Creating Space In Our Lives For God

Bruce told me I preached an entire sermon to myself this morning.

He may have a point.

Here you go!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 20, 2015

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8

Creating Space In Our Lives For God

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8a, NRSV)

This sounds like such a simple concept, does it not? If we move ourselves closer to God, then God will – in turn – move closer to us.

But how do we do this? How do we clear a path through the craziness of this world and the busyness of our lives to move closer to God?

When Bruce and I moved to Massachusetts, we essentially moved from our 800 square foot apartment in Atlanta to the parsonage. We did not have a lot of “stuff” – we just did not have room for it in our apartment. So when we started to pack ourselves up for the move and the unpack everything in Rehoboth, I started thinking about how we were going to fill a house without spending a lot of money. I was, after all, coming off of seven years of school and a subsequent job search (neither of which pays particularly well).

Knowing that we were moving into a bigger space with a smaller budget, it did not take long for people to start offering us some of their “stuff”.

Do you want a bed? How about my couch set?
Look at this really nice coffee table that someone is getting rid of! You could paint it and it would look adorable!
This dining room set did not sell at the yard sale; don’t you think it would look great at the parsonage?
We all think you need this old desk!
So I have this piano that a 911 widow gave me after she moved out of the house she and her husband lived in. Do you want it? I think it would be so special if the memory of her husband lived on in the house of a pastor! (I mean, really – how can I say no to that?)

These are only a few of the many-orphaned pieces of furniture that Bruce and I have taken in over the past four years. And this went on and on until this past summer, when we found ourselves tripping over one another and our “stuff” and I finally had a minor meltdown about the fact that we could not move in our own house. I then told Bruce that we had to start getting rid of things before I had a nervous breakdown.

Though in fairness to him, Bruce did not think that we should have taken most of the stuff in the first place.

The thing is: I wanted to be able to bring stuff into my house that brought me joy. I wanted there to be room for things like my treadmill, my beautiful antique bar, different craft supplies and fun kitchen appliances. I wanted Bruce to have room for his fishing gear. I wanted us to have room for things in our lives that would make us feel like more complete and fulfilled people.

I did not want to feel weighed down by the clutter and chaos and stress of the stuff that I did not need or want.

I think that sometimes the same can be true when it comes to whether or not we have space for God in our lives. As human beings who live in a very hectic and fast-paced society, so often we inadvertently fill our days and our schedules and our families’ lives with “stuff”. But this “stuff” does not always bring us joy; it does not make us feel like complete and fulfilled people; it sometimes make us feel cluttered and chaotic and stressed.

God is always with us; at the core of my faith and what I understand to be true in the Christian faith and in this world, I believe that God has never and will never abandon us. That being said; if our lives are full of clutter and chaos and stress, then how is God supposed to find room to work within us?

This is a two way street; and God is trying to get through and into our lives.

But we have to clear that path.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the book of James; a letter written to a group of Jewish Christians who had been displaced and were being persecuted because of their faith. As it often happens when groups of people come together, there was some spatting among members of this community; nothing that unusual and very similar to conflicts we face in our own churches and organizations today. But in his writing, James encouraged this church to find peace – in their community and in their lives – by turning away from earthly things and focusing on divine things.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (James 3:17, NRSV)

James’ 2,000-year-old words of wisdom are so relevant to us today. We live in a world that is too often inundated with hustle and bustle, activity and stress. We move from one activity to the next without giving ourselves time to breathe. This is our normal; it is part of who we are. This is what the world is telling us to do.

And this is precisely why we need to look to God for our wisdom and not to the things in our earthly lives. Life has a tendency to move fast and just sweep us up along its path. But we can and should resist this tendency. We should spend more time thinking about what God is calling us to do and not what our culture is telling us we need to do. The word “no” should be used often and without guilt. We do not need to fill our lives with every activity available in an attempt to make our lives more whole; we need to spend time with God and cultivating our faith so that our lives will be made more whole.

What would our lives look like if we did these things?

Full disclosure: I am the worst offender at everything that I am talking about right now. I do not like to say “no” and I cannot pass up a request to volunteer at something; I tend to go-go-go-go-go until I crash and then wonder why I feel disconnected to God.

Well duh; I feel disconnected to God because I have filled my life with so much other “stuff” that there is no room for God to connect with me.

Now is the time when we all need to clear up the congestion in our lives so that God has the space to come and dwell within us.

I am not saying that this will be easy; in fact, I know that it will be extremely challenging. This is completely countercultural to the world that we are living in.

