Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Sermon for October 17, 2021: Finding My Dwelling Place based upon Psalm 91:9-16 by Pastoral Intern Sarah Mills
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
When I was looking at today’s possible readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, I knew that I wanted to find something that related to our stewardship theme of being “rooted in love”. A reading about how the work of this church is rooted in love for one another as a congregation, a wider community, a part of the wider UCC. How our faith itself is rooted in love. The love that God has for all of us, as exemplified when God took the form of an itinerant preacher in first-century Judea, Jesus of Nazareth.
So when I saw that Psalm 91, verses 9-16 was an option, I was quite excited. To me, what leaps out of these lines is just how much love underpins our relationship with God. The psalmist says that God will command God’s angels concerning us, God will guard us in all our ways. We can even go and tread on a lion or stomp on an adder and we will be protected. Now, I want to be clear that membership at Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ does not grant you universal lion-stomping or adder-squishing privileges. I feel like Pastor Chrissy would want me to be clear about that. But what it does say is just how much we are not on our own when we have made the Lord our refuge, our dwelling place. Just how much God’s relationship with God’s creation is deeply, deeply rooted in love.
In my short time at Winthrop UCC, I have already noticed very clearly that one of the things this congregation projects out to its community, be they churchgoers or not, is that sense of safety and love. No matter who you are, you are welcome here. It’s said, and it is honored. It is my sincere hope that folks that join our worship services or that come to church events (be they digital, hybrid, or in-person when we can do so safely) feel that no evil will befall them when they are with us. I hope that this congregation feels like a mirror of God’s tent of refuge.
As I’m sure we all know, there are so, so many folks that feel like they are miles and miles from that tent of God’s love. Folks that encounter adders and lions on a daily basis and do not know if they will make it through the day.
When I read these verses, I was reminded of someone who thought that exact same thing and felt like they didn’t have much of a refuge. Those lions were sharpening their claws and the adders were slithering ever closer with each day.
That person was me.
I want to use this time to share a bit of my story, a bit of my journey to this dwelling place. And it is my great hope that I will be able to hear about some of your journeys during my time with you all.
So, a bit about my journey…
I had not always felt like I was without safe refuge, in fact, throughout my life I have had many places, groups, or interests that made me feel all those good feelings: safety, protection, love, understanding.
I grew up at the First Congregational Church of South Portland, United Church of Christ. I sang in choirs, I attended Sunday school, I went through confirmation. I felt safe, and protected, and loved, and understood.
But when I was 13, a new interest entered my life. I heard an announcement at school saying that Scarborough was starting a girls ice hockey program. I had never played before, in fact no one in my family had ever played ice hockey, but I thought it would be fun. I convinced my dad to take me to the informational meeting, and that saw me quickly under the tent of women’s ice hockey. I became a goaltender, and I became pretty good. I played on multiple teams, went to tournaments and summer camps. I felt like I had found something I was really good at and that made me feel safe and protected, and full of love and understanding for myself.
Ice hockey led me to St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where I played division 3 college hockey for my first two years. I stopped when I realized that the community of the St. Olaf women’s hockey program did not make me feel all of those nice feelings I spoke about in reference to this congregation. My love for the sport was eclipsed by my need to escape from the adders and lions I was starting to see in the hearts and faces of those around me.
But I had found a real refuge at St. Olaf. A group where I always felt safe. Safe to goof around, to be myself, to share what was in my heart. I joined our college’s improv comedy group, Scared Scriptless within the first week of being at St. Olaf. We rehearsed twice a week, staying together often until they kicked us out of the late-night hangout, a club in the student commons appropriately named The Lion’s Pause. These lions, these Oles, as we are known, were the protecting kind, the kind that would welcome you into the pride and defend you when you felt afraid.
The same was true of the friends I made in the theatre and religion departments at St. Olaf, the two subjects I would go on to dual-major in. I had always been interested in religion and thought, why not just take some classes to find out a bit more. That was the extent of my interest… at the time.
Theatre led me to internships in the summer, including one in London, and to graduate school, first to NYU to study for my M.A in Educational Theatre and Social Studies Ed, and then back to the UK to start in on a PhD in Drama at the University of Kent in Canterbury, writing my thesis about the stand-up comedian as an outsider from their audience, and how they use that outsider nature in performance to connect with and possibly change their audience.
An outsider who changes their created community, those that come to see them… now that I think of it, that sounds like someone else we all know. But more on him later!
About two years into this work is where we find the Sarah I spoke about earlier. The one who is starting to feel surrounded by lions and adders. I was beginning to feel plagued by the beast that is anxiety and intense self-criticism and self-doubt. I was not finding my feet with my thesis, I felt like nothing I wrote was good enough. I was putting on a facade, playing the character of a collected person, but just below that facade was someone very much not holding it together.
