Dead Ends

Hello!  I love having my little podcast schedule kind of of force me to get these sermons posted by Sunday night.  I was always so bad about it before.

We are on week 5 of the sermon series, Bootcamp for the Soul and this week the theme is Dead Ends.  I’m really enjoying the prompts for these sermons and I hope you all are enjoying them as well!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 2, 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14
John 11:1-45

Dead Ends (Sermon Series: Boot Camp For The Soul)

Over the past few months, several people have recommended to me the television show, Call the Midwife, which a BBC drama that premiered in 2012 and follows a community of midwives and nurses, half of whom are nuns, in East End London in the 1950’s. And while I am not entirely convinced it is a good idea for a pregnant woman to watch a show where the storyline frequently highlights varying degrees of pregnancy and delivery complications, curiosity got the better of me this week (and I do love British accents), so I watched the first few episodes.

There was an episode where a woman had fallen and suffered a concussion that caused her to go into pre-term labor. When she delivered, the baby was stillborn. The midwife tended to the woman while her husband and one of their other children wept at her bedside. The scene progressed quietly when all of a sudden a cry was heard. Against all odds, the baby was alive.

While I understand that this is a television show and anything can happen when producers and screenwriters are in charge of the storyline, as I watched this episode, I could not help but think about the fact that, in life, we never really know where grace might lie. This scene highlights, I think, the deep and profound theological truth that sometimes when all else seems lost, hope can still be found.

This truth is what strengthens the foundation of who we are as Christians; of who we are as people of the resurrection.

Our two scripture readings for this morning are stories of resurrection that, for all intents and purposes, are kind of unbelievable. We started in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel. To be honest, we do not often end up in this book, as it is one that has perplexed theologians (and, quite frankly, me) for years. Ezekiel comes from a priestly lineage, but then becomes a prophet. Throughout the entire book he sees really strange things and then prophesies some dangerous messages.

Take the passage we just heard, for example. It was described in one commentary I read as, “one of the most imaginatively dramatic readings in all scripture.”[1] The prophet Ezekiel has a vision where he is brought into a valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones; he does this and hears a noise. The bones start rattling and come together; flesh grows on them and God breathes breath into them.

You can see why this one perplexes me.

But then we moved into the Gospel of John, which records the resurrection of a man named Lazarus. While I have spent much more time preaching out of this book of the bible, I have made it no secret that this story has always perplexed me, as well.

Lazarus has been dead for four days when Jesus arrive his village of Bethany. Martha tells Jesus he is too late, that the corpse is already starting to smell. But Jesus encourages her to believe, calls to Lazarus to come out and Lazarus walks out of the tomb.

These are not stories of miraculous healing, of being cured of some awful disease or even of a body dying for a few moments and then resuming its breath and heartbeat. These are stories of resurrection; stories where death seems to have the final word and God proves otherwise, stories where bones are dry and corpses have decayed and yet life is found. Here scripture teaches us of the bold and remarkable truth that when it comes to God, death does not have the final word.

Before Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”[2] These stories – albeit strange – call us to believe. They call us to look beyond our human and earthly understandings of life and death and see the glory of God. They call us to expand our expectations of the capacity we have within ourselves for God’s work to be done.

And I think these stories call us not only to believe in their resurrection, but also to believe in our own personal resurrection, as well.

We are on week five of our Lenten sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul and this morning our theme is, Dead Ends. While our scriptures address a much more literal understanding of a dead end, I think it is safe to say we have all kind of “been there” at some point in our lives, whether it be personally, professionally, relationally, medically, financially or in another way. We have all suffered heartbreaking losses, unspeakable tragedies and frustrating obstacles. We have all gotten to a point in our journeys where we feel as though we are not simply at a crossroads, but facing a dead end with nowhere left to go. These are the moments when all hope seems lost. The circumstances might be different for each of us, but the questions are the same: Where do we go from here? How do we go on?

