What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-17-20

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands . . .”

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-17-20

On the church calendar this is the first week of the Easter Season: 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. Pentecost is the Sunday we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. Jesus had ascended to heaven following his resurrection, but had promised his followers the Holy Spirit, who would empower them to carry on his mission even though the physcial form of the historical Jesus would no longer be present in the world. The 50 days of the Easter Season was an intense time during which Jesus prepared his followers to be his hands and heart for the world.

This preparation begins with appearances of the resurrected Christ. This week’s Scripture, John 20:18-31, recounts two appearances of Jesus to the disciples who had gathered the week before to celebrate Passover with Jesus in the “upper room” they had rented for the occasion. The text–like all of the stories of Jesus’ appearances–raises two big questions: “Who is this resurrected Jesus?” And “How should we respond to him?”

The John 20 account is famous for the story of a disciple named Thomas. As I mentioned above, Jesus appears twice in John 20. The first time Thomas is absent. His fellow disciples tell Thomas that they saw Jesus, but he doesn’t believe them. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Jesus appears to the disciples a second time. This time Thomas is among them. Jesus invites Thomas to examine and touch his wounds–just as Thomas had demanded–and Thomas believes. The scene ends with Jesus saying to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

If you were in Thomas’ shoes, how would you respond to reports that Jesus was alive? I grew up in a very conservative Christian community that understood faith to be a kind of “belief without proof,” a kind of “take my word for it.” The Bible says God raised Jesus from the dead, so we should accept it as fact even if it seems like a fairytale. To doubt or question was understood to be antithetical to faith. While I definitely had my questions and even as a young child asked them, more than that, I wanted to be a good Christian, so I accepted what my parents and Sunday school teachers and pastors said even if not everything made sense.

As a young adult I studied at a divinity school where we learned to question and critique Biblical texts and church doctrines. As an middle-aged adult I have pastored more liberal churches in which folks tend to wear doubt as a badge of pride–a sign of intellectual rigor and freedom of conscience. And as I have gone deeper in my studies I have noticed yet another turn: a practice of doubting one’s doubts. A comedian once put it this way: “You say there is no God. Are you sure? Have you looked everywhere?” 

I invite us to consider stepping beyond faith and doubt as intellectual exercise. The significance of Christ’s resurrection for me is the reality it points to: following Christ’s way moment to moment makes new and abundant life possible for me, for you, for all of creation. Try it yourself and see!

In the Garden

From the entryway to my Stamford, CT apartment where I lived 2016-2019 while serving First Congregational Church of Stamford
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Congregational Church of Granby 12 April 2020

Worship Resource 4-12-20, Easter Sunday-Year A

Opening Prayer                                                                                      

God of life, defeater of death, we worship you because you alone are worthy. Thank you for Jesus, firstborn of the dead, who has shown us the pathway to life everlasting. In these stay at home days, be our shelter. In this time when news of illness and death is all around, restore us to life. In this time of economic anxiety and financial peril, establish our faith in your generous provision. Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-10-20

Schmaltz warning: view at your own risk!

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-10-20

The resurrection story in the Gospel of John is famous for its recounting of Mary’s personal encounter with Jesus “in the garden” near the tomb. John is the only gospel that contains this story. It’s vivid in detail, and it inspired the schmaltzy hymn “In the Garden.” For those of you not familiar, it goes like this:  

I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses

And the voice I hear 

falling on my ear

the Son of God discloses. 

Chorus:

And he walks with me

And he talks with me

And he tells me I am his own

And the joy we share

As we tarry there

None other has ever known.

The joke in my family was, “Who’s Andy?” (You know “Andy” walks with me. “Andy” talks with me . . .)

You probably love this hymn. A lot of people do. And I’m not immune to schmaltz, but this particular hymn was always a little much for me. 

That’s why I’ve chosen to preach on this text this week. I wonder if there’s something vivid and powerful underneath the layers of sentimentality that have been slathered on this particular resurrection scene that can speak to this time of crisis.

If I had to guess, it might have something to do with the garden and gardening itself. John tells us that when Mary encounters Jesus she at first mistakes him for the “gardener.” The image of the garden reminds me of the Biblical Garden of Eden and all that transpired there: creation, disobedience, the curse of Adam and Eve, and the promise of redemption. It also reminds me of the famous pronouncement following creation: “God saw all that God had made, and behold it was very good.” 

As coronavirus wreaks havoc across the planet, does “very good” still apply? Had resurrection really happened back when Mary encountered “the gardener” so many centuries ago? More importantly, can it happen now?

Worship Resource 3-29-20

Opening Prayer                                                                                      

On Ash Wednesday, Holy God, you reminded us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In these days when disease threatens life as we know it, we recognize our true nature as creatures of dust subject to the iron law of change. Thank you for time and again breathing new life into these dry bones. Thank you for the boundless gift of your love which neither time nor space nor life nor death nor anything else in all of creation can alter. Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-17-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-16-19

I would like to apologize for missing last week’s column. Without getting too much into the gory details, I have a recurrance of a tiny benign tumor. That in itself would be no big deal. The trouble is that it’s in my skull! So it can’t stay there. We decided on radiation treatment, which I had last Thursday morning. When I asked, the doc said I might experience “mild fatigue” afterward. I’m not sure what counts as “severe fatigue” but I now know I wouldn’t want to experience it. I spent the next 24 hours in bed. That threw my schedule off for the week, and I missed my deadline. So, once again, I’m sorry, but I’m glad to say I’m back on my feet and shouldn’t require any more radiation treatments. One and done!

I’m writing this from the downtown Granby Starbucks, which is crowded with people this morning. I’m guessing a few, like me, are here for the power and the wifi, which are down throughout much of the town, including First Congregational Church of Granby, because of the Nor’easter that swept through the region last night. Disruption, whether health-related or weather-related, is my experience right now.

Disruption is familiar territory for me. The big one, of course, was when dad came out as gay and my parents divorced. But even before that moment, much of my childhood experience was moving place to place following dad as he moved from job to job. As an adult, my experience hasn’t been that much different. Ministry has called my family and me to move from place to place following opportunities to be of service. Years ago my oldest daughter commented that the only consistent things in her life have been family and God. 

For me, keys to surviving disruption are the following:

  1. Keep it light.
  2. Move quickly.
  3. Widen your vision.
  4. See the opportunities.
  5. Nothing’s personal.
  6. Focus on the essentials.

Perhaps we’ll have the opportunity to flesh these out further, but for now I leave them with you to think about in relation to our congregational transition. 

Transition necessarily involves disruption. Look at Jesus’ example. My reading of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that it was a bit of a disruption–not only for Jesus personally but, as it turns out, for the entire world. Disruption is woven into the fabric of reality. It is also a key component of our faith. Given that realization, how will we respond to disruption as we move into God’s future? 

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.