Laying Down Our Palms For Christ

Hi friends!

It’s so crazy to think that, back when all this started, our plan was to be back in church by this Sunday!  My office admin actually called me not long after we moved to virtual worship and asked if she should cancel the palms and I said no, that I didn’t think we would actually be back together by then, but that we would find a way to distribute them anyway.  Well – we opted not to distribute them.  Currently we are entering the worst of things in the northeast and the Deacons and I decided that it was more responsible for us to remind people to stay home than to give anyone another excuse to leave the house.  So we adorned our front doors with greens and had our kiddos cut palms out of construction paper and just worked with what we had this year!  If you get a chance, I would encourage you to at least watch the gathering music portion of the video – I included hosanna photos and videos people sent me with the music.

Here is my sermon, as well as audio and visual.  Stay safe.  Stay healthy.  Stay home.

Love you all.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 5, 2020

Matthew 21:1-11

Laying Down Our Palms For Christ

Palm Sunday has always been a little bit perplexing to me, as a preacher.  On the one hand (and under “normal” circumstances), it is a big celebration.  We hand out palms and parade through the sanctuary shouting, “Hosanna!”  We adorn the altar with palms and create the most beautiful representation of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  We sing hymns that only get dusted off once a year and wave those palms high in the air as we sing.

And yet, as people living on this side of the resurrection, we know that is not how the story ends.  We know that those shouts of “Hosanna!” turn into cries to “Crucify him!”  We know that Jesus does not ride off into a sunset but to Gethsemane, where he was arrested and later sentenced to death.  We know the eventually the palms that are laid down ahead of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem are eventually abandoned and replaced with a crown of thorns on his head while he is crucified.

Palm Sunday has always seemed like a little bit of a paradox to me.  Because even though it is, for all intents and purposes, a celebration – we know that things are about to get really hard.  When I preached on Palm Sunday the year after the Boston Marathon bombing (Bruce and I had been in Boston cheering on a friend running the race that day, she crossed the finish line right before the bombs went off), I compared my struggle over preaching the triumphal nature of Palm Sunday with the fact that I still, almost a year later, had a hard time looking at my happy and cheerful photos from early in the day of the race.

Because I knew things had gotten really hard after I took those photos – just like things are about to get really hard for Jesus.

In many ways, it feels like an even bigger paradox to preach on Palm Sunday this year because we are already in the middle of something really hard.  It feels weird to celebrate something when we are feeling the weight of something that is really heavy and when our entire world feels more broken than it ever has in our entire lifetime.

And so, first of all, I want you to know that it is okay to come into this space a little bit confused this morning.  It is okay to wrestle with the fact that we are celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem while also deeply grieving what is happening in our world today.

But I also think it is important to point out that Jesus knows what is going to happen when he parades into Jerusalem.  At this point, he has foretold his death and resurrection and, while his disciples do not understand, he certainly does – he knows things are about to get really hard.

And yet, he still lets this moment happen.  In fact, he creates this moment.

As Jesus and his disciples approach Jerusalem, he sends two of them ahead to go into the village and bring him back a donkey and her colt, telling anyone who asks, “The Lord needs them.”  The disciples do this and then spread their cloaks on the animals and Jesus sits on them and begins to ride into Jerusalem.  As he does this, a “very large crowd” gathers (which, let’s be honest, a “very large crowd” seems really strange to think about right now); some of them spread their own cloaks on the road and others cut branches from nearby trees and spread those on the road.  People go ahead of him and some follow him and they shout, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Jesus knows what is about to happen – he knows things are about to get really hard.  And yet, it is still important to him that he gathers the Body of Christ; that he pauses for a moment, in anticipation of what is to come, and praises God.  The word, “Hosanna,” is an expression of adoration, praise or joy.  This is a moment for Jesus, even in anticipation of what is going to come, to joyfully praise the God who will not abandon him, to gather the Body of Christ in a moment in time when the world so desperately needs it.

And so this morning, our own 2020 stay-at-home version of a very large crowd has gathered to do just that.  To joyfully praise the God who we know has not and will not abandon us.  To wave palms, even though they may look more like pine branches or construction paper than the palms we are used to receiving on this Sunday.  To show up in God’s name and proclaim God’s goodness and grace, even though things are really hard right now.  To be the Body of Christ – the Church – in a moment in time when the Church is so desperately needed.

