Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Church of Christ in Saybrook 23 April 2023
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-4-21
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-4-21
Nothing brings energy to people like making history from a positive vision for the future. Last week I was having a conversation with a couple of First Church members over lunch on a sunny patio. We were discussing church business including our ongoing consolidation work with South Church. We spent some time talking about some of the missteps we’ve made and some of the challenges ahead. The consensus was that this has been a messy process whose outcome is far from guaranteed. Nevertheless, one person offered, “I’ve been a member of this church for 35 years and served in a number of leadership roles. I remember when the church was full on Sunday. I served on Christian Ed when the Sunday school classrooms were full of kids. Recently a colleague asked me about my experience at the church and I told him, ‘I’ve never been more excited about the church than I am now.’”
My response was to thank this person for sharing, that this is why I do my job. There’s no greater joy for me than to share in the joy of doing something big, risky, and costly in service of God’s mission. When I shared this exchange with my wife, Nicole, later that day she said, “Yes. That’s why this person is so happy. You’re doing something big. You’re not simply planning next year’s program.”
My experience of the church in New England is that there is a lot of focus on preserving history. Less thought is given to making history. We sometimes seem to take the attitude that our ancestors took all the risks and made all the sacrifices. Our job is simply to acknowledge their efforts and enjoy the fruits of their labors, that is, the legacy of this property, these endowments, these buildings, these traditions, these stories, this church. There is a place for enjoyment and appreciation. There is a place for preservation and legacy. But when these become our primary preoccupation, that vital spirit of risk, sacrifice, and adventure that created the legacy in the first place begins to diminish. We begin to lose a sense of serving a purpose beyond our own personal comfort.
One of the things I love about transition work is the possibility of making history. Last year as a part of our transition process, First Church did a timeline exercise. We then made some observations about the timeline we created together. You can find notes on those observations here.
Some of the “big” dates on the timeline included: 1736, the Salmon Brook society begins holding meetings at Daniel Hayes’ tavern; 1739, construction of the first meetinghouse begins; 1775, the meetinghouse is moved two miles northwest of original location; 1818, establishment of a singing school; 1831, the church votes to build a new meetinghouse, a large number of members leave, “low ebb” of the church, “little interest in religion”; 1872, the minister resigns to start a new “society” with 38 members at Salmon Brook village (now South Church) . . . and the list goes on . . . What makes the “big” dates “big” is that they have an impact not just on the life of the church, but on the life of the town. The town is already talking about our consolidation efforts. It’s clear our neighbors are anticipating big things. Our denomination is looking to us as a model for successful consolidation. It’s not everyday we have a chance to make history.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-26-21
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-26-21
At our February 14 discernment meeting an FCC Granby member repeated something that had been said in an earlier conversation about the consolidation/collaboration proposal: “Let’s just get to know each other first. If we do that well, the building issues will work themselves out.”
Research on successful (and failed) consolidations bears this out. Even though up to this point most of the anxiety at First Church and South Church has been around buildings, research shows that buildings and facilities are the least likely deal breakers in consolidation projects (only 4%). The most likely deal breakers are conflict over personnel (28%), trust issues/power struggles (22%), traditions (18%) and culture (10%), (Better Together, p. 108) . . . Which brings me to the concept of “below the green line.”
“Below the green line” is a reference to a theory of organizational change that you can learn more about here and here.
Put very simply, the “green line” is an imaginary division between what is concrete, rational, and public in an organization and what is relational, irrational, and subconscious in an organization.
Above the green line are the “rational” parts of the organization, such as “structure, process (operations), and pattern.” In a church organization, these are the pieces that what GUCCI is calling the “nuts and bolts” working group will be dealing with: governance and by-laws, staffing and personnel, legal work for creating new identity, finances, endowments, financial audits, insurance, and properties, including memorial gardens.
Below the green line are the “irrational” parts of the organization, such as information, relationships, and identity.
