Sharing The Good News

I preached this sermon at the installation of the Rev. Dr. Gregory Gray as the pastor of the Thompson Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.  I was so honored he asked me to preach!  It kind of felt like a full-circle moment, because I preached at his husband Jon’s installation in 2013 – at the time, Greg was still in Georgia!  It’s crazy to look back at how far we – and our churches! – have come since them.

***

Sarah Weaver
Thompson Congregational Church
Thompson, CT
September 16, 2018

Psalm 9
Isaiah 61:1-4
Romans 10:5-15
Luke 4:14-21

Sharing This Good News

I hope the prophet Isaiah will forgive me, but I felt compelled to paraphrase his words, just a bit …

The Holy Spirit has come upon me,
because the Rev. Dr. Greg Gray has asked me to preach at his installation;
he has called me to preach the Gospel to everyone who has gathered here today,
to encourage those in this congregation, wherever they are on their journey through life,
to proclaim an official end to the transition time between settled pastors,
and to tell the church that something really amazing is happening in their midst;
to proclaim a time of new beginnings
a celebration of the conclusion of one chapter;
and the beginning of a new one;
to reassure you that this new chapter is full of great possibilities, grace that is still yet to be uncovered and hope that surpasses all understanding—
to give you courage in the face of adversity,
joy and gratefulness instead of fear and frustration,
a bold voice of praise and thanksgiving instead of a trepid heart.
They will be called Thompson Congregational, United Church of Christ,
the church called to show this community what it means to love God will all your hearts, soul, mind and strength; as well to love your neighbors just as much. And also what it means to teach this love to others creating new disciples.
They shall continue their efforts to re-build after the fire,
they shall repair not only the physical space, but the spiritual space, as well;
they shall repair the building that has been damaged,
but hold fast to the truth that their community is and will be strengthened and lifted up by God and God alone; for they are the Church, the Body of Christ, Thompson Congregational, United Church of Christ.

Friends, allow me to introduce myself – I am the Rev. Sarah Weaver; I am the pastor of the Rehoboth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Rehoboth, MA.  I bring greetings and congratulations from my congregation, who – seven years later – still remembers what it feels like to take a giant exhale when the search process and transition between settled pastors was finally over.

So let’s start off by taking that big exhale, shall we?

It is an honor and a privilege and a joy to be here with you all this afternoon.  Greg, I never shared this with you, but I was truly touched that you asked me to preach today; that you trusted me with this moment, what I know is an important moment for you all, as a church.  So thank you, Greg, thank you, Thompson Congregational Church and thank you to the Windham Association for welcoming me here today.

“Hope is the belief in the good that is yet to come. It is the thing that gives us the courage to keep going forward.”

I am quoting two of your own members from a video called “Advent Hope” that was posted on your church Facebook page last December.  Greg opened the video with images from during and immediately following the devastating fire you experienced in 2016, but then, in a bold testament to the strength and perseverance of this church, said these powerful words:

“But we still find hope here.”

You were asked to answer the question, “What does hope mean to you?” and I was so touched by those two responses, “Hope is the belief in the good that is yet to come” and, “Hope is the thing that gives us the courage keep going forward,” because they showed me that, even in times of uncertainty, you know that God is still calling you to journey forward. Thompson Congregational Church, you havethat hope that surpasses all understanding; hope that your story is not over yet, hope that you will rebuild, hope that your church will not only survive, but thrive in the days and weeks and months and years to come, generation after generation.

Our Gospel reading comes to us from the Gospel of Luke, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.  He began his ministry by reading the same words that we just heard read from the Prophet Isaiah.  What I love about looking at these two passages next to one another is that it reminds us – it reassures us – that these prophesies were not a one-time thing; that they can still be fulfilled today.  These words were just as relevant to those that Jesus spoke to as the ones Isaiah was prophesying to.

And they are just as relevant to us here today.

You, Thompson Congregational Church, are being given garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning. Installing Greg as your settled pastor will affirm what God has known to be true all along; that the hope you spoke about in last year’s Advent video is alive and not only inspiring you to rebuild, but also to continue to proclaim the Good News.

Because here is the really cool thing about you guys – you did not let a fire stop you from being the Church.

When Greg first asked me to preach today, I told him that I really wanted to come out and visit at some point so I could get to know you all before today.  But, life happened – and, of course, it is hard for pastors to be with other churches on Sunday mornings – and I never got to come out.  So this past week, I have been trying to get to know you virtually.  I clicked through your website and Facebook page and various articles that came up in a google search.  I looked through pictures and watched videos; and I was inspired by what I saw.

