Hope In God’s Promise

In these times of social distancing, I am grateful for the ability to connect with people through online presence.  While it does not replace in-person community (and I know there are those who do not have access that we still need to call!) it was cool to “gather” with my people this morning and to feel like we were still together, in a way.

Here is my sermon. We did a livestream from our closed Facebook group so we were able to share prayer requests.  For privacy sake, I edited that part out!

Love you all – stay safe.

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 15, 2020

John 4:5-42

Hope In God’s Promise

I have really enjoyed, over the past year-and-a-half, wandering away from the lectionary and participating in sermon series – whether they were scripture-based (where we looked at a big block of scripture linearly) or thematic (where we picked a theme and then used various scriptures to touch on the different topics within that theme).  It really has allowed me to elevate my preaching in such a way that ties it together from week to week.  With a few exceptions here and there, really this is the first time in my nine years here that I have been able to create this much continuity in worship.  It does not necessarily feel like we are having individual worship services in a vacuum every week, but that there is a continuum.  We are building on something every week, using lessons from prior scriptures and sermons to support and enhance what we are thinking about that week.

A few weeks ago, I was starting to get nervous about planning for my maternity leave and what that would mean for worship.

(Little did I know that would be the least of my problems.)

From a worship planning perspective, it is certainly much easier to preach from the lectionary – there are countless resources available that contain notes on the scriptures, liturgy (like calls to worship, prayers of confession, etc.), children sermon ideas and hymn suggestions.  Putting together a cohesive worship service is – dare I say it? – much easier when I am preaching from the lectionary, as opposed to preaching through the lectionary and have to find all of that stuff in different places (or, in a lot of cases, create it myself) and then put it together.

Full disclosure, I opted for sanity and decided to work smarter, not harder.  I decided that, during this time of transition in my life, it made sense to step back into the lectionary so that worship was still strong and cohesive, but it would be manageable for me, amidst the rest of the craziness happening

Again – of course, I did not realize, at the time, just how much craziness there would be.)

I also assumed it would make for a smoother transition for someone coming in to cover my maternity leave.

So three weeks ago – on Transfiguration Sunday, our big Mardi Gras celebration – I became a “lectionary preacher” again.  And yesterday, as I was trying to gather my thoughts for today’s sermon (friends, they never talked about how to preach during global pandemic in seminary) I thought back to my sermons over the past three weeks.  The crazy thing is that, even though I did not intend for this to happen (and I certainly did not know what was going to unfold in our country this week), the three sermons that I have preached over the past several weeks – even they were not necessarily “connected” – have built on one another and prepared me – prepared us – for this moment.

Three weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we were on the mountaintop with Jesus and I focused on Peter’s words to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  We reflected on why, too, it was “good for us to be here” – to be the church, to gather as a community, to know that we are not alone.

Two weeks ago, we were in the wilderness with Jesus and we believed, even though it seemed hard, even at that time, that God is with us when we, too, are in the wilderness.

And last week we held in sacred hope the truth that this world – this messy and imperfect and chaotic world – is the world that Jesus came into, the world that God believed was worth saving.

And so, friends, this morning, I want to carry these messages with you as you meet Jesus at the well.

Remember that it is good for us to be here.  Even though “here” is not necessarily “together,” it is good for us to be here.  It is good for us to be gathering in this virtual space, to be connecting in a way that we are able to and to be worshiping God even though we are scared and anxious and not really sure what the future will hold.

Remember that God is with us in this wilderness that we have found ourselves in.  That we have not been abandoned.  That there are angels with us, no matter what they might look like – whether they look like a friend who texts us an encouraging message when we are at the end of our rope or a neighbor who runs errands for someone who is high-risk and should not be out and about or a fellow patron who lets you have the last roll of toilet paper at the store.

Remember that this is the world that Jesus came into.  This world – this messy and imperfect and chaotic and currently facing a global pandemic world – is the world that Jesus came into, the world that God believes is worth saving, the world whose story is scary right now, but not over yet.

And friends, I am not saying all of this because I was at a loss for words today and just decided to recycle old content.  I am saying this to remind us all that God has prepared us for this moment.  Our faith grounds us in a way that gives us strength, courage, wisdom, clarity and patience.  Many of us think that we have no idea how we are supposed to handle what is happening in our world right now, but I truly believe that our faith will carry us through in so many different ways.

Now let us all pick up our empty buckets and meet Jesus at the well.

On Friday morning, I could not help but note the irony of this week’s lectionary passage.  I was not at Jacob’s well with an empty bucket, but I was at the Swansea Target with an empty shopping cart.  Like the woman in this story, I had gone for what I thought I needed – physical sustenance – but came away with far more than that.

