Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Church of Christ in Saybrook 27 November 2022
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-10-21
A few weeks ago I was driving home from church when I noticed that something was different about the right rear of the car. Flat tire? I didn’t hear the sound of a rim rolling on the pavement, so I wasn’t sure. I was almost home, so I just continued driving until I pulled in the driveway. Sure enough, the right rear tire was deflated but not flat. I was short on time, so instead of putting the doughnut on myself I called AAA. When the AAA guy took the tire off he showed it to me. A patch of the rubber outer layer had worn clear through exposing the steel belts beneath. When I brought the car to the shop to get the tire replaced the mechanic explained that when the wheels are out of alignment the tires wear unevenly. If you don’t catch it in time you get blowouts like the one I got. Alignment is key to keeping your tires in good shape for driving.
Our theme for the third Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Sow Joy.” The Scripture is once again from the prophet Isaiah. The context for this particular prophecy is the return of the exiles from Babylon to their homes in Judah. Earlier prophecy had created in them great expectations for what their return would be like–comfort, rejoicing, salvation–all the good stuff. What they found upon return was a homeland in shambles. Rebuilding was slow and difficult. Even more challenging than putting roofs over their heads was reweaving the torn social fabric that had made their homeland a home in the first place. Those who had dreamed of returning were becoming disillusioned. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe they should have stayed in Babylon. To these folks the prophet says, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD to display his glory. . . . For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to grow up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations.”
What do tires and exiles and oaks have in common? Alignment. I think we can all resonate with the frustration and disappointment of the exiles. Rebuilding is hard. The obstacles between our dreams and reality often seem insurmountable. The prophet is inviting us to shift our view: to see rebuilding as replanting. Creating a sense of belonging is an organic process. Our role is simply to plant seeds of hope, love, and justice. Our role is to turn the soil of our hearts, to tend the gardens of our relationships. God will bring fruit in its time. Our job is simply to align ourselves with God. The process itself will do the heavy lifting. This is why Jesus can say, “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon yourselves and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This is not to say that alignment with God doesn’t require anything of us. In fact, it requires everything. It requires us to pray as Jesus did, “Not my will but your will be done.” Nevertheless, living in alignment with God and one another allows us to tap into the source of all things–a limitless energy that causes the plants to grow and the fish to swim and our hearts to sing with praise.
Years ago I attended a church vitality conference. One of the speakers was the pastor of a small New Hampshire church that had experienced a dramatic turnaround. A congregation in shambles had become vibrant. Someone asked the pastor her secret. She said, “I follow the energy.” Where do you find life energy in and around you? How can we align ourselves with the new life God is always already bringing forth? When we continually keep these questions in mind, we will find ourselves continually sowing seeds of joy.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-26-21
The theme for the First Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Keep Awake.” On one level this sentence contains a contradiction. How can those who keep awake dream? We know that dreams happen when we’re sleeping. That was assumed to be the case in many of the dream stories we studied throughout the fall. In the cases of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, the Bible tells us that their dream messages from God disturbed their sleep, which motivated them to seek an interpretation from Joseph and Daniel respectively. In what sense do those who dream keep awake?
Those who dream keep awake by keeping their eyes open and their hearts attuned to what God is doing in the world. Our Scripture text for Sunday is Mark 13. Scholars call it the “little apocalypse.” It is a sermon by Jesus that he gives to his disciples during his final days on earth. He gives them instructions on how his followers can live faithfully in the midst of upheaval. “Apocalypse” comes from a Greek word meaning “revelation.” Jesus is giving his disciples a “peek behind the curtain” so that they can see that God is active in the world even when circumstances are difficult. When we see through the eyes of faith even difficult circumstances can be a source of hope because they reveal more clearly God’s actions on our behalf.
I enjoy watching “post-apocalyptic” movies. This is a genre of movies in which some great cataclysm has taken place. Survivors are confronted with the challenges and perils of creating new ways of living in the face of greatly altered circumstances. My daughter, Olivia, is a film student. Last year she and I were talking about post-apocalyptic movies. We noted that one of the common apocalyptic scenarios is global pandemic to which I responded, “We don’t have to wonder about what living through an apocalypse would be like anymore. We’re living it!” It’s no surprise to me that real life apocalypses are much more mundane than movie apocalypses.
