God of unconditional love, you tell us that heaven is a banquet where everyone has a place at the table. We look forward to that banquet in the world to come. But what if we could taste it right here, right now? What if we lived that reality today? What if we experienced that unbounded joy? It seems impossible, but you tell us that with you, all things are possible. We confess we live too much in our worries and fears. We worry that if more people join us at the table, there may not be room for us. We’re afraid that someone might take our place. Teach us a deeper truth. Teach us the reality that your love is limitless and that as we share it we will see that there is room at the table for everyone. Give us the tools to love people in the ways they need not the ways we would prefer because we know that love is the highest worship. Amen.
*Prayer of Dedication
We dedicate our offerings to the work of making room at the table so that more and more our earthly reality might reflect the heavenly one. Amen.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-9-19
Yesterday eight folks from First Congregational Church of Granby grabbed some sandwiches after worship, put on our winter boots, and stepped out into a cold, bright, sunshiny afternoon to sing Christmas carols in our neighborhood. It was fun!
Neighborhood caroling is a new activity we developed out of our Vitality Team. Team members are Ann Wilhelm, Heather Dobbert, Beth Lindsay, and Anne delCampo. Other supporters are Chris and Vicki Saunders, Aurelle Locke, and Kerri Crough. Our singers yesterday were Ann Wilhelm, Bob and Peg Giles, Chris and Vicki Saunders, Catherine Kibby, and Duncan Rowles.
Just to review: the Vitality Team is a part of the Reaching New People plan that a group of us from FCC developed at the Reaching New People workshop with Rev. Paul Nickerson last September. Since that time, the folks who participated in that workshop have been meeting via conference call every other month to implement the plan we developed. The role of the Vitality Team is to continue implementing the plan and to create a culture of invitation in the congregation. Neighborhood caroling was a joyful event that got us out of our building and got us inviting our neighbors to church for holiday worship and activities.
We visited 20 houses because that’s how many goody bags we had. Aurelle and Vicki very lovingly prepared them. I was the doorbell ringer. Then we gathered together, sang a few carols, and handed whoever answered the door a goody bag filled with cookies and our advent brochure. Some people did not answer the door, so we sang carols and simply left the goody bag inside the storm door or hanging on the doorknob. Those of us who took this adventure have lots of stories to tell. I hope you will ask the singers how it went.
At one house we went to, the homeowner stood in his doorway. He had tears in his eyes. We sang, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” I handed him a goody bag. As we were leaving, the homeowner said, “I’ve never experienced anything like this. Thank you so much.” I felt the joy in those tears. Many years ago, Christian author C. S. Lewis, wrote a book called Surprised by Joy. Joy is the surprise of connection. Joy is the theme of the 3rd Sunday of Advent. Joy may be closer than you think. It might be waiting for you next door in a compassionate connection with a neighbor.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-6-19
I’m sitting in the Burbank Hollywood Airport waiting for my flight to Hartford. The screen on the wall chatters with a morning show. Around me people take, then vacate the seats at the gate as their flights board. My flight to Hartford isn’t for a couple of hours, so I have an opportunity to let you know what’s up!
I’m returning after spending a couple of days in Los Angeles. My trip had a dual purpose. The primary purpose was to serve as the UCC delegate to the National Council of Churches Buddhist-Christian dialogue, which took place on Tuesday at Hsi Lai Temple, a Chan Buddhist temple, in Hacienda Heights. The secondary (although a very close second) was to visist my daughter, Olivia, who is a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The dialogue was interesting. This is our second time meeting. This is how it goes. About twenty of us, Buddhists and Christians of different flavors, sit at a large oval table in a conference room and listen while members of the group make presentations on different topics that the group has previously identified. I was asked to speak to the topic of “Renunciation and Repentance.” Others topics for this dialogue included Buddhist and Christian perspectives on social justice and Buddhist and Christian perspectives on “ultimate reality.” I could tell that the group was going deeper compared to last dialogue because this time “difference” was allowed to arise in the group.
