Putting God First {Children’s Sermon}

Children’s sermons are something of a mystery to me.  They are pure chaos, I never feel like I have any semblance of control, and yet my parishioners always tell me it is one of their favorite parts of the service and very often parents text me or post something on Facebook that their kids are talking about something I’ve said.

Soooo yeah.  I don’t claim to be an expert.  In fact, I just bought a book with 26 different children sermon ideas and when I pulled it out of the envelope it was mailed in, my husband laughed hysterically.

I wasn’t quite sure how to take that?

Anyway, I saw this idea floating around on the internet – various blogs, youtube videos and email chains (so I don’t have one post to link it back to).  It’s a cute idea – easy to do – very visual – great message.  It worked well, because this was exactly what I was preaching on that day, so the adults basically got to hear the same message twice. :)

Putting God First {A Children’s Sermon}

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So start with your supplies …

1 tennis ball
golf balls
small stones
sand
empty jar
bowl
colander
funnel (not pictured, but it will be later!)

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For the purpose of this demonstration …

The sand represents the unimportant things in your life
The stones represents the quasi-important things in your life
The golf balls represent the important things in your life
The tennis ball represents God

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So you probably get where this is going, but here goes.  When you add the sand to the jar first, everything doesn’t fit.  So when you add the sand, you talk about what it means to put the unimportant things in your life first …

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Then you put the quasi-important things … and there’s SOME room left …

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Then you add the important things.  At this point, the jar – your life – is overloaded …

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… and there’s no room for God.

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So once you’ve demonstrated that, you take the whole thing apart.

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This is where the colander is necessary!  I realized about 45 minutes before church started that I didn’t have a good way to separate the rocks from the sand.

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A funnel is also helpful!  When I practiced without one, I got sand all over my desk.

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Okay.  Let’s start again.  Put God first in your life!

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Then add the important things.

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Then add the quasi-important things.

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And then – guess what!

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There is PLENTY OF ROOM FOR EVERYTHING!

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And you even have room for a little bit more and to put the top on.

Literally, when I finished this, the sanctuary erupted in applause.  I can’t decide if people were so overwhelmed by my bold proclamation that everything fits into your life when you put God first or just relieved that this actually worked the way it was supposed to.

I’m thinking it was the latter.

Go Light Your World

I was at a friend’s church bazaar on Saturday and picked this up for $3.

I need to epoxy or glue the cracks back together, but other than I may just clean it out, give it a nice shine and leave it as is.

I actually was able to use it sooner than I thought!  Our youth took part in their Homeless Awareness Weekend and during Sunday’s service we did a candle lighting while the choir sang “Go Light Your World” (a tradition).  The kids usually blow the candles out after the song is over, but I was thinking yesterday morning that it might be nice to keep them lit.

Lucky for me my husband did not raise his eyebrows or ask too many questions when I said to him on Sunday morning, “Any chance you could bring a big bucket full of sand to church?”

I was also lucky that the kids on the field (and the adults, for that matter) didn’t raise their eyebrows or ask too many questions when I asked them to bring one of their cardboard “homes” back to the church on Sunday morning. It was a great visual and also gave the younger kids a chance to crawl in and out of it during the children’s sermon and see (on a smaller scale) what it is like to “live” in a box.

I’m looking forward to using it in the future. Any ideas on how?

Practicing Faith

Sunday’s sermon …

You know … it’s really great to have the church school back in session.  I missed it.

James 2:14-17

Practicing Faith

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: An Essay By The Rev. Sarah Weaver

I baptized seven beautiful children.
I officiated three weddings.
I presided over two funerals.
I broke the stove at the parsonage.
I profusely apologized to the Trustees for breaking the stove at the parsonage.
I watched Jesse and Bruce replace the stove at the parsonage.
I bought a tractor.
I lost two weeks’ worth of sleep watching Olympic coverage (who knew “speed walking” was an Olympic event?)
I “finished at the 50” at Gilette Stadium with a group of people from the church.
I went to Martha’s Vineyard with my New Clergy Group for an overnight retreat.
I caught my first striper.
I spent a lot of time in my running sneakers, on my bike or in my kayak.
I redecorated my bedroom.
I preached a sermon using Ken dolls as visual aids.
I read a lot of books.
I went down to the Cape for a few days with Bruce.
I ate a lot of mints at my desk.
I put forth a less-than-stellar gardening effort.
I made several trips to Connecticut.
I visited with my family and my friends.

