Jesus Will Carry Us Through

Hi all!  I hope you are enjoying this beautiful weather, despite the continued craziness of our world right now.

I mention in my sermon that I sent out a letter to my congregation this week with regards to our covid-closures.  Unfortunately, we will not be resuming in-person worship in the fall.  If you would like to read the letter in it’s entirety, you can find it here on our website.  We hope to continue to move what we can online and resume some of our in-person programs and activities, with strict social distancing protocols in place.

Here is this morning’s website.  What a time to be preaching about storms!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
August 9, 2020

Matthew 14:22-33

Jesus Will Carry Us Through

I swear I am not recycling my sermon from two weeks ago when I start off by saying this, but I had a moment this week.

And not one of my finer ones.

But here’s the thing – I think we have all had some of our not-so-finer moments lately.  Today is August 9th, which means it has been five months and one day since we last gathered for worship in person.  COVID-19 has completely turned our world upside down for nearly half the year and I think many of us are now coming to the grim realization that we will likely not return to a semblance of “normal” anytime soon.  Unfortunately, what we need now is time for science to work and, in the meantime, for people to collectively follow public health recommendations in order to reduce community transmission.

This is certainly not what we envisioned back in March when we shut things down for two weeks.

And the thing is, everyone’s hard is hard in this.  Living through a pandemic with two small children is hard, but so is living through a pandemic with school-aged children.  Or being an essential worker.  Or being a teacher or a school administrator.  Or being a small business owner.  Or not being able to see your grandchildren.  Or living alone.  The list goes on.  Everyone’s hard is hard in the midst of this storm we are living through right now.

Which makes this week’s scripture reading where the disciples are caught in a storm all the more relevant for us right now.

When I first starting looking at our scripture for this week, I thought to myself, “Well this is ironic timing considering we have a tropical storm coming through.”  I have to admit, after a somewhat harrowing drive through wind and rain on Tuesday afternoon with both my children in the car, I cannot really blame Peter for being frightened by the strong winds.

But let’s back up for a minute and figure out how we found ourselves in a boat during a storm.

For the past couple of weeks we have been following the lectionary and toggling back and forth between the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Romans.  The passages in Matthew, which is where this morning’s scripture reading comes from, have followed a pretty linear trajectory, so, essentially, we have traveled the journey with Jesus and the disciples to get here.

A few weeks ago, Jesus was teaching the disciples in parables, using analogies about growth and vegetation to talk about the kingdom of God.  People started to take notice of Jesus – some good, some bad.  He was rejected in his hometown of Nazareth and then – as I talked about in last week’s sermon – John the Baptist was beheaded at the hands of the family of Herod the ruler.  The disciples had buried John’s body when they and Jesus were met with a large crowd of people who needed to eat.  In my sermon last week, I talked about the fact that the disciples were grieving the loss of a friend and partner in ministry and very likely “over it” when Jesus said they still had work to do and blessed morsels of food to create a meal of abundance.

And this week, already “over it” and probably wondering to themselves if they have not already been through enough, the disciples encounter a storm.

A storm that batters their boat.

A storm that creates large waves.

A storm that blows terrifying winds.

In many ways, I actually feel like we are walking something of a parallel journey to this stretch of Matthew right now.  I do not want to speak for everybody, but I would wager a guess that most of us are kind of “over it” and wondering if we have not already been through enough already – so the tropical storm we encountered this week was icing on the proverbial covid cake we have all been served this year.

Actually, when I read Peter’s words in verse 30, “Lord, save me!” I thought to myself, maybe we should put that on a tshirt, because if ever there was a battle cry for 2020, that might be it.

Or maybe that is the seventh stage of covid grief that we started talking about last week – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, “over it” and “Lord, save me!”

There are a lot of “preachable” tidbits in this story:

  • Jesus walking on water.
  • Jesus reassuring the disciples, saying to them, “Do not be afraid.”
  • Jesus commanding Peter to come off of the boat.
  • Peter initially walking on water, but becoming frightened and beginning to sink.
  • Jesus reaching his hand out and catching Peter before he sinks.
  • Jesus asking Peter why he doubted.
  • The winds ceasing and the disciples recognizing Jesus.

I want to look specifically at the fifth tidbit that I talked about – where Jesus reaches his hand out and catches Peter before he sinks.

Because I think we all need to be reminded right now that Jesus is not going to let us sink.

