“The Cross and Forgiveness”

ShadowsAs we enter Holy Week and look ahead to Easter I would like to reflect on some of the threads of our Lenten study these past few weeks in the light of the cross and resurrection.

You will recall that forgiveness means a wiping away from memory of the offense, so that it is as if it never happened, leading to restoration of the relationship.

At the very first meeting we reflected on how extraordinary the idea of forgiveness is, since the human impulse for retribution and revenge runs very deep.

So if forgiveness is such a hard thing for us, what explains the amazing stories we saw and heard, first about Desmond Tutu and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committees, and then the story of Louis Zamperini forgiving his Japanese captors decades after his imprisonment? (As told in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book Unbroken).

One way to explain them is to see these stories as exceptional acts of courage and heroism, which, of course, they are. I am going to call this the “Promethean interpretation.” You will recall (from reading Edith Hamilton in Middle School) that Prometheus was the titan in Greek mythology who stole fire from the Gods.

This is an attractive interpretation, and it is very popular in our society to take the heroic view of extraordinary acts. But the problem with the Promethean interpretation is this: it lets us off the hook.

When we see these people in heroic terms it distances us from them. They seem to be a higher form of humanity. It is the same problem as when we preachers only use people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as examples for our sermons.

It is then easy for people to think, “We are not like them.” “We couldn’t do what they did.”

But what if these people are not a higher form of humanity, what if they are like us? And, in fact, many of the people in South Africa, both perpetrators and victims, were just ordinary people like us. And Louis Zamperini, for all his heroism, suffered from trauma and battled mental illness, sleeplessness and alcoholism. In other words, he was human like us. The Promethean interpretation is inadequate because it slights the humanity of its heroes.

Having said that then we must ask, “What force, what power, is transformative enough to make extraordinary acts of forgiveness possible by ordinary people?”

Here on Passion/Palm Sunday we have heard a powerful story about an extraordinary act of forgiveness. As Jesus is dying on the cross he forgives his tormentors and murderers. “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” In fact, Matthew also reports the saying in the original Aramaic, which was Jesus’ native tongue, as if no one who heard it could forget it.

When I was a boy I remember hearing this passage read in church for the first time, really hearing it, and suddenly becoming deeply aware that there was something extraordinary going on here that I had not previously heard about in my Sunday school classes. This was the cross. This was forgiveness. This was love and mercy in action.

So here’s what I think. Although the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committees were secular, I think it is no accident that they were led by an Anglican Archbishop.

And though Laura Hillenbrand tells the story of Louis Zamperini’s life for the most part as a Promethean story of extraordinary heroism, I find it compelling that the turning point in his life, the pivot from bitterness to forgiveness, came after he attended a Billy Graham rally, where he without a doubt heard the Gospel of God’s great love and forgiveness for us. And at the center of that Gospel, at the center of the whole Christian story is the cross and resurrection of Jesus that we are about to remember this coming week.

What I am saying is that to get at this extraordinary and difficult thing called forgiveness we have to look to the cross, and Palm/Passion Sunday is a good day to do it.

Let me suggest several reasons why we must look at the cross to understand forgiveness?

First of all, at the foot of the cross we can recognize ourselves among those not only needing to forgive but to be forgiven.

Today we identify ourselves among the crowd as they cried, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and also later in Holy Week on Good Friday, when the same crowd shouted, “Crucify him!”

At the foot of the cross we acknowledge that even the very best of us bears some resemblance to the worst of us.

When we look at the cross we can lay aside our tendency to blame “the other” for human sin and evil. We can leave behind the need to point an accusing finger at those who are not like us, so that we don’t have to confront our own need for forgiveness.

God’s judgment and mercy are often two sides of the same coin, so when we admit our sin, and the sin of the human family of which we are a part, we are then able to receive the forgiveness God wants for us. At the foot of the cross we can see that Jesus died not only because of our sins, but also for our sins, to take them away and free us for new life with him and for each other.

