Stretch Out Your Hands

Hi friends!  It is Rally Day at RCC and even though we have not yet re-gathered in person, we are very much excited to kick off the program year!  Our worship began with some really special gathering music – our choir recorded an anthem in their homes and then Nathan compiled it together. There are also images from our first ever Drive Thru Communion, which we hosted last week, included at the end of the music – and a welcome from my family!

We ventured into the Old Testament this morning – one of my favorite stories from Exodus.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 13, 2020

Exodus 14:19-31

Stretch Out Your Hands

We are going to do something a little bit different today; we are going to hang out in the Old Testament.  We have spent a lot of time in the New Testament lately; in the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Romans.  These two books of the bible have been so good for us as we have been reminded about God’s goodness, the promises of hope and grace and also the realness of love.  They have also commissioned and challenged us as a church, about what we can do during this time of uncertainty.

However this week, I felt drawn to the Old Testament, particularly to this passage of scripture, from the 14thchapter of Exodus.

I have to be honest; one of the reasons I love this story so much is because I associate it with a really good memory.  When I was a first-year seminary student, an animated movie version of the Ten Commandments came out and it was in theaters when my seminary friends and I were studying Exodus – which is where the story of the Ten Commandments is – in our Old Testament class.

I mean, what were the odds?

So – like the really cool biblical scholars that we were, a group of us decided to go out one Friday night to see it – and, of course, critique its biblical accuracy.

Now before you say, “Oh Sarah, but you probably ruined all the other movie-goers experience by critiquing the entire movie,” have no fear – we were the only ones in the theater.

Apparently that is not how the rest of Atlanta wanted to spend their Friday night.

Anyway, the movie was terrible; the animation felt about as good as the animation for Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, both of which came out in the 60’s.  But there was actually something very endearing about how they played out this particular scene, the parting of the Red Sea (or the “Sea of Reeds” as it actually translated too, which we so obnoxiously pointed out that day in the theater).

It’s not that the animation was any better when Moses parted the seas; it actually felt like the Israelites were walking through the big exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium.  But there was this sense of safety and amazement when the seas parted and the Israelites began to journey through it.  It is almost like they knew they were going to be okay; that they were going to make it to the other side and that the Egyptian army following them would be stopped.

In the movie, there was a sweet moment where a little girl got separated from her parents because she stopped and stuck her face into the water to see the fish.  Moses then scooped her up and carried her to her parents, who, at this point, were frantically looking for her; Moses was laughing and said, “She wanted to see the fish!” (quite frankly sounding more like what I think Santa Claus sounds like and less like Moses).

To be clear, I do not think this is actually how this all happened.  But there is something really comforting about a story that reminds us that even when we are faced with an enormous obstacle in front of us – like a body of water – God can intervene and lead us to safety.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Book of Exodus, which can be found in the Old Testament – it is the second book in the bible.  There are two narratives in this book – the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai (and, of course, the instructions and laws that follow).

The name, Exodus, is derived from Greek; and it refers to that first narrative – the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, which can be found in chapters 1-15.  The passage we are looking at today – 14:19-31 – is at the end of this narrative.

You can look at the Book of Exodus in two ways:  The first as a continuation of the story of Jacob and his clan in Egypt, which began in Genesis and the second as a distinct account of Israel’s formation and the ensuing covenant God makes with them.[1]  Either is fine; I think for our purpose of trying to see how these words and this story apply to us today, it is helpful to look at Exodus as this distinct account; to think about God’s covenant with Israel then and therefore God’s covenant with us, today.

We pick up the story today as the Israelites are approaching the Red Sea.  Now, these Old Testament stories do tend to get a little long, which is why we are not looking at more of this narrative, but I do think it is important to at least remind ourselves of what happened immediately prior to this passage.

So Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt; the journey was long and arduous and the Egyptian army was actually following them and starting to starting to close in on them as they approached this, seemingly, impassable sea.  And so the Israelites started to question Moses, which you do not necessarily blame them for.  But then God told Moses to lift up his staff, to stretch his hand over the sea and then to divide the sea so the Israelites could travel through it on dry land.[2]

And he did.

And they did.

And once they were through then God told Moses to, again, stretch out his hand over the sea to bring the waters back down so the Egyptians would not be able to pass through and the Israelites would be able to continue their journey safely.

What I love about this story is not that it reminds me of the Georgia Aquarium (although that was one of my favorite places to go when I lived there), but that it proves that no obstacle is too big for God to intervene.

