Are We God-Serving Or Self-Serving?

Hi friends!  This sermon should not have been a hard one to preach, but the timing of it falling the same week our stewardship packets were mailed made it much more challenging!  I had one thing in mind, but ended up scrapping it and taking a different course, which I actually think started some good conversations.

I’m curious – how do your churches handle stewardship?  Is it a quiet thing or are you encouraged to talk about it more?  I love hearing about other church’s stewardship practices – I’m kind of a stewardship nerd!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
October 13, 2019

Matthew 6:1-15

Are We God-Serving Or Self-Serving?

I ate, slept and breathed stewardship this week.

Like I mentioned during announcements, stewardship packets were mailed on Friday.  And so I spent a majority of the week writing letters, creating forms, pouring over budgets, coordinating with different people and doing more math than I have done since I was a business major that one semester in college.

On Friday morning, I sat in the Sadie Perry Room with a couple of kind and willing volunteers and, together, we stuffed, sealed and stamped 275 stewardship packets.  I said goodbye to everyone and walked into my office, finally able to switch gears and think about Sunday’s worship service.

And that was when I was struck with a very large dose of, what I like to call, ecclesial irony.

I walked into the office, holding my phone that had this week’s scripture pulled up on it.  “Kathy,” I asked.  “What is our theme for stewardship this year?”  “Shout it from the Mountaintop!” she said with great enthusiasm, pride and joy, echoing the sentiments I have been using talk about stewardship this year as I seek to create a culture where we celebrate our giving and what we can collectively do with our gifts.

“And what is our scripture for this week?” I followed up with.  She gave me a perplexed look as I started reading.

Beware of practicing your piety before others

in order to be seen by them;

for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you,

as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,

so that they may be praised by others.

Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

But when you give alms,

do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

so that your alms may be done in secret;

and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I could not believe I had just put together 275 stewardship packets using the theme, “Shout it from the Mountaintop,” two days before I was scheduled to preach on the passage of scripture where Jesus says we are supposed to give quietly.

To quote one of Bruce’s favorite movies, Caddyshack, “So I got that going for me, which is nice.”

I kind of huffed and said to Kathy, “Well clearly Jesus wasn’t trying to balance an operating budget,” and then stormed out of the office.

We wrestled a lot with our stewardship theme this year, not because we realized this passage would fall the same weekend we mailed out our stewardship packets (truth be told, if I had put that together ahead of time I might have come up with an alternate plan), but because this idea of being proud of what we give and of what we are able to do here, at the church, with our offerings seems counterintuitive to some of the basic biblical teachings we have learned throughout our lives (including the one Jesus talks about in this morning’s passage).

And yet, I kept coming back to it; I kept coming back to this line from one of my favorite hymns:

I’ll shout it from the mountaintop – I want the world to know.[1]

And I think there is a reason for that and there is also a reason for the fact that this passage fell on the same weekend that our packets got mailed out.  Because I think what Jesus is doing here is teaching about how to hold this tension between sharing our faith outwardly and being in community, but also doing so with reverence and humility.

Jesus addresses two things back to back here – the giving of alms and then prayer.  And what he is saying in both instances is that we should not do these things for credit or attention; we should do them for God and God alone.

The ironic part about Jesus’ teaching here is that after he says we should go into our room and shut the door and pray to God in secret, he teaches the disciples how to pray.

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases … pray then in this way.[2]

And then Jesus proceeds to teach the disciples the foundation of a prayer that will eventually become one of the most common prayers that is said in community.

And the thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that it is one of the greatest gifts Jesus gave to the church, because it has stood the test of time, it draws us together and it gives us words to speak when we are, sort of, humbled by the inadequacy of our own words and I could preach a whole other sermon on that.

BUT – I think as we read this passage today, one of the things we are called to do is to hold this tension between what Jesus is saying here, which is, don’t do these things for credit, and the reality of the world that we are living in today, which is sometimes showy and narcissistic and reward-seeking .

It’s funny, because when I complained to Kathy about Jesus not trying to balance an operating budget, I was obviously joking, but it got me thinking about the fact that what Jesus is saying here kind of goes against everything I was taught about nonprofit fundraising and evangelizing and marketing your church.

And so I have just kind of been stuck in this place of bewilderment for the past two days because I just cannot seem to reconcile it.

Part of me thinks I should have just preached the sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, itself, and ignored the part where Jesus says we are supposed to quiet about it, but I also think in these two sections Jesus is laying the foundation for a community of faith that is grounded in worship for God and not worship for people.