And this is only possible because Jesus’ death is not just any death. No, the incredible claim the church makes is that, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” If Jesus had been just another man, even a very good man, then he is, at best, an example to us of the power of sacrifice, and, at worst, just another martyr to human violence. Then his death is merely a tragedy. Because suffering is not, in and of itself, redemptive. Just ask anyone who suffers. To believe otherwise invites masochism.

So why is his death redemptive? Why is Jesus’ death different from all the other tragic deaths in history? Why is his death different from all the other tens of thousands of men who ended up on Roman crosses? The answer is not that he suffered more. Others have suffered more, even at the hand of Christians.

So what is it that makes his death different, and makes his cross not a symbol of shame, but a symbol of faith?

The full story will be told next Sunday on Easter: it is the resurrection that makes the difference. It is the resurrection that transforms the cross from an emblem of horror into an emblem of God’s wondrous love.

On the cross human sin and divine mercy met, and it looked as if sin had won the day. But Easter is God’s vindication of Jesus’s way of forgiveness. Easter is God’s “Yes” to our “No.” And this is what created the church, the belief that Jesus was the messiah and that God raised him from the dead.

To the eyes of Easter faith the bitter cross is viewed as an act of God, the God who rescues and saves, who liberates and reconciles. These believers knew this God, the God of the Exodus.

And so the cross becomes transformed. On the face of it the cross is a particularly gruesome act of state execution. But with Easter eyes, in the light of the resurrection, it is now seen as an atoning, redeeming, reconciling divine act of love.

God in Christ gives up his life in humble obedience. He takes our sin and the judgment that goes with it and puts it to death on the cross with himself. That is how the cross becomes the symbol of Christian faith, not as a way to blame others for sin, but to admit our own sin and marvel at the lengths that God will go to take it away.

And this is why I think Desmond Tutu and Louis Zamperini were able to forgive those who had done horrible things, because they already knew what forgiveness was. They had experienced it in their own lives and knew its power. Their Christian faith believed that God in Christ had forgiven them, that God had done for them what they could not do for themselves.

And that is why we must look at the cross, confront the cross, reflect on the meaning of the cross for us and for our world, and meet the cross in worship, in prayer, and in discipleship.

(I presented this at the final gathering of a Lenten study at the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. April 13, 2014.)

 

Some Lenten Reflections on Forgiveness

Prodigal son by RembrandtThe idea of forgiveness is so ingrained in our cultural and religious traditions that it is easy for us to overlook what an extraordinary idea it is. Although we tend to separate out “forgiving” and “forgetting” the biblical notion of forgiveness is literally “a forgetting,” in that after the act of forgiveness “it is as if ” the grievance never happened.

It is only the aggrieved party who can do the forgiving, and the act of forgiveness “wipes away” the memory of the grievance so that it no longer has any influence on the relationship. So it is that the phrase “I will remember their sins no more” appears again and again in the Bible, for example, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hebrews.

Before this idea of forgiveness took hold there was simply “revenge,” in which affronts were met with retribution, often disproportionate to the original wrong. These “family feuds,” if we want to call them that, could go on for generations, and still do, as we see sometimes, for example, in the Middle East, where memories of affronts are long.

A moral advance on such indiscriminate retribution was the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation,” which prescribed that the response had to be equal to the offense, as, for example, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

But the idea of forgiveness moves social relationships into a whole new key, and goes beyond mere justice. Indeed, forgiveness is an affront to justice, which is one of the perpetual accusations made against the Gospel by its critics.

Israel’s God is a god who forgives, but we may recall that the first covenant in the Bible is the covenant with Noah, and in that story God’s forgiveness has limits. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)

So God does not forgive the people and punishes them with a flood. God shows some mercy, enough to save a remnant in the ark, the blameless Noah and his family, and the several species of animals. But God repents of his action, viewing it as a dry run (if you’ll excuse the pun), and promises never to do it again, laying down his arms (so to speak,) and leaving his bow in the sky to remind him.

In Exodus there’s a seeming change in the character and identity of God, in which mercy becomes a key quality. In preparing for today I took two volumes of the Anchor Bible Dictionary, the M volume for “mercy,” and the F volume for “forgiveness.” When I found the entry for “mercy” it said, “see LOVE.”

