I had a nice meeting with the youth group Sunday evening. Rebecca, our Associate Pastor for Children and Youth Ministry, was away, so my daughter, Olivia, and I led the meeting. We met in Cook Hall instead of the normal basement meeting space. This was so we could set out cushions for meditation.
The focus of the FCC Youth Group–and one of the reasons for its success–is practical tools for everyday young adult living. Teenagers face pressures that the adults in their lives sometimes seem to have a difficult time understanding. So the FCC Youth Group is a safe space for listening, learning together, and offering support as a navigate the choices and challenges of growing up.
I began my meditation practice over twenty years ago. At that time I was newly married, newly a father, and starting my first “real” pastor job at a small, dying church in a rapidly changing town. The pressure was enormous. My old ways of solving problems was not working. Up until that point in my life, I had succeeded by memorizing the correct answers and spitting them back out on a test. But in my new situation being the smartest kid in class just wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to learn to see clearly, respond calmly, and connect emotionally with people. I didn’t start meditating thinking that it would help me do these things. I just knew I needed to change my approach and some intuition told me that meditation might help.
These days I engage regularly in formal meditation training with an authorized teacher and I teach others the simple practice of sitting still and minding the breath. FCC Youth and I spent an hour-and-a-half sitting in silence, sharing our experiences, and planning for the future. It feels great to know that we can turn to our breath and turn to each other when anxiety runs high.
The favorite Scripture for this week comes to us from Peg Giles. John 3:8 reads, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Greek word for “wind” also means “breath” and “spirit.” The text could also read, “The breath respires where it will . . . So it is with everyone who is born of the breath.” Could minding the breath and being “born of the spirit” or “born again” be connected? We imagine that “spiritual experience” is rare and dramatic–a blinding light or a voice from heaven–but what if it’s as close and common as this very breath.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon Series: Favorite Scripture
28 July 2019
Text: Rev. 22:16-20
What’s our purpose as Christians? As a church? That’s the question behind today’s favorite Scripture. It comes to us from Nancy Dow. When Nancy told me that her favorite Scripture is Revelation 22:16-20, she said, “I think it’s important that we focus on the end.” What I understood her to be saying is that we as Christians should not lose focus our purpose. What is our goal? What are we working toward? It reminds me of the sacred conversation Ann and I had last week in which she explained that when you’re plowing a field, you can’t look back. You need to keep your eyes on the horizon. Revelation 22:16-20 is very much focused on the horizon. This text contains the last words of the last chapter of the last book of the Bible. Last words carry special power. When someone dies, we often give their last words special significance. When I write a sermon I put a lot of focus on the end, the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last word, because that’s what people are most likely to remember.
In today’s Scripture the most repeated word is “come.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The word that rings through this passage is “come.” It’s not a “come if you’d like to” invitation. It’s a “get over here. We want you. We need you” invitation. At the center is the water of life. The image I see is a gathering at a well or maybe at the beach. There’s an old folk song that goes, “I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good old day and who shall wear the robe and crown, dear Lord, show me the way. O brothers let’s go down. Let’s go down. Come on down. O brothers let’s go down, down in the river to pray.” When we look to the horizon, what do we see? An invitation. “Come.”
The whole of our purpose is invitation. It’s helping people, help each other connect to God. Martin Luther famously said that Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And there are a lot of hungry people out there. Our own Rebecca Brown has proven that. She came here four years ago as a lay minister for children and youth. When she arrived there were eight people in the youth group. Now there are over forty. How did she do that? Invitation.
Some of you may think that means Rebecca did all the inviting. That’s not the case at all. She engaged step by step in a very methodical process. The first thing she did was tell the group that their job was to grow. This message was met with resistance. There were some in the group who did not want to grow. They didn’t want “outsiders” messing things up. This was their group made up of people they were comfortable with. What if they didn’t like the new people? Rebecca held her ground, and the people who didn’t want to grow left the group. Now she was down to four kids.