I went for long walks. I listened to music on repeat. I sat alone in the sanctuary at the end of long days. I looked for answers and found more questions. I felt God’s presence in my life, even when I did not know what it meant.

I thoughts about this church a lot; a congregation of people that – 18 months ago – called me to be their pastor. I took a step back and thought about the time that has passed since I received my first phone call from the search committee. I thought about what I thought was going to happen and what actually happened. I thought about what I have learned about the church and what I have yet to learn about the church. I thought about the church’s strengths and weakness. I thought about my own strengths and weaknesses; where my strengths fit well with the community and where I still need to improve. I thought about where the passion lies in the community. I thought about how lucky we are as a congregation to have such phenomenal nursery, church school and youth fellowship programs. I thought about how grateful I am for the older generation of members, who continue to share stories and wisdom with me – and who give me a glimpse into the life of this church so many years ago.

I thought again and again about the great hopes that I have for this church.

This morning’s scripture comes from the book of James. The book of James is a letter, though we really do not know by who or to who. The Letter of James contrasts many of the Apostle Paul’s letters, because there is an emphasis on works – faith is not enough, this writer implies. There needs to be some sort of correlation between faith in speech and faith in action.

I actually trimmed down this text from what was suggested in the lectionary. I could not think of a better way to start off our church year. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? … Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

“Faith without works is dead.” If there was ever a time to make a commitment to live out this statement, the time is now.

I read a book this summer by Diana Butler Bass called Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. In this book, Butler Bass talks about the changes that are happening in the church right now – and how it may be time to focus more on faith and spiritual practices and less on institutional church structures.

Butler Bass talks about the three strands of religious faith – believing, behaving and belonging. The strands, themselves, are not changing, she says; what is changing, however, is the order in which we live them out. She suggests that belief does not come first; we must first belong, and then behave – and then we will believe.

Towards the end of the book, Butler Bass references specifically this passage from James when she talks about what it means to “behave” in the 21st century. She says:

The early community that followed Jesus was a community of practice. Jesus’s followers did not sit around a fire and listen to lectures on Christian theology. They listened to stories that taught them how to act toward one another, what to do in the world. They healed people, offered hospitality, prayed together, challenged traditional practices and rituals, ministered to the sick, comforted the grieving, fasted, and forgave. These actions induced wonder, have them courage, empowered hope, and opened up a new vision of God. By doing things together, they began to see differently.

Jesus did not walk by the Sea of Galilee and shout to fishermen, “Have faith!” Instead, he asked them to do something: “Follow me.” When they followed, he gave them more things to do. At first, he demonstrated what he wanted them to do. They he did it with them. Finally, he sent them out to do it themselves, telling them to proclaim God’s reign and cure the sick. When they returned from this first mission, they could not believe what had happened. They discovered that proclaiming the kingdom was not a matter of imitating Jesus’s actions. Jesus did not tell them to have faith. He pushed them into the world to practice faith. The disciples did not hope the world would change. They changed it. And, in doing so, they themselves changed.

Later, in the New Testament book of James, the writer says, “Faith without works is dead” (2:17, 26). This verse has caused much consternation in Christian history. Does that mean we work our way to heaven? That good works save us?

It is a mistake to think that this verse is about some future salvation—about whether or not a person will go to heaven. The context is not eternal life; rather the context is this life. When place in the here and now, and in the context of following a spiritual path, the meaning is crystal clear: actions shape faith. Spiritual practices engender hope. Behavior opens the door for believing. Doing what once seemed difficult or impossible empower courage to envision a different world and believe we can make a difference. Without practices, faith is but an empty promise.

“Without practices, faith is but an empty promise.”

Here are my hopes for the Rehoboth Congregational Church this year:

I hope that we will continue to grow, continue to heal and continue to thrive as a community of faith.

I hope that we will find our niche, discover what we do well and allow ourselves to improve upon them even more.

I hope that we gracefully let go of some of the things that we do not have time for right now and are willing to see change as an avenue towards great opportunities.

I hope that we learn to love one another unconditionally.