This story – Jesus walking on water – should not be confused with the one where Jesus calms the storm (which actually happens much earlier in the Gospel, in the eighth chapter).  It is most important to recognize in this story, that Jesus’ presence is not what stops the storm.

I am going to say this again, because it bears repeating:  Jesus does not stop the storm.  Jesus simply carries the disciples through it.

When Jesus sees the storm raging and the boat battered out at sea with the disciples on it, he does not calm the storm and then go save them; he saves them amidst the storm.  He walks out to them, commands Peter to get out of the boat and then reaches his hand out to Peter when Peter starts to sink.

Jesus does not stop the storm.  Jesus simply carries the disciples through it.

We have to believe the same thing is happening to us, today.

We are in the midst of a pretty harrowing stormy right now – and I am not just talking about the cleanup efforts from this week’s tropical storm.  I sent out a church-wide email this week, one that I admitted I dreaded writing.  The email said that we would not be resuming in-person worship in the fall; that, quite frankly, I do not know when we will resume in-person worship.  At this point in our journey with covid, we have to be patient, be kind and – well – be safe.

And while I do not have a lot of answers right now, I do have faith.  Faith that we will, eventually, pull through this and find ourselves on the other side.

But, more prevalent right now, I have faith that Jesus is carrying us through this.

I think we all know by now that having faith will not shield us from bad things happening in our lives.  Faith in God through Jesus Christ does not give us a “get out of bad stuff for free” card – this is very clear to us right now.

But what our faith does give us is a steadfast presence that meets us where we are in the storm and carries us through.  Our faith gives us the promise that we are not alone.  Our faith gives us hope that the winds will cease.

This story does not falsely reassure us that we will never experience storms in our lives.  In fact, this story does not even reassure us that when things are already hard, we won’t find ourselves in the midst of a bad storm.

But it does show us how Jesus meets us in those storms; how Jesus commands us to get out of the boat and keep going, even when it is scary for to do and, perhaps most importantly, how Jesus reaches his hands out to us and catches us before we sink.

This has not been an easy year for anyone.  We are weathering storms on global levels, national levels, community levels and individual levels.  But, as Christians, we believe that we are not weathering these storms alone.  We believe Jesus is meeting us where we are; we believe that Jesus will guide us through this storm, however long it may be.

Friends, close your eyes for a moment, and picture yourself in a boat with the storms of 2020 raging around you.  Visualize what you have been experiencing this year and let yourself feel all the feelings.

And then picture Jesus walking towards you – reaching his hand out and catching you before you sink.

We are not alone in this.

No matter how bad this storm gets – Jesus will guide us through it.

There are storms raging around us right now – some more literal than others.  But I think, as people of faith, in the midst of these unprecedented times, we must hold fast to the promise that 1) Jesus is with us, 2) Jesus will not let us sink and 3) the winds will cease.

We just have to weather the storm.

Friends, take heart.

It is Jesus who is here.

Do not be afraid.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Why We Keep Going

We were back in Matthew this morning, looking at the Feeding the Multitude. It’s so nice to be in the sanctuary, albeit warm!

Here is the text from my sermon, as well as the video to the whole service.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
August 2, 2020

Matthew 14:13-21

Why We Keep Going

I have to be honest, when I first looked at this morning’s scripture I hesitated.

Now – don’t get me wrong:  The loaves and fishes story – the feeding of the multitude – is one of my favorites pieces of scripture.

But I was not sure I had it in me to preach about a story that, so often, I associate with gathering big groups of people together to share a meal.

Because we cannot do that right now.

I talked about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief in my newsletter article this week with regards to the stages of covid grief I find myself moving in and out of.  Kübler-Ross talked about denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  I added a sixth stage – the “over it” stage that, perhaps, she overlooked.

The truth is, this story kind of triggered something for me – a sadness and a longing for the life we all knew prior to March.  Of all things, it made me think about my picnic table – this beautiful, enormous, hand-crafted picnic table that I found for an incredible price on Facebook marketplace last year that Bruce had to borrow a truck and drive to the middle of Rhode Island to retrieve.  I bought that table with a vision (there’s my star word for 2020) of gathering people around it and feeding them and finding sacredness in that fellowship.

And here we are.

