Being That Incarnational Presence (A Tribute To The Rev. Charles Rice)

Hi friends – here is this week’s sermon.  Those of you who follow me on social media may have seen that my college chaplain, the Rev. Charles Rice, passed away very unexpectedly this week.  It did not feel right to preach, business as usual, without acknowledging not only this loss, but also the impact he had on my life.  In a moment of grace unexpected, the lectionary had us on the Road to Emmaus this week.  I could not have picked a more perfect scripture to preach on as I talked about the ways Rev. Rice embodied the incarnational love of God throughout his life and ministry.

Please keep the friends and family of Rev. Rice in your prayers, as well as the entire Ursinus College community.  As I post this sermon, they are preparing for his funeral in Collegeville, PA.  I so wish I could be there, but at this point in my pregnancy I just can’t travel that far by myself.

<3

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-35

Being That Incarnational Presence

My college chaplain, the Rev. Charles William Rice, died very unexpectedly this week. To say that I am shocked and devastated is an understatement. Today, as I think about the impact he had not only on me, but also on the tens of thousands of students he counseled throughout his 20-year tenure at Ursinus College, I am humbled by the inadequacy of words and am not entirely sure where to begin.

When Rev. Rice’s youngest son, Martin, was born, he asked me to do the welcome during worship on the Sunday he was dedicated. And, while I don’t remember why, for some reason, I was running late the morning of the dedication. So I ran into chapel about ten minutes after we were supposed to begin, clearly flustered, apologetic and upset. I stood behind the pulpit and looked down, because I was so mad at myself and embarrassed that I was that late. And I heard his voice, in this unmistakably commanding, yet calm tone that he always spoke in, say: “Breathe. Take your time. We’re not going anywhere.”

And so this morning I am remembering that moment and heeding those same words as I try to share with you all what this man meant to me, how he helped shape me into both the pastor and the person I am today and how we all can learn from his life and legacy.

Rev. Rice was born in Brooklyn in 1957. He went to New York City public schools and graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1979. He received his master of divinity in historical theology from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and continued on to do his doctoral studies at Syracuse University. He was ordained by the National/American Baptist Churches and later held standing with the United Church of Christ when he arrived at Ursinus in 1997.

I met Rev. Rice in 2004. I had gone through a process of discernment during my freshmen year of college and entered my sophomore year with a declared major of Philosophy & Religion, with the intent to go to seminary. Before I left for school that year, my mom asked me, “Have you met the chaplain yet?” When I told her no, but I had heard he was nice, she said, “You know, when you apply to seminary, they might think it’s weird if you went through four years of college and never actually met the chaplain.”

She had a point.

So I sent Rev. Rice an email and set up a meeting with him when I got on campus, which he ended up being over an hour late to because he got caught up in a conversation with a student on his way to the office.

Which, if you knew him, would not surprise you one bit.

Rev. Rice captivated my ministry-hungry heart from that very first conversation. He had an enormous passion for bringing students together, normalizing faith and creating conversation on campus. He enthusiastically encouraged our weekly student-run chapel service, which often times was something of a comedy of errors, but was always grace-filled and life-giving. When I arrived in Rehoboth six year ago, my Saturday night sermon writing made people nervous and kind of became a running joke. But the thing I never explained to you all was that when I was president of the chapel my senior year, Saturday night sermon writing was not a bad habit, it was a necessary survival skill, as Rev. Rice would commonly call me on Saturday, mid-late afternoon and say, “So I’m not going to make it to chapel tomorrow – any chance you can preach?”

Rev. Rice pushed his students, drawing out all of our potential, both as individuals and as groups. He not only talked about the importance of building bridges that would unite us, he showed us how and helped us out when things got hard.

Rev. Rice taught me the importance of gathering around a table and breaking bread with one another. At least once a month, we would all pile into his minivan after Sunday chapel for brunch. Other weeks, we would commandeer a group of tables in the dining hall and eat there. I always wondered what the tables full of hung-over students thought of us when we all walked in, dressed in our church clothes with a various assortment of bibles and music in tow.