I hope that we strengthen our faith – both as a community and also as individual people.

I hope that we explore new opportunities for service and missions.

I hope that we continue to upgrade our facilities.

I hope that we experiment in worship and education, finding new ways to experience God and our faith.

I hope that we embrace who we are as a community church, reaching out to those around us with a spirit of evangelism and extravagant welcome and hospitality.

I hope that we “practice faith”.

Practicing faith does not mean spending 24 hours a day at the church. Practicing faith does not mean volunteering for every committee, regardless of whether you have an interest in or time for it. Practicing faith does not mean constantly evangelizing to your neighbor. Practicing faith does mean forcing yourself to read the bible or a daily devotional. Practicing faith does not mean writing over your entire paycheck to the church.

Practicing faith means making a commitment to be patient with yourself and with others along this journey we are all on. Practicing faith means being willing to come and worship, serve, learn and fellowship with people who you may not always agree with. Practicing faith means looking at the needs both inside and outside of the church walls. Practicing faith means listening to how God is speaking to you. Practicing faith means knowing that everyone around you is on their own journey of faith – and accepting people where they are. Practicing faith means supporting others and allowing others to support you. Practicing faith means being open to the possibility of change. Practicing faith means looking at where our community is now and seeing how we can best move forward into the future. Practicing faith means loving unconditionally, serving consistently and learning and growing always. Practicing faith means standing in community and saying together, “We are the Body of Christ”.

My hope, members and friends of the Rehoboth Congregational Church, is that this year, we will truly “practice faith”.

So … what did YOU do this summer?

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

A Letter To The 2012 Confirmands

I have no words to describes yesterday’s worship service.  I am so proud of our confirmation class and they positively shined!

I was explaining confirmation and the affirmation of baptism to the kids during the children’s sermon.  Then I called the confirmands up and the kids prayed for the confirmands – so cute!

My awesome class!

Here’s my sermon …

A Letter To The 2012 Confirmands

Dear Alyssa, Tommy, Spencer, Nick, Julia, Hannah, Morgan, Rebekah, Matt, Emmie, Ally and Loren,

What do I say?

I will be honest – when we started this Confirmation journey back in September, I did not know what to expect. I wanted to try something different with you guys; something that would allow you to spend more time talking than listening, more time asking questions than getting fed answers and more time growing in your own faith than fitting into the mold of a religious structure. In order for this program to work effectively you all needed to be willing to open up – not just to one another, but to yourselves as well.

Well – nine months later, you have far exceeded all of my expectations.

A few months ago I was meeting with my new clergy group. I was talking about one of our night class worship services when one of my group members turned to me and said, “Do you realize that every time you talk about your confirmation class, you absolutely glow? I want that.”

She is right. I have so much joy in my heart every time I think about you, talk about you or spend time with you. You are a unique and special group of individuals – and I am so very lucky to have been able to teach you this year.

As a group, you are smart, polite, respectful, faithful and caring. You allowed yourself to be completely engaged in the process of confirmation. You supported one another along this journey through confirmation. You laughed together and cried together. You shared meals, fellowship and worship together. You were willing to take risks, to try new things. You pushed each other and encouraged each other as you explored your faith. You never passed judgment on one another. You did not criticize each other when your views differed. You just showed friendship and love to each other.

You have helped me to grow through this process as well. You asked me difficult questions and waited patiently as I fumbled my way to come up with some sort of an answer the even remotely sounded eloquent. You offered feedback on our classes and our Sunday night worship services. You gave me new ideas for changes and ministries that could take place within and benefit our church. You came through for this community when we asked you to lend a hand. You have given us a lot to think about – and a lot of things to grow on as well.

One of the most popular subjects in theological circles right now is the decline of mainline churches. Churches – like ours – are getting smaller and smaller; general concern is that many churches will not be able to survive long-term.

I used to be just as concerned as most people – but I am not sure that I am anymore. You all have given me so much hope for the future of the church. I hope the adults that are sitting in this sanctuary today trust me when I say that as long as there are youth like you that are passionate about their faith and about nurturing strong communities of faith, the church that they love and care so much about will be absolutely fine in the years to come.

Before we move into the Rite of Confirmation, I have a few last things to say.