This story reminds us that God can do the impossible; it shows us that nothing, not even an impassible body of water, is too big for God to intercede with a solution that we never could have come up with on our own.

In so many ways right now, it feels as though every day we are approaching a new sea that needs to be parted.  And some of this is covid-related, but some of it is not, because even without the pandemic, life is hard.  We are constantly faced with obstacles that we have to figure out how to get over, around, under or through and so often we stand in front of them and think to ourselves, it is not humanely possible to do this.

And you know what?  You’re right.  It is not humanely possible.

But that is where God comes in.

We are up against some really big obstacles right now – in our personal lives, in our life at church, within our community and certainly throughout our country.  And many, if not most, of them, I do not have solutions for; I do not necessarily even have good ideas, either.

However – isn’t that where faith comes in?  Are these not the moments where we have to stretch out our hands and put our faith and our trust in God that the seas will part and that we, too, will be delivered to safety?  Are these not the moments where we have to believe that it is not by our own human flesh, but there but by the grace of God that we will find ways over, around, under and through these obstacles.

Last week we hosted our first-ever Drive-Thru Communion.  We had never done this before; there was no tradition or precedent for us to follow.  We wanted to honor the sacredness of the sacrament, but also needed to ensure we were complying with state regulations and public health recommendations.  Truth be told, a few weeks ago we had no idea what we were doing.  It seemed like we had come up against an impossible obstacle.

But we put our faith in God, stood in front of that sea and stretched our hands over it.

And it parted.

And we stepped forward onto dry ground.

And it was good.  And it was holy.  And 55 people were able to come to this table we created in our driveway and receive grace in abundance as they shared in the meal.

Friends, I know the obstacles in front of us seem large and impassable right now – reopening schools, putting out wildfires, bridging political divides, reconciling systemic racism and inequality and putting an end to this pandemic.  This does not, of course, include the obstacles that we, as individuals and families face in our personal lives.  A lot of things feel impossible right now.

But God is in the business of the impossible – the impassable.  God parted those seas and brought the Israelites to safety and we have to believe that the same will happen to us, today.

So let us, like Moses, put our faith and our trust in God.  Let us approach obstacles not with fear and trepidation, but with confidence and hope.  Let us stretch out our hands and believe that God is going to part those waters and bring us safely to the other side.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] The HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised Edition. Copyright © 2006 by HarperCollins Publishers. Page 83.
[2] Exodus 14:10-16

 

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What Will People See?

Hi Friends!

I ventured into the Old Testament for this morning’s sermon when I saw Psalm 67 in the lectionary.  What beautiful words from the Aaronic blessing in this psalm! Here is my sermon, as well as the video of our worship service in its entirety. Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
August 16, 2020

Psalm 67

What Will People See?

I thought we would take a break from the New Testament this week and spend a little bit of time flexing our Old Testament muscles.  We have spent the past couple of weeks in the lectionary, toggling back and forth between the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s Letter to the Romans, neither of which felt particularly inspiring to me when I looked at this week’s passages, so I decided to look and see what the Old Testament offerings were.

Which is how I found myself in the Book of Psalms.  I do not usually preach out of Psalms – sometimes I will use them as a secondary text, but they always seem to kind of preach themselves, I never feel like I have much more to add.  But for some reason I was compelled to look at the Psalm this week, Psalm 67 – most likely a little divine nudge.  And I did not even make it past the first verse when I just stopped and exhaled.

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.

If ever there was a time to pray that God would be gracious to us and bless us and shine his face upon us, that time is now.

There is a lot happening in our lives right now.  COVID-19 has effectively turned our world upside down.  Trying to reopen schools is proving to be complicated and stressful.  We are gearing up for a presidential election that we know is going to be contentious and ugly.  The harsh reality of systemic racism in our country, while understood more now than it once was, still has not been resolved.

And this is just the stuff we are all collectively dealing with.  I know on personal levels people are dealing with their own stress and conflict and trauma and grief.  People are awaiting test results, facing difficult diagnoses and experiencing loss.  People have lost jobs and businesses.  People are making decisions where there are no good choices.  Tensions are high.  And while we know we are supposed to love one another, the truth is we are snapping at people – or firing back comments on social media – a little quicker than we used to.

Life is not easy right now – in a way that it never has been before.

And while I do believe that we will get through this – and that, like I said last week, Jesus is guiding us through this storm – reading this psalm was also a really good reminder for me that God is being gracious to us and blessing us and making his face shine upon us in the midst of these hard times.

