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?”
I had two experiences in the last two weeks that changed my perspective on the accessibility movement for people with disabilities: 1) I listened to a podcast on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act; 2) I had my regular visit to the audiologist.
I’m writing to this topic not only because of these experiences but also because I’m wondering if a part of our vision for the future of First Congregational Church of Granby might be reaching individuals with special needs and their families. I’ll explain, but first my recent experiences.
Did you know there was such a thing as “ugly laws?” I didn’t. That was one of the shocking things I learned listening to the history of the ADA.
In the United States a number of cities in the 19th century enacted laws that prohibited beggars, poor people, people with mental illness, and people with disabilities from public spaces. An 1881 Chicago law read as follows:
Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in the city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense (Chicago City Code 1881).
“An improper person” . . . What a telling line. I had always assumed that the need for making public spaces accessible arose from the ignorance of the able-bodied people designing the spaces. I didn’t realize that the lack of accessibility also arose from a feeling much deeper than that: disgust, embarrassment, that uncomfortable feeling that arises when one encounters someone with obvious physical differences that remind us of the fragility of our own bodies. I am aware of having those feelings myself, for example, when I encounter an amputee or someone with severe mental or physical challenges–particularly, if I haven’t met them before. There is a little moment of adjustment as my mind shifts to encountering this person whose ways of moving through the world are different from mine.
The disabilities movement isn’t only about access to public spaces. The disability movement is saying, “We want you to see us. We are human beings with intrinsic worth. We will not be ashamed of who we are.” This new (for me) perspective resonated with me. I can now see connections with other civil rights movements: racial justice, LGBTQIA+ movements, and women’s movements, for example.
It also helped me understand the conversations I’ve had again and again with my audiologists over the years. Every time I go in for a new pair of hearing aids (like I did two weeks ago) I get to choose a “color.” There are usually six or seven colors to choose from. Five or six of the colors are different shades of beige, brown, or black–to match skin tone or hair color. But there’s always one color that’s bright. I remember when years ago I chose electric blue. It created quite a bit of consternation for my audiologist and even my family. A few years later I chose emerald green. Once again my audiologist said, “Wouldn’t you rather match your hair?” My newest pair is “sporty red.” Now instead of asking, “Why did you choose that color?” my family asks, “What color did you get!” But my audiologist still somehow felt obligated to ask, “Don’t you want something less visible?”
Learning the history of the ADA and the “capitol crawl”demonstration of 1990 taught me that visibility is the point. I invite you to watch the video of Jennifer Keelan, who at 9-years-old got out of her wheelchair, crawled up the steps of the Capitol Building, and changed the world.
I also invite you to follow the links below for videos of an inspiring weekly worship service called “Parable” developed by Wayzata Community Church, a UCC in Minnesota.
The service is designed with differently abled people and their families in mind. The joy is infectious. I know it’s difficult to plan during COVID time, but I find this time is a great opportunity to dream. It might seem like a heavy lift for our little church to do something like “Parables,” but perhaps if we partnered with South Church and maybe even East Granby?
In his famous hymn to love the Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.”
To be seen and known is to be loved. When we see each other with all of our brokenness and beauty, a new world is possible.
Monday I participated in two really wonderful Zoom conversations. The first was our joint First Church South Church Bible Study. The second was a New York Times Wellness conversation with Rev. angel Kyodo williams. Both conversations were wide ranging. In both conversations the theme of freedom arose repeatedly.
This is not surprising. Saturday, July 4, Americans celebrate Independence Day, a day commemorating one of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, signed July 4, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence formalized a process of political separation between the English colonies of North America and the British Empire. The process was long and bloody. American colonists fought a War of Independence from 1775-1783 and then a “second war of independence” known as the War of 1812 (1812-1815). In between the colonists wrote a Constitution (1789) formalizing a new political entity they called “The United States of America.” The preamble of the Constitution begins with the famous words, “We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union . . .” From the beginning our experiment in freedom on this continent has attempted to hold unity and separation in tension.
But “we, the people” did not mean “all the people.” In 1789, “we, the people” meant white, land-owning men, who were the only people allowed to vote at that time. What on the surface seems like a statement of unity in fact covered over the deep severing from our own humanity that was required to make the genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of African people, and the second class status of women and impoverished people on this continent possible. This collective wound has been 400 years in the making. It will take some time to heal.
Given this history it’s not surprising that COVID-19 has brought the tension between separation and unity, independence and freedom to the fore. Stories of people refusing to wear masks, for example, because it infringes on their “freedom” though disheartening are based on an idea that freedom is fundamentally about “separation.” This is the freedom of “no one can tell me what to do.” I find this understanding of freedom incredibly narrow–childish, even. It makes me sad that freedom as separation and division has reached such a level in America that behaviors to protect each other from a deadly virus are framed as a partisan “culture war.” What have we become?
But freedom as separation or “independence” is not the only way to understand freedom. Christian freedom, as defined by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians, is freedom from the “flesh.” The “flesh” is Paul’s word for the human ego, selfish desires, human sinfulness, willful ignorance, and negative emotions such as fear, greed, anger, and hatred. Christian freedom means our lives no longer need be controlled by these powerful internal forces and we can instead freely give, freely receive, freely act out of our moral commitments all because of our relationship with Christ.
