My Thoughts On Responsibility & Illuminating Our 2018 Star Words

Hi friends!

Yesterday was Star Sunday at the Rehoboth Congregational Church.  We did this for the first time last year and I think it really started to gain traction this year.  My sermon is part sermon and part star story.  After I preached, I invited three members of the congregation to stand up and share their star stories.  It was wonderful!  I hope next year more people are interested in sharing, as well.

Have a great week, everyone!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
January 7, 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

My Thoughts On Responsibility & Illuminating Our 2018 Star Words

After hearing my colleagues talk about them for several years, I introduced star words at RCC for the first time last year. Truth be told, more than anything else, I was just excited to get a star word of my very own. I have never been great at resolutions and I thought perhaps this would focus me throughout the year in a way that resolutions always have failed to.

So Star Sunday arrived and I eagerly preached my sermon and then sent around the basket of star words. Having had cut out the stars earlier that week, I knew the different words people were receiving.

Faith
Confidence
Mercy
Determination
Hope
Devotion
Compassion

The list goes on. I could not wait to see what I would pick.

The basket came around to me, I reached in, grabbed my star and …

… responsibility. My star word was, responsibility.

First of all, the irony of the whole scenario was not lost on me. I had literally announced my pregnancy two days earlier, so my initial thought was that perhaps God had a way funnier sense of humor than I ever realized because I certainly would be taking on a huge responsibility in 2017.

Beyond that, though, I kind of thought the word was, no offense to anyone who gets it this year, kind of lame. Being responsible, in and of itself, is not particularly fun most days; why would I want to spend an entire year thinking about it?

But given the fact that I had just preached a sermon saying we could not choose our own star words, I went with it. And what I learned throughout the year is that there are far more layers to this word than I initially thought.

12 months ago, I thought I would stand up on Star Sunday in 2018 and tell you all of the responsible things I did in 2017. I thought I would tell you that I revolutionized the way I organized my house and office (which I tried to do); I thought I would tell you that I finally figured out a good system for dealing with my taxes (which I mostly did); and I thought I would tell you that I finally made a long-overdue dentist appointment (which I did not).

However, I feel like my revelations on responsibility came from a much deeper place than the adulting I was just trying to avoid.

A few weeks into the year, my sister came across a company that makes bracelets and necklaces with custom words on them. She offered to buy me one and asked me what word I wanted engraved on it.

“Responsibility,” I told her.

“That’s weird. Don’t you think it will confuse people?” she asked me.

She had a point.

But in wearing this bracelet almost every day, I was asking God to open my eyes to understand responsibility in a new and deeper way.

First of all, when I put this bracelet back on after a three-month hiatus from wearing it while I was on maternity leave, it kind of took my breath away. Of course, you all knew this was going to happen, but the second Harrison was born, this word overwhelmingly took on a new meaning. Being a mom is, by far, the most responsibility I have ever had. Decisions – even the seemingly small ones – always seem daunting. I cannot count the number of times Bruce and I have looked at one another with the most perplexed looks on our faces until one of us asks the question, “Uhhh, what now?”

To which the other usually replies, “Not a clue.”

But even more than that, I strongly believe God has opened my eyes to my responsibilities as a Christian; as an individual Christian living in this world, as an ordained leader in the church and as the pastor of this church.

As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to proclaim a Gospel that changes lives and is inclusive to all. I believe I need to be unapologetically authentic in my faith and show others that it is possible, through our faith, to create the type of peace that this world so desperately needs. I have realized this year that negative stereotypes about Christians only exist if we allow them to; it is our responsibility to illuminate Christianity through a positive lens.

As a church, I believe it is our responsibility to cultivate an environment where love always wins, light always shines and grace always prevails. We need to open our doors and show hospitality to all people and create opportunities for worship, service and learning that are meaningful, relevant and accessible to all. We need to focus on our outreach and evangelism efforts and welcome others into our community. We need to be honest, transparent and humble as we tend to the business of our organization, particularly as we implement our new structure this year.

