God Hears Our Sighs

Hello friends!

We are still working on our sound issues with the live feed, but it was better today.  Here is my sermon, as well as a video of the entire service.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 25, 2020

Romans 8:26-39

God Hears Our Sighs

I am going to sound like a broken record after last week’s sermon, but I set out to preach the Gospel passage from the lectionary this week and follow the narrative of Jesus’ parables about growth that we started two weeks ago with the parable of the sower (this week was the parable of the mustard seed) and yet, again, I found myself in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Guys – it is so good.  It is so relevant right now.

Paul writes:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Sighs too deep for words.

I think we all have sighs too deep for words right now.

So – I had a moment this week.

And not one of my finer ones, either.

I do not think there was necessarily one thing in particular that set me off – just a complicated combination of several things, all exacerbated by covid life.

And so I cried.  I stomped around.  I threw a dish towel across my empty kitchen because I figured it wouldn’t do a whole lot of damage.  I threatened to spend the night in my office so I could get some uninterrupted work done (though I did back down from that threat and Adelaide happily attended our Executive Board meeting via Zoom that evening).  And then I prayed to God with sighs too deep for words because I just could not find the words to pray.

And God was there.

Even though things were still hard – God was there.

That is the work of the Holy Spirit.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Paul wrote this letter to a church that he, himself, did not found.  In fact, most scholars believe that, while Paul may have met some members of the Roman church in his travels, by and large, he did not know the community very well.  There was not necessarily one giant schism in the church Paul was addressing in this letter, but he had been hearing about growing tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

The fascinating thing to me about this particular letter is just how relevant it is to what we are going through right now, 2,000 years later.  We looked at the beginning of this passage last week where Paul talks about suffering and hope and, in many ways, it feels as though Paul wrote those words to us, as we live in this time of covid.

The same is true as we continue the passage in today’s reading and Paul talks about the sighs too deep for words.

I mean – if ever there was a way to describe 2020, “with sighs too deep for words” seems to cover it pretty well.

So Paul is not writing to a community of people experiencing a global pandemic.  He is, however, writing to a community of people whose lives have been turned upside down and who are struggling to find unity in their new normal.

That actually sounds pretty familiar.

Paul says, though, that we are not alone as we struggle to put all of the pieces back together; that God sent the Holy Spirit to be with us on earth so that we do not have to travel this journey by ourselves – no matter what we are going through.

And here is the thing about the Spirit – it not only helps us, but Paul says it intercedes on our behalf.  In other words, the Spirit is not just some sort of passive bystander that pats us on the back and tells us we are going to be okay, the Spirit is an active participant in our lives and takes the wheel from us in those moments when we feel as though we are spinning out of control.

When we feel like we might be at the end of our rope.

When we do not know what to do next.

When we know we need to pray to God but do not know how.

When our sighs are too deep for words.

There is a lot to sigh over right now.  The corona virus.  Political divides.  Systemic racism and inequality.  The impossible question of how to re-open schools in the rapidly approaching fall.

But Paul reminds us with these words that these issues are not ones we have to necessarily face on our own; that the Spirit intercedes as God searches our hearts.

It is easy, I think, to wonder if God has abandoned us right now.  We wake up every day facing a normal that is unrecognizable from the lives we had grown accustomed to; a normal that not only seems impossible itself, but has created impossible situations all around us.  And it is important to remember that asking where God is in the middle of all of this is not a failure of our faith, but a reflection of our humanity.  Life is hard right now and it is okay to acknowledge that.  I think the citizens of Rome might have felt the same way.  Their world had also been turned upside, their normal looked nothing like they had grown accustomed to.

But Paul assures the Roman people that God has not abandoned them.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This passage is read often at funerals – it is part of the committal liturgy that I use at the cemetery.  It is fitting to read when someone dies because it assures us that nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from God.

I am not sure there has ever been a more poignant moment in our collective lifetime where these words have been so relevant in life, as well.  Because while it does feel like there are so many things devastating our lives and even drawing us away from God right now, Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit is interceding and that God has not abandoned us.

I mentioned that I had a moment this week – and not one of my finer ones.  But I also had a lot of other moments where I was reassured of God’s steadfast presence not only in my life, but also in the midst of the chaos of the world.  Every time I received a card in the mail, logged onto nightly prayers or had a conversation with an RCC staff member or a committee trying to readjust and continue to do church, I was reminded that our church is stronger than I ever thought possible.  Every time I had a dance party in the kitchen or picked vegetables out of my garden, I realized that this pace of life is okay right now.  Every time I read about people working tirelessly to make order of chaos – those who are caring for those who are sick, developing a vaccine for this virus, trying to figure out what school is going to look like in the fall to name a few – I saw tangible evidence of hope.

