Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Church of Christ in Saybrook 11 December 2022
National Council of Churches Buddhist Christian Dialogue Text Study 10/24/22
Text Study/Scriptural Reflection-Faith and Scriptures Inspiring Hope for Justice
First, let me say I’m honored to share this Scriptural reflection with you. It’s a joy to have such good friends who are willing to take time out of their lives and in some cases travel many miles to talk about things that matter so much to me and matter so much to the world. This is a wonderful opportunity.
Second, just a word or two about myself. I’m an ordained Christian minister. I have been serving the United Church of Christ for the past 26 years. I’m also a Zen student. I’ve been practicing Zen and studying the Dharma for the past 23 years. I currently serve as an Assistant Teacher at Boundless Way Zen Temple in Worcester, MA. I’m so happy to be here with other people who love the Dharma and follow the Buddha Way, which, in my experience is not so different from the Way of Jesus.
This morning I’m inviting us to consider a text from the Gospel of Luke. I’ll share a little context and then reflect on how this text inspires hop for justice in me, and then maybe we’ll have a little time for questions and responses. For me, the connection point in the text is Jesus’ one sentence sermon: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Which raises the first point of inspiration for me. Our Scripture this morning is a Scripture within a Scripture. Luke tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue as was his custom. It happened to be his turn to read the Scripture selection for the day and comment on it. He opens the scroll to the ancient Prophet Isaiah, who had lived many centuries earlier and had brought a message of hope for justice to the people of Israel who then as in Jesus’ time suffered under oppression of a foreign empire.
The text Jesus reads is mostly word for word from Isaiah chapter 61—not entirely, however. He leaves out Isaiah’s language about God’s vengeance and borrows from another place in Isaiah where he writes about God’s favor. What I love about this detail is it shows how Jesus inhabits Scripture so deeply that he is free to creatively play with the text. Jesus not only reads ancient words promising freedom to the captives, he performs that freedom right then and there in community. He fulfills Scripture by stepping into the role. Scripture is the script that Jesus performs. This is how he can say to this hometown crowd living under Roman occupation “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
When I was a little kid my church produced a Christmas pageant every year. Every year children were selected to play the roles of Mary and Joseph and the Magi and the shepherds and the angels. And every year one child was selected to recite from memory the Christmas story found in the Gospel of Luke chapter 2. I remember the year I was selected. I was proud to be selected but also very nervous. My mom coached me by making me stand on the hearth in front of the livingroom fireplace and recite slowly and loudly with good enunciation the words of Luke 2: “In those days a decree went out from Ceasar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment when Quirinius was Governor of Syria . . .” What gives me hope for justice is that I’m not alone. It’s not all on me. Countless generations of countless individuals and communities across space and time have fulfilled these Scriptures by fully inhabiting them performing this pageant of freedom from time immemorial.
My performing didn’t end with the Christmas pageant. I continued act and sing and perform in plays and musicals. One thing I learned in theater is that in order for the performance to be successful, you have to set your ego aside. You have to empty yourself of your natural tendencies and biases and preferences and become this other person. It’s not that your ego goes away forever. It tends to come back with a vengeance once the performance is done. But in order to enter the world of the script you have to let down your defenses and trust—trust the playwright, trust the director, trust the audience, trust your fellow actors. This was Jesus’ approach to his work for justice. The Apostle Paul calls all who follow Jesus to do the same. He writes, “Let the same mind be in you 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.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
It’s because of this radical self-emptying that Jesus can say, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
The great 13th century Zen Master Dogen wrote “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things. When actualized by the myriad things, your body-and-mind as well as the bodies-and-minds of others drop away.”
In this great emptiness—what the Buddha called sunyata—all worlds are present, arising and falling away. The world of suffering and liberation from suffering. This world of injustice and This is the great freedom that makes all freedoms possible. Jesus practiced this great emptiness. The Buddha did. Dogen did, and we can, too. This gives me hope for justice—that together with grace, effort, and loving support of community—we can get out of the way and let justice be done in and through us. Then perhaps we will be able to say, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“Plenty Good Room (Interbeing)”
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter
10 May 2020
Text: John 14:1-14
Plenty Good Room
When I was teenager my dad used to say to me, “You’re just like your mother.” Some of you may have read the piece I wrote this week about the complicated relationship between my parents. They didn’t get along well for a number of reasons. Dad only said, “You’re just like your mother” to me when he was upset with me, so I learned that being “just like my mother” was a bad thing. I watched my own behavior to see for myself if dad was right. Am I just like my mother? And if I am, what kind of man does that make me? My mom is a pastor. If I become one, does that make me “just like” her? How does that affect my relationship with dad? It was all very difficult and complicated, but it’s a situation all of us share to some degree or another. Each of us is the product of parents. The very cells of our bodies are built with the genes of others. This is true not only for parents and children, but for all of life on this planet, even, in fact, for the entire universe. Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has a term for this reality: “Interbeing.”
Interbeing is a term that could describe the truth at the heart of our Scripture text this morning. Jesus says to his followers, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” “The Father” is Jesus’ word for God. Jesus is telling us that just like you and I owe our very existence to our parents, Jesus owes his very existence to God. Just like we are formed from the very genes of our parents, Jesus is formed from the very spirit or “breath”–which in the Bible is the same word–of God. In the same way that I am “just like” my mother, Jesus is “just like” God. And, by the way, so are you. So am I.
A few verses later Jesus says, “You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” In other words, we are just like Jesus. In the same way Jesus is in God and God in Jesus, we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us. God, Jesus, you, me, the entire universe, we all–to once again use the words of Thich Nhat Hanh–”inter-are.”
