The Need For Change

Hello and Happy Lent!  I am going a little bit outside of my comfort zone this season and embarking on a sermon series.  A friend and colleague of mine recommended the book, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, which is AWESOME because they aren’t only sermon series ideas that are church-year-based, but they are lectionary-based as well!  I’ll be honest – there is part of me that kind of feels like I’m cheating a little bit following someone else’s prompts and series ideas, but, really, all of the content is still mine.  I’ll definitely give some more thoughts once I finish the series.

The sermon series is called Boot Camp for the Soul and this morning’s topic is The Need For Change.  Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 5, 2017

Psalm 32
Matthew 4:1-11

The Need For Change

Nothing screams, “Protestant” quite like the wrestling coach’s wife who schedules the end of year banquet on a Friday night in Lent and then proceeds to put chicken parm and meatballs on the menu.

So that was my bad.

One of the moms asked me if I could offer some sort of blessing over her so she would be okay to dig into the buffet. And while I was not sure I had the authority to do that, seeing as I read earlier in the day that Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin had given special dispensation to his Diocese to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day, which happens to fall on a Friday this year, I thought maybe she was on to something.

You know, Lent can be a tricky season. I think we all have the best intentions to live out the rules, restrictions or spiritual practices our faith and Christian traditions might call us to follow, but – especially in the busy and fast paced world we are living in today – sometimes this is easier said than done. We start the season every year by reading the story of Jesus in the wilderness and sometimes I wonder if it would be easier for us to observe this season if we had a bit more solitude; if we were not quite so distracted by our everyday lives.

Of course I am not, by any means, implying that Jesus had an easy time in the wilderness. But I am, however, wondering how feasible it is – as we try to juggle work, family, activities, wrestling banquets, etc. – to fulfill all of our Lenten obligations.

Several weeks ago, I was preparing for Lent and thinking about ways I could make this season a meaningful one for all of us and a colleague of mine recommended the book, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermons Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. This book uses the scriptures of the Revised Common Lectionary (which, for the most part, I follow in my preaching) and develops sermon series ideas for the different seasons throughout the church year. This year they have put together the Lenten series, Boot Camp for the Soul.

We approach the Lenten season with an emphasis on interiority, personal investigation, and contrition – the intentional work of seeking a change of heart or actions. Reflection and change take work, hard work. Lent can be like a boot camp for the soul, a restart in a focused area. We walk this season together, demanding the best of ourselves, ready to support one another, and prepared to see truths that shatter our self-understanding.[1]

So here we go! I invite you to dive with me, headfirst into this complex Lenten pool of confession and contrition. We will use this series to restart our faith and see how it might be strengthened as we try to journey through Lent balancing life, schedules and the occasional Friday night chicken parm and meatball dinners.

We enter into our Lenten season and the suggested sermon title for this week is, The Need for Change. We read the story that gives us the foundation of our 40-day Lenten season; where Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit and was tempted by the devil for 40 days and 40 nights.

For me, one of the most captivating parts of the Christian story is the way God truly understands the depth of our humanness; God understands this because Jesus came to earth in human form. Jesus felt suffering, temptation and brokenness. We spend 40 days during Lent focusing on these things, but the truth is, we experience them 365 days a year. Day in and day out, we suffer, we are tempted and we feel the weight of our own brokenness; as we live in this world, there is always something trying to pull us away from God and weaken our faith.

This week, we acknowledge the need for change because we know that God not only understands the depths of our struggles as human beings, but also the depth of our heart and our desire to be better. We need to be changed by the Lenten season, not because we are bad people, but because we are very much human people.

We begin Lent by hearing the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness because it is in hearing this story that we reflect on the temptations we, as human beings, face every day; temptations of food, alcohol, gossip, media, shopping, technology use and other bad habits we struggle to gain control over. Some of us may be struggling with the simple notion of balance and moderation; some of us may be facing far deeper struggles.

There is no shame in being tempted; in fact, scripture shows us that Jesus, himself, was tempted. But this is the why we must put ourselves through this boot camp for the soul; this is the need for change. This is why we must do the hard work that is required of us throughout this Lenten season to look inward, to make changes in our lives, to strengthen our faith and to allow God to make us whole. Temptation, sin and human imperfection are all very real things; but they are also the very reason we need God to ignite change in our lives.