But I also think that it will feel amazing to take that first step. It will feel life-giving; it will feel restorative. We will all have room to breathe.

It may not always be easy, but we do not have to do what everyone else it doing just because they are doing it; we have the freedom to do what God is calling us to do.

Submit yourselves therefor to God. (James 4:7, NRSV)

We have the freedom; we have the freedom to submit ourselves to God and not to our crazy society. We have the freedom to go where God is calling us and not where everyone else in our circle of friends is going. We do not have to worry about what other people say or think or do; because ultimately creating space for God – while it may be countercultural – will give our lives meaning.

James wrote that we are conflict with ourselves:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? (James 4:1, NRSV)

By saying, “yes” to everything, we are constantly at war with ourselves. We want to find balance in our lives, but we also feel the need to please people and keep up with what everyone around us is doing. And when we cannot do this, our lives are impacted; our relationships suffer, the work we do is not as good and we feel stressed.

Let that go.

The most life-fulfilling thing we can do for ourselves is to make space for God in our lives.

That may mean saying “no” sometimes. That may mean stepping away from something. This may mean putting our technology down and being a little bit less connected. This may mean reprioritizing and letting some things go.

But this is all going to create space for God to come into our lives.

I finally got to the point last summer where I looked around my house and felt like there was no place for me to move, let alone live with any sort of purpose or meaning.

I wonder if God ever feels that way about our lives?

We need to create space for God in our lives.

We need to set a place at the table for the Holy Spirit to pull up a chair and break bread with us.

We need to turn down the noise in our lives so that we can hear the voice of God speaking to us.

We need to clear a space in our lives for God to come and dwell and work within us. This will be life-giving. This will be redeeming. This will be restorative. This will be peaceful. This will be holy.

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8a, NRSV)

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Using Our Faith

Happy (belated) Labor Day, everybody!  We had a really nice low-key weekend.  Church was quiet, Bruce and I golfed nine-holes in the afternoon and I spent Monday binge-watching Friday Night Lights while getting caught up on laundry.

I know, I know.  You’re blinded by my glamorous lifestyle.

Here is Sunday’s sermon!  It is my last sermon of the summer, so it’s back to coordinating music, children’s sermon, etc. this week!  Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 6, 2015

James 2:1-17

Using Our Faith

I was hanging out with Zackary Rutko this week (you know Zack – five going on 35) and I asked him what he thought my sermon should be about this week. He thought about it for a second while he looked at his surroundings and then finally said with confidence, “Fire hydrants.”

“Fire hydrants?” I asked him.

“Uh-huh. Fire hydrants … and people,” he went on. “But mostly people.”

Well okay then.

Not to publically admit that I have started crowdsourcing five-year-olds for sermon content or anything, but as I thought about this passage from the letter of James this week, I could not help but think that the kid might actually be on to something.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith, by itself if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

In other words, if our faith is not doing something, if our faith is not active and thriving, then it is not alive and living up to its potential in our lives.

This can be a challenging passage for us to think about because it is a deliberate call to action. It forces us to think about that way that we live our lives. And then it furthers forces us to reflect on how we could do more to strengthen our faith, grow as Christians and live out the Gospel.

Let’s think about Zack’s fire hydrant metaphor for a second: Say you drive by a building full of people and suddenly a fire breaks out and starts to spread quickly. That would be completely terrifying! But have no fear – there is a fire hydrant on the sidewalk in front of the school. Everything is going to be fine, right?

But that fire hydrant is completely useless in fighting that fire if it just sitting there. It needs to be used; it needs to be put to work in order for it to make a difference.

And in the same way, we need to use our faith; we need to put our faith to work if we want our faith to mean something, if we want our faith to be alive and if we want our faith to make a difference in this world.

The Letter of James is thought to have been written in the late first or early second century. It was written to Jewish Christians who had left their homes and communities in order to avoid persecution because of their faith. It encouraged dispersed men and women to stand strong in their faith; to be wise in what they learned through Christ and to seek heavenly wisdom and not just earthly wisdom. Today, we can read this letter very much as a guidebook in our own lives and journeys of faith.

For nearly 2,000 years, there has been an ongoing debate among theologians about whether or not we, as Christians, are saved by faith or saved by works. The fancy theological term for being saved by faith alone is “justification”. And the question at hand is this: Is it enough that we profess a faith in the Risen Christ – or do we have to act on that faith in order to truly be saved?

I have no idea.

