Preparing For Christmas During A Difficult Year

Hi friends!  Sorry this is delayed, I had some computer issues yesterday (I think all of my technology is having a pandemic-related meltdown) but I think I’m back up and running.  Here is my sermon, as well as the video from worship!

Advent blessings. <3

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 6, 2020

Isaiah 40:1-11

Preparing For Christmas During A Difficult Year

Most people know that I have a strong affinity for Christmas trees.

As in – I have multiple in my house.

Last year I had four.  Our main Christmas tree in the living room, a “Christmas card” tree in our kitchen, decorated as the season goes on by hanging the cards we receive in the mail on the tree (so send me cards, I love looking at them every day on my tree!), a tree in my and Bruce’s room and a tree in Harrison’s room.

I am not sure if this is a regional thing or not, but it is something I picked up when I lived in Georgia.  My friends’ husbands generally do not like me this time of year, because my solution to most of their problems is, “You should just put another Christmas tree up.”

And they usually do.

But if my mark on this world is to encourage the display of multiple trees throughout the Christmas season, I think, in my own way, I am making the world a little bit brighter.  This is the darkest time of year in our part of the world and I do think the lights help.  They brighten up our homes and our streets, they remind us that even in our darkest of moments, light still shines and they help us to hold onto the magic of the season.

And it is magical – even though it is hard right now.

I was having a hard time getting moving on my Christmas decorating this year, to the point where Bruce looked around our sparsely decorated home early this week and asked, “Are we actually going to put up decorations this year?”  I am not really sure what my issue was – probably a combination of pandemic-life, chasing two small children and a busier-than-usual busy season at church.

When I admitted to a friend on Thursday of this week that the only decorations in my house were the ones that I put up for the Hanging of the Greens video last weekend, she reminded me that my son is at the perfect age for decorating – and that no matter how strange it is for me right now, he will still be captivated by the magic of preparing for Christmas.

And that is how Bruce came home from work on Thursday night to find Harrison, me, Adelaide and a significant part of the carpet in my bedroom covered in glitter.

I know this is kind of a strange year and that, for many of us, it is making it hard to get going on some of our traditional preparations for the holiday season.  But I do think that part of our call, as people of faith, is preparing our hearts – and our homes – for the arrival of Jesus, no matter what we are going through.

In fact, when we are facing challenging and turbulent circumstances, I think the call is that much greater.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the book of Isaiah, which is kind of a composite work of multiple prophets who ministered throughout different periods in Israel’s history.  The book is traditionally split up into three parts – chapters 1-39, 40-55 and 56-66.  Our passage (40:1-11) comes from that second section, referred to as Deutero-Isaiah.  This second section of Isaiah is attributed to an unknown prophet that lived in Babylon during the Babylonian exile.

Now, context is important here; and in so many ways – even though this was written around the 6th century BCE – I feel like these words are so relevant to where we are in this pandemic.

Scholars believe that this section of Isaiah was written to the Israelites towards the end of their exile in Babylon, which lasted about 70 years.  We are about three-quarters of a year into a global pandemic that has turned our world upside down.  But the reason I keep saying that there is hope and that we need to keep the faith and that we can do hard things is because our ancestors in faith have done hard things before us.  Israel was in exile for 70 years and they kept the faith and saw themselves to the other side.  And so I know things are really hard right now, but there is promise in scripture that hope is real and that it is worth holding onto.

And this promise is here, in these words from the prophet.  This section was meant to console the people of Judah, promising their release from exile and their return to their homeland.  So when the prophet says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” it is almost as if he is saying, “Better times are coming, but you have to be ready.”

Now I do believe that better times are coming, partially because of my faith in God, but also because of my faith in science and the conversations surrounding vaccine rollouts over the next couple of months.  And so I believe that these words are so relevant to us right now, because they remind us that we cannot be passive bystanders this holiday season.  I know things are weird this year, I know a lot of our traditions have been put on hold and I know there will be a lot of heightened grief and anxiety when most of us are used to feeling joy and excitement throughout the Christmas seas.

But what cannot and will not be taken from us is this story – this magical, lifechanging, hope-giving story.  And our hope in Jesus Christ means that we have to prepare for the arrival of the Christ child, even if we are just not feeling it this year.

And we do this because we believe these words of the prophet that when we get to that high mountain and lift up our voices with strength, we, too, will hear these words and see that they are true:  “Here is your God.”