The Book of Psalms is a collection of prayers and songs that were composed throughout Israel’s history.  Many of them are attributed to King David.  They vary in length and style and purpose.  There are psalms of laments and thanksgiving; some psalms make petitions and others offer reassurance.

This psalm, Psalm 67, is a psalm of thanksgiving – a call to praise God, even in the midst of hard times.  And the powerful thing about these words is that they were written 3,000 years ago; they have stood the test of time.  Our world – our chaos, the mess that we are in right now – is not going to bring them down.  They are still just as true – and as real and as attainable – as they were the psalmist first spoke them.

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.

This particular psalm – Psalm 67 – includes this Aaronic Blessing, referring to Aaron, the brother of Moses.  Back in the Book of Numbers, which is the fourth book in the Old Testament, following the narrative of Moses, God speaks to Moses and tells him to tell Aaron and his sons to bless the Israelites.  The blessing God tells them to bestow upon the Israelites is the following from Numbers 6:24-26:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

This passage, of course, is referenced in today’s psalm in verse one, which says:

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.

The literal translation of this means, “May God look at us,” or, “May God smile at us,” or, “May God show favor on us.”  When the psalmist continues to talk about judgement on people and guiding the nations in verse four, they are saying that, despite the tension in the world, God will show favor on people and protect them.

On the one hand, these words actually bring me a lot of comfort right now.  And I do believe they are meant to reassure us; that, in the midst of the chaos of the world, God’s face is shining a light upon us.

On the other hand, I also believe these words are meant to challenge us.  Because when that light is shining upon us, we have to wonder what it will illuminate.

Now, more than ever, we must ask ourselves this question:  When God’s light is shining upon us, what will people see?

When God’s light is shining upon us, will people see love, acceptance, compassion and kindness?  Will they see groups of people trying to talk through their differences with grace and in a spirit of friendship?  Will they see us, as a human race, serving the marginalized, embracing diversity and helping the least of these?

Or, when God’s light is shining upon us, will people see hatred and hostility?  Will they see name-calling and opposition?  Will they see emails, texts or comments on social media that, perhaps, were sent too soon?  Will they see ugly division and harmful discrimination?  Will they see us, as a human race, tearing one another down?

In this moment of chaos and confusion, when God’s light shines upon us, what will people see?

I do think, to some extent, this pandemic has brought out the best in people and also the worst in people.  On the one hand, there are many days when I log onto our nightly prayers and I hear stories about people who have sent cards, dropped off meals and made phone calls people both inside and outside our community.  Our mask-makers deployed back in March and donated thousands of masks when they were needed most.  I see the way you all, as a church family, are holding one another in prayer – not only saying you are praying for one another, but by really praying in an on-your-knees and storm-the-heavens kind of way.

But on the other hand, I have also seen moments where the light God shines upon us perhaps reveals a side that is not as compassionate or kind or caring.  A side that is mean and oppressive.  A side that shows disregard for the good of others.  A side that uses the Gospel as a weapon of hatred instead of a bridge towards peace.

And I understand that this is hard and that everyone is doing the best they can, but sometimes I just think we can do better.  I would hate for others to see the light of God shining upon us right now and for it to reveal anything less than the love and grace that is found when you put your hope in Christ’s resurrection.

This is going to sound so cliché, but we are living in unprecedented times.  But here is the oddly comforting thing about scripture’s role in all of this – this is nothing new.  Chaos and confusion and tension are nothing new to this psalm – to the world is was written to or the worlds who have leaned on it for over 3,000 years.  The world was turned upside then and yet there was this promise that God would continue to bless the people of Israel.  And so, even though our world is turned upside down today I do believe that God will continue to shine God’s light upon us and bless us.

But this is our charge.

When that light shines upon us, grace needs to be revealed.  Kindness needs to be revealed. Compassion needs to be revealed.  Justice needs to be revealed.  Friendship needs to be revealed.  Love needs to be revealed.

The Gospel needs to be revealed.

Friends, our world has been turned upside down.  But God is still shining light upon us and blessing us.

What will people see when that happens?

So – when that light shines upon us, may it reveal the Gospel we are called to proclaim, the Church we are called to be and individuals in the Body of Christ that God is looking upon with favor.

We can do this.  Love wins, remember?

To paraphrase verse 1:

May God give us grace and blessings and look at us and smile.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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How Can We Create A Space Where People Feel Welcome?

This is it for our summer sermon series on hospitality!  This week is Rally Day and the beginning of a 12-week sermon series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which will bring us through Thanksgiving.

