Our Midterm Exam

Hi everyone!  I hope those of you who are getting hit with this storm in the northeast are safe, dry and warm!  We did gather for worship at RCC this morning – it was a small crowd, but where two or more are gathered, right?

Here is my sermon!  Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
January 20, 2019

Mark 8:27-9:1

Our Midterm Exam

I have this reoccurring nightmare where I am back in school and I have to take a final in a class that I forgot to attend all semester and therefore did no work for.  I am not sure what this says about me (other than the fact that I am disorganized and forgetful sometimes), but every time I have this dream, I am overwhelmed with this feeling of intense angst, because I know I will never be able to get caught up on all the work and I am about to take a test that I am not at all prepared for.

The disciples might not have realized it at the time, but in this morning’s scripture reading, they were about a take a test that they were not necessarily prepared for, either.  If they were taking a course in Christology – the theology of Christ – this would have been their midterm; an exam part-way through their class, testing them to see what they had learned up until this point about who Jesus is, why he is here and what it means to follow him.

We have reached the halfway point in the Gospel of Mark.  Up until now, Jesus’ ministry has taken place in small boats and in cities and villages along the Sea of Galilee.  Now their journey is about to point towards Jerusalem.  Things are starting to get more serious; this is not just about Jesus’ life, but about his death and resurrection.  For the disciples to truly follow Jesus, it was going to require more of them than just words or actions; it was going to require their whole lives, in the most humble and devoted way.

This exchange between Jesus and the disciples is one of the more fascinating exchanges in the Gospel partially because while we are starting to understand the messianic nature of Jesus (as opposed to Jesus as a teacher or a healer), but also because we do not know what, exactly, this means and who is supposed to know.

Jesus wants to know who people think that he is and also who the disciples think that he is.  Peter answers and tells Jesus that he is the Messiah; but instead of affirming Peter’s response, Jesus sternly orders Peter and the other disciples not to tell anyone.[1]

Now, if you remember, this is not the first time Jesus tried to downplay the messianic nature of who he was.  At the very beginning of the gospel, in chapter 1, after Jesus cleansed a leper, he sternly warned the man not to tell anyone what had happened.[2]  There was a mystery to what Jesus was doing, one that – for whatever reason – Jesus was not quite ready to share with everybody.

But then Jesus goes on to teach (of course) and he tells the disciples what is going to happen next; he says that the Son of Man was going to have to undergo great suffering and be rejected, killed and then – three days later – come back to life.  Peter, despite telling Jesus earlier that he believed Jesus was the Messiah, rebuked Jesus; in other words, he disapproved and was critical of what Jesus was saying.[3]

But then Peter gets in trouble with Jesus; Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”[4]

You kind of have to feel bad for Peter in this scenario; there was always that one kid in school that always thought they knew the right answer, but they just kind of missed the point and I feel like that was Peter in this scenario.  He understood that there was more to Jesus than just the man in front of them and the ministry they were taking part in, but he did not actually know what that meant.

And that’s okay, right?  Because it is only the midterm!  He still has time to get ready for the final exam.  But things are about to get real; and Jesus has some teaching to do.

Jesus decides to take a little bit of a different approach.  Instead of just speaking to the disciples, he calls a crowd to gather around him and then begins to speak to them.  “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[5]

I said earlier that the exchange between Jesus and Peter was fascinating to me, because we are not quite sure what this messianic nature of Jesus means and, in this moment – when Jesus gathers the crowd and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” – we get another piece of the messianic puzzle.

First of all, I think it is really important to note here that Jesus calls a crowd; he is not just talking to the disciples anymore.  And he says, “If any want to become my followers” – meaning this invitation is open to all.  Christianity is not for the chosen ones; it is for allwho seek the grace and redemption that Christ has to offer.  You do not have to be chosen; you have tochoose to follow.

Second of all, the stakes are higher.  Up until this point, Jesus and his disciples had been traveling and he had been teachingthem, but now he is asking people to do morethan learn; he is asking them to follow.  It is no longer simply about speaking or thinking or doing, it is about following; it is about making a conscious decision to deny yourself and take up the cross and follow Jesus.

And that is what we are being asked to do, today.  It is not just about professing a belief in Christianity or even about speaking or acting a certain way; it is about following Jesus.  Jesus says we are supposed to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him and this notion of following surpasses any human understanding we might have of it.

