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.

 

A Faith Like Abraham’s (All Of It!)

Hi Friends!

Ignore the fact that I kind of sound like a baritone in the audio this week.  I’m pretty sure one of us has been sick at some point throughout the entire month of February.  I’m SO ready for spring!

I decided to preach through the Epistle selections in the lectionary throughout the Lenten season this year.  Obviously, I preached the Gospel last week (Lent 1 = Jesus in the wilderness), but I am going to try to stay in the letters from here on out.  I preached out of Romans this week, which was paired with the Abraham narrative in Genesis, because Paul talks about having a faith like Abraham’s.  We sang and danced to Father Abraham during the children’s sermon and then I talked about looking at the entire Abraham narrative when we think about having faith like his.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 4:13-25

A Faith Like Abraham’s (All Of It!)

Bruce and I met when we were both on staff at a youth leadership program at Lancaster Seminary called Leadership Now. The mission of the program – the tagline that was on all of our brochures and shirts and other SWAG – was, “Cultivating a faith that celebrates questions.”

This program was built on the opposite foundation of blindly following religious doctrine. Students were encouraged to ask questions; about their faith, about their parents’ faith, about the church, about the bible, about worship and about the world we live in (everything, really). This program wanted to resist spoon-fed Christianity; rather, they wanted each student to foster their own beliefs.

This idea was new to me. I did not grow up in a heavily indoctrinated church, but I think I always kind of took thinks at face value. I do remember sitting in Sunday School one week and our teacher was explaining the meaning of the word, “Amen,” which essentially means, “So it be.” When you say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer, in a way, you are affirming whatever was just said in the prayer. My Sunday School teacher said she was going to read several statements and we were to respond affirmatively with the phrase, “So it be,” to each statement as our way of saying, “Amen,” and agreeing with what she said. I piped up, “Well, what if I don’t agree with what you said?” (Sorry – even the most well behaved preacher’s kids have their moments.) I distinctly remember her taking a deep breath, raising her eyebrows at me and exasperatedly saying, “Trust me, you’ll agree with these statements.”

And I did; she certainly was not saying anything controversial. The point of the exercise was not to stir up an intense theological debate; it was to teach us the meaning of the word, “Amen.”

But that moment always kind of stuck with me. Because I never really thought I was allowed to ask questions about what I was being taught in church or – gasp! – have doubts.

I was heavily influenced by Leadership Now; now, I take the same approach of “celebrating questions” when I teach confirmation and lead bible study. Even here in worship, I think it is okay (albeit frustrating for you at times) for me to look at a scripture and say, “I am just not sure I believe this” or, “I struggle with this story,” or, “I cannot reconcile what this means.”

Which is why, at first glance, our two scriptures for this morning – read in conjunction with one another – are a little bit troublesome for me.

Let’s start with the second passage we heard from the New Testament; Paul was writing to the church in Rome in response to growing tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. He was addressing the differences between adherence to the law (which Jewish Christians were accustomed to) and righteousness of faith (the path understood by many of the Gentile Christians, who just did not grow up following the law). Paul’s point was that it was not the law that mattered most in how they lived their lives and built their church, but their faith.

In other words, Gentile Christians – even without strict adherence to the law – had the same access to God through the grace of Jesus Christ that Jewish Christians did.

For the record, I completely agree with the point Paul was trying to make.

But there is another layer to the grace we receive through faith that I want to explore this morning. In this particular passage, Paul points to Abraham, which, of course, leads us back to this morning’s Old Testament reading from the book of Genesis.

I want to take a slight detour for a moment and talk about how I choose our readings every week. For the most part, I follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three-year cycle of weekly readings from the bible used by many Protestant and Catholic churches in the United States and Canada. Every week there is a passage from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the letters of the New Testament and the Gospels. The reading from the Gospel follows the rhythm of the church year and the other passages are often thematically related to it. Preachers can choose one or any combination of the four passages for their weekly worship.