These are not easy questions for us to think about; but the Lenten journey is not necessarily supposed to be an easy one, it is supposed to be a transformative one. Lent is about allowing ourselves to be the most broken and vulnerable version of ourselves – just as Jesus was on the cross – so that God can make us whole again. We face our dead ends without fear knowing that God is always capable of a new beginning.

We are people of the resurrection. The dead ends we face do not make us inadequate or unworthy of God’s grace; in fact, I think it is our brokenness that allows us to be more open to God’s grace.

These two scriptures – Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones and the resurrection of Lazarus – teach us that when all seems lost, God’s hope is still alive. Always! Death does not and will not have the final word.

I know this is hard to believe sometimes; there are in our earthly lives when it seems as though death, darkness, pain, anxiety, frustration, grief and suffering do have the final word.

In fact, many of us may be experiencing some of things right now.

But scripture teaches us that the dead ends we face here and now are not the end. From dry bones, came a body that new life was breathed into. From a decaying corpse came the resurrection of a man people were already mourning. And from the darkness of the challenges we face, light will shine.

What dead end are you facing at the moment? Where do you feel stuck? Are you grieving a loss? Trying to overcome a hurdle? Seeking a change to the course you are on?

This Lent – and this morning, especially – we are reminded that when God is involved, death never has the final word. Grief, sadness, frustration, struggles, anxiety, conflict and pain do not have the final word. God is stronger than all of them.

And God gives us that strength, as well.

We will find those moments of grace. We will find a renewed strength. We will experience resurrection. We will not be defined by the struggles of our earthly circumstances, but by the love of our resurrecting and redeeming God.

The dead ends we face will not be the end of our story. Our journey will continue.

So may resurrection be something that you not only find in scripture (or in British dramas). May you find, experience and be made whole by resurrection in your own lives, as well.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, page. 123
[2] John 11:40, NRSV

Giving Thanks For A God That Fights For Us

Hello and Happy (almost) Thanksgiving! Here is this morning’s sermon – a combination of Thanksgiving / Reign of Christ Sunday.

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
November 23, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ephesians 1:15-23

Giving Thanks For A God That Fights For Us

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

I wonder if anyone has ever done a study to determine what holiday most Americans prefer. I cannot speak with any kind of authority on this, but I would be willing to bet that a lot of people would choose Thanksgiving. It is a holiday where we are called to give thanks – nothing else matters.

We do not have to fight crowds and traffic in our quest to find the perfect gift for everyone on our list. We do not have to balance holiday parties, concerts and worship services with travel and family time. We do not have to worry about what we are spending on gifts and whether or not we will be able to make other ends meet.

No; on Thanksgiving, we celebrate with family, friends, food and the occasional Turkey Trot (by the way, please pray for those of us running in Pawtucket on Thursday morning!). We give thanks because it is the only time all year when no one expects us to do anything else.

This year, as the pastor of this church, I am giving thanks for so many things. I give thanks for new members, for a renewed spirit and for music that fills our worship service with joy, week after week. I give thanks for children who make me laugh and for youth who inspire me to do more. I give thanks for the great cloud of witnesses who have come before us and for the new generation that is excited to journey forward. I give thanks for a dedicated staff and for faithful volunteers. I give thanks for a God that is always present, always loving and always faithful, even in my darkest moments.

This morning’s reading from the Old Testament comes from the prophet Ezekiel, a Hebrew prophet in the 6th and 7th centuries BCE. Ezekiel prophesied during a time of great turmoil. Israel was in crisis: Jerusalem had been destroyed, the temple was gone and the Hebrew people had fundamental theological and political reasons to believe that God had abandoned them.

But Ezekiel assured the Hebrew people that God was most certainly still in their midst. He used the metaphor of God as a shepherd – one that most of us are familiar with from the 23rd psalm – to create a tangible understanding of what it means for God to protect us.

But more than that, Ezekiel’s description of God was a far cry from simply the gentle shepherd that we all imagine from the 23rd psalm or the image that hangs in many churches of Jesus softly tending to his flock of sheep at sunset.

(You all know the one I am talking about, right? Jesus is wearing a flowing white robe and cradling a sheep like a mother would cradle her newborn; it is simply precious and practically emanates the song, Jesus loves me.)

