A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

Hi Everyone!

Sorry for the delay in posting this week.  The church hosted a baby shower for Bruce and me after worship on Sunday and we spent a lot of the day organizing everything!  We were truly overwhelmed and humbled by everyone’s generosity.

There were heavy shepherding themes this week – both the 23rd psalm and the parable of Jesus as the Good Shepherd were included in the lectionary.  I preached on them both and talked about what it means to ground our lives in the teachings of the Gospel and truly allow that to shepherd us every day.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
May 7, 2017

Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

A Shepherd In Our Lives Today

In 2007, my mom was invited to introduce Lynn Redgrave when she gave her keynote address at a plenary session at General Synod, which is the biennial meeting of the United Church of Christ. Lynn had attended our church in Kent, CT for years; she began attending when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In a book she later co-authored with her daughter, she talked about the impact the church and her faith had on her during the dark days of her treatments. She reflected on this during her speech to the synod that July day; and in closing she said she was going to share one of her favorite scriptures. She read the 23rd psalm.

Now, I have to be honest: Part of me always thought Psalm 23 was something of a cliché. Nothing against it or anything, but it just seemed to get used over and over and over again and, with 149 other psalms in the book, part of me always wondered why people kept going back to that one.

But then I heard Lynn read it.

And I was captivated.

Granted, some of my captivation might have been her British accent, but when I heard her read those words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” (Psalm 23:4) I started to cry.

Because I knew she had walked through that valley.

And, even more than that, I knew there were thousands of people in the Hartford Civic Center that day listening to her speak that had also walked through that valley. Some people might have even been walking through it then.

And they needed to hear those words: “For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)

Because, friends, when we are walking through those dark valleys, we need to know that God is with us. We need to know that we are protected. We need to know that we are not walking alone.

And that is exactly what this psalm promises us. It assures us that God’s presence in our lives is steadfast, never-ending and life-giving.

This morning’s Gospel reading comes from the Gospel according to John; this is where Jesus is identified as the Good Shepherd (we have all seen those artistic portrayals of Jesus holding his staff surrounded by sheep). But there is more to this parable than simply the image of Jesus and his flock. There is a call; a call to follow Jesus, to follow the shepherd who enters the sheepfold at the gate being held open by the gatekeeper.

Jesus says in this parable, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:7-9)

This morning we have two different, but equally compelling shepherding metaphors. And I think it is important to remember that when Jesus draws from this shepherding metaphor, he was speaking, in the flesh, to people who were very much alive and living in this human and imperfect world. The people Jesus was speaking to that day needed to know that God was not only with them in the valley of the shadow of death, but in their lives, as well.

And here, Jesus makes that promise. Jesus says that he is the shepherd; that people could follow him, in the flesh, and be safe and find pasture. Jesus says that we make a choice; we choose to follow Jesus or we choose to follow the thieves and the bandits and if we choose to follow Jesus, we will be kept safe and secure both in life and in death.

I believe those words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” ring true both when we are facing our own mortality and also when we are facing our own humanity.

It is not easy to live in this world sometimes; we all face difficult choices, heartbreaking realities and challenging situations. We walk through those dark valleys. But when we understand Jesus as the Good Shepherd, leading us into safe pasture, we know that it is possible to do the hard work that is required of us to travel this sometimes hard journey and live out our faith. We have the tools we need to help us; we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus may not be living in our flesh today, but we have the Good News that he proclaimed while he was living on this earth. If we ground our lives in his teachings, then the Good Shepherd is always with us.

Last week, when we were on the Road to Emmaus, I talked about the importance of the incarnational piece of our faith; that Jesus came into this world and lived as one of us, understanding our sufferings and our temptations. This morning, I remind you of this same incarnational power; God is not a distant God that is somehow shepherding from afar, but a God that is here with us, that walked along the journey we walk today and that has given us the beautiful gift of this faith to ground our lives in.

When I think of the image of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, I do not think it means we make the choice to follow him and then we’re done. Yes, the scripture says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved,” but it also continues on to say that when we enter the gate by Jesus, we will go out and find pasture, that we will continue follow Jesus and this Good News he taught throughout his lifetime.

Following Jesus is about more than simply proclaiming a belief in him; it is about putting those words into action. It is about being part of a church community, strengthening our faith and living out the Gospel in our day-to-day lives. We come to church not only to receive the comfort of God’s grace, but also the wisdom of God’s grace, as well.