This past week, I agonized over whether or not we would be able to safely distribute palms this year.  Ultimately, however, the Deacons and I decided that, right now, as we are entering what appears to be the most critical stage of this virus in our country, particularly here in the northeast, it was more important for us to encourage people to stay home than to try to find a social distancing loophole just for the sake of tradition.

It felt like an easy decision, but also a really hard conclusion.  I talked last week about the waves of secondary grief that we continue to feel throughout this time and this was certainly one of those moments where I felt it.

But it also got me thinking – what do our palms represent?

We distribute palms on Palm Sunday because that is our tradition, because it is Palm Sunday, but are there other ways that we can honor this day?

I have two thoughts.

The first comes from what I have already had the honor of witnessing over these past three weeks – the ways in which people have continued to do the work of Christ in some of the most life-giving kind of ways.

The crowd that gathers with Jesus is laying down palms and cloaks as a sign of adoration and praise and honor – as a way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.  And so, while we cannot do this literally with palm branches this year, I have to admit, I am not really sure that we really need to.  Because over the past three weeks, I have seen a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and of a commitment to follow Jesus.

Every time someone drops off a donation of canned goods to the food pantry or makes a monetary donation to an organization working to ensure the most vulnerable have the essentials they need, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.

Every time an essential worker leaves for work – whether they are a healthcare worker, a first responder or an essential retail employee – they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.

Every time someone drops off a meal or runs an errand for someone who is high risk and really needs to stay home right now, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.

Every time someone makes a mask, whether it is for members of their family, someone in the community who needs one or for a local hospital or nursing home, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.

Every time someone calls their neighbor or sends someone a card, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.

Every time one of our Deacons logs onto our Facebook group to lead nightly prayers or someone from the church sends me a video for our story time or someone just thinks of – and starts to implement – a creative way to “do church” from afar, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.

We are giving glory and honor to God right now, not by waving palms that we ordered weeks ago from a Christian supplier, but by living out the Gospel in real and tangible and hard, but also lifechanging ways.

By making sure the most vulnerable are cared for.

By holding one another in prayer.

By shining light into the darkness of this moment.

By proclaiming the bold and, admittedly, very hard right now truth that this virus is not stronger than God’s love and that it will not defeat us and that God’s love will win.

My second (and brief, I promise!) thought on what our palms represent and what Palm Sunday means to us, particularly this year, has to do with the fact that we are entering Holy Week and that the word, “Hosanna!” is used in other parts of the bible, in particularly the Old Testament, to mean, “Save us!”

Psalm 118 – which you all know very well, it is where the verse, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” comes from – is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from enemies.  Verse 25 of this psalm says:

Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

“Save us” comes from the Hebrew expression, “Hosanna!”

And so, as the very large crowds gather and shout “Hosanna!” and lead Jesus into Jerusalem shouting, “Hosanna!” they are doing so as a way of offering adoration and praise, but also as a way of pleading for their own salvation.

And I think a lot of us are feeling that right now.

Hosanna.  Save us.

We are entering Holy Week in the Christian Church, a time when we remember the hard and toilsome journey Jesus took as he was arrested and then sentenced to death by crucifixion.  Holy Week is really where we put our own faith to the test – where we are reminded of the really hard parts of the story and are forced to wait for resurrection.  We cannot rush the story and we have to sit with the discomfort and the challenge of that.

In so many ways, it feels like we are experiencing our own kind of Holy Week right now.  We are traveling a hard and toilsome journey.  Our faith is being put to the test.  We are being reminded of the hard parts of being human, of the true depths of our brokenness.

And we, too, have to wait for resurrection.

But here’s the thing:  As difficult as this is, I truly do believe that, when we finally do experience resurrection, it is going to be so powerful and life-changing and overwhelming.

Hosanna!  Save us!

Friends, be assured that our cries are heard.  God has not abandoned us.  Resurrection is coming.

I am wishing you all many blessings as we head into Holy Week.  I have always said that the Easter Triduum – the three days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday is a special time in the Christian year because it is the only time that we get to live out the story in real time.

But in so many ways, this year it feels like we are living out this story in real experience, as well.