And the reason I mention all of these things is not to pawn my star word off on you; but to point out that I feel like, as a church, we did a lot of these things last year.

Or, at least, we tried to.

And it was only the beginning.

I love the passage we heard from the prophet Isaiah:

Arise! Shine! For your light has come!

The prophet spoke these words as a vision of Jerusalem’s coming exaltation. The nation had just come out of exile; light was dawning and Jerusalem was being drawn into that light. Today, as we read these words, we remember that God’s light is dawning here and we, too, are being drawn into that light.

So let God illuminate your star word this year. If you get a word that you are immediately excited about, shine God’s light onto that word with fervor and enthusiasm. If you get a word that you think is totally and completely lame, shine God’s light onto that word with trust and hope.

Today, we will receive new star words. Like the wise men followed the star to see the Christ child in Bethlehem, we, too, will follow our star words this year. Perhaps we, too, we travel a journey that will change our lives. Perhaps we, too, will see the world in a new light. Perhaps we, too, will find Christ in our midst.

So, arise! Shine! God’s light is here, lighting your star words for the year ahead.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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This Season Is For You

I completely shifted gears this week in terms of my approach to Advent.  I spent the first two weeks talking about the magic and joy of the season and this week I talked about what it means to be in a dark or sad place during this season.  If you are feeling pain or grief this season, please know that this season is just as much for you as it is for those who are experiencing joy.  You do not have to fake happiness or joy to participate in this season of waiting – be who you are, where you are.

If you are in a dark place this year, please leave me a comment or email me and let me know how I can pray for you.

Happy Advent, friends. <3

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 10, 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

This Season Is For You

The prophet Isaiah says:

They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;[1]

Ten years ago, my parents and my sister and I went on a cruise through the Eastern Mediterranean. One of our stops was Pompeii, which, I am sure most of you know, was a Roman town near Naples, Italy, that was buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. The city remained frozen in time until it was rediscovered in 1748, largely – and quite miraculously – in tact. Because so much of the city was preserved, these ruins give us a really fascinating window into what everyday life looked like so many years ago.

Now I say, “I am sure most of you know” what Pompeii is, because – confession time – being the stellar history student that I was, I actually had no clue what Pompeii was until I walked onto the site of the ruins and started listening to the tour guide in my ear.

When I made this same confession to Bruce after I returned home from my trip, he looked at me, kind of dumbfounded and said, “Did you not pay attention at all in high school?”

I prefer not to answer that question.

That being said, not knowing what I was going to see before I got there kind of gave me a more pure and authentic impression of the ruins than I think I might have gotten if I had a preconceived notion of what I was looking at ahead of time.

Because I got there and did not automatically assume I was going to see something that was ruined; in fact, when I arrived, all I saw was something beautiful.

And what that experience has taught me over time is that very often beauty can be found in the ruins; there is beauty in something that is broken, something that is falling apart, something that has been covered up and something that is in desperate need of restoration and redemption.

This is the promise of Christmas, though, is it not? Beauty found in a world that is broken; grace found in humanity in need of redemption; light found in the darkness of a humble stable.

The Pompeii ruins tell a story; the story of a civilization from thousands of years ago, but also the story of a hope that is brought to light with the realization that sometimes not all is lost. I learned while wandering through the ruins that resurrection is more than just what happened on that first Easter morning; it is what happens every time God takes something that seems to be completely ruined and gives it new life.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Old Testament, from the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is the most-often quoted prophetic book in the New Testament. It is sometimes called “the Gospel of the Old Testament,” because, when read through the lens of Christian theology, the promises found in these prophecies find nearly perfect fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Isaiah is one of the most complex books of the bible, however, because it reflects a period of time that spans hundreds of years of Judean history and was likely constructed by more than one author. It is traditionally broken down into three sections: First Isaiah, chapters 1-39, Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55 and Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66.