And then we live out this wisdom, as best we can. We nurture our faith through growing our knowledge of the bible, actively participating in community life, giving back through missions and worshipping God, week after week. This is what sets the foundation for the lives we are living. This is how we are able to walk through those dark valleys – valleys that we will all walk through at some point or another – and know, without a doubt, that God is with us.

So friends, I invite you to take comfort in the words of this familiar psalm this morning. But remember there is still work to be done.

When we enter the sheepfold and follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we are doing so not only so that we might have eternal life, but also so that our lives here on earth might be made whole. Remember Jesus’ promise that when we follow him, when we weave the Gospel into the pieces of our lives, that we will not only have life, but that we will also have it abundantly.

And while it may not always be easy, if we do the hard work, surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Being That Incarnational Presence (A Tribute To The Rev. Charles Rice)

Hi friends – here is this week’s sermon.  Those of you who follow me on social media may have seen that my college chaplain, the Rev. Charles Rice, passed away very unexpectedly this week.  It did not feel right to preach, business as usual, without acknowledging not only this loss, but also the impact he had on my life.  In a moment of grace unexpected, the lectionary had us on the Road to Emmaus this week.  I could not have picked a more perfect scripture to preach on as I talked about the ways Rev. Rice embodied the incarnational love of God throughout his life and ministry.

Please keep the friends and family of Rev. Rice in your prayers, as well as the entire Ursinus College community.  As I post this sermon, they are preparing for his funeral in Collegeville, PA.  I so wish I could be there, but at this point in my pregnancy I just can’t travel that far by myself.

<3

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-35

Being That Incarnational Presence

My college chaplain, the Rev. Charles William Rice, died very unexpectedly this week. To say that I am shocked and devastated is an understatement. Today, as I think about the impact he had not only on me, but also on the tens of thousands of students he counseled throughout his 20-year tenure at Ursinus College, I am humbled by the inadequacy of words and am not entirely sure where to begin.

When Rev. Rice’s youngest son, Martin, was born, he asked me to do the welcome during worship on the Sunday he was dedicated. And, while I don’t remember why, for some reason, I was running late the morning of the dedication. So I ran into chapel about ten minutes after we were supposed to begin, clearly flustered, apologetic and upset. I stood behind the pulpit and looked down, because I was so mad at myself and embarrassed that I was that late. And I heard his voice, in this unmistakably commanding, yet calm tone that he always spoke in, say: “Breathe. Take your time. We’re not going anywhere.”

And so this morning I am remembering that moment and heeding those same words as I try to share with you all what this man meant to me, how he helped shape me into both the pastor and the person I am today and how we all can learn from his life and legacy.

Rev. Rice was born in Brooklyn in 1957. He went to New York City public schools and graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1979. He received his master of divinity in historical theology from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and continued on to do his doctoral studies at Syracuse University. He was ordained by the National/American Baptist Churches and later held standing with the United Church of Christ when he arrived at Ursinus in 1997.

I met Rev. Rice in 2004. I had gone through a process of discernment during my freshmen year of college and entered my sophomore year with a declared major of Philosophy & Religion, with the intent to go to seminary. Before I left for school that year, my mom asked me, “Have you met the chaplain yet?” When I told her no, but I had heard he was nice, she said, “You know, when you apply to seminary, they might think it’s weird if you went through four years of college and never actually met the chaplain.”

She had a point.

So I sent Rev. Rice an email and set up a meeting with him when I got on campus, which he ended up being over an hour late to because he got caught up in a conversation with a student on his way to the office.

Which, if you knew him, would not surprise you one bit.

Rev. Rice captivated my ministry-hungry heart from that very first conversation. He had an enormous passion for bringing students together, normalizing faith and creating conversation on campus. He enthusiastically encouraged our weekly student-run chapel service, which often times was something of a comedy of errors, but was always grace-filled and life-giving. When I arrived in Rehoboth six year ago, my Saturday night sermon writing made people nervous and kind of became a running joke. But the thing I never explained to you all was that when I was president of the chapel my senior year, Saturday night sermon writing was not a bad habit, it was a necessary survival skill, as Rev. Rice would commonly call me on Saturday, mid-late afternoon and say, “So I’m not going to make it to chapel tomorrow – any chance you can preach?”

Rev. Rice pushed his students, drawing out all of our potential, both as individuals and as groups. He not only talked about the importance of building bridges that would unite us, he showed us how and helped us out when things got hard.