What do I mean by “difference was allowed to arise?” At one point we were talking about Buddhist reincarnation as it relates to Christian salvation. One of the Christians tried to make a connection between the two concepts. The Buddhist presenter shook his head and said, “No, they are not the same.” The conversation then shifted to a discussion of language and its limitations when faced with ultimate reality, which, by definition, is unspeakable.
The purpose of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue is to build connections across religious differences. The first impulse in building connections is to look for commonalities. We naturally do this when we meet someone new. “Where are you from?” one might ask. “Sacramento,” she says. “Oh, my cousin lives near there,” you say. And on it goes. We relax. There’s a good feeling. We’re not so different after all. And we aren’t. A foundational claim for both Buddhists and Christians is that all of life is connected. But if we stay in this easy place of “we’re all the same,” are we really getting at the truth?
Recognizing difference is vital to genuine connection. Integrity has boundaries. It is able to say both “yes” and “no.” Difference gives energy, variety, and beauty to life because difference is also truth. The English Romantic poet John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Difference can feel sharp. It can feel scary. “What’s happening? Will we lose our connection? Will we argue? Will we fight?” Healthy dialogue allows both commonalities and differences to arise without getting caught in any of them. Instead, we calmly apprise and appreciate them. Commonality and difference. Connection and disconnection. This is the path to truth and beauty. This is the way of the unspeakable.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-30-19
This coming Sunday, November 3, First Congregational Church of Granby welcomes guest speaker Clive Rainey to our 10am worship service. Clive is Habitat for Humanity’s “first volunteer. Clive joined founders Millard and Linda Fuller soon after they founded Habitat in 1976. You can read more of Habitat’s story here. Clive has served in many different capacities and played a key role in the development of the organization. In his 40 + years with Habitat, Clive has lead thousands of builds all over the world.
When asked “What is the first feeling you have when you put a hammer in your hands?’ Clive responds, “A feeling of power! This hammer is more powerful than guns or bombs or terrorism or dictators; more powerful than poverty or hatred. With this hammer I can change the world! I can begin that change with this house, this family, this neighborhood, this community, this country.” I think Clive would agree that the power he is speaking of does not reside in the hammer itself but in what the hammer represents. In the context of Habitat, the hammer represents a particular approach to changing the world called “partnership housing.”
It’s Habitat’s model of partnership that has made it truly transformative–the kind of organization that high capacity leaders like former president Jimmy Carter would give their lives to. My understanding of the model is that it’s less about charity and more about solidarity. When one is building a house in partnership with a family, a neighborhood, and a community, a context is created in which authentic relationships across race, class, and cultures can emerge. Charity keeps social hierarchies in place. There is the helper and the helped. No matter how the situation of the helped might be changed, the helper maintains her status as “not the helped.” In partnership characterized by solidarity, it’s clear that we’re all in this together. My fate is inextricably linked to yours. In the case of Habitat, clients are literally co-builders with volunteers. This social leveling creates an opportunity–even if for a moment–wherein helper and helped have the opportunity to meet together as equals in an authentic relationship of mutual love and respect. The helped is no longer an “object of charity,” but a full human being, no longer “other,” but, in some sense, me.
I have found that solidarity can scare the pants off most white, middle class, mainstream Americans. We don’t want to consider the possibility that given different circumstances, we might need housing assistance. We don’t want to consider the possibility that our relative privilege has little to do with our own personal worthiness and much more to do with chance and the fact that we live in an exploitive system that tends to benefit the few at the expense of the many. We don’t want to give up our sense of status and superiority. We don’t want to stand in the place of those who have experienced misfortune, discrimination, or exploitation. My guess is that that’s why there is a lot of charity in the world. Much rarer is true partnership. Habitat has developed an authentic, partnership model.
For me, solidarity, not charity, offers an opportunity for a more authentic walk with Jesus, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself” (Philippians 2:7-8). It turns out that the model of authentic partnership is also a model for authentic Christianity.