Rebecca took those four kids and poured everything she had into them. She went to every event, every game, every concert, every party. Every opportunity she had to embed herself in the lives of the youth of this town, she took. She didn’t sit in the church and wait for youth to come to her, she went to them. She met youth on their terms, in their space. She made herself the guest. Instead of setting herself up as someone with the answers, she made herself a student of youth culture. She invited them to teach her. She showed up for them. Then they started showing up for her.
According to Rebecca, it only took about a year of networking and showing up before word about the youth group at FCC Granby started to spread. In other words, the youth themselves became the inviters. There wasn’t any fancy advertising. There weren’t any splashy events. It was all word of mouth. The reason I mention this is that this is consistent with other stories I’ve heard about church growth. My office manager in Stamford was a member of Grace Church in New Canaan for many years. Today Grace Church has thousands of members in a multi-million dollar campus that was featured in the New York Times because of its award-winning architecture. She told me she remembered the church went it was a group of people meeting in the pastor’s back yard. I asked her what was the secret to their growth. She said, “It was all word of mouth.” In terms of our FCC youth group, the eight that then became four has increased 10-fold to a group of over 40 kids. What if our church membership increased 10-fold? We would have a whole new set of problems. Good problems. Let everyone who hears, say, “Come.” Let everyone who is thirsty come.
The other thing that’s significant about our youth group is that it focuses on the spiritual needs of youth. The numbers only tell part of the story. Rebecca calls it “breaking into the hearts of our kids.” She describes her program as “No fun. No games. No food.” It’s the real stuff: honest, spiritual conversations about things that have direct relevance to their lives as teenagers, conversations, friendships, experiences that they can get nowhere else. If they could have these conversations elsewhere, they probably would. Rebecca sees her task as creating a safe container where young people can let down their pretenses, open their hearts, and be vulnerable. In other words, youth group is about getting real. It’s about authenticity. And, yes, sometimes they have food, fun, and games. Granby youth have spiritual lives and spiritual needs that aren’t being met anywhere else. I wonder if this is also the case for Granby adults?
Every one of us is here because someone else brought us whether it was a parent, grandparent, neighbor, or friend. Maybe it wasn’t to this particular church. Maybe you were one of the increasingly rare types who will just show up at church because it’s something you already value. But how did you come to value it? Because at some point somehow somewhere down the line someone said, “Come.”
Jesus didn’t wait for us to come to him. Scripture says, “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.
The world is hurting. How can we be satisfied huddling together inside these enjoying each other’s company when there are so many longing for a heart connection? The goal of the spiritual life is the joy of extending oneself to welcome the other. How do you expect to grow if you won’t stretch? And stepping out beyond our familiar and comfortable walls into the world to engage people where they are is an endless opportunity to stretch. The Spirit says, “Come.” And if we indeed are the spiritual people we imagine ourselves to be, we say with every fiber of our being, “Come. We want you here. Let’s learn together how to heal this world.”
Leader: I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.
People: I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
Leader: Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
People: With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
Holy God, abiding faith is so difficult. We continually hedge our bets. With our mouths we say we trust in you, but in reality we continue to cling to tattered shreds of the familiar and comfortable. Teach us to let go. Teach us to seek first your Kingdom and its righteousnes. Teach us to exchange the tattered shreds of what once was for the unimaginable gift of what might be. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
This Sunday will feature the first in a “My Favorite Scripture” worship series. We’ve invited individuals in the congregation to identify their favorites Scripture texts and share what makes them their favorite. Then I design a worship service around that text.
This week’s favorite Scripture, Psalm 121, comes from Nancy Rodney. Nancy chose Psalm 121 in part because of a revelatory experience she had with the text. Nancy went to high school at Northfield-Mount Hermon School, an idependent boarding school in the Berkshires. At that time Scripture study was included as part of the curriculum at NMH. When she first encountered Psalm 121 at NMH, Nancy understood the famous first two verses of the Psalm as pointing in the same direction: God.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills–
From where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.”