I was recently asked about the lectionary and why I follow it and I thought my responses were worth repeating here, in case anyone was curious. Do I have to follow the lectionary? No. There are advantages and disadvantages to it. The advantage is that is brings me around the bible and encourages me to preach on books and passages I might otherwise overlook. It is nice that the passages are often thematically linked, which creates a more cohesive understanding of the bible. It is also nice that a lot of my colleagues are also following the lectionary, so we are all essentially preaching on the same thing and can brainstorm together. The disadvantage, though, is that sometimes, because it jumps around so much, we only get pieces of the story.

Which is kind of the problem this morning.

Okay, let’s get off of our detour and jump back into this morning’s text. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul points to Abraham when he talks about the righteousness of faith.

“The promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed … to those who share the faith of Abraham.”[1]
“Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed.”[2]
“[Abraham] did not weaken in faith.”[3]
“No distrust made [Abraham] waver.”[4]

Paul paints Abraham as the picture of obedience and then, in the passages from Genesis that have been paired with the lectionary readings, this picture is kind of set up for us.

In this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis, we hear part of the story of Abraham. Abraham was 99 years old when God appeared to him and told him he was going to make a covenant with Abraham that he was going to be the father of all nations; and this covenant was not just between God and Abraham, but also between God and all of Abraham’s offspring, generation upon generation. This, God explained, would be an, “everlasting covenant.”[5]

I was reading a commentary this week that pointed out that, okay, this is all well and good and everything, but Abraham still had doubts along the way and did not fully submit to trusting God. Perhaps not in these particular passages, but when you look at the entire Abraham narrative, he stumbles once or twice. On not one, but two occasions when they were traveling as aliens outside of their own land, Abraham did not trust that God would protect them on their journey; Abraham took matters into his own hands and told people that his wife, Sarah, who was beautiful and desirable, was his sister so they would take her as a wife and his life would be spared.[6] And when Sarah was not able to bear him children, Abraham did not trust that God would reverse her fertility struggles; Abraham took Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl, as a wife so that she could conceive his child.[7] And, in Genesis 17:17, which the lectionary conveniently cuts off one chapter before (this morning’s reading stops at chapter 16), Abraham literally fell on his face laughing after God told him that God was going make this covenant with him and he was going to have all these children.

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’[8]

This is not the picture of perfect obedience. This is the picture of a man who had doubts along the way; who sometimes took things into his own hands because he was unsure of where God was taking him. This is a man who sometimes had a hard time believing in the promises of God’s covenant.

I have to laugh because, in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he said that, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.”[9] No offense, Paul, but I beg to differ.

That being said, I do not think his distrust made Abraham an unfaithful man; I think it made him human.

I think we can do one of two things here. We can look at the picture of Abraham that we see solely from this morning’s lectionary and then read Roman’s reflections in his letter to the church in Rome and seek to have that kind of faith; the kind that does not waver, the kind that is strong and obedient, the kind that lives up to God’s covenant.

Or, we can remember the other parts of Abraham’s story and give ourselves permission to have that kind of faith. We can give ourselves permission have doubts along the way, to struggle to fully submit to God. We can be gentle with ourselves if we get impatient while we wait for God’s promises to come to fruition. We can laugh at God when those promises seem impossible and know that God is not going to take those promises away.

Because faith is believing in God’s promises, but it is also working through those moments when you do not.

Paul was trying to settle a dispute between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, saying that it is not strict adherence to the law that gives us access to God’s grace, but faith like Abraham. And I agree with him – but not necessarily for the reasons he gave. Paul kind of put on rose-colored glasses when it came to what Abraham’s faith looked like; but I love the whole story. Abraham’s story is a beautiful one, full of struggles, full of doubts and full of moments – just like the ones I experience in my own life – where he did not feel as though his faith was strong.

And absolutely, a faith like that will give us access to God’s grace.

Friends, I do think we should share the faith of Abraham – all of it. I think we should share his struggles. I think we should share the moments where he hesitantly takes things into his own hands. I think we should share the times when he believes that God is not listening. I think we should laugh when the promises seems out of reach or too good to be true.

