“Be Still My Soul”

Lake“O LORD, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me. But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” —Psalm 131:1-3

Many among us engage in a kind of “activist spirituality” which is big on moving and shaking, planning and doing, and making things happen. And much that is good comes out of this style, but in time it can leave the constant doer a bit threadbare around the edges of the soul.

Today’s passage is a humble little one I have never really noticed before. I love that about Scripture, when new gems previously overlooked shine for us.

This one seems the perfect antidote to the dangers of an “activist spirituality.” The Psalmist approaches God humbly, with no claims or complaints, asking for nothing except a still and quiet soul “like a child upon its mother’s breast.”

There is a time to move and shake, a time to plan and do. But there are also times in our faith journey when it is important to wait quietly and let God still our tattered souls, refreshing us for whatever comes next.

Prayer: O God, amid our busy lives grant us some Sabbath moments when we ask for nothing but You to quiet and still our souls, in Jesus’ name.

((This my Daily Devotional for today in Re-Lent, the 2015 Lent Devotional from the UCC STILLSPEAKING Writer’s Group)

(Photo: R. L. Floyd. Rocky Mountain National Park, 2010)

What I Love about the Gospel of Luke

St LukeFor our Lenten adult study we have been looking at each of the four Gospels and Brent (our pastor) has asked me to share briefly with you what I love about the Gospel of Luke.

Each of the Gospels has features about it I love. Like many Christians my idea of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a mixed-upped conflation in my mind of all four Gospels.

When I started studying the Bible as a young man I began noticing how each Gospel tells the story in a somewhat different way, and something about that bothered me. I wondered, “Where they differ what is the truth of the story?”

One of my teachers helped me with this by having me imagine a beloved mother with four children, and upon her death each child wrote a remembrance of her. Each child’s remembrance of their mother would be different, but they would all be true.

Another helpful analogy I heard was that the Gospel is like a diamond, when you turn the diamond the light catches different facets of the precious stone. Each of the four Gospels is a different facet of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It was in the Christmas story where I first noticed the differences in the several Gospels. Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Jesus. Only in Matthew do we hear about the visit of the Magi, their meeting with Herod and his slaughter of the innocents, and Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt.

But it is especially Luke we think of most often at Christmas time. Only Luke has the annunciations to Elizabeth and Mary, Mary’s Magnificat, and only in Luke do we have the choir of angels addressing the shepherds.

And so these early chapters of Luke might be a good place for me to start to tell you what I especially love about Luke.

First, in Chapter 1, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, Luke emphasizes Mary’s humility and lowly origins. To this person of no consequence in the eyes of the world the messenger of God comes with startling news.

Mary acknowledges as much saying, “(God) has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” This is a major theme in the way Luke tells his story, that the vast love of God is not only for the well-born and privileged of this world, but for those with little social standing.

In fact, in Luke Jesus warns that being rich and powerful is a hindrance to knowing God and experiencing the kingdom. Luke’s Gospel is full of reversals. His version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (in Luke on a plain) is the only one with both “blessings” and “woes.” And one of his targets for woe is the rich.

Again in Mary’s song we see this kind of holy reversal. She says, “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

So it is that when the child promised by the angel is born, the very first to hear the news are neither kings nor wise men, but in Luke’s telling they are “shepherds abiding in a field.” (2.8)

Why shepherds? Shepherds were nobodies! In those days, with the rise of the cultivation of crops, shepherds were looked down upon, and the job was often relegated to slaves or youngest sons (like David), people with no status. That the Good News of the Nativity first came to shepherds is typical of Luke and reminds the reader that the Gospel comes to all sorts and conditions of people without prejudice.

Again, we see this theme in some of the parables of Jesus that are unique to Luke. For example, in the parable of the Good Samaritan (10.3-35), which is found only in Luke, Jesus tells of the good, respectable religious people (a priest and a Levite) passing by the wounded man on the other side of the Jericho road, while it is a Samaritan, who would have been despised by the good people, who showed compassion, stopped and tended to the poor man’s wounds. “Compassion” is a big word in Luke.

The parable of the Good Samaritan reflects Luke’s universalism, his conviction that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for all people. Last week when we looked at Matthew you saw the genealogy of Jesus going back to David. In the New Testament genealogy is not about biology, but theology. Matthew is showing Jesus’ ancestry going back to King David, who was always the prototype for the expected Messiah. But Luke takes his genealogy of Jesus all the way to Adam, to show that Jesus is not only the Jewish Messiah, but also the Savior of the whole world.

