Remembering Our Loved Ones

I preached this sermon on the heels of a really hard funeral for a lot of us the day before.  I had planned to end the service with Old Rugged Cross and when I looked out in the congregation so many people had tears in their eyes.  It has been a hard year for a lot of people and I think reading through this Passion Narrative has been oddly therapeutic as it has reminded us that grace is still present, even in the hard stuff.

Have a safe and happy 4th of July holiday everyone!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
June 30, 2019

Mark 15:40-47

Remembering Our Loved Ones

So you’d think I’d have a lot to say about burials.

The irony of me having to preach on Jesus’ burial right now is not how many funerals I have done over the past four months, but that I am actually sort of working through my own thoughts about what I would want one day.

You see, I never really thought it was important. That’s weird, right? Considering what I do for a living.  But I guess I just never wanted anyone to make a fuss.  I actually told Bruce once that when I died, I wanted to be cremated and then he should just accidently trip and spill my ashes one day and be done with it.

Which, for the record, I do not think he would have ever actually done.

And then I slowly started to have a change of heart.

I don’t know what it was; some combination of grace and the fact that I have done a lot of really inspiring funerals over the past year or so.  There was something about riding in the funeral procession for Earl Goff with the fire department marching on foot behind us, singing Amazing Grace while we got poured on when we buried Alice Wagner, preparing a beautiful altar honoring Lou Peranzi’s life for his memorial service, watching the Fire Department walk through at Mark Johnson’s funeral while Lynyrd Skynyrd played quietly in the background, hearing taps played at the cemetery more times than I can count and lining up the two hearses carrying Paul and Kathy Lumbra in front of the church before we took the trip out Bourne to bury them that just started to remind me of just how important ritual is, not only in life, but in death.

When Rachel Held Evans died, they livestreamed her funeral, which was a Requiem Eucharist, a funeral mass in the Episcopal tradition.  The liturgy was beautiful; and when I watched them process her casket into the sanctuary while the priest walked behind her and boldly proclaimed that promise of our faith – I am Resurrection and I am Life – I wept.

Because I realized in that moment that, even though sometimes it is really hard to take part in these rituals surrounding death, they are so important in helping us to process our grief and to remind us of the redeeming hope of resurrection in Christ.

This morning’s scripture reading is the story of Jesus’ burial.  We enter the story while Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, look on from a distance.  Evening was coming, which meant that soon it would be the Sabbath (it was Friday, remember – Sabbath begins a few minutes before sunset on Friday).

Knowing there was not much time before the sun set, a man from Arimathea named Joseph went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. When the centurion told Pilate that Jesus was, in fact, dead, he granted Joseph permission and Joseph bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down off the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, laid him in an empty tomb and rolled a stone again the door to close it.

My first question in reading this story is, who is this Joseph guy?  He is supposedly a respected member of “the council,” although the story does not specify which council.  Jesus, you may remember, appeared before a council made up of the high priest, the chief priests, the scribes and elders and they condemned him as deserving of death, but there is no confirmation that he is a member of that same council.

Regardless, Joseph goes “boldly to Pilate” and asks for the body of Jesus.  The part that intrigues me about Joseph is that the scripture identifies him as, “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”

Who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.

What does that mean?

Okay, I want to jump back to the very beginning of the Year of the Mark, I think the second week; Jesus was baptized and then driven out into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days and then he traveled to Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God.  When he arrived in Galilee, Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

I think one thing we have all learned throughout this year of studying the Gospel of Mark is that the kingdom of God is not necessarily something that is far off, but something that is here, that is attainable.  The kingdom of God is something that we can create here on earth if we live out the Gospel, if we put to action the call of Jesus to love God and to love one another, if we commit to healing the sick, feeding the hungry and reaching out to the poor and the marginalized.

And so when Joseph of Arimathea is identified as someone who is, “also … waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” and then goes boldly to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, I have to think that the two are somehow related.

It kind of makes me wonder if what we do when people die enables us to bring the kingdom of God to earth; if our rituals, our remembrances and our desires to pick up the light of someone who has died and carry it with us in our own lives actually widens the depth of the kingdom and shares the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world that so desperately needs to hear it.

For the record, I do not think our rituals have any bearings on whether or not someone gets into heaven; God is more powerful than the words that we speak and the rituals we perform.  However, I do think how we handle death significantly impacts how we move forward here on earth after someone dies; how we cling tightly to our faith in our moments of despair and are reminded of the sweet promise of resurrection.  I think how we handle death enables us to carries someone’s memory with us so that their spirit always lives on.