In Exodus we have a particularly important passage for subsequent Jewish and Christian understandings of God’s identity and character. It is Exodus 34:6-7, when God tells Moses to go up Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets. As you recall, God descended in the cloud, revealed the divine name to Moses, and then proclaimed to him:

“The Lord, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and fourth generation.”

Now this passage is really packed with things to ponder, but I want to highlight three for you.

1. First, this is a big moment in the history of God and his people. The revealing of the divine name tips us off to it, and right after this is the giving of the law and the Sinai covenant. To reveal one’s name is to be in relationship. God chooses to be in relationship with Israel, and renews the previous covenants.

2. Second, while we in our day tend to focus on the individual, and on individual sins, notice that here the emphasis is collective to the people as a people.

3. Third, the relationship is not only collective it is trans-generational, the promise applying across multiple generations.

I would guess that most of what we talk about in this Lenten study over the next few weeks will be about individual acts of forgiveness applied to willful, intentional sins. But the early understandings of forgiveness in the Bible were almost always collective, and almost always for inadvertent sinning.

So I need to say a word about why divine forgiveness was a necessary condition for God and Israel to be in relationship. This is a little hard for us to get our minds around because we tend to think of sin as a moral category, and it was also for Israel. But sin was frequently, perhaps even more frequently, thought about not as morality, but as purity.

God was understood to be holy and humans were not, the creator and the creatures were in different categories. And so we see the development of the elaborate holiness codes in Leviticus, which were designed to produce ritual purity in people so as not to offend God. Even so, it was impossible to keep all the myriad laws required.

Remember I said most sins that needed to be forgiven were inadvertent. So it wasn’t flagrant sinning like robbery, murder, or adultery, the ones we think of in moral categories, which needed to be forgiven so much as the infractions against ritual purity.

This is part of the backstory behind some of Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees who were zealous for the law, the maintaining of ritual purity.

I don’t think I am stating it too strongly to say that our very humanity makes us in need of forgiveness from the God who is holy. And that is why when God chooses to be a forgiving God it is a precondition for us to be in relationship with God at all.

And again, I think if we look at the grand arc of the whole Christian Story in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments we see how the very identity of God can be understood in terms of forgiveness, the fruits of mercy and love.  So much so that, after Good Friday and Easter, the early disciples of Jesus, all of them Jewish, as he was Jewish, came to call him “Lord,” the name previously reserved for God alone. It is quite remarkable. They saw in his love, mercy, and forgiveness congruence with the character and indenty of their God.

Before I move on to focus on the New Testament I need to mention something else relevant to the idea of forgiveness that will come into play later: that is that the priestly cult in Israel saw one way to blot out the memory of sins was through a blood sacrifice of an animal as an atonement or expiation. The people around Jesus’ had either participated, witnessed, or at least knew about such ritual blood sacrifices from the daily operations of the Jerusalem temple. So when we talk about Jesus’ death as atonement for sin, we are missing the original referent of the metaphor, which is partly why the idea is so hard for us. It’s a dead metaphor. I’ve written a book about all this if you want to know more (see When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement, Wipf and Stock, 2010)

All these understandings about God’s holiness get carried into the Christian era, so the New Testament also understands sin as an offense against God’s holy law or against another human being. As in the Old Testament forgiveness involves the wiping from memory of the offense by the one affronted so as restore harmony in the relationship.

The seriousness of sin is one of the chief preoccupations of the New Testament. Humans cannot by themselves avoid God’s condemnation. So Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you can not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And St. Paul flatly declares in his letter to the Romans: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

This is the predicament of the human condition, and the context of Jesus’ ministry. In the retrospective look of the apostolic age it was understood that, as it says in 1Timothy 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Our best example of forgiveness at work is in “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” (Luke 15:11-32) which I know some of you have been studying. One of the key features of that story is the father’s eagerness to restore his relationship with his lost son. Notice the father forgives the prodigal before the son even has time to deliver his little repentance speech. We should recall that the whole purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of the broken relationship. And in this parable the older brother, who didn’t leave, didn’t sin, and kept all the rules, thinks it is unfair that his deadbeat brother is restored. And it is unfair, because forgiveness is driven not by justice but by love. The older brother thinks he has earned his father’s love by his own achievements. But you don’t earn love. The father loves the prodigal not because he is good, but because he is his.

