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.

Celebrate & Wait

Happy Palm Sunday!

It is week six of our Lenten sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul and the theme for this morning is Celebrate & Wait.  I had a great time preaching through this series and I look forward to taking a look at some of the other series in the future.

I have always struggled with the paradox of preaching Palm Sunday when I know Maundy Thursday & Good Friday are coming.  In light of everything that happened in Syria last week, I think I lived out that paradox as I was preparing my sermon this week.  It’s always so hard to find a balance.

We really had a really wonderful worship this morning at RCC this morning, which was exactly what I needed after a challenging sermon writing week and just the icing on the cake of a great weekend that started with our Easter Egg Hunt yesterday.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 9, 2017

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11

Celebrate & Wait

We have come to the end of our six-week sermon series, Boot Camp for the Soul.

When my brother-in-law finished boot camp in 2009, the Weavers all eagerly descended upon Cape May for the graduation festivities. I have to admit, the pomp and circumstance of it all was kind of exciting. There was a buzz in the air when we arrived and the anticipation only grew as we sat through the family orientation and then were shuffled into the big gymnasium for the ceremony.

When the music started and the non-rates all marched in, cheers erupted as family members frantically scanned the group to find their people (which, as you might know, is more difficult than one might think since they all kind of look the same at that point). Eventually I started to hear shouts of, “There he is!” and, “Do you see her over there?” Tears filled the eyes of proud mothers, fathers, spouses and siblings as they saw their loved ones for the first time in weeks.

The ceremony, itself, was impressive. There was music, marching and speeches that inspired not only the graduates, but also those who had come to support them.

I regret to inform you all that I have no such pomp and circumstance for us this morning as we gather and complete our own spiritual boot camp. Though it is Palm Sunday, which does have a celebratory nature to it. It is on this Sunday ever year when we enthusiastically sing hymns that make us feel as though we are marching, wave our palms and shout, “Hosanna!”

(It is also on this Sunday afternoon every year when I usually say to Bruce, “Next year I am getting a donkey!”)

Though, I have to be honest, as much as I love the, dare I say, pomp and circumstance of Palm Sunday, I have always struggled with the paradox of a story that I know does not end with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. I know that the shouts of, “Hosanna!” we hear today will be a distant memory on Thursday night as we remember those cries, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” It is hard for me to full enter this celebration when I feel as though part of me is just waiting for what is going to happen in Calvary.

As I began to think about my sermon for this week, part of me wished this Boot Camp for the Soul sermon series was set up to go through Easter Sunday. I just kept thinking, “But we are not done yet!” After all, we have one more hurdle to get through, do we not? We have to get past the Passion Narrative this week; we have to see Jesus’ journey to the cross through before we are truly ready to see how this boot camp has transformed us.

As it turns out, the creators of this sermon series actually did this intentionally.

In the flurry of celebration, Jesus’ followers may forget that the journey is not really over, that darker days remain before Jesus’ final victory. Their biggest challenge still lies ahead. Boot camp, after all, is not an end unto itself. It is preparation for the challenges still to come.[1]

I actually really appreciate the way this prompt for the end of our spiritual boot camp honors the complexity of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Because, quite frankly, it mirrors the complexity of what is going on in our lives and in the world right now.

It was hard not to be moved by the images and videos that came out of Syria this week. I do not know about the rest of you, but I had a really difficult time watching news footage following the chemical attacks. I actually closed out of my web browser at one point; I turned away and thought to myself, “I just can’t watch this right now.”

And the truth is, I don’t have to. I can turn it off; no one is making me watch the news or be informed about what is doing on in the world. If I wanted to, I could live my life in a sheltered bubble.

And boy, don’t I want to sometimes.

But this week I eventually asked myself, what kind of Christian would I be if I spent the last few days of Lent remembering and reflecting on Jesus’ violent and brutal death on the cross, but then ignored the realities of the violent and brutal things that are happening in our world right now? These are the hard parts of our faith that we have to face; that I believe we are being called to face.

