We started out as classmates, people who shared space in a classroom learning about history and theology and worship planning, Greek and Hebrew. But as the days and weeks passed we each in our own way were growing tired and burdened. The work was demanding and the reading seemed insurmountable. And then one of us said, “Would you like to start a prayer group?” And our time together started. In the beginning it was challenging to find time, some of us lived close by and some of us lived at a distance. Some of us were at seminary on our own and some of us had responsibility for families. But once we made time for this practice of “holy friendship” it became an opportunity that we could not miss.
It was time of listening, praying, reading scripture, talking about our questions and our hopes. It was a time when we were drawn closer into the love of God because we became yoked together—each of us sharing the load, the joys, the worries, the disappointments, the triumphs of each other and in doing so we learned how to set aside a quiet space in our lives for God to enter and speak.
It was slow work; there were times when we left our gathering feeling refreshed, hearts opened, restored. But there were other times when the responsibilities pressed on us and we had trouble avoiding the distractions that waited outside, and so missed being present to God’s love. But steadily over time I recognized that I was being changed. My anxiety and confusion was receding. No drama, but with a deep peace, I began to see God’s work in my life by going deeper in my time with God through these holy friendships.
Holy friendships are those precious opportunities to draw close to God through relationship with others. They do not develop simply through saying hello briefly before meetings or even sharing a moment in breakout rooms on Sundays. These relationships require intentional time that focuses on deepening a relationship and learning how to trust the intimacy formed within the generous embrace of Jesus.
Friendships may start sharing the different stages of your life, in working with each other on projects, in being together through a time of challenge or a time of great joy. Holy friendships can develop from very structured settings—being prayer partners—or may result from a shared experience that draws you close to God and to each other. But to develop, whatever the beginning, it must be deliberate and it must be consistent. Trust and safety take time.
Holy friendship is all about our need to draw close to God. We long to be near to God, to experience the still small voice that reminds us that we are beloved, to feel the presence of the One who created us, who knows us intimately, and who promises to never abandon us. It is through human friendship and companionship that we feel God’s presence in our lives. It is through each other that we can feel seen and heard and can experience a connection that helps us feel less alone.
In this time of pandemic, we search for ways to occupy our time, to help us find something that makes sense, that gives us meaning in a time of dislocation. We may watch TV or read. We may make a lists of things we need to do. We may clean our houses or our cars within an inch of their lives. We may spend time on our computers.
But the world often breaks in. The news of the world, the realization that this virus is not going away “like a miracle” but rather is rising alarmingly across the country, learning that someone we know or love has become sick, glimpsing human behavior that confuses us and even makes us angry as we wonder whether we will ever again be able to gather in person as a community.
And this can lead to disorientation, deep sadness, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and troubled. It can be in this place where we remember our longing for companionship– someone to talk to, to pray with, to share our concerns and our hopes. Friendships are holy, they can hold us close and they can help us see possibilities we hadn’t noticed . And through these holy friendships, we are drawn closer to God who offers us comfort and peace.
Friendships that are holy invite us into community where we can share what is on our mind and in our heart. Where we can celebrate together, sigh, laugh, and grieve, be fully ourselves in a safe place. Where we discover the light of Christ is shining even in places of shadow. Where we can begin to name the countless people and things, both large and small, for which we are thankful. Where we can uncover our need for healing, and where we can find fresh insight and new creation.
Creating a community of holy friendships is an important part of being church. As church we come together to give thanks to God, to share our songs and our prayers, and to bring our burdens, setting them down before the One who can truly hold our broken hearts. We are called to love our neighbors and to offer hospitality in the world. And we are to invited to offer a life line to each other as we walk this journey called life.
In our reading today from Matthew, Jesus invites us to come to him and to share his yoke. Yokes are often seen as a heavy weight that is placed on our shoulders and across our neck. The image may make us feel constrained and tired. These are certainly times when we feel overwhelmed by the challenges of our own lives and the troubles in the world. But Jesus tells us that when we take on a yoke with him, we will find “rest for our souls.” Yokes are not meant for one person to shoulder. Yokes draw two together so that the load is shared and the energy force is multiplied.
Jesus invites us to join him in his yoke that is easy-chrestos—that means “manageable, well fitted, that fills a need.” This yoke is fitted to our strengths. It is tailor made so nothing chafes and all of our efforts are put to use—not wasted. This makes our burden light—elaphros—light in weight so that we can move forward sharing the load. Our burden will not defeat us because with Christ as our yoke mate, we find restoration, even refreshment.
As church we are invited to be yoked with the gentle One who walks beside us and guides us through life. In Jesus we are drawn into God and through Jesus we share God with others. And in this way we are invited to share the yoke of others. When we are yoked to Christ, he manages our burden so that we are not crushed, we are able to experience his secure presence alongside us. And when we enter into a yoke with a human companion, we do not have to walk alone or bear our burdens or concerns alone. We have someone to stand with, to experience life with, and to search for God working in and through us because it is always God’s will that we know love.
A boy and his father were walking along a road when they came across a large stone. The boy said to his father,
‘Do you think if I use all my strength, I can move this rock?’ His father answered, ‘If you use all your strength, I am sure you can do it.’
The boy began to push the rock. Exerting himself as much as he could, he pushed and pushed. The rock did not move.
Discouraged he said to his father, ‘You were wrong. I can’t do it.’ His father placed his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, ‘No, son. You didn’t use all your strength – you didn’t ask me to help.’”
By forming holy connections with each other, we can call on the strength that comes from community. Each of us have something to offer each other. We may be wonderful listeners and provide someone the gift of simple presence. We may love doing things for others, and may enjoy taking a loaf of bread or a bag of groceries to someone in need. We may enjoy watching movies or reading books and can share that joy with another. We may be in a place where we are drained and need to be grateful to receive. Life is cyclical.
Wherever we are, whatever we have, God will put it all to use so love is shared. Each of us have different gifts, each of us have felt God’s presence in our lives in different ways, each of us have traveled different roads to arrive at this moment—and it is in this richness that God enters in and opens up unlimited possibilities.
As we continue along this long road of social distancing in order to love each other, I am going to invite you to begin to grow holy friendships. This may mean calling someone once or twice a month. This may mean praying with and for a particular person. It may mean identifying someone with whom you can share a particular interest or spiritual practice and promise to grow together in becoming disciples. It may mean that you partner with someone to learn more about believing you are “white” in a racialized world or learning more about the needs of our immigrant neighbors and together explore, and learn, and question and grow toward God’s intended beloved community. Whatever your longing, whatever your gift, someone needs you. And you need someone.
Many of you have come to Grace Church because you have been touched by people who welcomed you, spent time learning your story, and invited you into a relationship that opened God’s love in your life. While we cannot be physically together in our building for a time yet unknown, we still offer that gift. We need to share our love, we need to reach out and let someone know that they are remembered and cared for.
Calling each other is so important. Reaching out particularly to those we don’t see often is life giving. But I invite you to go one step further. Just like Rebekah, our ancestor, I invite you take the opportunity to go to a new place, to say, “I will” to share life with a new person. Make an intention to find people in this community with whom you can share prayers, questions, hopes, and concerns. Take time, take the risk to draw closer to God and to each other by becoming yoked together so you can share the load, the joys, the worries, the disappointments, and the triumphs of this life. And in doing so find that your burden is a bit lighter.
May the gentle and humble presence of Jesus help us find rest for our souls.
 Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat (ed.). Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life. Scribner, 1996, 447