I’d like to quickly point to two more features of the New Testament idea of forgiveness. The first I have mentioned already: the death of Jesus, which in miniature focuses the whole gospel story. Here the sinless faithful Messiah, betrayed, denied, and abandoned by sinful humanity, obediently goes to his death with forgiveness on his lips, praying to his Father for forgiveness for those who killed him. It is a loving act of atonement.

The second feature, which will come up in our questions, is the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses (debts, sins), as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here, and elsewhere, Jesus is saying that the capacity to receive forgiveness is somehow intimately connected to our capacity to forgive. In Matthew 5:23-24, for example, Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” It is as if only those who can forgive can understand it enough to receive it.

( I gave this Lenten Study presentation on March 9, 2014, at the First Congregational Church (UCC), Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)

Picture: The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

A Son’s Remembrance of His Mother on her Birthday: Frances Irene Floyd. March 4, 1914-September 18, 1967

Frances Irene Floyd

(I first published this in 2010, but thought the 100th birthday warranted a repeat)

Today is my mother’s birthday. She was born on this day in 1914, and died on September 18, 1967 at the age of 53 from cancer. She died too young. She would have been 96 today.

Her older sister outlived her by 40 years. She’s died now too, as has my Dad, so there is hardly anyone who even remembers her. But I do.

She most likely wouldn’t have died in this day of regular diagnostic tests and improved cancer treatments. But in the 1960’s cancer was considered by most people to be a death sentence, and usually was.  Her doctor told us she had it, but asked us not to tell her, because the news would be so emotionally devastating she might lose hope.  So in addition to having to deal with her dying, we had to lie to her.  She was a smart woman and finally figured it out and made us tell her.

I was eighteen when she died. She was told by her doctor in September of 1966 that she had about three months to live, and she said  “Nonsense, I will live to see my daughter and son graduate (from college and high school,  respectively) next spring, and she did, although she was in a wheelchair.  My sister was engaged to be married, and the date was moved up to early September in the hopes she could participate. She couldn’t, since she was in the hospital dying.

That day, my Dad, my younger brother, and I left immediately after the reception, still in our morning suits, full of champagne punch (at least I was), to visit her in the hospital with a fist full of Polaroid photos to show her of the wedding.  She was delighted, but didn’t have much energy to enjoy them.

A few days later I said my goodbyes to her (though far too much remained unsaid) and then I traveled 1400 miles away to go to college.

Two weeks later she died, and I came home for the funeral. No single event in my life as her early death has had such an impact on the rest of my life.

I often think of her on March 4. She said it was the only day of the year that was a command (“march forth!”), and when she was a kid she thought she was a big deal because she was born on Inauguration Day, but Congress moved that to January in 1933, so she lost that distinction.

Though I often think of her on her birthday, it sometimes isn’t until later in the day. Some years I have forgotten it completely, and later in the week realized that I was sad on that day for seemingly no reason. But the heart often knows better than the mind.

Mostly I think about what she missed. She never knew my wife, and my son and daughter. She never knew I graduated from college or became a minister. She never met any of her seven grandchildren or my brother’s wife. She was cheated.

Her short life was in many ways remarkable for a woman of her generation. She was born in Oklahoma City and grew up in Wichita, Kansas, where she went to college, a rare thing for women in the 1930’s. She became a librarian, one of the few vocations open to women back then, along with teachers and nurses. After graduation she got a job at the Wichita Public Library.

She was a dreamer and what we once called a “bookworm.” She always had her nose in a book, and expanded her rather conscribed universe through her imagination. Her parents were good people, pious Midwestern Protestants, and she lived at home with them throughout her mid-twenties, as unmarried women were expected to.

