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.

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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.

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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.