I don’t think Rev. ever wondered that. He would just walk up to them, playfully slap them on their arms and backs and say good morning.

It did not have to be brunch, either. Rev. and I discussed theology over sushi while he taught me how to use chopsticks and told the waitress she was not allowed to bring me the fork I had asked for. On my 21st birthday, a blizzard shut down the east coast and prevented my parents from driving to Pennsylvania to take me out to dinner, so when the roads were finally cleared that night, Rev. called me and said he and his wife were taking me out instead.

Rev. Rice introduced me to Black Theology. He taught me that the Civil Rights Movement was about more than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. He filled my library with the brilliant and prophetic writings of James Baldwin, James Cone and Howard Thurman. He humbly, yet never apologetically, told me his story of what it was like to be a black man in America. He never his lost patience with my white-girl-from-Connecticut naivety as I stumbled to learn about and understand my own privilege. He is the reason that I believe today that black lives matter, even though, in an attempt to stay neutral, I have never once said those words from the pulpit or on social media.

Rev. Rice flew me all over the country so I could attend conferences that would expand my education and help me discern my call to ministry. And while I know those conferences were supposed to be about education and enrichment, he never expected anything in return; he just wanted me to have a positive experience. In fact when I called him once from a layover in Charlotte to let him know that my roommate, who attended the conference with me, and I had been “bumped” from our flight – and I used quotes around the word “bumped”, because what actually happened was that the gate attendant offered a free flight to anyone willing to give up their seats and since we 1) did not want to go to class that night and 2) loved the prospect of a spring break getaway, jumped quickly at the opportunity – he simply said, “Did you at least get a free flight out of the deal?”

And when I sheepishly admitted that yes, in fact, we did get a free flight out a flight that was originally paid for by the school, he said, “Huh. Well, good for you.”

I have never met a man with so much discipline, but also compassion. He was not afraid to tell me one day that the paper I turned in was one of the worst things he had ever read, but then call me the next day to tell me how wonderful my sermon had been in chapel that morning. He pushed me to the limits of my own boundaries and then helped me find new ones. He encouraged me when I needed encouragement, scolded me when I needed scolding and loved me – and all of us – unconditionally, all the time.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Gospel of Luke; it is known as the Road to Emmaus and it describes an encounter between two disciples – one by the name of Cleopas – and Jesus. The two disciples were traveling to the village of Emmaus when Jesus appeared to them, but they did not recognize him. They told him what had happened over the past several days, that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified, but then three days later the tomb was found empty. They told Jesus that the women had astounded them when they told everyone they saw the angels at the tomb, but that they still had not seen for themselves what had happened.

When they arrived in Emmaus, the two disciples invited Jesus to stay with them. While he was there, Jesus sat down to eat with them; he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them and “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him”

That is one of my favorite lines of scripture – “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” – because I think more often than not, we – all of us, in our lifetime – also need to open our eyes and recognize the presence of the resurrected Christ in our midst.

I was listening to a podcast last year and one of the hosts was commenting on internet bullying and how easy it is to type something offensive, insensitive or snarky to someone and hit submit without thinking twice. She said something that has stuck with me to this day: “I think we all need to sit down and have actual conversations, where we can look into each other’s eyes and see one another’s humanity.”

Christianity is about this exact incarnational presence that she as describing. Jesus came into this world so that God could live in human flesh, understand human suffering, temptation and imperfections and yet find a way to redeem us anyway. The God in the Gospel narrative is not a far away and distant God, but a God that walks with us on our journey, that stands in our presence and that never gives us on us.

This is incarnational love. This is what the disciples saw when they opened their eyes and recognized Jesus in Emmaus. This is what they experienced when Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it.

