A sermon given at Colonial Church on February 14, 2021. You can listen to the sermon below or you can watch the Alternative or Traditional service on YouTube. You can also watch the Kids’ Sermon HERE.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens. And I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
– Matthew 11:28-30
Will you pray with me? Jesus, on this day, we come to you. We come to you—however we come—whether weary, whether filled with joy, whether many things. God, may we find rest in you. And may we be a people of that rest in a world that is weary. In your name we gather and we pray. Amen.
It’s so good being with you all. And for those who are in the Meetinghouse, it’s especially lovely to see your faces and be in worship with you today. Thank you, Lisa, for reading the text for us this morning and reminding us that is indeed one of the ways that we speak about the Bible is that it is the God-breathed Word. And that breath then is breath that is also for us and for our souls.
Back when I was in college, I worked as an associate junior high youth minister at Westwood Community Church, where I came of age. Every summer, we took our junior high students on a trip to the Ozark Mountains for a week of camp. In the days leading up to the trip I discovered that the youth pastor mistakenly believed that I played the guitar…and he was expecting me to lead worship…a rather presumptuous assumption to make. I discovered this assumption about 10 days before said retreat. Thankfully I had been trained as a pianist and had completed musical theory through Minnesota Music Teachers Association.
So thankfully, on account of my years of piano study, I was able to transpose all of the worship songs into the four chords I learned to play on the guitar in 10 days. As I led worship during the retreat, it was an amazing experience for me as I watched these wonderful young people, including a bunch of my brother’s friends who were 14 years old, move from a space where faith had been their parents, to for the first time experiencing a faith that was theirs. I watched as they cried and opened up in new ways, and it was a beautiful thing to witness.
Now, being who I am, I can’t just do something halfway. So, when I picked up the guitar, I didn’t stop with just learning a few cords…and started writing some of my own songs. Not that they were very good, but they were mine. One of them was based off of this passage, “Come to me, all you who are weary and you will find rest. Come and learn of me. Take my yoke and load upon you.” In that song I wrote about this passage I explored the question: “What forms you?” For all of us, are shaped and formed by something. As this passage assumes- we all labor under different yokes, so what is the yoke that is upon us? What are the things that determine how we show up in the world and how we move in it?
More than anything, I didn’t want these junior highers to forget the experience that they had had in the Ozark mountains. I longed for them to remember as they went forward, that they could carry the same Jesus with them and the experiences of opening themselves up. As I wrote in the song, “we’re all formed by something, but does this set us free?” Today, that is one of the two questions that I want us to explore together:
- What are you formed by? And
- Does what forms you bring you rest?
What are you formed by, and does it bring you rest?
In these coming weeks, we’re going to be focusing on a sermon series entitled “How to Breathe.” This year, we’ve been talking about, what it means for us to be the church. We began the year at the 10,000-foot level, going book-by-book through the Bible (well, not exactly book-by-book as that would have taken 66 weeks), but virtually book by book as we thematically explored what it means to be the people of God. What does it mean to be the church? What are the qualities and characteristics of a group of people who gather around the cross and identify themselves as Christian? We then in the winter, after Advent and Christmas, moved to talking about the specifics of congregationalism. If you didn’t participate in the congregationalism class, do not worry. YouTube is still a thing and you can go watch Christian’s class on congregationalism there!
So in the winter we moved from a 10,000 foot overview of what it means to be the church to remembering our own tradition in history as Congregationalists. Now, in this series, we want to talk about US- our church. Who has God called us to be over the last 75 years? What has it meant for us to be this church, and how might some of that history find its language and being in the next 75 years? How do we breathe? Breathe in and breathe out as a people formed by the breath of the Spirit of God who then live that breathe life through our lives and in the world? How do we breathe together? How can we be the church? What forms us? Are we a people of rest?
Each week, we’re going to consider a part of our legacy and tradition as a community of faith, and then wonder together at how God is inviting us forward. Today, we wanted to focus on one thread of who we’ve been, which is that of spiritual formation, spiritual growth, and how that impacts and invites us forward.