Let’s talk about context; the Gospel of Mark was written during some of the worst persecution the church has ever experienced. So when the Gospel writer recounted this story, he understood on a real level what it meant to take up his cross and follow Jesus.  He knew it was not going to be easy; he knew that he would be questioned, threatened, mocked – that, at times, his life would be in danger.

The magnitude of what Jesus was and is asking people to do was not something they could comprehend at the time; truth be told, it is not something we can even comprehend today.

But we do have to remember that there is an intentionality to following Jesus that we need to take seriously.  And yes, it is different today than when Jesus first spoke those words and even when the Gospel writer wrote these words.  The church is not being persecuted, per say, and we have the freedom to practice our faith openly.  But I would argue that the stakes are just as high.

The Church is in a very vulnerable place right now; not our church, specifically, but the Church universal, the institutionalized Body of Christ.  People are questioning its relevance and its importance in their lives.  New England, alone, has an astonishingly low percentage of people who attend church – I saw a statistic once that said only 10% of people in New England attend church.

It is up to us to change that statistic.  We have to do our part to follow Jesus, to spread the Gospel and proclaim its relevance.

What does it mean to follow Jesus today?  It means believing in the hope of grace and resurrection, even when you are walking through some of the darkest moments of your life; believing in the power of God’s healing love, even when you are grieving and in pain.  It means not passively coming to church, but actively soaking up opportunities to learn, serve and grow in your faith.  It means reading and praying and listening and talking and breaking bread and serving and learning and cultivating.  It means not being ashamed to claim your identity as a Christian, but to tell others that you attend church, to boldly and unapologetically talk about how your life has been changed by the church and to invite someone who might be searching for something attend worship sometime.

And remember this is something that we can alldo.  You don’t have to pass this one off to me, because I am the pastor or even to one of the Deacons; we can allfollow Jesus.  Jesus was not just talking to the disciples, he gathered a crowd to hear this lesson and because of this we know that this kind of discipleship is accessible to allof us.

I don’t want to scare you into thinking that you showed up to church today and now have to take a test that you are unprepared for, but, friends, this is our midterm.  The stakes are just as high.  The messianic nature of Jesus is no longer a secret.  It is time to tell the world who Jesus is and what the Church is capable of doing.

We need to take the call to follow Jesus seriously – for the sake of our own faith and for the sake of others, so that they, too, might have the opportunity to know and follow Jesus.  We cannot be passive observers as God works in this world, but active participants in the work that needs to be done to transform our brokenness and make us whole again.  We have to be willing to take up our cross; to let go of a piece of who we are so that we can fully be who God is calling us to be and not only reach our capacity as Christians, but extend beyond it.

The time to follow Jesus is now.  The test is about to begin.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Mark 8:27-30
[2]Mark 1:40-44
[3]Mark 8:31-32
[4]Mark 8:33, NRSV
[5]Mark 8:34, NRSV

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Preparing Our Lives For The Gospel (Every Day)

Hello and Happy Monday!  I hope everyone that got slammed by this snow/ice/slush storm that tore through this weekend is thawing out.  That storm was something else.

I hope this isn’t annoying, but I mentioned when I posted my sermon two weeks ago that we are in the middle of a year-long sermon series through the Gospel of Mark and I really want to have the whole series archived here, so I’m going to go back and post all of the sermons I missed while I was on my blogging and podcasting “hiatus”.  I do have the audio recorded, but for the time being, I am just going to post the text.

So let’s start at the beginning, shall we??

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 15, 2018

Mark 1:1-8

Preparing Our Lives For The Gospel (Every Day)

A few weeks ago, I was trying to plan our summer worship and was feeling completely uninspired.

For the past seven years, I have used the Revised Common Lectionary in my worship planning and – with the exception of a special service here or there – have always chosen our scriptures for worship based on the four texts available each week in that cycle.  I have always been a strong lectionary supporter, because it gave me the opportunity to preach through a variety of books of the bible and also bounce ideas off of my colleagues in ministry, many of whom were also preaching the lectionary.  I also would purchase liturgy and worship resources based off of the lectionary and most weeks use the prayers and hymns suggestions out of them.

I had a pretty good system going – but I just felt as though, as a community, we needed a change.  I think part of my issue was that, because it is a three-year cycle, I have now preached through the lectionary twice.  I was desiring something new and unpredictable.

The lectionary was also starting to feel choppy to me.  We would often move from one book of the bible to another from week to week and there was not a whole lot of continuity in what we were talking about.  I spent a lot of time giving necessary context before I could really jump into the text, itself and by the time everyone understood what we were talking about, we were moving onto something else the following week.