And then I read this scripture – and they are not just words on a page, but a reality we are living right now.

And so, even though I do not know how it all works, even though I am, at times, overwhelmed and even though I am not sure how we are supposed to make sense of what is going on right, I am convinced –– that neither death, nor life, nor this virus, nor the question of how to reopen schools, nor the financial ramifications of the shut-down, nor the fact that we all miss being together and traveling and just doing “normal” things, nor the fact that basic public health recommendations have suddenly become hotly debated political issues, nor the fact that there really is no end in sight – nothing in the world as it is or the world that we so desperately want it to be – nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Friends, God has not abandoned us.  God’s love is still strong enough to conquer the imperfections of our human world.  This was true in Rome in the first century and it is just as true today.  God hears our cries – God hears our sighs too deep for words.

And the Spirit intercedes on our behalf.  Hear me one more time – we are not alone.

And here is what I want you to know about Paul’s writing in these words – he is not naïve or new to the mission at this point.  The letter to the Romans is one of his later letters.  These words come approximately 20 years after his conversion to Christianity.  They rest on the foundation of two decades worth of faith in a redemptive and resurrecting God.

Of knowing how transformative the Gospel can be in a person’s life.

Of planting churches in and writing to different communities and realizing that anyone can come to know God through Jesus Christ.

Of traveling and bearing witness to what God can do through the local church.

And of not only believing, but seeing how God is never finished, even when it seems like all hope is lost.  Of seeing how God shows us and answers our prayers – our sighs too deep for words.

Friends, nothing can separate us from this love – from this power – from this steadfast presence in our lives.

God is for us.

And God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?

Hi friends!  Since the Year of Mark is over, we are taking a few weeks to talk about hospitality before we kick off the fall with a new sermon series.  I’m not sure where we will go next – the Year of Mark was compelling because of the continual narrative, which we all really liked.  We’ll see!  I’m still trying to think through some stuff.  To be continued!

We kicked off our summer sermon series on hospitality with a very hot and humid day and worship in the air conditioned Fellowship Hall!  It was definitely a wonderful alternative and a nice example of how sometimes you have to adjust your plans if circumstances change!  The topic was, why is the important anyway?

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 21, 2019

Romans 15:1-21

Why Is It Important To Talk About Hospitality?

When I looked at the forecast this week and saw that the temperature was supposed to hit 98° degrees on the same Sunday we were scheduled to start a sermon series on hospitality, I decided the most hospitable thing we could possibly do would be to move worship into Fellowship Hall. I figured whatever point I might have tried to make in the sanctuary likely would have been lost as we sat sweltering, 25 feet from a room with functioning air conditioning, just because we are used to worshiping in a specific location.

And so this might be the first lesson that we all learn during this sermon series:  Hospitality means that sometimes we might have to change our plans and do things a little bit differently if the circumstances change.

And that is okay.  God is still with us even though we are sitting on folding chairs instead of old pews.

A few months ago, every single member of the Executive Board looked at me as if I had lost my mind when I was ten minutes into my defense on why I thought we needed better-smelling hand soap in the bathrooms.

“This is a hospitality issue!” I said as I vigorously shook my finger at the table of people sitting around me.  “We do not want people to remember us by how badly their hands smell after they wash them here.”

Admittedly, it was not one of my finer moments in ministry.

However, I have had some time to reflect on my soap-ocalypse of 2019 and what I have come to realize is that my escalating opinion about soap scents really was not just about the soap – it was about the experience I wanted people to have when they walked through our doors.

Last fall, my entire family spent a week at Disney. And what always amazes me about Disney is the way that no detail is left unturned.  For example – our first full day there, we went to Animal Kingdom. Bruce and I spent a lot of time in Dino-Land that day, because there was a lot of stuff for little kids to do and it was perfect for Harrison.  I had never been in this particular part of the park before, so I was looking around and I remember my gaze fell to the ground at one point and I realized that when they build this part of the park they intentionally molded tire tracks into the sidewalk to make it look like there were these big excavating trucks driving around digging up the roads.

No detail left unturned.

