March brings us to the church season of Lent. Lent is 40 days of spiritual preparation for Easter. The 40 days of Lent correspond to the 40 days of spiritual preparation Jesus did before launching his public ministry. Scripture tells us that Jesus’ spiritual preparation involved 40 days of prayer, fasting, and temptation in the “wilderness.” Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness echo the 40 days and 40 nights of the great flood that was God’s great “do-over” with humanity. It also echoes the Israelites’ 40 years sojourn through the wilderness, which was less about getting to a geographical location called Canaan, and more about shifting spiritual orientation away from a culture of enslavement and toward a culture of freedom.
“Wilderness” is the metaphor author William Bridges uses to describe the time between the ending of an old identity and way of doing things and the beginning of a new identity and way of doing things. In the three phases of transition–ending, neutral zone, new beginning–wilderness is the “neutral zone,” the “in between time.”
We as a congregation are rapidly moving into the neutral zone wilderness. So the timing of Lent is particularly fortuitous this year. It will give us an opportunity to study more closely the dynamics of the neutral zone and develop strategies for gracefully moving through it.
Many people make spiritual preparation for Easter by taking on a spiritual discipline for Lent. Some give up caffeine or chocolate or alcohol in imitation of Jesus’ fast. I think that’s great. Do what makes sense to you. You might also consider simply making a commitment to worship every Sunday. If you already do that, consider inviting a friend. Wilderness journeys involve risk and discomfort. What do you think it was like for Jesus alone in the desert for 40 days? If inviting a friend feels risky and uncomfortable for you, Lent might be the perfect time to take that adventure. If you’d like some personal coaching around that, see me! I’m happy to help.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon Series: Favorite Scripture
28 July 2019
Text: Rev. 22:16-20
What’s our purpose as Christians? As a church? That’s the question behind today’s favorite Scripture. It comes to us from Nancy Dow. When Nancy told me that her favorite Scripture is Revelation 22:16-20, she said, “I think it’s important that we focus on the end.” What I understood her to be saying is that we as Christians should not lose focus our purpose. What is our goal? What are we working toward? It reminds me of the sacred conversation Ann and I had last week in which she explained that when you’re plowing a field, you can’t look back. You need to keep your eyes on the horizon. Revelation 22:16-20 is very much focused on the horizon. This text contains the last words of the last chapter of the last book of the Bible. Last words carry special power. When someone dies, we often give their last words special significance. When I write a sermon I put a lot of focus on the end, the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last word, because that’s what people are most likely to remember.
In today’s Scripture the most repeated word is “come.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The word that rings through this passage is “come.” It’s not a “come if you’d like to” invitation. It’s a “get over here. We want you. We need you” invitation. At the center is the water of life. The image I see is a gathering at a well or maybe at the beach. There’s an old folk song that goes, “I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good old day and who shall wear the robe and crown, dear Lord, show me the way. O brothers let’s go down. Let’s go down. Come on down. O brothers let’s go down, down in the river to pray.” When we look to the horizon, what do we see? An invitation. “Come.”
The whole of our purpose is invitation. It’s helping people, help each other connect to God. Martin Luther famously said that Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And there are a lot of hungry people out there. Our own Rebecca Brown has proven that. She came here four years ago as a lay minister for children and youth. When she arrived there were eight people in the youth group. Now there are over forty. How did she do that? Invitation.
Some of you may think that means Rebecca did all the inviting. That’s not the case at all. She engaged step by step in a very methodical process. The first thing she did was tell the group that their job was to grow. This message was met with resistance. There were some in the group who did not want to grow. They didn’t want “outsiders” messing things up. This was their group made up of people they were comfortable with. What if they didn’t like the new people? Rebecca held her ground, and the people who didn’t want to grow left the group. Now she was down to four kids.
Rebecca took those four kids and poured everything she had into them. She went to every event, every game, every concert, every party. Every opportunity she had to embed herself in the lives of the youth of this town, she took. She didn’t sit in the church and wait for youth to come to her, she went to them. She met youth on their terms, in their space. She made herself the guest. Instead of setting herself up as someone with the answers, she made herself a student of youth culture. She invited them to teach her. She showed up for them. Then they started showing up for her.
According to Rebecca, it only took about a year of networking and showing up before word about the youth group at FCC Granby started to spread. In other words, the youth themselves became the inviters. There wasn’t any fancy advertising. There weren’t any splashy events. It was all word of mouth. The reason I mention this is that this is consistent with other stories I’ve heard about church growth. My office manager in Stamford was a member of Grace Church in New Canaan for many years. Today Grace Church has thousands of members in a multi-million dollar campus that was featured in the New York Times because of its award-winning architecture. She told me she remembered the church went it was a group of people meeting in the pastor’s back yard. I asked her what was the secret to their growth. She said, “It was all word of mouth.” In terms of our FCC youth group, the eight that then became four has increased 10-fold to a group of over 40 kids. What if our church membership increased 10-fold? We would have a whole new set of problems. Good problems. Let everyone who hears, say, “Come.” Let everyone who is thirsty come.
The other thing that’s significant about our youth group is that it focuses on the spiritual needs of youth. The numbers only tell part of the story. Rebecca calls it “breaking into the hearts of our kids.” She describes her program as “No fun. No games. No food.” It’s the real stuff: honest, spiritual conversations about things that have direct relevance to their lives as teenagers, conversations, friendships, experiences that they can get nowhere else. If they could have these conversations elsewhere, they probably would. Rebecca sees her task as creating a safe container where young people can let down their pretenses, open their hearts, and be vulnerable. In other words, youth group is about getting real. It’s about authenticity. And, yes, sometimes they have food, fun, and games. Granby youth have spiritual lives and spiritual needs that aren’t being met anywhere else. I wonder if this is also the case for Granby adults?
Every one of us is here because someone else brought us whether it was a parent, grandparent, neighbor, or friend. Maybe it wasn’t to this particular church. Maybe you were one of the increasingly rare types who will just show up at church because it’s something you already value. But how did you come to value it? Because at some point somehow somewhere down the line someone said, “Come.”
Jesus didn’t wait for us to come to him. Scripture says, “5 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 himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
The world is hurting. How can we be satisfied huddling together inside these enjoying each other’s company when there are so many longing for a heart connection? The goal of the spiritual life is the joy of extending oneself to welcome the other. How do you expect to grow if you won’t stretch? And stepping out beyond our familiar and comfortable walls into the world to engage people where they are is an endless opportunity to stretch. The Spirit says, “Come.” And if we indeed are the spiritual people we imagine ourselves to be, we say with every fiber of our being, “Come. We want you here. Let’s learn together how to heal this world.”