For critiques of the charity model read Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas and Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It by Robert D. Lupton. I hope you will join us this Sunday to meet Clive and learn the meaning of authentic partnership.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-22-19
Following worship this past Sunday we had the second installment of our monthly “Working Lunch” program at First Congregational Church of Granby. This month we focused on a report of our Meet the Minister meetings. 47 church members participated in five Meet the Minister meetings over a period of several weeks. An intentional effort was made to invite the participating of both more active and less active members. Each meeting addressed four questions:
- What brought you to FCC Granby?
- What keeps you at FCC Granby?
- What would you like FCC Granby to be in 3-5 years?
- What steps might we take to get from here to there?
Responses were recorded and then tabulated through a method of qualitative analysis. You can read a full report of the results here.
Top line summary:
- What brought you to FCC Granby? Sunday school for our kids (17 mentions).
- What keeps you at FCC Granby? Frienships/”people” (13 mentions).
- What would you like FCC Granby to be in 3-5 years? Merge South Church and First Church/a new combined church with new pastors, new mission, new space more that fits new mission (11 mentions).
- What steps might we take to get from here to there? Get out in community/Invite people (9 mentions).
The response to the first question is easy to understand in light of what FCC Granby and the wider culture used to be. Most participants joined the church when they were young parents. It was generally thought in the wider culture that some sort of exposure to religion was a good thing for children. So they looked for a vibrant Sunday school program and found one at FCC Granby. Now those kids are adults and are either moved away or no longer find church relevant. Newer generations have little or no exposure to church. The wider culture no longer values religion the way it used to. Today we can no longer count on young families with children to find us. We need to put in the hard work of connecting with them.
The response to question two is important. Declining churches are often faced with hard choices due to limited resources. This raises a foundational question: What is the “church?” If a church decides that what it really is is the building, its options for creating a sustainable future are severely limited. Too often, the church ends up closing and selling its beautifully maintianed building to someone else. If the church, however, is the people, for whom the building is a resource for ministry, the church has many more options for creating a future for itself.
The response to question three inspires me. It says that many in the core, active membership of the church see the need to do something big to fundamentally change the decline trajectory of the church. Merger is the most obvious option, but what shape that might take remains unclear.
Response to question four may seem at odds with the response to question three, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t see a merger possibility as “throwing in the towel,” so to speak. I’ll say it again, if the vision of merger is tying one “Titanic” to another “Titanic,” we’re wasting our time. If, however, it is combining resources to create a new mission of reaching new people and having a greater impact on Granby and beyond, then it’s worth it. The time to begin building that new mission is now.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-3-19
At First Congregational Church of Granby we’ve been having some wonderful conversations over the past several weeks. We’ve had four “Meet the Minister” meetings with about 40 total attendance with one more to go. This covers close to our active membership. Great participation! In those meetings we have addressed four questions: 1) What brought you to FCC? 2) What keeps you at FCC? 3) What is your vision for the next 3-5 years? 4) What next steps might we take to get there? There have been a wide range of responses, honest and heartfelt, and most have left the meetings feeling a mixture of grief over what was and hope for what might be. I will be compiling the responses and making a presentation at our next “Working Lunch” Sunday, October 20, in Cook Hall following worship. I’m looking forward to deepening the conversation in this time of transition.
Speaking of “Working Lunch” . . . We had our first Working Lunch this past Sunday, September 29 in Cook Hall. Ann Wilhelm and crew prepared a delicious lunch. Thank you so much! After lunch a group of about 25 church members created a timeline of significant events in the life of the church, in the town of Granby, in the United States, and in our world. We also included our own personal significant events such as baptisms, funerals, weddings, confirmation, and other life moments. It was helpful to take a 30,000 foot view of the movement of events and their interconnection.
Following the creation of the timeline, we made observations, including highlights, lowlights, patterns, things we would like to see continue into the future, and things we might not want to repeat. There were many insightful comments but one that struck me came from Emily Messenger. After reflecting on how people at FCC and other congregational churches tend to get upset and leave, she commented that we should be “learning to make conflict as a way of growing rather than splitting apart.” I thought that was incredibly insightful.
