A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

Hi Everyone!

Sorry for the delay in posting this week.  The church hosted a baby shower for Bruce and me after worship on Sunday and we spent a lot of the day organizing everything!  We were truly overwhelmed and humbled by everyone’s generosity.

There were heavy shepherding themes this week – both the 23rd psalm and the parable of Jesus as the Good Shepherd were included in the lectionary.  I preached on them both and talked about what it means to ground our lives in the teachings of the Gospel and truly allow that to shepherd us every day.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
May 7, 2017

Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

In 2007, my mom was invited to introduce Lynn Redgrave when she gave her keynote address at a plenary session at General Synod, which is the biennial meeting of the United Church of Christ. Lynn had attended our church in Kent, CT for years; she began attending when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In a book she later co-authored with her daughter, she talked about the impact the church and her faith had on her during the dark days of her treatments. She reflected on this during her speech to the synod that July day; and in closing she said she was going to share one of her favorite scriptures. She read the 23rd psalm.

Now, I have to be honest: Part of me always thought Psalm 23 was something of a cliché. Nothing against it or anything, but it just seemed to get used over and over and over again and, with 149 other psalms in the book, part of me always wondered why people kept going back to that one.

But then I heard Lynn read it.

And I was captivated.

Granted, some of my captivation might have been her British accent, but when I heard her read those words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” (Psalm 23:4) I started to cry.

Because I knew she had walked through that valley.

And, even more than that, I knew there were thousands of people in the Hartford Civic Center that day listening to her speak that had also walked through that valley. Some people might have even been walking through it then.

And they needed to hear those words: “For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)

Because, friends, when we are walking through those dark valleys, we need to know that God is with us. We need to know that we are protected. We need to know that we are not walking alone.

And that is exactly what this psalm promises us. It assures us that God’s presence in our lives is steadfast, never-ending and life-giving.

This morning’s Gospel reading comes from the Gospel according to John; this is where Jesus is identified as the Good Shepherd (we have all seen those artistic portrayals of Jesus holding his staff surrounded by sheep). But there is more to this parable than simply the image of Jesus and his flock. There is a call; a call to follow Jesus, to follow the shepherd who enters the sheepfold at the gate being held open by the gatekeeper.

Jesus says in this parable, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:7-9)

This morning we have two different, but equally compelling shepherding metaphors. And I think it is important to remember that when Jesus draws from this shepherding metaphor, he was speaking, in the flesh, to people who were very much alive and living in this human and imperfect world. The people Jesus was speaking to that day needed to know that God was not only with them in the valley of the shadow of death, but in their lives, as well.

And here, Jesus makes that promise. Jesus says that he is the shepherd; that people could follow him, in the flesh, and be safe and find pasture. Jesus says that we make a choice; we choose to follow Jesus or we choose to follow the thieves and the bandits and if we choose to follow Jesus, we will be kept safe and secure both in life and in death.

I believe those words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” ring true both when we are facing our own mortality and also when we are facing our own humanity.

It is not easy to live in this world sometimes; we all face difficult choices, heartbreaking realities and challenging situations. We walk through those dark valleys. But when we understand Jesus as the Good Shepherd, leading us into safe pasture, we know that it is possible to do the hard work that is required of us to travel this sometimes hard journey and live out our faith. We have the tools we need to help us; we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus may not be living in our flesh today, but we have the Good News that he proclaimed while he was living on this earth. If we ground our lives in his teachings, then the Good Shepherd is always with us.

Last week, when we were on the Road to Emmaus, I talked about the importance of the incarnational piece of our faith; that Jesus came into this world and lived as one of us, understanding our sufferings and our temptations. This morning, I remind you of this same incarnational power; God is not a distant God that is somehow shepherding from afar, but a God that is here with us, that walked along the journey we walk today and that has given us the beautiful gift of this faith to ground our lives in.

When I think of the image of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, I do not think it means we make the choice to follow him and then we’re done. Yes, the scripture says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved,” but it also continues on to say that when we enter the gate by Jesus, we will go out and find pasture, that we will continue follow Jesus and this Good News he taught throughout his lifetime.

Following Jesus is about more than simply proclaiming a belief in him; it is about putting those words into action. It is about being part of a church community, strengthening our faith and living out the Gospel in our day-to-day lives. We come to church not only to receive the comfort of God’s grace, but also the wisdom of God’s grace, as well.

And then we live out this wisdom, as best we can. We nurture our faith through growing our knowledge of the bible, actively participating in community life, giving back through missions and worshipping God, week after week. This is what sets the foundation for the lives we are living. This is how we are able to walk through those dark valleys – valleys that we will all walk through at some point or another – and know, without a doubt, that God is with us.

