Celebrating Incarnational Love

Last week’s sermon from our Hanging of the Greens service and the beginning of the Advent season!  Time to break out the Christmas music!  It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Praying that you all find Emmanuel in your midst …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
November 29, 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Celebrating Incarnational Love

I am starting to realize that I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook.

You see, on the one hand, I love the myriad of ways that I use Facebook in my life and the ways that it actually brings me joy. I love having the ability to stay in touch with my family and friends all over the country, using it for the church, networking with colleagues and sharing pieces of my life.

But on the other hand, lately I have felt that something is missing.

This feeling of online relational inadequacy had been simmering over the past couple of months, but it started to make a little bit more sense to me a few weeks ago when I was reading Jen Hatmaker’s book, For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards. In a chapter titled Porches as Altars, Hatmaker reflected on her own struggle to find a balance with online and face-to-face relationships.

We live in a strange, unprecedented time when face-to-face relationships are becoming optional. It’s tricky, this new online connectivity, because it can become meaningful and true; it has given way to actual friendships I treasure. But it can also steal from friends on porches, the ones who truly know you, who talk about real life over nachos. Online life is no substitute for practiced, physical presence, and it will never replace someone looking you in the eye, padding around your kitchen in bare feet, making you take a blind taste test on various olives, walking in your front door without knocking. (Jen Hatmaker, For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards, page 115)

These words were very powerful for me, not only as a human being who values personal connections with other human beings, but also as a Christian leader and a woman of deep (and albeit flawed and complex at times) faith.

Human connections are one the strongest pieces of the foundation of our Christian faith. Jesus was incarnational proof that our God was not a distance God. Jesus was and still is a bold proclamation that God loves us so much that God came into the world that we live in – even with all of its imperfections – and lived in our midst, shared in our pain and suffering and understood humanity in its most raw form.

As human beings, we need to know that there are real people in our lives who know us and who understand what we are going through and who will walk with us as we are stumbling along our journeys through life. As people who come into this world with no instruction manual, we need incarnational relationships that help us put the pieces of our lives together.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Old Testament, from the prophet Jeremiah. This book recalls a time in Jerusalem in the 6th and 7th centuries BCE where human pain and suffering was very real. There was political unrest, foreign alliances were shifting, Jerusalem was destroyed and people were thrown into exile.

And yet, in the midst of this gigantic, human mess, God made a promise.

In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. (Jeremiah 33:16, NRSV)

Here’s the thing: God makes this same promise to us today.

Jeremiah was prophesying to people who were struggling in real and devastating ways; people who needed God to come into their midst and show them an overwhelming expression of incarnational compassion. People just like us.

Now I am not going to stand here today and try to get everyone in the Christmas spirit by talking about how wonderful the world is and how everyone should just put aside their struggles, grab a cup of eggnog and sing Christmas carols.

Because that is not what God did when God came into our midst through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God never pretended that things were better than they were. Jesus did not dance through his earthy life while showtunes played in the background; Jesus experienced real and true suffering. And it is not that I am happy that Jesus suffered, but this makes me believe that God gets it. God knows what we are feeling when we are crying out in agony; God understands our pain.

For many of us, 2015 has been a very challenging year. I have officiated at 19 funerals, with one more scheduled in December; far more than my average. Throughout the year, people in our community have faced devastating diagnoses and have struggled in real and heartbreaking ways. Loss has been great; stress has been even greater. Our country and our world has – again and again – experienced violence and tragedies. Our church community has faced its own ups and downs. Like the people Jeremiah was prophesying to so many years ago, we, too, need that promise from God:

That promise that God is with us in those moments when everything is falling apart around us.
That promise that God understands what true struggling feels like.
That promise that God will never abandon us.

We need that promise that God’s love is not a distant love, but a real and tangible and incarnational love. A love that burst forth into this world in a manger in Bethlehem while a star shone brightly in the east. A love that, in death, was resurrected to new life so that all might be saved. A love that is always, always, always with us.

