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A repost of my Easter sermon from 2012

Rev. Todd Grant Yonkman, co-pastor
Beneficent Congregational Church (Providence, RI)
Sermon for Easter Sunday
8 April 2012
Text: Mark 16-1-8

Resurrection Hope

The Gospel of Mark says that early Sunday morning three of Jesus’ disciples—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and a woman named Salome—went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body with spices. In Bible times there were no funeral homes. The care of the body after a person had died was left up to family and friends. Under normal circumstances, the family would have honored the body of their deceased loved one by washing it, anointing it with nice smelling oils and spices, wrapping it in a linen shroud, and then placing it in the family tomb, which was a kind of small cave with a stone placed in front to seal it. Under normal circumstances Jesus’ family would have laid him to rest. These were not normal circumstances.
Jesus had been executed by the Roman Empire for leading a movement of diverse people—poor people, people with disabilities, farmers and fishermen, tax collectors, men and women, people discriminated against because of ethnicity, culture, or class, children and adults, and even some of the educated elites of the day who questioned the status quo. Jesus healed people. He raised them from the dead. Jesus taught people to turn to God and to create a community where the last would be first and the first would be last, a place of radical hospitality, of compassion and peace. All of this made the Roman authorities nervous, so they silenced him by killing him.
When the women went to Jesus’ tomb early Sunday morning, they were being very brave and very loving. They were being very brave because if they were caught visiting the tomb of an executed criminal—an enemy of the empire—they could be arrested as traitors and co-conspirators. They were being very loving because in the confusion and panic of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion Jesus’ family and followers did not have the opportunity to give him a proper burial. Now, three days later, three of Jesus’ bravest and most loyal followers were risking their lives to pay their respects.
When the women arrived at the tomb, they found the stone rolled away. Suddenly, they were on alert. Something strange was going on. Then when they looked inside, they saw a young man dressed in white. Was he an angel!? Probably. He was sitting in an otherwise empty tomb. When they saw this, the Bible says the women became “alarmed.” This word “alarmed” is an important word in the story. The original Greek word—ekthambos—has its roots in a word that means “to strike.” Imagine the women entering the tomb and being “struck” speechless and senseless by what they saw. If someone is stunned in boxing or football, we say he got his “bell rung.” The alarm the women felt was like being stunned by a sudden blow. The women expected to find Jesus’ corpse in his tomb. Instead they met his messenger, who said, “He is not here. He is risen.” Their reaction was “alarm”—an appropriate human reaction when we are unexpectedly find ourselves on that mysterious and supernatural margin between life and death.
The alarm bells went off for me when my sister called three weeks ago. She said that she and my dad’s partner, Mark, had decided to transition dad to hospice care. Dad’s HIV doctor said that dad had a week to live. Three weeks have passed since that call, and dad is still hanging on. That’s the good news. But at the time, I wasn’t taking any chances. My brother, Chad and I got on the first flight to Grand Rapids that we could. When we arrived at dad’s house, I was alarmed to see how thin and weak he had become.
The hospital bed had been set up in the living room. When I approached it, dad could barely lift his arms to give me a hug. Dad was a six-three, 200-pound man raised on a dairy farm in northern Michigan. When I was young, I watched him stack 50-pound hay bales. Dad has had HIV since the early ‘80s. He’s had a lot of health scares, but seeing him like this was a shock. Dad said to me, “Do you have any words of wisdom that will help me get rid of this anxiety and rest in Christ’s arms?” I sat on the edge of the bed and said, “No. But I’m here and we’ll get through this together.” Dad looked at me for a second. Then he turned his head and shouted, “Mark, I need a vicadin!”
Mark came to the bed. “Are you in pain?”
“Are you anxious?”
“OK. I’ll get you an atavan.”
Dad was always one for the medications.
I’ve been preparing for this sermon for weeks—working on that atavan joke and reading up on the latest scholarship about Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection debate hasn’t changed that much over the past 2000 years. The question still is What really happened Easter morning? Historians generally agree on two things: 1) there was an empty tomb, and 2) Jesus did appear in some form to his followers. The arguing starts when we get to the question of whether the resurrected Jesus had a literal, human body, and if so exactly what kind of body that was, or whether Jesus had a spiritual form of some sort, or whether it was all in the disciples’ heads. What I’ve discovered is that the details of what, exactly, happened Easter morning don’t really matter to me. What matters to me is that Jesus’ broken, tortured, and humiliated body was somehow redeemed. What matters to me is that just as the crucifixion was public humiliation and torture, so too the resurrection was public vindication and healing.
When I visited dad in Grand Rapids, one of the things we did was meet with his pastor to talk about funeral plans. She asked if I wanted to speak, and I said, “Yeah, sure.” The past several weeks I’ve been thinking about what I would say. A part of me just wants to say what most people say at funerals. I want to share fond memories of why I loved my dad and the good things he did for his family and the like. But I can’t change the fact that when my dad got his diagnosis 25 years ago, he took it as a death sentence. Years ago, he told me that from the day he got his diagnosis, he made it his job to teach me to live without him. I want to pretend I’m not angry that.
I want to pretend that the drugs he was given to fight the virus didn’t destroy his pancreas and his liver, which in the end will cause his demise. I want to pretend that he didn’t spend 40 years living a double life of a straight, church-going, family-oriented, business executive and a hurting, lonely, shame-filled, alcoholic, gay man looking for love where he could find it. I want to pretend that an empire of hatred and fear that demonizes difference had nothing to do with my dad’s suffering. I want to pretend that a culture that shames people who are simply trying to be who God created them to be had nothing to do with my dad’s life or his approaching death. I want to pretend that a church that exploits the gifts and talents of those same people as long as they don’t “put it in our faces” was not the sort of church that I grew up in. But I can’t pretend. And I won’t. It wouldn’t do dad’s memory justice.
My resurrection hope is that when dad dies, he will go to heaven and rest in Christ’s arms. That’s all he wants, and I am confident he will. But resurrection hope isn’t just dad or you or me getting into heaven—as wonderful as that will be. If that’s all it means, then the forces of hatred, oppression, violence, and despair have won. What do they care where we go beyond the grave as long as they can exploit people here and now? The resurrection was public as well as personal, communal as well as individual. Resurrection hope gives me the courage to keep trying to create with a community where people are no longer shamed for who they are. A place where we sing:

