Redefining A Polarizing Narrative

I explained this in the sermon, but the timing of where we are in the Year of Mark is not totally lined up with the timing of where we are in the church year.  Technically we are already in Jerusalem – we skipped over the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, because we are going to read that in a few weeks on Palm Sunday.  So give yourself a minute, get yourself to Jerusalem and here’s my sermon from this past week!

Enjoy …

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Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 17, 2019

Mark 12:13-27

Redefining A Polarizing Narrative

Shortly after I started in Rehoboth eight years ago, I was unpacking books in my office when I came across a stack of books on conflict management.  Someone saw that stack and said, “We don’t have any conflict here, you can get rid of those.”

Right.

Because a church that is comprised of and governed by 200+ individuals who all have their own thoughts, ideas and opinions never has any conflict.

I did not get rid of those books.

But here’s the thing – sometimes we talk about conflict as if it is a bad thing and yet, it seems to me that conflict is just a very human thing.  As imperfect human beings living in a very broken world, we are bound to come across individuals and groups of people who do not necessarily agree with us, right? It it normal; it is deeply embedded into our history as human beings; in fact, it is found in this morning’s scripture. In both of these stories Jesus finds himself in the middle of political and religious conflicts.

For those of you who love when I preach in a very casual and not-super-academic way, I apologize in advance, because in order to more fully understand this morning’s scripture reading, you kind of have to have a good grasp of the context of what is going on; so let’s start with a history lesson, shall we?

First of all, it is important to note that Jesus is in Jerusalem.  Over the past couple of weeks in our scriptures for the Year of Mark, he has been traveling and pointed towards Jerusalem, but in this morning’s scripture he has arrived.

Now – you might be wondering, when did he arrive? Did I miss it?  Well, yes, in fact, you did miss it; we all missed it because we actually skipped over it and will come back to it in a few weeks on Palm Sunday.

This is an example of where the Year of Mark and the church year don’t exactlyline up.  So chronologically in the Gospel of Mark, the whole narrative of Jesus triumphantly arriving into Jerusalem on a donkey while everyone waves palm branches has already happened.  We just have not read it yet, because it is our tradition to read it the week before Easter on Palm Sunday.

That is the first thing; so I will give you all a second to get yourselves to Jerusalem.

The second thing is that this scripture talks about three groups of people – the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Sadducees. These are different groups of people.

The Pharisees are a group of particularly observant and fairly influential Jews from around the 2nd century BC to the 1stcentury AD.  In the New Testament they are often painted in a negative light because they most commonly play the role of Jesus’ opponents.

The Herodians are not well known; in fact, they are only mentioned two or three times (depending on the translation) in the Gospel of Mark, once in the Gospel of Matthew and never in the Gospels of Luke or John.  They are likely followers of Herod Antipas, who was the tetrarch (or governor) of Galilee and Perea from 4BC to 39AD.  They are never talked about autonomously; they are always mentioned with the Pharisees and, together with the Pharisees, they oppose Jesus.

The Sadducees are a group of devout jews that we do not know much about; they are mentioned occasionally in the New Testament (not just in the Gospels, but in the book of Acts, as well) and they are often mentioned in conjunction with the Pharisees because they were lumped into this group of opponents of Jesus.  However, the Sadducees are markedly different from the Pharisees because their worldview is solely shaped by the Pentateuch (the first five books of the bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and they do not believe in life after death.

The third piece of this scripture’s history that is important to understand is about the coin – the denarius – Jesus asks for in his exchange between the Pharisees and the Herodians.  A denarius it is a Roman form of currency, a reminder of the Roman domination that was happening during Jesus’ life.  This exchange between Jesus and these groups of devout Jews sheds light on the growing tension between the Roman and the Jewish authorities.

And here is where the conflicts arise.

In their own way, both of the exchanges in this morning’s scripture reading – first the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and the Herodians about paying taxes to the Roman Emperor and then the exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees about resurrection – are meant to trap Jesus.

