A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

Hi Everyone!

Sorry for the delay in posting this week.  The church hosted a baby shower for Bruce and me after worship on Sunday and we spent a lot of the day organizing everything!  We were truly overwhelmed and humbled by everyone’s generosity.

There were heavy shepherding themes this week – both the 23rd psalm and the parable of Jesus as the Good Shepherd were included in the lectionary.  I preached on them both and talked about what it means to ground our lives in the teachings of the Gospel and truly allow that to shepherd us every day.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
May 7, 2017

Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

In 2007, my mom was invited to introduce Lynn Redgrave when she gave her keynote address at a plenary session at General Synod, which is the biennial meeting of the United Church of Christ. Lynn had attended our church in Kent, CT for years; she began attending when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In a book she later co-authored with her daughter, she talked about the impact the church and her faith had on her during the dark days of her treatments. She reflected on this during her speech to the synod that July day; and in closing she said she was going to share one of her favorite scriptures. She read the 23rd psalm.

Now, I have to be honest: Part of me always thought Psalm 23 was something of a cliché. Nothing against it or anything, but it just seemed to get used over and over and over again and, with 149 other psalms in the book, part of me always wondered why people kept going back to that one.

But then I heard Lynn read it.

And I was captivated.

Granted, some of my captivation might have been her British accent, but when I heard her read those words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” (Psalm 23:4) I started to cry.

Because I knew she had walked through that valley.

And, even more than that, I knew there were thousands of people in the Hartford Civic Center that day listening to her speak that had also walked through that valley. Some people might have even been walking through it then.

And they needed to hear those words: “For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)

Because, friends, when we are walking through those dark valleys, we need to know that God is with us. We need to know that we are protected. We need to know that we are not walking alone.

And that is exactly what this psalm promises us. It assures us that God’s presence in our lives is steadfast, never-ending and life-giving.

This morning’s Gospel reading comes from the Gospel according to John; this is where Jesus is identified as the Good Shepherd (we have all seen those artistic portrayals of Jesus holding his staff surrounded by sheep). But there is more to this parable than simply the image of Jesus and his flock. There is a call; a call to follow Jesus, to follow the shepherd who enters the sheepfold at the gate being held open by the gatekeeper.

Jesus says in this parable, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:7-9)

This morning we have two different, but equally compelling shepherding metaphors. And I think it is important to remember that when Jesus draws from this shepherding metaphor, he was speaking, in the flesh, to people who were very much alive and living in this human and imperfect world. The people Jesus was speaking to that day needed to know that God was not only with them in the valley of the shadow of death, but in their lives, as well.

And here, Jesus makes that promise. Jesus says that he is the shepherd; that people could follow him, in the flesh, and be safe and find pasture. Jesus says that we make a choice; we choose to follow Jesus or we choose to follow the thieves and the bandits and if we choose to follow Jesus, we will be kept safe and secure both in life and in death.

I believe those words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” ring true both when we are facing our own mortality and also when we are facing our own humanity.

It is not easy to live in this world sometimes; we all face difficult choices, heartbreaking realities and challenging situations. We walk through those dark valleys. But when we understand Jesus as the Good Shepherd, leading us into safe pasture, we know that it is possible to do the hard work that is required of us to travel this sometimes hard journey and live out our faith. We have the tools we need to help us; we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus may not be living in our flesh today, but we have the Good News that he proclaimed while he was living on this earth. If we ground our lives in his teachings, then the Good Shepherd is always with us.

Last week, when we were on the Road to Emmaus, I talked about the importance of the incarnational piece of our faith; that Jesus came into this world and lived as one of us, understanding our sufferings and our temptations. This morning, I remind you of this same incarnational power; God is not a distant God that is somehow shepherding from afar, but a God that is here with us, that walked along the journey we walk today and that has given us the beautiful gift of this faith to ground our lives in.

When I think of the image of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, I do not think it means we make the choice to follow him and then we’re done. Yes, the scripture says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved,” but it also continues on to say that when we enter the gate by Jesus, we will go out and find pasture, that we will continue follow Jesus and this Good News he taught throughout his lifetime.

