Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Church of Christ in Saybrook 27 November 2022
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-29-20
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-29-20
This Sunday is Communion Sunday. The Scripture is the opening statement of the most famous sermon of all time: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We’ve come to know this opening statement or “introitus”–as scholar Hans Dieter Betz calls it–as “The Beatitudes.” The name comes from the Latin word beatitudo or “blessed,” which is repeated nine times in this opening statement: “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are those who mourn . . . Blessed are the meek . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness . . .” and so on. The heart of Jesus’ message is blessedness. What does this have to do with Holy Communion?
The connection between Communion, where we are invited to participate in the body of Christ broken and the cup of the new covenant poured out, and the Beatitudes is in the categories of people Jesus singles out to bless: the poor in possessions and poor in spirit, the grief-stricken, the meek, the hungry and thirsty–whether physical or spiritual sustenance, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. These are the blessed ones. Conventional wisdom tells us that the rich, the happy, the strong, the satisfied, the well-connected, the well-thought-of, the folks with perfect bodies and amazing Instagram feeds–these are the blessed ones. Jesus teaches otherwise. The path of blessing is not the path of perfection. It’s the path of connection.
And Jesus practiced what he preached. Scripture shows us that Jesus loved to hang out with the left out and left behind. The Gospel of Mark tells us that one day as Jesus “sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (2:15-17). The scribes of the Pharisees were what we would call “well-connected” in that ancient culture. They benefitted from privilege, “social capital,” we sometimes call it. Perhaps some of it earned, but like much of what determines our station in life to this day, my guess is their self-perceived superiority was mostly an accident of birth. The well-connected scribes were upset that Jesus wasn’t playing by the rules that dictated that Jesus’ primary attention should be going to them. Instead, Jesus went out of his way to connect with the otherwise disconnected. As far as Jesus is concerned, there is room at the table for everyone, and he made it his business to make sure everyone was there, even tax collectors and sinners.
Years ago when I was conducting interviews for my book Reconstructing Church: Tools for Turning Your Church Around, I asked a church member what she thought was key to our success in growing the church. She said, “Before you came, it was like, ‘You’re welcome if you come.’ Now it’s like, ‘We want you here.’” One of our marketing slogans in the UCC is “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” It’s a nice sentiment. But there’s a huge difference between a welcome that says, “If you show up on Sunday morning we won’t treat you like dirt even if you look, talk, or love in ways that make some of us uncomfortable” (which, it’s important to note, is an improvement over being explicitly racist, bigoted, or homophobic) and “We want you here, and we’ll prove it by getting up out of our pews, going out into the community, eating with you, drinking with you, listening to your hopes and dreams, and then creating a church that reflects your experience.”
That’s the connection between Communion and the Beatitudes: it’s a welcome that says, “We want you here.” Communion is the ritual that reminds us of Jesus’ central teaching. The broken bread and poured out cup teach us that the path of blessing is not about conforming to some arbitrary, often unspoken ideal of what is proper, normal, or respectable; it’s not about adopting conventional ideas of who is worthy of love and who is unworthy, whose voices should be listened to and who should keep quiet; the path of blessing is not about being well-connected or having it all together; the path of blessing is not about perfection; it’s about connection.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-14-19
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-12-19
It’s not often that I get a request to write to a topic, but church member Aurelle Locke has asked that I write about the difference between treating newcomers to church as “visitors” versus treating newcomers as “guests.” In short, a “visitor” tends to be unexpected. Someone shows up during office hours wanting to see me. Our office manager, Sue, walks down the hall, knocks on my door, and says, “Pastor Todd, you have a visitor.” A “guest” is someone you’ve invited, so you’re prepared to welcome them. Nicole and I love to host parties. We have our process of preparation to receive guests down to a science. She cooks. I clean. Cleaning for guests is a spiritual discipline for me. I prepare my heart to receive our guests as I prepare the space.
Here’s the context: Aurelle had noticed that I started doing weekly children’s sermons. At some point before my arrival, the church had stopped including children’s sermons in worship, I was told, because so few children were showing up for Sunday worship. Too often there were no children in worship.
I understand that having a children’s sermon when there are no children in worship calls attention to the fact that we don’t have a critical mass of children in the congregation. There are people in the congregation who remember a time not too long ago when we had many children. I understand that some might feel bad to be reminded of this. But it makes no sense to hide the fact. People are going to notice anyway and wonder what, if anything, we are doing about it. Also, not having a children’s sermon when families with children do show up sends the message that they are “visitors.” We were not expecting them and, therefore, not prepared for them. This is the attitude I call, “You’re welcome if you come (but you probably won’t).”
Instead, we want people–especially newcomers–to feel like “guests.” That is, you are invited, we are expecting you, and we have prepared this experience with you in mind. This is the attitude I call, “We want you here, and we’re serious enough to have prepared for you.”
This attitude change is a key for shifting from a declining congregation to a growing one. It holds not only for children’s sermon but also for every aspect of a church’s life. That’s why, for example, I turn on the entryway lights when I enter the church. For some reason, that doesn’t seem to be the practice here. But think about it, How does that feel when you walk into a building and all the lights are off? If it were my first time in that building, I would assume no one is home.
Another example: make sure there are signs to indicate where in the building the meeting or event is. Better yet, have someone stationed at the door to greet and give people directions.
I’ll never forget the time I led community Bible study. We had triple the normal attendance because we made personal invitations. The newcomers appreciated the Bible study, but they went out of their way to comment on the wonderful, clear signs that told them where to find the Bible study. They got the message: “We want you here, and we’re serious enough to have prepared for you.”
So much of this stuff is not expensive, not difficult, and definitely not rocket science. It’s just a matter of awareness. And awareness is the fundamental spiritual practice. Everything communicates, so everything counts. Are we communicating, “You’re welcome if you come (but you probably won’t)?” How do people in Granby view us, really?
Here’s an example of, “We want you here, and we’re serious enough to have prepared for you”: What if as a requirement to attend a “Thank Goodness it’s Friday” social supper, everyone is expected to bring a guest? And we brought food and beverage enough for everyone? And we made it a special point to focus our attention less on the people we already know and more on the people we have yet to meet? Our church would grow so fast we would have a whole new set of problems. Good problems. Problems like, “How are we going to fit all these kids in our Sunday school classrooms . . . ?”