A Hope That Is Real

Hi Friends! I was planning on preaching out of Matthew this morning, but changed my mind at the last minute and moved into Romans. It felt like the sermon that needed to be preached this morning.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 19, 2020

Romans 8:12-25

A Hope That Is Real

I mentioned last week that the Gospel passage we looked at – the Parable of the Sower – kicked off a series of growing-related parables that Jesus used to explain the Kingdom of God.  I had every intention of following that series and looking at the Parable of the Weeds this week.  I completed the bulletin with that scripture in it and uploaded it to our website and Facebook.  I attached it to the Epistle and Kathy printed and mailed it out to those who receive hard copies.  I had a sermon mostly-outlined talking about the things in our lives that, at first glance, we do not think are weeds, but that still overwhelm us.

I was going to tell you all about the rogue tomato plants that are growing in my garden and choking out my onions.  I was going to compare this to the fact that this time of social distancing is teaching me the importance of setting priorities and having the ability to focus more time and energy on less things, as opposed to trying to do everything and doing it poorly.  While I love tomatoes, the number of them in my garden is the problem right now.  They are not only choking out other vegetables, but also one another.  They are not weeds, per say, but the sheer volume of them is inhibiting the plants’ ability to thrive.  What I really should have done when they started growing a few weeks ago was pull some of them out so everything had room to grow.

To some extent I do think this experience of canceling things and staying home has allowed me to carefully choose what I want to put back into my life.  I am able to see and hear God in a way that I have not in a very long time because I am not just running from one thing to another.  I have had more time with my husband and my children than I ever would have if life had been “normal”.  Gathering for nightly prayers has made me feel more connected to our church family than I have in my entire nine years in Rehoboth.  It is incredible to think that while we have been “closed” (according to the Government), we have prayed for and with one another and said the Lord’s Prayer together for 125 consecutive days (and counting!).

That would have been a great sermon – and maybe one day I will still preach it.

If not, I hope the synopsis was good enough.  Because here is what happened after I finished the bulletin and started to write the sermon – I opened my Feasting on the Word commentary that looks at all of the lectionary passages for the week.  And as I was flipping to the Gospel passage, the Epistle passage caught my eye – Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, chapter 8, verses 12 through 25.

There was writing all over the commentary, which meant that, at some point over the past nine years, I preached on this particular passage.  What caused me to stop and really look at it, however, was what I had underlined.

I underlined verse 18:

I consider that that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

The sufferings of this present time.

In my life pre-covid, more often than not when I thought about references to suffering in the bible, I always felt a little inadequate to speak to it fully because, for better or worse, we lived a fairly privileged lifestyle.  And in many ways, we still do – but we are collectively experiencing a level of suffering we never have before.  And so I almost feel as though these words – and this idea of suffering – are taking on a new and more powerful meaning to me now than they have in the past.

The truth is, we live in a world with a lot of suffering right now.  We can try to stay positive and look on the bright side – but we cannot ignore the truth.  We live in a world where we cannot guarantee people’s safety; where we make decisions by assessing levels of risk and our individual and collective willingness to take that risk.  The conversation surrounding the re-opening of schools has made it ever so clear that, right now, some problems do not actually have solutions.  I said in my note in the Epistle this week that my heart aches for everyone wrestling with how to manage whatever the fall will bring – teachers, students, parents, administrators and other staff.

This appears to be yet another complicated stage of grief in the time of covid.

A situation with no easy – or even, it seems, feasible – answers.

It seems hopeless.

And yet there is hope in scripture.  Paul writes to the church in Rome that there will be a glory revealed to us despite the sufferings of the present times.

There will be a glory revealed to us despite the sufferings of the present times.

The people Paul is writing to in Rome are experiencing their own kind of suffering.  It is a different kind of suffering, but nonetheless their reality is grim.  The live in a world where Jesus was crucified and resurrected and where they anticipate his immediate return and fast-approaching end-time.  They live in a world where religious traditions are being questioned and changed.  Tensions are running high between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, trying to understand what this new religious normal looks like.  Their world is uncertain; they feel vulnerable and scared.  They do not know what is going to happen next.

It is a different kind of suffering.  But I think these days I relate to Paul’s words more than I ever have before.