For so many reasons, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is an unlikely one.  He is a man and she is a woman; he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan.  There are real and cultural reasons why these two should never have even acknowledged one another and yet, here they are, talking about what it means to drink of the living water.

Again, the woman comes to the well for water – but she leaves with far more than that.  She leaves with the promise that she can drink of this living water and never be thirsty again.  She leaves with the hope in salvation.  She leaves knowing that she can worship God in spirit and truth.  She leaves proclaiming the truth about Jesus, with so many other Samaritans now believing in Jesus because of her testimony.

She shows up, just looking for water – and leaves with the promise that something so much better is coming.

But friends, remember it does not happen right away.  She has to wait.  She has to hold onto that hope.  Resurrection does not happen as soon as she walked away from Jacob’s well – in fact we are still at the very beginning of the Gospel, in chapter four.  It is going to take some time.

But just because the promise is not immediate does mean that it is not true.

And I feel like that is where we are today.  Because now we have to wait.  We have to wait in this moment of uncertainty and this moment of fear and this moment of anxiety.

And yet, this promise is still true for us.  This promise that we can drink of this living water and never be thirsty again.  This promise that we have hope in salvation.  This promise that we can worship God in spirit and truth – even if we are doing so virtually while practicing social distancing during a global pandemic.  This promise that we, too, can proclaim the truth about Jesus, with others believing because of our testimony.

Friends, while it might look different than it has in the past, now is the time to do church.  Now is the time to hold fast to our faith.  Now is the time to believe in what we cannot see, to shine light into the darkness of the world and to believe that God will make order out of this chaos.  Now is the time to, like the woman at the well, leave our empty buckets behind and go tell the world about this promise.

And then show the world what it means.

Our lives have been turned upside down – and the scary and unsettling part right now is that we are not reacting to something that has happened and is in the past, we are living through something that is still happening and we are unsure how long it will last.

But remember, we are still encountering Jesus – I really do believe that.

I mentioned that I found myself at Target on Friday with an empty shopping cart and the need for physical sustenance and came away with far more than that.  Now – did I come away with shelf-stable food, personal hygiene products, paper towels and a new Paw Patrol DVD?  Yes.  Yes, I did.

But I feel like I got more out of my shopping trip than that.  Because I saw the kindness of strangers, as everyone helped one another (from a safe distance, of course!).  I saw patience in the eyes and actions of people shopping – and gratitude for those who were working.  I heard people wishing one another good luck.  No one was pushing or shoving or complaining.  No one was judging other people’s reactions or responses. Everyone was just sort of in the mutual place of trying to prepare for something we do not understand.

Even though we were strangers, we were all in this together.

And while we may have all left the store with full hearts, I know I, personally, left with hope in the promise that we are all going to get through this together.

This hope has only gotten stronger over the past two days as I have witnessed people on social media or reaching out to me about ways that we can all help one another through this pandemic.  People have offered to run errands for their neighbors who are the most at-risk, to donate food to the food pantry and to send cards to the elderly in assisted living with restricted visitation policies.

One of the podcast hosts that I listen to said on social media yesterday that this is hard and isolating, but also super uniting and I thought there is such profound truth in that.  Because we are literally all going through the same thing right now.  All around our country, all around our world – we are united right now.

And so now we have to leave this “space” – this virtual space – and hold onto the same hope that the woman at the well did.  Hope that resurrection is coming, even if we have to wait for it.

So, my friends, I want to remind you all to breathe.  To take care of yourself – physically, but also emotionally and mentally.  Stay educated, but also know your limits and step away from the media coverage if it is starting to be too much for you.  Go outside – get some fresh air.  Reach out to someone if you are starting to feel isolated and anxious.

And then let us do church.  In a way that is safe and accessible – let us take care of the most vulnerable during this time.  Even if it is just sending a card or picking up the phone and calling some of our older members who do not have internet access – that WILL make a difference.

And pray.  Pray for health and safety.  Pray for wisdom and guidance.  Pray for patience and encouragement.  Pray for strength and relief from the loneliness you might feel.  Show up at that well with an empty bucket – maybe looking for one thing, but open to receive another.

Because you never know when you might encounter Jesus.

Friends, during these trying times, do not let go of God’s promise to us.

It is good for us to be here today.  To remember that we are not alone in this wilderness, that God believes that our world is still worth saving and that God’s promise is real, even if it is not immediate.

Thanks to be to God!
Amen.

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This Is The World That Jesus Came Into

Hi friends!

