Floating Our Hopes And Sinking Our Fears

Hi friends!  We have finally come to the end of 2020 – we made it!  We did our annual tradition of floating our hopes and sinking our fears.  We left worship packets outside for people to pick up and they could participate at home.

Here is the video of the service and the text of my sermon. Happy New Year!

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Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 27, 2020

Psalm 51

Floating Our Hopes And Sinking Our Fears

Four years ago, the calendar was such that Christmas and New Year’s Day fell on Sundays.  In the weeks leading up to the end of the year, we spent a lot of time brainstorming about what those Sundays would look like.  We decided that Christmas would be a simple Christmas carol sing in the sanctuary with cinnamon rolls to follow and that New Year’s would be a worship brunch in Fellowship Hall where we would have an interactive worship service while we were eating.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that there was a food element to both of our solutions.

Christmas Day worship was pretty straightforward, but New Year’s provided a bit more of a conundrum.  I wanted to encourage conversation and fellowship, but I also wanted it to be meaningful; it was, after, still our weekly worship service.

And so, on a whim, I decided to integrate a ritual that I had taken part in with my clergy community of practice that year.  We had gathered around a table with a big bowl of water and individual bowls of cranberries and rocks.  We took the rocks and, naming fears that we wanted to let go of, dropped them in the bowl and let them sink to the bottom.  Then we took the cranberries and, naming the hopes that we wanted to hold onto, dropped them in the bowl and let them float to the top.

For worship brunch I put bowls of water on each table with smaller bowls of cranberries and rocks.  We sunk the things we wanted to let go of from the previous year and floated the hopes that we had for the year ahead.  I dropped a candle in each bowl, as a reminder that God’s light shines and guides the journey ahead.

At the end of the service that year, more than one person came up to me and said, “We have to do this again next year!”  For a while I assumed everyone had been talking about the brunch, itself (after all, we do love to eat around here), but as we got closer to New Year’s Worship Brunch the following year, people specifically began to ask about whether or not we were going to float our hopes and sink our fears.

And so, as it goes in a church, a tradition was born.

And nothing – not even a global pandemic – was going to stop us this year from floating our hopes and sinking our fears.

Because, I don’t know about you all, but I’ve got some stuff to sink this year.

But I also have a lot of hope to float.

A few weeks ago, Bruce was running errands and he sent me a picture of a huge display of cranberries and asked if I wanted him to get me some for the altar.  Jodi Durette was putting together our worship packets for everyone, but I wanted to have a nice big display for our livestream.  I texted back, “Nah; I’ll grab them when it gets closer to New Years,” and he joked about not waiting too long because I wouldn’t want hope to sell out” and wouldn’t you know that last week I found myself in a panic because I had gone to a few different stores and there was nary a package in cranberries in sight.

And I mean, it would happen in 2020, right?  That all of the cranberries in Massachusetts would be sold out and I would have no hope to float?

My plan B was to raid the worship packets (which I really did not want to do, because who wants to be the pastor who takes away everyone else’s hope?) but thankfully I finally found a vsmall display of them and I grabbed three bags; which might have been overkill, but, like I said, I have a lot of hope to float this year.

We are going to give you all at home plenty of time to float your hopes and sink your fears in just a moment.  But before we get to that, I do want to, as a community who has gathered for worship today, do this together for a moment.

Together I want to sink the sadness of everything we missed out on this year – the suppers, the community events, the worship services, the fellowship, the Christmas pageant and more.  I want to sink the sadness I feel about not being able to gather, as a church, for the funeral services of David, Sally and Ecky.  I want to sink the emptiness I feel when I walk into our building, knowing that it is supposed to be filled with people.  I want to sink the fear we have all felt this year – fear for our health and safety, but also fear for what they world looks like and what it might look like in the years to come.  I want to sink the frustration I have sometimes felt as I have tried to re-imagine our beloved traditions and it is not as much fun or meaningful or special.  I want to sink the times when we fell short and we were unable to reach everyone.  I want to sink all of the technological snafus and internet outages.  I want to sink the tumultuous political season and the many ways we, as a country, have fallen short this year.  I want to sink everyone’s anxiety, depression, sadness, anger and despondence.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the book of Psalms, Psalm 51.  It is a Psalm of David, a prayer for forgiveness.  The psalmist talks about the guilt-prone nature of humanity and then asks God to cleanse them.  “Purge me with hyssop … wash me … blot out all my iniquities … create in me a clean heart … restore me to the joy of your salvation.”

It is through this cleansing that the psalmist then looks forward with hope: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.”

And so now, together as we have let go of the negative things that have been holding us back this year, we too, look forward with hope.