It is a slippery slope. You can believe in God and do a lot of really bad things in your life. You can also do a lot of really wonderful things and think that the whole faith thing is completely bogus. And sometimes churches can take things a little bit too far when they give people the opportunity to do something (or buy something) in order to confirm their faith and buy their salvation. Which is the better scenario?

Like I said – I have no idea.

Personally, I do not think that either side of the debate is completely right: I think that it is about finding a balance, a balance between having faith and professing your belief in God and actively and tangibly living out that faith. And – even more so – I think that each one of us has to find a balance that works for us in our lives.

So I am not out to solve the 2,000-year-old debate on justification this morning; but this scripture does point out that there is more to our faith than simply professing a belief, so let us talk about why that is true and how we can do this.

First of all, I think that we need works to strengthen our faith. And this happens in many different ways! It happens when our works lead us to places where our eyes are opened to faith alive in this world. It happens when we see the faith of others and are inspired to further strengthen our own faith. It happens when God gives us the strength to do something that we never thought we could have done. It happens when we feel as though our faith is leading us to a place where we are making a real difference in the world.

My call to ministry did not come within the four walls of a church building; it came when I was in Honduras, doing the work that Jesus did in his life, the work that we are called by the Gospels to do in our lifetime. Suddenly 18 years of Sunday School made sense for me and anytime I have taken part in some sort of service project with people in this congregation – young or old – I have seen the same spark in their eyes that I felt on that trip. It is one thing to believe that all of this faith stuff is true, but something happens when we are actually serving in a tangible way that makes us feel that it is true.

Faith is something that needs to be used in order for it to be healthy. In the same way that doctors make their patients get up and moving after surgery so their muscles don’t atrophy sitting in bed, we need to use our faith so that it continues to grow and be healthy. The more we use our muscles, the stronger they get. And the more we use our faith, the stronger it gets; it is as simple as that.

Like I said, I am not trying to solve the debate on justification. There are going to be moments in our lives where chaos ensues and all we have the time or energy to is throw our hands in the air and say, “God, I hope you’ve got this, because I sure don’t!” before we collapse on our bed and cry into a bowl of ice cream.

But in order to prepare ourselves for those moments, we have to be constantly working on our faith. We have to find ways in our lives to actively express the things that we believe so that our faith can be nurtured, strengthened and protected. We have to send cards to people when they are going through something difficult in their life, give them a call or drop off a meal. We have to come to worship so we can strengthen those “faith muscles” with other people (it is always more fun to workout with other people, right?). We have to challenge ourselves and our faith by reading the bible, learning about our religious history and engaging in discussions on faith. We have to serve the church in some form or another (y’all know nominating is right around the corner, right?). We have to look for ways to give back to the community. We have to pray – for ourselves and for others.

Faith, by itself if it has no works, is dead.

So it is time to look in the mirror and see not only who are, but who God is calling us to be. It is time to find a balance in our lives – that works for us! – between professing our belief and acting on that profession. It is time to strengthen our faith by serving others. It is time to challenge ourselves and push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. It is time to see our faith come alive. It is time to use our faith so that it can change the world.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Choose Joy

Good afternoon!  I hope everyone in the northeast is thawing out after the weekend snow!  We didn’t get that hard and were able to gather for church on Sunday.  Enjoy my sermon!

pointsettia

Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Luke 1:46b-55

Choose Joy

This morning we light the candle of joy on our Advent wreath.

I have to be honest – I wrestled with today’s sermon all week. As we approached the anniversary of the shooting in Sandy Hook I continued to ask myself and even to ask God, “How can I preach on joy right now?”

And yet, yesterday, as the day unfolded, I realized that I did not necessarily have to preach on joy – because joy was happening all around me.

Joy was happening as the ladies of the Flower Committee gathered together and adorned the sanctuary with poinsettias. Joy happened in their fellowship, in their laughter and in their care.

Joy was happening as over 30 people from our community honored the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting by praying together, sitting in silence together and sharing peace with one another.
Joy was happening as a rooster wandered onto our property and poked his head into narthex when we opened the front doors of the church.

Joy was happening as members of the Missions Committee traveled to the McAuley Village in Providence and hosted a Christmas party for the moms who live there and their children. Joy happened as we all listened to Christmas music, shared a meal together, did crafts with the children and anxiously awaited the arrival of Santa Claus.

Joy was happening when Santa Claus walked in the room and the children erupted in cheers. Joy happened when the little girl who had crawled into my lap to show me the candy cane she had pulled off the tree lit up, shrieked with delight, bolted off my lap, ran across the room and jumped into Santa’s arms.