I believe, as people of faith, we are called to not only open our eyes and see this incarnational love all around us, but to also be that presence to one another, as well. We are called to show up and to be present, just like Jesus did throughout his life and especially here on the road to Emmaus.

The day Rev. Rice died, a friend of mine from college texted me. She mentioned that she wished she had emailed him more recently and thanked him for everything he had done for her. I had a similar sentiment, but pointed out that, knowing him, he was never really great with the whole email thing anyway. She agreed and said, “He was always focused on the here and now. Late to everything, but gave you his all when you were with him.”

And that, my friends, is incarnational love. That is what it means to show up and be present with someone in the moments when they need it most, to give them a space where they can recognize the see and recognize God’s resurrecting power. That was what Rev. Rice did for us. That is what he demonstrated to us and tried fervently to teach us how to do in our own lives, as well.

I believe that, as Christians, this is what we are called to do. We are called to show up, to be the incarnational presence of the resurrected Christ to our friends and even to our enemies. We are called to be present, to give one another our all in the moment, because that might be exactly what they need. We are called to stand in the imperfectly human presence of one another, because that is what Jesus demonstrated through his life, death and resurrection.

People need to know that resurrection is possible. They need to believe that God is in their midst. They need to feel like they are not alone. When Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, the disciples saw this for themselves.

And today, we are called to ensure others see this for themselves as well.

So friends, as I remember and grieve the loss of a man that had a profound impact on me, as both pastor and person, I encourage you all to think about what this incarnational presence means, both for you and also for the people you meet along your journey.

And then meet one another on the road to Emmaus. Be the presence of the resurrected Christ so that others will open their eyes and recognize it in their midst. Know that you can and will make a difference in the lives of the people you meet along your journey.

Believe in that incarnational love. Recognize that incarnational power. Be that incarnational presence of the resurrected Christ.

And have confidence that someone will open their eyes and recognize God’s work in you. And together we will continue to write this Christian story.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

To Magnify God In Our Lives

Question: Does anyone who is tech-savy know how to take my libsyn feed and put it into iTunes? I want to make it so people can subscribe to my podcasts/sermons but I have no clue how that works.

In the meantime – Sunday’s sermon on the Magnificat!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 11, 2016

Luke 1:46-55
Matthew 11:2-11

To Magnify God In Our Lives

I have a Mary medal that I wear on a chain around my neck from time to time. I suppose it is, for all intents and purposes, a Catholic thing. It has the image of Mary with the words, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee,” etched around it. But for me, a born and raised Protestant, the importance of this medal is not necessarily tied to the Catholic understanding of honoring saints; rather, it is about me connecting to Mary’s call story.

You see, I have always been intrigued by Mary’s call story; so much so, that I actually had it read at my ordination. I have always stood in awe of Mary’s humble servant hood and devotion to God when God called her to do something so unbelievably astonishing and she responded with those beautiful words of scripture, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[1]

So rewind to about eight years ago; I was a first year seminary student working at my field education site when a friend of mine said to me, “You know, when I first met you, you were wearing that Mary medal and I thought you were Catholic. I was kind of confused as to why you were in seminary.” When I went home that night, I told Bruce the story and he kind of laughed awkwardly before admitting that the same thought had actually crossed his mind when he and I first met. In fact, at the time, he had even started thinking about what it would take for him to enter catechesis and convert to Catholicism if we were to get married.

Which, at that point, totally explained the email I received from him early on in our dating that said, “Sooooo, what religion are you?”

Bruce said to me that day, “You have no idea how relieved I was when you replied and said United Church of Christ!”

So again, here is my thing with Mary: I do not honor her in the Catholic sense of saint veneration (though, to be clear, I am not passing judgment on or criticizing that in any way), I am just super intrigued by her story.

Mary was a young girl, poor and with no power. And God called this ordinary girl to do something so extraordinary; and she answered that call with such great affirmation and strength of faith. As a pastor, I feel I have so much to learn from her in terms of call and vocation; but I also feel, as a Christian, living in a very chaotic world full of the unknown, we all have a lot to learn from her as well.