But she wanted more out of life. She dreamed about far off places she had read about in books. She dreamed of the England of Jane Austin and Dorothy Sayers. And like many Americans in her day from the cultural hinterlands she dreamed of New York City, then in its heyday, where Dortothy Parker and James Woolcott could exchange bon mots in the Algonquin Club. It was a far cry from Wichita.

By her late twenties she was considered an “old maid,” most likely never to be married. She wasn’t accepting any of this.

So she decided to change her life. Against her parents’ wishes she applied to Columbia Library School (now sadly gone),  arguably the best in the country, and when she got in, she went.  She packed her suitcase and took the train by herself to New York, and got a room at the International House near Riverside Church and never looked back.

She loved New York. Like so many people who go there she had big dreams. She wanted to be a writer, and scribbled short stories in her spare time.  I have many of them. They are not particularly good, overly self-conscious and somewhat formal in style, but they are interesting and really not bad.  She was a good writer, but she tried others’ voices and never found her own.  She used to joke that she had rejection slips from all the best periodicals. One of her grandsons is a writer and won an O’Henry Award a few years ago for one of the years’ best short stories. She would have liked that.

When she graduated from Columbia she got a job at the New York Public Library on Forty-Second Street, and went to work every day between the storied lions. There she got such a good reputation for cataloguing books that she was asked from time to time to do it for the Library of Congress.

She became an Episcopalian, which I expect didn’t go down too well with her folks back in Wichita, in a day when anti-Catholicism was still an ugly feature of much of Protestantism, though to be fair, I never heard any of it from them.

She met my Dad, a handsome intellectual Bostonian, while she was working at a summer job at the University of New Hampshire, where he was teaching while a Ph.D. candidate back at Columbia. They discovered they both lived in New York, and when they got back to the City they started dating, and eventually married.

I am the second of their three children. My sister and I were born in New York City and my kid brother was born in New Jersey, where we moved when my parents realized that New York wasn’t a terrific place to raise kids, especially when you had limited means.

Church was important to my mother and she was on the altar guild and worked on the annual bazaar, and baked pies for the Bake Sale, and if we were lucky she might make one for us.

I thought of her the other day when I was in church. It was an Episcopal  Church and the rector, who was celebrating, is a woman, as is the  associate priest, as were the two acolytes. So the communion table was surrounded by women, and no one thought a thing about it. My mother would have liked that, although in her day it would have been a complete flight of fancy to imagine it.

She was a proto-feminist in a quiet way. My sister went to Vassar when it was a women’s college, and my mom was very proud of her. Nearly thirty years later my own daughter graduated from Wellesley College, and I thought of my mother on that day, too, although she would have been equally proud of my son’s graduation, for she was nothing if not fair.  And what would she make now of my daughter going to divinity school?

When we were growing up in the suburbs she took a job as a librarian in a middle school nearby. Her students loved her and she encouraged them all to read, read, read. I suspect she often quietly overlooked a library fine on an overdue book if it was a hardship for the student’s family to pay it.

Last spring I wrote a paper about my love of mystery novels, another passion she passed on to me. I mentioned her in it and got this remarkable anonymous comment: “If your mother was the Mrs. Floyd who was the Wandell librarian in the ’60s, I remember her! She was wonderful. In fact, I use FLOYD as a password on book-related websites (what greater homage?).”

I have now outlived her by 7 years, and she has been gone from my life for so long I can’t recall her voice, and I can remember her appearance mostly from old pictures. I sometimes glimpse something of her in the faces of my daughter and my two nieces, and see inklings of her ways when they labor at crossword puzzles or slaughter one another at Scrabble.

I woke up in the wee hours this morning and started thinking of her and tears welled up in my eyes, even though she has been gone 43 years. So I guess I still grieve.

But mostly I am grateful for the years I had with her. She gave me words, books, music, a dry sense of humor and above all, faith. She also gave me a lively sense of the communion of saints, and makes me acutely aware of our connection to those who have gone before us and help make us who we are.

So here’s to you Mom. Happy Birthday!

Some Winter Posts Worthy of your Time

Winter scene

In my peregrinations around the blogosphere I came across two very wise and well-written posts by ministerial colleagues of mine. I hope you will check them out.