Psalm 32 talks about the transformative nature of this hard work.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. Then I acknowledged my sin to you … and you forgave the guilt of my sin.[2]

Here the psalmist teaches us that we feel better when we do this work; when we let God see the whole of who we are. Grace can be found when we uncover our sins and temptations and allow God to shine God’s spectacularly divine light upon them and Lent gives us the opportunity to find this grace. Lent creates a safe space where we are allowed to be the most vulnerable, messy versions of ourselves and still know, without a shadow of a doubt, that, despite our imperfections, we are loved, cherished and forgiven by God. Lent reminds us that even when we are in the deep temptations of the wilderness, God is always with us.

The choice is ours at this point; we decide what we want, not only out of this Lenten season, but also out of our faith. When people participate in other kinds of boot camps – military, fitness, academic or career – they do so because they see a need for change in their lives and are seeking something different. Lent gives us this opportunity for us, as well, to see a need for change in our lives and in our faith and seek something different.

When Jesus was in the wilderness, the devil took him to a high mountain and told Jesus that he could have all the kingdoms of the entire world if he worshipped him. It was at this point where Jesus saw a need for change and sought a different path.

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.[3]

The choice, now, is ours. Where will we see our need for change? How will we uncover our imperfections? What will it means for us to do the hard work that is required to face the temptations of our own humanity? And how will we do this as we balance our lives, schedules and the occasional Friday night chicken parm and meatball dinners?

May we all feel loved, cherished and forgiven by God as we uncover the need for change in our lives. And may Lent be for us what we need it to be.

And may we be blessed as, like they did for Jesus in the wilderness, the angels come and wait on us.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Butler, Amy. A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, page. 21
[2] Psalm 32:3, 5, NRSV
[3] Matthew 4:10-11, NRSV

On Becoming Spiritual People

I had originally planned on preaching just out of the Psalms this weekend, but decided when I read the passage from 1 Corinthians that I really wanted to preach out of that and supplement with the Psalms.  I think the lesson of Paul’s words here – that we really all belong to God – ring true, now more than ever!

Here is my sermon from the weekend.  Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
February 12, 2017

Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9

On Becoming Spiritual People

On Wednesday night, as schools, businesses and organizations were announcing their closings for the following day, someone on one of my clergy forums posted about how excited they were for the upcoming snow day. Someone else replied that they would be excited, but the prospect of keeping their two children occupied without fighting all day already had them exhausted and the snow had not even started falling yet.

I am sure other parents of young children can commiserate. I know the scripture says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,”[1] but I would imagine that for parents of multiple small children some days it feels more like, “Where two or three are gathered on a snow day, they will start fighting.”

The truth is, sometimes we, as adults, do not do much better than children. Sure, we might be able to occupy ourselves during a blizzard without fighting, but we do not always get along with one another. Just like children, we often find ourselves at odds with the people around us, sometimes even with the people we love.

Being in community – whether it is here at the church, in our families, with our friends, at work, in our towns or within other organizations – is not easy. When conflicts arise, we try the best we can to be mature and use our ‘I’ statements to find some sort of resolution, but we are human beings living in a very imperfect world. When the rubber meets the road and tensions are running high, sometimes we are not much better than siblings squabbling on a snow day.

In our second scripture reading this morning (from 1 Corinthians), Paul did not talk to the Corinthian people as if they were grown adults, but addressed them as if they were those squabbling siblings. He said he was not speaking to the Corinthians as spiritual people, but as infants in Christ, who needed to be fed with milk and were not even ready to eat solid food.[2]

Ouch!

I mean, certainly we all have our moments when we are not as mature as we could have been, but think about it: As a church, if we were experiencing some sort of conflict, would we really want someone to come in to help us resolve it and basically put us in the same maturity category as the preschool Church School class?

It certainly was an effective way for Paul to make his point.

Paul had a history with this community in Corinth. He traveled there sometime around the year 51CE and spent about 18 months establishing and cultivating a church.[3] His goal was to build a flourishing Christian community, but, unfortunately, this community was full of people, human beings that also lived in a very imperfect world. There were differences among them, differences that often threatened to divide them. And as the people in Corinth tried to live and be in community, they realized just how challenging it actually was; not surprisingly, they experienced tension and conflict.

In this morning’s reading, Paul talked about alliances he heard were forming in Corinth:

For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?[4]

Essentially, communities within the community were emerging within the church; each with their own religious teacher that each group believed had superior wisdom and knowledge.