Yes, Ezekiel described God as that gentle shepherd that would feed his sheep in good pastures, watch over them as they slept, bring back those who were lost, heal the injured and strengthen the weak, but there was a also a bit of a harsher side to the shepherd that Ezekiel described. Ezekiel described God as the shepherd that would fight – really and truly fight – for his flock.

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. {Ezekiel 34:20-22, NRSV}

A shepherd’s job was not easy. It required strength, it required courage and it required a bold declaration and expression of love for their flock. The Hebrew people knew this. They understood what Ezekiel was trying to tell them. God was fighting for them. God was stronger than the crisis that they were experiencing. And God was never going to leave their side.

This morning is Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the last Sunday in the Christian year; a new year begins next week with the first Sunday of Advent and our Hanging of the Greens worship service. Some traditions refer to this Sunday as Christ the King Sunday. It is a time when we reach the end of one year in the church and – before the hustle and bustle of the Advent season inevitably begins – we give thanks for the all powerful, all willing and all encompassing love and power of Jesus Christ. We remember and give thanks for that moment in time when God broke through our imperfect humanity and made visible the invisible signs of his perfect grace. We give thanks that Jesus lived among us, but more so we give thanks that Christ now reigns above us.

We give thanks for the love of Jesus Christ: our brother, King and Savior; the Son of God; the alpha and omega; the beginning and end. We give thanks for a God that loves us so much that he would live and dwell among us, that he would be humbled in the midst of our imperfections by his death on the cross and that he would sustain us, even when we stumble along our journey.

We give thanks for the story of a faith that is still being written, for a God that is still revealing himself and for the great cloud of witnesses that were and are committed to sharing and living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their lives.

We, too, give thanks for a shepherd that fights for us, that is stronger than whatever life throws at us and who will never leave our side.

In today’s reading from the New Testament, Paul proclaimed to the church in Ephesus that God’s extravagant shepherding love had been proven through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; that we, as a human race, had been given a tangible sign of God’s immeasurable power; and that the world would never be the same.

God has put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. {Ephesians 1:20-21, NRSV}

Paul saw that the Ephesian people were part of the great Christian mystery that was still unfolding and he was thankful.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. {Ephesians 1:15-16}

Paul saw a new generation of Christian disciples emerging and for that he gave thanks. He gave thanks that the church in Ephesus was one of commitment, courage and belief in the great shepherd. And he prayed that this commitment, courage and belief would only be strengthened as the people in Ephesus came to know Jesus on a deeper level; Jesus – their brother, King and Savior; the Son of God; the alpha and omega; the beginning and end.

Part of being Christian means standing behind the bold proclamation that God is doing something spectacular in our midst. It means letting go of the things that are pulling us down and quieting our lives so that we can hear God speaking to us. It means not being afraid to acknowledge Christ above others and to live a life worthy of the sacrifice that he made. It means trusting – even in our darkest of moments – that God is fighting for us.

As you gather with your family and your friends this week, I invite you to pause and allow yourself to really soak up the moment of pure thanks that this holiday gives to us. Be grateful for the life that you are living and for the privilege of being a blessed child of God.

Give thanks to our shepherding God for reminding us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we can overcome death to find resurrection, war to find peace, hatred to find love and tragedy to find hope.

This is what God is fighting for. This is what God fought for 3,000 years ago when Ezekiel stood before a broken Israel and this is what God is continuing to fight for today as I stand before you on this Reign of Christ Thanksgiving Sunday.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends! Have a safe and wonderful celebration! May it be a time of celebration, renewal and great thanks.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Measuring Our Own Faithfulness

Every time I preach from Ezekiel I think of the song, “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel”.  I think I sang the song in an ensemble in middle school, so I can’t imagine why I still remember it.  Music is funny like that … :)

Enjoy the sermon!

