What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1/17/19

This weekend marks the MLK holiday weekend. At FCC we will be marking the occasion with a joint worship service at North Stamford Community Church, 31 Cascade Rd., Stamford. Worship begins at 11am. Pastor Jacki and I will be speaking to the theme, “I Have a Dream.” We will also be inviting the congregations to share their dreams. In preparation for Sunday I’ve been reading from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King wrote this open letter to a group of fellow clergy who were criticizing his use of non-violent direct action to bring about justice for African Americans, particularly in the South. The criticism was that King was creating unrest and “disturbing the peace” by raising awareness of the suffering of black people. Instead, these clergy, who identified as “white moderates,” recommended patience and incremental change. King defended his actions and called on his colleagues to remember their God, who, we are told, heard the cries of his people oppressed in Egypt and took action on their behalf to free them. King famously wrote about the “fierce urgency of now.”

The Letter from a Birmingham Jail reminded once again of the difference between charity and justice. Charity meets the needs of suffering people while leaving the social structures that create suffering in place. Justice takes a critical look at the structures and seeks to change them. Saint Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran Catholic priest martyred for his work on behalf of the poor once said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why there are so many poor people, they call me a Communist.” Which is exactly what they called Dr. King.

I don’t believe that we have to become Communists to create more just social structures in the U.S., but my dream is that as a church, we use the opportunity that our church restart affords to engage not only in acts of charity but also in a movement for justice.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1/7/19

Baptism of Christ by Egino Weinart

This Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. Jesus’ baptism has been a complicated subject for Christians from the beginning. Scripture says that when he was a young adult, Jesus was baptized by his relative, John, in the Jordan River. John said that his baptism was for repentance and forgiveness of sin. So the question arose immediately: What did Jesus do that he needed to repent and be baptized? Scripture doesn’t answer this question. Rather, it dances uncomfortably around what appears to be the historical fact of Jesus undergoing water baptism, which, on the surface seems to be in tension with the claim that Jesus is the Son of God, and, therefore, without sin.

In the Christian church, baptism is a sacrament. A sacrament is a sacred ritual that helps us step into the story of God’s love. Baptism uses the symbol of water, which can mean many things: washing, drowning, life, power, chaos, creation, refreshment, womb. Baptism wraps up all of these deep meanings and helps to set us on the Christian path.

What we make of Christ’s baptism and what we make of ours, therefore, is a matter of interpretation. It can change and shift over time, which is what makes baptism so powerful and meaningful. When we baptize infants, it’s not so much about cleansing for sin as it is about welcoming an innocent newcomer into the family. At other stages of our lives, it’s a reminder of the commitment we’ve made to follow in Christ’s way.

As we step into 2019 as individuals and as a church, reconnection to baptism is a great reminder of our commitment and God’s deliverance. We don’t need to be perfect for God to love us, we just need to be willing to take the plunge and follow God’s lead as best we can.

A recommended resource on baptism and other Christian theological issues is Fr. Richard Rohr’s “Daily Meditations” newsletter. Sign up at www.cac.org.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1/2/19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1/2/19

Happy New Year! The first Sunday of the new year brings us the story of the wise man or, more properly, “Magi.” Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor begins her sermon on the journey of the wise men this way: “Once upon a time there were some very wise men who were all sitting in their own countries minding their own business when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imagination, but they were wise enough to know that it didn’t matter. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.” (Taylor, 1999)

We don’t know for a fact that the wise men were, in fact, men. We just presume so because of patriarchy. We also don’t know know many there were. There were three gifts, but does that mean three givers? The point is that they set out on a journey that became their calling, much like Abraham and Sarah so many centuries before them. They followed a star not knowing their destination or how long they would be underway. They achieved their goal, worshipped the Christ child, and God sent them home by another route. “Home by Another Way” is the title of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon.

There is no doubt that we as a congregation are underway and that 2019 will be a year of movement and adventure that will test our faith and the strength of our bonds as a community. But we can take courage from the Magi who found their way home by another way, and once home, found themselves transformed.

Silent Night–Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister

First Congregational Church of Stamford

Sermon for Christmas Eve

24 December 2018

Text: Luke 2:1-20

Silent Night

This morning I woke up while it was still dark. No one was awake in my house except our pet rabbit, who lives in our bedroom. He was hopping around clanking his food dish to let me know he was ready for breakfast. I moved quickly and quietly so as not to wake my wife, then went downstairs to feed the dog. I noticed each creak of the floorboards as I tip-toed to the kitchen. I started the coffee. Then I tip-toed to our three season porch, where I turned on the space-heater and settled down for a half-hour of silent meditation. Even at that early hour, the noise inside my head was already starting up: self-centered thoughts, fantasies about places I might go and things I might do, arguments with family members, ideas for a Christmas eve sermon. My mind is a swirl of ego. But as I sit and simply notice my breath, it begins to quiet down. Without a sound light gradually filters through the windows and fills the porch. Outside snow silently falls to the grass in the backyard. It was a silent morning, holy morning.

Tonight is the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Silent Night at the chapel in the tiny village of Oberndorf, Austria just north of Salzburg on the border with Bavaria. Joseph Mohr was a newly ordained priest who needed a carol for his Christmas eve service, so he paid a visit to the church organist Franz Gruber. He brought with him a poem he had written a couple of years earlier, just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars that had wracked Europe for the past 12 years. Gruber set the poem to music written specifically for guitar, since the chapel’s organ had recently been destroyed by flooding from the Salzach River.