I am sure that it would be easy for God to sit in heaven and look out over all of us on earth; to feel a distant compassion when we are suffering.

But time and time again, God has proven that that is not our God. God is not afraid to be with us in our suffering. God not only does not turn away from us when we need God most, but God draws closer to us when we need God most.

This is what we should be celebrating this time of year: Not just the fact that Jesus was born, but that when Jesus was born, God came into our midst, that God fulfilled an ancient promise that we will never be alone and that God is not afraid to get down and dirty with us, even when things are falling apart around us.

This truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

Our sanctuary is ready. WE are ready. We are ready for Advent, we are ready for Christmas and we are ready for Emmanuel – God with us – to burst forth into our lives.

We are ready for an incarnational love that will bring us hope, peace, joy and love. We are ready for an incarnational love that can and will change the world.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Living Under The Reign Of Christ

Happy Reign of Christ Sunday!  We had an amazing Sunday at RCC.  Here’s a sneak peak at the altar!

Cornucopia Altar

I take no credit for this (other than looking for the wooden candlestick in my worship supplies), but I did take a lot of pictures and will to a separate post on it this week.

In the meantime, here’s my sermon!

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20

Living Under The Reign Of Christ

One of my favorite things about the month of November is the way in which it becomes a month of giving thanks. People use social media to talk about their blessings; families prepare to come together and share an elaborate meal; the colder temperatures and shorter days force people to slow down and stay inside and the spirit of Christmas giving is alive and beginning to touch people’s hearts.

It has been hard not to give thanks at our church this month. There has been something on our church calendar every single weekend this month – the Bazaar, Homeless Awareness Weekend, a fall Cabinet meeting, a kickoff dinner for this year’s Confirmation class, a Bazaar wrap-up dinner and the assembly of over 60 Thanksgiving Baskets. Throughout this month we have served together, worshipped together, prayed together, sang together, laughed together and cried together. It has been one of those months where I have been in a constant state of disbelief – almost awe! – that this is my life and this the community that God has called me to be in ministry with. Our church is not perfect, but we are blessed to have one another and this community.

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday in the Christian Church year. Next week starts the beginning of a new year in the life of the Church; it is the first Sunday in Advent, the four-week preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ, a birth which laid the foundation for our faith to rest upon.

When we look at this morning’s reading from the Old Testament, we see a prophecy that has been fulfilled through the Christian story. The prophet Jeremiah said that a just and righteous king would come, that Judah would be saved and Israel would live in safety and that the shepherds who watch over God’s people would return to their flock. We look back on these words, particularly on the cusp of a Christmas season, knowing that Christians fully realize and recognize Jesus as this king that Jeremiah said was coming.

But Jesus was not a king that ruled with power and laws; Jesus was a king that ruled with love and compassion, with – as Jeremiah prophesied – an emphasis on justice and righteousness. Jesus was a king that ruled by extending a hand of peace and not a fist of war. Jesus was a king that ruled by reaching out to the poor and the marginalized.

And this morning we celebrate Christ’s all-encompassing reign in our lives – the ways that his reign influenced the world 2,000 years ago and the ways that his transformative power is still at work in our lives and in our communities.

“The reign of Christ is the reign of peace.” [1]

I read these words in a commentary text this week, a text reflecting on Jesus’ fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophesy. And I got to thinking – what does the reign of Christ look like? And more importantly, how do we live under this reign? How, in an age where governments rule and the grain of societies take over, do we live under this reign? How, when there are so many fundamental differences between Christians in different churches and denominations, do we live under this reign? How, when disasters strike and we have no control, do we live under this reign? How, when each and every one of us must wake up and face the challenges of being human and living in an imperfect world, do we live under this reign?

I think that how and why we live under Christ’s reign is changing as the world changes. The reasons that our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents and our great-great-grandparents embraced and live a life of Christian faith and service are not the same reasons that we do. I think that Jeremiah’s prophecy is still being fulfilled – every single day – as new generations of Christians emerge. 2,000 years later, we are still living under Christ’s reign.