The conventional reading, the one Nancy learned in high school, goes something like this: A person is wandering alone in the wilderness looking for help. Perhaps she is discouraged or downcast. She looks up and discovers that her help is found in God.
But later in life, Nancy learned another reading. She made a tour of the Holy Land led by a group of pastors. While on the tour she saw with her own eyes the Judean hill country: barren wildnerness hills not unlike the ones the Psalmist might have looked to for inspiration. She learned from one of the pastor-guides that in ancient days the indigneous people of this land would set up shrines to the various local deities on the tops of these hills. She learned that another, more historically informed reading of Psalm 121, might be an anitphonal one that points in two different and contrasting directions.
One voice says, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come?” This voice is pointing the reader to the hilltops where the local deities reside: the conventional gods of the day, the familiar places we turn to and the small comforts we cling to for security and help. Our 401k, the cup of coffee in the morning, the voices from our phones, TVs, and computer screens that reinforce our political and cultural biases, our job titles, our Instagram feeds, our social circles. The question: “From where will my help come?” The answer: Not here! There’s a note of despair: look at these hills surrounding me on all sides, more than I can count, stretching to the horizon, each one with its little god dancing on top, begging for my attention and loyalty and not one of them can help me! Not one can heal the depth of the wound in my soul.
The second voice (maybe another voice in the same person’s consciousness?) shifts the gaze from the hills and their small, ultimately powerless, idols and toward God, who is God not only of the high places, but of the low as well and every place in between. Question: “From where will my help come?” Answer: The Creator of heaven and earth who is not limited to this place or that, to this group or that one, to this political party, to that nation, to this religion, belief system, lifestyle, tribe, race or tradition. Either God is God of all or no God at all.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently gave an emotionally vulnerable TED talk about what he describes as a “time in the valley” following his divorce in 2013. During that time he went through many changes and developed some profound insights into what he calls “the lies our culture tells us about what matters.” These include: 1) Career success is fulfilling; 2) I can make myself happy or “the lie of self-sufficiency”; 3) the “lie of the meritocracy” or you’re worth more if you accomplish more. I imagine these lies and others as those idols dancing on the tops of those ancient Judean hills tormenting the Psalmist to the brink of despair. As an antidote to our culture’s lies, Brooks proposes devoting oneself to deep, authentic relationship. He calls folks who do this sacred work “weavers” and has founded an organization called “Weave” that supports this kind of holy community building.
In this time of tribalism and disaffection when people cast about for this silver bullet or that one, this savior or that numbing drug, when powerful corporations and noisy political leaders have unprecedented power to capture our attention and sell our identities, I wonder what would happen if we shifted our gaze from the “high places” to the every day places. I wonder what would happen if we devoted ourselves to our neighbors–the real flesh-and-blood people who live right next door or just down the street? I wonder what would happen if we took up the unglamourous work of looking closely, listening deeply, and making a genuine, human connection. My guess is that we would find the maker of heaven and earth right now, right here.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for Open and Affirming Sunday
30 June 2019
Text: Luke 9:51-62
No Looking Back
Many of you know my story. But for those who are new I’ll do a quick refresher. I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My family and all our relatives belonged to a conservative Christian denomination called the Christian Reformed Church. I went to Christian schools and graduated from a Christian college. On the surface we were a model family. Dad had a good job. Mom stayed at home and raised us kids. We went to church twice on Sunday. We lived in a nice, new house in a nice new subdivision. Mom and dad led Marriage Encounter weekends during which they coached other couples on how to make their marriages more loving, healthy, and intimate. Years later, after my dad came out as gay and my parents divorced, one of my high school friends who knew my family well put it this way: “The Oscar for best performance in a marriage goes to Bill and Jayne Yonkman.” Open and Affirming Sunday is many things to many people, but for me it’s this: Be out. Be proud. The only Oscars any of us should get are for the work we do in Hollywood, not the lives we live at home or in the church.