Conflict is normal. God created each of us different with differing perspectives, opinions, and life experiences. If we were all the same, life would be boring. Sometimes churches tell me they have no conflict. To me, this indicates one of three possibilities: 1) They are lying; 2) They aren’t doing anything of any significance; 3) They’re dead. It is also true that conflict handled in an unhealthy manner is the number one reason for decline in congregations. The good news is that we can learn healthy communication practices that will indeed enable us to use conflict as a way of growing rather than splitting apart. The Church Council is recommending we hire consultant and coach Rev. Claire Bamberg to help us with that work. You will have the chance to meet her Sunday, November 17, when she will be preaching and leading worship.
The point of the timeline exercise is to create common memory. Georges Erasmus, a respected Aboriginal leader from Canada, said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.” Our history is full of ups and downs, but the good news is we can learn from it. And with new learning comes new opportunity for new life.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-30-19
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.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-20-19
This Sunday FCC Granby is joining with South Congregational Church of Granby to celebrate a “Union Service.” As I understand it these special worship services have been taking place for several years. Usually about twice a year the two congregations have gathered on Sunday morning for a joint worship service—sometimes in the First Church building, sometimes in the South Church building.
These services are part of a larger conversation about closer collaboration between the two congregations—some have even talked about the possibility of merger. Part of my role as Transitional Senior Minister is to help FCC Granby weigh closer collaboration with South Church as a possible path to long term sustainability for the ministry of the United Church of Christ in Granby.
I am still learning the details of the conversations so far. I am still learning the strengths and weaknesses of FCC, the dreams and visions of South Church, the needs and potentials of the Town of Granby. Every transition is unique. The path to sustainability, if that is indeed FCC’s desire, is going to have to be designed and walked by the members of FCC ourselves. No one else can do it for you.
The point of the union services, as I see it, is to worship together. The point of worshipping together is to see how it feels. What is the energy? How does it feel to have more people in worship? Does the blend of these congregational microcultures make sense? Most of all, could we be more together than apart?
While the answer to that question might seem obvious to some, in reality it isn’t. Most of the time when churches merge, they don’t grow. In fact, they soon shrink back down to whatever size one or the other previously was. That’s because the merger is not undertaken with a vision for a brand new identity and purpose of the new combined community. If you don’t fix the holes in the life rafts, it doesn’t matter if you have one or two. Everyone’s going down. In fact, while we’re desparately trying to keep from sinking, it may be that we’re missing the cruise ship that was sent to save us.
So the focus can’t be whose building or whose pastor or whose endowment. That’s just a fight over leaky lifeboats at this point. The question has to be Do we have a shared vision to reach new people in the ways that they want to be reached? If the question is one of maintianing an insitution, we’re doomed. If, however, we truly love our neighbors and are willing to do whatever it takes to help them connect to God, the answers to these other questions around our conversations with South Church will soon become crystal clear.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for Pentecost
9 June 2019
Text: Acts 2:1-21
The Advent of this Noise
Scripture says, “And on the Advent of this noise the multitude gathered and were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” I chose this translation of the text because the phrase “Advent of this noise” made me smile. The word advent means the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. I associate the word advent with the Christian season of Advent during which we prepare for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. Putting the word “advent,” which for me has a positive connotation with the word “noise,” which has a more negative connotation, is a humorous and provocative turn of phrase. The miracle of Pentecost is a celebration of noise, a blessing of cacophony with salvific power on the same level as the birth of Christ. Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church. The Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples and a new spiritual movement is born. Jesus is born in a stable. The church is born in noise.
But what kind of noise is this? First there was “a noise like a turbulent wind borne out of the sky” that “filled the house where they were sitting.” What does this noise make you think of? A storm? A hurricane? Some powerful natural force. In the Old Testament God often appears in storms and clouds. Psa. 29:9 says, “The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
On Mount Sinai God appears to a ragtag group of former slaves in clouds and thunder and fire. Out of that theophany God creates a new spiritual community called the people of Israel. God promises to be their God and they promise to do what God wants them to do. We are spiritual inheritors of those promises made in the midst of thunder and wind and deafening noise. And don’t forget the fire. The tongues of fire that rest on each of the disciples are reminders of the fire on Mount Sinai. In the new Christian community each of us is a mini Mount Sinai. Each of us is meant to be a place where others can encounter God. This is where the other noise comes in.