Paul had actually addressed the same thing earlier in the letter – in the first chapter of this book – when he wrote:

Each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided?[5]

A lot of this tension boiled down to the simple notion of everyone thinking they were right and anyone who believed differently was wrong. But Paul strongly urged the Corinthians not to put the human wisdom of their religious teachers over the divine wisdom that comes from being in a relationship with God. Keeping God at the center of the Corinthian community – not splitting off according to religious teachers – was going to give them spiritual strength and growth. “For we are God’s servants,” Paul said, “working together.”[6]

Paul’s use of this spiritual infancy metaphor is actually really intriguing to me because, as much as it sounds like it, I do not think Paul was trying to insult the Corinthians or act like he was somehow superior to them. I think Paul wanted the Corinthians to experience the fullness of God’s grace in a way that they could not when they were splitting off according to their human leaders.

Paul said there was more to our faith than the spiritual infancy where we all begin and where the Corinthians seemed to be stuck. He said that in order for the Corinthians to be spiritual people and not infants in Christ, they needed to look away from the things on earth that were threatening to divide them (these alliances to various religious teachers) and look instead to God, who could and would unite them.

Paul reminded the people in Corinth that religious teachers were servants of God, but they were not God. Yes, they played a crucial role in sharing God’s message and cultivating this community of faith, but God was still the one that should be the ultimate power and authority for Corinthian people.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.[7]

Paul was trying to impress upon the Corinthian people that spiritual growth and maturity would come from putting God at the center of their lives and their community. They needed to start there – with God – if they wanted their church to grow and thrive.

Now, as much as this letter is about a specific conflict Paul was attempting to resolve, I actually think his words go much deeper than that. I think Paul was talking about more than just reconciliation; he was talking about spiritual wholeness. At its core, this letter showed the Corinthians one of the ways they could grow in their faith from infants in Christ to spiritual people.

This is a wonderful lesson for all of us as today we seek to learn how to grow in our own faith. Far too often we look to earthly people, things and desires for authority in our lives and forget to look to God. Paul not only believed this – this ultimate focus on God – would bring unity to the church in Corinth, but spiritual wholeness to the individual people that made up the church.

And I strongly believe this can bring us spiritual wholeness as well. So often our lives are crazy, busy and out of our control, but Paul’s words remind us that regardless of what else may be going on, we all have the capacity within ourselves to be spiritual people, to experience the fullness of God’s love, light, grace and wisdom in our lives. But we have to remember to turn our focus on God. We have to center our lives around God. We have to wake up every day and make a commitment to live out the Gospel as we seek to strengthen our faith.

I wanted to read the psalm from the lectionary this morning because I think it gives us a really beautiful prompt on how we can live our lives as we seek to grow into spiritual people.

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.
Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways.[8]

We need to walk in the law of the Lord.

This means that if we really want to grow as Christians, then we have to let go of the things on earth that often consume us and cling to God in a way that gives us life. Even when our lives are super distracting and making us crazy, we need to try that much harder to focus on our faith and live our lives for the glory of God. This means making time for prayer, reading the bible, coming to church, doing some sort of mission work, helping others and giving our time and our money. This means doing the sometimes hard work that God requires of us to not only live out our faith, but also to share that faith with others. This means holding ourselves accountable and always seeking to dig deeper into our faith.

There are a lot of things in this world and in our lives that are extraordinarily distracting. Some are good – Super Bowl comebacks, for example – and some are bad – illnesses and tragedies unfortunately impact a lot of us. All have the potential to turn our attention away from God and this is not always easy to control. But we can push back. We can make a commitment. We can make our faith a priority. Paul wrote this letter because he wanted this community not only to feel a sense of unity among themselves, but also the freedom and wholeness that comes from keeping God at the center of our lives.

And I think, more than ever, his words ring true for us in our lives today. I believe we all have the potential to become spiritual people, we just need to tap into the wholeness that comes from knowing God, nurture our faith and give ourselves space to grow into spiritual people.

