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.
Heavenly Father, you overflow with life this and every moment. Yet we train our minds to scarcity. Thank you for the practice of giving which disrupts greed and allows your abundance to shine forth. Amen!
The origins of Father’s Day are complicated. As our fathers tend to be. If you thought Father’s Day was a response to Mother’s Day, you’d be right. Though it doesn’t seem like a simple reassertion of patriarchy. In fact, a significant number of men resisted it for years. They had seen how Mother’s Day, originally conceived as an opportunity for women’s empowerment in response to the horrors of the Civil War, became commercialized and sentimentalized, and they didn’t want any part of it. Because of this resistance, Father’s Day didn’t become an official national holiday until 1972.
62 years earlier, in 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd organized one of the first Father’s Days in honor of her father, a Civil War veteran and widower who had raised his children as a single dad. William Jackson Smart took on parenting roles that were not conventional for men at the time. One of the origins of Father’s Day was a celebration of men who were willing to step out of conventional gender roles to care for their families.
At about the same time, a Father’s Day celebration was organized in West Virginia to honor the 362 men who had died in a coal mining explosion the previous year. This origin of Father’s Day reminds us of others experiences of fatherhood: grief over the fathers who are absent for whatever reason, and the expendability of men’s bodies, particularly the bodies of poor and workingclass men.
My dad was a gay man. He grew up on a small dairy farm in northern Michigan. Though the family wasn’t poor, they didn’t have much. He was the first in his family to receive a college education. He married a woman because that’s what his conservative Christian upbringing told him to do. He raised four children and was grandfather to 11 grandchildren by the time he died of AIDS in 2012. He was a successful businessman with a genius level IQ. He was also an adulterous alcoholic bully with a criminal record who repeatedly put his family in danger. He did provide for us children. He did choose recovery eventually. He did come out and live the most honest version of his life that he could. He did love us with his version of love. Perhaps every human love leave wounds. As I said at the outset, fathers can be complicated.
I am father to two amazing young women. It is the greatest blessing of my life. And if I’m honest, day to day I have no idea what I’m doing. I realize that might make me sound incompetent or irresponsible to some. I do indeed make it my business to learn what I can about best parenting practices. My wife and I spend significant time, energy, and financial resources making the best decisions we can for our children. But I am acutely aware that the models of fatherhood that I have inherited, for better or for worse, too often seem inadequate for the times. Especially as they grow older, my children simply know a lot of things about the world that I don’t. Their experiences are different from mine. Their contexts are different. And in significant ways their futures will be different, once again, for better or for worse, than mine.
What do I fall back on? The things I do know: that deepest love is bare attention, unconditional availability, unwavering presence. Wherever life takes my children, my heart is with them, and I am ready to leap to their aid, if aid is what’s called for. My deepest practice is the practice of letting go. When first Fiona–21 years ago–and then Olivia–17 years ago– were born it was as if my soul or some piece of it separated from me and became enfleshed in another, fragile being over whom I knew my protection would always in some sense be limited and who one day likely would leave my protective care entirely. How can I entrust my precious one’s to this dangerous and difficult world where they will continue to meet both unimagined joy and devastating disappointment?
These days fatherhood for me is calmly sitting in the passenger seat while Olivia learns to drive. Dropping Fiona off at the airport for her summer job in Chicago. Preparing for Olivia’s move to Los Angeles where she will begin her college education. And savoring every moment they are home.
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.
I just finished a day of professional training. I’m in the process of becoming a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coaching Federation. No, I’m not being trained as an athletic coach, although the model is roughly similar. Rather, I’m being trained as leadership coach thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment. The Lilly Endowment Inc., headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, is one of the world’s largest private philanthropic foundations and among the largest endowments in the United States. It supports the causes of religion, education and community development. Lilly is paying for my training. In return I and an ecumenical cohort of about 16 other clergy will provide leadership coaching in our congregations and to our fellow clergy. I’m grateful to the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island Conferences of the United Church of Christ for securing and administering this grant.