Advent is about waiting for the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us.  And so, as Christians, we prepare ourselves for that moment; we prepare ourselves for God.  We prepare our hearts and our homes – whatever that looks like for us this year, whether it be halls that are fully decked or a single candle that we light every night – knowing that we will, as the prophet says, be fed like a shepherd feeds their flock, gathered, like lambs, into their arms, carried and led gently to safety.

I know that things are really hard right now.  I know that we are entering into a season of this pandemic where it might get worse before it gets better.  I know that our Christmas celebrations might not look we are used to and, quite frankly, what we want them to look like.  But God has not forgotten about us.  Our cries for Emmanuel – God with us – will be heard.

So let us prepare for that moment.  Let us prepare ourselves to be released from the bonds that are holding us captive right now.  Let us no longer be passive observers as we await for the arrival of Emmanuel, but active participants who are preparing ourselves for that moment.  Let us prepare our hearts and our homes for the Advent and Christmas seasons.  Let us shine light into the darkness of this moment in time.  Let us get up to that high mountain, lift up our voices with strength and have no fear.

Because God is with us.

This promise will be fulfilled.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Why Are Names So Important?

I have been thinking about this sermon since last October when my family went to Disney and I became obsessed with name tags and then again since April and I was preaching on the resurrection narrative out of John and noticed that Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus until he called her by name.  It was a long time coming and the coolest part was that we had a fundraising event at Hillside Country Club the next day and everyone who showed up to help wore their name tag – without me sending out a reminder!

I wrote some liturgy to go along with this – I will get it posted this week!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 28, 2019

Genesis 17:1-8
Isaiah 45:1-8
John 20:11-18

Why Are Names So Important?

When we were in Disney last fall, one of the details I noticed (remember from last week – no detail left unturned!) was the fact that not only did all of the “cast members” wear nametags, but that the nametags also include where the person is from, as well – what they consider their home town to be.

And for some reason, this really stuck with me; I think, because, this simple nametag – this seemingly insignificant 1”x 2” oval name tag – not only gave someone an identity with a name, but also a story with where they were from.

In other words, the person driving the magical express was not just a bus driver, they were Matthew from Jacksonville, Florida; or the person walking around with Mickey was not just a character handler, they were Melanie from Sweden; or the person at the gift shop was not just a cashier, they were Jeffrey from Boston, Massachusetts.

And because I knew this information, I could, first of all, greet them by name and then I could strike up a conversation with them based on one simple fact.

Hi Matthew, have you lived in Florida your whole life?
Melanie, how long have you lived in the United States?
You’re from Boston, Jeffrey?  We are from Massachusetts, too!

I was not only able to affirm them as a person, but I was able to engage them in a conversation and there but by the grace of God and a really small nametag, two strangers were able to see the humanity in one another and find a sense of unity and commonality.

So I came home on a little bit of a nametag mission.  I am honestly not sure if this was before or after the soap mission that I talked about last week (and if you have no idea what I am talking about, I would encourage you to go listen to my sermon, “Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?” and you can hear all about the soap-acolypse).  But I will say that there was not a unanimous reaction to this particular mission of mine.  While there were some people that were extremely supportive – even excited at the prospect of becoming a “name tag church” – there were others that resisted the movement.

I already know everybody’s name.
Everyone knows my name.
But I already hate wearing my nametag at work.
I will never remember to bring it with me.

Or, my favorite:

Why?

Well, let’s tackle that question today.  Why?

I wanted to talk about the importance of names at some point during this sermon series on hospitality because, like the soap, I believe this is a hospitality issue.  Because I believe that every single person in this world deserves to be called by their name; their name that identifies and affirms them as a child of God worthy of being seen and heard and acknowledged in this world. And so I wanted to look at the ways in which scripture addresses this very subject.

I chose three stories to read this week so we could look at the ways different literature within the bible address this particular topic.  We have a reading from Genesis, the first book of the story of the Hebrew people, a reading from the Prophet Isaiah and then, into the New Testament, a reading from the Gospel of John.

Full disclosure – these three readings, in no way, fully encapsulate what the entire bible says about this subject; they are just a small snippet.  But their diversity from one another is what I love the most, because it means that there is this reoccurring theme throughout God’s entire creating narrative that boldly proclaims that what we, as human beings, are called matters.

I have always loved the story of Abraham and Sarah – partially because, as a child, I thought it was so cool that my name appears, in a somewhat prominent form, in the bible.  But what I love about this story, especially this partof the story, is the fact that God marks this transition in Abraham’s life – this covenant that he will become the ancestor of a multitude of nations – by calling him by a new name.