Joseph did not know what was about to happen; he thought Jesus was dead.  And it was not because he buried Jesus that God resurrected him; but it was because he buried Jesus that he was able to honor the life that Jesus lived and believe that kingdom of God was very much attainable here.

And I think the same is true in our lives today. It is not because we participate in rituals and traditions when our loved ones die that they go to heaven; but it is because of these things that we are able to see what heaven might look like as we then carry their spirit with us in our lives.  It is because of our rituals and traditions that we are able to bear witness to the lives of those who came before us as we seek to bring the kingdom of God to earth.

And so I think, as people living on this side of the resurrection, we, too, have to think carefully about the ways in which we care for our loved ones after they die.  And I am not just talking about funeral arrangements, either, I am also talking about the rituals and the traditions that we create after they are gone to remember them, as well.

I think about my Grandmother Miko every time I make chicken paprikash, because she is the one who taught me how to make it. I think about my Grandmother Keck every time I see coins on the ground because she once very proudly told me that she dodged traffic one afternoon when she saw change in the road and collected 32 cents.  I think about my Grandfather Keck when I look at Harrison because he is his namesake. I think about my mom’s best friend, Diane, every time I make pancakes, because she told me once that if you add sugar and a little bit of vanilla to pancake batter, they taste so much better. I think about my college chaplain, the Rev. Charles Rice, every time I argue with someone about the reality of systemic racism because he was the one that gave me the courage to have those conversations.

And then I try to carry their light into the world.

It is not necessarily the big things – but then again, it does not always have to be.  Sometimes it is the little things that make a difference.  It is the little things that remind us of the people that changed our lives.  We have to boldly tell our loved ones stories so the other’s lives might be changed, as well.

So whether you are laying someone to rest, celebrating their life at a memorial service, paying them a visit to the cemetery, making a meal they always cooked, toasting them with their favorite drink, playing music that they loved, gathering at their favorite vacation spot, planting flowers in their memory or just taking their best quality and carrying it with you in the world, may you know that the kingdom of God is near and that you are an active participant in bringing it to life.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Seeing Jesus For Who He Was

When I decided to preach through the Gospel of Mark, I didn’t really think much about what it would be like to preach through the end of it.  We usually just tell the story – I’ve never preached on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.  It’s been a really good challenge for me, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t considering preaching at some point next year during Holy Week.  There’s a lot going on in this passage – my sermon barely scrapes the surface!  I talked about the role of the centurion and what this means for us as we see Jesus for who he is and then proclaim that message to the world.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
June 23, 2019

Mark 15:16-39

Seeing Jesus For Who He Was

Bruce and I were at the driving range on Thursday night discussing this week’s sermon (welcome to life married to a preacher) and the, sort of, complicated nature of preaching through the story of Jesus’ death. SO much is happening in a very short amount of time and I almost think, as a preacher, I have to decide whether I want to speak broadly to the whole narrative (knowing that, while I am touching on everything, I am not really digging deep into anything) OR find one obscure part of the story that is intriguing to me and focus on that (knowing that, while I can dig a little bit deeper into one thing, I am missing other parts of the story).

The thing is, I do not think there is a right or wrong way to approach preaching this text; in fact, there was actually a fleeting moment last night where I thought to myself, “well maybe one day I’ll preach through the Passion Narrative again so I can get another crack at this story and take another approach.”

But it was fleeting.

Regardless, instead of speaking more broadly about how I feel about the crucifixion and what I think it means in my own life, I am just going to focus on one thing this morning.  Now, this does mean that there are going to be parts of this story that I do not really get into – and in focusing on one thing, I am not saying that the other parts are not important, it just means that this is what jumped out at me this week.

But so much is happening in this morning’s text; if I dug into everything, we would probably be here until 5:00 tonight.

I could talk about the very public mocking of Jesus, and the contemptuous way the soldiers dressed him in royal garb.

I could talk about the way Mark intricately wove two of the Passion Psalms into this narrative.  Mark talks about people passing by Jesus and deriding him in verse 29, which references Psalm 22:7, “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads.”  Mark mentions the offering of sour wine to Jesus in verse 36, which gives nod to Psalm 69:21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”  Mark records Jesus’ last words as a direct quote from the book of psalms.  “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which is a direct quote from Psalm 22:1.

And what about those last words of Jesus?  I could also talk about the four different Gospels and three different accounts of those last words.  Mark and Matthew both record Jesus’ final words to be, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but Luke records Jesus as saying, “Father into your hand I commend my spirit” and in the Gospel of John Jesus simply says, “It is finished.”