Information is “like oxygen in the system . . . access to information greatly minimizes the negative rumors that can occur within organizations.” GUCCI team has committed itself to regular, clear, and consistent messaging around what’s happening with our collaboration work and what we envision the next steps to be.
Relationships: “People need to have open relationships with the people they work with, trusted relationships that lead to commitment and powerful work getting done. Relationships occur not only between people, but between programs, departments, and organizations (think connections).”
Identity “looks like repeated opportunities for self- reflection and connecting personal beliefs and values to the mission and vision of the organization. It means being reminded of why we come to [church], what’s most important to us” about our faith, and “finding ways to stay true to ourselves” while building a new congregation that wil have a new identity. This is our “Why.”
For the reasons above, below the green line work will be critical to the success of our project.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-24-20
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-24-20
Founded in 1900, Raye’s Mustard, located in Lubec, ME, is the oldest, continuously operated stoneground mustard producer in North America. My wife, Nicole, grew up on Raye’s mustard, which she introduced me to when we met many years ago. As a family we’ve been to Raye’s Mustard and toured the facility. It’s amazing to me that they can continue to operate as a profitable business using century-old technology. Inside you can see the giant stones that still turn on the old wooden band and pulley system. I’m a mustard fan, and I’m convinced: Raye’s mustard is the best.
Raye’s Mustard was founded just as the Maine sardine industry was taking off. Mustard was used as a preservative in the canning process, which allowed the perishable fish to be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration. During WWI, the U.S. government needed a storable source of protein for the troops overseas, so it contracted with Maine sardine producers to provide for the troops. Maine sardines packed in Raye’s mustard were shipped all over the world making the cannery owners rich. Nicole’s great-grandfather was one of those cannery owners. For a time, Lubec, ME was a thriving town. Until the war ended and the sardines were fished out. Today, the sardine canneries are gone. In fact, Washington County, where Lubec is located, is one of the poorest counties in the U.S. But Raye’s Mustard has been able to adapt and survive.
The Scripture for this coming Sunday is Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The parable starts off ordinary enough: someone plants a mustard seed. What would Jesus’ first hearers expect to follow? From the mustard seed a mustard plant grows. Mustard is a garden plant. It isn’t a shrub; it isn’t a tree, despite the attempts of later interpreters to fit Jesus’ words into modern categories that “make sense.” The point of the parable is precisely that the kingdom of heaven doesn’t always “make sense”; it doesn’t always follow the “natural order” of things. Sometimes in the kingdom of heaven you plant a mustard seed that becomes “the greatest of shrubs” and then, miraculously, becomes a tree!
It’s the difference between incremental change and discontinuous change. We tend to like incremental change. With incremental change the mustard plant follows from the mustard seed. With incremental change one thing follows logically from the next. We can know what to expect. We can imagine we’re in control. The kingdom of heaven isn’t always like that. The kingdom of heaven is often more like discontinuous change. One plants a mustard seed; one gets a tree. We tend not to like discontinuous change. But are there blessings to be found even in discontinuity? We wanted mustard but we got a tree. And what a beautiful tree! The birds of the air have found a home in it, and their song is beautiful. Discontinuous change isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just unexpected.
The invitation of the parable is to accept the gifts of the kingdom of heaven even if they are unexpected. The collapse of the sardine industry was an economic and environmental disaster brought on by human greed, not divine will. Nevertheless, Raye’s accepted the gifts of the moment, such as they were, adapted, and grew. We find ourselves in a similar moment of disruption, and I can see how we’re adapting and growing: particularly through the Vitality Team and the Tech Team. While no one wants the disruption of a pandemic, the parable of the mustard seed invites us to expect big, unexpected, beneficial things to grow out of what is currently a time of disruption and loss.
The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
The Advent of this Noise–Sermon for Pentecost 9 June 2019
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.