You see, I kind of expected to see more about the fire; about how the church was affected and what is going to happen next. But do you know what I saw instead?

A church that blesses backpacks that are going to be donated to the local schools, first responders in the community and animals, both small and large.

A church that is committed to making a stand against bullying, participating in anti-bullying rallies and offering support to children and youth in the community.

A church that reaches out to individuals and families who have been impacted by addiction through the Holbrook Fund.

A church that collaborates with civic organizations and the local recreation department to host events that are fun for people of all ages.  A church that knows that the true depth of their strength does not come from what happens inside their walls, but outside in the community.

A church that believes in the power of singing together and praying together and eating together.

Thompson Congregational Church, even in the face of adversity, you have continued to look outward.  You have continued to respond to Christ’s call to love God and then love others.  You have continued to proclaim the Good News of God’s love, light and grace and, as Paul wrote to the church in Roman, “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

And there are beautiful, beautiful feet in this congregation.

Which brings me to my next point.

Paul told the church in Rome that people will not hear the Good News without someone proclaiming it to them.  And this is a charge that we all need to take seriously today.  Christianity is an experiential and a shared religion; 2,000 years ago, the only reason people knew that Christ had risen was because the women who experienced the Risen Christ went and told other people about it.

And that piece of our faith – the piece where we tell others what we have experienced and how our faith (and, specifically, our church) has changed our lives – is more important now than it ever has been.

Paul said that, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the death, you will be saved.”  Thompson Congregational Church, there is an amazing story that is being written here; a story of hope, a story of resurrection and a story of new possibilities. You need to confess that story with your lips; you need to tell your family and your friends, your neighbors and your coworkers.  You need to tell the people that you know and the strangers that you have just met.

You have to tell people about the ways that God has worked within this church and the ways that God is still working within this church; the ways that God has kept hope alive in this church, the ways that the God that you put your faith and trust in has never left your side.  Display the glory of God, like Isaiah prophesied. Bring this Good News to your community; invite people into your story; pray that their lives might be changed, too.

Greg, I have two gifts for you this morning. The first is a framed print of that passage from Romans, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Because I think this passage is going to define a lot of what you all do here at Thompson Congregational Church.

And I am not just talking about your shoe collection, either.

Because of devastating circumstances, you all understand that a church is more than its building; you all understand what it means to be church and to do church out in the community.  You know that it takes collaboration, creativity, patience.  You believe that it is the hard work you do, but also the grace God gives that enables you to make a difference.  You all are ready to march, dance, stroll, crawl and skip out into the community and bring the Good News.

And I, for one, cannot wait to see how the community will be changed.

The second gift I have for you this morning comes from a stained glass artist in Chepachet, Rhode Island.  You see, one of the things I have always been drawn to is the sun rising behind the church in your logo.  Because it reminds me that, even in the darkest part of night, the sun will always rise again.

As Christians, we hold fast to the truth that, even in the darkest moments of our lives, the Son – S-O-N – will always rise again.  The Good News that he preached, that he lived out and that he called us into will rise up above all else.

This is the Good News, friends.  This is the Good News.

And it is time to share it with the world.

Congratulations, Thompson Congregational Church.  Continue the work that has already started.  Hold onto that hope you spoke so poignantly of last year.  May your ashes be turn into garland; your mourning into gladness; your faint spirit into a mantle of praise.

And may your feet be beautiful as they are called to bring the Good News.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

 

Finding Balance In The Seasons

One of the great things about posting these months later is that I get to go back and read what I wrote and gahhhhh – I needed to read this today. I think I understand my own words now more than I did back in July. <3

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 1, 2018

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Finding Balance In The Seasons

One of the things that was really hard for me when Harrison was born, particularly after I went back to work, was adjusting to this new normal when it came to everyday life.  Bruce and I had been married for eight years; I had been in ministry for six years.  We had our routines when it came to how we organized our schedules and approached our jobs and spent our money and visited with our family and friends.  When Harrison was born, we entered a new season of life, one where we had to coordinate our schedules a little bit better, monitor our money more closely and give up some of the extracurricular activities that we were used to doing.

And that was hard, not because I/we did not want to do it, but because it was hard to actually do it.  Change is hard; finding a new balance is hard; figuring out where you and your ability to give of yourself fits into your current season of life is not always easy.