Now, some of you know this, but the real first interaction I had with this community of faith was when I was in seminary. It was my first spiritual formation class, one of three courses that we took when I was at Bethel Seminary. During this course, we read a little book that some of you have heard about, called The Critical Journey, written by our very own Bob Guelich and Janet Hagberg.
Now, I had grown up inside of the church, had loved Jesus and felt loved by Jesus. And as you well know if you’ve listened to any one of my sermons or have ever heard from me, there was so much beauty in that growing up, AND there also was pain as I wrestled with integrating the God of John 3:16, in which I’d so earnestly believed—a God of love yet questioning if I was truly loved. Did God love women the same as men? Was God ok with violence and oppression? These and many other questions also haunted me. So much so that by the time I started seminary in many ways it was my ultimate wrestling match. I needed to understand if this God of love that I had grown up believing in was for me, and if I could continue to walk in that way of faith and flourish as myself.
Now, my personality is such that I actually don’t really like sitting in doubt or struggling with things. I’d much rather have a really good party and power forward into beautiful visions for the future. Yet, my brain has always worked a little bit overtime, and I’m not really good at sweeping things under rugs. So, I found myself in seminary reading this book. As I read the pages, I realized that maybe I wasn’t alone. Maybe I wasn’t the problem. Because what they talked about in their stages of the critical journey of faith is that all of us, at one point or another, encounter “the wall.” We encounter these moments where the answers that we had before just aren’t able to answer our questions and longings in the same way. Or one of our grandkids starts talking about something and we think, “Oh my goodness, what are they talking about? I don’t even know what this is.”
Something happens, whether it’s death or loss, or grief. And in order to continue to grow in our faith, we are invited and indeed asked to wrestle with that space. We can’t get around it. We can’t ignore it. We can’t just sweep it under the rug and hope it’ll never come back. Our invitation in our journey of faith is to wrestle and to move into that space of question, wrestling, and/or doubt. And what a gift of grace that book was for me! I’ll never forget when I first saw the model and read more about it. I thought, “I’m not alone! You mean other people have doubts? You mean other people want to wrestle and shake their fists at God?” That was my first encounter in a deep way, with the legacy of this community. Indeed, our mission statement for so long has been: “A place to grow in Christ and serve the world.”
To grow in Christ is not a stagnant thing. To grow is to be rooted like that tree in Psalm 1 and to continue to develop and be formed. To be part of God’s ecosystem of life. That’s what we’ve been about, whether it be through centering prayer, the center for spiritual formation that we have had, the work that some of you have done in spiritual direction, and/or the retreats you’ve gone on. How many of you have experienced some kind of growth in your spiritual life? I’m going to say basically all of us, right? This is one of the things that I’ve loved about our community: we’re a place that seeks to integrate our hands and our hearts and our lives, that we might be transformed again and again through the encounter with God in Christ. That we aren’t the same today as we were yesterday. And some of the future days will be really hard, but we know that we follow a God of resurrection who brings us through death into new life and new birth again and again.
So, I come back to these questions: what forms you, and does it bring you rest?
As our passage talks about, we’re all formed by something. We’re all growing towards something. We’re all rooted in different soils. Now, some of this comes about just from the legacies of our families, the histories of where the people who birthed us, where they were formed. I grew up in my grandma’s tradition and we were the strong Swedish family. My dad’s side was the Norwegian side, and I didn’t understand when I would go to my Norwegian side grandma’s house because she never talked about anything. And then you would find out you had done something bad because then she quit talking to you. I never could figure it out, because I was more formed as a Swedish person. That’s more of my lineage, because we talk about everything all of the time, don’t ya know (ha!). But we did talk far more than my Norwegian grandma did, anyway!
We are formed by our ethnic histories. We’re formed by our race. We’re formed by our personalities and our genders. We’re formed by the things that we’re passionate about and bring us life. We’re formed through relationships and teachers. Are you calling anyone to mind? We’re formed by those experiences, whether they are times like those youth experience in the Ozark mountains, worshiping God with a faith that was your own for the first time.
