A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

Hi Everyone!

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

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

Enjoy!

***

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

Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

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

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

But then I heard Lynn read it.

And I was captivated.

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

Because I knew she had walked through that valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Dead Ends

Hello!  I love having my little podcast schedule kind of of force me to get these sermons posted by Sunday night.  I was always so bad about it before.

We are on week 5 of the sermon series, Bootcamp for the Soul and this week the theme is Dead Ends.  I’m really enjoying the prompts for these sermons and I hope you all are enjoying them as well!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 2, 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14
John 11:1-45

Dead Ends (Sermon Series: Boot Camp For The Soul)

Over the past few months, several people have recommended to me the television show, Call the Midwife, which a BBC drama that premiered in 2012 and follows a community of midwives and nurses, half of whom are nuns, in East End London in the 1950’s. And while I am not entirely convinced it is a good idea for a pregnant woman to watch a show where the storyline frequently highlights varying degrees of pregnancy and delivery complications, curiosity got the better of me this week (and I do love British accents), so I watched the first few episodes.

There was an episode where a woman had fallen and suffered a concussion that caused her to go into pre-term labor. When she delivered, the baby was stillborn. The midwife tended to the woman while her husband and one of their other children wept at her bedside. The scene progressed quietly when all of a sudden a cry was heard. Against all odds, the baby was alive.

While I understand that this is a television show and anything can happen when producers and screenwriters are in charge of the storyline, as I watched this episode, I could not help but think about the fact that, in life, we never really know where grace might lie. This scene highlights, I think, the deep and profound theological truth that sometimes when all else seems lost, hope can still be found.

This truth is what strengthens the foundation of who we are as Christians; of who we are as people of the resurrection.

Our two scripture readings for this morning are stories of resurrection that, for all intents and purposes, are kind of unbelievable. We started in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel. To be honest, we do not often end up in this book, as it is one that has perplexed theologians (and, quite frankly, me) for years. Ezekiel comes from a priestly lineage, but then becomes a prophet. Throughout the entire book he sees really strange things and then prophesies some dangerous messages.

Take the passage we just heard, for example. It was described in one commentary I read as, “one of the most imaginatively dramatic readings in all scripture.”[1] The prophet Ezekiel has a vision where he is brought into a valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones; he does this and hears a noise. The bones start rattling and come together; flesh grows on them and God breathes breath into them.

You can see why this one perplexes me.

But then we moved into the Gospel of John, which records the resurrection of a man named Lazarus. While I have spent much more time preaching out of this book of the bible, I have made it no secret that this story has always perplexed me, as well.

Lazarus has been dead for four days when Jesus arrive his village of Bethany. Martha tells Jesus he is too late, that the corpse is already starting to smell. But Jesus encourages her to believe, calls to Lazarus to come out and Lazarus walks out of the tomb.

These are not stories of miraculous healing, of being cured of some awful disease or even of a body dying for a few moments and then resuming its breath and heartbeat. These are stories of resurrection; stories where death seems to have the final word and God proves otherwise, stories where bones are dry and corpses have decayed and yet life is found. Here scripture teaches us of the bold and remarkable truth that when it comes to God, death does not have the final word.

Before Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”[2] These stories – albeit strange – call us to believe. They call us to look beyond our human and earthly understandings of life and death and see the glory of God. They call us to expand our expectations of the capacity we have within ourselves for God’s work to be done.

And I think these stories call us not only to believe in their resurrection, but also to believe in our own personal resurrection, as well.

We are on week five of our Lenten sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul and this morning our theme is, Dead Ends. While our scriptures address a much more literal understanding of a dead end, I think it is safe to say we have all kind of “been there” at some point in our lives, whether it be personally, professionally, relationally, medically, financially or in another way. We have all suffered heartbreaking losses, unspeakable tragedies and frustrating obstacles. We have all gotten to a point in our journeys where we feel as though we are not simply at a crossroads, but facing a dead end with nowhere left to go. These are the moments when all hope seems lost. The circumstances might be different for each of us, but the questions are the same: Where do we go from here? How do we go on?