Together, I want to float the hope of gathering in person again this year.  I want to float the hope of being able to baptize and officially welcome into our church family the beautiful babies that were born this year.  I want to float the hope of singing together again, of hearing the choir produce beautiful harmonies that echo throughout the sanctuary.  I want to float the hope of suppers hosted inside Fellowship Hall, with everyone gathered around tables laughing and fellowshipping together.  I want to float the hope that I will, this year, be able to hug each and every one of you.  I want to float the hope that some of the financial tightness that we felt at the end of this year will loosen up a bit as we are able to welcome people into the sanctuary for worship again.  I want to float the hope I have for all of the technological advances we were kind of forced to make this year, but will, ultimately make us stronger and more accessible as a church community.  I want to float the hope that I will, once again, be able to call the children of our congregation to the chancel steps for a children’s sermon.  I want to float the hope that some of the isolation and the anxiety and the fear that we all are feeling right now will slowly start to fade away.  I want to float the hope that, as a congregation, we will have hard, but necessary conversations about racial reconciliation and also what it means to be an inclusive church.  I want to float the hope that we will humble ourselves before the cross and allow God to take the pieces of us that are broken and make us whole again.

Friends, our faith gives us a promise – a promise of resurrection, of reconciliation and of redemption.  Our faith gives us second chances and the reassurance that, even in our darkest moments, God is not finished.  Our faith allows us to cleanse ourselves of what was and look forward to what can be.  Our faith creates space to sink our fears and float our hopes and know that God’s light is shining through it all.

So now I invite you all at home to take a few moments to float your hopes and sink your fears.  Name them outload or meditate on them quietly.  Take a deep breath as the rocks hit the bottom of the bowl and as the cranberries bounce back up to the top.

And then I invite you to light your candle and let God’s light shine within your hopes and your fears.  This is a light that is more powerful than darkness itself, more powerful than a year that knocked us over, but will not keep us down.  As you light this candle, know that God is faithful – and that it is through our faith in God through Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrates two days ago that we are made whole.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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!

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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.

Preaching in Pumps Podcast Artwork

Sharing The Good News

I preached this sermon at the installation of the Rev. Dr. Gregory Gray as the pastor of the Thompson Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.  I was so honored he asked me to preach!  It kind of felt like a full-circle moment, because I preached at his husband Jon’s installation in 2013 – at the time, Greg was still in Georgia!  It’s crazy to look back at how far we – and our churches! – have come since them.

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Sarah Weaver
Thompson Congregational Church
Thompson, CT
September 16, 2018

Psalm 9
Isaiah 61:1-4
Romans 10:5-15
Luke 4:14-21

Sharing This Good News

I hope the prophet Isaiah will forgive me, but I felt compelled to paraphrase his words, just a bit …

The Holy Spirit has come upon me,
because the Rev. Dr. Greg Gray has asked me to preach at his installation;
he has called me to preach the Gospel to everyone who has gathered here today,
to encourage those in this congregation, wherever they are on their journey through life,
to proclaim an official end to the transition time between settled pastors,
and to tell the church that something really amazing is happening in their midst;
to proclaim a time of new beginnings
a celebration of the conclusion of one chapter;
and the beginning of a new one;
to reassure you that this new chapter is full of great possibilities, grace that is still yet to be uncovered and hope that surpasses all understanding—
to give you courage in the face of adversity,
joy and gratefulness instead of fear and frustration,
a bold voice of praise and thanksgiving instead of a trepid heart.
They will be called Thompson Congregational, United Church of Christ,
the church called to show this community what it means to love God will all your hearts, soul, mind and strength; as well to love your neighbors just as much. And also what it means to teach this love to others creating new disciples.
They shall continue their efforts to re-build after the fire,
they shall repair not only the physical space, but the spiritual space, as well;
they shall repair the building that has been damaged,
but hold fast to the truth that their community is and will be strengthened and lifted up by God and God alone; for they are the Church, the Body of Christ, Thompson Congregational, United Church of Christ.

Friends, allow me to introduce myself – I am the Rev. Sarah Weaver; I am the pastor of the Rehoboth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Rehoboth, MA.  I bring greetings and congratulations from my congregation, who – seven years later – still remembers what it feels like to take a giant exhale when the search process and transition between settled pastors was finally over.

So let’s start off by taking that big exhale, shall we?

It is an honor and a privilege and a joy to be here with you all this afternoon.  Greg, I never shared this with you, but I was truly touched that you asked me to preach today; that you trusted me with this moment, what I know is an important moment for you all, as a church.  So thank you, Greg, thank you, Thompson Congregational Church and thank you to the Windham Association for welcoming me here today.

“Hope is the belief in the good that is yet to come. It is the thing that gives us the courage to keep going forward.”

I am quoting two of your own members from a video called “Advent Hope” that was posted on your church Facebook page last December.  Greg opened the video with images from during and immediately following the devastating fire you experienced in 2016, but then, in a bold testament to the strength and perseverance of this church, said these powerful words:

“But we still find hope here.”

