Worship Resource: Mark 12:38-44

Holy God, your Scripture points beyond conventional understandings to the heart of the matter. Who is rich? Who is poor? How is it that your abundant life is often so apparent among those who have relatively little and so hard to find among those who have so much?  And who are we? Rich or poor? Like the widow who “put in everything she had,” teach us to step past conventional understandings of poverty and wealth into the limitless provision of your boundless love. Amen.

Sermon Manuscript 17 October 2021

Pupils at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School ca. 1900

(Note: Normally my sermon manuscripts are a jumping off point for the sermon itself. The words spoken don’t always match the words on the page. Last Sunday, however, the following is more or less what I said.)

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister

First Congregational Church of Granby

Sermon Series: Dreaming Together (in the Circle of Blessing)

17 October 2021

Text: 1 Kings 3:1-15

Solomon’s Dream

My wife, Nicole, and I signed the mortgage on our first house while she was in labor with our first child, Fiona. Looking back, it’s tough to recall the mix of excitement, stress, and exhaustion that I know we felt when we brought our newborn home. I will never forget the gut-wrenching fear and shame I felt when after a routine infant wellness check we found out that our perfect daughter had tested positive for lead poisoning. After the initial shock, we immediately mobilized all of our resources to locate the source of the lead in our house and remove it. We figured out that the old woodframe windows, which had been painted with lead paint, were the culprit. We did not have the money to replace all of the windows in our house, so my mom–who worked as a hospice chaplain–somehow found the space in her budget to loan us the cash. Within a month or so of our remediation efforts Fiona’s lead levels began slowly to go down. The doctor was hopeful that we had caught it in time to avoid any lasting effects. 

I’m happy to say that today Fiona is a successful software engineer living in California. She’s healthy, happy, and strong. Thank goodness that the State of Illinois had mandatory lead testing for infants. Thank goodness we had access to resources to protect our child. Because when your house is poisoning your child, you don’t say, “Someone else put lead paint on those windows. It’s not my responsibility.” When the cost for protecting your child seems beyond your reach, you don’t say, “It’s too expensive. I’m not going to fix it.” No. When there’s poison in your house you move heaven and earth to protect your child. Period. Our churches are like a house with lead paint in them. That lead paint is systemic racism. We didn’t put it there, but it’s our house now and it’s our responsibility to fix it.

The First Church South Church collaborative theme for this fall is Dreaming Together in the Circle of Blessing. Dreaming together has to do with our work to bring our two churches together to create a new UCC presence in Granby–one that is vital and healthy and strong. The Circle of Blessing is taken from South Church’s stewardship theme for the fall which draws on Native American cultures to teach about generosity. Whatever we imagine the circle of blessing to be, my guess is that deep down all of us long to stand in it; however, the Bible teaches us that before we can stand in a circle of blessing we need to reconcile with our neighbor. Unacknowledged, unresolved harm poisons our relationships; therefore, before we can reconcile with others we need to acknowledge harm, repent, and repair. All of this requires a “listening heart.” Our Scripture this morning tells us that God came to King Solomon in a dream. God said God would give Solomon whatever he wanted. Solomon wisely prayed for a “listening heart.” I’m going to invite us to listen with our hearts this morning to the story of Native American Boarding Schools in the U.S. 

The past weeks have offered us as Christians several opportunities to uncover our history of racial harm here in the U.S. September 30 was the National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools. Perhaps some of you heard in the news recently about the hundreds of Native American children buried in mass graves on the property of boarding schools operated by Christain churches in Canada. You may or may not be surprised to learn that churches operated Native American boarding schools in the U.S. as well. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Center has a Website that documents the traumatic legacy of Native American Boarding Schools including a list of those Christian denominations that operated them. The Congregational Church operated three boarding schools with a total of 14,476 students. What were Indian Boarding Schools like? 

“Kill the Indian, save the man”: This was the policy of Native American boarding schools, articulated memorably by Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the first school known as the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. From 1879 to the 1970s 376 schools in locations around the U.S. took Native children as young as 4 or 5 years old from their homes. Once at the school, their hair was cut, they were made to wear European style clothing, and they were prohibited from speaking their native language. At first the schools were located on reservations. When native children started fleeing the schools en masse, the schools were relocated far away from reservation land. Because of the cost of travel and the poverty of indigenous families, most children rarely, if ever, saw their families again. When the children did return they could no longer speak with or relate to their families. 