While this was not really what Paul was talking about in this morning’s scripture reading (I am pretty sure Paul was not concerned about childcare, although he could have just left that part out), I did feel an odd kinship when Paul wrote in verse 13, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”[1]  Because isn’t that is what life is all about?  Finding a balance between our abundances and our needs and then balancing those abundances and needs with the abundances and the needs of others as we all journey through the different seasons of life?

Our scripture reading for this morning comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  You may remember from last week that I said one of the theories as to why Paul wrote this letter was an attempt to raise money in Corinth.  The passage we just heard lends credence to that theory.  Paul wrote, “Now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”[2]

In other words:  Corinth, church, you are really good at a lot of things.  But I also want you to be really good at giving us money.

(Which, by the way, is a pretty genius stewardship technique, so I would caution you all come November if I start a sermon by listing off all of your accomplishments.)

For Paul, this was not just about raising money specifically for the church in Corinth.  He was trying to raise money for the “mother church” in Jerusalem, which did not have a lot of money.  The Corinthian community was quite a bit wealthier and had the potential to sustain, not only their church, but also other churches Paul had relationships with. Paul was soliciting the Corinthians to give money to both their church and also other churches, as well.

The question, of course, was, were they willing to do that?

Here’s the thing:  I think more than just saying that because the Corinthians had more money, they should give more money, Paul was also simply saying that the Corinthians were in a different season in the life of their community and therefore had they had the ability to give in a way that, perhaps, the other churches could not. The Corinthians had an abundance; and so because they had an abundance and others had a need, they should give of some of that abundance.

The Corinthians were in a season of life where they were able to give more.

And so that was what Paul called them to do.

“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”  Was Paul talking about money?  Yes.  But let’s think about it even more broadly than that.

I used to have an abundance of time and energy (and flexibility in those things).  I prided myself on being able to work around other peoples’ schedules and still get done what I needed to get done.  But when Harrison was born, some of that abundance went away and suddenly I had a real need for time and energy (and patience and money and knowledge and, more often than not, a shower).  I even preached a sermon about this new need in August – my second sermon back from maternity leave – where I talked about how we need to lean on God as we travel unfamiliar paths.

And what I have found over the past year is that sometimes leaning on God means leaning on the Body of Christ.  Sometimes leaning of God looks an awful lot like leaning on the people around you who are in a season of life where they have an abundance and can give of that abundance in the spirit of God’s love.  Over the past year, Bruce and I have been blessed by people who have shown up to babysit, feed us and help us around the house(s).  We have been humbled by everyone’s flexibility and their grace when we are overwhelmed and fall short.  We are so grateful for the generosity of others who have given of their abundance to us in our season of need.

Because that is what it is – a season.

I have thought a lot lately about how I can somehow pay people back for all they have given to me in this season of life and the conclusion that I have come to – partially as a result of reading this scripture – is that that the reason the Body of Christ works is because we are all notin the same season of life at the same time.  The reason the Body of Christ is so beautifully and gracefully effective is because, at different times, we are able to play different roles for another, to be there for one another, to give of our abundance to others in their times of need.

This is why the church functions.  Because at different points throughout all of our journeys, we all play different roles.  There are moments in our lives when we have extra time to give to the church. There are moments in our lives when we have extra money to give to the church.  There are moments in our lives when we have extra wisdom or services to give to the church.

And there are moments in our lives when we need the church to meet us in our time of need.

Ministry is not about doing all the things all the time, it is about finding balance in these difference seasons and listening to what God is calling us to do as we journey through them.

And the really cool part about the way God works is that, no matter what season of life we are in, we will always be able to both give and receive.  Because here’s the thing – what I have also learned over the past year is that, while I do not have the same abundances that I used to have, I have new abundances in this season of life and I am able to meet different needs that people have.  As we journey through life, our seasons may change. But our God – our God that calls us to love and serve one another using the gifts that God has given to us, our God that created us to take care of another – never changes.  God is steadfast.  I have been blessed to uncover new abundances in this season of life that I am in – ways to give back that I never knew I could before.

So this morning I want you to do me a favor. Think about where your abundances lie. You might not have a lot of them and you might not have them where you want to have them or are used to have. Or you might unexpectedly have a lot of them.  But wherever those abundance lie – give of them.

And then think about where your needs lie. You might have many or you might have few.  But let others help you in your time of need.  Let yourself be served by the Body of Christ; by the individuals God has called to be the hands, feet, face and voice of Christ to those in need.

