Ash Wednesday Homily 2020

A woman receives ashes at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Ash Wednesday in New York February 13, 2013. REUTERS/Adrees Latif (UNITED STATES – Tags: RELIGION ANNIVERSARY) – RTR3DQUC
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Congregational Church of Granby 26 February 2020

Worship Resources Lent 1A, 1 March 2020

*Opening Prayer                                                                                     

Holy God, trust is difficult. Day after day we suffer insults to our ego. Reality refuses to bend to our will. We suffer setbacks, endure disappointments, fear failure, weather the storms of shame and self-doubt. The voices of our culture that tell us our value is in producing and consuming, competing and vanquishing, branding and marketing ourselves are so insistent. Sometimes those voices are our voices. Teach us to trust in our ultimate value, which nothing, not even death, can diminish. Teach us to drop our small, fragile ego and embrace the great adventure of living for you. Amen.

*Prayer of Dedication                                                          

Holy God, only your irresistible grace will enable us to completely trust in you. Nevertheless, even with incomplete faith we offer you a portion of our finances, trusting that you will complete the good work you’ve begun in us. Amen.

Pastor’s Page March 2020

Pastor’s Page March 2020

March brings us to the church season of Lent. Lent is 40 days of spiritual preparation for Easter. The 40 days of Lent correspond to the 40 days of spiritual preparation Jesus did before launching his public ministry. Scripture tells us that Jesus’ spiritual preparation involved 40 days of prayer, fasting, and temptation in the “wilderness.” Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness echo the 40 days and 40 nights of the great flood that was God’s great “do-over” with humanity. It also echoes the Israelites’ 40 years sojourn through the wilderness, which was less about getting to a geographical location called Canaan, and more about shifting spiritual orientation away from a culture of enslavement and toward a culture of freedom.

“Wilderness” is the metaphor author William Bridges uses to describe the time between the ending of an old identity and way of doing things and the beginning of a new identity and way of doing things. In the three phases of transition–ending, neutral zone, new beginning–wilderness is the “neutral zone,” the “in between time.”

We as a congregation are rapidly moving into the neutral zone wilderness. So the timing of Lent is particularly fortuitous this year. It will give us an opportunity to study more closely the dynamics of the neutral zone and develop strategies for gracefully moving through it. 

Many people make spiritual preparation for Easter by taking on a spiritual discipline for Lent. Some give up caffeine or chocolate or alcohol in imitation of Jesus’ fast. I think that’s great. Do what makes sense to you. You might also consider simply making a commitment to worship every Sunday. If you already do that, consider inviting a friend. Wilderness journeys involve risk and discomfort. What do you think it was like for Jesus alone in the desert for 40 days? If inviting a friend feels risky and uncomfortable for you, Lent might be the perfect time to take that adventure. If you’d like some personal coaching around that, see me! I’m happy to help. 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-28-20

Me making an awkward horseback adventure circa 1993, Giza, Egypt

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-28-20

As a kid I loved adventure. I would spend hours playing outdoors either with friends or by myself. It didn’t matter. As long as there was a hill to be climbed, a trail to be followed, insects to catch, flowers to pick, game to track, berries to harvest, a fort to build it didn’t matter to me whether I was alone or accompanied. I loved to explore. 

When it got too dark to play outside, I followed the street lights home, where mom ususally had a casserole in the oven. Soon it was time to set the table for supper. Afterwards it was dishes and homework and lying in bed reading about adventures: Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Just writing it down makes it all seem like a quaint, distant world. 

Nevertheless, what I realize now is that safe-enough space to explore on my own, use my imagination, and create adventures with minimal parental supervision was key to who I have become. I still love adventure. I’m happiest when I’m facing the joy and fear of the unknown over the horizon. I didn’t realize it at the time but the safe-enough space I experienced as a child gave me the mix of confidence and caution that has made bigger and bigger adult adventures surviveable, enjoyable, and transformative.