This can all sound very abstract and impractical, but it actually isn’t. In fact, you don’t need religion–whether Buddhism, Christianity, or any other–to tell you that we are all inescapably interconnected. Science tells us this. Biology tells us this. Physics tells us this. Common sense tells us this. The coronavirus tells us. What we need religion for is to remind us what we already know–that my health and wellbeing is intimately connected to yours. What we need religion for is to hold us accountable for doing what is right, no matter how difficult that might be.
Dr. King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace prize. His statement about justice is a statement of interbeing. Racism isn’t just a problem for the South, racism is a problem right here in Granby. Homelessness isn’t just a problem for Hartford or Springfield. In fact, one of our church members who has been active in affordable housing for years said in a meeting this week that most of the homeless in Hartford don’t come from Hartford. They come from places like Granby, like Simsbury, like West Hartland. To look down on other communities–even if it is in pity–as if these issues are problems for “those people” is to completely miss the truth of interbeing. This is what makes interbeing so difficult. Relieving your suffering isn’t as much about changing you as it is about changing me. Ending homelessness isn’t so much about changing Hartford, it’s about changing Granby.
Because he was speaking in and to a patriarchal culture, Jesus said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” But he could just as easily have said, “I am in my Mother and my Mother is in me.” On this day when we honor mothers, we can honor them by remembering our connection to all of life. On this day when we take time to make expressions of love to our mothers we can consider whether it is truly possible to love our mothers without also loving our neighbors. On this day when we recognize the priceless gift of life our mothers have given us, we realize that life is not ours to keep but ours to share.
Worship Resources for Epiphany 6A based on Matthew 5:21-37
Call to Worship
Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We do our best to love others.
Sometimes we become angry, even with those we love.
Holy God, teach us how to handle anger.
Teach us how to speak the truth in love.
Prayer of Dedication
Holy God, we dedicate our offerings in service of love and justice. Amen.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-14-20
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-14-20
Handling anger is difficult to do well. Buddhism, for example, identifies anger (along with greed and ignorance) as one of the “three poisons.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “everyone who becomes angry with his brother is liable to judgment.” Anger is a human emotion. We feel it, often before we’re consciously aware of it. Anger “overcomes” us, floods our neurotransmitters, narrows our vision, sets our hearts racing, “boils” in our guts. It activates the “fight or flight” response in the most primitive parts of our brain. Anger can be incredibly destructive whether we express it outwardly in hurtful words and actions or turn it inward where it manifests as depression, bitterness, and physical ailments. So how do we handle it?
Although I doubt they intended to, my family taught me that anger was scary and shameful. They didn’t teach me this explicitly. Like all children, I learned my lessons on anger by watching my caregivers (who, in turn, learned how to handle anger from their caregivers.) We were a Dutch immigrant family that tended toward emotional reserve. As an adult I can see that there was a lot of anger under the surface. I’m grateful I didn’t witness any physical violence or verbal abuse. Instead rage seethed underneath and manifested as physical absence, cutting remarks, alcoholism, infidelity, lying, and other passive-agressive behaviors. This disconnect between how we as a family presented ourselves publicly as happy and healthy and the chaos churning behind closed doors created its own challenges for me as I became an adult.
As an adult I’m still very much learning how best to handle my anger. For me, meeting the reality of anger begins and ends with awareness. It was a huge shift for me simply to admit that I’m incredibly angry . . . for all kinds of reasons. These days most of my anger is in the form of “moral outrage.” I anger myself when I notice my own failings as a Christian. I notice loving churches that have so much to offer their communities “hiding their light under a bushel” while mean, vengeful, and bigoted Christians spread their message far and wide and I get very, very angry. Mostly I’m exhausted by the moral outrages of our current politics, but when our government puts children in cages or when 26 first-graders are gunned down in their classroom and politicians cry “2nd amendment” or when I notice the casual, day-to-day violence and racism that implicate all of us who vote, pay taxes, and work for the improvement of our communities, my anger flares up, and I say something.
Just creating the psychic space where anger can come into view increases the likelihood that I can engage it productively. It’s become a joke around our house when I’m moping and acting out of sorts for my wife to say to me, “Now Todd, use your words.” Just saying “I’m angry” opens the door for conversation that can create the conditions whereby anger, which is simply a form of psychic energy, can be directed toward fixing a situation that is not as good as it could be.
Anger arises in the context of love. Mr. Rogers put it this way, “It’s the people we love the most who can make us feel the gladdest and the maddest! Love and anger are such a puzzle!” Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is the context for his teaching on anger. This week at First Congregational Church of Granby we will stand close enough to the flame of anger to benefit from its warmth and energy yet at a respectful enough distance that none gets burned.
Bread of Life
Worship Resources for Epiphany 4C February 3, 2019
*Call to Worship Public opinion blows this way and that. You’re a hero one minute and a villain the next. While that may be the way of politics, it’s not the way of Jesus. How can we ground ourselves in what is really real, really true, and really good? One way to start is through the ancient practices of worship. Let the storms of the world blow, in here we’re calm, centered, and ready for God’s word of truth.
Prayer of Confession
Holy God, we confess our fascination with palace intrigue and political fights. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest outrage. We admit we are all too ready to point out the faults of others, but are reluctant to look into the mirror of your truth. Give us the courage to deal with the log in our own eye before we go searching for the speck in our neighbor’s. Give us clean hearts so that when we are faced with injustice, we can speak to it with a clear voice. Show us where we need to get into good trouble. Amen.
*Prayer of Dedication
We pray that no one would ever have to put their lives on the line for the cause of justice, but we recognize that sometimes you call Christians to do just that. We dedicate these offerings not simply as tools of charity but as tokens of our commitment to justice. Amen.