This Sunday marks both the seventh Sunday of the Easter Season and Memorial Day weekend. The gospel lectionary for this Sunday is John 17:1-11. Jesus has been giving his disciples an extended farewell address following what would be their last supper together. Chapter 17 contains the concluding prayer of Jesus’ farewell address.
My years learning the crafts of preaching and writing have taught me to pay special attention to endings. For example, while I may go off script while preaching the body of a sermon, I always make sure I have a carefully crafted final sentence that will bring my homiletical flights in for a landing. Of all the things one might write or say, folks tend to remember the ending.
Another rhetorical strategy for helping an audience retain information is repetition. In his concluding prayer Jesus repeats the phrase “that they may all be one.” This is the message that Jesus wants to leave his disciples–that he wants to leave us: “that they may all be one.” It also happens to be the motto of the United Church of Christ: That they may all be one.
The UCC motto “That they may all be one” caught my attention while I was a divinity school student. I had left the denomination of my upbringing and was searching for a new church home. While I didn’t know a lot about the UCC, I thought Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, his dream for the world, was a great foundation upon which to build my faith, my vocation, my career.
Over the past 20+ years I’ve learned a few things about the prayer that they may all be one. The most important is this: on the most fundamental level of reality, the level that is beyond human comprehension, we are always already one. In other words, Jesus’ prayer is less an expression of a goal he wants us to achieve and more a description of a reality he wants us to wake up to.
Buddhists use the metaphor of waves and the ocean to explain the confusion we experience around unity and separation. Like waves each one of us is a manifestation of the movement of the great ocean. We are never at any moment not a part of the ocean. In fact, waves are the ocean. We are one with God. We are one with each other. At all times. What affects the ocean affects the waves. What affects the waves affects the ocean. It would be ridiculous for a wave to say, “I am not the ocean,” or for a wave to say to another wave, “You have nothing to do with me.” Yet, that is how we humans too often behave. We act as if an injury to one has nothing to do with us. We wallow in self-pity thinking we are bereft and alone. We become envious or annoyed with others thinking their words or behavior are somehow personally directed at us when more often than not, they are just rolling along, manifesting as one small crest on this great, ever active womb of life.
I’m sitting in the Burbank Hollywood Airport waiting for my flight to Hartford. The screen on the wall chatters with a morning show. Around me people take, then vacate the seats at the gate as their flights board. My flight to Hartford isn’t for a couple of hours, so I have an opportunity to let you know what’s up!
I’m returning after spending a couple of days in Los Angeles. My trip had a dual purpose. The primary purpose was to serve as the UCC delegate to the National Council of Churches Buddhist-Christian dialogue, which took place on Tuesday at Hsi Lai Temple, a Chan Buddhist temple, in Hacienda Heights. The secondary (although a very close second) was to visist my daughter, Olivia, who is a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The dialogue was interesting. This is our second time meeting. This is how it goes. About twenty of us, Buddhists and Christians of different flavors, sit at a large oval table in a conference room and listen while members of the group make presentations on different topics that the group has previously identified. I was asked to speak to the topic of “Renunciation and Repentance.” Others topics for this dialogue included Buddhist and Christian perspectives on social justice and Buddhist and Christian perspectives on “ultimate reality.” I could tell that the group was going deeper compared to last dialogue because this time “difference” was allowed to arise in the group.
What do I mean by “difference was allowed to arise?” At one point we were talking about Buddhist reincarnation as it relates to Christian salvation. One of the Christians tried to make a connection between the two concepts. The Buddhist presenter shook his head and said, “No, they are not the same.” The conversation then shifted to a discussion of language and its limitations when faced with ultimate reality, which, by definition, is unspeakable.
The purpose of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue is to build connections across religious differences. The first impulse in building connections is to look for commonalities. We naturally do this when we meet someone new. “Where are you from?” one might ask. “Sacramento,” she says. “Oh, my cousin lives near there,” you say. And on it goes. We relax. There’s a good feeling. We’re not so different after all. And we aren’t. A foundational claim for both Buddhists and Christians is that all of life is connected. But if we stay in this easy place of “we’re all the same,” are we really getting at the truth?