Open and Affirming originated with a 1985 resolution to the United Church of Christ General Synod that the denomination encourage all of its member churches to welcome LGBTQ people into all areas of congregational life including lay leadership and ordination. Since then 1400 UCCs have become Open and Affirming. Other denominations have followed the UCC lead in welcoming gay people including the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, some Baptist denominations, some Pentecostal denominations, the United Church of Canada, and other denominations in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Same sex marriage has been legalized throughout much of Europe, in some Latin American countries, and here in the U.S. Much has changed since my dad was growing up gay and shamed in 1950s rural Michigan. Open and Affirming Sunday celebrates the progress we’ve made as Christians and human beings on this planet to embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. It also recognizes how fragile this progress is and how far we have to go.
Open and Affirming is the UCC’s way of recognizing what the gay rights movement calls “pride.” The modern gay rights movement began at 1:20 am on June 28, 1969, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in NYC. This was a common occurrance at the time because New York, like most places in the U.S. at the time, had laws against almost any type of gay expression even in private. The affect, if not the point, of these laws was to shame LGBTQ people.
In order to be gay in 1969, you had to sneak. And what does sneaking do to the soul? What did the “Saint of Dry Creek” tell his son? “If you sneak, it means you think you’re doing the wrong thing, and if you run around your whole life thinking you’re doing the wrong thing, you’ll ruin your immortal soul.” In 1959 the Saint of Dry Creek told his son to be proud of himself and not to sneak. On June 28, 1969 the patrons of the Stonewall Inn resisted the police raid on their safe and sacred space, and out of that resistance, the modern gay rights movement was born. When an entire culture is set on shaming you, how do you resist? With pride. You resist shame by stopping sneaking and stepping into the light.
That was the power of the first “gay liberation march” organized a year after the Stonewall uprising in June of 1970. Several thousand LGBTQ people marched from the Stonewall Inn 51 blocks up 7th Avenue to Central Park in the middle of the day with signs and flags and chants–during the day. Even then, many felt like they had to wear masks in case their employers found out and they would be fired. In Central Park, they had a “gay-in.” It was basically a gay version of a “be-in, which was a hippie way to make a political statement by hanging out and be visible in this case as gay people. Every year since 1970 the NYC Pride parade and the LGBTQ rights movement has grown. Now Pride is worldwide. In many places around the world homosexuality remains a crime often punishable by death. Nevertheless, people once forced to live in the shadows are stepping out into the light risking their lives and livelihoods because they know that hiding, while it might preserve your privilege and in some cases be necessary to preserve your life, ultimately ruins the soul.
Open and Affirming in the UCC begins with the recognition of the negative effects that Christian teachings and behavior have had on LGBTQ people. We’ve been telling LGBTQ people to sneak when Jesus clearly invites all people to be true. You can’t do anything if you can’t be honest about who you are. To my LGBTQ brothers and sisters I want to say on behalf of the church that I’m sorry.
Unfortunately many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world continue to ruin souls by telling people–particularly LGBTQ people–that God wants you to sneak. So what do we say to those people?
In 2013 my wife and I had the opportunity to join Marriage Equality Rhode Island in bringing marriage equality to the state. As a part of that effort, I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The testimony lasted through the day, into the evening, and on into the early hours of the next morning. Many people spoke both for and against marriage equality. Amont those against it, I heard some of the many of the vile and hurtful slanders against gay people that I thought we as a society had left behind. But there they were, people shaming and dehumanizing other human beings in public in the name of Jesus. Needless to say, it was disturbing.
When my turn to speak came in the wee hours, I sat across from a state senator whom I knew personally, who was a Christian, and who himself said many of the hurtful things others had been saying. I shared my family’s story. I share my message to him with you as something you can say to Christians who do not share our Open and Affirming values. Here’s what I say: “I am a Christian. That means I follow Christ. Not Paul. Not Moses. I follow Jesus. And Jesus gave Christians one command: love everyone, period. You can’t both love someone and call them an abomination at the same time. If you are telling people that loving someone of the same sex is sinful, you are not loving them, you are shaming them, and in shaming them, you are not saving their soul, you are destroying it.” The result of that hearing and the work of many in the Marriage Equality Rhode Island coalition is that we won marriage equality for Rhode Island!