The first scripture I chose for this morning’s service was from Jeremiah – his call story. I read it at one of our Sunday night worship services and pointed out that when God called Jeremiah into the ministry, he said no. Jeremiah had doubts about himself; he said that he was too young, that he would be inadequate, that he did not have enough answers and that he did not know why God was calling him. I told you then and I am going to tell you know – it is okay to have doubts.

You are 14 and 15 years old. You do not have to have all of the answers right now. You do not need to know what you want to do with your life or how you are going to do it. It is not necessary for you to have come to any insightful conclusions about your faith and your belief system – that wasn’t the goal of confirmation. When you say, “I believe” today you are not making a definitive an infinite statement – you are simply expressing where you are in this moment. And you are promising to continue on your faith journey, asking questions and being open to finding answers in unexpected places. Selfishly I hope that your faith journey keeps you right here at the Rehoboth Congregational Church. Because I think that each and every one of you has the propensity within yourself to do great things here.

Please – always be true to who you are. Know when to apologize – but also know when not to apologize. Do not be afraid to speak up when you feel like your voice needs to be heard. Never stop asking questions. Embrace your gifts. Sense the strength that you hold within yourself – use that strength. Love yourself.

Let your heart see your vision – and let your mind guide your journey.

Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

I am so very proud of each and every one of you. Now go out into the world and let your light shine!

You are a magnificent creation of the divine!

Amen.

Overlooking Discipleship

Sooooo yeah.

I don’t want to talk about it.

I hope my sermons make up for the fact that I often come off as a complete ditz during children’s sermons.  Here’s today’s!

John 3:14-21

Overlooking Discipleship

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” {King James}

My, my, my – that is a familiar one, isn’t it?

One of my commentaries hit the nail on its head this week when it said the following about the difficulty of preaching on such a well-known passage:

If you grew up going to Sunday school, you cannot remember a time when you did not know this particular verse of Scripture. It is and has been the centerpiece of uncounted Sunday school and vacation Bible school classes (not to mention sermons!) and is frequently lifted up as the perfect and pithy summation of Christian faith. For a few years, references to the passage seemed to be everywhere. In every end zone, in every crowd, in every place that a television camera was pointing, it seemed as though you would find someone holding up a placard: “John 3:16”

This particular trend may have waned a bit of late—and not a moment too soon for most of us—but still it is true: everyone knows John 3:16 or at least knows of John 3:16, including, of course, our congregations, filled with people far more likely to need to stifle a yawn when this passage is read than to limit the urge to leap into any immediate action. How does one preach a text that has become a cliché? How is life to be pumped back into words that are so well known that they can no longer be heard? {Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, pg. 116}

So where do I even begin to start with a verse that is so well-known, not just in the Christian world, but also in the secular world? We are talking about a verse that was the most googled phrase on the day the Florida Gators won the 2009 BCS Championship because Tim Tebow had it written on his face.

Well, here is where I am going to start: I think we should throw it away. I think we are focusing on the wrong verse. John 3:16? That is not the meat of this particular passage.

When I was a sophomore in college I took a class called The Christian Religious Tradition. We started off the semester by reading the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark, for those of you who do not know, is the shortest of the four Gospels. It is also likely the earliest written and most scholars believe that it is the most realistic representation of Jesus’ life; it is focused on events that happened, not commentary about them. I have always likened reading the Gospel of Mark to the movie The Truman Show; we are simply observers watching the story of Jesus’ life on earth unfold.

So my class read the Gospel of Mark and my professor asked us what, according to the Gospel, it meant to be a Christian. A boy in the back – a devout Christian – raised his hand.

“You have to believe in Christ in order to get salvation,” he said.

“Where does it say that?” my professor asked.

“John 3:16,” the boy replied without skipping a beat.

“But we’re not reading John,” my professor cut him off. “We’re reading Mark.” The room went silent.

The rest of the semester was kind of a moot point for me. Because in that moment I learned one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned about the Christian Religious Tradition: It is about far more than just salvation. You see, the Gospel of Mark does not talk about what Jesus meant; it talks about what Jesus did.

When this passage comes up in bible studies and in worship my fear is always that people are going to get to John 3:16 and stop paying attention. Once we hear those familiar words, “for God so loved the world” we stop listening because we have all heard it before. But what about the rest of the chapter? What about the words that come immediately after the 16th verse?