The truth is, we really only have a small glimpse into Mary’s life. A lot of the commentary on her is conjecture based on different people’s interpretations of the pieces of her story that we know. But those pieces are extremely important to our Advent season and the Christmas story.

Today, we heard a reading from the Gospel of Luke. An angel had appeared to Mary and told her she was going to give birth to a son named Jesus. Mary traveled with haste to the Judea region of Ein Karem to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth who, though well past childbearing age, was also pregnant. Our scripture picks up here, where Mary sings a song, which we refer to as the Magnificat, which comes from the Greek word meaning, “to magnify.”

Mary starts the song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoice in God my Saviour,”[2] and then sings of all the wondrous work God is doing in her life.

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.[3]

Year after year, it always strikes me as remarkable that, in the midst of her own chaotic world full of the unknown, Mary responds to God’s call by praising God. We all should give pause to this as we think about what God is calling us to do this Advent season.

We looked at The Magnificat in bible study this week, as part of the session on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. The narrator of our study pointed out that the Magnificat is more than a piece of Mary’s story; it also serves as a reminder to us of what we are being called to do in our own lives. God does great things in the world, Mary sings in the Magnificat.

[God] has shown strength with his arm;
lifted up the lowly;
[and] has filled the hungry with good things.[4]

When God called Mary to conceive and give birth to this boy named Jesus, God was not simply asking her to participate in an isolated ministry; God was inviting Mary into the larger narrative of what Jesus would do in the world – in his lifetime and in the generations that would follow.

And this is what God invites us to do in our own lives as well.

God calls us to rise up to greatness in our lives. Like Mary, we are ordinary people called to do extraordinary things. We are invited into this Gospel narrative, to magnify God in all that we say and all that we do. We are called to open our eyes to the things that Mary is praising God for in the Magnificat – lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things – and seek to do this in our own lives as well. The Magnificat boldly calls us to magnify God in our words and in our actions as we seek to bring hope, peace, joy and love to all people.

In our second reading from the Gospel, we get a glimpse into Jesus’ life and ministry. See, this is the thing about living on this side of the resurrection. We cannot simply anticipate the birth of Christ as if we do not know the depth and power of his life. We are invited into the narrative of the Gospel knowing Jesus’ whole story. We cannot think about what it meant for Jesus to be born into a broken world without also thinking about his life, death and resurrection and what that continues to mean to a still-broken world today.

This reading from Matthew tells the story of John in prison hearing about the works Jesus was doing. John sends his disciples to Jesus to find out if he is the Messiah the prophets had foretold was coming. Jesus replies and says:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.[5]

Sometimes Jesus was anything but subtle. In fact, this exchange between Jesus and John’s disciples reminds us that the call to follow Jesus – the call to live out the Gospel, to continue to write this Christian story – is a bold and challenging one. This Advent season we are not just waiting for the birth of a baby, but the coming of a Messiah. This is not just a birthday celebration, but also a radical affirmation of hope, peace, joy and love in this world.

The Advent season reminds us that we, too, are called to, “lift up the lowly” and “fill the hungry with good things,” as Mary proclaims in the Magnificat. We, too, are called, as Jesus proclaims to the disciples, to offer healing to the blind, the deaf and the lame, cleanse the lepers and bring good news to the poor. We are called, as children of God and as people of faith, to fight for justice, to give voice to the marginalized, to reach out to those in need and to shine light into the darkness of the chaos and the unknown.

This is the glory of God Mary sings of in the Magnificat, this is what Jesus preaches, time and time again, throughout the Gospel and this is what we are called to remember this Christmas as we celebrate God’s triumphal entry into the world.

So today, on this third Sunday of Advent, two weeks before Christmas (13 shopping days left, if you are keeping track!), I pose this question: What is the Magnificat calling you to do? How will your life magnify God this year? How will you live out the call of the Gospel and continue to write a story that began in a manger 2,000 years ago? How will you be a reflection of the Advent spirit of hope, peace, joy and love?