Ezekiel 2:1-5

Measuring Our Own Faithfulness

A few months ago, the high school youth group and I watched the movie, Faith Like Potatoes. The movie was based on an inspiring true story of a farmer named Angus Buchan who found faith along his journey through life. The movie synopsis reads:

A farmer moves his family to South Africa and suffers a series of seemingly insurmountable losses. Through unlikely friendships and much needed divine intervention, he discovers his life’s true purpose and it sustains his unwavering belief in the power of faith. A moving life journey of a man who, like his potatoes, grows his faith, unseen until the harvest.

The movie was very well done. It was based on the book, Faith Like Potatoes, that Buchan had written about his faith journey. Buchan has also gone on to write several other books and devotionals about what it is like to live and farm fully relying on God’s grace and goodness.

Bruce and I tried our luck at growing potatoes last year. To be quite honest, it was kind of a frustrating process for a Type A person like me. You literally have to plant the potatoes at the beginning of the season and then leave them alone throughout the harvest. You cannot dig them up to see how they are doing; you cannot check them every day and watch them grow. You have to have faith that they are growing under the mounds that you created and wait until the end of the season to see if you have a good crop.

In the movie – and in real life when Angus and his family were living out the story – Angus was at the end of a very difficult harvest. There had been very little rain, nothing was growing, all of the locals were losing money and Angus’ family had suffered some very tragic losses. The only hope that they had left was their potato crop, which they could not see; they did not know what their future held.

The fun / exciting / scary / potentially devastating part of potato farming comes when you go to actually dig your potatoes out of the ground. You have no idea what lies within the dirt; you just start digging and see what you find. At the end of the movie, Angus invited a friend of his to join him in his potato fields for a prayer before they started to dig. They prayed, they took a deep breath and then they started to dig.

Now, technically I am giving away the ending of the movie here (although with a name like ‘Faith Like Potatoes’ I am sure you can all see where this is going), but this is the point in the movie where we begin to understand the metaphor of harvesting potatoes and developing our faith. Even though their future was uncertain, their faith remained strong up until the point where they began to dig. And the potatoes had grown – obviously. They were large and numerous. The harvest was more than anyone could have ever imagined; Angus, his family and the entire community had hope for the future.

Our faith is like growing potatoes. It is hard to measure, hard to see. But it grows – and we reap what we sow in the most unexpected of places.

This was actually my favorite part of the movie when I was watching it with the youth group, because it was at this point when one of them sat up suddenly and said, “Ohhhhhh. Faith is like potatoes. The potatoes aren’t faith-like!” (This actually launched weeks of discussion about what a potato that is faith-like actually looks like, but that is an illustration for another sermon).

Today’s scripture is from the Old Testament, from the prophetic book of Ezekiel. Our reading comes from the beginning of the book; we are listening to the God commissioning the prophet Ezekiel into ministry. “O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you,” God says to Ezekiel. “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.” “The descendants are impudent and stubborn,” God explains. “I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’”

God called Ezekiel to minister to this rebellious nation of Israel. This, in and of itself, is not abnormal – speaking on behalf the divine to a nation in need is something prophets had been called to do for years. The interesting part about Ezekiel’s call, however, was the fact that God told Ezekiel that it did not matter if Israel actually listened to him and changed in his presence. “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house),” God said, “they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

Now I am no prophet, but I would imagine that this is one of the most difficult ways to be called into the ministry. Ezekiel was called to speak to this nation, to point out their rebellious ways and to rebuke them – but God told Ezekiel from the very beginning that he might not be successful. Can you imagine going into something knowing that you were going to have to work extremely hard and yet not see any progress made? How difficult it must have been for Ezekiel to accept this call to prophesy knowing he would not be able to measure his successes or failures.

The Feasting On The Word commentary series looked into this very notion of measurement in regards to this passage. “Called to Faithfulness,” the subheading read.

We live in a culture obsessed with measurements and statistics. It begins at birth, when a child scarcely out of the womb is weighed and measured, and continues throughout our lives. We measure test scores, cholesterol levels, investments portfolios. We count, we track, and we compare in almost every area of our lives. Often we make these measures because we want to be successful. We want to know that our efforts make a difference.