This expansive inclusivity is seen also in the parable of the Prodigal Son (15.11-32), which we heard today. In Luke, Jesus is saying that even those who are unable to reach out to God discover that God is reaching out to them, just as the waiting father in the parable ran out to his son.

There is a telling phrase in the Parable of the Prodigal Son that I think captures what Luke believes about the Gospel. The prodigal has resolved to return home and beg for his father’s forgiveness. In vs. 20 it says, “So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” It is worth noting that the father ran out to him and embraced him before the son made his little repentance speech.

But what I really want to focus on in this verse is the phrase “while he was still far off.” The phrase has been variously translated as “far away” or “at a distance.” For Luke, this is who God is, the one who waits for the return of those who are “far off.” And not only waits, but also watches and reaches out.

This God, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, is the God of everyone, male or female, Greek or Jew, those keeping the law at home or running away to a far country. This God loves lepers, sinners, Samaritans and Romans, both the clean and the unclean, the righteous and the unrighteous.

It is interesting to me how Luke later picks up this thread about those who are “far off.” In the second part of Luke’s work, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives an account of Peter’s sermon to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost. He tells them all about Jesus, and says, “‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2.36-39)

Nobody is too far off for the loving embrace of God. That’s what I love about Luke!

(I presented this on March 15, 2015 at the First Congregational Church (UCC) of Stockbridge, MA)

“Just as I am”

ABBY“Our iniquities you have set before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance.” —Psalm 90: 8.

Having the light of God’s countenance shine on us sounds like a good thing, but today’s passage has the unsettling implication that we have no secrets from God.

Who among us can feel entirely comfortable with that kind of scrutiny? Is God really like a Santa Claus character who “sees you when you’re sleeping” or a prying parent who stalks your Facebook page?

The Scriptures again and again refer to God’s closeness and intimacy with our lives. Psalm 137 asks rhetorically, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

I don’t know about you but I do a bit of hypocritical compartmentalization in my spiritual life. I want God to be close, but I don’t want God to see the less pleasant aspects of my life, what the Psalmist calls “secret sins” (and some are not so secret.)

I once saw a prayer that said, “O God, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.”

But the good news is that God doesn’t love just our idealized selves, the dog’s view of us, or our well-crafted on-line persona. God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way.

Prayer: You have searched me and known me, O God. Let your unconditional love change me into the person you want me to be.

(This my Daily Devotional for today in Re-Lent, the 2015 Lent Devotional from the UCC STILLSPEAKING  Writer’s Group)

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Iona crossA minister friend and mentor of mine, Herb Davis, once told me that every preacher has only one sermon in him, or her. According to Herb, every Sunday the preacher serves up that one sermon in a variety of ways. It may look like a different sermon, but at the heart of it, there’s just the one!

When I was growing up my family always had some sort of a roast at Sunday dinner, which was usually served in the middle of the day after we came home from church. Then the remains of that roast would reappear in various guises throughout the week. For example, let’s say it was a pork roast. The roast might reappear on Monday night in a soup, and on Tuesday night as my Dad’s signature roast pork chop suey and so on. So is that really the way it is? Do the people of God get fed leftovers every Sunday?

I hope not. I think what Herb was saying is that every preacher’s one basic sermon provides the core convictions out of which that preacher delivers the Gospel. And if Herb is right about the one-sermon theory, than I suppose today’s epistle lesson would have to be the text for my one sermon. Let’s hear it again: Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 23-25)

This is what Paul calls the message of the cross. Paul believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that God raised him from the dead. The cross on which Jesus had died became for him the symbol of that Good News of God’s vast unconditional love for all humankind. Paul believed that in Christ’s dying and rising two important new things had occurred. First, there was now a new age of God’ activity, and, secondly, there was now a new community, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles.

But this radical message of the cross had not been accepted by everyone. Paul writes that it had been rejected by his fellow Jews as a scandal, and by the Gentiles as foolishness.

And I need to say a word about how we hear this text today. When Paul speaks of “the Jews” we must be aware that he is not speaking about our Jewish friends, neighbors and family members here in Westport in the 21st century. He is speaking about the “good religious people” of his time, his own people.

And in his setting, Gentiles meant everyone else who was not Jewish in this Hellenistic world. He uses Gentiles and Greeks as synonyms.

So now let us take a look at the context for this extraordinary passage. There apparetly is an argument in the Corinthian church, a church Paul himself founded and knows well. Their argument is about what constitutes wisdom and power.