If Jesus says to the Pharisees and the Herodians, no, you do not need to pay taxes to the emperor, then he will get in trouble with the Roman authorities; but if he says, yes, you do need to pay taxes to the emperor, then he will get in trouble with the Jewish leaders.

And similarly, when the Sadducees offer up a scenario in which a woman whose husband(s) dies then marries each of the subsequent brothers in the family tree (which is in accordance to Pentateuchal law, which, as I mentioned, their worldview is shaped by) and then ask Jesus, in resurrection, whose wife the woman will be, there is no right way for Jesus to answer this question because the Sadducees do not believe in resurrection in the first place.

So Jesus is kind of in a lose-lose situation here and any response he gives is likely to escalate the conflicts that already exist between these groups and Roman authorities; and yet, both of his responses are brilliant.  He does not give a simple answer to either one of the questions.  First Jesus asks the Pharisees and the Herodians whose face is on the denarius and then tells them to give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to give to God what belongs to God.  And then he questions the Sadducees understanding both of scripture and of the power of God.

In both of his responses, Jesus redefines the terms of the conversation.  He does not answer the questions directly, because they are not the questions that need to be asked.  Jesus says that there is no simple answer to these questions about human law and that, in fact, they are missing the whole point; that what is really important is not about right and wrong according to the human laws that we have written over time, but about God’s power in this world to do unexplainable and transformational things.

And this, I believe is the heart of true conflict management.

Jesus lives in a very polarizing world; we see this in our scripture today where the tension between the Roman authorities and the Jewish authorities is brought to the surface.  But when he is questioned about whose side he is on, Jesus essentially steps away from the polarization and says that what really matters is about something much bigger than any of us can fully grasp.

I would argue that today we live in an equally polarizing world; a world where the divides between our differences grow wider every day.  Unfortunately, in our world today we are not encouraged to learn from one another’s differences, but rather to stand starkly in opposition of them.

Over the past couple of weeks in the Year of Mark, I have been saying that the stakes are really high; that they are pointed towards Jerusalem, that the cross is on the horizon and that this is a matter of life and death.  And here’s the thing – sometimes I inadvertently say this as if the same is not true today.

But it is.

It is a matter of life and death.  This week, 49 Muslims were killed and 20 were seriously injured because a man chose to stand starkly in opposition of their beliefs and attack them in their space of worship rather than to learn from their differences.

This is the kind of world we live in today and it is very much a matter of life and death.  It is not that different from the world Jesus lived in.  Conflicts still define much of who we are; they threaten to divide us even further.

And whether we are talking about devastating global terrorist attacks or petty arguments that we might have with our families or our friends or within our own communities or with random strangers on Facebook, I think it serves us all well to be reminded of what really matters.

That God is here with us.  That what matters is not our law, but God’s law.  That it is more important to be faithful than to be right.

Kim Peranzi spoke eloquently at her husband, Lou’s, memorial service last week.  When talking about their strong marriage, she said something that stuck with all of us.  She said, “We loved each other more than we wanted to win an argument.”  And I loved that because it reminded all of us what really is important, not just in marriages, but in all relationships we have with other people.

And isn’t that what Jesus is saying here? That when we find ourselves in a conflict with another individual or group of people that we need to focus on what really matters; that instead of picking one side or the other, we need to step outside of the polarization and try to close the gap between the two sides.

That we need to put our faith and our trust and our hope in God and not our human rules and definitions of right and wrong.

That we should not try to untangle our human differences at the cost of people’s lives or even their happiness or their dignity.

That it is not about being right, but about being faithful.

That we may never have concrete or tangible answers to the questions we have about how to live our lives, because God’s presence and power surpasses our human understanding of how it all works.

That we can redefine the polarizing narrative of the world we are living in today.

The season of Lent is a penitential season that reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice; but even more than that, it is a journey that we are all invited to take, year after year.  A journey where we look at who we are, who we want to be and (perhaps most importantly) who God wants us to be.  A journey where we humbly confess the times when we have fallen short, ask for forgiveness and seek wisdom as we try to make amends and learn and grow from those mistakes.