The breakdown of these sections is actually really important from a historical perspective. I know, I know, look at me, giving the history lesson. But if we understand the history, we understand the context of what is being said and why.

First Isaiah is dated prior to the Babylonian exile, Second Isaiah takes place while Israel is in exile and Third Isaiah is post-exile. This means that where we comes into the narrative this morning, in the 61st chapter of Isaiah, Isaiah is speaking to Israel immediately following their release from captivity. Here the prophet is speaking, bringing good news to the people of Israel – who have just come out of exile – of their deliverance and glorification.

They had nothing; the people of Israel had been in exile and when they were released, everything was in ruin.

But Isaiah says in this passage that he has been sent to bring good news to the oppressed and to comfort those who mourn. The devastation and ruin of many generations will be restored – the nation will be built up, raised up, repaired.

All is not lost, Isaiah promises. You will be made whole again. There is beauty in the ruins.

Sometimes I think we need to hear these same promises today.

When I was in seminary, I used to think it was so unfair that finals fell during December and the season of Advent. I was supposed to be waiting for the arrival of the Christ child, not writing papers and cramming for exams! How was I supposed to experience the beauty of this magical season when I was stressing over school? I could not wait until I graduated and took my first call and was able to fully live into the joy of the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Well, I did graduate; and I did enter my first call; and I had every intention of experiencing the joy, magic and beauty of the Advent and Christmas seasons.

And then my grandmother passed away – on December 19th. Her services were held on December 23rd. After they were over, Bruce and I drove through the night to get back to Rehoboth in time for me to preside over our Christmas Eve services.

My point is this: Yes, Christmas is beautiful, magical and joyful. But life still happens in the midst of it. The hard stuff does not stop being hard just because stores are playing Christmas music.

In fact, sometimes this time of year the hard stuff is even harder.

I think our world sometimes gives off this false impression that we have to be happy throughout the entire Christmas season, but I think it is equally important to remember that Christmas exists not because we are whole, but because we are broken. Jesus was not born into a world that was perfect; Jesus came into a world that desperately needed to be redeemed. 2,000 years ago, grace was shown to a world in need of a savior and I have to believe that the same thing will happen again today.

Advent is a time of waiting; waiting for the birth of the Christ child, but also waiting for the fulfillment of the promise that God is with us. It is a time where we can live in the ruins of our lives, believing God will build it back up again. It is a time where we can fully experience any pain or grief we might be feeling, knowing that God’s love is stronger, God’s light is brighter and God’s grace is more powerful.

And guys – living into this season in the midst of the hard stuff is just as beautiful as living into it in the midst of the magic. Just like the ruins in Pompeii, there is real beauty in the mess.

Because that is when the promises Isaiah talks about become real.

We sang Christmas carols at my grandmother’s funeral; because she was a piano player, an accomplished musician and would have loved nothing more. And in those moments, just like Isaiah prophesied, we were given garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. We joined our voices with the hosts of the heavenly angels, not necessarily because we felt joy, but because we needed to know that God was with us and that we were not forgotten.

Friends, I spent the first two weeks of Advent preaching about the joy and magic of this season, but there is another side to it – grief, pain, sadness – that are just as real and just as worthy of Christmas morning as the joy and magic are. If you are feeling that grief or pain or sadness right now – please know that you are not forgotten. I know this is a really difficult time of year and that sometimes you feel like you have to fake joy in order to be part of this season. But you do not; this season is for you, even in the midst of your grief, pain and sadness, the promise of Emmanuel will still be fulfilled.

This sermon was going to serve as a segue for an invitation to you all to join the Board of Deacons and me next week to release paper wishing lanterns into the dark night sky and let go of some of the burdens you feel from this year.

But then we found out that those lanterns are illegal in Massachusetts.

So we are not going to do that.