So may we all find this grace, understand this fullness of divine authority and feel the wholeness of God.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Matthew 18:20, NRSV
[2] 1 Corinthian 3:2, NRSV
[3] The CEB Study Bible, edited by Joel B. Green, NT pg. 303
[4] 1 Corinthians 3:4, NRSV
[5] 1 Corinthians 1:12-13, NRSV
[6] 1 Corinthians 3:9, NRSV
[7] 1 Corinthians 3:7, NRSV
[8] Psalm 119:1-3, NSRV

Why We Praise God

Happy rainy Tuesday!  I hope you all enjoyed your weekend.  It was so nice out that I let my confirmation class “work outside” for about an hour and a half of our three hour meeting on Sunday night.  I couldn’t even argue with them when they bargained with me to let them stay outside – I didn’t blame them!

Here is Sunday’s sermon … I got a lot of positive feedback on Sunday, so I hope you enjoy it!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 24, 2016

Psalm 148

Why We Praise God

I used to be one of those people who could not stand when professional athletes would praise God after a good game/race/competition/etc. It is not that I was opposed to the whole God thing, but I just always thought that perhaps God had more important things to do than help a baseball pitcher throw a bunch of strikes so that his team could win the world series. I mean – shouldn’t world hunger take precedence over things like pitching percentages? Maybe it’s just me.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was in Connecticut for the closing weekend of my dad’s musical. This year, I have mentioned before, they put on an enchanting production of Cinderella. It was purely magical, with the exception of the fact that during the Friday night and Saturday afternoon performances that weekend, Cinderella’s magical dress seemed to have lost its magic.

In other words, it was not working the way that it was supposed to. And when I say that it was not working, I mean that the ribbon that acted as a release mechanism got completely knotted up and the dress did not release the way it was supposed to when Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother were on stage in the middle of a very tightly timed musical number where there was pretty much no room for error.

Needless to say, everyone was anxious going into the final show.

I was having dinner with some friends in between performances when I got a text from my dad. It said:

The costume ladies want you to bless the dress.

Here’s the thing about my dad: A lot of times you never know whether or not he is joking. But in this moment, I knew, without a doubt, that he was not joking. So I got ready to leave the restaurant.

My friends were quite perplexed by what I was about to go do. They said exactly what I have said in the past when athletes are interviewed and thank God for winning something. “Shouldn’t God be working on world hunger or sick children?”

But for some reason, I knew that this was something that I needed to do. These women were not joking when they made this request; they were not asking in vain. They are women of faith; women who I know follow my ministry journey through Facebook, who tell my dad they read my sermons online and would love to visit RCC sometime so they can worship with us. In that moment, after pouring their hearts and souls into this show, after four months of physically exhausting, time consuming and mentally draining work to create magic on stage, they needed something to believe in.

We all did.

So I went back to the school, gathered up the costume ladies and we went back stage, formed a circle by the dress and prayed.

Well, most of us did. My dad took pictures because he wanted to remember the moment.

I do not remember what I said exactly, but I prayed for several things that were on my heart. I prayed for peace and for the release of the anxiety not only that we felt but that the students. I prayed that the magic that we had worked so hard to create would come alive and inspire the 800 people that were already starting to fill the theater. I prayed that we all would remember that the blessings bestowed upon us during this production were not just about the performances, but about the journey that we took together to get there.

By the time I said, “Amen,” we were all crying.

We probably could have spent that time testing the dress one more time, reassuring the actors or giving all of the props, costumes and scenery a quick glance to make sure everything was in working order. But in that moment, that prayer was exactly what we all needed.

I have told a few people this story and they always ask the same question:

So, did it work?

Flawless. Beyond flawless. Smoother than it has ever gone.

You could hear all of us cheering from various parts of the theater and, at intermission, one of the ladies screamed at me across the crowded lobby, “YOU SEE SARAH! IT JUST NEEDED JESUS!”

While I will never know if it was God that made that happen or the new ribbon that they replaced on the release mechanism in between shows, I do know one thing for certain: We all needed Jesus that night.

This morning’s psalm begins with a very clear and definitive, “Praise the Lord!” In 14 verses, the word, “praise” appears 13 times. This scripture is not only a call to praise God, but also offers justification for why we do it in the first place. The psalmist says that we praise God because God created us and established a covenant with us (v.5-6). We praise God because God’s name is exalted and God’s glory is high above anything that we can fathom here on earth (v.13). We praise God because God raises us up and holds us close (v. 14).

We are living in a transitional time where the Church is changing and God’s role in society is different than it used to be. Many of us do not feel comfortable sharing our faith publically. We need a space where it is safe for us to ask questions instead of blindly following ancient customs and rhetoric. We do not know how to praise God when we are not in the safety of our church sanctuary, and yet so often we feel like we need something; we need something to give our lives, depth and understanding.