Rev. Rice taught me the importance of gathering around a table and breaking bread with one another. At least once a month, we would all pile into his minivan after Sunday chapel for brunch. Other weeks, we would commandeer a group of tables in the dining hall and eat there. I always wondered what the tables full of hung-over students thought of us when we all walked in, dressed in our church clothes with a various assortment of bibles and music in tow.

I don’t think Rev. ever wondered that. He would just walk up to them, playfully slap them on their arms and backs and say good morning.

It did not have to be brunch, either. Rev. and I discussed theology over sushi while he taught me how to use chopsticks and told the waitress she was not allowed to bring me the fork I had asked for. On my 21st birthday, a blizzard shut down the east coast and prevented my parents from driving to Pennsylvania to take me out to dinner, so when the roads were finally cleared that night, Rev. called me and said he and his wife were taking me out instead.

Rev. Rice introduced me to Black Theology. He taught me that the Civil Rights Movement was about more than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. He filled my library with the brilliant and prophetic writings of James Baldwin, James Cone and Howard Thurman. He humbly, yet never apologetically, told me his story of what it was like to be a black man in America. He never his lost patience with my white-girl-from-Connecticut naivety as I stumbled to learn about and understand my own privilege. He is the reason that I believe today that black lives matter, even though, in an attempt to stay neutral, I have never once said those words from the pulpit or on social media.

Rev. Rice flew me all over the country so I could attend conferences that would expand my education and help me discern my call to ministry. And while I know those conferences were supposed to be about education and enrichment, he never expected anything in return; he just wanted me to have a positive experience. In fact when I called him once from a layover in Charlotte to let him know that my roommate, who attended the conference with me, and I had been “bumped” from our flight – and I used quotes around the word “bumped”, because what actually happened was that the gate attendant offered a free flight to anyone willing to give up their seats and since we 1) did not want to go to class that night and 2) loved the prospect of a spring break getaway, jumped quickly at the opportunity – he simply said, “Did you at least get a free flight out of the deal?”

And when I sheepishly admitted that yes, in fact, we did get a free flight out a flight that was originally paid for by the school, he said, “Huh. Well, good for you.”

I have never met a man with so much discipline, but also compassion. He was not afraid to tell me one day that the paper I turned in was one of the worst things he had ever read, but then call me the next day to tell me how wonderful my sermon had been in chapel that morning. He pushed me to the limits of my own boundaries and then helped me find new ones. He encouraged me when I needed encouragement, scolded me when I needed scolding and loved me – and all of us – unconditionally, all the time.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Gospel of Luke; it is known as the Road to Emmaus and it describes an encounter between two disciples – one by the name of Cleopas – and Jesus. The two disciples were traveling to the village of Emmaus when Jesus appeared to them, but they did not recognize him. They told him what had happened over the past several days, that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified, but then three days later the tomb was found empty. They told Jesus that the women had astounded them when they told everyone they saw the angels at the tomb, but that they still had not seen for themselves what had happened.

When they arrived in Emmaus, the two disciples invited Jesus to stay with them. While he was there, Jesus sat down to eat with them; he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them and “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him”

That is one of my favorite lines of scripture – “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” – because I think more often than not, we – all of us, in our lifetime – also need to open our eyes and recognize the presence of the resurrected Christ in our midst.

I was listening to a podcast last year and one of the hosts was commenting on internet bullying and how easy it is to type something offensive, insensitive or snarky to someone and hit submit without thinking twice. She said something that has stuck with me to this day: “I think we all need to sit down and have actual conversations, where we can look into each other’s eyes and see one another’s humanity.”

Christianity is about this exact incarnational presence that she as describing. Jesus came into this world so that God could live in human flesh, understand human suffering, temptation and imperfections and yet find a way to redeem us anyway. The God in the Gospel narrative is not a far away and distant God, but a God that walks with us on our journey, that stands in our presence and that never gives us on us.

This is incarnational love. This is what the disciples saw when they opened their eyes and recognized Jesus in Emmaus. This is what they experienced when Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it.

I believe, as people of faith, we are called to not only open our eyes and see this incarnational love all around us, but to also be that presence to one another, as well. We are called to show up and to be present, just like Jesus did throughout his life and especially here on the road to Emmaus.