My family gave me the opportunity to experience the devastating effects of LGBTQ shaming up close and personal. I can say from my own experience that when you shame an LGBTQ person, when you demand that they sneak in order to survive, you commit spiritual malpractice not only against the individual but also against their families and everyone they love. The shame runs deep, and it takes a lifetime to heal. I’m still trying to heal from having a shame-filled dad who spent two-thirds of his life sneaking.
The good news is that healing is possible. And the irony is that I have found healing in the very Christianity whose institutions shamed my father and hurt my family. I had to leave the church of my childhood, but I’ve found welcome in the UCC, and for that I’m grateful. And a part of my ministry in the UCC is creating truly open and affirming spaces for LGBTQ people.
Jesus said, “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I am grateful Jesus has called me to this work of creating open and affirming congregations. I have put my hand to the plow. I am not looking back. I have left the small, comfortable world of my childhood where we pretended LGBTQ people didn’t exist. I’ve stepped into God’s wide world of love. And I hope you will, too. There is no place for shame in God’s house. That’s why it’s so important that we stand together as a faith family–gay, straight, and in-between–and take pride. Let’s raise the rainbow flag and step into the light with pride. There’s no looking back.
Growing up I attended Christian schools. Every morning we would stand by our desks, face the American flag hanging from a bracket on the wall, put our hands over our hearts, and recite the pledge of allegiance. I’m sure there were other morning rituals–taking of attendance, prayer, announcements over the intercom–but I remember most clearly reciting the pledge while facing the flag.
My education was intended to reflect a Christian worldview. English, math, social studies, science, phys ed–none of these subjects were beyond the purview of God, and, therefore, of the Christian faith. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we looked for hidden spiritual meanings in times tables or the condensation cycle. At times there were explicit Christian connections, for example, in learning about evolution as a “theory” incompatible with the Biblical teaching of creation, but most of the time the teaching was implicit: the logical beauty of math reflects the order of God’s good creation, the creation of art is humanity’s appropriate response to our Creator, history is the story of God’s hidden plan of redemption. What was the implicit Christian teaching behind our unquestioned ritual of honoring the American flag every morning?
Looking back as an adult, I would say the teaching around the flag was twofold: 1) that one can be both a patriotic citizen and a faithful Christian; and 2) a Christian’s highest loyalty is to Jesus and his teachings. Full stop. The practical result is an approach that honors every single one of my fellow American citizens as a child of God no matter our disgreements while at the same time critically assessing our nation’s history and current policies in the light of Jesus’ one commandment: love.
Many years of theological education at some of the finest learning institutions in the world have taught me to call this stance critical or “prophetic” engagement in public life. While I have left behind many of the beliefs of my childhood–denial of evolution, uncritical acceptance of whitewashed U.S. history, nearly complete obliviousness to subversive themes in art and literature–I carry with me the prophetic engagement that I was (perhaps accidentally) taught in my Christian upbrining.
Which brings me to the issue of the American flag and it’s place in church. Personally, I don’t need to have the American flag in church. It’s my view that we Christians show our faithfulness to our fellow Americans by being the kindest, most loving people we can be. No other expressions of patriotism are needed. Nevertheless, I take seriously the feelings some of my fellow Christians and fellow citizens have about the flag as a symbol of the sacrifice they and others have made in military service to our country. I also take seriously the feelings of those for whom the America flag is an irredeemable of symbol of colonialism and oppression. This seems to be how symbols in general function: they have the potential both to draw us together and tear us apart.
So at FCC Granby we have done a very church-like thing: strike a compromise. On Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day we will display the flag in the meetinghouse. The rest of the year it will be displayed in the narthex along with the Christian flag (which is another article for another time.)