At the schools native children experienced malnourishment and abuse. Many died. They operated like labor camps. Native families resisted the taking of their children. They taught their kids to play “the hiding game” whenever the people from the boarding schools came around. In one particularly haunting story, a group of Hopi men in Arizona surrendered themselves to be imprisoned in Alcatraz in exchange for saving their children from boarding school.  The native families had little choice but to send their kids, but many still found ways to resist. This is just one example of the Congregational church’s problematic history with race in this country. It might feel better for us to ignore these and other difficult pieces of our history, but until we do, we will never be able to take our place in the circle of blessing. 

Indian boarding schools were the result of the systemic racism that is built into the very foundations of this country. It’s my understanding that First Church and South Church are considering coming together to create something new. Both churches are going through a process of looking at what is and what was in order to imagine what might yet be. We are taking down the drywall, looking at the studs, scraping back layers of attitudes, assumptions, and traditions to get to essence, the firm foundation of what it means to be a church so that the new thing can be a safe, life-giving space where all can thrive. 

Now is a great opportunity to lay a new anti-racist foundation for our congregations’ future. When there’s poison in your house, you do whatever you can to fix it. Racism is a poison in America. Our congregations are not immune from its effects. Now is the time to acknowledge the harm, repent, and begin the work of repair. It will cost us our comfort. It will cost us time and effort and resources. With God’s help we can do this. Like Solomon of old with a listening heart and hands willing to do the difficult work of healing we will one day find our place in the circle of blessing.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-10-21 through 10-15-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-10-21

Abraham asked good questions. When God appears to Abraham in a dream, God says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15:1-2). The dream dialogue unfolds from there. God clarifies the exact nature of God’s plan in response to Abraham’s questions. 

Powerful questions are an important tool for dreaming together. What often begins as a vague feeling becomes detailed vision becomes a concrete action plan through the process of asking and responding to questions. 

Below is a list of questions I came up with regarding the transition process at First Church. I would love to hear your responses to these questions. You can write them in an email or call me on the phone or set up a Zoom. I’ll document the responses in survey form without sharing your identity–unless you want me to. I’m also interested in questions you would add to this list.

  1. What did you think the transition process would be like?
  2. How has it been different?
  3. What about the transition process gives you energy?
  4. What do you find draining?
  5. What is going well?
  6. What could go better?
  7. Where have you noticed God in this process?
  8. When have you felt God’s absence?
  9. What worries you going forward?
  10. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?
  11. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

I look forward to hearing your responses . . . and your questions.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-17-21

Last week I noted that Abraham asked good questions. Genesis 15 tells us a story of Abraham questioning God’s plan to give him the gift of a legacy. Abraham says (I’m paraphrasing), “I’ve left everything behind to follow you to the Promised Land, but how will I pass on this land to my descendants when Sarah and I have no children?” What’s the plan? Great question. Abraham could have left it there and just waited for a response. It turns out, however, that behind Abraham’s question lay a feeling of grief and an entire narrative scaffolding built up around it.

Abraham’s exact question, according to the Bible, was, “My Lord God, what would you give me, for I am going to die childless/accursed.” “Childless” and “accursed” were presumed to be one and the same thing in ancient Near Eastern cultures. If you could not produce an heir, something was wrong with you. Abraham was telling himself a story about who he was and who God was and what his situation meant. Storytelling is a profoundly human activity. And Genesis 15 shows us that the stories we tell ourselves are not always accurate.

Genesis tells us that Abraham was NOT cursed. God’s intention was to bless him with a legacy as vast as the starry sky. If we count not only those who trace their biological lineage to Abraham but also those who trace their spiritual lineage to Abraham, we see that God kept God’s promise. Countless billions over thousands of years have numbered themselves among the “children of Abraham.”

Last week I shared a list of questions about our transition process at First Church. Some responses have started to come in. I hope to receive more! Gathering data from open ended questions is called “qualitative research.” For me, the value of qualitative research is not to arrive at some fixed “truth” about the transition process. Rather, the purpose is to uncover the stories we are telling ourselves about the transition process. Then we can evaluate the stories. Are they accurate? Are they helpful? What are some other stories we might construct given the same data? 

So here they are again. And once again you can respond with email or we can talk by phone or Zoom or some other way. Your choice.