I know we are living through crazy and surreal times right now.  We, like churches all across the country (and world!), are taking extra precautions right now to protect our community against the Corona Virus.  We are following guidelines issued by the United Church of Christ and limiting our human contact, which means engaging in alternative forms of passing of the peace, not having greeting lines and not inviting people to join hands where I would have before (usually the kids hold hands for their prayer at the children’s sermon and we hold hands for the benediction).  We are asking people to be mindful of their own germs and to not come to church if they are sick – I did notice our attendance was down last week, but I wonder if any of that had to do with the time change as well (zzz).

Anyway – one of the ways worship can still be accessible to my community during this outbreak is through this space!  So here is my sermon from Sunday.  We are back on the lectionary for Lent and I was preaching out of John.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 8, 2020

John 3:1-17

This Is The World That Jesus Came Into

So how was everybody’s week?

Do you feel a sense of calm right now?  Or, perhaps, did you read or see anything in the news that may have caused either your blood pressure to go up or you to feel a sense of stress or aggravation?

I, for one, spent a considerable amount of time googling “how do I stop touching my face?” “should I refinance my house when the stock market crashes?” and “how many days until the election is over?”  The chaos of the world, combined with a couple of other really strange things that happened this week, eventually led me to google, “is mercury in retrograde?”

And while I still cannot seem to stop touching my face, I can, at least, conclusively say that yes, mercury is in retrograde, but will be out tomorrow night.

So maybe that will help.

I will get to today’s scripture in a minute, but I want to start off this morning by sharing a little peak into Tuesday Morning Bible Study.  We are currently studying the minor prophets in the Old Testament – we started with Amos and then moved on to Hosea, because both come out of the same historical time frame and we thought it would be kind of fun to look at the similarities and differences between the two prophetic accounts.

Amos is all about social justice; the prophecy centers around God’s frustration with Israel for their lack of attention to the poor and marginalized and for the unequal distribution of wealth in their nation.  As we read through Amos in bible study, it reaffirmed to us why we gather in the first place; that we, as Christians, have to do more than simply talk about our faith, but we have to live it out, as well.  It encouraged us, as members of a local church, to focus on simple and grassroots ways that we can reach out to the most vulnerable in our midst and help them in real and practical ways.

And then we started Hosea.

While it comes out of the same historical time frame as Amos, the context is very different.  Hosea uses the metaphor of an adulterous woman repeatedly being unfaithful to her husband to describe what is happening between Israel and God.  The imagery depicts the divine as a man and the sinful as a woman, which, I am sure you can imagine, becomes problematic, particularly when the divine (i.e. the man) incites violent punishment against the sinful (i.e. the woman).

I had some thoughts.

And Linda Coffin, I want to thank you for your wise words in the middle of my rant, because you said something that I have repeated to myself probably several hundred times this week – “But this is the world that Jesus came into.”

This is the world that Jesus came into.  This is the world that God thought was worth saving.  This is the world that was not considered a lost cause, but considered worthy of grace and redemption and second chances.

This messy world – this is the world that Jesus came into.

And so, as I navigated a week with a lot of messiness – fears over the Corona virus, primary elections in what is already a contentious election season and a lot of other bizarre things that I had going on and the people around me had going on – I could not help but think the same is true today.  This is the world that Jesus came into.  The world that we are living in today – albeit politically tense and in the middle of a global public health crisis – this is the world that Jesus came into.  This is the world that God still thinks is worth saving.  This is the world that is not considered a lost cause, but is, too, considered worth of grace and redemption and second chances.

This messy world – this is the world that Jesus came into.

What a beautiful and hope-filled promise this is.

Our scripture reading for this week reinforced this promise to me.  The last verse of the passage we just heard, John 3:17, says:  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Again, God believed this world was worth saving.  Jesus came into this world, he walked on this earth in human flesh, because God believed this world was worth saving.  God sent Jesus to this world to save the world in all of its messiness.

This passage is an exchange between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  Nicodemus is only mentioned in the Gospel of John; there is no clear source of information about him anywhere else in the bible.  Nicodemus appears three times in John; here in this passage where Jesus tries to explain to Nicodemus what it means to be born of the Spirit, in the seventh chapter of John where Nicodemus defends Jesus to the temple police, the chief priests and the Pharisees when they are talking about arresting Jesus and finally at the end of the Gospel, after Jesus is crucified, when Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

Despite the fact that Nicodemus only appears three times, he is a significant character in this narrative, because he represents a constituency that is supportive of Jesus, but does not fully understand him.  We see his confusion in this mornings’ passage when he hears Jesus’ explanation of what it means to be born from above and asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  How can these things be?”