Following Jesus is about more than simply proclaiming a belief in him; it is about putting those words into action. It is about being part of a church community, strengthening our faith and living out the Gospel in our day-to-day lives. We come to church not only to receive the comfort of God’s grace, but also the wisdom of God’s grace, as well.

And then we live out this wisdom, as best we can. We nurture our faith through growing our knowledge of the bible, actively participating in community life, giving back through missions and worshipping God, week after week. This is what sets the foundation for the lives we are living. This is how we are able to walk through those dark valleys – valleys that we will all walk through at some point or another – and know, without a doubt, that God is with us.

So friends, I invite you to take comfort in the words of this familiar psalm this morning. But remember there is still work to be done.

When we enter the sheepfold and follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we are doing so not only so that we might have eternal life, but also so that our lives here on earth might be made whole. Remember Jesus’ promise that when we follow him, when we weave the Gospel into the pieces of our lives, that we will not only have life, but that we will also have it abundantly.

And while it may not always be easy, if we do the hard work, surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Jesus Spoilers

I know a lot of clergy celebrate the Sunday after Easter as Holy Humor Sunday, but, if I’m being honest, I’m really just not that funny.  So rather than force something that just won’t work for me, this past Sunday we stuck to the things that I am good at in worship -integrating special music into the service, bringing the community together to bless a new batch of prayer shawls and gathering around the living waters of baptism as we baptized our very own Baby Jesus (or at least, he played him in the Christmas pageant last year!).  It was a wonderful Sunday and I was thrilled to see so many people come out, considering it was the end of school vacation and there is often a low after Easter Sunday, anyway.

Enjoy today’s sermon!  Felt a little strange to be out of our sermon series, but it’s always nice to just read the scripture at the beginning of the week and then see where my mind takes me.

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 23, 2017

John 20:19-31

Jesus Spoilers

Some of you may have heard me talk before about my embarrassing affection for bad reality television. This is not something I am necessarily proud of, but it often does not matter how much of a train wreck it is to watch or how horrified I am by humankind (and, quite frankly, myself) while watching, sometimes I cannot help but get sucked in.

In more recent years, I have made a discovery that brought my intrigue of reality television to a whole a new level: Spoilers.

For those of you who, like me, did not know this was a “thing,” allow me to explain: There are people who have quite literally found a way to make a fairly lucrative living off of either spoiling the endings of the competition-type reality shows (such as The Bachelor or Survivor) or uncovering out the inconsistencies in the editing of the docu-series-type reality shows (such as Keeping Up With The Kardashians or any other show where the premise is following someone’s “real life”). All of this spoiling is kind of like seeing the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz; it spoils the illusion of what television producers are trying to create on camera by exposing what is actually happening behind the scenes.

A month or two ago, I was sitting on my couch watching the season finale of The Bachelor when Bruce came downstairs, watched for a minute or two and then asked me a question about the show. I answered, but then said, “But it’s not like it really matters, because I read the spoilers and he picks the other girl.”

To which Bruce replied, “So what is the point of watching, then?”

He had a point.

That being said, sometimes I find what is happening behind the scenes far more entertaining than what I am seeing on camera. I am the type of person that likes to know how things work; I want to know the story behind the story. I crave details about things that ordinary people never get to see or hear or experience for themselves.

And this craving follows me in my faith. When I read the bible, I always wonder about pieces of the story that never made it to scripture. I wonder things like, “Was Jesus a colicky baby?” or, “Did King David actually remember the names of all of his wives?” I am curious about details that really might not make a difference in the grand scheme of things, but that do – in some way – also contribute to the larger narrative of this story of our faith that is still being written.

Which is why something in this morning’s scripture piqued my interest this week.

This morning we heard the story of Doubting Thomas. This story shows up in the lectionary every year the week following Easter. Jesus appears to the disciples, shows them the marks on his hands and sides and they rejoice and believe he has been raised. But Thomas was not with the disciples at the time and when they shared with him what had happened, he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”[1]

First of all, I have to say that I do kind of feel badly for Thomas. The guy merely asked to see something all of his friends got to see without him and, because of that, he has this unfortunate reputation as being a “doubter”. But I also think it is good for us, after we come down off of the high of Easter – with all the excitement of the brass, lilies and confetti – to take a moment and ask ourselves, “Wait a moment, what just happened?” and create space for our own doubts in our lives and in our faith.