  1. What did you think the transition process would be like?
  2. How has it been different?
  3. What about the transition process gives you energy?
  4. What do you find draining?
  5. What is going well?
  6. What could go better?
  7. Where have you noticed God in this process?
  8. When have you felt God’s absence?
  9. What worries you going forward?
  10. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?
  11. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-1-21

A couple of weeks ago I shared a list of questions about our transition process at First Congregational Church of Granby. If you haven’t yet responded, I encourage you to take a few moments to share your thoughts. You can respond in an email, phone call, Zoom meeting, in-person . . . whatever form suits you. The questions are:

  1. What did you think the transition process would be like?
  2. How has it been different?
  3. What about the transition process gives you energy?
  4. What do you find draining?
  5. What is going well?
  6. What could go better?
  7. Where have you noticed God in this process?
  8. When have you felt God’s absence?
  9. What worries you going forward?
  10. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?
  11. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

So far I’ve gotten four responses. A surveyor always hopes for more responses; nevertheless, we move forward with the ones we have and publish new findings when we have new data. Today we’ll look at responses to just the first two questions:

First a general observation: Respondents identified “transition” with the South Congregational Church collaboration/consolidation process even though there have been other parts to the transition work, namely, vitality, changes in worship, care ministry, and so on. This is understandable since the bulk of our resources have been focused on the consolidation effort.

Question one gets at expectations: Of the four responses, half said the process has met expectations. Half said it has not. More specifically, half said they expected the process to be messy and confusing. Half expected it to be quicker and more straightforward given the preliminary work that had been done during the previous settled minister’s tenure at FCC.

Question two gets at divergence from expectation. Responses identified the following “surprises”:

  • COVID (one mention).
  • Differences between the churches in their self-perceptions of sustainability, namely, FCC perceiving itself as having an unsustainable trajectory and SCC having a perception of a sustainable trajectory (two mentions).
  • Differences in consolidation models each church brought to the table: “lead-church, joining church” model vs. “consolidation/restart model.” (two mentions).
  • Differences in church culture as it relates to clergy roles, namely, “minister-led” vs. “congregation-led” models (two mentions). 

I have some thoughts about the responses received so far. What do you make of them? More importantly, how would you respond to these questions and would you be willing to share your responses? More to come . . .

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-8-21

A couple more responses to our informal transition process survey have come in making the current total six. You can access the survey questions here. You can respond verbally or in writing. This week we’ll take a look at responses to questions 5-8:

5.  What is going well?

  • Working Groups/GUCCI (5 responses).
  • Unite events/meeting new people (3 responses).
  • Spiritual practice of open-mindedness and patience.

6.  What could go better? 

  • A perceived lack of engagement/enthusiasm notice both among FCC folks and SCC folks.
  • More meeting in person.
  • Perceived differences in understanding between the churches of the consolidation model: (lead church-joining church vs. merger/restart)
  • Lack of clarity about what decisions regarding consolidation need to be made now vs. after a vote to consolidate.

7.  Where have you noticed God in this process?

  • In depth, face-to-face conversations, joint activities/worship, hearing life stories (3 responses).
  • Not applicable since this is primarily a “secular/business” process (2 responses).
  • In knowing that “it’s the right thing” to serve the church’s mission.

8.  When have you felt God’s absence?

  • The perception that FCC is actively engaged in a transition process and SCC is not (2 responses).
  • Not applicable (1 response).
  • God is always present!
  • “‘Us and them’ talk.”
  • One person responded to this question by offering their own vision for a new, united Granby UCC with a new vision for a mission that is “beyond the Christian club mentality.”

Thanks to everyone for your responses thus far. Next week we’ll take a look at responses to 

9.  What worries you going forward?

10.  Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?

11.  Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-15-21

This week a summary of responses to the final three questions of our transition survey. See the full list of questions here.

9.  What worries you going forward?

  • Perceived lack of clear leadership from GUCCI around the decision-making process. (Image: “A camel is a horse designed by committee.)
  • Disengagement of FCCG folks from process and what that will mean for future decision making. (2 responses.)
  • Differences between congregations in understanding of transition and consolidation particularly as it relates to concrete changes in the “way we do things.”
  • Not worried.

10.  Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?

  • Playing a part in forming a new church that will: a) have a stronger mission, b) be more effective in serving community, c) be modern and forward looking, and d) ensure a continued UCC presence in Granby. (5 responses.)
  • That we persevered despite differences.
  • That we were MORE active during COVID while other churches were “shut down.”

11.  Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

  • Taken more time for congregations to build a common understanding around sustainability, transition, and consolidation models. (5 responses.)
  • Listen to a wider range of SCCG people more closely.
  • Taken more time to clarify decision making process before engaging Working Groups.
  • If the churches decided not to consolidate, that we did not feel a strong enough sense of urgency.

