Pray for Boldness (Acts 4:23-31)

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister

First Congregational Church of Stamford

Sermon for Farewell Worship

31 March 2019

Text: Acts 4:23-31

Pray for Boldness

         My first thought when the movers left the apartment was that this was a mistake. I was sure that both my career and my marriage were in jeopardy because I had taken a call to be the Transitional Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Stamford. My life was over. Stamford is 80 miles away from my home in Windsor, which meant that I would be spending the majority of my days and nights in this apartment away from my family for the foreseeable future. It was a devastating realization. I called my wife and my kids every day. I also cried every day that first week.

         When I returned to Windsor after that first week, I was still convinced that I had made a big mistake. My wife, Nicole, said to me, “See your spiritual director. That always makes you feel better.” So I did. I told David what was going on. He said, “Stick it out for two weeks. Do your spiritual practice every day. Remember, your thoughts are just thoughts. They’re not the truth.” So I did what my spiritual director said. Every day for at least 30 minutes I sat in silence, watched my breath, and let my thoughts float by. Slowly my mind began to settle. Slowly I started to feel more grounded. I was still very aware of the fragility of my situation. This church had forced out its previous senior minister. There was little preventing the same thing from happening to me. 

         Miraculously, instead of feeling anxious and timid, I felt emboldened. Then, just weeks into my tenure here, I was making my 80 mile Sunday morning commute when a deer leaped across Interstate 95 and onto the hood of my car. I spun around twice into oncoming traffic and stalled. Somehow I managed to get myself and my pet bunny out of the car and to the side of the road. First I called my wife. Then I called the police. Then I called Peter Birch, who drove out to Westport, picked me up, and drove me to church in time for service. I preached on the doctrine of the Trinity and danced with Wally Williams as a sermon illustration. Through these experiences I developed a new spiritual practice: preach every sermon as if it were my last because for any number of reason it well might be. And, look, here we are, my last sermon with you.

         Scripture tells us that what Jesus had predicted for his disciples had come to pass. They were doing miracles and gaining followers just like he did. They were also experiencing persecution just like Jesus had. Today’s Scripture is the final episode in a longer story of Peter healing a lame man who had been begging in front of the temple. When people asked how Peter had done this miracle he told them about Jesus. The authorities didn’t like what Peter and John had to say, so they arrested them, interrogated them, and ordered them to stop telling people about Jesus. Peter and John refused. Nevertheless, the authorities let them go. When Peter and John returned and told the other disciples about their experience, they didn’t pray for protection, they prayed for boldness. 

The Greek word that is translated “boldness” also means, “free spoken, open.” It means you say what you think, not in some meanspirited, vindictive way but out of conviction. Pastor and youth ministry specialist Mike Yaconelli puts it this way, “Boldness doesn’t mean rude, obnoxious, loud, or disrespectful. Being bold is being firm, sure, confident, fearless, daring, strong, resilient, and not easily intimidated. It means you’re willing to go where you’ve never been, willing to try what you’ve never tried, and willing to trust what you’ve never trusted. Boldness is quiet, not noisy.” Rabbi and organizational consultant Edwin Friedman calls this quality principled leadership. It’s the sort of boldness that 16thcentury protestant reformer Martin Luther demonstrated—the one after whom Dr. Martin Luther King was named. 400 years before the civil rights activist, Martin Luther stood trial for protesting abuses in the church. Facing a panel of inquisitors famous for burning heretics he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

You have taught me boldness. And for that I cannot thank you enough. Week after week I have stood before you and preached my last sermon. Week after week you kept showing up for more. My previous church experience had taught me that I could be punished for any ill-considered word. Churches taught me that any difficult truth could kick the sabotage grapevine into high gear. Congregations had taught me speaking freely is just too risky. Church people taught me that honesty is unwelcome. But you changed all that. Slowly I began to worry less about blow back and upset. Slowly I risked grounding myself in deeper truths. I’ll never forget one Sunday following worship in the first church I served many years ago. I had told a story about my dad’s alcoholism to illustrate a sermon. One of the older members afterward said, “Save it for coffee hour.” Meaning, personal stories were unwelcome in the pulpit. Here you’ve supported me as I’ve deepened my connection with God, with my family, with myself, with my ministry, and with you.

My prayer for you going forward is that you will be filled with boldness. I pray that you will freely and openly give your testimony. Share your faith. The people of Stamford so desperately need bold, compassionate leaders in the community. My spiritual director calls the result of spiritual practice “true self-confidence,” as opposed to the shallow bluster we’ve become so accustomed to in our leaders. Here’s a short video about that kind of true confidence.

It turns out this wasn’t a mistake at all. From the eyes of the world, from the conventional perspective, this has turned out all wrong. The building is sold, the pastor is moving on, everything has changed. In a world that values victory this looks like defeat. But I don’t see it that way at all. We know something that others don’t. I’ve seen the twinkle in your eyes. We may have just glimpsed the truth for a second, but that’s infinitely more than most churches. Most churches are coasting along pretending they will never die. We have looked that reality squarely in the face, embraced it, and have placed our trust in resurrection on the other side. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” You know the truth. You are free. Now live like it.You have a story to tell and a testimony to give. Proclaim it with boldness.

Worship Resources for Sunday 3-24-19 (Acts 4:1-22)

Call To Worship        

The human heart longs for God. That ache that we feel inside, the isolation, the lack of purpose and meaning, unresolved grief if it isn’t attended to can lead us to some pretty dark places. That’s why before he ascended to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples an experience and a mission. The experience was resurrection. The mission was tell what they had seen and heard. In worship we have the opportunity to connect with God and live out our mission. Let’s worship God.