You were asked to answer the question, “What does hope mean to you?” and I was so touched by those two responses, “Hope is the belief in the good that is yet to come” and, “Hope is the thing that gives us the courage keep going forward,” because they showed me that, even in times of uncertainty, you know that God is still calling you to journey forward. Thompson Congregational Church, you havethat hope that surpasses all understanding; hope that your story is not over yet, hope that you will rebuild, hope that your church will not only survive, but thrive in the days and weeks and months and years to come, generation after generation.

Our Gospel reading comes to us from the Gospel of Luke, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.  He began his ministry by reading the same words that we just heard read from the Prophet Isaiah.  What I love about looking at these two passages next to one another is that it reminds us – it reassures us – that these prophesies were not a one-time thing; that they can still be fulfilled today.  These words were just as relevant to those that Jesus spoke to as the ones Isaiah was prophesying to.

And they are just as relevant to us here today.

You, Thompson Congregational Church, are being given garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning. Installing Greg as your settled pastor will affirm what God has known to be true all along; that the hope you spoke about in last year’s Advent video is alive and not only inspiring you to rebuild, but also to continue to proclaim the Good News.

Because here is the really cool thing about you guys – you did not let a fire stop you from being the Church.

When Greg first asked me to preach today, I told him that I really wanted to come out and visit at some point so I could get to know you all before today.  But, life happened – and, of course, it is hard for pastors to be with other churches on Sunday mornings – and I never got to come out.  So this past week, I have been trying to get to know you virtually.  I clicked through your website and Facebook page and various articles that came up in a google search.  I looked through pictures and watched videos; and I was inspired by what I saw.

You see, I kind of expected to see more about the fire; about how the church was affected and what is going to happen next. But do you know what I saw instead?

A church that blesses backpacks that are going to be donated to the local schools, first responders in the community and animals, both small and large.

A church that is committed to making a stand against bullying, participating in anti-bullying rallies and offering support to children and youth in the community.

A church that reaches out to individuals and families who have been impacted by addiction through the Holbrook Fund.

A church that collaborates with civic organizations and the local recreation department to host events that are fun for people of all ages.  A church that knows that the true depth of their strength does not come from what happens inside their walls, but outside in the community.

A church that believes in the power of singing together and praying together and eating together.

Thompson Congregational Church, even in the face of adversity, you have continued to look outward.  You have continued to respond to Christ’s call to love God and then love others.  You have continued to proclaim the Good News of God’s love, light and grace and, as Paul wrote to the church in Roman, “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

And there are beautiful, beautiful feet in this congregation.

Which brings me to my next point.

Paul told the church in Rome that people will not hear the Good News without someone proclaiming it to them.  And this is a charge that we all need to take seriously today.  Christianity is an experiential and a shared religion; 2,000 years ago, the only reason people knew that Christ had risen was because the women who experienced the Risen Christ went and told other people about it.

And that piece of our faith – the piece where we tell others what we have experienced and how our faith (and, specifically, our church) has changed our lives – is more important now than it ever has been.

Paul said that, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the death, you will be saved.”  Thompson Congregational Church, there is an amazing story that is being written here; a story of hope, a story of resurrection and a story of new possibilities. You need to confess that story with your lips; you need to tell your family and your friends, your neighbors and your coworkers.  You need to tell the people that you know and the strangers that you have just met.

You have to tell people about the ways that God has worked within this church and the ways that God is still working within this church; the ways that God has kept hope alive in this church, the ways that the God that you put your faith and trust in has never left your side.  Display the glory of God, like Isaiah prophesied. Bring this Good News to your community; invite people into your story; pray that their lives might be changed, too.

Greg, I have two gifts for you this morning. The first is a framed print of that passage from Romans, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Because I think this passage is going to define a lot of what you all do here at Thompson Congregational Church.

And I am not just talking about your shoe collection, either.

Because of devastating circumstances, you all understand that a church is more than its building; you all understand what it means to be church and to do church out in the community.  You know that it takes collaboration, creativity, patience.  You believe that it is the hard work you do, but also the grace God gives that enables you to make a difference.  You all are ready to march, dance, stroll, crawl and skip out into the community and bring the Good News.

And I, for one, cannot wait to see how the community will be changed.

The second gift I have for you this morning comes from a stained glass artist in Chepachet, Rhode Island.  You see, one of the things I have always been drawn to is the sun rising behind the church in your logo.  Because it reminds me that, even in the darkest part of night, the sun will always rise again.

As Christians, we hold fast to the truth that, even in the darkest moments of our lives, the Son – S-O-N – will always rise again.  The Good News that he preached, that he lived out and that he called us into will rise up above all else.

This is the Good News, friends.  This is the Good News.

And it is time to share it with the world.

Congratulations, Thompson Congregational Church.  Continue the work that has already started.  Hold onto that hope you spoke so poignantly of last year.  May your ashes be turn into garland; your mourning into gladness; your faint spirit into a mantle of praise.

And may your feet be beautiful as they are called to bring the Good News.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.