Almsgiving and prayer are two very different things, but what connects them here is the fact that Jesus says we are supposed to do both of these things NOT to achieve some sort of human privilege, but to be drawn closer to God.  And so as Jesus begins his ministry with the disciples, he reminds them of just how important it is not to lose sight of what they are trying to accomplish in this faith and ministry while they are still living their day-to-day lives.

Our faith does not exist in a vacuum, right?  It exists in the real world and sometimes the two things are hard to reconcile.  I think this section in the Sermon on the Mount serves a bigger purpose than simply a conversation about almsgiving and prayer; I think it actually opens up a broader conversation about the motivation behind all the things that we do – in our lives and our faith.  What I think what Jesus is saying here is that we always need to remember what our values are and what our shared mission is.

And can we celebrate our victories along the way?  Absolutely!  Remember, Jesus says that we are the light of the world and that we need to let that light shine for everyone to see.  We do have to talk about our faith and our ministries and, yes, even our money.  But we need to do so in order that we can give glory to God and not get the approval, attention or praise of other humans.

So I want you to do two things for me this week.

Actually, I want you to do three.  The first is to keep your eye out for your stewardship packet in the mail; because a lot of time and love and brain power went into it last week and I do want it to be a useful resource for you as you think about your pledge for next year.  The Executive Board is in a place of dreaming about what the next fiscal year could bring and you all are a part of that; and I am so grateful for your love of this church and your commitment and devotion to your stewardship.

The second thing I want you to do is think specifically about this passage.  When it comes to how you give and how you pray, how do you do it?  How do you talk about it?  How do your own practices line up with what Jesus is saying to the disciples here?

And then the third thing I want you to do is to think more broadly about your life and the things you do on a regular basis.  Do you do them for God or do you do them for other human beings?  Do you keep things a secret or do you do things in order to be seen by others?  Are your actions God-serving or self-serving?

Some of these questions might be hard to answer – but I think the process of thinking about them and then trying to realign our priorities will help us all dig to a new depth of our faith.  And I think when we do this not only will our faith be strengthened, but our community of faith will grow stronger, as well.

So go, therefore, and give to God and pray to God, knowing that God sees you, knows you, is calling you blessed and is illuminating a light within you that will shine not so the world might be impressed, but so the world might be changed.

God will see you.  And God will reward you.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] From the hymn, Pass It On, by Kurt Kaiser
[2] Matthew 6:7, 9, NRSV

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The Community We Are Capable Of Creating

Hi friends!  I hope you all had a wonderful World Communion Sunday celebration.  We had a beautiful bread installation on the altar that made the chancel smell soooooooo good!

This Sunday we looked at the last three of the six antitheses, concerning oaths, concerning retaliation and love for enemies. Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
October 6, 2019

Matthew 5:33-48

The Community We Are Capable Of Creating

You can imagine my relief after last week’s sermon on anger, adultery and divorce when I opened my worship document on Tuesday morning and saw the heading, “love for enemies” as one of the headings in this week’s scripture.

Love.  I can do love.

It is actually perfect timing to settle here in the Sermon on the Mount this morning because today is World Communion Sunday, which is an ecumenical movement, that takes place on the first Sunday in October, where Christians all around the world pledge to celebrate communion in worship.  This is a Sunday where we, as Christians, lay aside the differences that threaten to divide us and gather around a table where all are welcome.

A table of forgiveness and love.

A table where enemies become friends.

A table where simple elements of bread and wine give us nourishment.

A table where we come together as the Body of Christ and do the work that God is calling us to do.

A table where grace is uncovered in the most unexpected ways and places.

Indeed it is a good Sunday to talk about love.

That being said, for some reason I was under the false assumption that a sermon on love would be easy.  But, of course, we talked last week about how stepping into some of these ancient texts and then trying to apply them in our own lives today is rarely easy.

And again, this is exactly what Jesus is trying to do.

Last week we looked at the first three of six antitheses, which are six concrete examples Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount of the moral behavior that is expected of his followers.  Jesus uses Jewish laws as his starting point and then expands on them to explain what he thinks they mean in his world.

The challenge, of course, for us today, is to do the same; to step into these ancient texts and then explain what they mean for us in our world.  Last week we wrestled with anger, adultery and divorce and this week we are turning our attention to the last three of the six antitheses – oaths, retaliation and love.