On a very human level, I invite you try to connect to Mary’s story. And as you do this may you hear what God is saying, see what God is doing and, like Mary, sing praises to God in the midst of the chaos and the unknown.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Luke 1:38, NRSV
[2] Luke 1:46-47, NRSV
[3] Luke 1:48, NRSV
[4] Luke 1:51-53, NRSV
[5] Matthew 11:4-6, NRSV

The Challenge Of Spiritual Humility

Can I just say that humility is one of the hardest things to preach on?  Because short of getting up there and inappropriately over-sharing all the stuff in my life that I’ve done wrong, it’s tough to balance the call to be humble without actually stumbling down the path of spiritual pride and doing exactly what the Pharisee did.  I’m not sure how well I walked the line, but one of my church members walked out (she works as a drug/alcohol abuse counselor) and said, “I kind of felt like I was at a meeting!”  So hopefully I was able to find a good balance.  Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
October 23, 2016

Luke 18:9-14

The Challenge of Spiritual Humility

Many of you may remember the news story from this past summer when a toddler was tragically killed at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa by an alligator in shallow water.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how the news is different today than it used to be. It is constant, it is easily accessible and – thanks to commenting systems and social media – it is open to a lot of opinions and commentary. 20 years ago, I might have seen a story like this once or twice on the morning or night news, but not given it much thought and moved on.

Things have changed a little bit. As the Internet gets larger, the world seems smaller. Local news is no longer necessarily more relevant; all news is. And no sooner did the news of this alligator attack break than the comments started.

Where were the parents when this happened?
What kind of parents would let their children wade in shallow water by themselves?
Why couldn’t the parents have stopped this attack from happening?
Those parents never should have let a two year old out of their arm’s reach.

Commenters were ruthless as they tore apart these parents who had just suffered an unspeakable tragedy. There was no compassion, no love, and no grace; only blame, hate and pointed chastising.

Frustrated by the commentary on this story, a friend of mine took to Facebook and posted the following status:

Can all of the perfect parents please let me know when your books drop?
When Vincent was 2, he drank half a bottle of ibuprofen.
When he was 3, he ate a marble.
Just yesterday, I looked down and found [Harper] 20 yards away on the field while at Vincent’s baseball game. I thought she was right next to me.
There but by the grace of God go I.
Spread love.

This post got 43 comments, each one by a mom or dad, humbly and honestly sharing their imperfect journey of parenting. I was so touched as I read through them all because they reminded me that we are all connected. In the church we talk about this as the Body of Christ. When we attack one person, we attack us all. When we judge one person, we judge us all.

This morning we read the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. This story is fairly straightforward: There are two men, one Pharisee and one Tax Collector. At that time, Pharisees held fast to literal interpretations of scripture and observance of Torah and Tax Collectors were seen as the opposition, collaborators with the Romans.

This story encourages humility; it sets up the harsh dichotomy of the Pharisee, who you think should be the more spiritually humble person, and the Tax Collector, who, by tradition, did not follow the path of faith and law. But, in fact, in this story the exact opposite happens; the Pharisee points fingers and passes judgment on the Tax Collector while the Tax Collector offers an honest and humble confession before God.

At the heart of this parable we see the sheer danger of spiritual pride and we see it in a surprising character – the Pharisee, not the Tax Collector.

I think it is easy for us to read this parable and quickly chastise the Pharisee. It is pretty clear the point Jesus was trying to make; which character in this story was more spiritually humble. In fact, I could probably safely stand up and say, “Everyone get it? Be humble,” and move on with the service.

But I think if I were to do that, then I might have missed the whole point. Because if I rambled on about how the Pharisee was in the wrong and how I know why the Pharisee was in the wrong, then how am I any different from him?

Humility is a tricky thing.