The funny thing is that I have felt this way before when it comes to bible study.  For a couple of years, we tried different curriculums based on themes and eventually, as a group, realized that we really just wanted to focus on one book at a time and read it from start to finish so we could delve into the whole story. And, I have to say, that once we made that switch, bible study took off.

A little over a year ago, I was having lunch with my friend Jon and he said, “I think we’re going to take a year and preach through the Gospel of Mark.”  He went on to explain that his church had done a survey and one thing they got a lot of feedback on was everyone’s desire to become more biblically literate and familiarize themselves with the basic teachings of Jesus they learned (or, in same cases did not learn) when they were younger.  So they gave it a shot.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago – they were finishing up their year around the same time I was feeling uninspired planning out our summer worship.  So I asked Jon about his experience and his face lit up and he said, “You have to try it in Rehoboth.”

So here we are at the very beginning of the Year of Mark.  I hope this year will give us a deeper understanding of Jesus as we narrow our focus on one book and familiarize ourselves with the stories we probably first learned as children.  I am excited to look at this Gospel in a new light and really dig deeper into my faith and also what God is calling us to do here, at the Rehoboth Congregational Church.

I also hope that this might give people an added incentive to come to worship every week and stay caught up with what we are doing and where we are in the Gospel.  I would encourage you to bring your own bibles to worship so you can follow along and take notes and maybe even refer back to them at a later date.

Two things to note before we jump into this morning’s text:

  1. You may have noticed that I put the scripture directly into the bulletin this morning. I hope doing this might make it easier for people – particularly guests in worship who might not be familiar with the bible – to find the scripture and follow along instead of having to page through the bible and then find it.  I also think this will make it easier for everyone to refer back to the passage while I am preaching.  And it is my hope that if a particular verse or passage strikes a chord with you, you will bring your bulletin home with you so you will not forget it.
  1. We will go “off” our Year of Mark from time to time, for things like Beatles Sunday, Advent, Christmas, Star Sunday, Easter, etc. I am still firming up the schedule, but hope to have that posted next week so you always know what is coming up (and can plan your vacations accordingly, of course!).

So here we go!

First of all – why Mark?  Well, the simple answer is that it is the shortest of the four gospels, which makes it the most feasible to preach through in one year. The not-so-simple answer is that it is a really cool account of Jesus’ life.

The gospels are the first four books of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  They tell the story of Jesus’ life.  Mark was likely the first of the four Gospels to be written and is often thought to be the “spine” of Matthew and Luke, which both draw heavily from Mark.

The author of Mark is not necessarily known, although whoever wrote the book was certainly familiar with the oral teachings about Jesus.  The style of the book, itself, is simple and effective (which might speak to who wrote it and who they were writing to), which makes it a great place for someone to start if they are reading the bible for the first time.

The cool thing about the Gospel of Mark is that it is really is a reality show of biblical times.  The original Gospel starts at Jesus’ baptism and ends at the crucifixion – it only tells the stories of Jesus’ life, itself.  An alternative ending that included the resurrection was added later (which we will talk about at the end of the year), but originally, there was no birth narrative and no resurrection narrative.  Mark only talked about what happened when Jesus was alive, during his adult ministry.  What I love about the baptism to death narrative is that it reminds me that, more often than not, my focus should be on Jesus’ life.  Christmas and Easter are such huge celebrations in the life of the church, but what really matters is what happens in the middle.  To be true disciples of Christ means to immerse ourselves into his life and teachings and model our own lives based on the way he lived and what he taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him.

So here we are, at the very beginning of Mark, with the proclamation of John the Baptist and the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry.  John – who was born to Zechariah and Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, a story that is told during the birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke – appeared in the wilderness and proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He said, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”[1]

This text is actually typically read during Advent when we are following the lectionary, so it was kind of fun for me to think about it during the summer months.  When I preach on John the Baptist during Advent, I often am drawn to think about ways we are preparing for the birth of Christ and how we balance that with our preparations for the oftentimes crazy season of Christmas that is happening all around us.

But here we are in the middle of July.  We are not making lists and checking them twice. We are not frantically decorating our homes and running from one holiday party to the next.  Radio stations are not playing Christmas music interrupted by commercials for the best gifts and others you-can’t-miss-this deals (although Amazon Prime Day is tomorrow, so don’t forget to do all of your shopping through Amazon Smile and select the Rehoboth Congregational Church as your charity!).  Days are longer, the air is warmer and the general pace of life is a little bit slower.