First, the Corinthians wanted to know who was wise? The Greeks placed a high value on human wisdom. As we know Greece is the birthplace of philosophy, the homeland of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The Greeks held eloquence and sophisticated arguments in high esteem. And Paul himself had been criticized for being unimpressive in his bearing and personal presence. So Greeks seek wisdom, but it is not human wisdom that Paul brings them!

And what about power? If Greeks sought wisdom, Paul’s Jewish listeners, the good religious people of his day, were seeking displays of God’s mighty power. Where was the God who parted the waters of the Red Sea and left Pharaoh’s army in the mud? Where was the Messiah who would come and drive away the Roman oppressor? To them, Paul, their fellow Jew, didn’t seem to be a particularly dynamic representative of God, not like the old prophets. Not like Elijah who dramatically demonstrated the mighty works of God, when he bested the priests of Baal by calling down fire from heaven. So the good religious people demanded signs, but it is not divine signs or displays of power that Paul brings them.

Instead Paul brings them the simple message of the cross of Jesus Christ, “a scandal to the Jews and nonsense to the Greeks, but to those who believe the wisdom and power of God.”

As I have said, for Paul the cross is a symbol of what God has done in Jesus Christ, a kind of shorthand for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

But for Paul the cross is also much more than a symbol: it is a way of life. A way of life whereby the Christian lives “with Christ” and “in Christ” and shares the power of the resurrection as well as the suffering of the cross. A way of life where Christians live out their lives in this new age and in the new community, the church. And the sign of this new life is baptism.

And to understand how these Corinthian Christians would have heard this message it helps for us to know something of the way baptism was enacted in the early church. The candidates, after much preparation, were presented for baptism. They arrived at the water, perhaps a cistern in the earliest days, later in a formal baptistry, and were led to the water. They removed their clothing and were brought into the water naked. Then they were dunked under the water three times, once each “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and emerged, most likely gasping for breath, where they were given a new white baptismal garment. We see echoes of this throughout the epistles when Christians are admonished to “put on Christ” like a garment, or “clothe yourself in Christ.”

This powerful experience drew a line in time between their former life and their new life in Christ. They had experienced in this sacramental death and rebirth what Paul was telling them in words, that in Baptism the Christian dies with Christ in his death and is raised with Christ in his resurrection.

The cross is the symbol of that death and new life. That we both die with Christ and are raised with Christ is a paradox and a mystery and remains hard to grasp even for grownup Christians. But God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s wisdom is not our wisdom.

I want to say a word about the distinction between wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge. Our human knowledge is impressive. Your smartphone has more computing power than the computers that put men on the moon. If you told someone from a hundred years ago that you have a device in your pocket smaller than a pack of cards that accesses all the knowledge in the world they would be amazed, and might ask, “What do you do with such a marvel?” And the answer might be, “I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers!”

So our vast knowledge doesn’t necessarily correlate with the wisdom to use it rightly. We have harnessed the atom, but we have also made bombs with it. We have created an astounding network of information and communication technology, which allows a radiologist in India to read my x-ray, but it also allows hackers and cyber-criminals to find new ways to steal.

We have the knowledge to locate a truckload of suspected terrorists on a dusty desert road in Yemen, and send a drone to kill them. But does the young soldier sitting in a command center in Nevada have the wisdom to know it is not just a video game?

My point is that as impressive as our human knowledge is it cannot provide a single person with the key to real living, cannot answer the larger questions of life, cannot make us happy or satisfy our souls.

Paul is saying the message of the cross is not something we can arrive at by human knowledge; it is a different kind of wisdom from the wisdom of the world.

And what about power? Rome had the power in Jesus’ day. They had the military might, the technology, the political control. The cross itself, a brutal public execution, was an instrument of Roman power employed to intimidate the populace and keep them under control.

Many Jews of Jesus’ time were also looking for power as they expected a Messiah who would come to overpower the conquering Romans who had occupied their land. They expected a Messiah, but not a crucified one, not one put to death by the unchallengable power of the Roman war machine.

A crucified messiah was also violation of their law, which said, “Cursed be anyone who hangs on a tree.” So a crucified messiah was a scandal to them, a stumbling block. Our word “scandal” comes from the Greek skandalon, which was a small stone you might trip over as you walked, literally “a stumbling stone.” So Jesus’ cross was a scandal to his own people.

The Gentiles, too, could understand human power in the guise of a conquering hero, but they could not understand a failed Jewish revolutionary who was brutally executed by the Romans. They heard nothing wise about Paul’s message of God’s power made manifest in the weakness of the cross. This was not philosophy, it was not wisdom, it was just nonsense, pure foolishness.