Do you ever wonder why we do a community Prayer of Confession during our Sunday worship? This might be one of the most common questions I am asked.

Why do we say a prayer of Confession?
It is so negative; it only focuses on the bad stuff!
Why can’t we focus on positive things?
What if I didn’t actually do the things the prayer says I did?

The best defense of community confession I ever read came the book, Standing Naked Before God, by the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette, when she said:

We are only as sick as our secrets. But if we can let those secrets out into the light, God can get at them. If you went down in your basement and discovered you had a mold problem, found all your treasures covered with toxic sludge because it was living in the perfect environment for the glop to grow, what would you do? You would drag everything upstairs and outside on a hot, sunny day. That is how confession works on our souls and our selves. God is sunlight, even if we can do the hard task of making our whole selves visible to Her.[1]

This is why we confess our sins. We bring our sins to light so we can create space for God’s grace.

Notice that I said, “we bring our sins to light” and not, “we bring the sins of others to light.” The most powerful piece of this parable is NOT realizing the shortcomings of the Pharisee; the most powerful piece of this parable is actually seeing yourself as the Pharisee.

We all judge others; we all see the sins of others a little bit easier than we do our own. We all point fingers and we all gossip; we might not mean to, but we do. I think this parable is more than simply a call for spiritual humility; I think this parable is an opportunity for us to see the Pharisee in ourselves.

I cannot speak for everyone here, but when I look honestly at myself in the mirror, I see a heck of a lot of Pharisee at times.

Sometimes it is so much easier to point out the wrongdoings of others than to confess our own sins to God. But this parable boldly asks us to look inward at our own faults and shortcomings and seek reconciliation and redemption for ourselves.

We have to stop looking at others and judging them and focusing on their faults, shortcomings and sins. This is not what Jesus calls us to do. Jesus calls us to look inward at ourselves. Jesus calls us to confess our own faults, our own shortcomings and our own sins and to humble ask God for forgiveness.

We must bring our sins to light so that God can shine light upon them. This is something that we must do for ourselves; no one can do it for us and we certainly cannot do it for someone else.

We need to be lifting each other up instead of tearing one another down; now, more than ever. We need to hold others in a spirit of love and not a spirit of judgment. We need to work on ourselves before pointing fingers at others. We need to make a commitment to be spiritually humble and then work on that commitment every single day.

This is where we find grace.

I am not saying we are all awful people and need to spend our lives thinking about our sins and beating ourselves up for them. But I am saying that we need to stop judging others for what they are doing and take a hard look at what we are doing.

Doing this will not hold us down, either; it will free us. We live in a heavily filtered and photo-shopped world and so often we judge others because feel like we have to give off this impression that we have it all together. But this is so far from the truth. Jesus wants us to be the most authentic version of ourselves, even if that means owning up to our sins and shortcomings.

So give yourself permission to be the Pharisee, to freely admit that you struggle with spiritual pride and it is something that you are working on. Other people need to see you working on these issues so they know it is okay for them to work on them as well.

I said before that the powerful piece of this parable is not that we should not be like the Pharisee, but that we should see ourselves as the Pharisee. But even that is not the best part of this story. Do you know that is? The fact that even spiritual humility is not where the story ends.

Grace is where the story ends. Always does.

If we take those first steps on this road towards a more humble life, we are likely going to trip, stumble and fall flat on our face at some point on the journey.

But I guarantee that God’s grace will be there to pick us up.

I reached out to my friend to see if she would mind me using her Facebook status in my sermon and she said in her message back to me, “Sure! I could make a longer list.”

I think we all could probably make a longer list about various things. And I think we should. Because I think a renewed focus on spiritual humility might open us up to a new depth of spiritual living.

So do not be afraid to look in that mirror; do not be afraid to dig, to see yourself as the Pharisee. Bring your sins into the light of God and create room for grace. And let that process transform you.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Baskette, Molly Phinney. Standing Naked Before God: The Art Of Public Confession. Page 22.