And so now we wait.  We lean into our faith.  We trust that God has not abandoned us.  We cry out to God to save us, knowing that God hears those cries.

And, in the meantime (in ways, of course, that are safe and appropriate), we lay down our palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and our commitment to follow Jesus.

Because we know that resurrection is coming.

So have patience, strength and perseverance for the journey.  Give grace to those around you and make sure you give it to yourself, as well.  And await, with great anticipation and expectation, the resurrection that is coming.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Our Time In The Wilderness

We kicked off our Lenten season on Sunday in the wilderness with Jesus.  I’m back on the lectionary for the time being and we are going to preach through the Gospel thread during Lent.  I decided not to talk about temptations this year in looking at this narrative, but about being in the wilderness in general – because I think we all find ourselves there at some point in our lives!

I did preach at our Ash Wednesday service – I referenced it in this sermon.  I will post at least the text at some point this week if anyone is interested.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 1, 2020

Matthew 4:1-11

Our Time In The Wilderness

I used to think that, at some point, I would figure out the whole “life” thing; that I would magically arrive at a time and space in my life where suddenly everything would make sense and I would be able to wrap up my beliefs in a nice little bow and then just, kind of, coast.  From there on out, I assumed, life would be a little bit easier because I would have this framework and formula for how it was all supposed to work.

It was a really frustrating day in adulthood when I realized that was not actually going to happen.

Life would be so much easier if it happened in a linear and consistently upright motion.  You could learn lessons from the past, but build on them in a slow and steady way, knowing that the best days are always ahead of you.

But that is not how life works.

As it turns out, I probably should have paid closer attention to my bedtime stories when I was little.  Because I was reading Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss to Harrison this week and I was really struck by the profound life lessons disguised in anapestic tetrameter.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
that Bang-ups
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.[1]

Doesn’t this describe life perfectly, though?  We can be going along and be in a good rhythm – we can think we are doing pretty well and that we might even have answers to some of our questions.  Then all of a sudden something knocks us over or stops us in our tracks or brings us into a dark and lonely place and we are left wondering what in the world just happened.  We can find ourselves in a lurch – in a slump – in the wilderness, not really sure how to get out.

This morning we are in the wilderness with Jesus.

I think, for people that observe Lent, even on a passive or marginal level, this passage of scripture is actually pretty well-known because of the correlation between Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness with the 40 days of Lent.  The narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the dessert is recorded in three out of the four Gospel (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and is very often the scripture that is used to kick off the Lenten season every year – to kick off the 40 days of Lent.

That being said, the piece, I think, we forget sometimes is where this story is actually located within the narrative of the Gospel.  Despite its connection to the Lenten season, it is not close to the Easter story; it is, in fact, much closer to the beginning.  It immediately follows Jesus’ baptism.

And so think of it this way:  Jesus goes from this pivotally high moment where he is baptized by John in the Jordan River and emerges from the water to hear God’s voice through the clouds, claiming him as God’s own.  God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased,” and then almost immediately Jesus finds himself in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil.

Talk about life not happening in a linear and consistently upright motion.

But at the end of his time in the wilderness those promises of baptism are immediately fulfilled for Jesus.

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.[2]

Angels came and waited on him.

Jesus was not alone in the wilderness.

Baptism does not promise us an easy life, but it does welcome us into the Body of Christ and invites us into this sacred and holy narrative where resurrection is real and God is with us and we are not alone.

Do you ever feel like you are out there in the wilderness, kind of wandering around, not really sure how long you are going to be stuck there or even how you are going to get yourself out?

Last week we were on the mountaintop with Jesus as we heard the story of the transfiguration.  And while it would be wonderful if, as Christians, we could always stay on that mountaintop and experience the wonderful highs of life, the truth is, sometimes we find ourselves in the wilderness.

We are tempted by things in this world that want to pull us away from God.

We have a hard time seeing and believing that God’s love is stronger than the struggles we are facing.

We do not know how to get out, how to “un-slump” ourselves.

And yet, this passage of scripture promises us two things:  1) that it is okay if we are in the wilderness, because Jesus, himself, was there and 2) there are angels with us when we are there.

If you ever find yourself in the wilderness, first and foremost, do not beat yourself up for being there.  Jesus could not escape it – what makes us think that we can?  Life is hard and it does not always make sense.  And in dealing with it, we are imperfect and sometimes fall apart and fall short, but that does not make us less faithful, that just makes us human.