Paul does two things in this portion of his letter to the Romans that I think are really important.  The first thing he does is acknowledge the suffering.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

The sufferings of this present time.

Paul does not gloss over the harsh realities they are living in or pretends that they are not real.  He acknowledges people and their suffering; he hears them and meets them where they are.

I was listening to the radio this week and they were talking about something called “toxic positivity” – where you focus too much on staying positive and do not acknowledge or bury the hard stuff that you really should be processing.

In other words, it is okay to admit when things are hard; when suffering is real.  It is the only way we can process it and move past it.

And so Paul does this.  He hears the cries of the Roman citizens and acknowledges the suffering they face.

But then he does something else – he offers words of hope.

For in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

For in hope we were saved.

Paul does not necessarily have a solution to the suffering the Roman citizens are facing.  But he says there is hope.  He says hope is real.  He says hope will be revealed.  And he says that, together, they will wait for it.

I do not have a solution for the reopening of schools.  I said in my newsletter article that I do not even have a better idea.

But I do have hope.  I have hope that the sufferings of our present time will not be worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us.  I believe that God is still working in the midst of this chaos we are living in – in fact, I believe God does God’s best work in the midst of chaos.

And so, while I acknowledge our collective sufferings, I am holding onto hope.  Hope that I cannot see, but that I fiercely believe in.  Hope that God is still with us.  Hope that God will make order out of chaos.  Hope that this suffering will not define us.  Hope that our political leaders and our school districts will find a safe and effective way for our children to learn in the fall.  Hope that, while we are groaning inwardly now, one day we will be redeemed.

Can I see this?  No.  Do I know what this is going to look like?  No.  Do I know when it is going to happen?  No.  But Paul says we hope for what we do not see.

And so this morning I invite you to hold onto hope.  Hold onto a hope that is real.  Hold onto a bold and radical and earth-shattering hope.  Hold onto the kind of hope that will release us from our suffering and reveal the glory of God.  Hold onto a hope that is always with us and that cannot be conquered by anything else.

And so together, let us wait for it with patience.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Nurturing Our Own Soil

Hi friends!  We were back in the sanctuary this morning – still trying to figure out how to make the sound better!  But it still felt good to be there. Here is my sermon – with the video from the whole service.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 12, 2020

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Nurturing Our Own Soil

Many of you know that Bruce and I faithfully plant a vegetable garden every year.  Since we moved to Rehoboth in 2011, we have only missed two summers – one when Harrison was born and the other the summer we were moving out of the parsonage and into our house.  Yard work last spring – our first spring in our house – was focused almost entirely on building a big fence so we could start planting.

Gardening is fun for me, because you start with something small and nurture it in various ways and then watch it transform and grow right before uour very eyes.  I particularly enjoy growing vegetables, because then I get to enjoy the fruits (or, I guess, the veggies) of my labor.  I find so many powerful parallels between nurturing growth in a garden and nurturing personal growth in my life and my faith.

Which is why I always love this parable’s placement in the lectionary for us.  It pops up in the middle of the summer, usually when we are surrounded by an abundance of fresh flowers, berries and vegetables.  It is so relevant, because when Jesus talks about what seeds need to really take root and grow and produce, we have tangible examples of this metaphor all around us as we try to apply these words in our own lives.

I have to admit, however, that one of the things that has always perplexed me about this particular parable is the fact that I believe God can work with any kind of soil, which is not exactly what this parable is saying.  This parable is saying that the soil has to be “good”.

If you look at the passage we just read, the first part is the parable, itself, where Jesus explains what happens to seeds when they fall into or are planted in less-than-desirable soil.  They either do not take root or the growth that does happen cannot be sustained.

The second part of the passage is when Jesus then explains what this means in terms of our faith.  The Gospel – the word of God – are the seeds and we are the soil that the seeds are being planted in.  We need to be good soil so we can understand the word as it is planted within us and then nurture growth so it will bear fruit.

So my question has always been, but what if we are bad soil?  Where is the room for redemption?  For second chances?  For grace?  For the whole reason Jesus came into this world in the first place?

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that was kind of Jesus’ whole point.

Let’s look at the passage.