So, let us, like Paul wrote, find a fair balance between our abundances and our needs.  Let us use the gifts we have in this particular season in life to meet the needs of others and let us allow others to serve us in our time of need. Let us head the call of the Gospel and continue to foster nurturing and growth within our church family, creating community in God’s love and then taking care of that community.  Let us receive help from others when we need it. And let us marvel at the way the Body of Christ works so that all of God’s children are met in their times of need; so that we know that we are created, redeemed and sustained in God’s image and cared for along the journey.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]2 Corinthians 8:13-14, NRSV
[2]2 Corinthians 8:7, NRSV

When It’s Not Easy

I have officially gotten myself caught up on posting my Year Of Mark sermons that I missed in the great hard drive crash of 2018 and now I am 7 sermons away from being fully caught up!  This is a sermon from June – we were in the middle of our home renovation and it was about a week before my computer crashed!  It’s strange to look at a sermon from one of Paul’s letters – I’m so used to preaching out of Mark right now!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
June 24, 2018

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

When It’s Not Easy

I never know how to preach in the middle of a political uprising in our country.

It’s hard, because I love and want to protect the safety of our space here; a nonpartisan space where we invite, welcome and affirm all people and their beliefs.  I think it is a beautiful expression of the Gospel to sit and worship among people with whom we might not always agree with; to embrace and break bread with one another, even though we might not share the same viewpoints.

I also believe that the ability I have to stand behind a pulpit every week and preach to a congregation is a privilege; one that comes with great responsibility.  I would never want to use my pulpit as a political soapbox that might offend someone or make them feel unsafe or unwelcome.

(And I am not going to this morning, so nobody walk out on me!)

That being said, I – like so many – have been devastated by the heartbreaking images and the videos and the sound bites that have come out of our country’s border facilities over the past two weeks.  To not mention what is happening in our country and what so many of us are already thinking about seems inauthentic and irrelevant.

The challenge for me here, today is that I do not have a solution.  I do not know enough about immigration policy to speak with any kind of authority on it, nor do I think that would be helpful.  I know it is more complicated than my own personal feelings about it.  And I also know – based on a “warm” conversation (I won’t quite say, “heated” conversation – I’ll stick with warm) we got into about it at bible study on Tuesday – that people’s thoughts and opinions on this are complicated and all over the place.

But I will say this:  We live in a broken world.  And that brokenness does not come from any one particular leader or political party or policy; at its core, it comes from who we are, as human beings.  It is because of our brokenness that Jesus came into this world 2,000 years ago and it is because of our brokenness that we need to still proclaim the Gospel today.  It is because of our brokenness that we needed – and still need – to be redeemed, to be saved.  It is because of our brokenness that we need to come together and do church.

But this is not easy.  It is not easy for me to stand up here and talk about something that I know people have mixed feelings and opinions on.  It was not easy for us to get back on track after our discussion in bible study on Tuesday.  As a country, it is not easy for us to wrestle with issues surrounding immigration policies; and it is not easy, then, for us to talk about these issues in our day-to-day lives – with our family and friends, in our communities, at church.

In a way, Paul eluded to this challenge of doing church in trying times in his second letter to the Corinthians, which our scripture reading for this morning comes from.  He said:

As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way:  through great endurance, in afflictions, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights [and] hunger.[1]

Paul was saying that this call to live out the Christian faith has not been an easy one thus far.  They had endured intense hardships and faced challenges along the way.

I do not usually talk about political issues from the pulpit, because I know our congregation is extremely diverse and it is not easy to do that.  And here’s the thing, I am not really not offering any solution today or even giving my opinion about it; I am just acknowledging that we are all kind of feeling it right now.  And it is not easy for me to do this, but Paul said in this letter that this whole church thing was not necessarily going to be easy.

So I think it is important for us to be together in this space and hold this issue of immigration in God’s light.

Because I think, if we can do that, then we are really starting to get at the kind of church work that Paul is describing in this letter.

This letter is addressed to the church in Corinth, a church that Paul, himself established.  There are many different interpretations of 2 Corinthians and theories as to why Paul wrote it in the first place.  Some people believe Paul wrote it after receiving some new and troubling information about the church.  Some people believe Paul was addressing various issues within the community. Some people believe Paul used this letter to defend himself against his opponents in Corinth.  And some people believe this letter was for purposes of fundraising.