Despite the attempts of some to weaponize the flag for culture wars, I continue to humbly respect the sacred sacrifce of those who have served while unflinchingly examining with clear eyes the full range of our past and present as a nation–from racism, slavery, and genocide to dignity, equality, and human rights. My faith tells me three things about America: 1) We are a a human creation and therefore temporary. We had a beginning in 1776, and we will have an end; 2) Like most human creations we are a mix of good and bad; 3) Like all things on this earth we are not beyond the healing power of God’s love.
This coming Sunday, June 30, First Congregational Church of Granby is celebrating Open and Affirming Sunday. Open and Affirming (ONA) is a designation created in 1985 following a resolution that was approved at the United Church of Christ (UCC) General Synod that year encouraging UCC congregations to welcome (or consider welcoming) gay, lesbian, and bisexual members. Following later General Synod resolutions affirming transgender members of the church, the welcome was extended so that, today, an ONA covenant typically welcomes members of any sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
The Open and Affirming program is administered by the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition, which supports congregations and other church settings as they consider the adoption of an ONA “covenant” and maintains the official registry of ONA congregations and ministries. The Coalition encourages UCC congregations, campus ministries, seminaries, regional bodies and other settings of the church to engage their members in serious study of sexual orientation and gender identity and to declare publicly their full welcome and inclusion of LGBTQ people. With more than 1,400 congregations, the UCC’s ONA program is the largest of several LGBT-welcoming church movements in U.S. and Canadian churches.
FCC Granby adopted an Open and Affirming statement in 2009. Here it is: “We affirm the dignity and worth of every person, regarless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, mental or phyiscal ability or sexual orientation. We offer sacraments and rites to all who enter our circle of faith. We celebrate the gifts that each person brings to First Congregational Church and invite them to share in all areas of its service, leadership, activities, responsibilities, and privileges.”
I’m new to FCC Granby. I was not around when our ONA statement was adopted. I was not part of the conversations, and I’m only beginning to understand what ONA means here. I find the people of FCC Granby warm and welcoming. There seems to be an easy rapport among people of different sexual orientations. This is all good. But I don’t think it’s safe to assume that everyone here understands ONA in the same way. And the statement leaves room for interpretation.
While it is good to affirm the worth of every person regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, and mental or physical ability, the ONA designation was specifically created to affirm and welcome LGBTQ+ people. When we broaden the statement it can create confusion. People interpret the statement to mean, “We just welcome everyone here.” So for example, when I recently had a Sunday morning off and volunteered to sing in the choir of my wife’s church, one of the choir members said to me, “It’s a good thing we have an ONA statement so that we can welcome you into the choir.” My response: “What do you mean?” The man’s face reddened. “You know, as married to the pastor.” “Oh,” I said. Another choir member jumps in for the save: “It’s just his weird sense of humor.” It was an interesting interaction. Is “pastor’s spouse” a marginalized category that needs special inclusion? Was he was using ONA in the “we welcome everyone” sense? Is the fact that I’m both a man and the pastor’s spouse a violation of this person’s gender role expectations? In the end, who cares. But this encounter, and many others that I’ve had with church people over the years indicates to me that people can be confused and uncomfortable with the ONA designation. Folks are frightened of being labeled “the gay church,” so they water the welcome down. I don’t want to water it down. I was to focus it up.
For me, the need to clearly and specifically extend welcome to LGBTQ+ people arises from the fact that churches as institutions as well as individual Christians have excluded, tortured, killed, made laws against, and have attempted to erase from existence LGBTQ+ people for thousands of years now. That’s a lot of hate to overcome. And the only way to overcome it is to apologize profusely, make amends, face our own homophobia, actively communicate to LGBTQ+ people that we want you here, recognize that every one of us lands somewhere on a spectrum of gay, straight, or in between, and celebrate Pride! Shame has no place in God’s house. God loves every part of you and every part of me. Let’s not hide who we are. Let’s be brave! Let’s be bold! Let’s be fabulous!