Because we all have doubts. And those doubts are healthy and normal and create great depth to our faith.

But this week I was struck by something different in this story; something that I have overlooked every other time I have preached on Doubting Thomas. Verse 30 – the verse that immediately follows Thomas’ conversation with Jesus after Jesus appears to Thomas and shows him the marks on his hands and sides – says:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.[2]

Which begs the question, what was not written in the book? Clearly something happened that never actually made it to scripture. What was it?

I did a little bit of research to see if perhaps anyone knew anything about these “other signs” that were not written down. And while I came up short on that question, I did learn that this verse and also verse 31 were thought to have been the original ending of the Gospel of John. In the translations we have today, there is another chapter where Jesus, again, appears to the disciples, but most scholars believe – based on the differences in language and style – this was how the original Gospel ended, by essentially saying, “There is more to the story than is written down, but we are ending it right here.”

And this has been driving me crazy all week. What were the other signs? Why were they unwritten? Were they more believable? Less believable? Did the people who were supposed to write them down forget to hand them in on time?

What else happened after the resurrection that we do not know about? What are the untold stories? What piece of the narrative are we missing?

No wonder Thomas had doubts; maybe they did not tell him the whole story, either!

Like I said, this has he been driving me crazy all week. I want to know the untold stories of Jesus, of the resurrection and of our faith. I want to know what happened, but was never written about.

But since there are not a whole lot of bloggers out there posting “Jesus spoilers,” I have kind of been left to the devices of my own imagination on this one.

Which, I was surprised to discover, got me a lot further than I thought it would.

I met with my clergy group this week and we all checked in on how everyone’s Easters went at their churches. At one point someone said, “Can I tell a story?” and proceeded to share this really powerful story about where she had seen resurrection come alive during a funeral she presided over during Holy Week.

While she was talking, it got me thinking about a moment where I had experienced resurrection in worship on Easter Sunday and so I shared that story. When I finished, another one of my colleagues shared her own resurrection story from their Easter Sunrise Service.

As I was driving home that afternoon, I started thinking about these powerful resurrection stories that we had not only experienced, but also shared with one another. And it was in that moment that I realized that it is not only in experiencing these moments that resurrection becomes real, but also sharing them with others. I began to wonder if perhaps Jesus’ signs are not all written in the Gospel of John because they are still very much happening today, in our lifetime, in the piece of this story we are writing.

Friends, resurrection is happening all around us, but the only way people will know this to be true is if we tell them our stories. We have to tell people about those moments in our lives when we thought all was lost and yet grace was found. We have to share the stories from our lives where the darkness was overwhelming and yet light still found a way to shine. We have to boldly proclaim the times of hope and promise in the midst of suffering and grief.

We are the keepers of the untold stories of our faith and we have to tell these stories. We have to pull back the curtain; we have to show people what is happening behind the scenes. The Christian faith should not be some elusive club that outsiders have no window into; it should be a beautiful opportunity for all people to experience resurrection in real and powerful ways.

The thing is: There are a lot of Doubting Thomases in this world. And they need a safe space; they need a safe space not only to experience that doubt, but also hear real stories from our faith. They need to know about this God whom we worship and trust and believe in. They need to be inspired to think about the ways resurrection could potentially happen in their lives as we share the ways resurrection happens in our lives. They need to learn about this Good News we have grounded our lives in so they can see how it might transform their lives.

We have to tell the untold stories of our faith. We have to continue to share this Christian story; a story I believe is still very much worth sharing.

This morning, I encourage you all to think about what it means to tell the untold stories of our faith; to share real pieces of your real lives where you experienced everything from doubt to belief in resurrection and to know that those stories can and will make a difference in someone’s life.

So let us write our own Jesus spoilers. And may we be inspired as we experience resurrection, believe in resurrection and share resurrection this Easter season.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] John 20:25, NRSV
[2] John 20:30, NRSV

The Son Will Rise

Hello and Happy Easter!

I usually post my sermons on Sunday evening, but I figured everyone would be celebrating the Easter holiday and not waiting with baited breath for my sermon to post.