I had previously decided, in April of 2014, that I wanted to try and find a refuge for myself in Canterbury. I was playing for our university’s hockey team but had broken my ankle in the summer after my first year and wouldn’t be able to skate until the next season. I couldn’t even begin to see a tent, a dwelling place, where I could be myself and be fully accepted. So in that April I thought back to my days at FCCSPUCC, and the enjoyment I had in the basement Religion department classrooms of Boe Chapel at St. Olaf, thinking about big questions, standing outside of myself for a bit. I didn’t feel like I missed “the church”, but I missed the discussions, internal or with others. I missed being reminded that I was a small part of a much bigger whole.
I chose to try St. Peter’s Methodist Church on the high street of Canterbury since it looked the closest to the church that I remembered in South Portland. When I arrived I looked around and saw precisely one person within about 20 years of my own age. I walked up to her where she was sitting and said, “Do you mind if I sit next to you because you seem to be the only person within about 20 years of my age?” She smiled and said “Of course”. Her name was Maddie and she was a first year undergraduate nursing student. After the worship service ended another person, who turned out to only be one year older than I, came up to us and said, “Hi, my name is Tamara. I’m a PhD student at Kent and wanted to know if you both would like to come to our student group that meets on Thursdays? We also go to the pub on Mondays and just hang out, and you should both come along to that!”
This was the moment I felt like I had taken some gingerly steps into a new tent. A new dwelling place. The friends I made in the Ichthus student group at St. Peter’s are some of the best that I’ve ever had. We hung out about three days of the week (Sunday, Monday evenings at a pub, and Thursdays for our discussion group meetings), but if you were feeling down or lonely, you could shoot a message out on our Facebook message chat and be eating lunch or having a drink with someone within the hour.
I still was battling those feelings of self-doubt, self-criticism, and anxiety, but I was firmly planted, I was rooted in a new loving community that I felt safe and protected by, that made me feel loved and like I was finally understood.
After going to a good number of our discussion group meetings and still remaining very much on the periphery of speaking about my own faith, I felt like it was time to take a fresh look at the gospels because, after all, that was the foundation of our group. We all went to the Methodist Church in Canterbury.
So I began at the beginning. I opened the book of Matthew and I started to read. I remember it very clearly: I was sitting on my twin bed, I had the smaller room in the flat I shared with my friend, and I was reading from the study Bible I had used since my days at St. Olaf. Eventually, I came to chapter 11, verses 28-30:
“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 from 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.”
After reading those words, I paused, staring at them, and as I did, I felt a physical weight lift off of me. I don’t know how better to explain it than to say that I felt the heavy burdens I had been carrying, those burdens of anxiety, self-doubt, and self-criticism being taken away. I remember thinking, “You are so hard on yourself. You tell yourself such mean stories about yourself and your worth. But you know who would never tell you a story like that? Jesus. Jesus wouldn’t think that, just because you are struggling with writing your thesis, you are any less beloved. Jesus wouldn’t say that some letters at the end of your name make you a better person, more worthy of the love and comfort available to everyone in the tent of God’s refuge. It was true what you sang in those children’s choirs in South Portland, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ No qualifiers, no degrees or diplomas needed. Jesus loves me.”
I wish I could say that that meant that I never struggled with issues of anxiety, self-criticism, or self-doubt again, but that would not be true. What it would mean was that when I found myself in those dark depths once again, when I started hearing the hiss of the adder or the padding of the lion moving closer, I would remember that Jesus was walking beside me. That Jesus was there to take that yoke off of me when it was too much to bear. What it meant was that I would eventually realize that what I wanted to do, what would make me feel like I was doing what God intended me to do, was to walk alongside people just like Jesus was walking alongside me. To remind people, like those verses of Matthew reminded me when I was sitting on that cheap twin mattress, that you are not alone, there are people and groups and communities that love you. That Jesus loves you, that I love you. That there are places founded on a faith in Christ where you can feel safe and protected and comfortable and seen and understood for exactly who you are, every nook and cranny.
And that is the journey that led me to this dwelling place, this community and that’s calling. I want to thank you all for welcoming me into your congregation and for sharing your own stories with me. Part of what I hope to work on while with your congregation is what’s called spiritual formation. Helping folks think more deeply about their spiritual life. I believe a lot of that thought starts by examining our own journeys, the often-crooked paths that have led us to where we are today. I greatly hope that if you are interested in engaging in some of that work with me, you will keep your ears and email inboxes open for a future opportunity to do so.
No two journeys are the same, many are beset by wild animals, but I firmly believe that we are never on that road alone. That God is always walking beside us gesturing us into the tent of God‘s refuge, into a relationship of love and understanding where we can feel safe and protected.
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.