For some reason, I was particularly drawn to John 3:17 when I was preparing my sermon this week.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. {NRSV}

“But in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus was more than just the Son of God; Jesus was also a teacher, a preacher, a healer, a crier of justice, someone who reached out to the marginalized. The world was saved not just because of who Jesus was, but also because of what Jesus did – and what Jesus called other people to do. The world is a different place because of what Jesus did during his life and ministry. And the world continues to change (and will continue to change) as more and more people respond to the call to be disciples in their own lives.

I have a version of the bible called ‘The Message’. It was written by a man named Eugene Peterson who saw the need for a bible written in contemporary language. He translated John 3:17 in the following way:

God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. {The Message}

“He came to help.”

Obviously, Christianity would not exist without Jesus. But we are just as much a part of the Christian Religious Tradition as Jesus was and is. Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection would not mean what it does without men and women, generation upon generation, responding to the call to be disciples.

I am not saying that salvation is not important. It is. But salvation without discipleship does not make any sense. What will make more of a difference in the world: Saying we have a relationship with Jesus Christ or – because of that relationship – actually doing some of the things that Jesus Christ called us to do? We cannot overlook discipleship. The church will not survive if we do.

The end of this passage – John 3:21 – also resonated with me this week.

But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. {NRSV}

I love the translation in The Message. It says:

But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is. {The Message}

We are called to work and live in truth and reality. We are called to see the world for what it is – a place that is broken. And while the world is full of many blessings and God’s grace and healing, it is still in need of human grace and healing. We are called to work towards a better world, a better place for humanity – God’s children, our brothers and sister in faith – to live. The world needs us – God needs us – to respond to the call of discipleship.

I am very proud of this church right now. In January the Missions Committee’s Souper Supper raised funds for the Rehoboth Helping Hands Food Pantry. Our neighbors who are in need will now be able to feed their families. In February Morgan and the Youth Group collected an entire carload of coats, hats, scarves, gloves and blankets for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. Persons living in homelessness had relief on those cold winter days and nights. Here we are in March and the children have made it their mission to CHANGE the world (and empty your wallets) with the One Great Hour of Sharing offering. With these funds, people around the world will have access to clean drinking water, food, healthcare, refugee and disaster relief services and more.

This is what it means to live the Gospel.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. {King James}

God sent Jesus into the world to be the catalyst; Jesus started something here on earth – call it salvation or call it something else. But without disciples, that salvation will be lost. We have to continue what Jesus started.

Do not overlook the call to discipleship. Heed the call. Respond to the call. Be part of the call. The world will be a better place when you do.

Amen.

Today’s Magnificat

I had so much fun with the kids during the children’s sermon today!  We were lighting the candle of “joy” on our Advent Wreath – so I asked them about the things that make them “jump for joy”.  And then we literally jumped for joy!  We jumped up and down over and over and over again!  It was so.much.fun.

All of the candles stayed put.  I was slightly concerned.

Here’s today’s sermon!

Psalm 126
Luke 1:46-55

Today’s Magnificat

Audio:

Consumer Reports recently polled Americans to find out what they dread most about the holiday season. They reported on the top 11 responses and I thought I would share them with you all this morning. To be quite honest, while I might not have named them all myself, I actually understand most of them. Let’s review, shall we?

The number one response was – and this did not come as much of a surprise – crowds and long lines. Okay, I can understand that. The stores get hectic and stressful.

Number two: Gaining weight. Understandable, but the food is just so good and those New Year’s resolutions are right around the corner!

Number three: Getting into debt. This one is also understandable, especially given this economic climate and the advertising drones that make you believe you must always have more.

Number four: Gift shopping. I am actually with people on this one. I don’t like the stress around finding a certain number of the “perfect” gifts. In fact I often wonder if gold, frankincense and myrrh were the “must haves” that year or the Wise Men just happened to get a good deal on them. We’ll never know.

Number five: Traveling. Oh boy – can I add, “trying to split time between every part of the family” as a sub-category to that one? It’s impossible!

Number six: Seeing certain relatives. That one is actually kind of funny, but I think I will leave it alone.