Thanks to everyone who participated. Some themes that I have noticed in the responses: 

1. That energy, optimism, and hope come from connecting with people to create something new. It occurred to me that this opportunity is always and has always been available to us regardless of transition or consolidation process. We always have the ability to connect. This vitality work. We now know how to do this. It’s simply a matter of deciding to step out of our bubble of isolation and reach new people.

2. That a perceived lack of clarity around process, direction, and goal tends to generate anxiety. The more we can work together to clarify What is it we actually want? What is it God is calling us to? And in the meantime create a space of active, expectant waiting. Imagine this time like Advent, perhaps. We’re busy preparing for the One to come. As Isaiah says, “Those who wait upon the LORD will renew their strength.”

What themes, lessons, pointers do you glean from these initial findings? 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-3-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-3-21

Scripture tells us that when the great Israelite king Solomon, son of David, was a boy, God appeared to him in a dream and offered him his heart’s desire. Rejecting power and wealth Solomon instead asked for wisdom. One of Solomon’s wise sayings is, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18, King James Version). The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “perish” literally means “let go, neglect, uncover.” The NRSV translates, “Where there is no prophecy, the people ‘cast off restraint.’”

Here’s how I put it together in my mind: Prophecy and vision refer to God’s dream for us as people. We find this dream in many forms in the Bible.

Isaiah 25:6-7, for example:

  “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 

7 And he will destroy on this mountain

the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

the sheet that is spread over all nations;

he will swallow up death forever.”

Or Luke 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Without this prophecy or vision of God’s dream for us as God’s people we lose our identity as a community set apart for God’s service. Without a sacred calling, what’s the point of being a church? Without a purpose, the people “perish.” Without a vision, the people “cast off restraint.” If God’s dream doesn’t hold us together, we are “uncovered, neglected, let go” to find our own way in the world without any guiding principle.

It was no surprise that God communicated to Solomon in a dream. In the Bible dreams are one of the primary ways God talks to people. That’s why our fall worship theme for First Church and South Church is “Dreaming Together.” Together we are opening our hearts and minds to God’s vision–God’s “dream,” if you will–for us as a united UCC presence in Granby. Without this vision, without this dream, without a divine word (another name for “prophecy”), we risk losing our way in a confusing world of competing claims on our lives. 

I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing from our working groups. It sounds like the coaching is going well and a vision is emerging. The opposite of “perish” is “flourish.” With patience God will bless us with a vision in which our uniting congregations flourish.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-27-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-27-21

The fall 2021 theme for worship at First Church and South Church is “Dreaming Together.” As a reminder, we will be sharing Union Services on the first and third Sundays of the month. The remaining Sundays we will be worshipping separately. In September and November the Union Services will be hosted by First Church. In October and December the Union Services will be hosted by South Church.

At our “What is Your Why?” workshops way back in 2019 and 2020, we watched a TED talk by Simon Sinek in which he refers to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Sinek argued that over 200,000 people showed up on the Washington Mall that day in 1967not for Dr. King but for themselves. They showed up because they had already dreamed a dream of racial justice in the U.S. Dr. King’s genius was his ability to articulate a dream that many already shared and to translate that dream into concrete reality.

The purpose of the “What is Your Why?” workshops we shared together with South Church was to invite both of our congregations into a similar “dreaming” process. African Americans have faced and continue to face indescribable suffering due to system racism. The dream of racial justice arose out of that suffering. First Church and South Church are facing our own communal suffering due to diminished human and financial resources to support our ministries. Staff have been cut, beloved events have fallen by the wayside, programs have been discontinued due to lack of participation, volunteers face burnout, members have left, conflict has arisen, fewer people are supporting a greater share of the annual budget, the long term health of our endowments is threatened. The list goes on. Just as a communal dream arose in response to racial injustice, so too, a dream for collaboration and consolidation has arisen in response to decline among the congregational churches in Granby. Godly dreams arise out of real world suffering. Making these dreams real can change the world.

Over the summer six working groups composed of First Church and South Church members have been working on clarifying a dream or dreams of a new, consolidated Granby UCC. Worship at both churches this fall will focus on what it means to dream God’s dream for our lives. The work of dreaming together isn’t for the working groups alone. The dream of a vital, sustainable UCC movement in Granby will become reality when each of us takes up the work of dreaming together. 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-13-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-13-21

As First Church and South Church face another autumn season with the coronavirus I’m reminded of a time someone jokingly said, “These are the good old days.” This is an important reminder both for us personally and for organizations in transition. As meditation teacher Ram Dass famously said, “Be here now.” Jesus said, “Keep awake!” (Mk. 13:35). Human beings have a tendency to cling to the past and fantasize about the future. Meanwhile, our lives are happening right here, right now. 