First, the incomparable Mary Luti, whose blog, sicut locutus est, should be on your blogroll, wrote “Why I Teach.” Here’s a sample:

I want students to take someone else’s wisdom for a serious test drive. I want them to rent with an option to buy; to suspend suspicion and develop a bias toward faith in the considered opinions of others; to respect the authority of authorities instead of keeping up the fiction that all ideas have equal value and that all opinions count the same.

Secondly, Emily Heath, a Vermont pastor and top-notch blogger, has a beautiful and bravely personal post called “Falling: Recovery, Silence and the Church.”  Here’s an excerpt:

But the more I thought about it (new Boston mayor Marty Walsh’s openly talking about his recovery during the campaign), the more I felt sad for the church. If an admission of being in recovery can actually help someone in the hardball world of politics, why is it so feared in the very place where redemption should be celebrated? Why aren’t we, people who talk about grace and forgiveness and new life, in the business of teaching people what to do when they fall? Why don’t we acknowledge these things so that we can help people know where to turn when they need help to get back up?

There are mountains of ephemera in the blogosphere, but well-written wisdom, like gold, is where you find it.

(Photo by R.L. Floyd, 2014)

Thoughts and a Prayer on Martin Luther King Day

MLK Memorial(Last month I was visiting my son in Washington, D.C., and I revisited the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” I also visited the Martin Luther King Memorial for the first time. It was dedicated in 2011, and this was my first time in Washington since then. I was deeply moved by both monuments, and struck by how much of Dr. King’s Dream, especially around economic justice, is still unfulfilled. People often forget that he was not only a tireless worker for civil rights, but also for peace, and the rights of workers and the poor.

This prayer of invocation is from our local Martin Luther King Service from a decade ago.)

“Lord God, we give you thanks for the blessings you have so generously lavished upon us, for all the ways you provide for our life with both daily bread and spiritual nourishment. It may be cold outside, but let us be warm in here, warmed by the presence of this congregation, warmed by the memory of Martin Luther King, and warmed by the power of your Holy Spirit, whose fire kindles our courage, and makes us bold for your kingdom and its righteousness.

Forgive us those times and places when we have let you down, when we have not answered to the better angels of our nature, when we have danced to the world’s tune and listened to the seductive voices of the powerful and privileged as if their voice was your voice, and worshiped the manifold idols of our own imaginations. Turn us again to you and your righteousness. Keep us from the temptations of an easy virtue and a pious complacency.  Remind us that the commitments to righteousness, justice and peace for which Dr. King lived and died are still not accomplished.

So be about us and within us and among us this afternoon as we worship you and remember your servant Martin.  Be especially with our preachers and speakers and singers and musicians.  And let this time together be precious time, let it be your time, that we may catch a glimpse of your new heaven and new earth, when all the deferred dreams of many generations will be finally fulfilled, when all, from the least to the greatest, will see you and know you, when war will be no more, and prejudice and oppression shall cease, and none shall be afraid.  Amen”

(Dr. Floyd’s invocation from the Martin Luther King Memorial service at Second Congregational Church (UCC), Pittsfield, Massachusetts on January 19, 2003)

The Calling of Disciples: A Sermon on Vocation

Ghirlandaio

John 1:29-42

 What is vocation? We typically think of vocation as our job or profession, but the idea is much larger and richer than that, so let’s take a look at it, starting with a little word study.

Vox is the Latin word for “voice,” as in Vox Populi, the “voice of people.” The Latin verb “to call” is vocare, as it still is in Italian. The noun form is vocatio.

There is a whole cluster of English words that have these Latin words as their root, words that refer to voice, to speaking and calling. For example, when we “speak out” we are being “vocal.” The whole collection of words we use to speak is our “vocabulary.” And, of course, a person’s calling is his or her “vocation.”

In Christianity (and its mother Judaism) our God is a God who has a voice, a God who speaks and calls.

But God’s speaking is different than our human speaking in an important way. We make a distinction between human speech and action.

But for God there is no such distinction: the Word of God doesn’t just say something, it does something. So, for example, in Genesis 1, God creates the worlds with a word. Recall how God said, “Let, there be light! And there was light.”