But, you know what?  This story is about a miracle; it is about being in the midst of scarcity and finding abundance, it is about believing in the impossible and it is about God showing up when all seems lost and proving, in no uncertain terms, that God is not done yet.

Which is something I think we all need to be reminded of right now.

The feeding of the multitude is a really important one in scripture – this story appears, in some form, six times throughout the Gospels.

Now, you may recall that there are only four Gospels.  There are two different stories of the feeding of the multitude – one where 5,000 are fed (which is the story we just heard) and one where 4,000 are fed.  The feeding of 5,000 is recorded by all four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and the feeding of 4,000 is recorded in Matthew and Mark.

The important thing to know about where and how this story appears in the Gospel of Matthew, which we just read (and the Gospel of Mark, for that matter) is that is happens at a pivotal moment for Jesus and the disciples.

The feeding of 5,000 occurs immediately after the brutal murder of John the Baptist.  John, if you recall, was beheaded at the hands of Herod the ruler and his family.  His head was given to the daughter of a woman named Herodias, who was the wife of Herod’s brother Philip.  Herodias was the one who wanted John killed.  The girl brought John’s head to her mother and then the disciples took John’s body and buried it and then went to tell Jesus what had happened.

This is where the story in today’s reading.  Our scripture begins, “Now when Jesus heard this,” and the “this” the Gospel writer is referring to is John’s beheading.

So they are not really in a great place.  Jesus and the disciples are grieving the loss of a dear friend and partner in their mission.  When he hears the news, Jesus attempts to retreat to a quiet place by himself, but people follow him.  The disciples, in letting Jesus know that there are a ton of people around and it is getting late and there is not a whole lot of food to feed everyone, tell Jesus that he needs to send them all away so they can buy their own food.

If you were to just read this text on its own, you might think that the disciples are being rude or inhospitable in wanting to send everyone away.  But when you look at this story in the broader context of what is happening, you realize that they are grieving and overwhelmed and really just needing a minute to process things before figuring out to do something – feed 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish – that seems impossible.

And yet – the impossible does happen.

The disciples are weary – and rightfully so.  They are grieving the loss of John the Baptist and likely tired from their journey to this place – and yet God is not finished yet.

The loaves and fishes story – where Jesus takes mere morsels of food and is able to provide an abundance of food to thousands of people reminds us that when we are tired, when we are weary, when we are grieving and when we have just about lost all hope – well that is when God does some really incredible things.

But I think it is important to remember it does not just happen.  Right?  Because in this story, Jesus – refusing to let their grief win, refusing to let their sadness and their weariness get in the way of what they needed to do, which was to feed those 5,000 people – said, “No, no, no – we are going to feed these people; bring me what we’ve got and we will make it work.”

This story is about a miracle; but it is also about Jesus and the disciples’ role in that miracle, as well.

Because they did not give up.  They did not send those people away.  They kept going and they figured it out.

There was work to be done.  And so even in the midst of the “over it” stage of grief that they were in, they kept going.

And that is when the impossible happens.

In a way, this story was actually really fitting for me to think about this week, because, as much as I hate to say this, covid is not going anywhere right now.  It is going to impact our lives and how we do church for awhile.

And I think it would be easy to let ourselves get lost in the grief of what that means.  We are all tired and weary and, well, “over it”.

But there is still work to be done.  There is work to be done in our lives, in our own personal faith journeys and at the church (which now beautifully extends beyond its walls).

So we have to keep going.  We have to figure it out.  We have to refuse to let our grief and our sadness and our weariness get in the way of what we need to do – what God is calling us to do.

We had an unbelievable fundraising campaign this week that raised well over $3,000 and I said in my appeal letter that, despite the fact that we are unable to physically gather right now, our work continues.

(And, as a quick aside, I do want to say thank you to everyone who donated to the campaign and shared it, because, my goodness, it made a difference and I am humbled by and grateful for your support.)

Remember what I said about this story; it reminds us that, in those moments when we feel like we just cannot keep going – when we are tired, when we are weary, when we are grieving and when we have just about lost all hope – well that is when God does some really incredible things.

But we cannot give up.  We have to keep going.

So I know everyone is tired and kind of over the whole covid thing – I get it, I really do.  But we have to keep going – we have to keep going not only because there is work to be done, but also because this story teaches us that when we push through that spiritual exhaustion, that is when God takes over and does the impossible.

And this is why we keep going.  Because we believe that God is not finished yet.  And that God is about to do something really incredible.

