Spiritual Goal–Sermon for 7/28/19

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 

Spiritual Goal

        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

     soon.”

          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.” 

Funeral Sermon Lt. Cl. Gerald Dickerson 12/3/1932 –6/30/2019

Lt. Cl. Gerald Dickerson 12/3/1932 — 6/30/2019

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister

First Congregational Church of Granby

Funeral for Gerald Dickerson

13 July 2019

Gerald A. Dickerson was born in Dickinson, ND December 3, 1932. He on June 30–just over a week ago–after an 8 year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Jerry grew up poor in rural Montana. He and his brother were raised by a single mom who worked tirelessly to provide for her boys. Life was hard. Opportunities were few. Corrine commented that it was a miracle Jerry and his brother Dale didn’t end up in jail. Work provided the structure Jerry needed to move forward in his life. He was hardworking, high energy, and had a love baseball. In fact, he was a top pitching prospect until pleurisy, which he developed while working at a dry cleaner, ended his baseball career. 

Jerry graduated Brooklyn High School, Brooklyn, OH, Class of 1940. After that he went to Baldwin Wallace College where he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps. After graduation from college, Jerry was commissioned as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He served in the USMC for over 20 years until his retirement in 1992. After his retirement, he worked with The Hartford Insurance Company and then Farmers and Trader’s Insurance Company in insurance sales and as a general manager. 

Jerry is remembered as a fun and intelligent man, if not always super handy around the house. For example, one time he purchased a new lawn mower. He brought it home, got it out of the car, set it up in the lawn, and yanked on the pull cord ‘til his arm was sore. Frustrated, he called the place where he purchased it. They sent a service guy out to see what was wrong with the brand new mower. The service guy looked it over. Nothing wrong. Then he turned to Jerry, “Did you put gas in it?” You know what happens next.

Jerry had a large, loving family. His wife, Corrine. Five children, 11 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, who will miss him very much.

Earlier in the service Brenna read to us from Ecclesiastes. It’s a relatively well known piece of Scripture as far as Scripture goes. My guess this is due primarily to Pete Seeger, who wrote the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” based on this text back in the 1950s, which the Byrds then covered and made it into a hit. 

What is it about this text that we love so much? It seems so matter of fact. No earth shattering truths here. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 

2 a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 

3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up; 

4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . .” and so on.

For me, what this text does is invite us to be present every moment to this very moment, to face whatever it is we’re facing, to feel whatever it is we’re feeling, to accept whatever gift the universe is offering us and embrace it as our life, our one precious life, to drink deeply, to live fully, to love completely, and then let go trusting that whatever season we find ourselves in–whether its a season of joy or grief of building up or breaking down, or planting or plucking up, of living or of dying, it is in this very season that we will find God.  

No Looking Back–Sermon for Open and Affirming Sunday 2019

2013 Pride Parade Beneficent Church, Providence, Rhode Island

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.