In his apocalyptic sermon Jesus encourages his disciples to “keep awake.” This means cultivating awareness of what God is up to and to keep focused on what is truly important in life. Last Sunday after our Thanksgiving worship a group of volunteers decorated the church for Advent. A church member and I found ourselves chatting and setting up an artificial Christmas tree in Cook Hall. He said to me, “I’m so grateful for being alive and that we can be together, but I forget to be thankful. That’s why I need worship so I can remember what is truly important.”
Though theology can be incredibly complex and subtle, thought the language of faith can at times sounds strange and unfamiliar, the practice of keeping awake is very simple: gathering in person or online for worship, taking time daily for prayer and meditation, again and again giving ourselves whole-heartedly to just this moment: just chopping the carrots, just washing the dishes, just talking with friends, just watching the birds at the feeder, just this grief, just this joy, just this loneliness, just this one precious life.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-18-20
“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
As I shared in my last installment of “What’s Up,” at the First Congregational Church of Granby Nov. 23 “What’s Next” workshop, I was tasked with researching and sharing information on current trends in church vitality. There’s a ton of information out there. The trick is curating relevant content (to use a current turn of phrase)!
I’ve been trying to keep Advent themes. The theme for this week is joy so I did a very “current” thing: I googled “church vitality and joy.” VoiLa! Google gave me a Facebook post from what looks to be a new church start called “Vitality Church,” whose physical location is the building of a (now closed?) Disciples of Christ congregation. Look at all the kids! You can check out the post here. Included in the post is the above Scripture from the Epistle of James: “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy . . .”
First Church (like many churches) is facing trials, and our faith is being tested. James reminds us that this is part of the process! This isn’t a “bug”; it’s a feature! Think about it. Our ancestors faced all kinds of trials: the Civil War, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, etc. etc. etc. Why should we expect our experience to be any different? The fact is Christianity and congregational life is designed to test us. That may come as a surprise to some of us who have been taught either implicitly or explicitly that as “good people” we have a “right to comfort.” James says, “No.” As Christians we don’t have a ‘right to comfort’ but we do have the promise of joy. Testing builds endurance, which leads to maturity and “completion.” Completion here means “perfection, holiness, happiness, bliss.” So be joyful! This is it, friends, this is the Christian way. This is the real deal.
I encourage you to check out the “about” tab of Vitality Church’s Facebook page. Notice how they describe themselves. Notice their values and how they aim their message. Remember the Simon Sinek video we watched during our “What is Your Why?” workshop? He said vital organizations and movements (including the civil rights movement!) operate out of their “why” because that helps them connect with others who share that “why.” Vitality Church makes it clear that they are an imperfect church for imperfect people that is nevertheless focused not on their own personal preferences but on meeting the needs of their neighbors. To quote: “No matter what we will always do our best to be whatever people need us to be.”
Making a transition from decline to vitality is difficult! It is at times painful and exhausting. Hooray! Our faith is being tested in order that our joy might be complete.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-27-20
The theme for this Advent season at First Congregational Church of Granby is “I believe.” In the Bible the same Greek word is used for both “believe” and “faith.” Many people equate “believing” with assenting to certain propositions. Take the Apostle’s Creed, for example: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord . . .” and so on. That’s one way to understand believing. I understand belief in terms of “faith.” Belief as “faith” tends to be in short supply these days.
Rev. William Sloane Coffin famously wrote, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation.” In a world where some powerful people see it in their self interest to actively destroy our faith in institutions, our faith in our neighbors, our faith in our ability to work through our differences with love and compassion, saying “I believe” can actually be a radical act.
So this Advent we’re saying “I believe”: I believe in hope. I believe in peace. I believe in love. I believe in joy. I believe in Christ. Belief is the risky act of entrusting ourselves to each other and to God’s boundless love.