Number seven: Seasonal music. Okay, now what is wrong with Christmas music? Okay, okay, maybe it’s a little over the top. I would like to hereby apologize to anyone has been subjected to my nonstop Christmas music since Thanksgiving. It will stop in January.

Number eight: Disappointing gifts. I laugh at this one only because of that Ebay commercial where the family is singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” and the daughter hijacks “five golden rings”. So instead of singing, “five golden rings,” she sings, “Five new tops … I want to be very specific about this because last year I got some gifts that I wasn’t exactly feeling … especially from you Uncle Dale, were those acid washed jeans? I just hope you all stuck to my list this year … a new digital camera or a new suede shoulder bag would be really ideal. Sorry to be so frank I just don’t need another needle point throw pillow Aunt Carla …” At which point Aunt Carla threw the needlepoint that she was working on to the side, stormed off and the girl’s dad tried to keep going with “four calling birds”.

Number nine: (Boy my commentary on this list is turning out to be as long as “The 12 Days of Christmas”!) Having to attend holiday parties or events. Okay, I do get that – this time of year gets a little bit crazy and it is hard to keep track of everything.

Number 11 (we’ll go back to number 10): Holiday tipping. Necessary, but still difficult when you are already stretched financially.

And here we go – the number 10 thing that Americans hate most this time of year: Having to be nice.

Isn’t that awful? It is Christmas and we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, the answer to our cries for Emmanuel; there are beautiful twinkly lights everywhere that light up those dark winter nights; we are eating the most delicious and decadent foods; holiday gatherings bring long-lost friends and families together; many of us are anticipating a few days off from work and school – and yet one of the things that people dread the most about this time of year is having to be nice to those around them in the midst of all of it.

I think there is something wrong with that.

That being said – I think there is also a lot of truth to it.
As a society right now, we are stretched too thin. If you look at the list of things that people are dreading, you can see that people are feeling stretched with their time, with their resources, with their money, with their sanity, with their joy.

And I wonder if one of the reasons that people hate having to be nice this time of year is because they feel so stretched by everything else. I think that – with everything else that is going on – they just simply do not have the energy.

Today, we light the candle of joy on our Advent Wreath. I wonder if – with that candle – we can’t bring back some of the joy that is lost this time of year.

Both of the scriptures that we read this morning talk about rejoicing in the Lord, about rejoicing the presence of the Lord in our lives, about feeling joy in our hearts because we know God is with us. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” this morning’s Psalm reads, “we were like those who dream.” “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”

What has the Lord done for us? What great things has the Lord done in our lives, in our community, right here at this church? What has the Lord done for us this year? What has the Lord done for us during this Advent season? What gives light to our candle of joy this morning? Why are we jumping for joy this morning? How can we start to grow the list of things that we love during this holiday season?

Our Gospel lesson this morning comes to us from the Gospel according to Luke. It is the Magnificat, or Mary’s Song of Praise. The word, “magnificat” is Latin word; it means, “magnifies”. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary said. “And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

Let’s put this scripture into a little bit of context: The Magnificat starts in chapter 1, verse 46. Earlier on in that chapter, in the 26th verse, the Angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth and appeared to Mary. He said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary … you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Mary asked how this would be possible because she was a virgin and Gabriel told her that the Holy Spirit would descend on her and she would bear a son, the Son of God. Mary said, “Let it be with me, according to your word.” Mary then went to visit Elizabeth and – both with child – they were filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed the goodness that was to come.

And that is when the Magnificat starts.

Mary was called to do something extremely powerful; well beyond the realm of what she understood as a young girl. She was scared; she expressed doubt to the Angel Gabriel when he told her what was going to happen in her life. She was a pregnant and unwed woman in a time and society where that was not okay. She likely knew that the journey to give birth to her son would be long. She was stretched thin, just like we are today. And yet, she glorified God. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she said. “And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.”

Even amidst the societal stress and the physical pain and the suffering that she may have endured during her pregnancy, Mary still praised God. To this day I still think Mary sets one of the strongest examples of unwavering faith.

Today we light the candle of joy on our Advent Wreath. And that candle is pink, which is different from the other three blue candles. The pink represents a couple of different things: Years ago, Advent was much more of a reflective and penitentiary time. And the pink candle was used as a visual opportunity to break free from your penance, at least for one week, and to experience and express the joy that this season can bring. The pink also reminds us of the color of the rose that blooms in the middle of the winter; it gives us hope that even in the darkest, coldest and dreariest of seasons, we can still find life.