So friends, I invite you to take comfort in the words of this familiar psalm this morning. But remember there is still work to be done.

When we enter the sheepfold and follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we are doing so not only so that we might have eternal life, but also so that our lives here on earth might be made whole. Remember Jesus’ promise that when we follow him, when we weave the Gospel into the pieces of our lives, that we will not only have life, but that we will also have it abundantly.

And while it may not always be easy, if we do the hard work, surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Celebrate & Wait

Happy Palm Sunday!

It is week six of our Lenten sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul and the theme for this morning is Celebrate & Wait.  I had a great time preaching through this series and I look forward to taking a look at some of the other series in the future.

I have always struggled with the paradox of preaching Palm Sunday when I know Maundy Thursday & Good Friday are coming.  In light of everything that happened in Syria last week, I think I lived out that paradox as I was preparing my sermon this week.  It’s always so hard to find a balance.

We really had a really wonderful worship this morning at RCC this morning, which was exactly what I needed after a challenging sermon writing week and just the icing on the cake of a great weekend that started with our Easter Egg Hunt yesterday.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 9, 2017

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11

Celebrate & Wait

We have come to the end of our six-week sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul.

When my brother-in-law finished boot camp in 2009, the Weavers all eagerly descended upon Cape May for the graduation festivities. I have to admit, the pomp and circumstance of it all was kind of exciting. There was a buzz in the air when we arrived and the anticipation only grew as we sat through the family orientation and then were shuffled into the big gymnasium for the ceremony.

When the music started and the non-rates all marched in, cheers erupted as family members frantically scanned the group to find their people (which, as you might know, is more difficult than one might think since they all kind of look the same at that point). Eventually I started to hear shouts of, “There he is!” and, “Do you see her over there?” Tears filled the eyes of proud mothers, fathers, spouses and siblings as they saw their loved ones for the first time in weeks.

The ceremony, itself, was impressive. There was music, marching and speeches that inspired not only the graduates, but also those who had come to support them.

I regret to inform you all that I have no such pomp and circumstance for us this morning as we gather and complete our own spiritual boot camp. Though it is Palm Sunday, which does have a celebratory nature to it. It is on this Sunday ever year when we enthusiastically sing hymns that make us feel as though we are marching, wave our palms and shout, “Hosanna!”

(It is also on this Sunday afternoon every year when I usually say to Bruce, “Next year I am getting a donkey!”)

Though, I have to be honest, as much as I love the, dare I say, pomp and circumstance of Palm Sunday, I have always struggled with the paradox of a story that I know does not end with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. I know that the shouts of, “Hosanna!” we hear today will be a distant memory on Thursday night as we remember those cries, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” It is hard for me to full enter this celebration when I feel as though part of me is just waiting for what is going to happen in Calvary.

As I began to think about my sermon for this week, part of me wished this Boot Camp for the Soul sermon series was set up to go through Easter Sunday. I just kept thinking, “But we are not done yet!” After all, we have one more hurdle to get through, do we not? We have to get past the Passion Narrative this week; we have to see Jesus’ journey to the cross through before we are truly ready to see how this boot camp has transformed us.

As it turns out, the creators of this sermon series actually did this intentionally.

In the flurry of celebration, Jesus’ followers may forget that the journey is not really over, that darker days remain before Jesus’ final victory. Their biggest challenge still lies ahead. Boot camp, after all, is not an end unto itself. It is preparation for the challenges still to come.[1]

I actually really appreciate the way this prompt for the end of our spiritual boot camp honors the complexity of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Because, quite frankly, it mirrors the complexity of what is going on in our lives and in the world right now.

It was hard not to be moved by the images and videos that came out of Syria this week. I do not know about the rest of you, but I had a really difficult time watching news footage following the chemical attacks. I actually closed out of my web browser at one point; I turned away and thought to myself, “I just can’t watch this right now.”

And the truth is, I don’t have to. I can turn it off; no one is making me watch the news or be informed about what is doing on in the world. If I wanted to, I could live my life in a sheltered bubble.

And boy, don’t I want to sometimes.

But this week I eventually asked myself, what kind of Christian would I be if I spent the last few days of Lent remembering and reflecting on Jesus’ violent and brutal death on the cross, but then ignored the realities of the violent and brutal things that are happening in our world right now? These are the hard parts of our faith that we have to face; that I believe we are being called to face.

Which brings me back to Palm Sunday; because, as much as I would like to, I do not think we can fully compartmentalize what is happening today with what is going to happen later this week. But I do think that in the midst of the paradox, we still have to celebrate this moment.