Do not let your grief win.  Keep going.  Believe that the impossible will happen.

And one day we will all gather around my picnic table.  And there we will find nourishment and abundance and hope.  And there we will also be reminded that of why we kept going.

Church family – there is still work that needs to be done.  This is why we keep going.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Preaching in Pumps Podcast Artwork

Nurturing Our Own Soil

Hi friends!  We were back in the sanctuary this morning – still trying to figure out how to make the sound better!  But it still felt good to be there. Here is my sermon – with the video from the whole service.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 12, 2020

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Nurturing Our Own Soil

Many of you know that Bruce and I faithfully plant a vegetable garden every year.  Since we moved to Rehoboth in 2011, we have only missed two summers – one when Harrison was born and the other the summer we were moving out of the parsonage and into our house.  Yard work last spring – our first spring in our house – was focused almost entirely on building a big fence so we could start planting.

Gardening is fun for me, because you start with something small and nurture it in various ways and then watch it transform and grow right before uour very eyes.  I particularly enjoy growing vegetables, because then I get to enjoy the fruits (or, I guess, the veggies) of my labor.  I find so many powerful parallels between nurturing growth in a garden and nurturing personal growth in my life and my faith.

Which is why I always love this parable’s placement in the lectionary for us.  It pops up in the middle of the summer, usually when we are surrounded by an abundance of fresh flowers, berries and vegetables.  It is so relevant, because when Jesus talks about what seeds need to really take root and grow and produce, we have tangible examples of this metaphor all around us as we try to apply these words in our own lives.

I have to admit, however, that one of the things that has always perplexed me about this particular parable is the fact that I believe God can work with any kind of soil, which is not exactly what this parable is saying.  This parable is saying that the soil has to be “good”.

If you look at the passage we just read, the first part is the parable, itself, where Jesus explains what happens to seeds when they fall into or are planted in less-than-desirable soil.  They either do not take root or the growth that does happen cannot be sustained.

The second part of the passage is when Jesus then explains what this means in terms of our faith.  The Gospel – the word of God – are the seeds and we are the soil that the seeds are being planted in.  We need to be good soil so we can understand the word as it is planted within us and then nurture growth so it will bear fruit.

So my question has always been, but what if we are bad soil?  Where is the room for redemption?  For second chances?  For grace?  For the whole reason Jesus came into this world in the first place?

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that was kind of Jesus’ whole point.

Let’s look at the passage.

We have reached the point in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is really starting to show the true depth of God’s Kingdom.  Leading up to this particular chapter, chapter 13, was the section at the end of chapter 12 where Jesus’ mother and brother show up, wanting to speak to Jesus and Jesus, instead, points to his disciples and calls them his mother and brothers, saying that whoever does the will of God, his Father in heaven, is his brother, mother and sister.

In other words, what Jesus is talking about – this Gospel he is proclaiming – is so much bigger than any of our earthly lives.  Jesus is not just speaking to his family – at this point he is not just speaking to his disciples anymore!  Jesus is gathering crowds (albeit a concept that is a little strange to us right now, but I will just picture everyone in masks as they listen to Jesus talk).  Jesus is trying to reach as many people as he can with the Gospel.

So Jesus begins speaking in parables to give concrete examples and metaphors in order to explain the Kingdom of God, not only so those who had gathered that day could understand, but so we could understand, as well.  He begins with the parable of the sower, which is this morning’s passage.  The parable of the sower kicks of a series of planting-related parables – the parable of the weeds among the wheat, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast.

The point Jesus is trying to make with the parable of the sower is that God’s word will do nothing to us if we are not ready to receive it.  In the same way that a seed will not grow in the ground if the ground is not ready to receive it – if the soil is not good – we will not be able to grow in our faith and spread the Gospel without ensuring first that our soil is nutrient-rich.

Let’s get back to my original issue with this particular parable.  At first glance, it appears that if you do not have nutrient-rich soil that you will not be able to nurture growth in your faith and in the Gospel.  But what about those of us with rocky soil?  That are on a path with no soil?  That are surrounded by thorns?  What about those of us that do not have a strong foundation in faith?  That have a lot of questions?  That doubt more than we believe?  That have made mistakes?  That did not have the privilege of growing up in a household where going to church was part of our lives?

