Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Stamford
Sermon for Farewell Worship
31 March 2019
Text: Acts 4:23-31
Pray for Boldness
My first thought when the movers left the apartment was that this was a mistake. I was sure that both my career and my marriage were in jeopardy because I had taken a call to be the Transitional Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Stamford. My life was over. Stamford is 80 miles away from my home in Windsor, which meant that I would be spending the majority of my days and nights in this apartment away from my family for the foreseeable future. It was a devastating realization. I called my wife and my kids every day. I also cried every day that first week.
When I returned to Windsor after that first week, I was still convinced that I had made a big mistake. My wife, Nicole, said to me, “See your spiritual director. That always makes you feel better.” So I did. I told David what was going on. He said, “Stick it out for two weeks. Do your spiritual practice every day. Remember, your thoughts are just thoughts. They’re not the truth.” So I did what my spiritual director said. Every day for at least 30 minutes I sat in silence, watched my breath, and let my thoughts float by. Slowly my mind began to settle. Slowly I started to feel more grounded. I was still very aware of the fragility of my situation. This church had forced out its previous senior minister. There was little preventing the same thing from happening to me.
Miraculously, instead of feeling anxious and timid, I felt emboldened. Then, just weeks into my tenure here, I was making my 80 mile Sunday morning commute when a deer leaped across Interstate 95 and onto the hood of my car. I spun around twice into oncoming traffic and stalled. Somehow I managed to get myself and my pet bunny out of the car and to the side of the road. First I called my wife. Then I called the police. Then I called Peter Birch, who drove out to Westport, picked me up, and drove me to church in time for service. I preached on the doctrine of the Trinity and danced with Wally Williams as a sermon illustration. Through these experiences I developed a new spiritual practice: preach every sermon as if it were my last because for any number of reason it well might be. And, look, here we are, my last sermon with you.
Scripture tells us that what Jesus had predicted for his disciples had come to pass. They were doing miracles and gaining followers just like he did. They were also experiencing persecution just like Jesus had. Today’s Scripture is the final episode in a longer story of Peter healing a lame man who had been begging in front of the temple. When people asked how Peter had done this miracle he told them about Jesus. The authorities didn’t like what Peter and John had to say, so they arrested them, interrogated them, and ordered them to stop telling people about Jesus. Peter and John refused. Nevertheless, the authorities let them go. When Peter and John returned and told the other disciples about their experience, they didn’t pray for protection, they prayed for boldness.
The Greek word that is translated “boldness” also means, “free spoken, open.” It means you say what you think, not in some meanspirited, vindictive way but out of conviction. Pastor and youth ministry specialist Mike Yaconelli puts it this way, “Boldness doesn’t mean rude, obnoxious, loud, or disrespectful. Being bold is being firm, sure, confident, fearless, daring, strong, resilient, and not easily intimidated. It means you’re willing to go where you’ve never been, willing to try what you’ve never tried, and willing to trust what you’ve never trusted. Boldness is quiet, not noisy.” Rabbi and organizational consultant Edwin Friedman calls this quality principled leadership. It’s the sort of boldness that 16thcentury protestant reformer Martin Luther demonstrated—the one after whom Dr. Martin Luther King was named. 400 years before the civil rights activist, Martin Luther stood trial for protesting abuses in the church. Facing a panel of inquisitors famous for burning heretics he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
You have taught me boldness. And for that I cannot thank you enough. Week after week I have stood before you and preached my last sermon. Week after week you kept showing up for more. My previous church experience had taught me that I could be punished for any ill-considered word. Churches taught me that any difficult truth could kick the sabotage grapevine into high gear. Congregations had taught me speaking freely is just too risky. Church people taught me that honesty is unwelcome. But you changed all that. Slowly I began to worry less about blow back and upset. Slowly I risked grounding myself in deeper truths. I’ll never forget one Sunday following worship in the first church I served many years ago. I had told a story about my dad’s alcoholism to illustrate a sermon. One of the older members afterward said, “Save it for coffee hour.” Meaning, personal stories were unwelcome in the pulpit. Here you’ve supported me as I’ve deepened my connection with God, with my family, with myself, with my ministry, and with you.
My prayer for you going forward is that you will be filled with boldness. I pray that you will freely and openly give your testimony. Share your faith. The people of Stamford so desperately need bold, compassionate leaders in the community. My spiritual director calls the result of spiritual practice “true self-confidence,” as opposed to the shallow bluster we’ve become so accustomed to in our leaders. Here’s a short video about that kind of true confidence.
It turns out this wasn’t a mistake at all. From the eyes of the world, from the conventional perspective, this has turned out all wrong. The building is sold, the pastor is moving on, everything has changed. In a world that values victory this looks like defeat. But I don’t see it that way at all. We know something that others don’t. I’ve seen the twinkle in your eyes. We may have just glimpsed the truth for a second, but that’s infinitely more than most churches. Most churches are coasting along pretending they will never die. We have looked that reality squarely in the face, embraced it, and have placed our trust in resurrection on the other side. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” You know the truth. You are free. Now live like it.You have a story to tell and a testimony to give. Proclaim it with boldness.