And perhaps that something – even if it is changing and even if we are not quite comfortable talking about it all the time – is God.

I was thinking about my own struggle with how and when to praise God this week as I thought about this psalm. I think part of my hesitation to be outwardly public and expressive with my faith all the time is that I do not want to make people uncomfortable. I also do not want to be naïve to the bad things in this world and praise God when the people around me are going through really difficult times.

And yet, I do not think that I could ever find words to tell you just how meaningful that “bless the dress” prayer for us. It calmed us down; it connected us in a way that I do not think anything else can. It gave us permission to bring God into our midst that brought us an immense peace.

It is important to praise God. Scripture teaches us that it is important to praise God.

Thousands of years ago, a psalmist shared why he thought that it was important that people praise God. And those reasons still ring true today. But, this morning, I think it is equally important for us to think about why we should praise God, specifically in our lives and to our generation.

So here are five reasons that I think it is important for us to praise God.

1. When we praise God we realize that it is not all about us.

Praising God helps us to have a better understanding of the fact that there is a force at work in this world that is beyond our control. We recognize that there are other people with different cultural upbringings and ideas that are trying desperately, just like us, to figure out this journey called life. Praising God helps us see the good in the world and allows us to marvel at our small piece of this enormous puzzle.

2. When we praise God we keep our focus on God on a more regular basis; we get ourselves in “Godly shape” so that we are more apt to focus on God when we go through a difficult time.

You do not run a marathon without getting yourself in shape to do it. I would argue that it is equally important to get yourself in “Godly shape” so that in those moments when you need it most, turning to God is a natural instinct and not an uncomfortable feeling. Praising God creates room for God in our day-to-day lives.

3. Praising God helps us to see the bigger picture.

As much as I hate to admit that I was wrong, I can see now how honorable and faithful it is for a professional athlete to use their platform not to tote their own abilities, but to thank God for the opportunity to do what they love in that capacity. I am not still not saying that God cares about who wins the Super Bowl more than world hunger and suffering, but I do think that sometimes a little perspective is a good thing for all of us.

4. When we praise God we are inclined to appreciate more and see the good in a situation.

Sometimes bad things happen and more often than not, we are not in control. But if we make it a regular habit to praise God, it is much easier to cry out to that same God when we are walking through the darkness of the unknown.

5. Praising God changes lives.

You never know when you are going to talk to someone who needs to hear the promise of God’s love, redemption and grace. You never know when you are going to encounter someone who needs hope. You never know when your life – your life of praising God – will inspire someone to praise God in their life.

I know that this is not always going to be easy. I know that there will be things that happen in our lives that cause us to ask questions and have doubts and lose hope.

But we have to try.

We can praise God in our lives. We can take little steps every day to try to make this a part of who we are. We can read prayers and psalms out loud and to ourselves. We can come to church and be involved in the community. We can talk to others about our faith – not in a confrontational and crazy way, but in a real and humble and “this is how my life has been changed” kind of way. We can make a commitment to pray and read the bible. We can take on a spiritual practice and incorporate that into our daily lives. We can come to church as a way of resetting ourselves when we start to lose perspective (because, let’s face it, we are all human and do from time to time). We can pray for others and let them know that we are praying for them. We can praise God outwardly and publicly for the things that we are grateful for. We can thank God for both wins and losses and lift up the things and the projects and the goals in our lives that we have worked so hard to achieve.

This is a charge for all of us to praise God – and not in subtle ways. We need to praise God from the comforts of our homes and church and we need to praise God from the discomfort of the outside world. We need to praise God in the ordinary and the mundane and we need to praise God in the extraordinary and the bizarre. We need to praise God when things are good or bad, big or small, hopeful or helpless. We need to see God in the midst of our lives and offer thanks and praise that we are not trying to do this alone.

The world can be a very crazy place for us to live in. But we need to praise God in the midst of this chaos. I truly believe that God can change our lives; God can help us find balance, God can bring us closer to the people that we love and God can take the pieces of us and make us whole again.

So let us go forth and praise God – really and truly praise God – within these walls and, more importantly, outside of these walls. And let us bear witness to that unexplainable, yet miraculous power in our lives and in the world.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.