(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
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.
Pastoral Prayer 1-10-21
It has been a week. Together we bear witness to historic events in the life of our nation. On Wednesday the first African American from Georgia was elected to the Senate, a pastor who serves the same congregation Martin Luther King, Jr. once did. Dr. King gave his life for a Biblical vision of beloved community. This week we saw evidence that Dr. King’s vision continues to bear the fruit of love and justice in our nation.
That same day, Wednesday Jan. 6, we witnessed an armed attack on our nation’s Capitol. Four people lost their lives. Our nation’s leaders were forced to shelter in place. On Jan. 6 a mob incited by our President was able to do what all the armies of the Confederacy failed to do 150 years ago. They paraded the Confederate battle flag–a symbol of slavery, racism, and hate–through the halls of congress. It was a chiling reminder that the evil of racism and white supremacy continues to eat away at the soul of our country. Like Dr. King’s dream our nation is resilient but fragile. We pray that you will send your spirit to heal our land.
Also on Wednesday we gathered in the evening to record the professions of faith of three Confirmands. We celebrate with joy their honesty, their curiosity, their love, and their commitment to the way of Jesus. We ask that you bless and protect them. We ask that you make all of us instruments of your peace in this time of unrest. We ask that as a congregation you give us the courage to find a way toward your future. Give us a heart for future generations so that they, too, can learn of Dr. King’s dream and find new ways to embody it.
In this time of conflict and mass delusion, we may at times feel helpless to heal the divides of our nation. Give us a baptism of your Spirit that we may all be one. Renew our commitment to the way of Jesus, who received a baptism of the Spirit in order to bring justice and peace among all people.
Bless by your Holy Spirit, gracious God, this water that by it we may be reminded of our baptism into Jesus Christ and that by the power of your Holy Spirit we may fulfill what we have promised.
[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. “Koan” comes from the ancient Chinese practice of law and simply means “case,” as in the record of a legal proceeding that points to the truth of the matter at hand. Koans are statements of proceedings usually in a monastery context, that point to truth. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. The koan translation from the original Chinese is by poet David Hinton. Rather than transliterate the character names (in the example below, “Quingrang”), Hinton uses a literal translation of the Chinese characters, so Quingrang becomes “Light-Inception Peak.” Confusing, but perhaps opening up more nuance of meaning. Following the koan is “Setsusho’s” response!]
A monk asked Master Light-Inception Peak: “The Buddha of Vast Insight and Surpassing Wisdom sat in meditation for ten kalpas on Buddha-Way Terrace, but the Buddha-dharma never took shape for him. How is it, in all that time, he never wholly became Buddha-Way’s turning seasons?”
“A question to the point exactly,” replied Light-Inception.
But the monk persisted: “After all that meditation on Buddha-Way Terrace, how is it he never wholly became the Buddha-Way?”
“Because he never became a Buddha.”
Deaf monk sits beneath a dead branch
Half moon hangs in the sky
In Kenosha, Jacob Blake
Lies in hospital, spine severed
Holy God, you call us to make disciples, but how can we invite others to follow when we ourselves have such a tendency to stray from your way of love? Tune our hearts to your call to return to the boundless embrace of your never changing love. Amen.
Invitation to the Table
Jesus said: “I am the bread of life; anyone who comes to me shall not hunger; anyone who believes in me shall never thirst.” Nevertheless, we hunger; nevertheless we thirst. We hunger for justice on behalf of Black lives lost and Black bodies broken under the crushing weight of systemic racism. We thirst for righteousness that is necessary for all to live in peace.
This table is open to all who hunger and thirst for God. Come to this sacred table not because you must but because you may. Come not because you are fulfilled but because in your emptiness you stand in need of God’s mercy and assurance. Come not to express an opinion, but to seek a presence and to pray for a Spirit.
Come to this table, sisters and brothers, as you are. Partake and share. It is spread for you and me that we might again know that God has come to us, shared our common lot, and invited us to step past the bonds of hatred and fear into God’s boundless embrace.
The Great Thanksgiving
Holy God, we praise and bless you for creation and the gift of life and for your abiding love which brings us close to you, the source of all blessing. We thank you for revealing your will for us in the giving of the law and in the preaching of the prophets.
The prophet Amos called on the ancient Israelites to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Centuries later your prophet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called on the people of America to do the same.
We thank you for the prophets of this moment who call us to once again examine our hearts, to shake free of our complacency, to open our ears to the cries of those suffocating in the grip of racial hatred. We thank you for calling us to be the healing hands and passionate heart of Jesus to our world.
With the faithful in every place and time, we praise with joy your holy name:
Holy, holy, holy God of love and majesty, the whole universe speaks of your glory, O God Most High. Amen.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-1-20
Sunday, May 31, 7am: “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd called out for his mother and pleaded with the Minneapolis police officer who had his knee on his neck. “I can’t breathe,” said Mr. Floyd, until he lost consciousness and later died. “I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd, an unarmed African American while a white police officer squeezed the life out of him and four other police officers looked on.
When I read the story and watched the video of George Floyd’s death this week I was immediately reminded of Eric Garner, another unarmed Black man who called out, “I can’t breathe,” while a white police officer held him in a choke hold on a Staten Island street corner several years ago.
The stories of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, the nine who were gunned down during a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church–Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson . . . (say their names) are stories of a system of racial violence that goes all the way back to the very founding of our nation; nevertheless, the cry “I can’t breathe” also reminds me of an interview I heard back in March with an Italian doctor responsible for a hospital in Milan overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. He described what it was like to watch his patients die in isolation, their breath cut off as their lungs filled up with fluid. And even though coronavirus doesn’t discriminate based on the color of one’s skin, here in the U.S., people of color are disproportionately dying of the disease because as a nation we refuse to directly confront and address what pastor and activist Jim Wallis calls “American’s original sin.” So even in the case of coronavirus, we cannot escape the specter of systemic racism.
Though my chest is tight with grief, anger, and fear on behalf of my family, friends, former parishioners, brothers and sisters in Christ, my neighbors, my neighborhood, my country, I can breathe. And as long as I can breathe I am going to speak out against racism in all its forms wherever I see it. And I see it all around.
Monday, June 1, 3:29pm: Much has transpired in the past 24 hours. While I can only imagine what it’s like for my friends, neighbors, biological family, and faith family of color to experience the repeated traumatization of systemic racism in America, I know that to bear witness to trauma is also to receive that trauma into one’s heart. Emotions in my household remain raw. Nevertheless, I had an encouraging conversation with a small group of Granby town leaders this morning. We are determined to channel the collective energy of our grief and fear into positive action. Our dream is to lead a sacred conversation on race in the town of Granby. I invite you to pray for us, to pray for yourselves and your neighbors, to pray for our town, our nation. I invite all of us to breathe for George Floyd. I invite us to breathe for Eric Garner. I invite us to breathe for all of our brothers and sisters of color who have swung from the lynching tree. I invite us to lament and repent the sin of systemic racism. And then breathe once again, for the healing of your heart, for the healing of our world.