Like in last week’s text, Jesus starts each antitheses by saying, “You have heard that it was said,” then states a Jewish law, then follows it up by saying, “But I say to you,” and then talks about what this means for the disciples gathered around him.

Jesus starts by talking about oaths.

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’[1]

When Jesus talks about swearing, he is referring to an ancient practice where two parties would “swear to God” – in other words, they would make an agreement and invoke God as the guarantor of the agreement.  If one of the parties did not fulfill their part of the oath, the assumption was that God would punish them.

The problem with this particular practice, however, is that human beings, as we all know, do not always make the right choices; and therefore sometimes these oaths were broken.

But people did not actually want God to punish them and so, over time, rabbis proposed, rather than swearing to God, perhaps to swear to some sort of substitute – heaven, earth, Jerusalem and a person’s head are ones that Jesus lists here, in the Sermon on the Mount, and were some of the most popular substitutes.

Here Jesus is saying, do not swear to anything; be honest about who you are and what your intentions are rather than making false promises – to God or anyone or anything else.  It is almost as if Jesus is saying that we do not need oaths; we have the promise of God’s love and truth and that is enough to hold us accountable.

Oaths existed in the first place as a way of protecting people from the lies and the deception of others.  But, Jesus says, if we ground ourselves, our relationships and our communities in this promise of God’s love and truth, then we do not need oaths.

Jesus then turns to the subject of retaliation – jus talionis.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’[2]

Jesus is referring to a very well-known Jewish law, one found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[3]  This law was established as a way of imposing proportionate justice when a wrongdoing occurred, as opposed to the wronged party taking it upon themselves to administer their own private revenge.

What Jesus does here is begin a conversation about nonviolent resistance.

If someone hits you, turn the other cheek.

If someone sues you and tries to take your coat, give it to them and give them your cloak, as well.

If someone forces you to go one mile (which was the legal limit Roman military personnel could require a civilian to go when they were forcing civilians to transport military gear by foot), go an extra mile.

Retaliation, Jesus implies, only perpetuates these systems of violence and injustice.  Perhaps we should not focus so much on proportionate justice, but on moving past the wrongdoing.

Then Jesus talks about love.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

I should probably point out that there is not actually a scriptural command to hate ones’ enemies; there are instances where it is implied, but it never comes right out and says it.  Jesus is likely referring to how people were justifying their behavior towards others, both good and bad.

But Jesus says, rather than hating your enemies, you should to take this practice of love one step further and pray for the people you stand in opposition to, remembering that you are all children of God.

As we think about what Jesus’ words mean for us today, I think it is important to remember who Jesus is talking to and when.  He is talking to the disciples; people he has called to be in ministry with him.  And he is talking to them at the very beginning of their ministry together.

The Sermon on the Mount can be found in the fifth and sixth chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.  The first chapter is Jesus’ genealogy and birth, the second chapter is the visit of the Wise Men and escape to Egypt, the third chapter is the proclamation of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism and the fourth chapter is when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, calls his disciples and then begins ministering to crowds of people.  It is at this point that Jesus goes up the mountain to give this sermon.

In other words, they have not been through a lot together yet, at least not on paper; they are just starting to have dreams and visions about what this world, this Kingdom, could look like.  And I think Jesus is using his interpretation of these laws as a way of sharing what he thinks they could build – what he thinks communities are capable of if they are grounded in love, kindness, grace, compassion, honesty and understanding.

Laws and traditions give structure and boundaries of course; but God is calling us into something so much deeper and greater than that.  Jesus is not throwing the rules away, but he is looking at a much bigger picture and asking what the goal is, where the vision lies, what the disciples are – what we are – capable of building.

These antitheses are powerful for us to read today as we seek to build our own Christian communities, because they show us the bigger picture and remind us what really matters in terms of how we live our own lives and how we exist in community with one another.

I thought about these words a lot this week and, I have to be honest, I am having a hard time finding my own words to sum up what I think they all mean for us.  And I think the reason I am having a hard time is because all of this stuff is way easier said than done.  Of course we should take the higher ground, we should trust others to do the right thing, we should resist the urge to retaliate and love everyone, regardless of how they feel about us.

But my goodness this is not easy.  In fact it is really, really difficult.  Our human tendency is to hold onto things, to want to be right and to punish people when they have hurt us.  To resist these tendencies very often feels like we are resisting what it means to be human.

