Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Church of Christ in Saybrook 27 November 2022
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Church of Christ in Saybrook 20 November 2022
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-13-21
As First Church and South Church face another autumn season with the coronavirus I’m reminded of a time someone jokingly said, “These are the good old days.” This is an important reminder both for us personally and for organizations in transition. As meditation teacher Ram Dass famously said, “Be here now.” Jesus said, “Keep awake!” (Mk. 13:35). Human beings have a tendency to cling to the past and fantasize about the future. Meanwhile, our lives are happening right here, right now.
When the Israelites were journeying through the wilderness they longed to go back to Egypt even though it meant enslavement. They complained to Moses about his leadership. Moses, in turn, complained to God. Yet, generations later when the prophets found themselves facing the decadence aarnd corruption of an established Kingdom of Israel, they wrote with longing about the simpler times when the Israelites wandered through the desert and worshipped in a tent. “Oh, how close our ancestors were to God!” So, if we find ourselves in a bit of a wilderness time, remember, these are the good old days!
How can we “be here now” in the midst of the pressures and pulls of transition? In a recent article “It takes faith to resist the attention economy,” by Rev. Katherine Willis Pershey writes about the search for groundedness in the midst of a sabbatical in the midst of a pandemic. Her answer is to return to those practices that keep her attention on Jesus, worship being one of them, even when there might be more exciting alternatives to give her attention to. In fact, in this “attention economy” in which social media companies have developed sophisticated algorithms to capture our attention and sell it, devoting our lives to the simple practices of prayer, Scripture, song, and service are courageous acts of resistance to a culture that incentivizes exploitation for profit. Worship, devotion, prayer, and meditation in their many forms can return us to the present moment. Let’s enjoy the good old days while we’re living them!
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-2-21
In light of the February 14 decision by First Church and South Church to pursue a path of collaboration, I met with leadership to revise the addendum to my transitional call agreement. This addendum spells out “micro-plans” and “big picture goals” for our ministry together. One of the things that makes transitional ministry different from settled ministry is the inclusion of specific ministry goals in the contracting process.
Our assistant moderator, Lisa Reinhardt, is writing a piece this week on the updated goals for the transitional minister. The first of the updated “micro-plans” is to “remind people of the role of the transition pastor to the congregation.”
After nearly two years of serving together, my guess is most of us have a pretty good sense of the role of the transition pastor in the congregation. A transitional minister contracts with a congregation for a certain period of time in order to get a certain piece of work done, which the transitional minister and congregation define together. In our case, the piece of work was to find a sustainable future.
For about 18 months we explored a number of options. Six weeks ago we decided to pursue consolidation. The reason for updating the addendum at this point was so that it reflected a focus on the consolidation path. In terms of worship, this will mean more energy focused on worshipping together with South Church and developing a common worship liturgy. In terms of program, it will mean focusing more energy on developing collaborative projects with South Church. In terms of pastoral care, it will mean focusing more energy on working through whatever grief may arise as certain familiar aspects of what it means to be First Congregational Church are let go so that new, vital ministries have the space to sprout and grow.
Years ago in one of our conversations my spiritual director refered to a poem by Richard Wilbur entitled “Seed Leaves.” I keep a copy of it pinned to bulletin boards in both my home and my church offices. To me the poem speaks about the hard choices the path to maturity demands of each of us. When we try to be everything to everyone we often end up being of no use to anyone. Wilbur writes:
“This plant would like to grow
And yet be embryo;
Increase, and yet escape
The doom of taking shape;”
Yet the “stubborn” life force demands the plant take shape. A maple tree becomes a maple tree with its distinct characteristics. It can’t be an oak. Like a tree if we are to grow we can’t escape the doom of taking shape.
The great blessing of transitional ministry is the opportunity it creates for new, distinctive, and focused ministry to take shape.
[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. “Koan” comes from the ancient Chinese practice of law and simply means “case,” as in the record of a legal proceeding that points to the truth of the matter at hand. Koans are statements of proceedings usually in a monastery context, that point to truth. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. The koan translation from the original Chinese is by poet David Hinton. Rather than transliterate the character names, Hinton uses a literal translation of the Chinese characters: “Visitation-Land” a.k.a. Zhaozhou/Joshu. Confusing, but perhaps opening up more nuance of meaning. Following the koan is “Setsusho’s” response!]
Master Visitation-Land stopped at a shrine-master’s hut and called out: “Anyone there? Presence? Any Presence there?”
The shrine-master simply held up his fist.
“You can’t anchor a boat in water this shallow,” said Land. Then he left.
Later he returned to the shrine-master’s hut and again called out: “Anyone there? Presence? Any Presence there?”
Once more the shrine-master simply held up a fist.
“Ah you–you can offer up and steal away, put to death and bring to life,” said Land. Then he bowed reverently.
River pools below two boulders
Hermit swims long strokes
Against the current
[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. Following that is “Setsusho’s” response! Note: “Visitation-Land” is David Hinton’s poetic rendering of famous Zen Master Joshu’s name.]
7: VISITATION-LAND WASH BOWL
A monk asked Master Visitation-Land: “I’ve just arrived here in your thicket-forest monastery, Master. Please show me what you have to reveal.” “Have you eaten your mush?” Land asked. “Yes.” “Hurry then, wash your bowl!” At this, the monk was awakened.
