Far From Ordinary

Do you ever have one of those moments where you outline one sermon and end up writing a completely different one?  I had one of those moments last week.  The sermon I ended up preaching has nothing to do with what I outline – and, truth be told, I’m not really sure how I ended up where I did.  But I was happy with the way God told the story on Sunday.  It was a message a lot of us – including me! – needed to hear.

Have a great week, everyone!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
May 13, 2018

Psalm 47
Luke 24:44-53

Far From Ordinary

Someone asked me this week when Easter was officially over. They said they like when the bulletin says, “Ordinary Time,” at the top, because that is when we hear about the day-to-day – the ordinary, for lack of a better term – parts of our faith.

I, on the other hand, like when the bulletin says, “Easter,” at the top, because that means I can still justify eating candy every day.

To each their own.

But for those of you who are bored with my white stole collection and wondering when we are finally going to be done with the glitter and confetti-filled Easter season and move on to Ordinary Time, the answer is, well, never, because the glitter from Easter is never coming out of the carpet.

In all seriousness, the Easter season will officially be over next weekend, when we all wear red and celebrate Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of the Christian Church.

(So don’t forget to wear red next week!)

The Easter season is 50 days long. It is more than simply an extended celebration of the resurrection; in the early church the Easter season was a time for new converts to continue their faith formation. Today we use this season not only to proclaim resurrection, but to live it out as well.

This past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, which occurs on the 40th day of the Easter season. This is where, in the resurrection narrative, after spending 40 days hanging out with the apostles on earth, breaking bread with them and teaching them a few final lessons, Jesus is carried up into heaven to sit at the right hand of God.

The Ascension is kind of the icing on the resurrection cake; Jesus not only defeated death on Easter morning, but then 40 days later, the apostles watched as his physical body ascended into heaven where he would sit at the right hand of God.

Now, for those of you Ordinary Time fans out there, I regret to inform you that the Ascension was far from ordinary. There is a dramatization to the whole thing that really is kind of unbelievable. Jesus was standing in front of his apostles, teaching them about the scriptures and then he blessed them and while he was doing this, he was, quite literally, picked up and carried into heaven. My favorite Ascension comparison comes from a tweet Nadia Bolz-Weber posted in 2009 that said, “And then Jesus got all Mary Poppins and just sort of floated away.”

The Ascension has always perplexed me for this very reason. According to scripture, Jesus’ spirit did not ascend into heaven, but his whole body did.

So I have this weird thing with bodies. I believe our physical bodies are just the vessels that we are in for our time on earth; and while we spend a lot of time in them, I do not believe they do not define us or who God created us to be. Human bodies are imperfect and flawed and limited. Human bodies sin and make mistakes. Human bodies get sick and feel pain, sadness and anxiety. Human bodies fail us. And when we go to heaven, I believe, that we are released from the constraints of our human bodies as we are welcomed into our heavenly home.

But Jesus, in human flesh, ascended into heaven. Christ did not shed his humanity as he left the earth to be in the presence of God; he maintained it. According to this narrative, Christ’s humanity now, also, sits in the presence of God.

That’s wild, isn’t it?

But here’s the thing: Six months ago, as we were anxiously preparing for Christmas, we sang, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us.” As Christians, we believe that – in some way – God came to us in the humanity of Jesus and I have to wonder if, at the Ascension, Jesus brought a piece of our humanity back to God in heaven with him.

Okay, but does that really make sense? Maybe? Let’s be honest – not really. I think the reason this person I was talking to likes Ordinary Time so much is because it actually does make sense. During Ordinary Time, we talk about things like feeding the hungry, reaching out to the marginalized and loving the people around us. We focus on the practical side of Christianity, on how we should live our lives and be a church. We do not confuse ourselves wondering if Jesus is in heaven in body or spirit.

Because, truthfully, the whole thing is kind of hard to wrap your head around.

And, in the end, does it really matter?

So I would argue that, yes, it does, in fact, matter. The Ascension really is an important piece of the resurrection puzzle. The Ascension means that God’s promise of grace has truly been fulfilled; that not only did death not have the final word, but that our humanity can and will be forever found in the presence of God. The Ascension means that God not only understands our humanity because God experienced it in the human body of Jesus Christ, but that our humanity is now with God. The Ascension means that God holds our humanity.