I could also talk about this three-hour solar eclipse that apparently happened between the time that Jesus was crucified and the time that Jesus actually died, something that – in the Old Testament – signified a heavenly sign of God’s judgment (although had I know we were going to have that crazy storm we had yesterday, I might have been tempted to go down the road).

I do feel badly for the other patrons of the Atlantic Golf Center because I have a feeling they just wanted hit their golf balls in peace and not have to listen to me yammer on about the details of Jesus’ death.

But what I want to talk about today is actually the very end of this story.  Because I think sometimes when we are reading this story during Holy Week, we get to this point and just keep our eyes on that resurrection prize; because we know that Easter is coming.

And so it is admittedly harder to read it in this context, where we get to the end of the story and Jesus is dead and we cannot keep reading.

I kind of have the same feeling today that I do every time I see Jesus Christ Superstar and the performance ends with Jesus dying and the lights fade to black on stage then the curtain goes up and the cast cheerfully runs onstage for their curtain call.  Because that is not actually how the story ends; and the person inside of me that is living on this side of the resurrection very much wants to tell the wholestory.

And yet here we are.  And the thing is, it is almost more authentic to read it like this, because this is how the very first followers of Jesus experienced the story. When Jesus died, they did not know what was going to happen next.  They, like we have to today, had to sit with the grief and the discomfort and the agony of what it meant to watch Jesus suffer and die and not know that in three days he would rise.

I have to be honest, I am really glad we do not have a baptism today.

The end of this morning’s scripture reading is really dramatic.  You have the darkness coming over the land, Jesus screaming, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, someone shoving a sour-wine-filled sponge into Jesus’ mouth and the curtain of the temple ripping into two pieces.

And then the centurion comes into the picture.

Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s son!’(Mark 15:39, NRSV)

Centurions were commanders in the Roman army; we would understand them today as company commanders.  There were six grades – or ranks – among the centurion, with the highest level reaching a position similar to a knight.

There are two things that are really important to understand about the centurion here.  First of all, he is the first personto identify Jesusas God’s Son. Up until this point, only beings have identified Jesus as the Son of God – 1) the heavenly voice of God at Jesus’ baptism and at the transfiguration and 2) the demons in the healing stories.

But now a person has made that identification.  Now a personhas seen what Jesus knew to be true all along.  Now a person has realized what, precisely, God has been up to this whole time.  Now a person has experienced the redeeming work of God in his life and in this world and by saying it out loud, “Truly this man was God’s son!” he was proclaiming the truth that, even though they did not know how the story was going to end, that God was not finished yet.

His world changed when he saw Jesus for who he really was.

The second thing that is important to understand about the centurion is that he was a Gentile.  So not only did a person see Jesus for who he really was, but a Gentile nonetheless; which confirms that Gentiles now had the same access to God’s redeeming love that Jews did.

The world was turned upside down; no one knew what was going to happen next.  But despite the uncertainties, despite the agony they had just witnessed, despite the brokenness of that moment, the centurion’s eyes were opened to who Jesus was and he was not afraid to proclaim that Good News.

And I think this is one of the life-changing messages of this story; that even when we are in the midst of strive, even when our future may be uncertain, even when we are surrounded by grief and chaos – in these moments we can all still see Jesus for who he is, no matter who we are or where we are on our journey through life.  It does not matter if we have been coming to church our entire life or we are just meeting Jesus for the first time.

And we can proclaim this message with awe and confidence and hope.

We are coming up on the end of the Year of Mark. And this year has done a lot of amazing things for me; there has been something about doing nothing but preach about Jesus that has renewed my focus as a preacher and convicted me as a Christian. And the strange part is that I am reading Rachel Held Evan’s first book, Faith Unraveled, where she talked about her journey of challenging her conservative evangelical upbringing and then coming back into the faith.  And she said in her book that during her period of intense questioning one of her mentors told her to go back to the basics, to just spend time in the Gospels and read about Jesus.  And she said that made all the difference.

And it has for me, too.

Because this is the heart of what it means to be Christian; to, like the centurion, see Jesus for who he really was, to read the Gospels and recognize what Jesus was doing and try to emulate that in our own lives and then to proclaim that message to a world that needs to hear it.

I have two things I want you to do for me. The first is to take your bulletin home and re-read this morning’s scripture.  Because, like I said at the beginning of my sermon, there is a lot going on and I can only barely scrape the surface.  But, like the centurion, we have to face the cross and bear witness to the whole story.  So I would encourage you at some point this week to re-read the scripture and see what else jumps out at you, see what else might be speaking to you where you are on your journey right now.