The Drummer 5-8-19
Hi friends! My name is Pastor Todd Grant Yonkman. I’m the new Transitional Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Granby. “Transitional,” you say. “What’s that?”
Like many churches across the country FCC Granby is in a process of transition. The way we’ve done things in the past cannot continue to be the way we do things in the future. What we will be is not yet clear. What is clear is that things need to change. Hence, transition.
A transitional minister is a special kind of minister who job it is to lead change.
I love transitional ministry because I love working together with teams of people to create something new. In Scripture God says, “Behold, I do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?”
Moment by moment God brings new things to life. What about you? What’s God doing in your life? Can you perceive it? I’d love to hear about the new things God is doing in you, in your family, at you work, in the community. Let me know when we can chat. My email is email@example.com.
Maybe you are in some kind of transition: new job, new house, new kid, new town, newly retired, new diagnosis, new sense of calling in your life. Churches in transition are great places for people in transition. We can support each other both through the excitement of what might be and through the pain of letting go of what was. This is life! This is what it means to be mature, responsible, and loving.
Hope to see you soon.
Pastor’s Page January 2019
Pastor’s Page January 2019
While in the past new years have brought sweeping changes to my personal life–new jobs, new houses, relocations, graduations, births, deaths, and the like–they have not often brought sweeping changes to the churches I’ve served. For better or for worse, congregational changes tend to be incremental, if there is any perceptible change at all. And perhaps we have come to depend on that: while the world around us swirls, there’s something reliable about the predictability and routine nature of Sunday after Sunday, season after season.
2019 is not going to be like that for First Congregational Church of Stamford. Our building is sold. There is no turning back from that fact. We have 12 months max to find a new home. Additionally, we will be searching for a restart pastor to launch what I’m provisionally calling New Church Stamford. There will still be Sundays and there will still be seasons, but–out of necessity–we will be inventing new ways to mark them, new rhythms to celebrate them, and new eyes to notice the spirit of God moving among us and our community.
This may come as a surprise to you, but I don’t do change well. My natural inclination is to resist. But I’ve found that fighting change–at least change that God is bringing about–is exhausting and fruitless. I’ve found that the key to surviving and even thriving in the midst of sweeping change is to focus on my spiritual practice. For me, this is prayer, meditation, worship, Scripture study, physical exercise, community, and service.
Change is difficult, but I’m convinced that change is simply the nature of reality. Nothing in this world is exempt–not even church. So my invitation to you is to step boldly into 2019. As a church we have a direction, we have a plan, and we have resources. These three things are huge items in our “plus” column. Most churches I know don’t have any of these things. They tend to wander around in circles making incremental change after incremental change that don’t really take them anywhere. We, at least, are a congregation with a vision and a congregation with a goal: to become the church Stamford needs us to be. Though at times the work may feel overwhelming, remember, nothing is impossible with God.
Worship Resources for Proper 28B/Ordinary 33B/Pentecost 26 November 18, 2018
Call to Worship
Change is the reality of our lives. Sometimes we welcome change, when, for example, a grandchild is born or when we get that dream job. Other times, we find change frightening and difficult. Spiritual practices like worship, Scripture study, prayer, and devotion are tools for grounding ourselves in God’s boundless and unchanging love. Firmly grounded in God’s love, change is no longer a problem to be solved or a tragedy to be avoided but an opportunity to celebrate God’s steadfast faithfulness. Let’s worship God.
Prayer of Confession
God we confess our tendency to embrace the changes we enjoy and resist the changes we dislike. Teach us to face life squarely, courageously, and with clear vision so that we can make choices that are in line with our commitment to follow you no matter what the cost. We trust in your boundless love to sustain us no matter change life might bring. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
*Dedication of Offerings and Pledges
Holy God, we pledge to you and to your church our time, talent, and treasure. We trust that you will show the place where our deep longings and the world’s deep needs meet. We trust that you will help us honor our pledges for the blessing of our lives and the building up of you kingdom. Amen.