And so we do the best we can.  We stay in the wilderness, knowing that it is okay for us to be there, knowing that we are not alone in our struggles and, perhaps most importantly, knowing that God is with us.

And then, slowly but surely, we take a step forward and begin the journey out.

Lent began on Wednesday; about 40 of us gathered here, in the sanctuary, for our Ash Wednesday service.

Even though we mark the 40 days of Lent by Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Lent is not really about putting ourselves into the wilderness, but about acknowledging its existence.  It is about being honest about the fact that as humans, sometimes we end up in the wilderness.

Lent is about looking at ourselves in the mirror and recognizing, not only that we are not perfect, but also that it is okay if we are not perfect.  It is about seeing the wilderness as a part of our journey through life and faith and not a place where we go when we have done something wrong.  Lent is about understanding the coming resurrection as a promise of redemption and second chances in our lives.  Lent is about existing in a world that is broken, but also believing that there is hope in that brokenness.

I actually think this one of the reasons a lot of us actually come to church.

I talked about this in my sermon on Ash Wednesday.  I said that we do not come to church to escape life, but as a way to help us deal with it; to acknowledge our brokenness, but also to be assured of our wholeness in God.

And this is what the Lenten journey is all about.  It is about taking an intentional amount of time – 40 days, to honor this scriptural record of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness – to reflect on life, faith and what it means to believe in the promise of resurrection.

It is about believing that every experience in the wilderness will have angels waiting on us.

It is about trusting that we are not alone.

Life is not always easy.  And I want you to know that, if you are in the wilderness right now, that it is okay that you are there, that it does not make you any less faithful and that you are not alone.  This is a journey – life, faith, being part of the Body of Christ – it does not happen in a linear and consistently upright motion, it happens in a very real and messy and human motion.

But that is why we are here – to believe that we are not alone in the wilderness and also to see tangible signs of that witness through our church community.

Because the other thing is that if you are not in the wilderness right now, the work that you are doing matters to the people that are.  The love that you are giving them is changing their lives.  You are their light shining in the darkness.  You are God’s voice reminding them that they are not alone.  You are their earth angels waiting for them, cheering them on, championing the, walking alongside them on their journey.

As we begin to journey through this Lenten season together, I would encourage us all to think about what the wilderness means to us.  Because whether we are there now, we finally are out of it or we have jumped back in to help pull someone out, the hope of the cross that we are walking towards is that the wilderness is not the end of our story.

Resurrection is.

Light is.

Love is.

Blessings on your Lenten journey.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Oh! That Places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss
[2] Matthew 4:11, NRSV

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It Is Good For Us To Be Here Today

Hi friends!  Happy Shrove Tuesday!

We had our big Mardi Gras celebration at the church on Sunday – it was so much fun!  Decorations, brass, food and a mocktail bar – it doesn’t get better than that!

Our Ash Wednesday Worship service is at 7PM tomorrow.  If you are in Rehoboth, I would love to see you there!  You do not have to get ashes imposed if you would just like to enjoy the service.

Here is my sermon from Sunday – the story of the Transfiguration!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
February 23, 2020

Matthew 17:1-9

It Is Good For Us To Be Here Today

Happy Mardi Gras!

Or shall I say, Laissez les bons temps rouler, which is a Cajun French saying that means, “Let the good times roll,” and has become a Mardi Gras mantra over the years.[1]

Of course we know that today is not actually Mardi Gras – the real celebration is on Tuesday, also known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday.  Tuesday marks the closing out of one season before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.  Today is the Sunday before it all begins – Transfiguration Sunday.  Transfiguration Sunday is the day we remember Jesus taking Peter, James and John up on a mountain, where he is transformed – transfigured! – in front of them, appearing with Moses and Elijah, and a voice is heard from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”[2]

The story of the transfiguration is a challenging one for preachers, I think partially because it comes up every year the Sunday before Lent starts and so, like Christmas and Easter, there is a little bit of pressure to put a fresh spin on it, year after year.  It is also a challenging one, because it is a kind of a hard story to interpret on a practical, grassroots, “this is how I am called to live out my faith” kind of level.