The day Rev. Rice died, a friend of mine from college texted me. She mentioned that she wished she had emailed him more recently and thanked him for everything he had done for her. I had a similar sentiment, but pointed out that, knowing him, he was never really great with the whole email thing anyway. She agreed and said, “He was always focused on the here and now. Late to everything, but gave you his all when you were with him.”

And that, my friends, is incarnational love. That is what it means to show up and be present with someone in the moments when they need it most, to give them a space where they can recognize the see and recognize God’s resurrecting power. That was what Rev. Rice did for us. That is what he demonstrated to us and tried fervently to teach us how to do in our own lives, as well.

I believe that, as Christians, this is what we are called to do. We are called to show up, to be the incarnational presence of the resurrected Christ to our friends and even to our enemies. We are called to be present, to give one another our all in the moment, because that might be exactly what they need. We are called to stand in the imperfectly human presence of one another, because that is what Jesus demonstrated through his life, death and resurrection.

People need to know that resurrection is possible. They need to believe that God is in their midst. They need to feel like they are not alone. When Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, the disciples saw this for themselves.

And today, we are called to ensure others see this for themselves as well.

So friends, as I remember and grieve the loss of a man that had a profound impact on me, as both pastor and person, I encourage you all to think about what this incarnational presence means, both for you and also for the people you meet along your journey.

And then meet one another on the road to Emmaus. Be the presence of the resurrected Christ so that others will open their eyes and recognize it in their midst. Know that you can and will make a difference in the lives of the people you meet along your journey.

Believe in that incarnational love. Recognize that incarnational power. Be that incarnational presence of the resurrected Christ.

And have confidence that someone will open their eyes and recognize God’s work in you. And together we will continue to write this Christian story.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Jesus Spoilers

I know a lot of clergy celebrate the Sunday after Easter as Holy Humor Sunday, but, if I’m being honest, I’m really just not that funny.  So rather than force something that just won’t work for me, this past Sunday we stuck to the things that I am good at in worship -integrating special music into the service, bringing the community together to bless a new batch of prayer shawls and gathering around the living waters of baptism as we baptized our very own Baby Jesus (or at least, he played him in the Christmas pageant last year!).  It was a wonderful Sunday and I was thrilled to see so many people come out, considering it was the end of school vacation and there is often a low after Easter Sunday, anyway.

Enjoy today’s sermon!  Felt a little strange to be out of our sermon series, but it’s always nice to just read the scripture at the beginning of the week and then see where my mind takes me.

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
April 23, 2017

John 20:19-31

Jesus Spoilers

Some of you may have heard me talk before about my embarrassing affection for bad reality television. This is not something I am necessarily proud of, but it often does not matter how much of a train wreck it is to watch or how horrified I am by humankind (and, quite frankly, myself) while watching, sometimes I cannot help but get sucked in.

In more recent years, I have made a discovery that brought my intrigue of reality television to a whole a new level: Spoilers.

For those of you who, like me, did not know this was a “thing,” allow me to explain: There are people who have quite literally found a way to make a fairly lucrative living off of either spoiling the endings of the competition-type reality shows (such as The Bachelor or Survivor) or uncovering out the inconsistencies in the editing of the docu-series-type reality shows (such as Keeping Up With The Kardashians or any other show where the premise is following someone’s “real life”). All of this spoiling is kind of like seeing the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz; it spoils the illusion of what television producers are trying to create on camera by exposing what is actually happening behind the scenes.

A month or two ago, I was sitting on my couch watching the season finale of The Bachelor when Bruce came downstairs, watched for a minute or two and then asked me a question about the show. I answered, but then said, “But it’s not like it really matters, because I read the spoilers and he picks the other girl.”

To which Bruce replied, “So what is the point of watching, then?”

He had a point.

That being said, sometimes I find what is happening behind the scenes far more entertaining than what I am seeing on camera. I am the type of person that likes to know how things work; I want to know the story behind the story. I crave details about things that ordinary people never get to see or hear or experience for themselves.

And this craving follows me in my faith. When I read the bible, I always wonder about pieces of the story that never made it to scripture. I wonder things like, “Was Jesus a colicky baby?” or, “Did King David actually remember the names of all of his wives?” I am curious about details that really might not make a difference in the grand scheme of things, but that do – in some way – also contribute to the larger narrative of this story of our faith that is still being written.

Which is why something in this morning’s scripture piqued my interest this week.