Recognizing difference is vital to genuine connection. Integrity has boundaries. It is able to say both “yes” and “no.” Difference gives energy, variety, and beauty to life because difference is also truth. The English Romantic poet John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Difference can feel sharp. It can feel scary. “What’s happening? Will we lose our connection? Will we argue? Will we fight?” Healthy dialogue allows both commonalities and differences to arise without getting caught in any of them. Instead, we calmly apprise and appreciate them. Commonality and difference. Connection and disconnection. This is the path to truth and beauty. This is the way of the unspeakable.
Presentation to National Council of Churches Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
Hsi Lai Temple
Hacienda Heights, CA
5 November 2019
Good morning, everyone. It is an honor and a joy to have the opportunity to speak with you this morning on the topics of renunciation and repentance. These are topics of enormous importance, but we only have a short time together. So I will begin by setting the frame and focus for my brief remarks.
Renunciation and repentance are spiritual practices that save my life. For me, they are important not as abstract theological concepts but as concrete actions. As theological concepts, renunciation and repentance in Buddhism and Christianity are in many ways worlds apart. But they intersect in profound ways in my personal spiritual practice. I would like to show you those intersection points by sharing with you a little of my spiritual journey.
I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan and baptized as an infant in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). The CRC is a small, conservative, Evangelical denomination of Dutch immigrants based primarily in the Midwest and Canada. For generations all of my family on both my mother’s and my father’s side have been CRC. When I was in high school, my mom left the CRC to become and ordained minister in another denomination. She left because at that time the CRC did not allow women to become ordained ministers. At about that same time my dad came out as a gay man. He also left the CRC because the CRC, like many conservative Christian denominations, is not supportive of LGBTQ people. After my parents left, I left the CRC, and I seriously considered leaving Christianity altogether.
Instead, I decided to study theology at the graduate level. First, I moved to Germany and studied there for a year. I then returned to the U.S. and studied theology at the University of Chicago with the intent of becoming an academic theologian. But God called, and I answered. So instead of pursuing a Ph.D. I ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and have been serving as a pastor for the past 23 years. The United Church of Christ is a Protestant Christian denomination that shares many of the theological roots of the church of my childhood, but they have taken those roots and grown in some very different directions, the most important of which for me are that the UCC ordains women and supports the equality of women in every aspect of church life. The UCC also welcomes LGBTQ to serve equally in all aspects of church life, including ordination. The UCC is also very active in ecumenical and interfaith work, which will become important later in my spiritual journey.
The CRC placed a heavy emphasis on renunciation and repentance. Every Sunday worship featured a reading of God’s law and a call to repentance, which each of us made individually and silently sitting in pews, our heads bowed, our eyes closed. There were many things we were expected to renounce as Christians. Sex outside of marriage was a big one. Also dancing, swearing, and secular music–especially rock and roll. Working, shopping, playing with friends, or any other kind of “secular” activity were forbidden on Sunday. Renunciation was about resisting temptation. Repentance was the remedy for succumbing to it. Renunciation and repentance were the twin practices for maintaining the behavioral norms and cultural boundaries of the community.
My understanding of renunciation and repentance have changed since I was a child. It’s not that I have rejected the practices of my childhood. Rather, my spiritual journey has challenged me to expand them. Let me explain.
One of the things I really appreciate about my upbringing was its emphasis on what we called “personal devotions” or “quiet time.” The idea was that as Christians we were to extend the practices of renunciation and repentance into our daily lives. I took this very seriously as a child. I would set aside 10-20 minutes a day to read my children’s Bible and then to pray. The Bible reading I found difficult but doable. We were taught that prayer was “talking to God.” So I would fold my hands, close my eyes, kneel next to my bed and say what was on my mind. It would take maybe two or three minutes before I would run out of things to say. I found the procedure spiritually unsatisfying, but I wasn’t offered any alternatives, so I kept at it for many years until eventually as a teenager I just stopped. I longed to develop myself spiritually, but nothing in the narrow range of options available to me made that connection. The practices I was taught didn’t offer enough “quiet” (since most of the “noise” was coming from my chatty brain) and not enough “time” (since once I was done “talking to God,” I didn’t know what to do.)