Leadership coaching helps individuals and groups increase their effectiveness in living out their most deeply held values through listening deeply, asking powerful questions, identifying limiting beliefs, brainstorming possibilities, developing action steps, and building structures of accountability. As a coach in training, I’m here to help you dream big and identify the resources you need to build a bridge to your desired future.
What does any of this have to do with being a pastor? Everything. The stereotypical image of the pastor as one who brings down the divine, authoritative word from on high is just that, a stereotype, and not a particularly accurate one at that. My experience of pastoring is much more down to earth. It’s taking out the garbage and doing the laundry kind of work. It’s paying attention to daily details, eliminating unhealthy habits, and building healthy ones. It’s intimate engagement with the rhythms of congregational life in order to build awareness. “This is who we say we are. This is what our actions say. How can we close that gap?”
Through this process of intimate engagement, the pastor makes it her job to notice, and to assist the congregation in noticing, the new life God is birthing in and among them. Another name for a birthing coach is midwife. My wife and I used midwives for the births of both our children. From what I’ve witnessed, childbirth is one of the most grueling and dangerous things human beings do. No wonder so few congregations choose the abundant and eternally renewing life God offers and instead choose a long drugged out hospice. Midwives are tough as nails. And in this analogy, the pastor is a midwife. If it’s truly to be the congregation’s baby, the congregation is going to need to do the labor. As your pastor/coach, a powerful question to consider at this point in our ministry together is Are we pregnant? If so, what’s the next step?
Leader: O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
People: Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.
Leader: I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
People: May my meditation be pleasing to the LORD, for I rejoice in my God.
Holy God, where can we go from your Spirit? Where can we flee from your presence? The advent of your Spirit is this very moment. Our only home is this very place. All that is required to rest in you is simply to rest. Draw our hearts here. Fill our hearts now with this breath and the next. Amen.
This weekend our nation celebrates Memorial Day. In the UCC this weekend also marks “Rural Life Sunday.” Though I grew up working on my grandfather’s dairy farm, much of my ministry has been in cities and suburbs. Up until now. As a town, Granby has a distinct rural flavor that connects to my memories of childhood and my love of the natural world. So we’re celebrating both this Sunday: Memorial Day and Rural Life Sunday. This is a fortunate convergence. It creates an opportunity for important conversations around the role that military service plays in the life of rural communities.
In particular I’m remembering a conversation I had with a student at Narraguagus High School while I was substitute teaching there during the winter of 2008-2009. Here’s the context. It was the Great Recession. My wife, Nicole, and I had taken a call to do a church start in Indiana. Starting with no one, we had managed to gather 25 people in a town hall for weekly worship when the denomination told us that our funding had disappeared in the stock market crash. We suddenly found ourselves without income. Many people don’t realize that there is no unemployment insurance for clergy. The saving grace was that we managed to sell the house we had purchased a year earlier.
We packed everything we could fit into a station wagon and a Pontiac Vibe, put the rest in a storage locker, and drove with our two young children to Milbridge, Maine. Nicole’s grandmother owned a house in Milbridge. She had recently passed away. The house had been emptied of some its contents, but it hadn’t been sold, so we slept on the floor of the master bedroom under a pile of blankets that cold, cold winter while the girls slept in a couple of twin beds. As a part of our church start strategy, we had worked as substitute teachers in Indiana. As a part of our survival strategy, we now worked as substitute teachers in rural Maine.
Not enough people know this, but Maine is the second poorest state in the U.S., it’s poverty rate just below that of Louisiana. And Washington County, Maine, where we spent that winter, is the poorest county in Maine. Like most poverty in the U.S., Maine’s poverty is rural and, therefore, mostly invisible to the wider world. Nicole was already aware of Maine’s rural poverty. Her father grew up in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. He escaped poverty by joining the Air Force. He served in Vietnam and returned with PTSD the effects of which ended his life at the age of 52. Grandpa Philip never had the chance to meet any of his grandchildren. Nevertheless, upon returning from Vietnam my future father-in-law earned a college degree and created life for his children in which they would not have to experience the poverty he had as a child.
