have prayed in the church, in people’s homes, at cemeteries and in hospitals. I have prayed in cafeterias and gymnasiums. I have prayed before meetings and sporting events. I have prayed loudly and I have prayed silently. I have prayed publically and I have prayed privately. I have written prayers, I have used liturgy and I have prayed extemporaneously. I have prayed while running and I have prayed while standing still. I have prayed out of joy, I have prayed out of sorrow, I have prayed out of anger, I have prayed out of fear and I have prayed out of relief. No two prayers have ever been the same.

Every day I am more and more convinced that prayer is nothing that can be defined in human language. It is a human expression of something otherwise unexplainable. It is an expression of emotion. It is an expression of an individual’s relationship with God. It is an expression of an individual’s devotion to God. It is an expression of an individual’s frustration with God. It is an outward expression of both an inward strength and weakness.

Prayer is an expression of faith.

In this morning’s scripture, prayer was both Hannah’s joy and Hannah’s sorrow. It showed Hannah’s faith both at its strongest and at its weakest.

Prayer is an opportunity for people to join their voices with the voices of others; to speak, to sing and to be united. Prayer can also be an opportunity for individuals to speak privately to God; to speak their prayers in the most rawest of forms. Prayer happens in the quiet of an empty sanctuary in the middle of the week – and it happens in the hustle and bustle of a busy sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Prayer happens in worship, in teaching and in action.

So what is prayer? Like I said – there really is no simple answer to that question. But there are three things that are absolutely true about prayer.

1. Anybody can pray.
2. Prayer connects us both to God and to one another.
3. There is power in prayer. There is power in our own prayers – and there is power in knowing that other people are praying for us as well.

As often as I get asked to pray, I also get asked how to pray. And like there is no simple answer to the question of prayer, there is also no instruction manual on how to pray. But I can offer some suggestions to get you started.

First remember that prayer does not have to take on a specific form. It does not have to follow a particular structure or formula. It does not have to look a certain way, sound a certain way or feel a certain way. Prayer does not have to happen in a certain time and place. It does not always need to happen within the walls of the church – in fact, it desperately needs to happen outside the walls of the church.

Let your guard down when you pray. There is no right or wrong way to pray. You are not being graded on your prayers. God is not judging your prayers; God is hearing your prayers.

Do not try to mimic anybody else in your prayers. Be you; pray your prayers; pray in a way that is comfortable to you and an expression of the faithful person that you are.

Use your time of prayer as an opportunity to have a conversation – a conversation with God, a conversation with yourself or even a conversation with someone else.

Be honest in your prayers. God does not gossip; you have no reason to hide the truth. I urge you to open yourself up completely – you will be truly amazed by God’s ability to transform even the rawest of prayers.

When you pray, start where you are comfortable. If you want to pray and do not know how to start, say the Lord’s Prayer. Read a psalm. Sing or listen to a hymn or a song. Write a letter to God as if you were writing to a family member. Read it out loud – or don’t. Open your mouth and just let the words flow, remembering that no one except God can hear you.

There is no easy answer to the question, “What is prayer?” I wish there was. But if I have learned anything from these texts from 1 Samuel, from other passages in scripture and from years and years of witnessing – both in my lifetime and in the stories I have been told – what happens when men and women fall on their knees in prayer, it is that prayer changes lives. I do not always know where, when or how. But I do know that at the intersection of prayer and this human world that we live in, you will find a road that leads to the most amazing grace.

May your prayers inspire, transform and unite in your life – and in the lives of the people around you.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.