A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching for the funeral of Ruth Ferguson, long-time organist at St. John's and the wife of our current interim organist. Someone from the Twin Cities chapter of the American Guild of Organists asked if they could pass on the sermon to their cohort, and they did so this week, mindful of the duties and joys we worship leaders carry during this Holy Week. So for all of you who for whom this is a week of work as well as clarity, of duy as well as joy, here it is:
Funeral sermon for Ruth Ferguson April 5, 2014
Matthew 11: 28-30
Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, 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.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of attending a funeral at which there were a number of clergy and musicians and other church professionals gathered. The preacher’s refrain was that we live in Good Friday, but Easter is coming, and – glory hallelujah -- the deceased had now gone to that blessed land where every day is Sunday! Taylor says she looked around as he said those words, “every day is Sunday,” and she saw all those church workers flinch.
Anyone who has lived in the home of a pastor or church musician -- much less two church musicians -- knows exactly the reason for that. A life shaped around leading Sunday worship is a life of no big parties on Saturday night, and weariness on Sunday afternoon. A life of every day being Sunday isn’t necessarily our definition of heaven. We know there’s a good reason the good Lord the other six days of the week in which we can say, it isn’t Sunday yet.
Ruth Ferguson was someone who knew that the praise of God, done well, is no easy task. Her life for years was formed by the rhythms of planning and preparation and practicing for one Sabbath after another in this place, working all week long so that others might be able to sing their praise of God in this place week after week.
This was not just her job, it was her vocation, the calling to support the song of others and to interpret the word, the calling to lift hearts and spirits through music. And long after she no longer had any obligation to worship every Sunday, she continued to do so, joining God’s people in worship week after week until just weeks before her death.
Not only in her paid work but in all of her being, discipline was not a dirty word to her, but simply the shape of a life in which one’s calling is clear.
By all accounts she was someone who seemed to gravitate naturally to disciplines that others might see as burdens, whether the mastery of a Bach fugue, baking dozens of brownies and hosting dozens of students, serving as a Stephen minister or providing support and stimulation to an exceptionally bright son. All of these tasks are the kind of thing that could easily be overlooked, work that is not necessarily applauded or praised in and of itself. But without someone to lead the singing, without someone to set the table for a feast, without someone to say, “here, here you can learn all you want about this thing that you find so interesting” -- without that work undergirding our lives we are all unmoored.
When Jesus tells his disciples, “I will give you rest,” the word has many connotations: it can mean rest in terms of
- peace, freedom from struggle; something we are indeed grateful for after these last years of living with Alzheimer’s.
- it can be the rest of death, that final surrender of all of our labors to one who holds us fast.
Most especially “I will give you rest” means the rest of Sabbath. Sabbath rest was not simply a rule about a particular day of the week, but a way of life, a rhythm of working, and then giving over one’s work to God. Sabbath was the very marker of Jewish life, the yoke that was meant to make work not an oppressive burden but, as Bob Smith put it, being “harnessed to God in the joy of obedient life.”
The joy of obedient life. In Christian worship we celebrate that kind of life -- a life directed by God’s word and fed by Jesus’ very life. As we say when we gather at this table every Sunday, it is our duty and our joy. The burden is light, because it is Jesus’ own obedient life that we follow, and we know that there is no suffering we endure, no place we can go in this life where our shepherd has not already been, and even in the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us. It is not the quality of our obedience that finally matters at all, but the unfailing love of Christ who was obedient even unto death.
To say that Ruth found joy in obedience not to say there was no work or no struggle, especially in the last years as her Alzheimer’s set in and what previously had come automatically became difficult. It is heartbreaking to watch someone whose service to others so clearly gave joy to lose the ability to serve in that way. It was bewildering for those who benefited so much from her faithful leadership to lose it.
But even in her diagnosis John says, she was able to find humor, to allow what was her plight to simply be her life. And she had the foresight to offer her family a light yoke as well – clear directions to follow so that decisions in life’s most bewildering moments would not be so hard.
Thanks to that foresight many months before now, the morning she died – a Sunday morning, of course – her husband John had his orders – “if you are scheduled to play, and I die, she said, you go play.” And so he did.
And once again, as is our duty and our joy, we sang God’s praise and heard God’s word and gathered at this Table with all the saints who have gone before us. What a blessing to know what to do, when we have no words of our own and perhaps no voice but the voices of community around us.
Learn from me, Jesus says. The word means simply “be my disciples” Hear not only his words but see his deeds. Jesus’ ministry again and again gives witness to an understanding of Sabbath not as a rule but as God’s intention for freedom and healing for all creation, a discipline which allows the rhythm of work and rest to give life rather than use it up. A way of living and loving which gives and forgives without keeping score. In learning from Jesus, we follow him to the Table where he offers this life to all the world, and we also follow from the Table to the cross. He gives us rest even in this most wrenching moment of life, because he has gone ahead of us through suffering and loss into resurrection, from death into life eternal.
You will find rest for your souls. The promise is to Ruth and also to all who mourn her.
And now as we take this last duty and joy upon us, the burden of carrying her to her resting place, the task of committing her to her Redeemer and accompanying her with singing.
Here too the yoke is light. Sorrowful, yes, but light. For now we can give her over completely to the gentle care of Christ, the one who has held her fast since her baptism, and we can allow her to fulfill the work of eternal praise for which she is so very well-prepared, gathered around the throne, singing blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, forever and ever.
Saturday night is over. Sunday morning is here. The singing begins and it will have no end. Alleluia.
 Heard in a sermon preached at Luther Seminary and reproduced in the Introductory Edition of “In the Company of Preachers,” November 2007.