It is one thing to read a story about Jesus feeding the multitudes and think to ourselves, “Hmm – maybe if people are hungry, we should feed them.”

Or to read a story about Jesus healing someone – even in a miraculous way that we, ourselves, might not be able to attain – and remember that we are called to be agents of healing in our own community, even if that means something as simple as praying for someone, offering to drive them to an appointment or giving them a prayer shawl.

Or to read a story about Jesus reaching out to a marginalized person – say, perhaps, the story of the Good Samaritan – and wonder how we can minister to people who are living on the margins of society.

It is a whole other thing to read this story and wander up a mountain in the hopes that perhaps Jesus might appear with a couple of Old Testament prophets and God will speak to all of us through the clouds.

On the surface, it appears that there is not a whole lot of practical application here.

Every year, without fail, I find myself participating in a conversation with clergy – whether it be on the internet or in person – about how to approach the transfiguration in a sermon.  And not that this was the sole purpose behind our new Mardi Gras Sunday tradition or anything, but I have to admit – filling the sanctuary with an explosion of purple, green and gold, festive music and the promise of delicious food afterwards does, in fact, distract from the possibility that my sermon might be terrible.

So there is that.

When I read the story of the transfiguration this week, the one thing that really jumped out at me were Peter’s words to Jesus in verse four:  “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[3]

“Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

Y’all, it is good for us to be here today.  It is good for us to be in worship, to be together as a community and to mark this transition in the church calendar year as we prepare to enter the Lenten season.

There is something about this story of Jesus’ transfiguration that connects us to our own baptism.  When Jesus’ appearance changes, God’s voice is heard from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”[4]  If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because this mirrors so strongly the story of Jesus’ baptism that we heard a few weeks ago, where Jesus emerges from the water and a God’s voice is heard from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”[5]

It is good for us to be here today.  It is good for us to connect this story back to Jesus’ baptism and to remember, as we prepare to enter the Lenten season, that the living waters of baptism have washed and continue to wash over all of us.

That we do not have to be perfect.

That we do not have to have all the answers.

That grace is powerful and that second chances are possible.

That God is, that love is real and that the Gospel will change the world.

It is good for us to be here today to remember our baptism through this story.

It is good for us to be here today.  It is good for us to hear Jesus’ words, “Get us and do not be afraid.”[6]  It is good for us to see in verse six that the disciples who witnessed the transfiguration fell to the ground and were overcome with fear and know that we are not alone when our initial reaction to something that we do not understand is fear.  But it is also good for us to remember that that we are called to live in faith, not in fear; to remember Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid.”

It is good for us to be here today, because there are many things going on in all of our lives that are scary and unsettling, but when we come together and we remember this story we know, with certainty that we are not alone and that we do not have to be afraid.

It is good for us to be here to live into our faith and not into our fear.

It is good for us to be here today.  It is good for us to remember that the story does not end on the top of the mountain, but with the disciples coming down off of the mountain, with strict orders not to tell anyone what they saw immediately, but after the resurrection.

It is good for us, as people living on this side of the resurrection, to hear this call.  It is good for us to remember that, as amazing as those mountaintop experiences are – those moments in our faith when we feel like we are on top of the world – we have to come down off the mountain and both experience and talk about our faith in the real world.  We have to proclaim the good news of the resurrection in a way that is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all people.  We have to live out our faith, not solely within the vacuum of our church community, but out in the world where it intersects with the realities of our lives.

It is good for us to be here today so that, together, we can come down off the mountain.

Y’all, it is good for us to be here today.  It is good for us to be here today and to meet one another, wherever we are on our journey through life and faith.  It is good for us to be here today to proclaim God’s goodness in the midst of the messiness and the confusion of life.  It is good for us to be here today and sing with the saints.  It is good for us to be here today and break bread together.  It is good for us to be here to mark the end of one season in the church year and prepare to enter Lent together.  It is good for us to be here today and remember that transfiguration can happen in our own lives.  It is good for us to be here today so we can grow in our faith and strengthen our community.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Let the good times roll.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] https://www.whereyat.com/glossary-of-mardi-gras-terms
[2] Matthew 17:5, NRSSV
[3] Matthew 17:4, NRSV
[4] Matthew 17:5, NRSV
[5] Matthew 3:17, NRSV
[6] Matthew 17:7, NRSV

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