Hinton, David. No-Gate Gateway (p. 20). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
Bowl specked with cereal sits in the kitchen.
Monk covered in bunny fuzz sits on the sun porch.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-17-20
Several years ago I traveled to Michigan to visit my extended family. Two of my uncles and several cousins are dairy farmers, so I spent time touring the farms that I grew up working and playing on and learning the latest news. At one point the conversation shifted to organic farming. My uncle shook his head. “Yeah, one of our neighbors is farming organically. It doesn’t look like a farm. It’s full of weeds.” Then he went on to explain the point of genetically modifying certain crops is to reduce the need for pesticides. It was a wonderful education in the tough choices modern farmers have to make in order to survive in an era dominated by global agribusiness.
Scripture for this Sunday’s joint worship service is a parable of ancient agricultural practice. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 is known as “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.” “Tares” is an old-fashioned word for “weeds.” Rev. Moon is preaching a series on agricultural themes in the Bible, which feels appropriate to the rural character of our community.
The Greek word for “tares” or “weeds” in this text actually refers to a very specific kind of plant: darnel, also known as “false wheat.” A brief Internet search informs me that darnel has been known since ancient times. It looks very similar to the more familiar kind of wheat we use to this day to make our bread, cakes, and all kinds of daily staples. Wheat and darnel are almost indistinguishable as young plants, but the fruit of darnel is black instead of the golden color we’re used to. Darnel has its uses, but the grain can sometimes get infected with a fungus that causes illness in humans. All of this added up to a common problem for ancient farmers–sorting the tiny darnel grains from wheat grains at harvest. I can easily imagine that this would be a maddeningly tedious and prohibitively time consuming task.
So it’s unsurprising that farmers might ask, “Can we eliminate the darnel plants before they mature? That way we don’t have to sort the grain at harvest.” The answer of the parable is “No. Attempting to eliminate the undesirable darnel endangers the desirable wheat. Leave the sorting for the harvest. At that time, the fruit will make plain what is darnel and what is wheat.”
Our spiritual practice is not like modern monoculture. The goal isn’t to eliminate undesirable feelings, experiences, behaviors, or people. The goal is to observe and transform them. Scripture says, “Sorrow lasts for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” In other words, the goal isn’t to eliminate sorrow, it’s to fully experience it and watch God transform it through faith into joy.” The goal isn’t to change that annoying person but to observe the annoyance arise in our hearts and ask, “What does this person trigger in me that I’d rather not see in myself?” Watch annoyance transform into wisdom. And so on. Observe and let go. Observe and let go. This process can indeed be tedious, time-consuming, and inefficient, but ultimately, the fruit of this organic practice is nothing other than the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What’s coming up in your garden?
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-12-20
I recently heard on a news podcast that something like 70% of Americans think our country is “out of control.” I don’t know where you’re at, but this statistic points to a feeling we’ve been noticing around us and perhaps feeling ourselves for some months now. The recent protests around the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery just add to the generalized feelings of chaos, uncertainty, and grief that we’ve all been facing.
Recently I was invited to join a cohort of clergy and lay people to receive training on hwo to coach individuals and congregations through the COVID pandemic. Training began this week and will continue (online, of course) through the first half of July. We’ve been learning to identify and contextualize the component parts of the circumstances we’re facing in order to more effectively address them and help people through this time.
There are some practices I’d like to suggest that may be helpful in dealing with feelings of grief and feelings of being “out of control.” When circumstances feel out of control, it’s helpful to find ways to “stay grounded.” Staying grounded is a big reason why I spend an hour every morning sitting still and silent, minding my breath. Literally sitting “on the ground” is an incredibly effective way for me to feel “grounded.” Circumstances can be swirling about me, but I know there is a stable place of rest that is always present–literally beneath my feet.
How will you “stay grounded?” Another technique for when you feel out of control is to identify and describe in detail five things near you. For me, it’s the IKEA couch supporting my back, the Sisal trunk that I’m resting my feet on, the roar of a motorcycle engine on the street, the sigh of the breeze through the trees, now the sound and smell of rain. Is the world really coming apart? Yes, in some ways the world is coming apart. In others it’s coming together. And through it all like the finest of thread the rhythms of the universe continue completely unbothered by our small concerns. While some things are out of our control, other things are in our control. Sometimes it’s helpful to focus on the things we can control beginning with where we place our attention.
Many of you are probably familiar with the five stages of grief originally identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross some decades ago: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance. Perhaps you weren’t aware that later in her career she identified a sixth stage: meaning-making. Meaning-making is the stage of grief that produces creative new life out of death. For example, parents of the Sandy Hook shooting victims creating the organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Or Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, who was recently killed in an encounter with police, testifying before congress in support of police reform.
In the context of our congregational life and our individual lives, I’d like to suggest a powerful question as a tool for meaning-making: “In this time, what are you discovering is ‘essential’ as opposed to merely ‘traditional’?” In other words, what things were we doing before COVID out of mere habit that we’ve found we can do without moving forward? What things have we found we can’t do without that we want to give extra time and attention to moving forward? Loss without a sense of meaning is unbearable. Loss that leads to a simpler, happier, more productive life offers each of us an invaluable opportunity.