And this means that God holds the whole of who we are. God holds our imperfections, our flaws and our limitations and yet still calls us children of God. God holds our sins and our mistakes and yet forgives us and loves us. God holds our sickness, our pain, our sadness and our anxiety and reminds us that, even in our brokenness, we can still be made whole.

The Ascension is confusing and perplexing and somewhat mystifying, but it reminds us that, as human beings living on this imperfect earth, we are never alone. God is not some far-away God who does not see or know or understand us. God is with us. God understands us. God loves us to our very core. God holds us. God carries us.

Always.

Always.

This morning’s psalm, Psalm 47, is an “enthronement psalm,” which means it is a hymn of praise affirming and celebrating God’s rule over the nations. The first verse says, “Clap your hands, all you peoples!” I had to laugh when I first read this, because it made me think of Harrison’s favorite book, The Barnyard Dance, by Sandra Boynton. The book starts, “Stomp your feet, clap your hands, everybody ready for a barnyard dance!” I wondered if I could get you all as excited to hear about the Ascension as Harrison gets when we read this book.

Somehow I am not quite sure your enthusiasm will quite match his.

But here’s the thing: This psalm reminds us that God is powerful, that God chose us and that God reigns over all the earth.

And yeah, we should get pretty excited about that! We should get excited about the promises God makes to us. We should get excited about the covenants God made thousands of years ago that still hold true for us, today. We should get excited about the entire Jesus narrative; that he came into this world in human flesh, that he lived out the Good News and taught his disciples how to do the same, that he died, but then was resurrected to new life and that he ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. We should get excited that God’s love is interwoven into the depths of our own humanity. We should get excited knowing that, no matter what – in life and in death, in joys and in sorrows, God is with us.

Friends, today, as we hear the story of the Ascension of Jesus, I want you all to remember that God is good, that God seeks to be in relationship with us and that God is inextricably connected to our humanity. The psalmist calls us to, “shout to God with loud songs of joy,” and we do this, in confident hope that God’s grace will carry us, even in our most human of moments.

So clap your hands and shout to God with loud songs of joy! For Christ is risen, Christ has ascended into heaven and God dwells within us. Now, forever and always.

It is far from ordinary; but it is the Good News that brings us new life.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Preaching in Pumps Podcast Artwork

The Promise Is Fulfilled

Psalm 23 is never an easy one to preach on – everyone knows it so well!  Every time it comes up in the lectionary I try to come up with something new and revolutionary to say about it, but every time I think I realize I just need to let it speak for itself.  So that’s what I did!  I reflect on it briefly, but at the end just center us all back and read the Psalm to close my sermon.

Hope you all are having a great week! xo

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 22, 2018

Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

The Promise Is Fulfilled

Full disclosure: I have had a very long week.

Combine that with the fact that the 23rd Psalm is one of those scriptures that just kind of speaks for itself and, I have to admit, I was having a really hard time focusing on my sermon.

Which brought me to Thursday evening; I was scrolling through a preaching group I am in on Facebook and there was a conversation happening about whether or not it would be okay to recycle an old sermon this week. One pastor commented on the post, “It’s Earth Day, so surely it’s wasteful NOT to recycle!”

Which I thought was fair.

But I forged ahead, anyway, and tried to come up with a new revelation on the subject.

My Tuesday morning bible study is currently reading the book of Jeremiah, who is one of the major prophets of the Old Testament. Jeremiah is often referred to as, “the weeping prophet,” because of the tears he shed over the sins and the fate of his people and the dark prophesies he spoke. Jeremiah is a depressing, violent and somewhat desolate book. It is also fairly repetitive, so it is repetitively depressing, violent and somewhat desolate.

But, bible study is fun! You should consider joining us.

Anyway, the other day we had just read a particularly dark passage when someone flipped longingly towards the end of the bible, sighed and said, “I miss the New Testament.”

This is probably something we have all thought at some point while reading the Old Testament, right? There is quite often a very clear (albeit oversimplified) delineation between the violence of the Old Testament and the love of the New Testament; the death of the Old Testament and the resurrection of the New Testament; the despair of the Old Testament and the hope of the New Testament.