And so this morning, I invite you to think about this Lenten journey as an opportunity to look at a conflict in your life – one part of your life where you currently stand starkly in opposition with someone or something (this can be something really big or really insignificant and petty).

And then think about what really matters.

And then try to step out of that conflict – even if it is just for a moment – and see what happens next.

I still have my stack of books on conflict management – although you might be encouraged to know that when I pulled them off the shelf for this morning’s sermon, there was a layer of dust on them.

But here’s the thing about these books – they are not meant to discourage or shame us in any way.  They are meant to reassure us of our own humanity – our broken humanity that sometimes needs a little bit of help to be made whole again.

So if you are facing conflict in your life – in your relationships, in your work, in your community or you are simply grieving the conflicts and brokenness in our own country and in the world today – I invite you, like Jesus, to step out of the polarization and see where God is leading.

We can redefine the narratives of the conflicts that exist in this world – big and small.  I firmly believe that.  But we have to ask the right questions.  We have to focus on what really matters.

May God be with us.  May God change our lives – and our world – in a way that is unexplainable but transformational.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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A Faith That Is Normal

Here are my reflections from Ash Wednesday!  We had a really lovely service at RCC – small, only about 40 people – but we roped off the side and back pews and had everyone sit up from and it felt a lot more intimate.

Photo Mar 06, 9 16 30 AM

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Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday

A Faith That Is Normal

Do you think what we do here is normal?

Not just tonight on Ash Wednesday, but church in general – is it normal?

Every year I prepare the ashes for Ash Wednesday by burning the leftover palms from Palm Sunday the previous year.  As a Church, we do this because it brings the church year full circle.  The palms that close out one Lenten season open the next one.  And, in doing this, it reminds us of the frailty of who we are as human beings, as sinners.  We try, but sometimes we fail.  We seek to do the right thing, but sometimes we fall short.  Our shouts of, “hosanna!” become cries to, “crucify, crucify him!”

And yet, in all of this, there is hope, right? There is a God that loves us – ALL of us; who creates us, redeems us and sustains us.  There is a light that shines, even in our darkest of moments. There is a love that is stronger than hate and division, that always wins.  There is a grace that is more powerful than our imperfections and our shortcomings.

This is the Christian promise.  This is why Jesus came to this earth.  This is why we remember his crucifixion before we celebrate his resurrection.  Because as people living on this side of the resurrection we know that this hope is real.

I think the process of burning the palms in preparation for Ash Wednesday is actually a really cool experience, so last year I invited the confirmation class to burn the palms with me.  We had a meeting already scheduled for the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday and, in so many ways, it even added to me experience to have the opportunity to share this process with others.

This year, I asked the Deacons – who had a meeting scheduled for Tuesday night (yesterday) – if they would like to burn the palms with me at the end of their meeting.  This meeting, as I am sure most of you know, had to be rescheduled because of the visitation and funeral for Mark Johnson.  I thought about burning the palms before the visitation began yesterday, but ran out of time; so I figured I would just do it after everybody left.  I didn’t think it would be normal if I did it while people were still here from the funeral.

After Mark’s service ended yesterday, I looked at the crowd in Fellowship Hall and realized that I did not need to wait until everyone left to burn the palms.  After all, this is part of who we are, as Christians; hosting an Ash Wednesday service is part of our identity, as a church.  No one was going to mind – and even more so I thought people might appreciate seeing us live out the faith we had just proclaimed during the service.

And, as an added bonus, if the fire got out of control, half the fire department was there!

And so Missy, Nathan and Andrew, the funeral director, and I gathered up the palms from last year that had been drying out in my office.  We took them outside and lit them; and we talked about life while they burned down to ash.

I think I had this idea in my head that burning the palms in community has to have some sort of formal worship element attached to it.  Last year when I did it with the confirmation class, I prepared a little service and we sang, Amazing Graceat the end.