This morning we heard the story of Doubting Thomas. This story shows up in the lectionary every year the week following Easter. Jesus appears to the disciples, shows them the marks on his hands and sides and they rejoice and believe he has been raised. But Thomas was not with the disciples at the time and when they shared with him what had happened, he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”[1]

First of all, I have to say that I do kind of feel badly for Thomas. The guy merely asked to see something all of his friends got to see without him and, because of that, he has this unfortunate reputation as being a “doubter”. But I also think it is good for us, after we come down off of the high of Easter – with all the excitement of the brass, lilies and confetti – to take a moment and ask ourselves, “Wait a moment, what just happened?” and create space for our own doubts in our lives and in our faith.

Because we all have doubts. And those doubts are healthy and normal and create great depth to our faith.

But this week I was struck by something different in this story; something that I have overlooked every other time I have preached on Doubting Thomas. Verse 30 – the verse that immediately follows Thomas’ conversation with Jesus after Jesus appears to Thomas and shows him the marks on his hands and sides – says:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.[2]

Which begs the question, what was not written in the book? Clearly something happened that never actually made it to scripture. What was it?

I did a little bit of research to see if perhaps anyone knew anything about these “other signs” that were not written down. And while I came up short on that question, I did learn that this verse and also verse 31 were thought to have been the original ending of the Gospel of John. In the translations we have today, there is another chapter where Jesus, again, appears to the disciples, but most scholars believe – based on the differences in language and style – this was how the original Gospel ended, by essentially saying, “There is more to the story than is written down, but we are ending it right here.”

And this has been driving me crazy all week. What were the other signs? Why were they unwritten? Were they more believable? Less believable? Did the people who were supposed to write them down forget to hand them in on time?

What else happened after the resurrection that we do not know about? What are the untold stories? What piece of the narrative are we missing?

No wonder Thomas had doubts; maybe they did not tell him the whole story, either!

Like I said, this has he been driving me crazy all week. I want to know the untold stories of Jesus, of the resurrection and of our faith. I want to know what happened, but was never written about.

But since there are not a whole lot of bloggers out there posting “Jesus spoilers,” I have kind of been left to the devices of my own imagination on this one.

Which, I was surprised to discover, got me a lot further than I thought it would.

I met with my clergy group this week and we all checked in on how everyone’s Easters went at their churches. At one point someone said, “Can I tell a story?” and proceeded to share this really powerful story about where she had seen resurrection come alive during a funeral she presided over during Holy Week.

While she was talking, it got me thinking about a moment where I had experienced resurrection in worship on Easter Sunday and so I shared that story. When I finished, another one of my colleagues shared her own resurrection story from their Easter Sunrise Service.

As I was driving home that afternoon, I started thinking about these powerful resurrection stories that we had not only experienced, but also shared with one another. And it was in that moment that I realized that it is not only in experiencing these moments that resurrection becomes real, but also sharing them with others. I began to wonder if perhaps Jesus’ signs are not all written in the Gospel of John because they are still very much happening today, in our lifetime, in the piece of this story we are writing.

Friends, resurrection is happening all around us, but the only way people will know this to be true is if we tell them our stories. We have to tell people about those moments in our lives when we thought all was lost and yet grace was found. We have to share the stories from our lives where the darkness was overwhelming and yet light still found a way to shine. We have to boldly proclaim the times of hope and promise in the midst of suffering and grief.

We are the keepers of the untold stories of our faith and we have to tell these stories. We have to pull back the curtain; we have to show people what is happening behind the scenes. The Christian faith should not be some elusive club that outsiders have no window into; it should be a beautiful opportunity for all people to experience resurrection in real and powerful ways.

The thing is: There are a lot of Doubting Thomases in this world. And they need a safe space; they need a safe space not only to experience that doubt, but also hear real stories from our faith. They need to know about this God whom we worship and trust and believe in. They need to be inspired to think about the ways resurrection could potentially happen in their lives as we share the ways resurrection happens in our lives. They need to learn about this Good News we have grounded our lives in so they can see how it might transform their lives.

We have to tell the untold stories of our faith. We have to continue to share this Christian story; a story I believe is still very much worth sharing.

This morning, I encourage you all to think about what it means to tell the untold stories of our faith; to share real pieces of your real lives where you experienced everything from doubt to belief in resurrection and to know that those stories can and will make a difference in someone’s life.

So let us write our own Jesus spoilers. And may we be inspired as we experience resurrection, believe in resurrection and share resurrection this Easter season.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] John 20:25, NRSV
[2] John 20:30, NRSV