Fast forward many years. I am serving my first call as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I am the solo pastor a small church in a small town in the Chicago area. It is not going well. The church is dying. The parishioners are fighting with each other and with me. One day I’m pacing my office looking for answers to some church problem or another. I don’t remember what, exactly. I find myself absent-mindedly looking at the books on my bookshelf and I spot one entitled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. When my wife and I married, we put our books together. This was one of hers. I pulled it off the shelf, started reading, and that began my Zen meditation practice, which I’ve maintained for the past 20 years. I’m currently a member of the Boundless Way Zen Temple in Worcester, MA. My teacher is David Dae An Rynick, Roshi. I received lay ordination in the Boundless Way Zen lineage in 2018.
What does this have to do with renunciation and repentance? Let’s take renunciation first. In my current understanding renunciation is a process of self-emptying. I find that in the practice of renunciation the Jesus way and the Zen way intersect at profound levels. Self-emptying in the Christian tradition is often talked about using the Greek term, kenosis. This word appears in the famous text from Philippians 2: “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 (ekenosin) himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”
Self-emptying in this context goes far beyond the understanding of renunciation as avoiding certain behaviors. In fact, my early experience of renunciation as primarily avoiding sex, swearing, and “bad thoughts,” whatever that meant, only served to reinforce my ego and self-consciousness. I had continual anxiety that I was being a “bad Christian.” My Zen practice has invited me to step beyond judgments of good and bad and into a practice of unconditional availability, letting go of self-concern so that I can be more effectively present and helpful in whatever circumstances I find myself.
Repentance is the spiritual practice of changing one’s mind (Gk: metanoia) or “turning around.” St. Paul famously described it thus: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Jesus’ first sermon was a call to repentance: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In my upbringing, repentance was closely linked to renunciation. One repented indulgence in things one was supposed to have renounced. For me, it took a form something like this: sitting in worship, head bowed, I silently pray, “God, I’m sorry for fighting with my brother this week. Amen.” One is supposed to feel remorse and vow never to do the repented-of thing ever again. But much of the time I did. There were always more sibling conflicts to work through, sexual thoughts to arise, or sweets to sneak from the cupboard. Repentance was a repetitive, guilt-inducing grind that once again only reinforced my ego-centric consciousness. The Kingdom of Heaven was not near. As far as I could tell, I was far, far from it.
What are we turning from and what we are turning toward in repentence? Christian teaching focuses on turning away from “sin” and turning toward God and toward our fellow human beings. Sin is often defined as anything that separates us from God or from our neighbor. When asked about the “greatest commandment,” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, there are sins that harm our relationship to God (this is called “idolatry” in Christian theology) and sins that harm our neighbors, or put us out of right relationship with them. The root of all of these sins is the tendancy of human beings to prioritize the wants and needs of the individual ego above all else. This is how repentance in the Christian context can be understood as self-emptying. Turning away from the focus on self and turning toward a focus on God and neighbor.
Zen repentance can also be understood as self-emptying, but it is rooted in the understanding that there is no such thing as a separate self. The individual “I” is a construct of habitual thinking that if observed very closely in the process of meditation slowly begins to deconstruct itself. The turning in Zen involves noticing how we get caught up in our thinking processes and then returning attention to the breath over and over again without judgment. Over time this creates an expansiveness of spirit born of an experiential knowledge that in the view of absolute reality, we are one.
Repentance in Zen involves acknowledging our mistakes for the simple purpose of seeing clearly how we get carried away again and again by our thoughts: our thoughts of separation, our thoughts of oneness, our thoughts of good, our thoughts of evil, our thoughts of God, our thoughts of no God. The power of awareness is that it gives us the opportunity to get ‘street-smart’ (as my teacher puts it) in the ways of the mind. The point is not to eliminate thought. That is a common mistake. Our brains are thought producing organs. It’s just what they do. The point is simply not to mistake our thoughts for reality. Christian mystic Meister Eckhart famously said, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God.” His point being that the word “God” itself can become an idol if we attach an idea of reality to it. God, in this mystical convergence, is simply the bare present manifesting moment after moment. Just this. Repentance is seeing with compassion how we continually “miss the mark” and returning to just this.