So Paul’s message of the cross, a scandal and foolishness, was rejected by many.

And what about today? Isn’t the cross still a scandal to many and foolishness to even more, even sometimes in the church. Like the title of Roz Chast’s great new memoir, people ask, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

But we need to talk about the cross in the church.  A Gospel without a cross has no good news to tell us, because it is the cross itself that shows us how deep, how high, how broad the love of God is, a love that will not let us go, even to death and beyond death.

We need the cross to continually remind us that God doesn’t work the way we do.

Think of how God has worked in your life? If your life is anything like mine, you have seen again and again, usually in retrospect, how God has worked through your failures and the tragedies to bring about quiet victories.

There was a time in my life that if I had been told some day I would be standing here and doing this, I would have either laughed or cried. I am one of God’s paradoxical acts. And so are you, sitting here as the people of God. “The people of God!” What a claim! What audacity! Couldn’t God have gotten both a minister and a congregation that were wiser and more powerful?

But God’s ways are not our ways. The Corinthian church was fighting over who was really wise. Paul told them God had chosen what is foolish to shame the wise; God had chosen what was weak to shame the strong, so that no one would have a cause for boasting. The cross reminds us of that.

And what did God accomplish through the cross of Christ? Tom Wright says that on Christmas we sing ‘O little Town of Bethlehem” which has a line, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” He says that when Jesus set his face to Jerusalem he went there to take on not just the hopes and fears but the “pains and tears of all the years.”

There on the bloody tree at Calvary, he took them all from us, our pains and tears of all the years, our failures, defeats and betrayals, our tawdry little sins and our great big ones, too. He took even our forsakenness, our alienation from God and each other, and it all died with him there on the cross.

Yes, I know, the world doesn’t always look and feel like he won the battle over death and sin, does it?

Our sins come back. Sin and death may be drowned in the waters of baptism but, as someone said, “they can swim!” But even if the life we know now is still subject to sin and decay and death the cross tells us that the final victory will belong to God and not to them.

Indeed part of our vocation as Christians is to share in God’s loving work of dealing with the pain and the evil in the world, caring for those in need, loving those who seem beyond love’s reach. The way of the cross involves taking on some of the pain into ourselves and giving it over to Jesus himself so that the world may be healed.

Our baptism is the sign that we work for Christ now and not for the world. And that is a good thing because the world isn’t doing so well right now in the loving department; doesn’t do so well in bringing about peace, justice, reconciliation and righteousness.

But the message of the cross reminds us that God is working quietly even now. God’s ultimate purposes will not be thwarted, no matter how hard it may be for us to see how that might be. The cross, as hard as it is to fathom and as difficult as it is to understand, is the sign of God’s real power and ultimate victory. A victory that gets played out right here, right now in our lives.

Jeff and Rebecca (the pastors here) can tell you that in ministry not a week goes by when they don’t see evidence of the power of God and the victory of God over the forces of the world that would hurt and harm us: the often unseen victories of faith over anxiety, of forgiveness over vengeance, of reconciliation over hostility, of love over hate, of life over the power of death. These are all God working in and through us in ways that the world wouldn’t recognize as either wise or strong, but they are. They are wise and they are strong because they are the ways of God’s wisdom and God’s strength, the way of the cross.

The cross, then undergirds all our work for God. “Without it, we would find the odds against us too heavy, and would be totally discouraged; or we might imagine that our own goodness, or political skill, or human shrewdness, or sheer power would eradicate evil from the world.” (N.T. Wright, The Crown and the Fire.)

And Christian faith without a cross often turns God into a dispenser of goodies, a kind of a cosmic Santa Claus who promises us health or wealth or success in return for our faith. The popular prosperity Gospel of some TV evangelists, who promise faith will make you rich is one example. And the various self-help and positive-thinking versions of the Gospel, that tell you you can pick yourself up by your own spiritual bootstraps and become healthy, wealthy and wise is another. These are versions of the Gospel without the cross.

But Jesus never said “Believe in me and life will be a bowl of cherries.” You remember what he said. He said, “Take up your cross and follow me!”

But we are always tempted by a faith without a cross. And the church is always tempted to look elsewhere for God’s wisdom and power, whether to our institutional strength, our wealth, our cultural standing, to the beauty of our services, the sublimity of our philosophy or the cleverness of our political insights.

But let us never be distracted from our focus as Christians. Let us keep our eyes, our hearts, and our faith on the cross.