So often we focus on the bad things that happen in this world; we focus on things that are not necessarily going right, on things that are happening that we disagree with and on things that frustrate us. I often criticize the media, because it seems like they never report good news; they never highlight the good things that are happening in our communities and around the world. And while that may be true, I wonder if it what they report is simply a harsh reflection of the world that we are living in.

We live in a world that often chooses bad over good, negative over positive and sorrow over joy.

We do not live in a world that always chooses to see and find joy.

And yet ‘joy’ is something that we so desperately need.

In fact, ‘joy’ is also something that we so desperately want.

I was grateful yesterday to have been so boldly and so tangibly reminded of the joy in my life and in the life of this church community. Even amidst the busyness of the Advent season at church and the sorrow surrounding the anniversary of the shooting in Newtown, there was joy.

The gospel reading for this morning comes from the book of Luke. This passage of scripture is referred to as The Magnificat, which is a Latin term that means, “My soul magnifies.” The Magnificat is a song; a song of praise the Mary sings to God when she is pregnant with Jesus.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Mary sang these words after the Angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that she was with child; she had gone to visit her relative Elizabeth, an older woman thought to be barren who was also pregnant.

Do you think Mary’s story is a story of joy? It’s hard not to. God entrusted her with something sacred and powerful. She carried a savior; she birthed Emmanuel into the world; peace was on earth in the form of a baby boy.

But I think that it is easy for us now – 2,000 years later – to look back at what was happening to Mary throughout this birth narrative and see joy in the story.

Joy to the world! The Lord has come. Let earth receive her king!

We sing those words now knowing how the story would eventually unfold. But remember that Mary was a very young girl, pregnant and not married. She had every reason to be afraid; she had every reason to feel anger and sorrow; and she had every reason to turn away from God.

And yet – even though she had every reason not to – Mary praised and sang to God with great joy.

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

What a strong testimony to the power of choosing joy.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a conference called Love Wins: Promoting Love, Connection and Community For Every Child and Family. It was the inaugural event of the Ana Grace Project, an initiative honoring Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, a sweet girl who lost her life in Sandy Hook last year. Ana’s mother and father welcomed us as we gathered that morning. Ana’s mother Nelba reflected on their decision to put the event together and said, “We chose to remember her life twice as loudly as the circumstances surrounding her death.”

What a strong testimony to the power of choosing joy.

This Friday will mark the two-year anniversary of the death of my grandmother. She died on December 20 and my family chose to move ahead with funeral arrangements before Christmas. We held her memorial service on December 23rd and – surrounded by greens, trees, bows and poinsettias – sang Christmas carols together as we celebrated her life.

What a strong testimony to the power of choosing joy.
We choose joy – I really do believe that. We make choices and we can choose to see, to find and to create joy.

Do bad things happen in the world? Yes – and oftentimes we cannot control them. Actually – most of the time we cannot control them. But we can control how we react to those bad things. We can choose to react with sorrow or we can choose to react with joy.

Is this easy? Of course not! Society has programmed us to turn away from joy, not seek it out. But remember that we have such a powerful tool at our disposal, one that we are reminded of when we read this morning’s psalm.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

This psalm is a powerful testimony to the way that we, as human beings, can create joy in our lives. People of God are a people of joy! If we put our trust in God, even in our darkest of moments, we can see, find and create joy in our lives. This is what Mary did as she carried and gave birth to Jesus and this is what we are called to do every single day of our lives.

Now I know that this is easier said than done. We are human beings, our emotions are real and joy is not something that can be turned on with a switch. So bear with me for one final thought.

In bible study on Tuesday morning, we read this morning’s passage from the book of James.

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.

Notice a recurring word? We sure did.

While this letter was a specific kind of patience – being patient for the “coming of the Lord” – it reminds us of the sacredness of being patient.

It is not easy to be patient – not at home, not at work, not out in stores and not in church meetings. But God works through as we try to be patient and there is real grace in that.

And as we reflect on these words and also watch the flicker of three candles now burning in front of us, these words are a bold reminder that sometimes even joy takes patience.

But it is so, SO very important to have joy in your heart.

The holidays can be a very busy and hectic time. It is easy to get bogged down in lists and obligations.

So I would encourage you to – like Mary did so many years ago – give thanks to God. Trust in God. And choose joy. Be a living testament of the power of choosing joy.

Be blessed, people of joy, be blessed.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.