A few weeks ago, Jon and I went to see The Lion King when it came to PPAC and as I was watching, I had an idea for this year’s Easter Sermon.  After watching April the Giraffe give birth on Saturday morning (yes, I was totally sucked in!), I thought about going in a different direction, but really wanted to stick with this message.  So stay tuned for an April sermon illustration! :)

I preached out of Matthew this year.  I tend to bounce back and forth between John and wherever we are in the lectionary cycle, but have preached on John for the past few years and really was looking for something different so I turned to Matthew this year.

I hope you all had a blessed Easter celebration!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 16, 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

The Son Will Rise

Did anyone happen to catch The Lion King when it was at PPAC a few weeks ago? It is one of my favorite productions to see live (the opening sequence gets me every time) and I was thrilled when a friend of mine texted me and asked if I wanted his extra ticket. I am not sure who was more excited, the six-year-old girl that was sitting behind us or me.

Bruce will tell you that I have a hard time getting through any musical without having some sort of deep theological reflection on it. But, The Lion King, especially, always gets me thinking; about life and death, relationships and community, pain and anguish and hope and trust in the promise of resurrection.

Now that last one might be putting a lot on Disney, Elton John and Tim Rice, but hear me out: During the song Endless Night, Simba, still deeply mourning the loss of his father, feeling heavily the guilt of his death and wondering how he could ever go back to his homeland, sings to his father, who is no longer with him on earth. He cries out that he is alone and cannot find his way out of the darkness.

And then the chorus starts:

I know that the night must end and that the sun will rise.
And that the sun will rise.
I know that the clouds must clear and that the sun will shine.
And that the sun will shine.[1]

This got me thinking about Easter; about the cries of those who loved Jesus who watched him die on the cross, who visited the tomb and who then held onto hope until resurrection came on that first Easter morning.

I say this every year, but I will say it again: As people of faith, we cannot fully understand the power of resurrection without first experiencing the pain of the crucifixion. This is why we put in the time during Lent, doing the hard work to see who we are, who we want to be and who God is calling us to be. This is why we come to worship during Holy Week, why we listen as the story of Jesus’ death is told and why we, like Jesus’ first followers, hold onto hope until resurrection comes on Easter morning.

Because as people of the resurrection, we do not want to ignore the crucifixion. We do not want to turn away from the hard parts of our faith; we want to face them head on, knowing that resurrection is coming, knowing that on Easter morning, the Son – and the sun – will rise.

This morning we heard the story of the resurrection as told in the Gospel of Matthew. In this telling of the Easter story, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb and an angel of the Lord appears and rolls away the stone to reveal an empty tomb. The women are afraid, but the angel says to them:

Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.[2]

Just as he said, the Son did, in fact, rise.

This morning we not only rejoice in Christ’s victory over the grave, but we also remember that this was a promise Jesus made in his lifetime. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus foretold his death and resurrection three times; three times Jesus made the promise that the Son would rise.

And this promise was fulfilled.

And, as people of the resurrection, we know this was not a once and done thing. This is a promise that God still makes to us today: In the midst of our own pain, suffering and darkness, the Son will rise.

The truth is, the world can be a really scary place to live in sometimes. But on this Easter morning, I am here to remind you that in the midst of the scariness, therein lies a promise: A promise of hope, a promise of love and a promise of resurrection.

And do you know what? A lot of times people do not want to hear about or talk about the scary stuff in life because it might bring them down or challenge them in a way they do not like. But I think the Easter story gives us permission to talk about our own struggles. Because facing them head on does not mean that we are succumbing to them. It just means that we are as confident in God’s ability to create resurrection today as God did 2,000 years ago when two women found that tomb empty. We believe, even when we are standing in the midst of our own darkness, that the Son will rise.

So may we, like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, bear witness to this promise. May we see the presence of angels in our lives and know that the promise of resurrection has been fulfilled. And then may we leave quickly and with great joy and run to tell the world that death has not won, that resurrection is real that the Son will rise.

Love wins! Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed!

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Endless Night, from Disney’s, The Lion King, music & lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice
[2] Matthew 28:6, NRSV