We have reached the point in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is really starting to show the true depth of God’s Kingdom.  Leading up to this particular chapter, chapter 13, was the section at the end of chapter 12 where Jesus’ mother and brother show up, wanting to speak to Jesus and Jesus, instead, points to his disciples and calls them his mother and brothers, saying that whoever does the will of God, his Father in heaven, is his brother, mother and sister.

In other words, what Jesus is talking about – this Gospel he is proclaiming – is so much bigger than any of our earthly lives.  Jesus is not just speaking to his family – at this point he is not just speaking to his disciples anymore!  Jesus is gathering crowds (albeit a concept that is a little strange to us right now, but I will just picture everyone in masks as they listen to Jesus talk).  Jesus is trying to reach as many people as he can with the Gospel.

So Jesus begins speaking in parables to give concrete examples and metaphors in order to explain the Kingdom of God, not only so those who had gathered that day could understand, but so we could understand, as well.  He begins with the parable of the sower, which is this morning’s passage.  The parable of the sower kicks of a series of planting-related parables – the parable of the weeds among the wheat, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast.

The point Jesus is trying to make with the parable of the sower is that God’s word will do nothing to us if we are not ready to receive it.  In the same way that a seed will not grow in the ground if the ground is not ready to receive it – if the soil is not good – we will not be able to grow in our faith and spread the Gospel without ensuring first that our soil is nutrient-rich.

Let’s get back to my original issue with this particular parable.  At first glance, it appears that if you do not have nutrient-rich soil that you will not be able to nurture growth in your faith and in the Gospel.  But what about those of us with rocky soil?  That are on a path with no soil?  That are surrounded by thorns?  What about those of us that do not have a strong foundation in faith?  That have a lot of questions?  That doubt more than we believe?  That have made mistakes?  That did not have the privilege of growing up in a household where going to church was part of our lives?

It is naïve to think that all we have to do is proclaim a belief in Christ in order to have nutrient-rich soil so we can nurture God’s word and let is grow in our lives.  I would argue that many of us likely do proclaim a belief in Christ and do not always think we have nutrient-rich soil in which to receive and nurture God’s word.

But, actually, I think that might be the point.

You see, it is not about what we are planting – it is about the soil in which we are planting it in.  The point of this parable is not to “weed out” (sorry, bad pun) the Christians with good soil from the Christians with bad soil.  The point is that we all have to nurture our soil before we stand a chance at nurturing growth within it.  So often we focus on how the seed is growing and what it is producing when we should be focusing on what we are planting that seed in in the first place.

We need to be focusing on the soil.

In other words, it is okay if we have not-so-good soil.  That is not the point – the point is that we can nurture our soil.  But that is where we have to start.  Not with the seeds – with the soil.

So we proclaim ourselves to be Christian.  Great!  But now what?  Christianity does not come with a shiny badge and a bag of nutrient-rich soil for us to plant seeds in.  It does, however, come with the promise of redemption and reconciliation and a Gospel that will challenge, comfort and strengthen us as we seek to learn and grow that so we can provide nutrients to the soil that we already have.

It is not about the seeds at all, it is about what we are planting them in.  And, as Christians, we have to do the hard work that is required to nurture our own soil before we even think about planting a single thing.  The message of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God that it invites us into will do nothing if we are not able to cultivate it in our own lives.

So the question is – how do we nurture our own soil?

In many ways, I think this time of social distancing has allowed us to get back to basics at the church.  Without the usual the flurry of activities (while I dearly miss them!) we have been allowed to focus on what brings us together in the first place – our faith, as Christians.

Our worship services center solely around God’s word and a reflection on that word.  Our nightly prayer meetings in our Facebook group not only connect us in prayer, but also strengthens our community as we check in with one another and hold one another in the light of God’s love.  We use the simple act of making phone calls and sending cards to have meaningful conversations and know that we are not alone.  Care packages are delivered to the homes of the children in our church school to remind them that their church loves them and has not forgotten them.

The more I reflect on what we are doing and how we are being church right now, the more I realize that now is the time to nurture our soil.  This time of social distancing will end eventually – we will, one day, resume our usual flurry of activities.  But I strongly believe that what will define us as a church is not what we produce then – it is the soil that we create now.

And so I know it is frustrating that we cannot meet in person yet.  I know it is hard to cancel so many of our favorite activities, not knowing when they will, once again, resume.  I know it is painful to not be able to look one another in the eyes and hug each other and do church the way we are used to.