It is true that the message about the cross is neither human wisdom nor human power. It is true that in the eyes of the world the cross is foolishness and a scandal.

But to those who believe, it is “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1:24-25)

So if my friend Herb is right and I only have one sermon in me that’s it. And if Jeff invites me back sometime you can hear it again! As with a good pork roast, you can do a lot with a great piece of scripture!

“And now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)

I preached this at Green’s Farms Congregational Church (UCC) in Westport, Connecticut (where my daughter is the Associate Pastor) on March 8, 2015.

“Cymru am byth!” A Blessed St. David’s Day to You!


Today is St. David’s Day.

So who was St. David? He was a sixth century bishop who became the patron saint of Wales.

My surname, Floyd, is Welsh. My dad always told me his people way back came from Wales.

Along the way I discovered that Floyd is the same name as Lloyd, which is a variation of the Welsh word llwyd or clwyd, which means “grey.”

The double-L represents, and I quote: “the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative of Welsh,” and was sometimes also represented as fl, yielding the name Floyd. It is not a sound you can make in English. It sounds something like a soft cough or gently clearing your throat.

When we first lived in the UK we saw many signs on offices for people named Cloyd, which was yet another attempt to capture the strange Welsh sound of the name.

So I am related in some way to all you Lloyds and Cloyds and Floyds.

I wish all of you in the tribe (and everybody else) a very blessed St. David’s Day. And I share with you one of St. David’s graceful admonitions:

“Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

In 1989 we visited the charming cathedral named for him in St. David’s, Pembrokeshire, UK.

Typically cathedrals were built on a hill so that their architectural  glory could shine upon the surrounding countryside.

Not so for St. David’s Cathedral. Rather, it was built in a hollow near the sea so the Vikings couldn’t see its spire from their ships.

It is worth a trip.


Daily Devotional: “Once We Were Strangers”

“Once We Were Strangers”

Richard L. Floyd

“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” —Deuteronomy 10:19

The various summaries of the law in the Bible include strangers as people to be especially cared for. Whether we call them sojourners, immigrants or aliens they need help because they are frequently socially powerless.

So God’s people are commanded to care for these special ones. Our passage today reminds the Israelites that they had once been strangers in the land of Egypt. They knew how it felt to be treated unfairly. This memory was an abiding feature of their identity as a people, and they were admonished never to forget it.

My own family is a microcosm of our nation of immigrants. My forbears fled here to escape persecution or sometimes just to seek a better life. My grandfather’s people, French Huguenots, fled religious violence in the 17th century. My wife’s Greek grandparents escaped “ethnic cleansing” in Turkey. Her Jewish grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, and his family came here after the war. Such refugees were called “displaced persons” or DP’s.

These are our stories, not merely here in America, but throughout the world. There are still many “displaced persons” among the human family. They face unique challenges every day.

God regards them with special care and so should we, for we too were once strangers, far from home.

Prayer: Let us love the strangers among us as you do, O God, and never let us forget that we were once like them.

R.L. FloydAbout the Author 
Richard L. Floyd is Pastor Emeritus of First Church of Christ (UCC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and author of A Course In Basic Christianity and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. He blogs at richardlfloyd.com. This is from the United Church of Christ StillSpeaking electronic Daily Devotional. The original can be found here. To subscribe for free and receive these daily by e-mail go here.

Ash Wednesday: “You won’t despise a broken heart!”


“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:17

The ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality; the one pre-requisite for resurrection is death, something we will all face in time.

But literal death is not all there is to death. Throughout the New Testament “death” is not merely the cessation of mortal life, but also a power that insinuates itself into the living of our days.

Lent is the season that invites us to consider the spaces and places in our lives that are dead. To ask ourselves where has this “power of death” touched us? What is dead in our relationships, in our church, in our society? What is dead within us, where we once had life?

This kind of scrutiny is never easy. It is painful to acknowledge death and the denial of death is strong within us.

To see the dead places within and without us can break our hearts. But our text today says that this very condition of heartbrokenness is a sacrifice acceptable to God.

Because once we open our eyes to the ways the power of death has hold over us, and feel sorrow and remorse (which is what contrition means) God meets us there and can begin to ready us for the promised new life.

Prayer: Accept our broken spirits and contrite hearts, O God, as an acceptable offering to you, and take away the power of death from our lives.

(This is from Re-Lent the United Church of Christ Daily Devotional for Lent 2015. I also wrote a Lenten hymn of the same name which can be found here.)

(Picture. The cover to Re-Lent is also a poster available for purchase that can be ordered here.)