Living under Christ’s reign means seeing yourself as a Child of God. This means looking in the mirror, seeing your reflection – your imperfections, your shortcomings and your mistakes – and saying, “I am a Child of God and I am worthy of God’s love.” I know that this is easier said than done but I think that believing in Jesus means also believing in yourself.

Living under Christ’s reign means knowing that your strength comes from God and that you need to seek out that strength when you feel weak. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power,” our reading from the Book of Colossians says. Part of the power in the Christian story is seeing the strength that God gave to Jesus – through his ministry and all the way to his death on the cross when he spoke the words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” before he breathed his last breath. When we ask God for strength we are living out the words of the ancient Psalm, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” God will always give us strength – this is something that we carry with us always.

Living under Christ’s reign means seeing God at work in things that are visible and things that are invisible. Colossians 1:15 says that, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heave and on earth were created, things visible and invisible.” As you are seeking out God’s presence and strength in your life, remember that grace comes in the most unexpected of ways and places. Sometimes we cannot see it right away.

Living under Christ’s reign means being the hands and feet of Christ as we walk through our journey through life. Christianity is not based on some mystical and unseen divine force; it is based on the life, death and resurrection of a human being – a man named Jesus. A man who went against the grain of society; a man who called for peace, justice and unity; a man who we are called to emulate in our own lives.

Living under Christ’s reign means listening for the ways that God is calling you into ministry. “[Jesus] is the head of the body, the church,” Colossians says. And we ARE the Body of Christ. We each have a role to play.

Living under Christ’s reign means living, serving, worshipping, learning and ministering in community. Jesus did not come and work alone; Jesus came and called disciples to work with him. We are called to do the same.

Living under Christ’s reign means lifting others up in ministry. We are called to support our brothers and sisters in Christ, to love wholly and unconditionally, to be one another’s cheerleaders and to let go of our own pride.

Living under Christ’s reign means not only being in relationship with other people, but also being in relationship with God. A relationship with God – like all other relationships – take work. They require honesty and communication. There are good times and bad times; times of fighting and times of thanksgiving. And like all other relationships, we cannot take them for granted.

Living under Christ’s reign means making that our top priority. We cannot act as an individual first and a Christian second. We must be faithful in everything that we do. Our faith should not be limited to one hour on a Sunday morning within the four walls of a church building; our faith should encompass the lives we lead and the way that we act every single day.

Living under Christ’s reign means letting go of the things that society tries to tell us are important and embracing the things that we know in our hearts are important, even when that is difficult.

Living under Christ’s reign means seeking peace. The scripture says that “[God] has rescued us from the power of the darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” – and we, as the hands and the feet and the face of Christ, are called to do the same. Seeking peace is not easy. It is not easy in our homes, in our churches, in our communities, in our country or in our world. But the reign of Christ is a reign of peace – that is what the Gospel teaches us. And that means letting go, making compromises, seeing the bigger picture and resisting the oftentimes natural tendency to choose war, violence and anger over peace.

Living under Christ’s reign means embracing a personal faith, listening to the unique and special ways that God is calling you to live out your faith. Your faith is not dictated by religious structures, dogmas and creeds; it is God touching you and working through you.

It is fitting that we are celebrating Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian year, on the same Sunday that we are celebrating Thanksgiving. Because living under the reign of Christ and living out the reign of Christ is something that we can all be thankful for this year! Blessings abound!

So let us give thanks for the way that God is active and working in our lives and in the life of this church community. Let us give thanks for the energy and passion that exists within our walls and extends out into the community. Let us give thanks for a wonderful year; a year that may have posed some challenges, but also a year that enabled us to find God’s presence, to feel God’s strength and see God’s grace in unexpected places. Let us give thanks for a reign of Christ that is still happening today.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

***

[1] Johns, Mary Eleanor, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4, Page 316

Traveling As Disciples Into A Future With Hope

Good Sunday Evening!  I hope you all had a wonderful sabbath.