Instead, I am going to invite you to let me pray for you this season. If there is something that is on your heart, if you are grieving or if you are in pain, please let me know how I can pray for you. This season is for you. This season – this season of waiting, of hoping, of believing in these promises Isaiah prophesied so many years ago – is for you.

So find beauty in the midst of the ruin. Believe that you will be built up. Trust that Emmanuel is coming.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Isaiah 61:4

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Christmas At My Church

My last Advent sermon of the season!  Our Christmas Cantata is on Sunday so I won’t be preaching.  Enjoy my “rant” – ha!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 13, 2015

Isaiah 12:2-6

Christmas At My Church

A week or two ago I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I came across the status of a friend of mine who is a lay person (not clergy) and is actively involved in his church. The status posed a question; wondering what people, who do not attend church or have some sort of Christian faith, celebrate this time of year. He wrote:

I enjoy my faith and am thankful for it and I push it on no one, but I really just wonder what Christmas is all about to those folk?

I should probably mention that I am a bit of a secular-Christmas-Scrooge. Bruce has actually learned to stop making innocent statements, like, “Hey, my mom was wondering what you wanted for Christmas,” in order to avoid a 20 minute rant on how the commercialization of Christmas is ruining the true meaning of the holiday.

So knowing what I know about myself, I probably should have just thought, “Hmm, sometimes I wonder the same thing,” and then moved on. But curiosity got the better of me and I started reading through the comments.

One person commented that, even though Christmas has religious origins, a person does not need to be religious to celebrate peace, joy and family. Another speculated that as more and more people become skeptical of “organized religion,” they might actually be able celebrate the true meaning of Christmas in a way that is authentic to them and their family and not in a way that is dictated by their church. Someone else wondered if Christmas traditions and fellowship need to be “old time religious” in order to be meaningful.

Now, in fairness – all of the responses were extremely respectful of the Christian faith. In no way did anyone try to take anything away from me or my celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus.

But it kind of got me going anyway.

I thought I would try to be mature and restrain myself from becoming “that person” that hijacks someone else’s Facebook post by hopping onto a soapbox and ranting, so in the moment I closed my computer and walked away. But as it turns out, my maturity only goes so far.

So, hi everybody! Welcome to my sermon. I hope you enjoy my rant.

One of the responses to this post about what people celebrate this time of year mentioned that people are skeptical of organized religion and need to find other ways to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. Okay, I get it. Organized religion has a really bad reputation. There are many religious traditions – including Christian ones – that are full of rules that do not make sense, extreme judgment, unfair ridicule and outrageous hypocrisy.

But those are not at all the things that define my church, my faith, my God and my Christmas story.

Listen: From the outside looking in, if I thought that rules, judgment, ridicule and hypocrisy were my only options for celebrating a Christian Christmas, I would probably be first in line on a Sunday morning for a picture with Santa Claus.

But that is not what Christmas at my church is all about.

Christmas at my church is about radical love and acceptance of all people; one that mirrors the love and acceptance of an innkeeper who invited a family with no place to stay into his midst.

Christmas at my church is about literally shining light into a dark world when, week after week (in the darkest time of our calendar year), our Advent wreath shines brighter and brighter with unexplainable, but tangible reminders of hope, peace, joy and love.

Christmas at my church is about giving back to those in need; through the Giving Tree, the Blizzard of Giving and the Christmas parties that we host for children in need. It is not about taking credit for the things we do, but giving thanks to God that we have the opportunity to serve in a way that is radical and selfless.

Christmas at my church is about being relevant in today’s world. It is about not having to choose between the secular and the sacred, but instead finding ways to blend the two. It is about giving our children the opportunity to put on their PJs and watch The Polar Express one night while also inviting them to put on a shepherd costume and tell the Christmas story another night. It is about hosting a Christmas Bazaar filled with goodies to purchase one weekend while also hosting Christmas Eve worship services filled with breathtaking music and the miraculous story of Jesus’ birth.