And that was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. But my experience this year was amazing, because real life was happening around us while we were doing it.  People were gathered in Fellowship Hall talking and eating a telling stories, people were milling around the parking lot and people were leaving and walking to their cars.  And it didn’t feel disrespectful to the process; it felt normal. It felt like the world inside the walls of the church and the world outside the walls of the church came together and what we were doing was normal.

And it gave me hope.  It gave me hope that the work we are doing here, at the church, is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all people, no matter who they are or where they are on their journey through life.  It gave me hope that when we leave this church tonight and wear our ashes out into the world, other people won’t stare or assume we are some crazy religious people, but that it will seem normal.

That church will seem normal.

That faith will seem normal.

And therein lies my hope for Lent.  That we will not only strengthen our faith throughout this season, but that, on Easter morning, we will boldly proclaim resurrection in a way that is normal; in a way that people can hear and believe.

Tonight we gather to begin the Lenten season.  We gather to repent and believe in the Good News. We gather to wear a sign of the cross on our foreheads; a sign that will remind us of what is to come, that boldly declares our sins and our shortcomings, but also that assures us that no matter where we are, what we have done and what our lives look like, that God is with us, that God loves us and that God will never give up on us. We gather because it is our normal.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

 

Getting Caught Up In The Drama Of The Easter Story

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads or hears my sermon that I for sure wasted four hours of my life on the two-part Bachelor finale this week and y’all – I am so glad it is over!  What a hot mess, but everyone seems happy in the end, so – okay?

Let’s all focus on Lent and get caught up in some actual world-changing drama, shall we??

Enjoy …

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Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 10, 2019

Mark 12:1-12

Getting Caught Up In The Drama Of The Easter Story

I have to be honest, on Monday morning, when I thought about the week ahead – which included three funerals, our Ash Wednesday service and our regular Sunday morning worship, I almost called someone else to preach for me this morning.

And then I remembered that I am entirely too much of a control freak to do that.

In all seriousness, though (and not to make this about me or anything, because it is not) I do want to thank you all for the love and support you have given me as I have navigated a particularly challenging and somewhat exhausting week of ministry.  Thank you for the kind texts and emails and calls, for the coffee and food deliveries and, especially, for the prayers that held me up as I did this hard, but grace-filled work.

Thank you to everyone who helped out in some way, shape or form with all of our services this week, as well as the regular happenings of our church.  I am so grateful for this church, for our village, for the Body of Christ.

One of the reasons that I was hesitant to just call someone else to preach was because it is the first Sunday of Lent and I think it is important for us, amidst the many moving parts that are happening in our church right now, to acknowledge that Lent has begun and really try to enter the season together.

Around 40 of us gathered on Wednesday evening for our Ash Wednesday service.  It’s funny, because this is never a well-attended service (although it was better this year because I made the choir sing!); and when I asked people who do not come about it, while some people have a hard time with the timing of it all (being in the middle of the week at night), a lot of people kind of give me a funny look and say, “Isn’t that a Catholic thing?”

In fairness, I grew up thinking the same thing. In fact, the first Ash Wednesday service I ever attended was one that I led as a ministry intern when I was in seminary. But as time has gone on, I really have not only embraced, but also realized just how much I need to mark the different moments of the church year.

And so, for me, Ash Wednesday is not just something you do because that is what some religious tradition is dictating you do, but an opportunity to pause and intentionally enter the Lenten season.

Now, this begs the question, why is it important that we intentionally enter the Lenten season?

Well, I am so glad that you asked.

On Monday night, I was watching The Bachelor (which y’all know is my one vice that I hate that I love but, for some reason, just cannot stop watching); and I will not recap this train wreck for you, but I will say that, all season long, they have been teasing this very dramatic moment, which happened on Monday night.  So Bruce comes home and I am very excitedly telling him all about it and, at one point, he stops me and says, “But don’t you know how this whole thing ends?”