The practice of zazen has taught me in profound ways that the Kingdom of Heaven is indeed very near, in fact, right here, right now, just this. Repentance is nothing more and nothing less than reconnecting with right now. I have found that repentance practiced in this way leads to exactly the kind of spiritual development St. Paul was writing about when he warned Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world,” and exhorted them to instead “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
Renunciation and repentance tend to have negative associations in modern, Western cultures. This is understandable. For centuries Christian institutions have used the practices of renunciation and repentance as tools for social control. I don’t think my parents or the Christian Reformed Church had any bad intent in raising me to practice their particular forms of repentance and renunciation. They truly believed that they were loving me by saving me from hell. Unfortunately, the practices themselves plunged me into my own personal hell realms of anxiety and depression that to this day I visit from time to time. The difference for me now is that a new understanding of repentance and renunciation gained through meditation practice means that whether I find myself in the hell of suffering or the heaven of bliss, I have the tools to engage the present moment whole-heartedly. This whole-hearted engagement with reality is the fruit of renunciation and repentance. Whole-hearted engagement produces salvation for me and perhaps even for the entire world.
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.
This coming Sunday, June 30, First Congregational Church of Granby is celebrating Open and Affirming Sunday. Open and Affirming (ONA) is a designation created in 1985 following a resolution that was approved at the United Church of Christ (UCC) General Synod that year encouraging UCC congregations to welcome (or consider welcoming) gay, lesbian, and bisexual members. Following later General Synod resolutions affirming transgender members of the church, the welcome was extended so that, today, an ONA covenant typically welcomes members of any sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
The Open and Affirming program is administered by the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition, which supports congregations and other church settings as they consider the adoption of an ONA “covenant” and maintains the official registry of ONA congregations and ministries. The Coalition encourages UCC congregations, campus ministries, seminaries, regional bodies and other settings of the church to engage their members in serious study of sexual orientation and gender identity and to declare publicly their full welcome and inclusion of LGBTQ people. With more than 1,400 congregations, the UCC’s ONA program is the largest of several LGBT-welcoming church movements in U.S. and Canadian churches.
FCC Granby adopted an Open and Affirming statement in 2009. Here it is: “We affirm the dignity and worth of every person, regarless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, mental or phyiscal ability or sexual orientation. We offer sacraments and rites to all who enter our circle of faith. We celebrate the gifts that each person brings to First Congregational Church and invite them to share in all areas of its service, leadership, activities, responsibilities, and privileges.”
I’m new to FCC Granby. I was not around when our ONA statement was adopted. I was not part of the conversations, and I’m only beginning to understand what ONA means here. I find the people of FCC Granby warm and welcoming. There seems to be an easy rapport among people of different sexual orientations. This is all good. But I don’t think it’s safe to assume that everyone here understands ONA in the same way. And the statement leaves room for interpretation.
While it is good to affirm the worth of every person regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, and mental or physical ability, the ONA designation was specifically created to affirm and welcome LGBTQ+ people. When we broaden the statement it can create confusion. People interpret the statement to mean, “We just welcome everyone here.” So for example, when I recently had a Sunday morning off and volunteered to sing in the choir of my wife’s church, one of the choir members said to me, “It’s a good thing we have an ONA statement so that we can welcome you into the choir.” My response: “What do you mean?” The man’s face reddened. “You know, as married to the pastor.” “Oh,” I said. Another choir member jumps in for the save: “It’s just his weird sense of humor.” It was an interesting interaction. Is “pastor’s spouse” a marginalized category that needs special inclusion? Was he was using ONA in the “we welcome everyone” sense? Is the fact that I’m both a man and the pastor’s spouse a violation of this person’s gender role expectations? In the end, who cares. But this encounter, and many others that I’ve had with church people over the years indicates to me that people can be confused and uncomfortable with the ONA designation. Folks are frightened of being labeled “the gay church,” so they water the welcome down. I don’t want to water it down. I was to focus it up.
For me, the need to clearly and specifically extend welcome to LGBTQ+ people arises from the fact that churches as institutions as well as individual Christians have excluded, tortured, killed, made laws against, and have attempted to erase from existence LGBTQ+ people for thousands of years now. That’s a lot of hate to overcome. And the only way to overcome it is to apologize profusely, make amends, face our own homophobia, actively communicate to LGBTQ+ people that we want you here, recognize that every one of us lands somewhere on a spectrum of gay, straight, or in between, and celebrate Pride! Shame has no place in God’s house. God loves every part of you and every part of me. Let’s not hide who we are. Let’s be brave! Let’s be bold! Let’s be fabulous!