These are not easy questions for us to think about; but the Lenten journey is not necessarily supposed to be an easy one, it is supposed to be a transformative one. Lent is about allowing ourselves to be the most broken and vulnerable version of ourselves – just as Jesus was on the cross – so that God can make us whole again. We face our dead ends without fear knowing that God is always capable of a new beginning.

We are people of the resurrection. The dead ends we face do not make us inadequate or unworthy of God’s grace; in fact, I think it is our brokenness that allows us to be more open to God’s grace.

These two scriptures – Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones and the resurrection of Lazarus – teach us that when all seems lost, God’s hope is still alive. Always! Death does not and will not have the final word.

I know this is hard to believe sometimes; there are in our earthly lives when it seems as though death, darkness, pain, anxiety, frustration, grief and suffering do have the final word.

In fact, many of us may be experiencing some of things right now.

But scripture teaches us that the dead ends we face here and now are not the end. From dry bones, came a body that new life was breathed into. From a decaying corpse came the resurrection of a man people were already mourning. And from the darkness of the challenges we face, light will shine.

What dead end are you facing at the moment? Where do you feel stuck? Are you grieving a loss? Trying to overcome a hurdle? Seeking a change to the course you are on?

This Lent – and this morning, especially – we are reminded that when God is involved, death never has the final word. Grief, sadness, frustration, struggles, anxiety, conflict and pain do not have the final word. God is stronger than all of them.

And God gives us that strength, as well.

We will find those moments of grace. We will find a renewed strength. We will experience resurrection. We will not be defined by the struggles of our earthly circumstances, but by the love of our resurrecting and redeeming God.

The dead ends we face will not be the end of our story. Our journey will continue.

So may resurrection be something that you not only find in scripture (or in British dramas). May you find, experience and be made whole by resurrection in your own lives, as well.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, page. 123
[2] John 11:40, NRSV

Redefined

Hello!  It is so wonderful to be back after a week away.  I have to say, I’m kind of digging this whole more-official-podcast thing that I’ve got going on.  I am hoping that my dad might have some time now that his musical has closed (hi, Dad!) to create some theme music for me.  Right now I record Jordan or the choir if something sounds like it could work (although I love listening to them sing/play so I’m okay with that, too!).

Here is this morning’s sermon.  We are halfway through our sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul.  Today’s theme is redefined.  Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 26, 2017

1 Samuel 16:1-15
John 9:1-41

Redefined (Sermon Series: Boot Camp For The Soul)

When I was in college, I dyed my hair brown.

This change elicited a whole slew of responses, which ranged everywhere from, “Oh my gosh, this highlights your face and matches your eyebrows and it is absolutely perfect!” to my boss at the time, who said, “Well, this is about the dumbest thing you could have possibly done.”

I did not really have a good reason for doing this; I just sort of needed a change. I felt like I needed to speak to whatever quarter-life crisis I was going through at the time. I think, in a way, I was trying to redefine a piece of who I was (albeit a cosmetic one).

This morning we are on week four of our Lenten sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul and this morning the theme is, redefined.

We just heard two scripture readings, the story of the anointing of King David in 1 Samuel and the story of the blind man who gained his sight in the gospel of John.

These stories are both captivating narratives about men whose lives were redefined in powerful and God-sized ways. These stories bear witness to the great possibilities God can achieve in our lives if we have faith and allow ourselves to be who God is calling us to be. These stories allow us to believe transformation is possible in our lives; they help us grab ahold of the hope that we can shed pieces of who and what defines us now and boldly claim a new identity.

Take David, for example. Samuel had traveled to Bethlehem to anoint a new king; God told Samuel to invite Jesse and his sons to the sacrifice where one of them would be anointed. But David, himself, was not even part of this sacrifice at first. He was the youngest of Jesse’s sons and had been given the task of keeping the sheep, so that was what he was doing. It was not until Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” that Jesse even mentioned David; and even then, Samuel was the one who had to say, “Send and bring him.”[1] And in the moment that followed, David was redefined.

The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.[2]

Who would have ever thought the youngest of Jesse’s sons – that small, rosy-cheeked shepherd boy – would have been the one anointed king?

God’s imagination is quite something sometimes, is it not?

God said to Samuel, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”[3] God looked into David’s heart and did not see a meek and mild boy; he saw a king.