Because, if you will also recall, I not only watch the show, but I also read spoilers online so I know what happens before the show actually airs.

And here is the bizarre part about the whole thing (I mean, of course, more bizarre than the fact that I watch it to begin with). It doesn’t really matter that I know how it is going to end; I am still caught up in the suspense and the drama of it all.

Now, I know what you are thinking; she really should have called someone else to preach this morning.

But here is where this comes back to Lent. The same is true of us, as Christians. As people living on this side of the resurrection, we know how this story is going to end.

When we enter the Lenten season, we know that it is going to end with resurrection; but going through this season – with Jesus in the wilderness, gathered around the table for the Passover meal, experiencing the betrayal, trial and crucifixion and then waiting with agony, but also with hope, for resurrection – it is hard not to get caught up in the suspense and the drama of it all.

Because, after all, this is why we gather in the first place.  This is why the Christian Church first took form.  This is why we believe in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ because that love conquered the grave on that first Easter morning.

This morning’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Mark is parable.  And in this parable Jesus talks about a man who planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants, then went away to another country, sending slaves back to the tenants to collect the man’s share of the crops.  Each of the slaves the man sent were seized, beaten and killed. Eventually the man decided to send his son, thinking that there was no way the tenants would kill his son; but they did.

So, Jesus says, the man had no choice but to destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others, citing the scripture:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes?

We know what Jesus is talking about here, right?  His authority is being called into question and, as people living on this side of the resurrection, we get it!  Heis the son that is going to be sent to die; heis the cornerstone.

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.

The suspense and the drama are building here, too. The chief priests and the scribes and the elders that were questioning Jesus’ authority were starting to get nervous. They knew something big was about to happen and that it was going to change the trajectory of their lives in a way that the world would never be the same.

And maybe it is just because I am a church nerd, but even living on this side of the resurrection and knowing how the story ends, it is hard not to get caught up in it all.

Because no matter what your Christology is – what you believe about Christ and who he was – (which I know we all fall on various ends of the spectrum) I think we can all agree that the Easter narrative is a compelling story; it unfolds the parable we heard in this morning’s scripture reading.  This man, who came into our world – our imperfect and broken world – in the most humble and simple way, is the son.  He is the son who God called from heaven at his baptism and named, “You are my Son, the Beloved,” whose authority was called into question from the very beginning, who preached a message of light, love and grace, who called others to be in ministry with him, who reached out to the marginalized and the oppressed, who healed people who were sick and in pain.  He is the son who invited his friends – who he knew were going to betray him – to share one final Passover meal with him, who died on a cross and who, after three days, was resurrected to new life.

And therein lies the hope of the Christian story.

That light always shines.

That love always wins.

That grace can always be uncovered.

That resurrection is real.

And so this is why I wanted to preach this morning; because I wanted to, as a congregation, intentionally enter the Lenten season together.  I wanted to remind you that this season matters, that it boldly proclaims a story that is the reason that we gather in the first place.  I wanted to invite you all, even though you know how it ends, to get caught up in the suspense and the drama of it all so that, on Easter morning, you can be just as surprised and overwhelmed by grace as the women who found the empty tomb were.

Consequently, while I was writing this sermon on Thursday night, Bruce came home from choir and I asked him if he wanted to watch the episode of NCIS that I had seen advertised during the Super Bowl that was supposed to be extremely suspenseful and dramatic.  Bruce looked at me and asked, “How long ago did it air?”

“Beginning of February.”

“Did you read about it so you already know what happens?’

I think you all know the answer to that question.

It doesn’t matter.

It want to watch it anyway.

Friends, the Lenten season is upon us.  And this year, I would encourage you, no matter what is going on in your life – no matter how many moving parts there might be – to get caught up in the drama and the suspense of the Easter story. Because it is compelling, it is real, it is human and it is the cornerstone of our faith.

And so on Easter morning, I want you to feel that hope; I want you to not only celebrate resurrection, but know that it is real and that it is still happening in your life today.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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