Sermon by Nicole Grant Yonkman and Ray Watson at Beneficent Church on 13 October 2013.

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman
Jimmy Kelly
Brad Marshall
Maureen McEntee
Beneficent Congregational Church (Providence, RI)
Sermon Series: Faces of Jesus
6 October 2013
Text: Mk 7:31-37

Sacred Conversation on Equal Access

1. Todd: Good morning, everyone. Good morning Jimmy, Brad, Maureen. This morning we will be sharing a Sacred Conversation on Equal Access. We will be asking specifically how Beneficent Church can be more accessible to the deaf community. It’s an honor to be sharing this Sacred Conversation with Jimmy Kelly and his husband, Brad Marshall, who have worked for many years leading a deaf and hard of hearing ministry for the Catholic Church here in Rhode Island. They are members of Church of the Holy Paraclete. Next to me is Maureen McEntee. Maureen is a member of Beneficent Church and studied at Gallaudet University in Washington, D. C., which is the world’s leading bi-lingual English and ASL university. She has made it her life’s work to build bridges among the hearing and deaf communities. Maureen put us in touch with Jimmy and Brad, and it’s been great getting to know each other.
Just a word of explanation about this conversation: Maureen is going to be interpreting for me—English to ASL—and Brad is going to be interpreting for Jimmy—ASL to English. This is a new experience for me, and I’m looking forward to it!
Jimmy, I was wondering if you could share a few words of introduction about yourself. We’d love to hear your story.
2. Jimmy:
I first went to school in Boston School for the Deaf in Randolph from age 5 to 16 and then entered Bishop Feehan High School as the first Deaf person to go there in 1963. The School at that time was taking a chance as hearing schools, specially high schools, were not interested in this group of people as we were still labeled as “Deaf & Dumb” which of course we are deaf but far from dumb as most people thought we were also mentally retarded. With many difficulties I did graduate from Bishop Feehan but I still knew very little sign language at that time as I was forced into oral training only. That is when I meet Sr. Gabriel Clune who opened the world for me by showing in sign language and introducing me to other deaf and I quickly learned true ASL (American Sign language). Through Sr. Gabriel I began to understand about God and Spirituality and the services at church began to understood by me. I join Sister and learned a lot enough to be brave enough to teach and run programs to assist other deaf understand God better. Later I went on to Ministry School and there through the Institute I studied the Old and New Testaments, Spirituality, Historical meaning of the Culture of Jesus times and took courses in pray development and the sacramental life of the Church and Church law. I was the first deaf person to do this in the New England are which made me just a little less than a full deacon.
From there I took over the complete program for Deaf services and education as the Executive Director for the Apostolate for the Deaf in the Diocese of Rhode Island which I held until 2005 when the office was closed. So I have been lucky with a rich background in teaching, developing and working on deaf spirituality and helping deaf and hearing understand the need for people to be involved with helping the deaf understand and find thier walk to God and grasp their spiritually that is special in themselves.

