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.

Worship Resource for Advent 4C: Love

*Call to Worship                                                                                              

Scripture tells us that “God is love” and if we don’t love, we don’t know God. But what is love? What does it mean to love someone? What does it mean to love God? Jesus shows us by his example. The prophet Isaiah says of that day when love shall reign supreme that “a little child shall lead them. This morning we will share the story of God’s love come to earth as a baby. And our children will lead us in telling that story. Let’s worship God!

Advent 3C, December 16, 2018. Joy!

Call to Worship                                                                                              

Here at First Congregational Church of Stamford we wish you joy. Why? Because joy is a force for positive change. Joy gives us the energy to make things right. Joy is the moment when everything comes together. And if you have that joy energy moving through your body you become contagious. You naturally share that joy. Fear is contagious, too. Fear can lead to some pretty dark places. But joy is light. Joy is healing and healthy and whole. So let’s get infected with joy this morning.

Worship Resources for Advent 2C December 9, 2018

Call to Worship (in the form of guided meditation)

As we gather ourselves for worship this morning, I invite you to find a comfortable position in your pew. Sit up and imagine a string from the top of your head to the ceiling, as if you were a marionette. Place your feet on the floor. Hands in your lap. Feel yourself rooted in your hips and pelvis. Now take a slow breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel your belly expand and contract. Breathe again. One more time. Feel the peace the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Let’s worship God.

Prayer of Dedication

Prince of Peace, we dedicate our offerings to you. May they be a catalyst for justice so that all may be at peace. In your name we pray. Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd? 12-3-18

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-3-18

The theme of the second Sunday of Advent is peace. The lectionary connects peace to the story of John the Baptist, which on the surface might seem ironic because John is remembered as a great disturber of the peace. In fact, he did such a good job at disturbing the peace that the authorities had him executed!

John was Jesus’ near relative–a cousin, perhaps. His role was to “prepare the way” for Jesus’ message. John did that first by practicing repentance himself and then by inviting others into that repentance. Here’s where the peace disturbing comes in. Human reality is that we tend to become attached to our bad habits and hurtful ways. We do them because on some level they work for us, so we ignore their negative effects. I eat doughnuts because I love them even though healthwise I know I should and could make better choices. Corporations pollute the environment because they can make more money that way even though they may be poisoning their neighbors. Politicians lie because it helps them politically even though–as Christ said–it’s the truth that sets us free. Repentance threatens to disrupt our lives on one level in order to bring healing on a deeper level.

And that’s where the peace comes in. John’s ministry was foretold by the Prophet Isaiah who wrote, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” For me, the image of the smooth way is an image for peace. Peace is unobstructed action. It’s a smooth flow. It’s not getting hung up or stressed out or stuck in a rut. Peace “undramatic.” Mountains are dramatic. Valleys can be a place where–in the words of the Psalmist–we face “the shadow.” But peace is even keeled and often overlooked. Peace doesn’t make for good television.

That’s why it’s all the more important in this media oversaturated world that we practice and then proclaim peace. The good news is that there are many, many good people in the world doing amazing, everyday, self-sacrificing things. So we have to make it our job as Christians and as a church to acknowledge and thank them. Practicing peace is not flashy. Practicing peace does not call attention to itself. But if we don’t practice peace, where will we and the rest of the world find refuge?