What forms you, and does it bring you rest?
The first time I preached at our church was in December of 2015. Daniel Harrell was on sabbatical, and Greg Meland had introduced me to him as a possible guest preacher. Jeff Lindsay was here that day, and helped me to done a robe and a stole for the first time in my life, which I didn’t know that that’s what it was called because I was raised a Baptist. And I was able to preach that last Sunday of 2015. And in many ways, I think what I preached that Sunday told you something even then about what forms me and has brought me to this place.
In that sermon, I talked about I John and about the perfect love that drives out fear, which I talk about ad nauseum, because that’s what has formed me. I’ve been formed through the discovery of the God of love in Christ, whose love has healed me more and more deeply throughout my life. That healing work is imperfect and won’t ever be complete until the last day that I draw a breath. But that perfecting love forms and animates my life, my belief that this God of love is in the business of perfecting each of us in love in order to drive out our fear and allow us to be a free people.
In that same sermon, I talked about one of my favorite films, Chocolat. Any Chocolat film lovers in this house? It tells the story of a town where everyone wanted everything to look perfect. From the preacher who secretly danced out behind the church to 1950s rock songs, but then acted all proper and staid in his sermons. To the mayor who didn’t want anyone to know that his wife had left him. To the woman in an abusive relationship who was covering it up. And into town flies this woman during Lent…who brings chocolate. For me, I believe that is the breath and the wind of the Holy Spirit. That in the places of our lives, where we seek control and ego defense and protection, God comes in with some good old chocolate breath and says, “Taste and eat, for this is good. And it is for you.” And through that tasting, people begin to emerge from their places of secrecy and silence, and pain, and they find community. They find their lives change. They find themselves healed.
What if nothing else are we called to be as the church, but a people who thus formed by this God of love, then show up and bring the gift of good news and life into the world?
What forms you? Does what form you bring you rest?
What parts of your own story have been left behind because maybe perfect love just can’t quite touch it?
Many of you know that my grandma Joey was a very important person in my life. Even though she lived through so much suffering and pain, she showed up and loved me with a love that was perfecting. My grandma, on account of her own pain and suffering and the time in which she had been raised and lived, believed that her own trauma was best swept under the rug. And even though she came to faith in the 1970s and she loved Jesus, she didn’t experience much rest. She was haunted by her own story. She was haunted by the belief that she was beyond love. A survivor of childhood incest, married to a man who had never loved her, she longed for love. I remember being in my early 20s and sitting with her at her kitchen table and saying, “Grandma, you know that if you just sweep stuff under the rug, it just comes out sideways.” And she, as my grandma would often say, “Oh Sar…” That was always her like, “Oh, you ask me too many questions and push me too hard on things. But I love you anyway.”
I continued to invite my gram to live the love that she had shown me. And in my grandma’s journey through dementia, at the very end of her life, I will never forget the moment at Christmas that year when her gaze turned to the cardinal which was hung on the Christmas tree at my aunt’s house, the bird, which my grandma experienced as God telling her she was not alone. She didn’t even remember most of our names. But suddenly, she looked up at this bird and her face became aglow. And I started crying because I knew that my grandma had found rest and peace for her weary soul. I knew that the passage that we referenced earlier today of Jesus saying, “Come to me, who are weary,” that my grandma was getting to unload those burdens that had been weighing her down.
What forms you, and does it bring you rest?
When I first arrived here as a minister, I was working on my doctoral dissertation. It was on sexual violence and trauma, exploring how the cross might offer a message of hope to survivors of sexual violence. Now, as it turned out, the last few years have not been exactly what I thought they were going to be. There’s been a lot going on… you know, just a global pandemic, deepened awareness of racial violence and injustice, talking about changing our name and wrestling with that, not being able to worship in physical space together, and our former senior minister’s wife being diagnosed with pancreas cancer and dying. Wow. What a three years it has been!