And yet, this morning’s scripture readings – one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament – are woven so beautifully into the fabric of one another. Psalm 23, the Psalm of David, says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” does not at all stand in contrast to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, where he says, “I am the good shepherd.” In fact, when you read these two passages in conjunction with one another, you cannot help but stand in awe at the ways in which God so carefully and gracefully has put some of the pieces of our faith together.

It is fitting that these passages, particularly the 23rd Psalm, popped up in the lectionary on the Sunday when we were already scheduled to bless a new batch of prayer shawls. These shawls act as a tangible reminder of God’s presence in our lives. Very often we give someone a prayer shawl when they are walking through that valley of the shadow of death and that shawl shows them, in a palpable and comforting way, that the promise, “for thou art with me,” is being fulfilled, despite the challenges they are facing.

I saw a friend of mine two weeks ago who I sent a prayer shawl to after the Newtown shooting. He and his family lived across the street from Sandy Hook Elementary School at the time. He looked at me and said, “We still have that prayer shawl you sent us,” and then his eyes filled up with tears.

The work we do here matters. We can touch someone when they are walking through that dark valley; we can remind them that they are not alone, that God is with them; we can bring them comfort. Through these shawls, we enact these words of scripture and bring them to life

I was wrestling with this psalm this week, trying to uncover some new revelation about something that people already know really well. And I kept coming up short, so I reached out to a friend of mine, who is a funeral director, and, admittedly, hears this psalm a lot, and asked him why he thinks people use Psalm 23 so often at funerals and memorial services. And this is what he said:

Because it tells us never to be afraid of death. It tells us that God is with us ALWAYS. Isn’t it nice to know, even with all of our responsibilities, stress, and busy lives, that we are still only sheep? That there is a shepherd far greater and bigger than anything we, as mortals, can accomplish?

I thought those were powerful words coming from someone who quite literally walks through that valley of the shadow of death with people every single day; someone who understands the powerful, yet sometimes heartbreaking truth of these words. Because there is so much we do not understand about this world that we are living in and our existence beyond it. But at the heart of our faith lies a promise; a promise of love, a promise of light and a promise of a grace far more incredible than we can ever imagine.

I love the pairing of the 23rd Psalm with this passage from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Now, it could just be because I still have some of my Christmas decorations up and was staring at a sign hanging in my entryway that says, “For unto us a child is born” when I was writing my sermon yesterday, but as I was writing, I could not help but think about these two passages alongside that Advent promise that Jesus – Emmanuel – God with us – is coming.

Jesus self-identifying at the Good Shepherd reinforces this assurance that God is not some far-away deity that does not understand what we are going through. God is with us; God came into this world in human form; God understands what feel, because God felt those same things. God felt pain, anger, sadness, despair, frustration and rejection in the human body of Jesus Christ and when love conquered the grave on that first Easter morning, a promise was made; a promise that God will never abandon us, that God will shepherd us through our own humanity.

So I said earlier that I was searching, this week, for some new revelation about the 23rd Psalm that I would be able to share with you all this morning. I am sorry to say that I did not find it. This psalm speaks for itself; it is almost like a security blanket that we need to pull out every now and then. When I said this to my friend, who is the funeral director, he replied, “Sometimes all we need is that security blanket to make us feel safe.”

And he is absolutely right.

This morning, I am going to pull out that security blanket and wrap it tightly around us all.

Ironically, when I looked back on one of my past sermons on these same texts, I apparently drew the same conclusion and ended the exact same way.

So perhaps I am recycling an old idea.

Or perhaps this is always simply what we need to hear.

I invite you all to close your eyes and hear these words of the 23rd Psalm:

23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
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.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Preaching in Pumps Podcast Artwork

A Faith Like Abraham’s (All Of It!)

Hi Friends!

Ignore the fact that I kind of sound like a baritone in the audio this week.  I’m pretty sure one of us has been sick at some point throughout the entire month of February.  I’m SO ready for spring!

I decided to preach through the Epistle selections in the lectionary throughout the Lenten season this year.  Obviously, I preached the Gospel last week (Lent 1 = Jesus in the wilderness), but I am going to try to stay in the letters from here on out.  I preached out of Romans this week, which was paired with the Abraham narrative in Genesis, because Paul talks about having a faith like Abraham’s.  We sang and danced to Father Abraham during the children’s sermon and then I talked about looking at the entire Abraham narrative when we think about having faith like his.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 4:13-25

A Faith Like Abraham’s (All Of It!)