The question is, of course, what, then, are we preparing for?  December is five months away; the birth of Christ is not right around the corner. There is no event to prepare for right now, no finish line that we are trying to get to, no big Christmas celebration to look forward to.

But remember what I just said about the Gospel of Mark.  Christmas and Easter are such huge celebrations in the life of the church, but what really matters is what happens in the middle.  Our preparations for Jesus in our lives should not just happen before Christmas, they should happen every single day of our lives.

The way we live our lives matters – every single day, year-round.  The choices we make, the words we speak, the people we interact with, the money we spend and the activities we get involved have the ability to create not only the people we seek to be, but also the people God is calling us to be.

But it takes effort; being a disciple of Christ is not just supposed to fit into the life you want, it is supposed to be something you work hard at every day, something you might make sacrifices for along the way. When John says that we are supposed to prepare for Christ, it does not mean we are supposed to prepare when we have time, it means these preparations need to be integral and intentional parts of our daily lives.

Sometimes it is a hard balance for me.  I do not want to use guilt tactics to get people to come to church or give money or make them feel bad if they are not able to be around all the time, but I also believe that this is so important.  We have to make our faith a priority, we have to structure our families around the values we learn from the Gospel and we have to be active and vibrant parts of the Body of Christ is that others will know of God’s undeniable love and redeeming grace.

There is a version of the bible called The Message, which is written in very contemporary language.  I love the way it translates verse 7.  The NRSV, which we read from in worship, says:

[John] proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.[2]

The Message translates it like this:

As [John] preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life.[3]

Jesus can and will change our lives.  The message of the Gospel has the ability to transform even the hardest of situations, to shine light into even the darkest of moments.

But we have to be ready.  We have to prepare ourselves and our lives to truly receive this message.

I have one quick story and then I am done.  I have said many times before that I think grace happens around a dinner table and I think one of the ways we can seek to deepen our faith is to make family dinners more of a priority.  But, of course, that is easier said than done. And what I have realized in trying to feed a toddler dinner in the mad rush between daycare pickup and bedtime when you and your spouse often work opposite schedules is that it is so much easier to eat standing up, leaning against the counter, while your kid is buckled into his high chair and you can simultaneously run around emptying lunch boxes and getting baths ready than it is to actually sit down for dinner.

But about three weeks ago, I started to try anyway. And it has been amazing.  It is not always the three of us, but even if it is just Harrison and me, I always try to stop, put my phone away, sit down, say a prayer and then eat.

And it is not perfect – but it is not supposed to be. Verse 4 says that John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He knew we were going to screw up.  But the point is that we need to try.  We need to do everything we can to invite God into our lives. And not just at Christmas!  All year long.

So this morning I invite you to think about one thing that you can do that might help you prepare your life to hear, receive and live out the Gospel.  Believe that when John the Baptist proclaimed, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” he was not simply talking to those who had gathered in the wilderness, but to us, as well, as we seek to welcome Jesus and bring the Gospel into our world today.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Mark 1:3, NRSV
[2]Mark 1:7, NRSV
[3]Mark 1:7, The Message

Being Comfortably Uncomfortable

The totally ironic thing about this sermon is that I posted a bunch of pictures on Facebook today from communion this week – we served it by intinction because we forgot to order those little cups last month – and there is currently a conversation happening about whether or not people are comfortable with intinction! I thought that was neat timing – it’s easier said than done to be comfortably uncomfortable!

If you listen to the audio, you’ll hear Harrison saying “hi” in my intro 😉 – I shouldn’t record these intros right before he needs to go to bed!

I am taking the next two weeks off from preaching.  Children’s Day is this weekend so I’m not preaching and then the next week I’m on vacation.  I’ll probably be on instagram cleaning and painting my new house so look for me over there (@revsarahweaver).

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
June 3, 2018

Mark 2:23-3:6

Being Comfortably Uncomfortable

I went to Carters a few weeks ago to buy Harrison clothes because he was starting to grow out of all the stuff in his dresser and when I came home I explained to Bruce that some of the stuff I bought was daycare appropriate and some of it was specifically for church (because y’all know how much I love to dress him for church). A few days later, Bruce told me he could not find a pair of shorts for Harrison to wear to daycare, that the only clothes left in the bag of new clothes were church clothes. So I went to look and I found a pair of shorts that could have gone either way – they were khaki, but they had an elastic waist and tie instead of a button and zipper. I came out of Harrison’s room and said, “You know what, Harrison, you can wear these to daycare. You shouldn’t wear pants with an elastic waist to church anyway, because those are comfy clothes and you should always be a little bit uncomfortable at church.”