(The Rev. Leanne Pearce Reed, who is a minister in the Presbyterian Church, wrote the commentary on this passage. While I think her list of what we measure is enormously extensive, I would also like to add measuring baseball statistics and stewardship pledges to my particular context of ministry.)

Rev. Reed continues:

To contemporary ears, then, God’s commission to Ezekiel may sound very strange indeed—for God seems to have a different notion of success. Ezekiel’s call is to speak God’s word to the people of Israel “whether they hear or refuse to hear” (2:5). The people’s response is not Ezekiel’s primary concern. His success will not be measured by the outcome of his preaching. His effectiveness will not be judged on how many people believe him or the number who repent instead of rebel. He will not be judged on whether the temple is raised or lost, whether Jerusalem rises or falls. Rather, Ezekiel is asked to answer God’s call and speak the word of the Lord, no matter what the result.

“Rather, Ezekiel is asked to answer God’s call and speak the word of the Lord, no matter what the result.” What a difficult challenge not only for Ezekiel thousands of years ago, but also for each and every one of us as we read those words again today! “Whether they hear or refuse to hear,” God assures Ezekiel that he needs to continue living out God’s call for him in his life.

How do we measure our own faithfulness? I do believe that, in one way or another, every single one of us is called in the ministry. We are called to minister in churches, in our communities and in the world. We all have different gifts and unique skill sets; God calls each one of us to minister in different ways and places. But how do we measure whether or not we have been successful? How do we know if we have truly lived out God’s call?

I have often said that one of my greatest fears in life is that I will not accomplish what I have been put on this earth to do. It is an interesting concept to mull over – at the end of our lives, how do we measure the success of our own faithfulness? Faithfulness is not a quantifiable measurement; it does not yield interest in a savings account, buy the latest gadgets or acquire a new property. Faithfulness is not something that can be passed down to family members in a will, a statistic that can be compared to someone else’s or a way to define our achievements in life.

We spend our lives carefully measuring things – money, cars, houses, clothes, shoes, gadgets, vacations and more. Even in the church, we spend our time carefully measuring things – membership numbers, worship attendance, stewardship gifts and pledges, youth group and church school sizes, choir members, Facebook page likes, etc. But this passage – God’s call to Ezekiel – reminds us that perhaps the most precious gift at our disposal is something that cannot be measured at all.

Rev. Reed put it perfectly when she said, “Ezekiel’s commission suggests that he may plant seeds, but the harvest is up to God.” She closed the commentary by saying, “The measure of our success does not come from numbers and statistics but from our discernment of that call—and our faithfulness to it.”

I suppose my question, “How do we measure our own faithfulness?” was kind of a trick question. We can’t, really – not in a quantifiable way, anyway. When Angus Buchan planted potatoes, he could not measure his success as the potatoes grew. He had to trust that something was happening beneath the surface of the ground. When we live out our own faithfulness – when we discern God’s call in our lives, when we live out the ministries that that we feel called into and when we try to allow God to speak through us to the people around us – we may never be able to measure that success. We have to trust that God is using us for something we may never see or understand.

One final note:

Ezekiel describes his call to prophesy by saying, “A spirit entered into me and set me on my feet.” He had seen a vision in the prior chapter and when he realized what was happening he fell to the ground. God commanded him to stand, but he could not rise without the aid of a spirit. Ezekiel needed the Holy Spirit, Ezekiel needed God’s help, in order to fulfill the call to prophesy to the people of Israel. This description reminds us that we, as human beings, also need God’s help in order for us to live out God’s call in our lives. We need God’s grace to give us the patience to move forward even if we cannot measure our successes. We need God’s strength to help us rise when we fall. We need God’s love to touch us gently when we cry out in frustration. We need the spirit to enter us and guide us along our journeys of life and faith.

We may not be able to measure our faithfulness the way we measure other things in life. But every single day God is doing truly amazing things through the lives of each and every one of us. Success may never be quantifiable – but God promises that the harvest will be great. And God promises to never leave our side as we live out our calls.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.