It was fun to look at hospitality this summer – I actually had a lot of great feedback from people who gave me tangible ideas and suggestions of ways that we, as a church, can improve.  I hope this is one of those sermon series that we keep talking about, long after it’s over.

The question we answered in this final week was, how can we create a space where people feel welcome?

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 1, 2019

1 Kings 6
Acts 2:37-47

How Can We Create A Space Where People Feel Welcome?

I have to be honest, I thought about cutting some down some of this scripture from 1 Kings and only reading part of it this morning (a decision many of you may have wish I made!), but every time I re-read the passage in its entirety, I got caught up in this beautifully vivid description  of King Solomon building the temple – of Solomon leaving no details unturned as he constructed this place where the Israelites would worship God – and I could not bear to cut any of it out.

You see, I was raised to believe that the details matter.  All of them.

I am the daughter of a director; a director who would spend hours creating lighting designs that not only looked cool on stage, but that also complemented the scenery, music and choreography and were timed perfectly to create a dramatic affect.

I understood from a young age that you do not have to do things like sell light-up wands to kids in the audience to wave around when the beast transforms or when Cinderella goes for a ride in her magical carriage, but that it sure looks amazing when you do.  Or that bubble machines and confetti canons might make a mess, but they are totally worth it anyway.  Or that bringing an actual pony on stage is risky, but it is always a risk worth taking because who doesn’t want to be remembered as the theater group who brought an actually pony on stage?

I came to realize quickly that the atmosphere we created in the lobby, the first thing people saw when they walked in – music, headshots, photo displays, a wide array of snacks and cold drinks, people welcoming patrons with smiles on their faces – created an excitement and energy that everyone carried into the theater.

Because the thing is – when it all came together and the lights went down and the curtain went up, magic was created as we told some of the greatest theatrical stories.

And it mattered.

So you can understand why I obsess over things like soap and coffee and nametags here at church.  Because I want to create an excitement and energy that people bring into the sanctuary with them for worship.  I want to create an experience that people will remember.

Here at this church, we have the privilege of telling one of the greatest stories that has ever been told – the story of God’s creating, redeeming and sustaining work in this world.  And so when people come to church and hear us tell this story, I want to create magic.

Our first scripture reading comes from the first Book of Kings, which can be found in the Old Testament.  There are two books of Kings; first and second Kings were originally a singular literary work.  They give a continuous account of Israel’s history from the death of King David and the ascension of King Solomon to the release of King Jehoiachi, who was being held in prison in Babylon.  This spans the time of approximately 400 years.

The content found in these books reflects the theological concerns of the laws found in the book of Deuteronomy – namely that the Lord is Israel’s only God and that all of God’s covenantal laws must be followed, including the requirement that God may only be legitimately worshiped in one place.

You can see why this temple that Solomon is building is so important.  It is not just a structure; it is a place of worship – the place of worship, the place the Israelites believe is the only place worthy of worshipping their one God, who will dwell there.

And so while this might not be about soap or coffee or nametags, there are 38 verses describing every single detail of this temple that Solomon is carefully building.  Solomon believes that this is important; that the building, the furnishings and the artwork are coming together to create an experience where the Israelites can hear the story of God’s creating work.

Our second scripture reading comes from Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the formation of the early Christian Church; it begins with Jesus’ ascension and goes from there.  The cool part about looking at the book of Acts alongside this passage from 1 Kings is that Acts tells the story of the church before it becomes the church that we know today.  It starts in people’s homes, with the apostles sharing the message of Christ’s resurrection from city to city.

Acts reminds us that we do not necessarily need a church building to worship God; but this particular scripture shows the, sort of, natural tendency for human beings to eventually find themselves in intentional spaces of worship.  The apostles are breaking bread together at home, but also spending “much time together in the temple.”[1]

The thing is, we do not need a physical church building to worship God.  But the building represents something, right?  It represents our faith, our hope, our desire to create love in this world. It represents our community, the cloud of witnesses that came before us whose lessons we are carrying with us and whose legacy we now uphold.  And I think history teaches us that space matters, that when we have a designated and carefully designed space to worship God we do so with intention and reverence and enthusiasm.  The details of our space not only matter, but they help us tell a beautiful story of the love we have for our God, of the pride we have for our community and of our desire to welcome others into our space.