And then the second thing I want you to do is more of a long-term thing; I want you to keep spending time with Jesus when the Year of Mark is over.  I am not sure what is next (other than a sermon series on hospitality that will take us through the end of the summer).  But I know we will find ourselves back in the Old Testament and also further along in the New Testament wondering what the heck Paul meant in some of his letters. We likely will not, for awhile anyway, spend this much time in one Gospel.

But no matter where we are, I hope you regularly spend time reading the Gospels and learning about Jesus.  I hope you will see Jesus for who he is, not just in the world but in your own life.  And I hope you will be changed.  I hope you, like the centurion, will testify to this Good News with awe and confidence and hope, no matter what the journey ahead might look like.

Friends, may we leave this place today and, like the centurion, see Jesus for who he was and boldly proclaim this truth to a world that so desperately needs to feel the redeeming love of God.

And may the world be changed.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Holding The Tension With Grace

Guys.

We started the summer with a bang on Sunday.

A few highlights.

– Our Music Director totally spaced that we moved to 9AM and so worship started “fashionably late”.

– My sweet little angel baby was in worship because our nursery care provider isn’t contracted for the summer and he MADE HIS PRESENCE KNOWN.  When I stood up to make announcements he yelled, “MAMA GET DOWN!” and then cried when Bruce said, “shhhh”.  At one point he ran up to the pulpit, found a leftover confetti canon from Easter and set it off.  Bruce took him out and then his friend, Bridget, who was sitting behind him with his mom started crying, “I want Harrison!”  #PKlifebelike

– I found a typo in the baptismal liturgy, which was totally my fault and ugggggh.  I hate that.

– A cat ran into the sanctuary at the end of my sermon and made it halfway down the aisle before one of the Deacons caught up to her.

Sooooo, yeah.  I need to regroup this week.

I was preaching on the condemnation of Jesus, which I imagine rendered its own level of chaos when it was happening.  So I guess the lesson in all of this is whether we are yelling, “Crucify him!” or, “There’s a cat in the sanctuary!” God is present in the midst of the mayhem.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
June 16, 2019

Mark 15:1-15

Holding The Tension With Grace

It has been through the peculiar, but also grace-filled, work of the Holy Spirit over the past 11 months (since starting the Year of Mark) that, without fail, every time I have to preach on a particularly challenging or objectionable text, there is always a baptism that Sunday.

So – to Adam’s family and friends, who have joined us for the blessed occasion, I am going to say the same thing I said to Hunter Fernandes’ family when he was baptized and I happened to be preaching on the beheading of John the Baptist and also Charlotte Chaput’s family when she was baptized and I happened to be preaching on the drowning of the demonic pigs:  My sincerest apologies that we happen to be condemning Jesus to death on Adam’s special day.

You see, last July, we embarked on a year-long sermon series throughout the entire Gospel of Mark, start to finish.  It has been a really incredible and transformative year (at least for me, I cannot speak for everyone else).  We have not only been able to refamiliarize ourselves with the stories of Jesus and understand their context a little bit better, but we have also been able to look more intimately at how the Gospel is still very much relevant in our lives and in our world today.

The unfortunate part of the whole thing, however, is the whole timing of everything in the sense that I do not actually get to choose what I am preaching onwhen.  Hence the cries to, “Crucify him!” on morning when I just got finished saying, “Look to the cross, the symbol of our faith.  Jesus is not there; he is risen and lived among us.”

Isn’t that ironic?

Here’s the thing:  As people living on this side of the resurrection, we have to balance the tension of reading the hard part of the Jesus story with knowing how it ends while also wrestling with why it had to play out the way that it did.

And that is kind of what I want to talk about today.

But first, let’s recap the story.  Last week was Pentecost, so we jumped out of the Year of Mark for a week so we could read the Pentecost story in Acts of the Apostles. Before that, however, Jesus was in Jerusalem with his disciples.  The chief priests and the scribes were plotting to kill Jesus and Judas, one of the 12 disciples, went to them and agreed to betray Jesus.  Jesus then invited the disciples to share the Passover meal with him; it was there that he instituted the Lord’s Supper and told the disciples that one of them would betray him.  Immediately after the Passover meal, he told the disciples that they would desert him and, when Peter denied that he would do this Jesus said, “Well actually before the rooster crows twice, you are going to deny me three times.”