But – these tendencies are the burdens that drag us down – as individuals, in relationships and in community.  These tendencies are the things that create division among us, that distract us from God’s call to spread the Gospel.   These tendencies are what Jesus is saying that laws and rules do not necessarily solve, but just distract from.

And even though it is hard, what Jesus is saying makes sense.  It is beautiful and inspiring.  It is what I want the world to look like.  It is what I believe we are capable of creating.  We are capable of creating a community grounded in love, kindness, grace, compassion, honesty and understanding and I believe with my whole being that, when we do this, then together, we can change the world.

So today, on World Communion Sunday, as we all gather around a table and find unity, strength and wholeness, I would encourage you to really let these words settle within your hearts.  Rise up against the need for oaths, retaliation and hatred of enemies.  Acknowledge the depth of what Jesus is asking you to do.  Know that it will not be easy.  Give yourself grace if you stumble.  Be patient as you try again.

And remember to love.  Love God.  Love others.  And love yourself.  For you are a child of God.  And together we are called to be one Body.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Matthew 5:33, NRSV
[2] Matthew 5:38, NRSV
[3] Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21

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When The Gospel Is Still Relevant

I have gotten nothing but positive feedback about moving away from the lectionary and into a sermon-series mindset.  To be clear – I don’t think there is anything wrong with the lectionary!  I just think I had gotten to a point where I wasn’t feel inspired by the cycle and I needed something to kick start me.

This week Jesus talks about the law and the prophets.  I wasn’t really sure what to do about a children’s sermon, so I ended up using an apple to talk about the different parts of God.  An apple has different parts – peel, flesh and core – just like God has different parts – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It was a pretty good seasonal visual, which I liked – I probably didn’t think the whole “bring a sharp knife up to the children’s sermon to peel the apple” part through, but it all worked out!  I think if I were to do it again I would set up a table with an actual apple peeler.  Next time!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 22, 2019

Matthew 5:17-20

When The Gospel Is Still Relevant

I had a very proud pastor moment on Friday morning when Bonnie Meagher stopped by the office to drop off some cookies for today’s service and she was telling Kathy and me about what she had packed for the retreat she and some of ladies from RCC are away at this weekend at Camp Berea in Hebron, New Hampshire.

And here is something you should know about Bonnie – the reason she had even stopped by was she is currently trying to master how to cook and bake for all of the various allergies and dietary restrictions people may have in our congregation.  Which means that, before she left for her weekend away, she dropped of gluten-free cookies for fellowship.

But back to her packing list; A few months ago, I had given Bonnie a book on hospitality – ah! There’s that pesky word that I keep bringing up – that I was reading and she told me that, after reading the book, she decided to pack an entire suitcase – separate from what she was already bringing – full of extra hospitality items people might need throughout the weekend.

She literally thought of everything.

And I thought to myself, okay, well maybe people’s eyes are starting to twitch when I say the word, “hospitality,” but the seeds we have planted over these past several months in our conversations around hospitality are starting to produce growth that we never could have imagined.  Looking at our church through the lens of hospitality gives us all different and unique ways to love one another, to serve the community and to spread the Gospel.

I want to back up for a minute – because I do not think I have ever really shared my “mission statement,” so to speak, when it comes to worship and how it led me down this rabbit hole of hospitality.  I believe that worship needs to be three things – meaningful, relevant and accessible to all.  And so when I think about the whole of worship – the music, the prayers, the sermon, wearing nametags, how the bulletins are laid out, taking part in sacraments and rituals (like communion and blessings), even the temperature of the sanctuary – I am trying to bring all of the elements of worship together in a way that checks off these three requirements (meaningful, relevant and accessible) so that people who come to worship are able to get the most out of it.

This is one of the main reasons I have obsessed over hospitality for the last year – because it comes back to accessibility.  How accessible is, how welcoming is, how easy is it to come to and take part in our church?  We do not want there to be barriers for people when it comes to walking through our doors and participating in worship and the life of our community.

So that is one part of my worship mission – accessibility.  There are two other parts that I think are important – meaning and relevance.  I want to talk about relevance today.

It is no secret that a lot of mainline protestant churches are dwindling in numbers.  And there are a lot of reasons this is happening, but I think one of the big reasons is that people just do not think the church is relevant anymore.

I get it – we have a lot of old traditions and some of them do not always make sense and our organizational structures are a little bit convoluted and hard to figure out.  But if you think about it, these are the things that we, as human beings, have created – not the faith God gave to us, not the creating, redeeming and sustaining love that encircles us.