But I invite you to take comfort in knowing that we are nurturing the soil in which we will plant our seeds in the future.  The work we are doing now is so important for what we can do and who we can be in the future.

The same is true for all of us, an individuals.  Many of our lives have slowed down – or, at the very least, changed – dramatically since things initially shut down in March.  And, in many ways, it is frustrating and heartbreaking – devastating, even.

But this is where we are – this is the chapter of history we are writing.  And so I believe that we, as individuals, can do the same work that the church is doing right now to nurture our own soil.  We can get back to basics – focus on reading scripture, on centering ourselves in prayer and on connecting with one another through meaningful conversations.  We can prioritize our personal faith journeys in a way that we never have had the time to do before.

We can read scripture.  Use a daily devotional for quiet time.  Write in a journal.  Participate in our evening prayers.  Pick up the phone and catch up with a member of our beloved community.  While I know we would all love nothing more than to plant seeds and watch them grow by getting out into the world and doing all of the things we want to do, perhaps now is the time to focus not on the seeds, but the on the soil that we will plant them in.

Friends, let us use this time – this time of social distancing, as frustrating as it might be – to nurture our soil.  Let us turn to scripture and prayer to give ourselves the strength, wisdom and courage to cultivate growth that can be sustained and will flourish in the future.  Let us nurture good soil within ourselves so that we can bear fruit and yield, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

I keep hearing people say that we need to keep the faith right now as we get through these challenging times.  And I agree.  Now more than ever, we need our faith to sustain us.

But I also think that in order to keep that faith, we have to have good soil for it to grow in.  And that takes work.

And that work starts now.

So let us nurture that soil that the seeds of the Gospel that fall within us will take root, grow, bear fruit and yield, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Giving Our Collective Burdens To Jesus

Hi friends!  Here is this week’s worship service.  I moved back in to the sanctuary and had my Music Director lead worship with me.  It felt good to take a step back towards some semblance of normal.  We still have some kinks to work out, but it was nice to be in a space I love so much.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 5, 2020

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Giving Our Collective Burdens To Jesus

I saw a tweet going around the internet this week that said, “Those who have stayed inside, wore masks in public, and socially distanced during this entire pandemic are the same people who are used to doing the whole group project by themselves.”

Yes.

100% yes.

If there is one thing I think we have all learned and realized throughout this pandemic, it is that we are so much more connected than perhaps we thought we were – not only with the people around us, but also on a national and global scale.  Our actions have consequences – not just for us, but also for other people.  And the actions of others directly affect us, as well.  We are seeing this very clearly as people choose to follow or not follow the recommendations for social distancing.  For many of us, it is very frustrating, because we are doing everything that we can, but we cannot control what other people do.

And we are connected to other people – whether we want to be or not.

There is a South African philosophy called Ubuntu.  The term means, “humanity” – it is often translated more broadly to say, “I am because you are” or, “I am because we are”.  Ubuntu describes our connectedness to one another; this truth that our humanity is universally tied up in one another.  Ubuntu explains that we are not simply individuals living in our own separate silos, but that who we are is affected by others and who they are is affected by us.

I have always loved this philosophy, but I do not think I fully understood the depth of its impact until we found ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic.  Because I do think, to some extent, I enjoyed doing life in my own little right-to-farm small-town New England bubble, but the truth is that I am – we all are – connected to others in our state, throughout around country and even in the far corners of the world.

Ubuntu:  I am because you are.  I am because we are.

We are not just individuals on a journey – for better or worse, we are in this together.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Gospel according to Matthew.  It addresses the inextricable link we have to one another right away when Jesus begins the passage by talking not about individuals, but about the society, as a whole.

Jesus says:

But to what will I compare this generation?

Generation.  Not individuals.  Not small groups of people.  “To what will I compare this generation?”  In other words, Jesus is looking at what the collective society does, not necessarily the specific actions of individuals.  And what this means is that it is not just what we do in our own lives and along our own journeys.  Not only do our actions have consequences for other people, but the choices and actions of other people reflect who we are, as well.

For better or worse, right?

Let’s go back to he group project metaphor:  If you are doing that group project and you have a go-getter in the group who is taking the lead and making sure the end result is worthy of an A+, then you are probably feeling pretty good about our connectedness to one another.