Abraham’s new name is part of a new covenantal identity. It takes his given name, Abram, and combines it with the Hebrew word for “father” – abba – and “multitude” – hamon.

Abraham.

No long shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.[1]

There is so much in a name.  Often it not only identifies a person, but it also tells their story and when you call someone by their name you are not only affirming who they are, but you are affirming their story and very often the legacy of those who came before them.

And that is why I love this passage from the Prophet Isaiah.

For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name[2]

The Book of Isaiah is the first of the major prophets.  It is a composite work, meaning it is not actually the writings of one prophet, but of several different prophets who were active at different points throughout Israel’s history.  It was written during the time of the Babylonian Exile and this particular scripture likely comes from during the time of the exile, itself – around 545-539 BC.

In this prophecy, God is speaking to Cyrus, who was a Persian King, the only non-Israelite designated as “anointed” in the Old Testament.  God names Cyrus as the one who is going to carry out God’s commission.  And here’s the thing:  Cyrus does not actually know who God is, but God knows who Cyrus is; God chooses Cyrus and calls him by name to be his servant in this world.

By calling Cyrus by name, God is validating who he is and who God is calling him to be in this world.

Back in April, I was writing my Easter sermon and I was looking at this text from the Gospel of John and, knowing that I wanted to spend the summer focusing on hospitality, I could not help but notice the fact that when Jesus appears before Mary Magdalene after she finds that the tomb is empty, she does not recognize him until he calls her by name.

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).[3]

Don’t you find it striking that Mary finally recognized the resurrected Christ in her midst when he called her by name?  When he acknowledged who she was and who God was calling her to be?  That was the moment when she realized that resurrection was possible; that was the moment when she saw grace in a real and bold and life-changing way.

I think names are important.  I think they are important because they allow us to affirm the identity and the humanity of other people.  I think they are important because we know from scripture that God thinks we are all worthy of that affirmation.  I think they are important because it is in that affirmation that others, like Mary Magdalene, are able to see the presence of Christ and find grace in unexpected ways and places.

So we have, for better or worse, become a nametag church.

Well – we are trying, anyway.

Last December, we very excitedly passed clipboards around to collect names and towns and Kathy and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s printing, cutting, laminating, punching and attaching name tags to clips in our enthusiastic DIY attempt at making nametags.

And I think three people consistently wore them.

However, refusing to admit defeat, I consulted some of my clergy colleagues and looked to see how other churches are doing the nametag thing.  We put a little bit more money towards the project this second time around, purchasing RCC lanyards and perforated nametag sheets that use templates to make printing easier.  Sometimes we remind people to wear their nametags, sometimes we encourage them, sometimes we beg them and sometimes we flat-out lecture them.

And we have had a little bit more success.

Deacons wear their nametags when they staff funeral services, I have noticed people wearing them at community events and meals and people really do seem to be tryingto remember them on Sunday mornings. We even added this fancy little “I Give Electronically” sticker for electronic givers so they can flash their nametag at the ushers when the offering plates come around they do not have a physical offering to put in.

It is not perfect – but we are trying.  We are trying because we believe that every single person that walks through the doors of this church deserves to be called by their name; to be acknowledged and affirmed as a child of God.  We are trying believe we believe that we will bear witness to the resurrected Christ as we acknowledge one another by name; that we will discover grace in the most unexpected ways and places.

So here is my plea:

First of all, wear your nametag.  Even if you think everyone knows you or you know everyone – please, wear your nametag.  We are trying to create a culture.  You never know when someone is going to walk through our doors for the first time or even if someone is newer to the community and has not quite gotten everyone’s names yet.  Knowing someone’s name breaks down an invisible barrier that oftentimes prevents someone else from starting a conversation with them.  So let us make it easy for people – allpeople – to approach one another and have a conversation.

A second of all, try to learn other people’s names.  And then call them bytheir names.  Affirm who they are a child of God, who God is calling them to be and what God is calling them to do in this world and how they can be part of this church, this village, this Body of Christ.

So go therefore out into the world and call one another by name.  May we affirm the identity of one another and may we discover grace – unexpected – along the way.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Genesis 17:5, NRSV
[2]Isaiah 45:4, NRSV
[3]John 20:15-16, NRSV

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A Simple Promise

I preached this sermon during the second Sunday of Advent.  I started off by talking about a rough week, but was vague about details, because they weren’t really my details to share at the time.  Looking back, I can see where God was at work and how the light truly did shine in the midst of the darkness.  My family is almost on the other side of the particularly journey we started back in December and as the days get longer and the sun shines longer, I am reminded once again just how true this promise it.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 9, 2018

Isaiah 9:1-7

A Simple Promise

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

I have to be honest; my family and I had kind of a tough week.  And I don’t mean to be vague, but they are also not my stories to tell, so I am not really going to get into it; however, I offer that as sort of a disclaimer that we kind of walked through that darkness this week.  We needed to be reassured of that promise that light would shine.