And so I believe it is not Christianity, itself, that people find irrelevant, but just the way we have come to define it at times.

But here’s the thing – this is not a new thing, at all.  In fact, this is the very thing that Jesus was addressing in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.

We are three weeks into our sermon series looking at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the sermon where the disciples gather around Jesus on the top of a mountain and he teaches them the golden rule of kindness, the Lord’s Prayer and various others sayings and proverbs that, for 2,000 years, have been woven into the vernacular of what it means to follow Jesus and be a good person.

Jesus starts off the sermon by talking about who we are, as human beings – blessed children of God, the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  But here in this section he transitions from blessings and encouragement to a discussion about adherence to the law.

The Gospel of Matthew was primarily written for a Jewish Christian audience – meaning the people initially reading it were people who spent their lives adhering to Jewish law; they were people who now believe in God’s new covenant through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but who still wanted to hold on to their old traditions.  So by including this discussion about the law in the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel writer is reinforcing the point that Jesus is, in fact, an observant Jew, which makes him relevant to his audience.  Jesus is not trying to abolish the law or wipe the slate clean and start over – he is trying to fulfil the law, he is trying to demonstrate the law is still, in fact, relevant.

Let’s talk about the word, law, for a minute.  It is translated from the Greek word, nomos, which means, legislation or legal system.  So you can understand why, when we read this today, we think that Jesus is talking about laying down the law in a very black and white way.

But language is a funny thing – it is not a perfect translation.  The Greek word, nomos, is translated in the LXX, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, from the Hebrew word, Torah, which means, teaching.[1]  And so I have to wonder if its use here is not about laws, but, in fact, about teaching.  I wonder if Jesus is not actually talking about strictly adhering to Jewish laws and rules, but about teaching each generation how to live into the covenant God made with us.

I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.[2]

Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfill – to fulfill this law, this teaching about God’s continual grace, about this covenant that is upheld through every generation.

What I think this means is that the law is still very much relevant, but perhaps just not in a black and white way.  Remember, the world is not black and white, the world, in fact, exists in vivid color.

And this is the world that God entered into through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – this colorful world of changing times and generations and beautiful diversity.  This is the law, the teaching, that Jesus is fulfilling through his life and this is the law, the teaching, that can be fulfilled in our lives, as well.

It is not about doing things the way they were done 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago; this is not what Jesus is saying.  What Jesus is saying is that we are called to teach about God’s love, about the covenant God made that is still upheld in our generation, in the world that we are living in today.  What Jesus is saying to the disciples in this moment on that mountain is that the law, the teaching, is still relevant to the lives that they are living.

And the same is absolutely still true for us, today, as well.

Church may not always be relevant, but the Gospel is always relevant.  The story of God’s creating, redeeming and sustaining love is relevant.  The inextinguishable light that shines brightly into the darkness is relevant.  The bold and radical truth that love always wins is relevant.  The commitment to love God and love people is relevant.  The Body of Christ we are called into – the body that not only works with one another but also supports one another – is relevant.  The glimmer of hope that can be found in those moments when everything and everyone in your earthy life is otherwise telling you that hope is lost is relevant.

As a church, we need to make sure that these are the stories we are telling as we attempt to be relevant in the world we are living in today.  It is not about our rules and traditions, necessarily, but it is about teaching – teaching about God’s love in this world today and about bearing witness to the fulfillment of that promise.

Today I am going to give you a charge – tell this story in a way that is relevant to the people you are telling it to.  Show them, through your experience with church and your faith and the Gospel, how this story can be relevant in their lives, too.  Teach them about this covenant with God that still applies to them.

Jesus says:

Whoever does [these commandments] and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.[3]

The kingdom of heaven is this reality that has been brought into being through Jesus, but it is also one that we can catch a glimpse of in our own lives as we do the hard work that is required to do church in the world that we are living in today, to enact the Body of Christ in this world that is vividly colorful and full of possibilities.

So go tell this story.  Teach about God’s love.  Show the world that the Gospel is still a story worth telling.  Let your life be proof that the church is still relevant today.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Gospels (A Feasting on the Word Commentary). Matthew, Volume 1, Chapters 1-13. Edited bt Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Page. 87 – Exegetical Perspective. Written by Lisa Wilson Davison.
[2] Matthew 5:17, NRSV
[3] Matthew 5:19, NRSV

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