COVID has revealed that the fundamental nature of the universe is connection. COVID does distinguish Democrat and Republican, American and British, rich and poor, Black, white, or Indigenous. As long as we in America continue to demand our “personal freedom” regardless of the cost to our neighbors, our health as a nation will continue to deteriorate. Recognizing our interconnection, Rev. angel Kyodo williams suggested that this July 4 we celebrate “Interdependence Day.” I invite you to pray that we as a nation wake up to the reality that all are connected. I invite you to pray for the true freedom that is found in an open and loving heart that honors the inherent dignity of each and every one.
On Sunday, June 28, 1970 the first Pride Parade was held in New York City. Similar events were held in June of 1970 in Chicago and San Francisco. All were in response to the Stonewall uprising the previous year, which marks the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
For the first time in its 50 year history the NYC pride parade is cancelled due to coronavirus. Cancelled for the first time in 50 years, on its 50th anniversary.
A couple weeks ago I began an online training for leadership and organizational coaching during the COVID pandemic. As the group was naming the different dynamics around loss, grief, and trauma folks are experiencing during this time, the AIDS epidemic came up. For those of us who lived through the 1980s/1990s decades of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands upon thousands of mostly gay men were dying in places like New York City, San Francisco, and Miami, COVID brings up ghosts of that trauma. As many of you know, my dad was one of those gay men who died of AIDS, so this year’s Pride is just a strange, strange time for me, and I’m guessing for many of my LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters.
Folks are hosting virtual Pride events, but for me and my family the highlight of Pride has always been the parade. My kids tell me that Providence (RI) Pride was their favorite event of the year. People of all ages, colors, and creeds gathered downtown for a day of fun and joy and celebration. We marched as a church. We waved banners and wore silly hats and cheered for the crowd as the crowd cheered for us. The City of Providence was never happier or more together than on Pride weekend.
My Pride story is a family story. It’s a story of my family finding its family: a community of people committed to living without shame; people of all different identities committed to accepting and loving every inch of themselves and every part of every other. Nothing needs to be hidden. Everything can be talked about. Vulnerability, instead of a sign of weakness, is lifted up as a sign of strength. Pride is a time of honoring those who have gone before: martyrs and heroes and loved ones lost who had the courage to live their truth, and because they chose to do so, paved the way for those of us who would follow to more perfectly manifest what, for me, is nothing other than God’s boundless, unconditional love.
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.
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.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter
10 May 2020
Text: John 14:1-14
Plenty Good Room
When I was teenager my dad used to say to me, “You’re just like your mother.” Some of you may have read the piece I wrote this week about the complicated relationship between my parents. They didn’t get along well for a number of reasons. Dad only said, “You’re just like your mother” to me when he was upset with me, so I learned that being “just like my mother” was a bad thing. I watched my own behavior to see for myself if dad was right. Am I just like my mother? And if I am, what kind of man does that make me? My mom is a pastor. If I become one, does that make me “just like” her? How does that affect my relationship with dad? It was all very difficult and complicated, but it’s a situation all of us share to some degree or another. Each of us is the product of parents. The very cells of our bodies are built with the genes of others. This is true not only for parents and children, but for all of life on this planet, even, in fact, for the entire universe. Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has a term for this reality: “Interbeing.”
Interbeing is a term that could describe the truth at the heart of our Scripture text this morning. Jesus says to his followers, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” “The Father” is Jesus’ word for God. Jesus is telling us that just like you and I owe our very existence to our parents, Jesus owes his very existence to God. Just like we are formed from the very genes of our parents, Jesus is formed from the very spirit or “breath”–which in the Bible is the same word–of God. In the same way that I am “just like” my mother, Jesus is “just like” God. And, by the way, so are you. So am I.
A few verses later Jesus says, “You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” In other words, we are just like Jesus. In the same way Jesus is in God and God in Jesus, we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us. God, Jesus, you, me, the entire universe, we all–to once again use the words of Thich Nhat Hanh–”inter-are.”
This can all sound very abstract and impractical, but it actually isn’t. In fact, you don’t need religion–whether Buddhism, Christianity, or any other–to tell you that we are all inescapably interconnected. Science tells us this. Biology tells us this. Physics tells us this. Common sense tells us this. The coronavirus tells us. What we need religion for is to remind us what we already know–that my health and wellbeing is intimately connected to yours. What we need religion for is to hold us accountable for doing what is right, no matter how difficult that might be.
Dr. King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace prize. His statement about justice is a statement of interbeing. Racism isn’t just a problem for the South, racism is a problem right here in Granby. Homelessness isn’t just a problem for Hartford or Springfield. In fact, one of our church members who has been active in affordable housing for years said in a meeting this week that most of the homeless in Hartford don’t come from Hartford. They come from places like Granby, like Simsbury, like West Hartland. To look down on other communities–even if it is in pity–as if these issues are problems for “those people” is to completely miss the truth of interbeing. This is what makes interbeing so difficult. Relieving your suffering isn’t as much about changing you as it is about changing me. Ending homelessness isn’t so much about changing Hartford, it’s about changing Granby.
Because he was speaking in and to a patriarchal culture, Jesus said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” But he could just as easily have said, “I am in my Mother and my Mother is in me.” On this day when we honor mothers, we can honor them by remembering our connection to all of life. On this day when we take time to make expressions of love to our mothers we can consider whether it is truly possible to love our mothers without also loving our neighbors. On this day when we recognize the priceless gift of life our mothers have given us, we realize that life is not ours to keep but ours to share.