Of course, I was talking about putting on your Sunday clothes and looking sharp, but at soon at the words came out of my mouth, I knew I was on to something deeper and more profound. Because as much as the church is a safe place where we can all come and worship and connect to God in a way that makes us feel secure and protected, I think it should also be a place where, at times, we find ourselves feeling a little bit uncomfortable.

To be clear, I am not talking about being physically unsafe or harassed in any way, shape or form. But I AM talking about each and every one of us stretching the dimensions of what we think church is and what church should be.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Gospel of Mark, chapters two and three, so we are still fairly early on in Jesus’ ministry, but he is already starting to stir up some trouble. In this story, it is the Sabbath and yet, the disciples are plucking up heads of grain.

Remember, it is Jewish custom that during that time of Sabbath – from sunset on Friday through Saturday – no work be done. The Pharisees objected to Jesus, saying:

Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?[1]

Jesus did not respond to this objection by slapping the disciples’ wrists and making them stop. He did not say to the Pharisees, “Oh shoot, you know what, I totally lost track of the days, don’t worry, this will never happen again!”

No; first of all, Jesus schooled the Pharisees in Hebrew scripture. He said (and I am paraphrasing here), “Come on, guys, don’t you remember what happened to David?”

Here is what Jesus was talking about: King David – who you may remember slayed Goliath when he was a young boy with a couple of stones and a sling shot – entered a temple as an adult and asked the priest if he could have some bread for his army. The priest said all he had was the Bread of the Presence, meaning holy bread, and that the men could only have it if they were considered clean and pure. David said they were, the priest gave him the bread and David went on his way.

Now – were the men actually clean and pure? Probably not. But they were hungry. And David found them something to eat.

Jesus talked about David because he was trying to point out that sometimes what someone needs is more important than holding onto a tradition; that sometimes God is calling us to do a new thing and that we should not cling so tightly to our own religious customs that we cannot see what God is doing in our midst today.

But then Jesus took it one step further. The disciples had already violated the Sabbath laws when they were picking grain, but then Jesus, himself, violated those same laws when he walked into a synagogue and cured a man with a paralyzed hand.

Do you think that made the Pharisees a little bit uncomfortable? I think so. This passage ends by saying:

The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against [Jesus], how to destroy him.[2]

People do not like to be uncomfortable. They like to know what is coming next. They like their traditions to be predictable and their spaces to look or feel a certain way.

We do this in the church all the time. We worship a certain way, we arrange our flowers a certain way, we set up our sanctuary and our narthex a certain way and we do not want those things to change. We have the same events, year after year. We have traditions that we hold fast to. We often do not want to try something new because sometimes it is hard to picture something that we have never done before. Many of us are accustomed to the way we do church here that we cannot imagine doing church any other way.

But guess what? Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. He broke tradition; he did something that had never been done before, something that made the Pharisees uncomfortable.

And in the end, a man was healed. Shouldn’t that have been the goal all along?

God’s grace is kind of a funny thing sometimes.

My point is this: It is okay to be a little bit uncomfortable sometimes. It is okay to try something new. It is okay to do something that has never been done before, even if that means stepping onto a path that has never been traveled on. It is okay to walk away, even if it is just for a moment, from the rituals and traditions that we do by rote and see what else God is calling us to do in this moment.

Friends, I have talked a lot about doing church lately. And sometimes doing church means being comfortably uncomfortable. It means being willing to compromise so that everyone feels like their voice has been heard and that their opinion is valued. It means not immediately dismissing something just because it is different and actively listening to new ideas. It means healing someone on the Sabbath because they are sick and serving someone holy bread because they are hungry. It means listening to God’s still speaking voice guiding us along a journey that is filled with a grace and love that will exceed even our wildest imaginations.

So do not be afraid to be comfortably uncomfortable. Push your boundaries. Stretch yourself. Try something new. And be amazed at God’s potential within our community. As a church, we can and will do great things.

And we may find that, along the way, people will be healed, people will be fed and people will be made whole.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Mark 2:24, NRSV
[2] Mark 3:6, NRSV

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