Regardless of the “why,” it is clear that Paul felt deeply the true cost and weight of discipleship.  He knew that it was not easy to live out Jesus’ call.  He knew that it was not easy to come together with other people and do the hard work that is required to proclaim the Gospel to a broken world.

And yet, he still encouraged the church in Corinth to push forward.  “Do not accept the grace of God in vain,” he wrote.  “Now is the acceptable time … now is the day of salvation!”

I can almost hear Paul saying:  We need you.  We are broken, but the church can heal our brokenness.  We can be saved.  And I know that it is not easy, but keep going, because this is all worth fighting for.

And I think these words are SO very relevant today as we seek unity within our country – and even within our smaller communities.  Now is the time to come together.  Now is the time to do the hard work that is required to build communities in God’s love and to proclaim the Gospel to a world that is broken.  Now is the time to not only talk about our faith, but to live it out, as well; to not only talk about Jesus and his life and ministry, but emulate him in our own lives, as well.  Now is the time to find similarities that unite us so that we can come together and do the work God is calling us to do.  And I know it is not easy, but Paul believed in the church then and I believe in the church today.

I was selling some furniture this weekend that we are not taking with us to the new house and one of the pieces that we got rid of was an old curio cabinet.  When I listed it (I put everything on Facebook Marketplace), I searched for other curio cabinets to see what the market was and I was initially discouraged by the number of other listings there were for cabinets that were similar. By the end of the night, I had not gotten any messages about it and I thought to myself, “Okay, I might have to find another way to get rid of this piece.”

However, the next day I received a message from a woman asking if it was still available and if I could call her if it was.  I called her that night and we made arrangements for her and her husband to pick it up the next day.  She said to me, “I am so excited; I have a beautiful collection of Jesus figurines that have been in storage for two years and I have been looking for something that I can display them in.

First of all, what are the odds that this woman happened to find the one minister that was selling a curio cabinet in the area?

But anyway, she and her husband came to the parsonage yesterday to pick up the cabinet.  She was telling me about the collection she was going to put in it, which led us into a conversation about what it means to put up visual reminders of Jesus in our homes and how we try to live out our faith versus just talking about it.  As they were getting ready to leave, her husband turned to me and said, “Thank you! Jesus has a place again!”

I laughed at the time, because it was such a funny way to put it, but I also think he was onto something perhaps a little bit deeper than a collection of figurines.  I think in our world today, we do not often create a space for Jesus, we do not look deeply and boldly at what the Gospel is calling us to do.  We are not willing to make sacrifices or give up some of what we have.  We like a church and a faith that is easy and that serves us; not one that challenges us to our very core and pushes us to try harder.

But see, that is what Paul was getting at. That is the type of church Paul established and wanted to see thrive:  The kind of church that existed not to make the world an easy place to live, but to make the world a better place to live.  The kind of church that pushed people to the boundaries of their comfort levels and stretched those boundaries just a little bit more each time. The kind of church that would search the depths of their communities to find people in their darkest moments and shine God’s light into their world so that everyone – no matter who they are or where they are on their journey through life – would know that they are loved and cherished by God.

But this kind of church is not easy.  And Paul said it himself – they endured calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger and more.

But Paul did not end there when he described what they had been experience.  Paul kept writing after he talked about the challenges they faced:

As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way:  through great endurance, in afflictions, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights [and] hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.[2]

It is so important to remember that in Paul’s eyes, the adversities he faced were inextricably linked with the virtues that he also held onto, virtues that he believed were gifts of God.  No, it was not easy, but yes, God’s grace was still woven through the fabric of their movements as they did the work God was calling them to do.

So no; this whole church thing was (is) not easy – it was never supposed to be.  But within the challenges we face – as a community, as a church, as a nation, as a world, even within our own family units and circles of friends – we also must hold fast to purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.

Because I think then – and only then, when we allow adversities to work alongside the virtues given to us by God – is when we really start to do church and transform the world.

Friends, today I think we need to pray for our country, we need to pray for our world and we need to pray for our church and what God is calling us to do, whatever that may be.  We need to pray for one another and prayerfully discern how we can help to positively impact the lives of the people that are sitting around us right now.  I truly believe that even when there are big things happening that we cannot change, we can make a difference right here in our midst.

So let us journey forward and do the hard work to create this type of church that Paul so desperately believed was possible. Let’s make a place for Jesus again.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]2 Corinthians 6:4-4, NRSV
[2]2 Corinthians 6:4-7, NRSV