I am not suggesting that we build a temple that is 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide and 30 cubits high with recessed windows and three stories.  But I am saying that our space matters.  Because I want people to walk through our doors and not only hear the story of God’s creating, redeeming and sustaining love, but I want them to experience magic while they do so.

Earlier this week, I went on our Facebook group and posed the question that is the topic of this week’s sermon:  How can we create a space where people feel welcome? The responses were wonderful and thought-provoking and gave me so much pride for our church in the village and the spirit of hospitality that we are trying to foster here.  They ranged from talking about what we are already doing (physical access, nametags, delicious food) to simple ways that we can improve (hearing devices connected to our sound system, making fans available in the summer).  They talked about what happens when we leave our physical space and then extend our reach out beyond our walls (the Hillside Takeover, the Memorial Day Parade). Multiple people talked about the ways we extend our ministry beyond our membership (the bazaar, the bike blessing, your grace in giving me the time to preside over funerals for nonmembers).

What I love about these responses is that they are not specific to one area of our church and community – they span the gamut – which means that every single person in our church can participate in our ministry of hospitality; that no matter who you are or how long you have been attending RCC or how much time you have available or what you are interested in, you can help create a space of bold and extravagant welcome.

So how do we do this?

I said in my Facebook post that I hoped this sermon would start the biggest brainstorm session we have ever had – and I am going to start!  I have five suggestions.

#1.  Nametags, nametags, nametags!  I preached a whole sermon on this so I am not going to bore you again, but Rally Day is NEXT week, which means we might have some new faces in our pews.  If you have not been wearing your nametag this summer, dust it off and put it on next Sunday (and if you lost it, I will make you a new one).

#2. I want everyone to try to put yourself in an “outsiders” position and think about what our worship experience looks life. Coming to church and being in worship makes sense to all of us, because we are used to it, but is it easy for someone coming for the first time?

Is our signage clear and thorough?  Is there always a place for a newcomer to park? Do we make people feel welcome when they first walk in?  Are our worship bulletins easy to follow?  Do we approach first-time guests after worship and invite them into fellowship? Do we use language that new guests will be able to understand or do we use insiders language?

The thing about all of these questions is that if we are falling short there are simple and immediate solutions.  We can buy new signs, create designated parking and reformat the bulletin.  We can change our language.

We need to make it easy:  Easy to find out what time church is, easy to get here, easy to participate in worship and easy to get involved.  If you have a tangible suggestion about how we can make something more welcoming, please share it with me!  I will ask that you please try to share it with me using a kind and constructive tone, but remember that I am the worst offender of getting caught up in what we are doing because I am so deeply embedded into it.

#3. Let’s all look at our space – our physical space.  Is bright, fresh, clean and functional?  Does it give you a sense of calm and comfort?  If the answer to any one of those questions is, “not really,” then take the initiative, come up with a solution, talk to the Executive Board, maybe put together a group of people and make it happen.

Some of the church school classrooms got a fresh coat of paint this summer because two or three people took the initiative, came up with a solution and made it happen.  And they look fabulous!  There are so many little projects around our building – inside and outside – that might seem daunting for one person, but we are not one person, we are a village – the body of Christ.

#4. If you see someone that looks like they might be new, say, “Hello!”  Introduce yourself.  People always tell me that they are worried they might go up to someone they think is new and accidentally introduce themselves to someone who has been attending for months or even years.  But honestly – who cares?  If you do not know someone’s name, they are new to you.  If someone has a confused look on their face, ask them if they need help. When we have New Member Sunday, make it a point to talk to the new members in the weeks that follow; get to know them and find ways to integrate them into our community.

#5. Remember that it is the little things that make a difference.  If you know it is going to be hot, maybe offer to bring bottles of cold water and have them available for people in worship (who else was totally psyched when Bonnie Meagher was making root beer floats the Sunday the heat index was over 100°?). If it is going to rain, show up to church early with an umbrella and walk people in.  If it is going to be cold, offer to start people’s cars during Fellowship.  If you have not seen someone in awhile, contact the office for their phone number or address and give them a call or send them a note to let them know you are thinking about them.

Friends, this is it for our mini sermon series on hospitality.  I have to say that I am thrilled with the response that I have gotten to this already. From donations of nice-smelling soap to offers to help fix our front steps, people are carefully discerning ways that they can give back to this community that they love so much and to help to create a more hospitable space for others to be welcomed into.

So let us, like the first apostles that laid the foundation for the Christian church we love so much today, praise God and have the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day, may God use us to welcome others so that God can add to the number of those being saved.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Acts 2:46, NRSV

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