When my brother-in-law graduated from boot camp, the hard work was not over. In fact, eight year later, I think he would tell you the hard work was really only beginning. But that did not mean we should not have celebrated that moment.

And that is what we are doing here this morning.

The truth is, Palm Sunday is not just about celebrating part of Jesus’ story, it is about celebrating the hope that he carried with him in that moment. Many scholars have compared his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to imperial Roman processions, which really sheds light on his popularity at the time.[2] At that point, people had followed Jesus for three years. They had witnessed his miracles, experienced the healing of his touch and listened to the Good News he so boldly proclaimed.[3] I can only imagine the excitement, buzz and anticipation that must have been in the air that day (probably a little bit more than we experienced at Boot Camp graduation in Cape May!). This was a moment of hope for the people who followed Jesus.

In the world we live in today, it is just as important to celebrate these moments of hope. Far too often, we are struck by images of pain, suffering and violence and they can be so overwhelming at times. But as Christians, we are people of the resurrection; we believe in the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we believe in the Good News that Jesus preached throughout his lifetime and that has sustained our faith for 2,000 years.

Today we celebrate the moments of hope in our lives, both big and small. We celebrate the sun that is shining after a long week of rain, the joy and laughter of our children at yesterday’s Easter Egg Hunt, the beautiful music that fills our sanctuary today and the gift that is the fellowship of this community. We celebrate a faith that reminds us, over and over again, that love will win, that light will shine and that grace will prevail; a faith that was stronger than Jesus’ death on the cross and that will continue to be stronger than whatever we will face in our lives today.

But as we celebrate, we do not close ourselves off to the hard truths of this world; we wait for what we know is coming. We celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem knowing what is to come later this week. We celebrate the moments of hope in our lives knowing that people are experiencing real pain, suffering and sadness, both in our community and around the world. We celebrate the radical and redeeming message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ knowing there is still so much work that needs to be done.

And as people faith, we remember that we are being called to do this work.

Boot camp is over; but the real work is only beginning.

The good news is that the hard work we have all done during this six-week spiritual boot camp – thinking about the need for change, resetting, hydrating, redefining and facing those dead ends – has prepared us for the journey that lies ahead. We are ready for the challenges of Holy Week. We are ready for the hardships we will face in our lives. We are ready to watch the news and engage in some of the hard things that are happening today. We are ready to share our moments of hope and the good news of the resurrection with a world that so desperately needs hear it.

(And this is a total shameless plug, but if you are able, I would strongly encourage you to come and worship with us on Thursday evening at 7PM. It is a very powerful service; we will hear the narrative of the foot washing, share in the sacrament of Holy Communion and then the Passion Narrative will be read. A labyrinth will be open in Fellowship Hall for an hour before and after the service, as well as from 8AM to 8PM on Good Friday.)

This morning, we hear the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as told in the Gospel of Matthew. As I was reading it this week, I was particularly struck by Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when he said, “If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.”[4]

So what does God need from us today? What does God need from us as individuals and us as a community of faith?

Today, may we – like the psalmist sings – give thanks to God for God is good![5] May we rejoice,[6] may we see what is marvelous[7] and may we shout with great joy, proclamation and thanksgiving that blessed are those who come in the name of the God.[8]

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley, pg. 29
[2] A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley, pg. 28
[3] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, pg. 152 & 154 (Pastoral Perspective)
[4] Matthew 21:3, NRSV
[5] Psalm 118:1, 29, NRSV
[6] Psalm 118:24, NRSV
[7] Psalm 118:23, NRSV
[8] Psalm 118:26, NRSV

Dead Ends

Hello!  I love having my little podcast schedule kind of of force me to get these sermons posted by Sunday night.  I was always so bad about it before.

We are on week 5 of the sermon series, Bootcamp for the Soul and this week the theme is Dead Ends.  I’m really enjoying the prompts for these sermons and I hope you all are enjoying them as well!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 2, 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14
John 11:1-45

Dead Ends (Sermon Series: Boot Camp For The Soul)

Over the past few months, several people have recommended to me the television show, Call the Midwife, which a BBC drama that premiered in 2012 and follows a community of midwives and nurses, half of whom are nuns, in East End London in the 1950’s. And while I am not entirely convinced it is a good idea for a pregnant woman to watch a show where the storyline frequently highlights varying degrees of pregnancy and delivery complications, curiosity got the better of me this week (and I do love British accents), so I watched the first few episodes.

There was an episode where a woman had fallen and suffered a concussion that caused her to go into pre-term labor. When she delivered, the baby was stillborn. The midwife tended to the woman while her husband and one of their other children wept at her bedside. The scene progressed quietly when all of a sudden a cry was heard. Against all odds, the baby was alive.