And it gives us hope today that even in the midst of the stress of this season, we can still find joy.

Mary found joy by praising God. That was her starting point.

I wonder what would happen if we praised God and used that as our starting point to create an agent of joy in our lives. I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to feel the stress of the gift giving and the money spending and the hectic calendars and the traveling and praised God anyway. I wonder if we would be transformed if we set our priorities to first and foremost praise God. I wonder if we would then feel more joy in our hearts. I wonder if we praised God if the other stuff wouldn’t be so bad.

I think our list of ‘holiday dreads’ might look a little bit different.

This morning I invite you to think about “Today’s Magnificat”. How can you praise God, how can your soul magnify the Lord right now, in this lifetime?

And how will that fill you with joy for the rest of the holiday season? How will that transform your life?

“My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” Thanks be to God!

Amen.

A Future With Hope

What an awesome day!

A few notes on today’s sermon …

To give you some context, today was Stewardship Sunday at church.  And even though my sermon had “it’s time to pledge for next year” undertones, I think it can speak to anyone in transition that is getting ready to look towards the future and see visions.

I read, “Oh The Places You’ll Go” during my children’s sermon and talked about Stewardship/Vision and how it is important to dream big.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy you’ll decide where to go.
- Dr. Seuss

This was how I had the altar set up today.


There is a reference to the empty picture frames at the end of the sermon – that’s what they looked like (sorry for the bad iPhone pic).

Okay, I think that’s it – here’s the sermon.  Audio is here.

***

Jeremiah 29:10-14

A Future With Hope

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

This verse – Jeremiah 29:11 – is the verse that we have been using for this year’s Stewardship Campaign. The theme of this year’s campaign was, “A New Beginning.”

I am sure that at this point, you all are tired of hearing that phrase. I have managed to sneak it into several sermons, Epistle letters and worship services. But here is the thing about “A New Beginning”: It is not just a phrase that someone coined and had printed on a banner. It is something that, as a church, we have all grabbed hold of and attempted to live out in our community and in our ministries at the Rehoboth Congregational Church.

Over the past several months, we have been on a journey together. We have tried new things, we have re-thought some old things and we have searched for God’s grace amidst the crazy and hectic world of life and ministry. As a new minister, especially, you all have shown an exorbitant amount of faith and patience in me as I settled into my role and my call here. Next week we get to celebrate the strides that we have made and our hope for the future at my Service of Installation right here.

But today we also get to celebrate the strides that we have made and our hope for the future.

Today is Stewardship Sunday, a day when we offer our pledges for the 2012-year to God; we bless them and we ask God to use them – and us – as vessels in service and in ministry in this community and in the world. Stewardship isn’t just about filling out a pledge card and handing it to the Financial Secretary to report to the Trustees so that they can crunch the numbers. It is about investing in this church; investing in a vision that you have for this church; investing in the future.

We chose this scripture – “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” – to go with this year’s campaign because of how beautifully it encapsulates what we were trying to accomplish. We are trying to embrace this New Beginning and look to our future with hope.

Now I it is important to look at this scripture within the wider context in which it was written. The prophet Jeremiah was not necessarily ministering to a group of people who were embarking on a magnificent journey, like we are right now as a community. Jeremiah was ministering to a group of exiles. Following the fall of Jerusalem, the nation of Judah, the Judean people, had been exiled to Babylon. The first deportation was in the year 597 B.C.E. and many other deportations followed after; this became the age of the “Babylonian Exile”. The Judeans were exiled from their homes; from their communities.

So when Jeremiah prophesies, “For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place,” he quite literally means, “Sorry guys – God says you will eventually get your future with hope, but for right now you’re stuck in Babylon. So make yourself comfortable.”

Well, that’s hopeful, isn’t it?

70 years is a long time. Especially when the Trustees would like to create a budget for – well – next year. But I have two thoughts on why I think that this scripture – and especially the context that it was written in – speaks very relevantly to where we are right now.