And recall also how God says in Isaiah 55, “My word will not return to me empty, but will accomplish that which I purpose.” Isaiah himself is an example of a prophet, a person called by God to speak for Him, so that when the prophet speaks, his words are heard by the people as the Word of God.

Likewise in John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus is called “the Word of God.”  John 1: “In the beginning was the Word” intentionally mirrors Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

But to say that Jesus is “the Word of God” is to say more than that he speaks the Word of God, as Isaiah did or the other prophets did.

No, in Jesus, we see this intimate connection between speech and act, between word and deed. Because Jesus is both the one who speaks the Word of God, and he is also the one who accomplishes it, by his life death, and resurrection.

And so we see in today’s Gospel from John, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the calling of the first disciples, which sets in motion the drama of the rest of the Gospel.

Why does Jesus call disciples? To answer that we need some background on what Jesus’ ministry was all about. First of all, Jesus comes into a time and place where God was expected. The people had been waiting, longing, hoping for the coming of God’s reign in the form of his anointed one, which is the word “messiah” in Hebrew, and “Christ” in Greek.

The role of John the Baptist in the story is important because many at the time thought that John the Baptist was a figure like Elijah. Elijah was often thought to be the one who would come before the messiah, a forerunner figure.

Many people saw John the Baptist in this same light, and his appearance in the wilderness raised expectations for the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus shows up preaching and teaching many thought he was the expected One.

In our reading today the evangelist describes Andrew and Peter as disciples of John the Baptist, who leave him to follow Jesus.

So Jesus calls disciples for a very particular reason, which is hinted at by his calling twelve of them. This mirrors the twelve tribes of Israel. This is just one of many indications that Jesus understood himself to be the carrier of God’s special calling of Israel.

And what was Israel’s special calling? We get an inkling of it in our Old Testament reading today, where God says to Israel, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:1-7)

In theological terms we refer to this special calling as “election.” In the Bible election is never for itself. No, election is always to accomplish the purposes of God.

The “chosen people,” whether we are referring to Israel or the church or both, are not called because they are better than others, but because God has use for them. And if we pay careful attention to the stories of the people God calls in scripture, it becomes quite clear that God doesn’t call the qualified, but rather qualifies the called. Think of Abraham and Sarah, well past their prime, Jacob, the liar and thief, Moses, the murderer, and Mary the poor teenage unwed mother. These are people like us and people we know.

So once again, you may be thinking, “Well, that’s really interesting Rick, and we’re glad you got to use your high school Latin, but what’s all this got to do with us?”

And the answer to that is that it has everything to do with our identity as a congregation and our understanding of our mission. In other words, our vocation informs both “who we are” and “what we do.”

I am talking about our vocation as church. We don’t just come to church, we are called to be the church. There’s a difference.

Here’s a hint about our calling. In the Call to Worship for this morning I referenced the UCC Statement of Faith several times. Twice it refers to God’s call. The first call is in the beginning: “God calls the worlds into being.” There’s Genesis 1 again.

The second call from God is through Jesus, “He calls us into his church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship.”

So the church is called as an instrument of God’s purposes, and those purposes are the same as in the original creation.

To begin to think about ourselves that way, as being called for God’s purposes, will change both our identity and mission. We are not merely a voluntary association of individuals with a benevolent and spiritual focus, although we are that.

But we are more than that, we are called, we have a vocation.

This concept of vocation was very important to our Puritan forbearers here in New England. We talked about this in our Men’s Book Group on Wednesday. Before the Reformation vocation was understood to be only for the religious life, for the monk, nun, or priest.

The Reformers changed that. Luther and Calvin believed that there was a general calling to repentance and a godly life for all Christians, and there were particular callings to life’s several vocations, as we understand them today.

So calling was no longer just for the clergy, and it still isn’t. Calling is for us all, and what are we called to be? Disciples of Jesus. And what is a disciple? A disciple is quite simply a follower or a student. One who hears the call of Jesus.

Jesus called those first disciples by asking them, “What are you looking for?” And later he invites them to “Come and see!”