Bruce and I met when we were both on staff at a youth leadership program at Lancaster Seminary called Leadership Now. The mission of the program – the tagline that was on all of our brochures and shirts and other SWAG – was, “Cultivating a faith that celebrates questions.”

This program was built on the opposite foundation of blindly following religious doctrine. Students were encouraged to ask questions; about their faith, about their parents’ faith, about the church, about the bible, about worship and about the world we live in (everything, really). This program wanted to resist spoon-fed Christianity; rather, they wanted each student to foster their own beliefs.

This idea was new to me. I did not grow up in a heavily indoctrinated church, but I think I always kind of took thinks at face value. I do remember sitting in Sunday School one week and our teacher was explaining the meaning of the word, “Amen,” which essentially means, “So it be.” When you say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer, in a way, you are affirming whatever was just said in the prayer. My Sunday School teacher said she was going to read several statements and we were to respond affirmatively with the phrase, “So it be,” to each statement as our way of saying, “Amen,” and agreeing with what she said. I piped up, “Well, what if I don’t agree with what you said?” (Sorry – even the most well behaved preacher’s kids have their moments.) I distinctly remember her taking a deep breath, raising her eyebrows at me and exasperatedly saying, “Trust me, you’ll agree with these statements.”

And I did; she certainly was not saying anything controversial. The point of the exercise was not to stir up an intense theological debate; it was to teach us the meaning of the word, “Amen.”

But that moment always kind of stuck with me. Because I never really thought I was allowed to ask questions about what I was being taught in church or – gasp! – have doubts.

I was heavily influenced by Leadership Now; now, I take the same approach of “celebrating questions” when I teach confirmation and lead bible study. Even here in worship, I think it is okay (albeit frustrating for you at times) for me to look at a scripture and say, “I am just not sure I believe this” or, “I struggle with this story,” or, “I cannot reconcile what this means.”

Which is why, at first glance, our two scriptures for this morning – read in conjunction with one another – are a little bit troublesome for me.

Let’s start with the second passage we heard from the New Testament; Paul was writing to the church in Rome in response to growing tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. He was addressing the differences between adherence to the law (which Jewish Christians were accustomed to) and righteousness of faith (the path understood by many of the Gentile Christians, who just did not grow up following the law). Paul’s point was that it was not the law that mattered most in how they lived their lives and built their church, but their faith.

In other words, Gentile Christians – even without strict adherence to the law – had the same access to God through the grace of Jesus Christ that Jewish Christians did.

For the record, I completely agree with the point Paul was trying to make.

But there is another layer to the grace we receive through faith that I want to explore this morning. In this particular passage, Paul points to Abraham, which, of course, leads us back to this morning’s Old Testament reading from the book of Genesis.

I want to take a slight detour for a moment and talk about how I choose our readings every week. For the most part, I follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three-year cycle of weekly readings from the bible used by many Protestant and Catholic churches in the United States and Canada. Every week there is a passage from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the letters of the New Testament and the Gospels. The reading from the Gospel follows the rhythm of the church year and the other passages are often thematically related to it. Preachers can choose one or any combination of the four passages for their weekly worship.

I was recently asked about the lectionary and why I follow it and I thought my responses were worth repeating here, in case anyone was curious. Do I have to follow the lectionary? No. There are advantages and disadvantages to it. The advantage is that is brings me around the bible and encourages me to preach on books and passages I might otherwise overlook. It is nice that the passages are often thematically linked, which creates a more cohesive understanding of the bible. It is also nice that a lot of my colleagues are also following the lectionary, so we are all essentially preaching on the same thing and can brainstorm together. The disadvantage, though, is that sometimes, because it jumps around so much, we only get pieces of the story.

Which is kind of the problem this morning.

Okay, let’s get off of our detour and jump back into this morning’s text. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul points to Abraham when he talks about the righteousness of faith.

“The promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed … to those who share the faith of Abraham.”[1]
“Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed.”[2]
“[Abraham] did not weaken in faith.”[3]
“No distrust made [Abraham] waver.”[4]

Paul paints Abraham as the picture of obedience and then, in the passages from Genesis that have been paired with the lectionary readings, this picture is kind of set up for us.