3. Todd: What is deaf culture?

4. Jimmy: Deaf culture is expressing life through a more concrete (hard) level. It is a visually and physically based communication not so much voice sounds with inflections (various sounds) as the rest of the world. Granted technology of late has help a lot but it is still base on close community ties and one to one bases were you are seen and are fully present to each other. The idea of deaf culture and it’s meaning is a full course taught in many universities. Here is a definition that might help:
Deaf culture describes the social beliefs, behaviors, art, writing traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are deaf and which use sign languages as the main means of communication. When used as a cultural label, the word deaf is often written with a capital D, and meant as “big D Deaf” in speech and sign. When used as a label for the loss of hearing condition, it is written with a lower print d.
Members of the Deaf community view deafness as a difference in human experience rather than a disability.
Deaf culture is recognized under article 30, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that “Persons with disabilities shall be entitled (receive), on an equal basis with others, to recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic (language) identity, including sign languages and deaf culture.”

5. Todd: My understanding is that our Scripture for today is controversial in the deaf community. Some think that it’s saying that deaf people are somehow “broken” and that they need to be “fixed.” They don’t like to be seen as broken. They want to be respected as whole and capable people. How do you understand this Scripture?
6. Jimmy: I believe in this reading that as first Jesus takes the Deaf man away separate from others, as Jesus understands the visual nature of being deaf and wanting to make it private between him and the person. Second the use of touching between Jesus and the man and motion of the deep breath, the chest actually moving, shows that God understand the physical verse the voicing between God and the deaf man. “Ephphatha” is a Greek word for open – for the Deaf man it coming to understand God and the Holy Spirit are open to him in his language – but to help the hearing people understand the message, Jesus physically change the Deaf man. This is how I see it not a fix of my deafness but an example of the many ways God is always try to communicate to each of us even if some times he actually has to change us to show people that God is real.

7. Todd: I love your reading of Scripture here. First, I really like that through Jesus God communicates physically with the man. That God’s communication isn’t limited to what hearing people understand as a “voice.” God can and does communicate to people in many ways. It is our job to continually “open” ourselves to connection with God and each other. I also like how you understand the change in the deaf man to be for the sake of the witnesses—so that they will know that God is real. God changes us for the sake of others in service of the gospel so that we can all celebrate God’s goodness together. What a wonderful reading! One last question: What can we do as a church to make our congregation more accessible to deaf people and those who have hearing difficulties?
8. Jimmy: To begin with just having a person sign once in awhile the Sunday services and help with the social after would be a very big step. Even if it is only once a month this happens. Maybe for those days it could be announce in the religious section of the newspaper to call attention to it, or a sign out front of the building. But what ever is done it needs to be consistent as most things in our community is by word of hand to each other and takes time.

9. Todd: By word of hand. What a wonderful expression. Thank you Jimmy for sharing this conversation with us. I’ve learned so much. It has been a real blessing. Thank you Brad and Maureen for your interpretation. This is just a start, but a really great start. My prayer is that God will change all of us so that hearing and deaf together will know that God is real.

Sermon by Todd Grant Yonkman and Jimmy Kelly at Beneficent Church on 6 October 2013. Text: Mark 7:31-37. Bi-lingual English American Sign Language interpreted worship. Conversation on Deaf Culture and equal access to Christian worship.

Sermon by Nicole Grant Yonkman at Beneficent Church on 1 September 2013. Text: Psalm 90.

Sermon by Todd Grant Yonkman at Beneficent Church on 25 August 2013. Text: Luke 14:1, 7-11. On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream.”

Sermon by Todd Grant Yonkman at Beneficent Church on July 7, 2013. Text: Genesis 15:1-6.

Sermon by Shai Pina at Beneficent Church on June 10, 2013

Palm Sunday sermon by Todd Grant Yonkman at Beneficent Church on March 24, 2013. Recounts the story of giving testimony at the Rhode Island State Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on same-sex marriage.

Sermon by Todd Grant Yonkman and Pat Falcon at Beneficent Church on March 17, 2013. Beneficent member Pat Falcon and her spouse Gwen Howard have been married 33 years. Hear their story. Scripture: Matthew 5:13-16.

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