My sister said to me at one point, “Oh, it’s Christmas, it’s supposed to be a joyful season,” and I thought, yes, but isn’t this why we needed Christmas in the first place?  It is because of our brokenness that we needed God to come into our midst and make us whole again.  It is because our world was and is imperfect and flawed and heartbreaking at times that we needed and still need a Gospel that is full of light and love and grace.  It is because we are human that we needed God to come into our midst, to experience our world in the most vulnerable and precious way.

That is the amazing part about the Christmas story, thought.  Over the years we have sort trained ourselves to think it is all about lights and cheer and fun traditions and Starbucks holiday cups, but it started with a promise.

A promise that even in the darkest moments of our lives, light would still shine.

If you did not know that this morning’s scripture reading was from the Book of Isaiah, you would probably think that it was part of Jesus’ birth narrative, right?

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

But these words were written long before Jesus entered this world; before Mary and Joseph made the 80 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, before an innkeeper welcomed these weary travelers into his home, before the angels heralded Christ’s arrival, before the shepherds ran to see for themselves what had happened and before the wise men followed a star to bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Book of Isaiah is dated as far back as the late 8thcentury BCE.  It is thought to have been composed primarily during the Babylonian Exile, which lasted about 70 years, beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem.  The darkness that the prophet refers to in this book is not a metaphorical darkness, but a real and hard and desperate and human darkness. Jerusalem had been destroyed; people were displaced and being held captive in a foreign land.  They were separated from their families and familiar surroundings; their safety and security was gone.

And yet, there was this promise.

A promise that even in the darkest moments of their lives, light would still shine.

A promise that they would rejoice in the same way that they would if they were experiencing the joy of a great harvest.

A promise that their burdens would be lifted from them; that they would be freed from the heavy weight of their oppressors.

A promise that the warriors fighting against them would be destroyed.

A promise that a child of Messianic Hope would be born; that he would bring with him the hope of eternal life.

As people living on this side of the resurrection, we know that this promise has been fulfilled.  We know, not only how the Christmas story ends, but also how the Easter story ends.  We know that the exile did come to an end; that light did shine as the Jews were released from captivity and Jerusalem started to rebuild.  We know that, 600 years later, against all odds, a child was born to a virgin named Mary and delivered safely into this broken and imperfect world under the light of a star that led wise men there so they could pay him homage.  We know that this child grew up and lived in this world and, despite its brokenness and its imperfection, held fast to a law of love and a Gospel of peace.  We know that while he was put to death, on the third day after he died, as the morning light began to shine over the tomb where they had laid his body, they realized that the tomb was empty; that death, in fact, did not – and does not – have the final word, that resurrection is real and that grace is more powerful than we can ever comprehend.

And this all came from a simple promise.

A promise that even in the darkest moments of our lives, light will still shine.

I know it has not been an easy year for a lot of you.  I know that right now, a lot of you are feeling as though you are living in this land of deep darkness.  I know that people are grieving, frustrated, scared, stressed and feeling uncertain.  And I want you to know that somehow – someway – this promise will be fulfilled.  Light will shine.

I was with my sister this week and we were in the car and O Holy Night came on and those words, “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,” echoed through me as I thought about this passage from Isaiah and what it means to be a weary world waiting desperately for that thrill of hope.

I think in different ways we are all kind of waiting right now.

And it is coming; I promise.  That promise has been fulfilled before – and it will be again.

Christmas is hard for a lot of people because the world is kind of mandating this joy that you cannot really escape from.  We even kind of mandate it at church – I figured out how to light the wreaths on the walls, for goodness’ sake!

But remember the magic of the Christmas season doesn’t come from twinkly lights or peppermint mochas or matching pajamas (even though I love all of those things).  The magic of the Christmas season comes from that promise that even in the darkest moments of our lives, light will always shine.

And that is the kind of magic I think we all need.

So wherever you are on your journey through life right now – wherever you find yourself this Christmas season – believe in this promise.  Believe that light will shine, that you will feel joy and that the weight of your burdens will be lifted.  Believe that God will break forth into this world – into this broken and imperfect, but also beautiful and grace-filled world – and meet us where we are.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

Let that light shine.  Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.