Two weeks ago First Congregational Church of Granby did a worship and workshop around the theme “Know Your ‘Why?’” We explored both our personal “whys” and our “why” as a congregation, that is, what is our purpose? First we had to slog through what turned out to be a series of items that we thought were “whys” but turned out to be “whats.” For example, “To feed the hungry.” That turned about to be “what” we do. The question is why feed the hungry? Finally, after hours of deep conversation, tears, and several attempts at articulating powerful, inarticulate longings of the heart, we came up with “A safe place to explore who you truly are and who God is calling you to be.”

I would say a “safe-enough” place or space is key to all spiritual development. A part of my kid adventures was the possibility of injury, discomfort, getting lost and then reoriented. My vision for First Congregational Church is that we create a spiritual container large enough for each of us to experiment, fail, make mistakes, repent, bactine and bandage our boo-boos, and develop our own sense of self-confidence and self-worth that is not overly dependent on others’ approval. The abundant life Jesus promised is rooted in the declaration at Jesus’ baptism and ours: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well-pleased.” Rev. William Sloane Coffin said, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation.” Foundational trust in the boundless love of God makes every adventure possible.

What’s up with Pastor Todd 2-23-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-23-20

I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back I can see that my childhood was filled with stories of what I would now call “mystical experiences,” that is, encounters with God. I sat on mom’s lap as she read from my Children’s Story Bible about God’s search for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I remember illustrations of Abraham’s meeting with the three strangers under the Oaks of Mamre. I was fascinated and frightened by the mysterious angel who wrestled through the night with Jacob on the banks of the River Jabbok. Equally scary but in a different way was Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai. I remember the visions of the prophets: Isaiah’s throne; Ezekiel’s vision of wheels within wheels was something out of a Marvel comic book, and his vision of the valley of dry bones was spooky. Then there was Jesus’ vision of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Peter, James, and John climb with Jesus to a mountaintop where Jesus is transfigured before their eyes. Paul encounters the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus. “Mystical” in the religious context has come to mean a direct experience of ultimate reality.

I don’t explicitly talk about mysticism very often because it’s famously difficult to do. God is, as the hymn says, “beyond all knowledge and all thought.” From a mystical standpoint, God is “unspeakable.” Simply saying the word “God” is already missing God. “God” is a placeholder for that which is by definition incomprehensible.  Nevertheless, inadequate though it is, language is a tool we use to point toward a direct experience of–you pick your expression–God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Higher Power, the Divine, Ultimate Reality, Awakening, Buddha Nature, Allah, HaShem. The names are many.

Another reason I don’t explicitly talk about mysticism is the term carries with it all kinds of unhelpful baggage. People expect bright lights and heavenly voices and strange sensations. When these don’t manifest, they imagine either that it’s all just a bunch of hooey or that they are lacking the special whatever-it-is that one needs to have a mystical experience. Neither of these conclusions is true. It’s not a bunch of hooey. Have you ever had an “Aha” moment? Have you ever been moved to tears? These and other everyday experiences of “breakthrough” are what mystics consider “divine encounters.” And everyone has them or has the capacity to recognize them. So you are a mystic! Some breakthroughs are big and life-altering. More often they’re small and go unrecognized.

Church is a community gathered around the intention to recognize, name, and ever more deeply live out of these unspeakable mystical encounters. 

Worship Resources for Transfiguration Sunday Year A

Opening Prayer                                                                                     

Unspeakable God our words fail us. We go about our ordinary lives mostly unaware of your presence. Then suddenly you shine through, and we are dumbstruck. We’re embarrassed by our confusion, but you respond with love. This is how it is. This is our confession: you come to us, share our common lot, and invite us to join the people of your new age. Our trembling hearts answer “Yes.” So let it be.

Prayer of Dedication                                                                            

Holy God, we dedicate our lives and our offerings to your glory. Amen.

Worship Resources for Epiphany 6A based on Matthew 5:21-37

Call to Worship                                                                                      

Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We do our best to love others.

Sometimes we become angry, even with those we love.

Holy God, teach us how to handle anger.

Teach us how to speak the truth in love.

Prayer of Dedication                                                                            

Holy God, we dedicate our offerings in service of love and justice. Amen.