And then it all played out the way that Jesus said that it would.  Judas betrayed him and the disciples deserted him.  Jesus went before the Council of the high priest, the chief priests, the elders and scribes.  They asked him if he was the Messiah and he said, “I am.”  They condemned him as deserving of death and then Peter denied him three times.

Now Jesus is appearing before Pilate.

It’s funny, because there is an historical accuracy to this story, but also a historical inaccuracy (which I will get to in a minute).  Our passage begins with the verse, “As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council.”  Now the first part of that sentence, “As soon as it was morning” is the historically accurate part, because early morning is when there was time set aside to hear legal cases.  So it is kind of fascinating to think that, while we often look at this story from sort of a theological place of Jesus the Christ being crucified and resurrected, there is also this competing historical narrative where Jesus the man is being put on political trial, as others routinely were during that time.

And this kind of speaks to my point where I talked about the tension of reading the hard part of the story while knowing how it ends but also wrestling with why it had to play out the way that it did. Because I think when we read this story during Holy Week, it makes us uncomfortable; but we also know that in three days, it will be Easter morning so we remind ourselves of that.

But reading it in this context, where we are looking at the narrative chronologically, we kind of have to deal with the fact that in order to get to the resurrection, we had to go through some stuff first; some really hard, really human stuff.

So Jesus is on trial.  And, like when he appeared before the Council, he is asked by Pilate, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  But, unlike his response to the Council, Jesus does not answer the question directly.  First he says, “You say so,” (as if to say, “That’s your story not mine,”) and then when Pilate asks him again, Jesus does not say anything at all.  And then Jesus is condemned.

Now the heading in this section in the NRSV says, “Pilate Hands Jesus over to Be Crucified,” but I actually think that the real key figure in all of this is actually Barabbas.

Let’s talk about Barabbas, because here is there the historical inaccuracy comes into play.  According to this passage, “at the festival” (presumably the Festival of the Passover), Pilate would release a prisoner at the request of the people. In the case of this narrative, Pilate asks the crowd if they would like for him to release Jesus, but the chief priests “stir up the crowd” and convince people to request that Pilate release Barabbas, a man who was supposedly in prison for committing murder during the insurrection, instead.

But scholars are not totally convinced that Barabbas is who Mark says he is.

Here’s what I mean:  First of all, there is really no historical record of this practice of Pilate releasing a prisoner of the people’s choosing actually taking place. And furthermore, the insurrection that Barabbas supposedly had committed murder during is also kind of ambiguous because, again, there is no specific historical record of an armed uprising happening in this time frame (although some scholars do argue that even if nothing was specifically recorded, it was still a time of civil unrest, so the story is not completely out of reach, but still – it does not quite add up).

And finally, the name, Barabbas, is the Aramaic term for,“son of the father,” which leads some scholars to suggest that this was not actually the prisoners given name, but it was Mark’s way of casting a harsh dichotomy between these two men.  On the one hand, you have Barabbas, who’s name means “son of the father,” who was guilty of a crime, yet set free.  On the other hand, you have Jesus, the actual, “son of the father,” who was innocent of the charges brought against him, yet crucified.

I think this was the gospel writer’s way of reinforcing this idea that we are always going to be holding this dichotomy in tension – between good and evil, hope and despair, light and darkness, love and hate.  It is because of this tension that Jesus needed to come in the first place.

As hard as it is for us to hear our beautiful baptismal hymn one moment in worship and then hear cries to crucify Jesus the next, I almost think we needed to experience that to sort of reinforce this dichotomy – this dichotomy between good and evil, hope and despair, light and darkness, love and hate – and be reminded not only of what we are up against in this world, but also of just how powerful God is in defeating it.

Because as people living on this side of the resurrection, we have to believe – believe in good, believe in hope, believe in light, believe in love.

Hear these words from our baptismal liturgy:

Because of Jesus’ risks of faith, his enemies saw to it that he was put to death. But by the grace of God, death did not—and does not—have the last word.  And while evil does exist in the world, in baptism, we are saying, “I want to turn away from evil, accept God’s gift of forgiveness, and do all in my power to extend God’s goodness into the world.”

Our baptismal liturgy does not falsely promise a perfect world; but it does promise a world filled with God’s grace.

And so as you leave this space and enter back out into the world – a world that is scary, a world that is frustrating, a world that is sorrowful and a world that will sometimes disappoint you – I encourage you to hold that in tension with God’s grace.

The grace for good to overcome evil, hope to drive out despair, light to shine brightly in the darkness and love to triumph over hate.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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