First of all, I think it is important to remember that change takes time. Believe me when I say that no one would love more than me to rip up the “Rehoboth Reality” sheet that was included in this year’s Stewardship packet as soon as possible. Believe me – I would love this to be gone next year. But change takes time.

Do I think that we should make it one of our goals – one of our visions – to not only rip this up, but also to dream bigger? Yes – let’s reach! But change takes time.

That being said: Do I think that we can make a dent in this? Absolutely, I do. I think we are journeying down a very positive road and the ‘reality’ will very look different next year. But let us remember to be patient with one another along that journey. Let us continue to be prayerful in our discussions about money and about giving and spending and about the paths that we want to travel.

And I am not saying that it is going to take us 70 years to see our visions become a reality, because I do not think that we are supposed to interpret this scripture literally in our lives. But I do think that Jeremiah is reminding us through this prophesy to the exiles that, 1: Change takes time and 2: (and more importantly) God is with us always. God did say to the exiled that he was not going to visit until the 70 years were complete, but that was in a very physical and literal way that we do not have an understanding of today. God was there with the exiles; God was speaking to them. They were not alone through that time. We are not alone.

The second thing I will say about not just this scripture, but also about the context in which it is found, is the fact that Jeremiah was not necessarily ministering to a group of people actively in crisis mode. Yes, the Judean people had been exiled out of Judea and were living in Babylon. Yes, they were living in exile – they were forced into exile; but they were not living in imprisonment.

Scholars believe that while the Judean people were exiled in Babylon, they set up lives for themselves. There were allowed freedoms – both religious and personal – in the cities that they settled in. They could still celebrate their Jewish heritage. Despite the fact that they were living in exile, they still lived their lives. They had no other choice; they could either live as though they were imprisoned exiles and be miserable and fruitless for 70 years – or they could take the deck of cards that they were dealt, accept where they were and see how they could still have a prosperous and hopeful future.

I think it is easy to look, not just at this particular church, but also at mainline Protestant churches as a whole, and act imprisoned. It is easy to say, “People just don’t come like they used to,” or “People just don’t give like they used to” or “There are just too many distractions these days” or “Sports are just taking over” and admit defeat that churches won’t be as vibrant as they once were. I think that it is also easy to say, “With less people there are less pledges coming in” or “The economy tanked and people just don’t have the money to give anymore” or “The culture of giving is different than it used to be” or “Our endowment isn’t yielding as much as it once was” or “Operating expenses are more than they used to be and we can’t afford salaries” and feel imprisoned by the fact that churches will not be as financially secure as they once were and therefore not as virbrant.

But that is not what the exiles did. That is not what God called them to do – that is not what God calls us to do.
The Judeans living in exile took the situation that they were given and set up a new life. The tides were changing and they knew that; they knew that life would never be the way that it once was. That is life: ‘For everything there is a season’ and those seasons change.

But we still have that future with hope. God promises us that future with hope.

I think that we can look at this ‘Rehoboth Reality’, we can recite all of the reasons why the mainline church is in decline and we can look back fondly at a time when this church was packed to the brim, had multiple Sunday School sessions and less financial worries and feel defeated.

Or, I think we can rejoice in the people who are here today; the ministries that we are apart of today; the new things that we are trying; and go back to our visions.

Two weeks ago I preached about ‘vision’ and I KNOW it resonated in you because I heard you talking about; I heard you talking about it that day, that night and throughout the week. I know that it resonated in you and I know that you all have great visions for this church. Things do not have to be where they once were for those visions to come true: Things can change and that change can be positive. Those visions do not have to look anything like what has been done in the past and that does not mean that this community will not thrive.

Yes, the tides are changing, but what if we rolled with those tides and see where they take us? What if we looked at the world that we are living in today – yes, a world that is very different than the one we were living in 50 years ago – and lived out a ministry that is relevant and accessible to that world? Oh the places we might go, the people we might meet along the way!

It would be easy to say, “Things just are not the way that they used to be and the church will never thrive like it once did.” But I think that it would be so much more meaningful if we said, “The world is changing in some pretty amazing ways – let’s take the church along for that ride!”

Let’s invest in this church.

Let’s invest in a future – with hope.

These pictures frames on the altar – they are empty. You get to decide what goes in them.

May God bless you in your discernment, in your action and along your journey. And may God bless us all and give us a future with hope.

Amen.