I had the opportunity to preach at Bethany Congregational Church in Foxboro, Massachusetts today.  I know several of the staff up there and they asked me to come and preach on living within pastoral transitions and 21st century discipleship.  They are in between pastors at the moment, so both topics are extremely relevant.  I have done a lot of work with these very things at RCC since I began 2 1/2 years ago, so I was honored to be asked to come and share my thoughts!

Enjoy the sermon …

***

Sarah Weaver (c) 2013
Bethany Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Foxboro, MA
August 25, 2013

Jeremiah 29:10-14
Matthew 28:16-20

Traveling As Disciples Into A Future With Hope

In November of 2010, I found the following fortune in a fortune cookie:

It takes rain and sunshine to make a rainbow!

At the time those words really resonated with me. I was living in Atlanta. I had just graduated seminary and clinical chaplaincy rotation. I was preparing to begin the journey of looking for my first call, but terrified about where the journey would take me. I had so many questions and not a lot of answers. The rain was falling around me.

Four months later, the rain was still falling. I had moved to Connecticut to begin looking for a church position. It was a dark, cold and snowy winter. Searching for a church position was becoming time consuming and frustrating. The reality of having no steady income was starting to take its toll on both my husband and me.

Then one day I received a phone call from the chair of a search committee at a church in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. At that point I had so many conversations similar to this one; but when I hung up the phone, something felt different.

In March of 2011, I stood behind the pulpit at the Rehoboth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, and preached my call sermon. The church was full that day – full of people, full of nerves, but also full of hope. You see – Rehoboth was experiencing a rainfall of its own. A difficult transition and interim time had left many people feeling disheartened. A spring flood had caused devastating damage to the lower level of the church building. Numbers were starting to dwindle. Church organization and finances were unsettled. The congregation knew that change had to be on the horizon, but no one knew how, where or when to begin.

At the end of worship that morning, I said the benediction, walked down the isle with my husband and out of the sanctuary. We were met by one of the members of the search committee, who escorted us into a room while we waited for the congregational meeting and vote to take place.

We could hear murmurings from the meeting, but for the most part we did not know what was going on. All of a sudden a period of silence was broken when a loud “AYE!” boomed through the entire building, followed by applause and cheering.

I was brought back into the sanctuary where everyone was smiling, cheering, laughing and crying.

For both the Rehoboth Congregational Church and me, the rain had cleared, the sun had emerged and a rainbow was appearing in the sky.

And it was so beautiful.

It is very difficult to live in the discomfort of a transition, particularly a pastoral transition. Transitions – by their nature – are unpredictable, disconcerting and scary. But they also gather the ingredients for that beautiful rainbow to come together.

Bethany Congregational Church – first and foremost, I want to promise you this morning that your rainbow is coming. And I guarantee, it will be so, SO beautiful.

God promises us that rainbow. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD,” our scripture from the Old Testament reads, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

When the prophet Jeremiah spoke these words, he was ministering to a group of exiles in Babylon, where – following the fall of Jerusalem – the Judean people had been exiled. This was known as the age of the “Babylonian Exile,” a 70-year period where the Judeans were exiled from their homes; from their communities.

So often we read this scripture and only remember the words of the 11th verse, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” And we should remember these words! They offer us hope and reassurance during times of trouble and uncertainty.

But what about the words that precede them? The 10th verse of this chapter says, “For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”

It is important to remember that this prophecy took place at the beginning of the exile, the beginning of that 70-year period. So when Jeremiah said, “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place,” he quite literally means, “Sorry guys – God says you will eventually get your future with hope, but for right now you’re stuck in Babylon. So make yourself comfortable.”

Rest assured, I am not here to tell you that the search for a new pastor will take 70 years. But I do think that we can learn a lot from what the Judean people did while they were in their own transition.