The debut performance for that tiny audience on that quiet Christmas eve was well received. Within a few years the song spread throughout German-speaking Europe and then was translated into English. From England it spread to America and throughout the world. Today Silent Night has been translated into hundreds of languages. It is the most well-known Christmas carol of all.

But that’s not all. On November 11 of this year we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. In the first year of that war to end all wars, something happened that had never before happened and never would again. After five months of fighting along the Western Front, the guns and mortars went silent. It had been raining for weeks flooding the trenches that the soldiers lived and died in. But on Christmas eve, the air turned cold, the ground froze, and snow silently began to fall. In the dark the western allies heard voices from across no-man’s land. “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. Alles schlaeft, einsam wacht.” It was the German soldiers singing across the fields to the British and French on the other side. So began the Christmas truce of WWI. It only lasted a day or so, but it demonstrated that even in the midst of war, enemies can lay their weapons down.

On this holy night, I invite us into the deep stillness where we meet the Christ child. The Apostle Paul wrote: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” The Christ child lived in the Apostle Paul. He lives in me. He lives in you. On this holy night I invite us into the silence where a true voice can be heard, the voice of the Son of God, the Prince of Peace.

Pastor’s Page January 2019

Pastor’s Page January 2019

While in the past new years have brought sweeping changes to my personal life–new jobs, new houses, relocations, graduations, births, deaths, and the like–they have not often brought sweeping changes to the churches I’ve served. For better or for worse, congregational changes tend to be incremental, if there is any perceptible change at all. And perhaps we have come to depend on that: while the world around us swirls, there’s something reliable about the predictability and routine nature of Sunday after Sunday, season after season.

2019 is not going to be like that for First Congregational Church of Stamford. Our building is sold. There is no turning back from that fact. We have 12 months max to find a new home. Additionally, we will be searching for a restart pastor to launch what I’m provisionally calling New Church Stamford. There will still be Sundays and there will still be seasons, but–out of necessity–we will be inventing new ways to mark them, new rhythms to celebrate them, and new eyes to notice the spirit of God moving among us and our community.

This may come as a surprise to you, but I don’t do change well. My natural inclination is to resist. But I’ve found that fighting change–at least change that God is bringing about–is exhausting and fruitless. I’ve found that the key to surviving and even thriving in the midst of sweeping change is to focus on my spiritual practice. For me, this is prayer, meditation, worship, Scripture study, physical exercise, community, and service.

Change is difficult, but I’m convinced that change is simply the nature of reality. Nothing in this world is exempt–not even church. So my invitation to you is to step boldly into 2019. As a church we have a direction, we have a plan, and we have resources. These three things are huge items in our “plus” column. Most churches I know don’t have any of these things. They tend to wander around in circles making incremental change after incremental change that don’t really take them anywhere. We, at least, are a congregation with a vision and a congregation with a goal: to become the church Stamford needs us to be. Though at times the work may feel overwhelming, remember, nothing is impossible with God.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12/25/18

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12/25/18

On the church’s liturgical calendar, the Season of Christmas lasts from Christmas Day until the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. Popular culture has found many ways to fill this space: after Christmas sales, top 10 lists, retrospectives on the previous year, forecasts for the next. For Christians it can be a time to bask in the afterglow and adjust to a new reality.

I remember after each of our children were born, the weeks after labor and delivery were a time of being together as a family, welcoming the newcomer, learning her particular quirks and needs, adjusting to the increased responsibility of a new child. It was a busy time, but also a quiet time, an inward-focused time.

I invite us in this Christmas season to gather ourselves, to take the backward step and inward turn. The office will be closed between Christmas and New Year’s. Take advantage of this moment to re-energize because 2019 is going to be a big year!

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12/18/18

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12/18/18

The theme for the 4th Sunday of Advent is love. Love is the heart of Christian belief and practice. 1 John 4:8 puts it succinctly: “God is love.” But what is love? In preparation for Sunday worship I did my usual practice of searching the Internet for quotations, images, and videos related to this week’s theme. Not surprisingly there were countless references to love: stories about love, images of love, theories of love, love advice, love humor . . . everything you can think of. Relevant for our context is a Christian approach to love. The Apostle Paul gives us a good starting place:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)   

Christian love is modeled after God’s love, which we find expressed in myriad forms in the Bible. It encompasses the many human forms of love–romantic, familial, love among friends, even love that we have for pets or communities or causes close to our hearts–and puts them in the larger context of what in Greek is called agape or self-emptying love. Once again, Paul expresses this love, this time through the example of Christ:

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

8 he humbled himself. (Philippians 2:6-8)

There are cautions that come along with agape. After all, God is God. You and I are not. God is infinite. We are limited. Though we are limited, our capacity for self-deception is endless. So we need the help of good teachers, friends, and a faith community to help us see whether our agape is genuine or simply ego-centered martyrdom. Paul warns: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing,” (1 Corinthians 13:3).

The Advent season has been leading us to love and the powerful image of Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. I invite us to meditate on the many images of love and let them inform our every encounter in this hurting and hope-filled world.