Christmas at my church is about being living proof of these words of the prophet Isaiah:

For the LORD GOD is my strength and my might. (Isaiah 12:2)

Christmas at my church is not about trying to do it all, but about having a safe space where we can ask for help in the moments when we need it most. It is not about pretending that we have it all together, but having the freedom to completely fall apart (because sometimes that is just what we need to do). It is about having this unexplainably powerful and divine presence in our lives – the strength and might of God that Isaiah talked about; a presence that brings us peace in our moments of strife and hope in our moments of loss.

Christmas at my church is about being united as brothers and sisters in Christ, remembering that the waters that washed over us in baptism are living waters that still flow today. Isaiah prophesied:

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. (Isaiah 12:3)

Christmas at my church is about believing in our hearts that God never intended for us to walk through life alone. It is about having the opportunity to see that truth come alive within the community of a Christian church.

Christmas at my church is a continuation of the truth that I am reminded of, week-after-week throughout the year; that I am loved, that I am forgiven and that I am sustained by God. Isaiah boldly proclaimed:

Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid. (Isaiah 12:2)

Thousands of years later, these words still ring true. We can trust God; we do not have to be afraid. Christmas at my church is about seeing these words come alive in bold and palpable ways.

I know that I am preaching to the choir here, but I think that right now – especially as our country stands so politically divided and religiously skeptical – we need to tell the story about Christmas at our church. Isaiah called to us:

Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:4)

We have to tell the story of Christmas at our church, because if we do not tell it, then no one will. We have to tell the story of Christmas at our church, because if we do not tell it, then no one will know that it is possible to be part of a Christian community grounded in love, acceptance, relevance, forgiveness, reconciliation and hope.

When I was putting together my sermon, I went back to this Facebook post to re-read some of the comments and came across a new comment I had not seen before. It really gave me something to think about. It said:

I do not go to church, but I love the teachings of Jesus. I am reminded, by looking at my [news] feed, how many [people] celebrate this time of year in different ways. Some celebrate the winter solstice, some the festival of lights, some just get judge-y or grinch-y. Some drink too much eggnog.

What am I teaching my children?

I am teaching the value of family. The power of love. The joy of tradition. Helping others, as much as possible, and to be accepting, and gracious about the personal and spiritual choices of others.

I hate that we live in a world where people do not automatically equate the things that this woman is teaching her children – things that are beautiful and powerful and life-giving and world-changing – with the Christian Church. I hate that the Church is associated with exclusion and hatred and oppression and judgement and fear. I hate that people think that the world is falling apart; and not only do they not have a church community that they can lean on when things are falling apart, but they also think that the Church is part of this problem. I hate that people do not know what God’s love is – God’s radical, inclusive, all-encompassing, light-bursting-forth-into-darkness love.

We need to tell the story of Christmas at our church because I believe that, right now, this is a story that people need to hear.

People are absolutely allowed to celebrate whatever they want to or believe this time of year; this country was built on religious freedom and I would never force my beliefs on anyone. But there is real magic to our Christmas narrative that I think a lot of people need in their lives. I am not talking about people of other faiths and religious traditions, I am talking about the people without faith or who are skeptical of organized religion. People are struggling in real and devastating ways and I believe that we have access to a faith and a story that can change their lives for the better.

So let us, as the scripture says:

Shout aloud and sing for joy! (Isaiah 12:6)

Let us tell others the story of Christmas at our church. Let us talk about the magic of the Christmas pageant, of the breathtaking power of the music played and sung in worship and of the way an age-old story can come to life before our very eyes. Let us talk about the ways that our cries for Emmanuel – God with us – are heard so that we know that we are not alone in this crazy world. Let us talk about love, let us talk about hope and let us talk about magic. Let us talk about our faith active and alive in ways that are meaningful, relevant and accessible to all.

Let us tell the story of Christmas at our church.

And let’s change some lives.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.