In this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis, we hear part of the story of Abraham. Abraham was 99 years old when God appeared to him and told him he was going to make a covenant with Abraham that he was going to be the father of all nations; and this covenant was not just between God and Abraham, but also between God and all of Abraham’s offspring, generation upon generation. This, God explained, would be an, “everlasting covenant.”[5]

I was reading a commentary this week that pointed out that, okay, this is all well and good and everything, but Abraham still had doubts along the way and did not fully submit to trusting God. Perhaps not in these particular passages, but when you look at the entire Abraham narrative, he stumbles once or twice. On not one, but two occasions when they were traveling as aliens outside of their own land, Abraham did not trust that God would protect them on their journey; Abraham took matters into his own hands and told people that his wife, Sarah, who was beautiful and desirable, was his sister so they would take her as a wife and his life would be spared.[6] And when Sarah was not able to bear him children, Abraham did not trust that God would reverse her fertility struggles; Abraham took Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl, as a wife so that she could conceive his child.[7] And, in Genesis 17:17, which the lectionary conveniently cuts off one chapter before (this morning’s reading stops at chapter 16), Abraham literally fell on his face laughing after God told him that God was going make this covenant with him and he was going to have all these children.

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’[8]

This is not the picture of perfect obedience. This is the picture of a man who had doubts along the way; who sometimes took things into his own hands because he was unsure of where God was taking him. This is a man who sometimes had a hard time believing in the promises of God’s covenant.

I have to laugh because, in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he said that, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.”[9] No offense, Paul, but I beg to differ.

That being said, I do not think his distrust made Abraham an unfaithful man; I think it made him human.

I think we can do one of two things here. We can look at the picture of Abraham that we see solely from this morning’s lectionary and then read Roman’s reflections in his letter to the church in Rome and seek to have that kind of faith; the kind that does not waver, the kind that is strong and obedient, the kind that lives up to God’s covenant.

Or, we can remember the other parts of Abraham’s story and give ourselves permission to have that kind of faith. We can give ourselves permission have doubts along the way, to struggle to fully submit to God. We can be gentle with ourselves if we get impatient while we wait for God’s promises to come to fruition. We can laugh at God when those promises seem impossible and know that God is not going to take those promises away.

Because faith is believing in God’s promises, but it is also working through those moments when you do not.

Paul was trying to settle a dispute between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, saying that it is not strict adherence to the law that gives us access to God’s grace, but faith like Abraham. And I agree with him – but not necessarily for the reasons he gave. Paul kind of put on rose-colored glasses when it came to what Abraham’s faith looked like; but I love the whole story. Abraham’s story is a beautiful one, full of struggles, full of doubts and full of moments – just like the ones I experience in my own life – where he did not feel as though his faith was strong.

And absolutely, a faith like that will give us access to God’s grace.

Friends, I do think we should share the faith of Abraham – all of it. I think we should share his struggles. I think we should share the moments where he hesitantly takes things into his own hands. I think we should share the times when he believes that God is not listening. I think we should laugh when the promises seems out of reach or too good to be true.

But, then; then, we should remember that the everlasting covenant God made with Abraham is a covenant made with us as well. We should hold onto the hope of that bold truth that God is faithful; that the promises made to Abraham are still made to us today and that God is always with us.

Paul is right. The grace that comes from this kind of faith is not something we can get from the law.

So may our faith give you the strength to believe in the promises made to Abraham. May you allow yourself to have doubts, to be frustrated in God’s timing and even to laugh at the possibility of what those promises might look like. May you celebrate your questions and those child-like moments when you think, “But want if I don’t agree with that?”

This Lenten season, may you also hope against hope that God is with you on your journey; that Easter is coming, that redemption is always possible and that resurrection is real and true and powerful.

Thanks be to God!
Amen. 

[1] Romans 4:16, NRSV
[2] Romans 4:18, NRSV
[3] Romans 4:19, NRSV
[4] Romans 4:20, NRSV
[5] Genesis 17:7, NRSV
[6] Genesis 12:10-20, 2:1-18
[7] Genesis 16:1-16
[8] Genesis 17:17, NRSV
[9] Romans 4:20, NRSV

Preaching in Pumps Podcast Artwork