While I understand that this is a television show and anything can happen when producers and screenwriters are in charge of the storyline, as I watched this episode, I could not help but think about the fact that, in life, we never really know where grace might lie. This scene highlights, I think, the deep and profound theological truth that sometimes when all else seems lost, hope can still be found.

This truth is what strengthens the foundation of who we are as Christians; of who we are as people of the resurrection.

Our two scripture readings for this morning are stories of resurrection that, for all intents and purposes, are kind of unbelievable. We started in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel. To be honest, we do not often end up in this book, as it is one that has perplexed theologians (and, quite frankly, me) for years. Ezekiel comes from a priestly lineage, but then becomes a prophet. Throughout the entire book he sees really strange things and then prophesies some dangerous messages.

Take the passage we just heard, for example. It was described in one commentary I read as, “one of the most imaginatively dramatic readings in all scripture.”[1] The prophet Ezekiel has a vision where he is brought into a valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones; he does this and hears a noise. The bones start rattling and come together; flesh grows on them and God breathes breath into them.

You can see why this one perplexes me.

But then we moved into the Gospel of John, which records the resurrection of a man named Lazarus. While I have spent much more time preaching out of this book of the bible, I have made it no secret that this story has always perplexed me, as well.

Lazarus has been dead for four days when Jesus arrive his village of Bethany. Martha tells Jesus he is too late, that the corpse is already starting to smell. But Jesus encourages her to believe, calls to Lazarus to come out and Lazarus walks out of the tomb.

These are not stories of miraculous healing, of being cured of some awful disease or even of a body dying for a few moments and then resuming its breath and heartbeat. These are stories of resurrection; stories where death seems to have the final word and God proves otherwise, stories where bones are dry and corpses have decayed and yet life is found. Here scripture teaches us of the bold and remarkable truth that when it comes to God, death does not have the final word.

Before Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”[2] These stories – albeit strange – call us to believe. They call us to look beyond our human and earthly understandings of life and death and see the glory of God. They call us to expand our expectations of the capacity we have within ourselves for God’s work to be done.

And I think these stories call us not only to believe in their resurrection, but also to believe in our own personal resurrection, as well.

We are on week five of our Lenten sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul and this morning our theme is, Dead Ends. While our scriptures address a much more literal understanding of a dead end, I think it is safe to say we have all kind of “been there” at some point in our lives, whether it be personally, professionally, relationally, medically, financially or in another way. We have all suffered heartbreaking losses, unspeakable tragedies and frustrating obstacles. We have all gotten to a point in our journeys where we feel as though we are not simply at a crossroads, but facing a dead end with nowhere left to go. These are the moments when all hope seems lost. The circumstances might be different for each of us, but the questions are the same: Where do we go from here? How do we go on?

These are not easy questions for us to think about; but the Lenten journey is not necessarily supposed to be an easy one, it is supposed to be a transformative one. Lent is about allowing ourselves to be the most broken and vulnerable version of ourselves – just as Jesus was on the cross – so that God can make us whole again. We face our dead ends without fear knowing that God is always capable of a new beginning.

We are people of the resurrection. The dead ends we face do not make us inadequate or unworthy of God’s grace; in fact, I think it is our brokenness that allows us to be more open to God’s grace.

These two scriptures – Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones and the resurrection of Lazarus – teach us that when all seems lost, God’s hope is still alive. Always! Death does not and will not have the final word.

I know this is hard to believe sometimes; there are in our earthly lives when it seems as though death, darkness, pain, anxiety, frustration, grief and suffering do have the final word.

In fact, many of us may be experiencing some of things right now.

But scripture teaches us that the dead ends we face here and now are not the end. From dry bones, came a body that new life was breathed into. From a decaying corpse came the resurrection of a man people were already mourning. And from the darkness of the challenges we face, light will shine.

What dead end are you facing at the moment? Where do you feel stuck? Are you grieving a loss? Trying to overcome a hurdle? Seeking a change to the course you are on?

This Lent – and this morning, especially – we are reminded that when God is involved, death never has the final word. Grief, sadness, frustration, struggles, anxiety, conflict and pain do not have the final word. God is stronger than all of them.

And God gives us that strength, as well.

We will find those moments of grace. We will find a renewed strength. We will experience resurrection. We will not be defined by the struggles of our earthly circumstances, but by the love of our resurrecting and redeeming God.

The dead ends we face will not be the end of our story. Our journey will continue.

So may resurrection be something that you not only find in scripture (or in British dramas). May you find, experience and be made whole by resurrection in your own lives, as well.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, page. 123
[2] John 11:40, NRSV