But, then; then, we should remember that the everlasting covenant God made with Abraham is a covenant made with us as well. We should hold onto the hope of that bold truth that God is faithful; that the promises made to Abraham are still made to us today and that God is always with us.

Paul is right. The grace that comes from this kind of faith is not something we can get from the law.

So may our faith give you the strength to believe in the promises made to Abraham. May you allow yourself to have doubts, to be frustrated in God’s timing and even to laugh at the possibility of what those promises might look like. May you celebrate your questions and those child-like moments when you think, “But want if I don’t agree with that?”

This Lenten season, may you also hope against hope that God is with you on your journey; that Easter is coming, that redemption is always possible and that resurrection is real and true and powerful.

Thanks be to God!
Amen. 

[1] Romans 4:16, NRSV
[2] Romans 4:18, NRSV
[3] Romans 4:19, NRSV
[4] Romans 4:20, NRSV
[5] Genesis 17:7, NRSV
[6] Genesis 12:10-20, 2:1-18
[7] Genesis 16:1-16
[8] Genesis 17:17, NRSV
[9] Romans 4:20, NRSV

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Welcoming From Within

You’ll see in my sermon that I gave my church a charge this week to go into fellowship after worship and talk to someone they had never talked to before.  I wasn’t sure how it would go, but it was awesome!  I posted this on Facebook on Sunday night:

During my sermon this morning, I charged everyone to go into fellowship after worship and talk to someone they had never talked to before. Not necessarily someone new – just someone they didn’t know. We all know how easy it is to just get comfortable in our little groups and social circles but are never sure how to break the cycle. Might as well all give it a shot together, right? I told everyone if they needed an ice breaker, they could either talk about the weather OR use the opening line, “Can you believe Sarah is making us do this?” And seriously – by the time I went downstairs to my office to drop off my robe and walked into fellowship, I literally NOTICED a difference in conversation in the room. I saw people I know didn’t know each other talking and laughing. The only people who came over to talk to me were people who wanted to introduce me to someone who had worshipped with us for the first time. People left and called to me, “I talked to two new people today! I talked to three!” I’m so grateful for my people who humor me and follow along with my crazy ideas. Praise be to God for hospitality, new friendships and a community strengthened by fellowship. ❤️ #rccstrong

I have nothing else to say!  Here’s my sermon – enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 17, 2017

Romans 14:1-12

Welcoming From Within

When I was a ministry intern in seminary, I was in a meeting with the pastor of the church I was serving when her phone rang.  It was her husband, so she answered it and I got to hear her half of the conversation that went something like this:

I don’t know, what to you want for dinner?

Long pause.

I don’t really care, what are you in the mood for?

Long pause.

No I really don’t care.

Long pause.

Sigh …

Well just pick something, because I can’t make a decision!

Sound familiar?

I did not mean to eavesdrop, but when she hung up the phone, I just could not help myself.  “How long have you been married?” I asked.  “14 years,” she answered.

Keep in mind, at that point, Bruce and I were not married yet and we were already having this exact same discussion on almost a nightly basis.

“So … at what point in marriage do you stop arguing about what’s for dinner?”  I asked.

She looked at me, thought about it for a second and replied, “I don’t think you ever do.”

That might have been the greatest marriage advice I have ever been given.

We just heard a reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where they were essentially have the exact opposite argument about food.  Instead of nobody being able to make a decision about what to eat, there were two different groups of people who both had very clear opinions about what they should, and more specifically, should not eat.

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome, a church he did not found and probably did not know very well.  Up until this point (as we have heard over the past several weeks in reading through earlier sections of this letter), Paul’s instructions to the church had been fairly general about God’s grace and how they should live their lives and interact with one another.

But in the passage we just heard, Paul’s focus shifts from general advice to something a bit more specific – dietary practices.  Paul writes:

Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.[1]

Dietary practices in Rome were clearly a hot button issue when Paul was writing this letter.  On the one hand, you had Jewish Christians, who believed in following the kosher laws ingrained in their religious tradition.  On the other hand, you had Gentile Christians, who were not raised with these customs and did not think they should have to follow them.