Scholars believe that while the Judean people were exiled in Babylon, they set up lives for themselves. There were allowed freedoms – both religious and personal – in the cities that they settled in. They could still celebrate their Jewish heritage. Despite the fact that they were living in exile, they still lived their lives. They had no other choice; they could either live as though they were imprisoned exiles and be miserable and fruitless for 70 years – or they could take the deck of cards that they were dealt, accept where they were and see how they could be part of that prosperous and hopeful future, how they could create that rainbow.

Very often when churches experience a time of interim between pastors, they think that everything must be put on hold until a new pastor is called. And sometimes this may be the case, but not always. God calls us to live within transitions, not wait in vain for them to be over. You, members and friends of Bethany Congregational Church are the church and – just like the founders of this congregation were called to do in 1779 when Bethany was organized – God is calling you to do great things, with or without a settled pastor.

Let’s look at this morning’s Gospel reading.

Jesus said to 11 disciples that had gathered in Galilee:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Jesus lived on earth and called the men and women who walked with him into his ministry. But he also called those men and women to expand this ministry into new generations, to create a priesthood of all believers; a group of people touched by grace, united by the waters of baptism, followers of the Gospel and heeding this same call within their lives.

Jesus is calling you, Bethany Church, to go therefore and make disciples of all nations within the transition that you are experiencing right now.

I read a commentary once that talked about the ways that scriptures blends the God of history with the God of creation. One of the challenges of being part of a church with as much history and tradition as this one is finding a balance between these two. The God of history is infused in everything that has happened up until this point. It lives within the stories that are told, the way things were and the traditions that are honored today. The God of history is the reason that we are here today, the reason that this church exists the way that it does and the reason that so many people have been touched by this community over the years.

But the God of creation is still creating and still calling disciples today.

The God of creation is calling every single one of you into a unique and divinely inspired ministry.

The God of creation is working within this church, within this pastoral transition and within the changes that are happening.

Change is not always easy – in fact, it has been my experience that change is almost never easy. We tend to resist change because it is scary and makes us uncomfortable. We like the safety of the known and dread the vulnerability of the unknown. We are often scared that the decisions we are making may impact the future in a negative way. And we would rather guard against that fear by keeping things the way they have always been.

But if we guard against change, we could be denying ourselves the opportunity to be true to who we are and to who the God of creation had created us and is calling us to be.

Yes, God promises that future with hope, but God also calls each one of us to be part of the process, to live within the transition while it is happening and to be the disciples who create that future with hope.

God has created each and every one of us to be a disciple of Christ and we are all called to listen to the still speaking voice of God talking to each and every one of us. No one should be denied the opportunity to be an authentic version of the disciples that they are called to be.

As you live within your own transition, Bethany Congregational Church, I invite you to reflect on the ways that the God of creation is calling you to be a part both of what the God is history has done throughout the years, but also of what is happening in your midst right now. Be courageous as your journey forward, both in your words and in your steps. Find your passions and turn those passions into ministries that can serve. Be gentle with yourselves and with one another. Take ownership of this church and your piece of its history that is still unfolding. Feel united by those waters of baptism that shower over all of you and come together to worship, sing, serve and learn. Heed the call to make disciples of all nations. Celebrate who you are – and who you may become.

I think that this is a really neat time in the life of our churches here in this community, around the country and throughout the world. No, things may not necessarily be the way that they used to be, but so many incredible things are happening. The God of creation is alive and at work and we are active participants in the Body of Christ.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” – this was not something that has happened, this is something that is still happening. In every generation that call to discipleship is renewed. It was renewed in 1779 when this congregation was organized and forming its identity and it is being renewed today as this community re-forms its identity and prepares itself for the arrival of a new pastor.

The best is always yet to come. And you, as a congregation, are traveling as disciples into a future with hope. This is God’s promise to you.

Your rainbow is coming.

And it is going to be spectacular.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.