When the Israelites were journeying through the wilderness they longed to go back to Egypt even though it meant enslavement. They complained to Moses about his leadership. Moses, in turn, complained to God. Yet, generations later when the prophets found themselves facing the decadence aarnd corruption of an established Kingdom of Israel, they wrote with longing about the simpler times when the Israelites wandered through the desert and worshipped in a tent. “Oh, how close our ancestors were to God!” So, if we find ourselves in a bit of a wilderness time, remember, these are the good old days!

How can we “be here now” in the midst of the pressures and pulls of transition? In a recent article “It takes faith to resist the attention economy,” by Rev. Katherine Willis Pershey writes about the search for groundedness in the midst of a sabbatical in the midst of a pandemic. Her answer is to return to those practices that keep her attention on Jesus, worship being one of them, even when there might be more exciting alternatives to give her attention to. In fact, in this “attention economy” in which social media companies have developed sophisticated algorithms to capture our attention and sell it, devoting our lives to the simple practices of prayer, Scripture, song, and service are courageous acts of resistance to a culture that incentivizes exploitation for profit. Worship, devotion, prayer, and meditation in their many forms can return us to the present moment. Let’s enjoy the good old days while we’re living them!

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-28-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-28-21

“I’m afraid of losing our identity.” This was a response that came up in one of First Church’s transition workshops back in 2019. Transition coach Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg first led us in a workshop on thecongregational life cycle, then a second on the grief process. We located ourselves on the decline side of the congregational life cycle bell curve, past the point of sustainability. We talked about what that meant for our future and what some of our options might be, including the option that a group from First Church had been working on for some years at this point: consolidation with South Church.

Identity sounds like an abstract, philosophical debate, but, in fact, it’s at the core of some of the most intense conflicts within congregations and in broader society. Take America’s culture wars, for example. The culture wars are a series of conflicts over different aspects of America’s identity, including white nationalism, gender hierarchy, class loyalties, regional identities, “Christian values,” economic systems, and systems for choosing its leaders. Will America stop being America if white people are no longer the dominant race? Will America stop being America if the gap between rich and poor becomes so great that economic mobility is no longer possible? Will America stop being America if Christianity is no longer the dominant religion? As you can see, identity is a big, emotionally fraught issue. Emotions are intense because conflicts over identity are conflicts over power: who has voice and who gets resources.

Conflict over identity defines what it means to be a church in transition, according to sociologist Penny Edgell Becker in her book, Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life. Churches in transition are characterised by what Becker calls “between-frame conflict.” In between-frame conflict, two different visions of identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here” compete for power, that is, voice and resources.

This is contrasted to “within-frame” conflict, where everyone agrees on identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here.” The conflict is simply disagreement over approach or interpretation. We have memories of the “good-old days” of “bipartisanship” in the U.S. for example, because for a brief period in the 20th century we were sending leaders to Washington who more or less shared the same “frame.” By contrast, the Civil War was an extreme example of “between-frame” conflict. Between-frame conflicts in churches rarely get violent, but they can be intense.

Between-frame conflict is unavoidable in the consolidation process. We have two distinct congregations with two distinct identities. Does this mean we’re doomed to fight until one identity dominates the other? No. The other option is to expand the frame, or “ABC”: “a bigger container.” We can build a space where diverse voices can be heard and celebrated, where resources can be shared. I’ve witnessed this happen, for example, when a church I served shifted from a white-dominant model to a mutli-racial, multi-cultural model. Some white people were so afraid that we were becoming a “Black church.” Their fears turned out to be unfounded. A new, beautiful identity emerged: neither “Black,” nor “white,” but a celebration of the best in all of us: a slice of heaven on earth.

Worship Resource: 4th Sunday of Easter Year A

The Good Shepherd – John 10:1-16

Opening Prayer                                                                                                                                             

Good Shepherd, teach us to listen for your voice in rumbling traffic, clacking keyboards, complaints, laughter, birdsong, the ringing that remains when all other sounds go silent. Teach us to discern your call amid the myriad voices competing for our attention. Teach us to trust your leading. Amen.