Prayer of Confession       

How can we share with others what we haven’t experienced ourselves? Holy God, we’re just like the first disciples. Jesus stands right before us yet somehow we miss it. Jesus tells us in plain words the way of the cross that leads to resurrection; nevertheless, we resist. Open the eyes of our hearts. We want to see you. Amen.

“Speaking What We’ve Seen and Heard.” Sermon 3-24-19

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister

First Congregational Church of Stamford

Sermon for the 3rdSunday of Silent Period

24 March 2019

Text: Acts 4:1-21

Speaking What We’ve Seen and Heard

            Scripture tells us that the Sadducees forbade Peter and John from telling people about Jesus. Why? The Sadducees were an ancient school of Judaism that did not believe in resurrection. Jews at the time of Jesus, like Jews and Christians today, had a wide variety of beliefs about the afterlife. Some believed in heaven and hell. Some did not. Some Jews believed that that God would bring good people back to life at the end of time, others did not. What’s important here is that the Sadducees believed people just die. Human beings are mortal. God is eternal. What’s important is what we do with our lives here and now. Our lives are carried forward in the memories of our family and our faith community who are entrusted with the sacred task of remembering those who have gone on before. That doesn’t sound so strange, does it? In fact, my guess is that many modern people believe some version of this, including some people here this morning. It’s a rational belief. It fits the evidence of our lives as we live them in the conventional world of consensual reality. Dead people stay dead, and we remember them. Peter and John were telling folks that God had raised Jesus from the dead. God had reached past the impenetrable barrier of finitude and restored someone to life. God broke the rules. And that scared the life out of the Sadducees, so they tried shut Peter and John up.

            It wasn’t just that Peter and John were saying it. If no one listened, there would be no reason for the Sadducees to intervene. If no one believed, there would be no reason for the Sadducees to feel threatened. But people did listen because a man that they knew well, a man who had been lame from his birth, a man whom they passed by on their way to the temple, a man who begged alms from them because his disability gave him no other option, a man who watched others pass through the Beautiful Gate but who wasn’t able to enter himself, this man was now walking and dancing and leaping and shouting and telling everyone that Peter and John had healed him. When they asked how this miracle happened Peter told them that it was through the power of Jesus, whom God had raised from the dead. The people listened. Not only did they listen, they believed. They believed that the same power that healed this man could heal them, too. They believed that the same power that had raised Jesus could raise them, too. The message had power not because it was some fantasy. The message had power not because the people were gullible. The message had power not because Peter and John incredibly talented con men. The message had power because there was new evidence. The evidence that transformed Peter and John was the appearance of the risen Christ. The evidence that convinced the people at the temple was the testimony of a man who had been healed and the testimony of those who were agents of his healing. The healed man, Peter and John, were speaking not what they imagined, but what they had seen and heard. 

            I believe in God because I’ve seen the evidence. I’m not interested in fantasies or lies or sophisticated cons to lighten your wallets any more than you are. I believe in God because of you. You have stepped out beyond the bounds of what I thought possible. Clinging to the past, refusing to face reality, fighting change–these behaviors are very familiar to me. I confront these behaviors within myself every day. I think it’s incredibly ironic that God has called me to lead you and other congregations through transition when personally I’m so horrible at it. I don’t enjoy transitions at all. I find them frightening and exhausting. Like you, I’d rather be in control. Like the Sadducees, I’d rather God stuck to the rules. I’d rather God’s wisdom were conventional wisdom, God’s reality consensual reality. I like the idea of resurrection, but I hate that one has to pass through death to get there. I’d much rather the myth of progress were true. I’d much rather the path abundant and eternal life led every upward and onward. But it doesn’t. In order to know joy, God invites us to become acquainted with sorrow. In order to know delight, God invites us to walk the path of suffering. In order to know healing, God asks us to face our disease. In order to know freedom, God opens in us the heart of letting go. And you have done all these things. You are doing all these things. I believe in the way of Jesus because I’ve seen the evidence. And the evidence is you.

Show Up!

Pastor’s Page Feb. 2019

This month we are preparing to say goodbye to First Congregational Church of Stamford as we have known it. Really, as the world has known it for the past 384 years. It’s a big deal. On March 2-3 we will be celebrating a Legacy Weekend in which we will ritually close the church.

You remember that old cliche “When God closes a door he opens a window?”

We are going to be testing the truth of that statement.

Let’s be clear: we are choosing a strategic death trusting that by intentionally letting go of what was we are creating a space in which God can give birth to something new. As a congregation we are doing what from the beginning has been the defining practice of Christians: imitating Christ. Jesus gave himself over to death on a cross trusting that God would raise him up to new life. And God did. Jesus told his disciples that this would be their path as well: “Those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.”

Our current plan is to reopen in a new location with a new name in the autumn of this year. In the meantime, we will be going into a “Silent Period” during which we will be engaged in community outreach and creative worship experiences around the city.

So for the next several weeks I encourage you to show up! Show up for worship. Show up for Discovery Weekend February 3. Show up to commission the restart task forces February 10. Show up for Healing Service February 17. Show up for Baptism Sunday February 24. Show up! The folks who stayed close to Jesus on Good Friday had front row seats to his resurrection Easter morning.