Which brings me back to Palm Sunday; because, as much as I would like to, I do not think we can fully compartmentalize what is happening today with what is going to happen later this week. But I do think that in the midst of the paradox, we still have to celebrate this moment.

When my brother-in-law graduated from boot camp, the hard work was not over. In fact, eight year later, I think he would tell you the hard work was really only beginning. But that did not mean we should not have celebrated that moment.

And that is what we are doing here this morning.

The truth is, Palm Sunday is not just about celebrating part of Jesus’ story, it is about celebrating the hope that he carried with him in that moment. Many scholars have compared his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to imperial Roman processions, which really sheds light on his popularity at the time.[2] At that point, people had followed Jesus for three years. They had witnessed his miracles, experienced the healing of his touch and listened to the Good News he so boldly proclaimed.[3] I can only imagine the excitement, buzz and anticipation that must have been in the air that day (probably a little bit more than we experienced at Boot Camp graduation in Cape May!). This was a moment of hope for the people who followed Jesus.

In the world we live in today, it is just as important to celebrate these moments of hope. Far too often, we are struck by images of pain, suffering and violence and they can be so overwhelming at times. But as Christians, we are people of the resurrection; we believe in the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we believe in the Good News that Jesus preached throughout his lifetime and that has sustained our faith for 2,000 years.

Today we celebrate the moments of hope in our lives, both big and small. We celebrate the sun that is shining after a long week of rain, the joy and laughter of our children at yesterday’s Easter Egg Hunt, the beautiful music that fills our sanctuary today and the gift that is the fellowship of this community. We celebrate a faith that reminds us, over and over again, that love will win, that light will shine and that grace will prevail; a faith that was stronger than Jesus’ death on the cross and that will continue to be stronger than whatever we will face in our lives today.

But as we celebrate, we do not close ourselves off to the hard truths of this world; we wait for what we know is coming. We celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem knowing what is to come later this week. We celebrate the moments of hope in our lives knowing that people are experiencing real pain, suffering and sadness, both in our community and around the world. We celebrate the radical and redeeming message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ knowing there is still so much work that needs to be done.

And as people faith, we remember that we are being called to do this work.

Boot camp is over; but the real work is only beginning.

The good news is that the hard work we have all done during this six-week spiritual boot camp – thinking about the need for change, resetting, hydrating, redefining and facing those dead ends – has prepared us for the journey that lies ahead. We are ready for the challenges of Holy Week. We are ready for the hardships we will face in our lives. We are ready to watch the news and engage in some of the hard things that are happening today. We are ready to share our moments of hope and the good news of the resurrection with a world that so desperately needs hear it.

(And this is a total shameless plug, but if you are able, I would strongly encourage you to come and worship with us on Thursday evening at 7PM. It is a very powerful service; we will hear the narrative of the foot washing, share in the sacrament of Holy Communion and then the Passion Narrative will be read. A labyrinth will be open in Fellowship Hall for an hour before and after the service, as well as from 8AM to 8PM on Good Friday.)

This morning, we hear the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as told in the Gospel of Matthew. As I was reading it this week, I was particularly struck by Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when he said, “If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.”[4]

So what does God need from us today? What does God need from us as individuals and us as a community of faith?

Today, may we – like the psalmist sings – give thanks to God for God is good![5] May we rejoice,[6] may we see what is marvelous[7] and may we shout with great joy, proclamation and thanksgiving that blessed are those who come in the name of the God.[8]

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley, pg. 29
[2] A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley, pg. 28
[3] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, pg. 152 & 154 (Pastoral Perspective)
[4] Matthew 21:3, NRSV
[5] Psalm 118:1, 29, NRSV
[6] Psalm 118:24, NRSV
[7] Psalm 118:23, NRSV
[8] Psalm 118:26, NRSV