The challenge in reading this text today is finding its relevance.  In our church, most of us subscribe to the theology of the potluck, where we all bring something different to the table and usually are just excited to have so many options. Food rarely causes the type of deep-seeded conflict and division today that I did when the church was so young.

But there are things in our church – and all churches, really – that are hot button issues.  We all come to this community from different places on our journeys and have different beliefs and priorities and sometimes our differences in opinion create conflict among us.

That being said – and I really do not even want to say this from the pulpit for fear I might jinx it – I was trying to come up with an issue going on in the church right now that I could compare this dietary conflict in Rome to and I honestly could not.  We really have found ourselves in a positive place here in terms of keeping our lines of communication open to discuss challenging topics and being willing to compromise.

So first of all – let’s celebrate that!  I do not take it for granted.

But I still think this scripture has a lot to teach us.

Paul starts off this passage by saying, “Welcome those who are weak in faith.”[2]

Okay, so he did use this opportunity to take a little stab at those who were restricting their diets by calling them weak, but let’s put that aside for a moment and acknowledge the fact that he started this passage by calling the church to WELCOME.

WELCOME those who are weak in faith.

This is a message that I think can really resonate within our community.  It reminds us that no matter who we are, where we are on our journey through life or why we are here at this church, we are called to welcome one another in God’s love.

Our church is not made up of one demographic of people.  We have twenty-somethings, we have young families, we have youth, we have empty nesters, we have retirees and we have grandparents and great-grandparents.  We come to this space in different places on our journeys through life; we are all looking to get something different out of the church and all have different abilities to give back to the church.

And what Paul is saying here is that we need to welcome one another amidst this diversity.

I do not think this passage is necessarily about seasoned veterans of the church welcoming new people into the community (although I do think that is important!).  I think this passage speaks to our community as a whole – ALL of us – and reminds us to practice hospitality amongst ourselves.

I want everyone to try something:  After worship today, talk to someone you have never had a conversation with before.

I have been thinking about putting this out there for awhile, and this week’s scripture really gave me the push I needed to do it.  Over the past several years, I have spent a lot of time talking with various groups in the church about hospitality and welcoming new members. One of the challenges everyone identifies is how to know if someone is new or not.  “What if I go up to talk to someone who I think is new and it turns out they’ve been coming to the church for awhile?” people always ask.

In reading and reflecting on this scripture, the thought crossed my mind this week that perhaps it does not make a difference whether someone is new or not. Regardless of whether someone has been here their whole life or just walked through our doors, we should always be trying to reach out to one another, foster new relationships and strengthen our community through hospitality.

Paul writes in this letter:

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we died, we are the Lord’s.[3]

It is important we remember that, in coming to this church and being part of the community, we are all equal.  We are all children of God.  We all love this church and want to see it grow and thrive.

And so I think we need to heed the call of scripture today and practice hospitality within our own community.

We may not be quarreling about dietary practices, but Paul’s words about hospitality are so important for us to take seriously as we continue to think about who we are, as a church, and who God is calling us to be.  It is in welcoming one another that we spread God’s love in this world.  As we seek to create the type of peace we pray for, we need to remember that it starts right here.  The work we do in this church matters; the community we nurture and strengthen is important.  Our church can and will change lives.

So after church today, I invite you to welcome one another.  Talk to someone you have never talked to before.  If you need a topic of conversation to break the ice, feel free to start with, “Can you believe Rev. Sarah is making us do this?”

It might not feel totally comfortable at first; but I promise you will not only learn something from doing this – but our community will be better for it.

Friends, let us practice hospitality here at the Rehoboth Congregational Church !

Also – if anyone would like to set up a meal plan for Bruce and me, please talk to me after worship.

AFTER you have talked to someone you have never talked to before, that is.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Romans 14:2, NRSV
[2] Romans 14:1, NRSV
[3] Romans 14:7-8, NRSV