Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Church of Christ in Saybrook 27 November 2022
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Church of Christ in Saybrook 20 November 2022
Text Study/Scriptural Reflection-Faith and Scriptures Inspiring Hope for Justice
First, let me say I’m honored to share this Scriptural reflection with you. It’s a joy to have such good friends who are willing to take time out of their lives and in some cases travel many miles to talk about things that matter so much to me and matter so much to the world. This is a wonderful opportunity.
Second, just a word or two about myself. I’m an ordained Christian minister. I have been serving the United Church of Christ for the past 26 years. I’m also a Zen student. I’ve been practicing Zen and studying the Dharma for the past 23 years. I currently serve as an Assistant Teacher at Boundless Way Zen Temple in Worcester, MA. I’m so happy to be here with other people who love the Dharma and follow the Buddha Way, which, in my experience is not so different from the Way of Jesus.
This morning I’m inviting us to consider a text from the Gospel of Luke. I’ll share a little context and then reflect on how this text inspires hop for justice in me, and then maybe we’ll have a little time for questions and responses. For me, the connection point in the text is Jesus’ one sentence sermon: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Which raises the first point of inspiration for me. Our Scripture this morning is a Scripture within a Scripture. Luke tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue as was his custom. It happened to be his turn to read the Scripture selection for the day and comment on it. He opens the scroll to the ancient Prophet Isaiah, who had lived many centuries earlier and had brought a message of hope for justice to the people of Israel who then as in Jesus’ time suffered under oppression of a foreign empire.
The text Jesus reads is mostly word for word from Isaiah chapter 61—not entirely, however. He leaves out Isaiah’s language about God’s vengeance and borrows from another place in Isaiah where he writes about God’s favor. What I love about this detail is it shows how Jesus inhabits Scripture so deeply that he is free to creatively play with the text. Jesus not only reads ancient words promising freedom to the captives, he performs that freedom right then and there in community. He fulfills Scripture by stepping into the role. Scripture is the script that Jesus performs. This is how he can say to this hometown crowd living under Roman occupation “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
When I was a little kid my church produced a Christmas pageant every year. Every year children were selected to play the roles of Mary and Joseph and the Magi and the shepherds and the angels. And every year one child was selected to recite from memory the Christmas story found in the Gospel of Luke chapter 2. I remember the year I was selected. I was proud to be selected but also very nervous. My mom coached me by making me stand on the hearth in front of the livingroom fireplace and recite slowly and loudly with good enunciation the words of Luke 2: “In those days a decree went out from Ceasar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment when Quirinius was Governor of Syria . . .” What gives me hope for justice is that I’m not alone. It’s not all on me. Countless generations of countless individuals and communities across space and time have fulfilled these Scriptures by fully inhabiting them performing this pageant of freedom from time immemorial.
My performing didn’t end with the Christmas pageant. I continued act and sing and perform in plays and musicals. One thing I learned in theater is that in order for the performance to be successful, you have to set your ego aside. You have to empty yourself of your natural tendencies and biases and preferences and become this other person. It’s not that your ego goes away forever. It tends to come back with a vengeance once the performance is done. But in order to enter the world of the script you have to let down your defenses and trust—trust the playwright, trust the director, trust the audience, trust your fellow actors. This was Jesus’ approach to his work for justice. The Apostle Paul calls all who follow Jesus to do the same. He writes, “Let the same mind be in you 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 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
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
It’s because of this radical self-emptying that Jesus can say, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
The great 13th century Zen Master Dogen wrote “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things. When actualized by the myriad things, your body-and-mind as well as the bodies-and-minds of others drop away.”
In this great emptiness—what the Buddha called sunyata—all worlds are present, arising and falling away. The world of suffering and liberation from suffering. This world of injustice and This is the great freedom that makes all freedoms possible. Jesus practiced this great emptiness. The Buddha did. Dogen did, and we can, too. This gives me hope for justice—that together with grace, effort, and loving support of community—we can get out of the way and let justice be done in and through us. Then perhaps we will be able to say, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Call To Worship (from Psalm 100)
Leader: Make a joyful noise to the LORD all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing.
All: Know that the LORD is God. It is God who made us; we are God’s. We are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture.
Leader: Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God. Bless God’s name.
All: For the LORD is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever and God’s faithfulness to all generations.
God of gratitude, the Apostle Paul wrote “give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This makes sense when things are going well. What about when things are unpleasant? What about when we experience grief and loss and harm? How can we give thanks? Holy God, your greatest gift is life itself and life itself is unending. Remind us again that no matter the circumstance, nothing can separate us from your love. Because of this we can say with the words of that old hymn, “Take our moments and our days. Let them flow in endless praise. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
We give because we are grateful, Holy God. Bless our offerings that they may plant the seeds of gratitude in many hearts. Amen.