In the same way, Jesus’ disciples looked at the blind man and saw a sinner. “Rabbi,” they said to Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”[4] The disciples only saw this man’s outer appearance; they only saw a sinner.

But Jesus saw that something greater was at work within this man; Jesus saw that, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”[5] Jesus spat on the ground, made mud that he wiped onto the blind man’s eyes and told man to wash it off in the pool of Siloam.[6]

And in that moment, a change happened. The blind man was refined. The man was no longer blind; he was transformed and given a new definition in life. He shed the identity of a sinner and humbly asked Jesus to help him believe in the Son of Man.

Again, I say: God’s imagination is quite something, is it not?

A small and inexperienced shepherd boy was anointed king. A man who was blind his entire life could suddenly see clearly. Transformation is not only possible with God; it is spectacularly probable. It happened extraordinarily in the lives of these two men.

And it can happen in our lives, as well.

In both of these scriptures, there is a poignant emphasis on what we see on the outside versus what God can see on the inside. God did not see a young boy or a blind man, God saw a king and a man who could not only see, but also reveal God’s works within him. God saw the potential, power and presence of these two men long before anybody else did.

This makes me wonder: What does God sees in us, as well?

So often, we look in the mirror and see who we are, who we have been up until this point in our lives and who other people want us to be. But how often do we look into our own hearts, as God looked into David’s, and see the great potential of who God is calling us to be? How often do we, like the blind man, see the way God’s works can be revealed in us?

We have to open our eyes to see this potential. We have to believe in God’s transformative power. We have to believe that we, too, can be redefined.

Sometimes I get nervous when I start preaching about personal change, because I would never want someone to think they are not good enough or worthy of God’s love just the way they are. You are enough; your faith is enough.

In fact, I think that is what these stories are trying to teach us.

The potential to be redefined by God – to be changed, to be transformed – is within all of us. We are already not only who God created us to be, but also who God is calling us to be. Our faith is full of stories of individual men and women who sought wholeness and were redefined by God’s love and grace.

The truth is, we live in a broken world. As Christians, we believe Jesus came to this earth to intercede on behalf of our own brokenness. Part of our journey to the cross during the Lenten season is about reflecting on the enormity of what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means to us today. Part of Lent means looking at our own brokenness and discerning how God’s works can be revealed in our earthly lives. It is okay to seek change – to crave God’s redefining presence in our lives – because that is all part of this journey we are one.

We are all a collaborative work in progress. The church is in the business of changing lives; one of the reasons we come to church is because as human beings, we want our lives to be changed. And I am not talking about cosmetic changes, like a new hairstyle (although, those can be quite liberating). I am talking about real, palpable, God-sized changes. I am talking about changes that strengthen our faith and feed our spirit. I am talking about changes that teach us about who we are and draw out our best pieces so we can be confident and faithful ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am talking about changes that make us better husbands and wives, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, bosses and coworkers, neighbors and friends. I am talking about changes that enable us to be the very best versions of ourselves.

We are halfway through the Lenten season. There are three more weeks until Easter; three more weeks until we are reminded that in death there is resurrection, in darkness there is light, in hatred there is love and in sorrow there is hope. In three weeks, we will stand in awe of the bold and redeeming truth that God gives us second chances and third chances and fourth chances (and 15th chances, if we need them!).

So now is the time. We may not be redefined in the grandiose ways King David and the blind man were, but we have to believe in that possibility. We have to believe that we can achieve our goals, strengthen our faith, better ourselves and maybe even try something new along the way.

Friends, in our brokenness, it is by the grace of God that we are made whole again. Seeking change in our lives – trying to redefine pieces of who we are – does not make who we are bad or not enough; in fact, I think it just brings more power to the Christian story. As we work on who we are and redefine ourselves, I believe grace gets more and more powerful.

So take this time to think about who you are. Look in the mirror and think not only about who you see, but also who God sees. And let yourself be redefined by God.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] 1 Samuel 16:11, NRSV
[2] 1 Samuel 16:12-13, NRSV
[3] 1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV
[4] John 9:2, NRSV
[5] John 9:3, NRSV
[6] John 9:6-7, NRSV