And as it turns out, that on account of both the work here, my own story, my own grandma dying, my brother’s hospitalization, that trying to figure out how to write about sexual violence on the side was really hard. That, combined with the legacy of a person who had been in my program who was abusive and toxic, plus my dissertation was going to be 850 pages and I was only at 150, I talked to my professor and two Decembers ago and said, “I think I need to quit.” And I did. Until I received MLK weekend of 2020 when we had a FaceTime conversation, and she said, “Sara, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. It seems that you’re exactly in the place that you need to be right now. But Sara, when I listen to you preach, you’re not just a preacher, you’re an ethicist.”
And so, she invited me to utilize my sermons to talk about formation and the work that was being done within me and how I understand my work as a part of the leadership of this community. Making this change has been a gift in so many ways and has allowed me to more deeply explore the truth of why I went into a doctorate in ethics: because I’ve long been concerned about the gaps between the theologies we profess and the way we live our lives. I don’t know a one of us in here who wouldn’t say that God is love, but how many of us have struggled to believe that we’re lovable? I don’t know a one of us who would say we’re not called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Yet, does anyone else ever find that loving hard? I don’t know a one of us who doesn’t believe that God wants to take and has indeed taken our burdens in Christ. Yet, do you ever find yourself carrying more than you want to? The gap between these professed and embodied beliefs is the work of ethics.
We’re human, we’re in process. And sometimes, we’re not aware of what is forming us. We’re not aware of sometimes how the things that we experienced as young people impacts our ability to let the gospel saturate into our bones. It’s totally normal and totally human to have such gaps between professed and embodied beliefs. And I wanted to study ethics because I wanted to think more about the ways that we might bridge and integrate the theologies we profess and the way we live our lives. For instance, we have long said that we are a pilgrim people. What is that image evoke? What does it mean for us? In one of my first sermons here in this community, I was able to utilize the tapestry that Janet Hagberg had created. It was an angel with a pilgrim sash around.
In that sermon, I talked about what it meant to be a people on pilgrimage. Because it matters if our image of the pilgrim is rooted first and primarily in persons who settled in the United States, or if it is rooted in a place of being a people on pilgrimage, a people on spiritual journey who continue to grow and be changed and transformed. The images we have, the stories and the histories we tell all matter for how we live our lives. Part of our invitation as people of faith and the work we have done as a community around spiritual formation is to take out those parts of our stories, to explore our fears, to notice the way we’re living, and to get curious about what forms us, praying and seeking that we would be a people more deeply formed by the love of God and Christ tomorrow than we are today. A people who continue to turn over our burdens, to root ourselves in prayer that heals, and to find rest.
We are invited to be a people who remember how to breathe. To breathe in the Spirit and breathe it out. This is our invitation, to be a people who are so changed and are able to live rest. Then we get to be that rest in a weary world because we ourselves know and are living into the good news. Not that we “have attained all this or have already been made perfect, but we press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of us.” That invitation is the invitation to life and to freedom…so may we breathe in. May we know the hand of the loving God which shapes us and says, “Take my load, for I am humble and good of heart and for you.” We’re invited to be born again each and every day. This journey to go in into those dark places, to exploring what forms us, can be really scary and really hard. But it is necessary.
The last thing I’ll say about this work of spiritual formation and the call to wrestle with what forms us and to ask if it brings us rest is that if I believe in anything, this Sunday after Easter, it’s that I believe in resurrection. That as we die to the things of flesh, of ego and self-preservation, as we open our hands and surrender, as we breathe anew, we are brought into new life. A life that allows us to grow more and more as we see ourselves as we are seen. You are beloved by God. God has called you to come and unburden yourself. Might we live with our hands in open surrender, formed by this God so that we might know rest. And let us then be that rest as we are the church for all the days to come.
Let us pray. Oh God, who is our rest, might we find our rest in thee. And in this breath, and in this unlearning, might we learn your ways and might your love and grace heal and transform us that we might be spiritually formed to evermore become and be your people. A people of rest in this weary world. Go with us now, oh Christ, and breathe on us, oh Spirit. For it’s in your name we do all things.