It is naïve to think that all we have to do is proclaim a belief in Christ in order to have nutrient-rich soil so we can nurture God’s word and let is grow in our lives.  I would argue that many of us likely do proclaim a belief in Christ and do not always think we have nutrient-rich soil in which to receive and nurture God’s word.

But, actually, I think that might be the point.

You see, it is not about what we are planting – it is about the soil in which we are planting it in.  The point of this parable is not to “weed out” (sorry, bad pun) the Christians with good soil from the Christians with bad soil.  The point is that we all have to nurture our soil before we stand a chance at nurturing growth within it.  So often we focus on how the seed is growing and what it is producing when we should be focusing on what we are planting that seed in in the first place.

We need to be focusing on the soil.

In other words, it is okay if we have not-so-good soil.  That is not the point – the point is that we can nurture our soil.  But that is where we have to start.  Not with the seeds – with the soil.

So we proclaim ourselves to be Christian.  Great!  But now what?  Christianity does not come with a shiny badge and a bag of nutrient-rich soil for us to plant seeds in.  It does, however, come with the promise of redemption and reconciliation and a Gospel that will challenge, comfort and strengthen us as we seek to learn and grow that so we can provide nutrients to the soil that we already have.

It is not about the seeds at all, it is about what we are planting them in.  And, as Christians, we have to do the hard work that is required to nurture our own soil before we even think about planting a single thing.  The message of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God that it invites us into will do nothing if we are not able to cultivate it in our own lives.

So the question is – how do we nurture our own soil?

In many ways, I think this time of social distancing has allowed us to get back to basics at the church.  Without the usual the flurry of activities (while I dearly miss them!) we have been allowed to focus on what brings us together in the first place – our faith, as Christians.

Our worship services center solely around God’s word and a reflection on that word.  Our nightly prayer meetings in our Facebook group not only connect us in prayer, but also strengthens our community as we check in with one another and hold one another in the light of God’s love.  We use the simple act of making phone calls and sending cards to have meaningful conversations and know that we are not alone.  Care packages are delivered to the homes of the children in our church school to remind them that their church loves them and has not forgotten them.

The more I reflect on what we are doing and how we are being church right now, the more I realize that now is the time to nurture our soil.  This time of social distancing will end eventually – we will, one day, resume our usual flurry of activities.  But I strongly believe that what will define us as a church is not what we produce then – it is the soil that we create now.

And so I know it is frustrating that we cannot meet in person yet.  I know it is hard to cancel so many of our favorite activities, not knowing when they will, once again, resume.  I know it is painful to not be able to look one another in the eyes and hug each other and do church the way we are used to.

But I invite you to take comfort in knowing that we are nurturing the soil in which we will plant our seeds in the future.  The work we are doing now is so important for what we can do and who we can be in the future.

The same is true for all of us, an individuals.  Many of our lives have slowed down – or, at the very least, changed – dramatically since things initially shut down in March.  And, in many ways, it is frustrating and heartbreaking – devastating, even.

But this is where we are – this is the chapter of history we are writing.  And so I believe that we, as individuals, can do the same work that the church is doing right now to nurture our own soil.  We can get back to basics – focus on reading scripture, on centering ourselves in prayer and on connecting with one another through meaningful conversations.  We can prioritize our personal faith journeys in a way that we never have had the time to do before.

We can read scripture.  Use a daily devotional for quiet time.  Write in a journal.  Participate in our evening prayers.  Pick up the phone and catch up with a member of our beloved community.  While I know we would all love nothing more than to plant seeds and watch them grow by getting out into the world and doing all of the things we want to do, perhaps now is the time to focus not on the seeds, but the on the soil that we will plant them in.

Friends, let us use this time – this time of social distancing, as frustrating as it might be – to nurture our soil.  Let us turn to scripture and prayer to give ourselves the strength, wisdom and courage to cultivate growth that can be sustained and will flourish in the future.  Let us nurture good soil within ourselves so that we can bear fruit and yield, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

I keep hearing people say that we need to keep the faith right now as we get through these challenging times.  And I agree.  Now more than ever, we need our faith to sustain us.

But I also think that in order to keep that faith, we have to have good soil for it to grow in.  And that takes work.

And that work starts now.

So let us nurture that soil that the seeds of the Gospel that fall within us will take root, grow, bear fruit and yield, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Preaching in Pumps Podcast Artwork