Scripture says, “And they were all filled with a Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them to utter.” It was at the sound of this noise–the noise of hundreds of people speaking dozens of different languages–that caused confusion among the Jewish people gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. (Yes, Pentecost is another holiday we have inherited from Judaism.) But why were they confused? You might assume that it was difficult to understand what the disciples were saying because of the jumble of languages all happening at the same time. Some churches do dramatic readings of Acts 2 by having folks read the text in different languages at the same time. That experience is indeed one of cacophony. But Scripture doesn’t say that the confusion of the multitude is the result of cacophony. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. The multitude is confused “because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” The multitude was confused because they actually understood what was going on. Why would that be confusing?
Here’s where the church so often gets Pentecost so wrong. The miracle of Pentecost is NOT that the world learned the language and adopted the culture of the church. It’s that the church learned the languages and adopted the cultures of the world. It’s not that the Holy Spirit suddenly changed non-church-goers and brought them into the church. The Holy Spirit changed church people and sent them out into the world.
This is where you have to understand the context of the situation. Scripture says that the multitude gathered in the house at Pentecost were Jews from all over the Roman Empire: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs,” to be precise. And when there is a public gathering in the context of empire you speak the language of empire. For the folks gathered at that first Pentecost it would have been Greek, because Greek empire preceded the Roman one, or Latin, because that was the language of Rome.
One of the expectations of empire is that you learn the language of empire and you conform to the language of empire. But that’s not how the gospel comes to people. Jesus is trying to teach us something so important here: the good news always comes to people in their mother tongue. In our churches we’ve got that completely backwards. We expect everyone else to learn our language. We expect them to learn our hymns and sing our songs and stand up when we say and bow their heads the way we do. We expect them to know who Cousin Becky is and that she has colon cancer and that they should sign up for TGIF even though they’re brand new and don’t know a soul. We expect them to entrust their children to our childcare even though it’s in the basement and they don’t know where that is. We expect them to appreciate choral music even though when they get in the car there’s hip hop on the radio. We expect them to come to this building to encounter God even though they live much of their lives online. But that’s the opposite of Christianity. That’s not the language of freedom. Those are the expectations of oppressors and empire builders. It’s not for others to learn our language and culture but for us to learn theirs.
We want to discern our future so what do we do? We survey ourselves because Christianity is all about what I want right? I suspect that people aren’t as interested in us as they might be because we say we are about justice but then we speak the language of empire. Empire is primarily concerned about itself. Jesus is primarily concerned about others. If we truly want a future, the next survey needs to be in person, and it needs to be of the town of Granby and what our neighbors want. When we do that, they might start to believe that we are Christians.
Everything communicates. Everything is a language: from our building to our bulletins to our staffing to our worship to our food to our programs. Everything tells the public what our mission is and who we value. And often there is a gap between what we think we are communicating and what we actually are communicating. For example we may think we are communicating inclusion, but are we? What could we let go of to make space for those who don’t feel like they have a place here? For me, personally, this is the most exhilarating part of being a Christian. I love the vast diversity of people and cultures and I want to connect with all of them. Remember the little Holy Spirit-Mount Sinai fires above people’s heads at Pentecost? Jesus doesn’t expect people to encounter God in church. He expects them to encounter God in you. Then, and only then, might they consider attending your church. There’s a theological word for this: incarnation. Jesus gave up everything to become God incarnate for us. We in turn are called to give up what’s most precious to us: the way we do our worship? The coziness with which we can assume people will recognize our faces and know our personal stories? The worship the town of Granby needs may sound like noise to you. But the advent of that noise might just be this town’s salvation, and ours. This is the true incarnation.
It is my experience that the more deeply and sincerely I follow Jesus, the more effectively and respectfully I’m able to connect with people across cultures, generations, languages, and worldviews. Humbly following Jesus is a pathway to connection to God’s great universe and connection is the pathway to healing and wholeness for me personally and for our planet. It could be for us as a church as well. It could be for you.