Generations later, this continues to be the path for poor young people in rural Maine. I’ll never forget the day I was teaching and one of my students came to class with an excitement I hadn’t seen in him before. Usually quiet and sullen in class, words spilled out of his mouth. The other students looked up from their desks to hear the news. He had been accepted into the Air Force. He was getting out of what he and the other boys in class considered a dead-end town. This class had the reputation for being the worst in the school. It was a class consisting only of boys with serious emotional and behavioral problems. There were very limited social services for them. No other teachers would take the class, so I was put in the class as a long term substitute. Celebrating the news of a classmate’s acceptance into the Air Force was a very brief respite from what otherwise was an extremely grim situation.
So this Memorial Day weekend/Rural Life Sunday I want to celebrate the slim ray of hope that military service provides to young people locked in cycles of poverty, particularly the invisible poor people of rural areas who continue to have too few options and little support. And I would like us as Christians to reflect on whether it is just to ask poor people to shoulder a disproportionate burden of sacrifice for freedoms all of us enjoy.
We are beginning our journey together as pastor and congregation. Life has taught me something about beginnings that may seem counterintuitive to some: start with the ending. Another way to say it: begin with the end in mind.
This reminds me of a personal story:
The marriage proposal was a disaster. I went ring shopping over Christmas break. Nicole and I had been dating for three years. Both of us would be graduating from divinity school the following spring. I had the strong sense that decision time was approaching: would we stay together or go our separate ways? I wanted to stay together. I took my younger brother with me to the mall just to do some initial ring pricing. I told Brett that I planned on proposing to Nicole on Valentine’s Day.
So here’s where things went sideways. Valentine’s Day rolls around, and I haven’t quite settled on a ring. No problem. Nicole’s birthday is February 17. I’ll propose to her then. What I didn’t know was that Brett had told my dad my plan to propose on Valentine’s Day. Apparently dad immediately started spreading the news to the whole family.
Valentine’s Day evening, Nicole and I had had supper together and were studying in my studio apartment when the phone begins ringing. It’s dad.
“Congratulations,” he says.
“What are you talking about?” I reply.
“Did she say ‘Yes’?”
I take the phone into the bathroom, the only place with any privacy. I explain the situation: the new plan is to propose in three days, on Nicole’s birthday. But it was too late. The phone kept ringing and ringing as one after another family members called to congratulate me. Finally, Nicole looked up from the book she was reading and asked what was going on.
I apologized. I knelt down next to where she was lying on the folded up futon. I explained the situation. This wasn’t what I had planned, but would she marry me? She said, “Yes.” Then we discussed what that would mean. Both of us were children of divorced parents. Could we realistically promise “‘Til death parts us” knowing how fragile promises can be? And even if our marriage survived the travails of time and change, death stood at the end, the ironclad promise that is the inescapable inheritance of everything that breathes. Together we squarely faced our future. Out of that conversation this private promise arose: “Whatever happens, we do it together.” We started with the end in mind, and out of that end, we fashioned our vow.
Six months later at Church of the Three Crosses Nicole and I promised to “love and sustain” each other “as long as we both shall live.” For the past 22 years we have been faithful to that promise. I’m confident that whatever life brings our way, our promise to face it together will hold.
I realize that this might seem a little disconcerting. But as I said at the beginning, I’ve found that the most powerful bonds are built when we start with the ending. As your Transitional Senior Minister, I begin with the acknowledgment of impermanence. Every one of us is temporary. It is not up to us to decide how much time we will have. It is up to us to decide how we will use the time we’ve been given. As for me, I vow to make the most of it. What will your promise be? I hope that whatever the future brings, we will face it together.
Holy God, teach us your peace that passes understanding. While the world around us burns with conflict and hatred, we take shelter in your boundless love. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to return to you. Amen.
*Prayer of Dedication
We want to be ready, O God, to enter the Holy City, to sit at the banquet table, and to join with all creation in celebrating your salvation. We can’t do that, however, if all we do is take. We give back a portion of all you’ve given hoping that one day we might be at peace. Amen.
Holy God, the one true gift is the gift of life, a gift none of us asked for, yet each of us receives. It is a priceless inheritance: ours to squander by hoarding or multiply by sharing. Makes us multipliers of this most precious life. Amen.