Nicodemus is not negating Jesus or telling Jesus he is wrong.  In fact, Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Nicodemus believes in Jesus, he just does not fully understand.

I read a commentary this week reflecting on Nicodemus and the fact that he represents the kind of timid disciple that the Gospel writer really wished had come out more openly for Jesus, but never did.  This reflection resonated a lot with me, because I think many of us could often be described in the same way.  We believe in Jesus, but we still have a lot of questions; and sometimes those questions cause us to step back and be a little bit timid.  We are often passive in proclaiming our faith – or even leaning into – when we still have so many unanswered questions.  Because I think, in many ways, we live in a world where we think in order to believe in something, we have to understand it completely.

But that is not what Jesus says to Nicodemus.  Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him … may have eternal life.”

Not understands.

Not has all the answers.

Not leads the perfect life.

Not never finds themselves surrounded by chaos.

Everyone who believes in him … may have eternal life.

There are four Gospels in the New Testament; they tell the story of Jesus.  The first three – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are called the synoptic gospelsSynoptic comes from the Latin word, synopticus, which means seeing the whole together.  These three Gospels are seen as the synoptic gospels because they share a lot of the same content and stories.

The Gospel of John, however, where this passage of scripture comes from and the only Gospel where Nicodemus appears, is very different.  From the beginning, it is much more of a mystical narrative.  It forces you, as the reader, to suspend the notion that you have to understand everything and instead, allows you to get swept up into this narrative of light, grace and truth where you lean into your beliefs and not necessarily what you can explain on a physical level.

In the passage we just heard, Jesus talks about what it means to be born from above, to be born of both water and Spirit and to believe in both earthly and heavenly things.  And despite what Jesus seems to think are fairly straight-forward answers, Nicodemus does not completely understand.  If I am being honest, when I read this I do not completely understand, either.  But again, Jesus tells Nicodemus – a man who believes in Jesus, yet is still timid with questions – God gave his Son so we can believe in him, not necessarily make sense of it all.

And so this has been my hope this week.

That I do not have to understand the world around me or explain what is happening in order to believe in the hope and the promise of resurrection.

That our world is very much still worth saving.

That we can live in this very human world and navigate our very human lives, while still leaning deeply into our spiritual foundation that comes from God.

That, in a way that we may never see or understand, God will take the chaos of the world today – including the Corona virus and the 2020 presidential election – and create something holy.

Because this is the world that Jesus came into.  This is the world that God thinks is worth saving.  This is the world that is not considered a lost cause, but considered worthy of grace and redemption and second chances.

Don’t ever stop believing that.

So may we all have the wonderment of Nicodemus; not only the courage to ask hard questions, but also the strength to believe when we do not fully understand.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Our Time In The Wilderness

We kicked off our Lenten season on Sunday in the wilderness with Jesus.  I’m back on the lectionary for the time being and we are going to preach through the Gospel thread during Lent.  I decided not to talk about temptations this year in looking at this narrative, but about being in the wilderness in general – because I think we all find ourselves there at some point in our lives!

I did preach at our Ash Wednesday service – I referenced it in this sermon.  I will post at least the text at some point this week if anyone is interested.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 1, 2020

Matthew 4:1-11

Our Time In The Wilderness

I used to think that, at some point, I would figure out the whole “life” thing; that I would magically arrive at a time and space in my life where suddenly everything would make sense and I would be able to wrap up my beliefs in a nice little bow and then just, kind of, coast.  From there on out, I assumed, life would be a little bit easier because I would have this framework and formula for how it was all supposed to work.

It was a really frustrating day in adulthood when I realized that was not actually going to happen.

Life would be so much easier if it happened in a linear and consistently upright motion.  You could learn lessons from the past, but build on them in a slow and steady way, knowing that the best days are always ahead of you.

But that is not how life works.

As it turns out, I probably should have paid closer attention to my bedtime stories when I was little.  Because I was reading Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss to Harrison this week and I was really struck by the profound life lessons disguised in anapestic tetrameter.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
that Bang-ups
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.[1]

Doesn’t this describe life perfectly, though?  We can be going along and be in a good rhythm – we can think we are doing pretty well and that we might even have answers to some of our questions.  Then all of a sudden something knocks us over or stops us in our tracks or brings us into a dark and lonely place and we are left wondering what in the world just happened.  We can find ourselves in a lurch – in a slump – in the wilderness, not really sure how to get out.

This morning we are in the wilderness with Jesus.

I think, for people that observe Lent, even on a passive or marginal level, this passage of scripture is actually pretty well-known because of the correlation between Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness with the 40 days of Lent.  The narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the dessert is recorded in three out of the four Gospel (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and is very often the scripture that is used to kick off the Lenten season every year – to kick off the 40 days of Lent.