But if you are that go-getter and you have one person in the group that does not submit their work and brings your grade down, you realize that sometimes our connectedness can have negative consequences.

We are connected to one another – and those connections run deep.

I think many of us our realizing just how true this is as we continue to read and educate ourselves about systemic racism in our country.  While we may think that, as individuals, we are loving and accepting of all people, the reality is that we are part of this society – this generation, as Jesus refers to people in today’s passage – with a deeply rooted and complicated history of racism.  And that does affect who we are.

The same is true as we try to mitigate the coronavirus.  We, as individuals, can do everything that public health officials are telling us to do, but the reality is that we are part of a society where not everyone is complying with these recommendations and where are leaders do no even necessarily agree on what the recommendations should be and that also affects us .

Ubuntu:  I am because you are.  I am because we are.  Jesus says, “But to what will I compare this generation,” knowing that the Body of Christ does not function as individual parts, but as a collective whole working together.  For better or worse.

Like I said, I do not think I fully understood the depth of Ubuntu until we found ourselves in the midst of this global pandemic.  I always understood this philosophy in a mostly positive light, in terms of how my actions could help others and not necessary in a negative one, where a society could negatively impact me or I could carry societal burdens and not just my own.

But I do think, now more than ever, it is important to recognize that side of our connectedness.

In today’s passage,  Jesus compares the generation he is addressing to children sitting in the marketplaces, calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”  While individuals might be listening to Jesus that day saying, wait a minute, I did not do those things, the problem is, they are part of a greater group of people who do.  And Jesus is saying that we have to carry the burdens of the generation we are a part of.

Because we are connected to one another.

Jesus says at the end of today’s passage, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  And while I do love the image this scripture creates of Jesus carrying our individual burdens, Jesus is not necessarily talking about our own personal and individual burdens.  If you look at this passage within the broader context of what he is saying, as he speaks to the whole of the generation, he is talking about the collective burdens of society.  Jesus is inviting not just individuals, but an entire generation to give their collective burdens to him.

I actually really like this idea, because I don’t know about you all, but sometimes I look at the collective burdens of our society and I am not really sure how I can make a difference.

But Jesus says he will give us rest.  He invites us to take his yoke upon us and learn from him.  And friends, right now we not only have so many burdens to give to Jesus, but we also have so much to learn from him.  We have so much to learn from this Gospel he proclaimed; this narrative of light, love and grace that still needs to be written.

We are carrying heavy burdens right now – as a community, as a nation, as a world – the realities of this virus, political division, systemic racism and economic injustice.  And as members of this generation, we are still responsible for our collective actions.  We are the Body of Christ – we do not work alone.

And so we have to bring these collective burdens to Jesus.

I know there is a lot going on right now and it came seem overwhelming and, at times, impossible.  But now is not the time to give up; now is the time to lean into our faith and act like the Christians Jesus is calling us to be and the Church that Jesus is calling us into.  I believe that the work of the Church is absolutely critical right now, because Jesus says in this passage that Gospel is not revealed through the rich and powerful, but through the humble and faithful, not through the work of those who have achieved a high level of status, but through the work of those who are willing to learn.

And I believe there is so much that we can do.  I believe that, together, we can mitigate this virus.  I believe that, together, we can bridge our political divides.  I believe that, together we can move towards a place of racial reconciliation.

But the work starts with us – with us, as a Church, the Rehoboth Congregational Church – our beloved Church in the Village.  The work starts with our willingness to acknowledge, take responsibility for and then give our collective societal burdens to Jesus so we can continue to learn and grow in our faith and leave this world a little better than how we found it.

I think, in so many ways at the church, we have seen how our connectedness is a gift.  We love one another and love ON one another and we know that, even in this time of social distancing, we are never alone.  As a church community, we have done such a wonderful job of using our connections to care for one another and to serve the community.

But I do think now we are also seeing the burdens of our connectedness, as well – and our role in this is just as critical.  As a church, we have to ground ourselves in our faith, humble ourselves, learn from Jesus and do the hard work that is required the release some of these burdens and see the true capacity of the Gospel to change the world.

Our work continues, my friends.  Let us find rest for our souls.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.