When I returned to Rehoboth I started noticing things more and thinking about the ways that we could be more attentive to the details that surround us as we gather every week.  And I realize we do not have the budget or the bandwidth to do what Disney does, but I also think there is a reason that millions of people visit their parks every year; it is about an experience.

And I think there is an important lesson in this for us.  Because we have a really important story to share with the world, right?  But we need to think carefully about how we tell the story so that people feel compelled to listen.  We need to pay attention to the details.  We have to create an experience; an experience that touches people as they walk through our doors and enables them to connect with God and strengthen their faith.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Letter to the Romans.

Now – we are officially done with the Year of Mark, which means that, for the next six weeks, anyway, as we work through a topical sermon series, we are not going to be looking at a linear story or piece of writing, we are going to be jumping around the bible a little bit.  But context is still important, right?  So before we get into the passage we just heard, let’s first let’s talk about Romans.

If you start at the beginning of the New Testament, the first four books are the Gospels, which are the narratives of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  The next section of books are called, epistles, which are letters; letters written to churches and communities that were later canonized as part of scripture. Many of these letters were written by the Apostle Paul and they were arranged in order of length – from longest to shortest.  The letter to the Romans is the longest of the epistles, so it is the first in this section.

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome, however this was not actually a church that Paul, himself, established, so he really did not know the people he was writing to on a personal level.  But he wrote this letter addressing rumors of tensions between the Christian Gentiles and the returning Christian Jews – tensions about how to interpret the Gospel and now live out this mission in community with others.

This is actually a reoccurring theme in a lot of Paul’s letters – on the one hand, you have Christian Jews were raised with rules and traditions who now believe in the promise and hope of resurrection and redemption in Jesus Christ, but who also believe you still have to follow the old rules and traditions.  On the other hand, you have this community of new believers, who are drinking up as much of the Gospel as they can and do not understand why they also have to follow the structure of this old religion that they do not claim as their own.

And so the reason I chose this particular passage to kick off our six weeks of talking about hospitality is because, in the midst of conflict between two different groups of people, Paul did not take sides or try to bring everyone to one opinion; instead, Paul called the Roman people to simply welcome one another as they built this community together.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.[1]

I realize it might be a stretch to say that my newfound soap obsession is for the glory of God, but think about it for a second – we want to put our best face forward.  We want people to walk through our doors and see the pride we have for our community and our space.  We want people to know that we love this church so much that we do not leave an detail unturned.  We want it to look like we believe this story is still worth telling – and still telling well.  We want people to feel like this is home, like there is a place for them here.  We want to create a space where we can, like Paul told the Romans, build one another up.

And this we do for the glory of God.

We are coming off of the Year of Mark, which means we know what it means for Christ to welcome us.  We saw Jesus put the needs of others before the needs of himself; we saw him feed people who were hungry, heal people who were sick and welcome all people into his ministry.

Paul said that mimicking this welcome with one another is one of the foundational pieces of what it means to be in community as the Body of Christ.  This is how we transcend differences and find unity.  This is how we build churches that not only thrive, but change people’s lives. This is how we share the Gospel and invite others into the narrative of Jesus.

Paul never held back in his letters and, while this is certainly one of the things that often challenges me about Paul, it is also one of the things that I admire and respect about him, as well.  Because he was unapologetic about who he was and the story that he was telling.  At the end of this passage he told the Roman people that he was writing “rather boldly by way of reminder … to be a minister of Christ Jesus.”

We should all be so bold.

We should all be so bold in how we tell this story, how we welcome people into our space and how we work together as a community, for the glory of God.

I think the details matter.  I think paying attention to the details is a testament to just how important you think something is.  And so while people still may think I am off my rocker when it comes to the soap thing, I think we can all agree that, as a church, we need to be bold in how we welcome others.

I think we need to be bold in how we welcome one another and bold in how we welcome people who walk through our doors for the very first time.  I am talking about everything from the soap in the bathrooms to the bulletins people are handed before worship.  I am talking about the name tags we wear to the coffee they drink.  I am talking about what people see, hear, taste and smell when they are here and also what people feel when they are here.

This summer we are going to talk about hospitality. We are going to talk about why it is so important, celebrate what we are already doing and then think about how we can be better.  We are going to try to practice what we preach throughout the summer and then (hopefully!) kick off the new program year with a renewed vision and focus in the fall.

So may we all welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1]Romans 15:7, NRSV

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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.

***

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.