That being said, the piece, I think, we forget sometimes is where this story is actually located within the narrative of the Gospel.  Despite its connection to the Lenten season, it is not close to the Easter story; it is, in fact, much closer to the beginning.  It immediately follows Jesus’ baptism.

And so think of it this way:  Jesus goes from this pivotally high moment where he is baptized by John in the Jordan River and emerges from the water to hear God’s voice through the clouds, claiming him as God’s own.  God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased,” and then almost immediately Jesus finds himself in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil.

Talk about life not happening in a linear and consistently upright motion.

But at the end of his time in the wilderness those promises of baptism are immediately fulfilled for Jesus.

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.[2]

Angels came and waited on him.

Jesus was not alone in the wilderness.

Baptism does not promise us an easy life, but it does welcome us into the Body of Christ and invites us into this sacred and holy narrative where resurrection is real and God is with us and we are not alone.

Do you ever feel like you are out there in the wilderness, kind of wandering around, not really sure how long you are going to be stuck there or even how you are going to get yourself out?

Last week we were on the mountaintop with Jesus as we heard the story of the transfiguration.  And while it would be wonderful if, as Christians, we could always stay on that mountaintop and experience the wonderful highs of life, the truth is, sometimes we find ourselves in the wilderness.

We are tempted by things in this world that want to pull us away from God.

We have a hard time seeing and believing that God’s love is stronger than the struggles we are facing.

We do not know how to get out, how to “un-slump” ourselves.

And yet, this passage of scripture promises us two things:  1) that it is okay if we are in the wilderness, because Jesus, himself, was there and 2) there are angels with us when we are there.

If you ever find yourself in the wilderness, first and foremost, do not beat yourself up for being there.  Jesus could not escape it – what makes us think that we can?  Life is hard and it does not always make sense.  And in dealing with it, we are imperfect and sometimes fall apart and fall short, but that does not make us less faithful, that just makes us human.

And so we do the best we can.  We stay in the wilderness, knowing that it is okay for us to be there, knowing that we are not alone in our struggles and, perhaps most importantly, knowing that God is with us.

And then, slowly but surely, we take a step forward and begin the journey out.

Lent began on Wednesday; about 40 of us gathered here, in the sanctuary, for our Ash Wednesday service.

Even though we mark the 40 days of Lent by Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Lent is not really about putting ourselves into the wilderness, but about acknowledging its existence.  It is about being honest about the fact that as humans, sometimes we end up in the wilderness.

Lent is about looking at ourselves in the mirror and recognizing, not only that we are not perfect, but also that it is okay if we are not perfect.  It is about seeing the wilderness as a part of our journey through life and faith and not a place where we go when we have done something wrong.  Lent is about understanding the coming resurrection as a promise of redemption and second chances in our lives.  Lent is about existing in a world that is broken, but also believing that there is hope in that brokenness.

I actually think this one of the reasons a lot of us actually come to church.

I talked about this in my sermon on Ash Wednesday.  I said that we do not come to church to escape life, but as a way to help us deal with it; to acknowledge our brokenness, but also to be assured of our wholeness in God.

And this is what the Lenten journey is all about.  It is about taking an intentional amount of time – 40 days, to honor this scriptural record of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness – to reflect on life, faith and what it means to believe in the promise of resurrection.

It is about believing that every experience in the wilderness will have angels waiting on us.

It is about trusting that we are not alone.

Life is not always easy.  And I want you to know that, if you are in the wilderness right now, that it is okay that you are there, that it does not make you any less faithful and that you are not alone.  This is a journey – life, faith, being part of the Body of Christ – it does not happen in a linear and consistently upright motion, it happens in a very real and messy and human motion.

But that is why we are here – to believe that we are not alone in the wilderness and also to see tangible signs of that witness through our church community.

Because the other thing is that if you are not in the wilderness right now, the work that you are doing matters to the people that are.  The love that you are giving them is changing their lives.  You are their light shining in the darkness.  You are God’s voice reminding them that they are not alone.  You are their earth angels waiting for them, cheering them on, championing the, walking alongside them on their journey.

As we begin to journey through this Lenten season together, I would encourage us all to think about what the wilderness means to us.  Because whether we are there now, we finally are out of it or we have jumped back in to help pull someone out, the hope of the cross that we are walking towards is that the wilderness is not the end of our story.

Resurrection is.

Light is.

Love is.

Blessings on your Lenten journey.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Oh! That Places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss
[2] Matthew 4:11, NRSV

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