And they might not have known what they were looking for, as many of us do not, but they knew it when they saw it. And they said, “We have seen the Messiah.”

They heard the call and answered it.

I want to talk now about the power of words as it relates to our callings, and I can think of no better example than Martin Luther King, who was a very important influence on me, and on my own call to ministry.

I was fourteen when Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial. I was there last month and felt as if I was standing on holy ground.

I had grown up in the church, but in Dr. King’s speech I heard a new power in some familiar words. Dr. King’s father was a minister, and Martin grew up in the thought-world and language-world of the church.

The African-American church had retained the moral grammar of the faith that had been largely lost in the mainline church, the language of justice and righteousness, and in the civil rights movement Dr. King and others gave it back to the whole country as a gift in their words.

When I first heard Dr. King’s words they rang true. They had behind them such moral force. His use of familiar scripture, such a Isaiah 40, “Every valley shall be exalted,” and of shared national language such as the words of “My Country ‘tis of Thee” re-awakened the moral imagination of much of the country.

In Dr. King’s speech fifty years ago I became awakened to the power of words to shape the life of individuals and societies, and years later I discerned a call, there’s that word again, a call to the ordained ministry.

And throughout my long ministry I have often pondered the power of words, to heal or hurt, to inspire or dampen the spirit, to free or repress. And I believe that a society that de-values words is at risk, because it ceases to know when it is lying to itself, and can’t recognize truth when it hears it.

But the right word at the right time can change a life or change a society.

I invite you to recall such moments in your own life. Perhaps you were listening to a sermon, or the words to a hymn, or a scripture reading, and suddenly those words were not something you were just overhearing, but words that were addressed to you.

And it is in such moments that “vocation” takes place; when you hear the voice of God calling. And when that happens there is no turning back, because the Word of God has a life of its own in your life.

You know how Brent (our pastor) often begins worship with the words “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” This language is part of what we in the United Church of Christ call “the extravagant welcome of our God.”

These are good words. The purpose of this welcoming language is to create no barriers that will keep people away from our life together here, and several people have told me how reassuring it is to them.

But, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you there is danger in all this extravagant welcome, and it should come with a warning label.

Because once you say to yourself, “I feel welcome here. This could be my church,” a new thing may happen. You are very likely to have one of those moments I just described, when the words you hear become the Word of God that feel as if they were directly addressed to you. Then you hear the call of God and recognize your vocation. Then you move from attendance to discipleship, from observing Jesus to following him. Then you accept “the cost and joy of discipleship.”

Those moments will change your life.

So what is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to be?

What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be?

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at my home congregation, the First Congregational Church (UCC) in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on January 19, 2014.

(Picture: The Calling of the Apostles by Ghirlandaio)

My Top Ten Posts from 2013

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As the old year passes and the new year beckons, it is my custom to look back at the popular posts of the year. Here are the most visited posts from 2013:

Saving Thanksgiving from the Retailers
An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts
Unity in The United Church of Christ: A Theological Reflection
Clergy Evaluations and Why They are a Bad Idea
Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances: An Installation Sermon
Hearing God’s Word From Unexpected Places
“What’s the Point?” Reflections on Christian Eschatology
“From Here to There and Back Again” The Journey from Text to Sermon
“The Towers we Build? or God our Strong Tower? A Sermon on Psalm 46
“We Give Thee but Thine Own” A Stewardship Sermon

And these were the top ten posts of all time:

Confused? Interpreting Your Congregation’s Numbers
Why did Jesus refer to Herod as “That fox” in Luke 13:13-32
Prayer for a Retired Pastor
“Rejoice! Rejoice!” A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent
“God Gives the Growth.” A Retirement Sermon
There is Nothing to be Afraid of!” A sermon on Psalm 27:1-2
“Behind Locked Doors” A Sermon on John 20:24-29
A book review of Elizabeth Strout’s “Abide with Me”
The Lord Will Provide.” A Sermon on Genesis 22
The Ministry and its Discontents: Pastors in Peril

Thanks for dropping by, and keep visiting in 2014.