“Of Fig Trees and Second Chances” A Sermon on Luke 13:6-9

266_AlexanderMstrJHlsCrppWmnPrblBrrnFigKoninklijke_BibliotheekTheHague1430CROP-1Author T. C. Boyle has an intriguing short story entitled “Chicxulub.” Chicxulub is the name of an enormous asteroid (or perhaps a comet) that collided with the earth sixty-five million years ago on what is now the Yucatan peninsula, leaving an impact crater one hundred and twenty miles across, and twelve miles deep.

Boyle’s short story intersperses such episodes of catastrophic natural disasters with a story of one night in the life of one family. The main characters are a husband and wife, parents of a 17-year old daughter named Maddy. They receive a phone call from a hospital: “There’s been an accident!”

Apparently Maddy has been hit by a drunk driver while walking home from the Cineplex. They head to the hospital in that dream state of shock that overtakes those in the midst of disaster. At the hospital they are unable to get much information out of the staff. They are told she is in surgery. They wait and wait. Finally a young doctor comes out and speaks to them. He drops his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he tells them.

When I first read the story I was deeply moved, even though I knew it was a work of fiction. But Boyle was toying with his readers. He was toying with me. Because in the end we learn that Maddy is not dead. The dead girl on the gurney is a sixteen year old friend of hers, Kristi, who borrowed Maddy’s I.D. to get into an NC-17 movie in the next theater. Maddy gets another chance. Continue reading

“He’s Back!” A Christmas Story with a Happy Ending

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My friend and former Pittsfield colleague Karen Gygax Rodriguez is the Pastor of the Federated Church of Green Lake, Wisconsin. On the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, the baby Jesus figurine was stolen from the church’s nativity scene.

The police investigated, but had no leads. They speculated that the thief was from outside Green Lake, since “everybody knows everybody here, and it would have been returned by now.” Continue reading

“Retirement, Aging, Loss and Change” My Interview on WSBS’s Religious Roundtable

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Tune in to WSBS radio tomorrow morning, September 13 at 8:30, and listen to my interview on “Retirement, Aging, Loss and Change.” The Reverend John Wightman, a retired United Church of Christ minister, interviews me on behalf of the Religious Roundtable, a weekly Sunday morning radio show hosted by the Southern Berkshire Clergy Association.

John and I have a good discussion about the resources of faith in times of loss and change, including aging, illness and retirement.

Can’t get up that early or have choir practice? You can download the podcast of the interview here.

Roundtable

 

“The God of the Far Off” Toward the Ministry of Inclusion

Prodigal sonWhat an extraordinary week this has been for our country! The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth liked to admonish the church that it must read both the Bible and the newspaper, because we Christians live in the world.

And what a week of news it was! There were two historic Supreme Court decisions that will change our national life in significant, and in my opinion, profoundly positive, ways.

On Thursday, by a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, which makes health care available to all Americans.

And on Friday, by a 5-4 decision, Marriage Equality became the law of the land.

The reason I am here before you instead of our pastor Brent Damrow is that he is in Cleveland at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, representing the Massachusetts Conference. I am sure he will have stories to tell about the celebrations taking place there, as our national church has been a long and tireless advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community and a supporter  of marriage equality.

I believe that these two historic Supreme Court decisions share a common idea, and that is the idea of “inclusion.”

And a third extraordinary event in our national life also happened on Friday. President Obama climbed into the bully pulpit in Charleston, South Carolina to give the eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emmanuel AME Church who, along with eight of his congregants, was murdered by a gunman while attending a Bible study at the church on June 17.

President Obama gave a stirring eulogy for Pastor Pinkney, but he was addressing not only those present, but also the nation. I’d like to share with you some excerpts of his eulogy:

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston . . . .the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he (the alleged murderer) failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace . . .

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace . . .

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

Martha and I were driving to Onota Lake in Pittsfield for a walk on Friday when the President’s eulogy came on the radio. We got to the parking lot at the boat ramp, but we didn’t get out of the car. We sat in the car until it was over, and when it was over I had tears streaming from my eyes.

The President was addressing the painful facts of racial relations in today’s America. He mentioned that in response to the massacre at the church the Confederate flag had been taken down in the South Carolina capitol and elsewhere. That flag, he said, was a symbol of our nation’s “original sin,” slavery.

The president had both the Bible and the newspaper in mind as he gave this incandescent speech. I don’t know of such a theologically astute presidential address since Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural.

And once again I would argue that inclusion is the big idea that binds all these events together. Inclusion.

I believe in the power of ideas to shape societies, and, as my teacher, mentor and friend, Max Stackhouse taught me, to examine where they come from and what they mean. So I want to do a little bit of that with you today about the idea of inclusion. Continue reading

“Taking the Long View” Reflections of a Retired Pastor

Presiding(This is a talk I gave to “The Saints” which is the United Church of Christ retired clergy group in the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. The talk was in Cromwell, CT on May 14, 2015)

I’d like to thank you for inviting me to be with you today. I have great respect for ministry as a high and holy calling, and I enjoy the company of ministers. I am proud to be a minister, and this year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. And it is good to be in the Connecticut Conference. I never served here, but my daughter, Rebecca Floyd Marshall, is an ordained minister here in CT, serving in Westport. If you bump into her at a Conference meeting introduce yourself.

My talk today is entitled “Taking the Long View” which was the title of a UCC STILL SPEAKING Daily Devotional I wrote for March 14 of last year. I see it was re-printed in your newsletter. I’m going to share with you some of my personal back-story behind the writing of this particular devotional.

I began the devotional with an anecdote about Ralph, a congregant of mine in my first church, who owned an apple orchard: “I drove over to see Ralph at his hilltop orchard a week after I had presided over his wife’s funeral and burial. He was well into his nineties and they had been married for seven decades. I was all of twenty-seven. It took me awhile to find him, because he was out planting apple trees. He seemed glad to see me and said, “You may wonder why I am planting trees that I will never live to see bear fruit. But it’s what I have always done, and I am not going to stop now. There were apple trees in this orchard when I came here that somebody else had planted, and there will be apple trees here after I’m gone.”

I’ve held onto Ralph’s words for forty years, and lately they have helped me as I think about what it means to be a retired minister. That hasn’t been easy for me. Because when I left my role as a pastor it seemed, at first, and for a long while, like the loss of my calling as a minister. Now I have come to realize that, although I am no longer a pastor of a congregation, I am still a minister. When I turned 65 the UCC Pension Boards mailed me a good little book by Paul Clayton entitled Called for Life (Perhaps you all got one, too). I love the play on words in the title, and I do believe we are “called for life” in both senses of the phrase.  Continue reading

“God’s Good Pleasure”

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“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”— Philippians 2:12-13

This passage reminds me of those jokes in which someone asks, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Which do you want to hear first?”

I’m inclined by temperament to want the bad news at once, so the bad news from Paul comes first: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Uh oh! This sounds to me like a counsel of despair, for who among us has the power to save ourselves? Is this the ultimate bad self-help advice? And that “fear and trembling” part is scary.

So what’s the good news? The good news is that Paul knows this salvation process is a collaboration with God “who is at work in you.”

That’s sounds much better, because only with God at work in us can we ever choose and accomplish the things that please God.

And what pleases God? Today’s passage follows directly after a beautiful hymn that describes how Jesus, in humble obedience to God, emptied himself of privilege and power to become a servant. Apparently that is the sort of thing that contributes to God’s “good pleasure.”

Prayer: O Jesus, before your name every knee should bend on heaven and earth, help us day by day to follow in your way, that both our will and our works may please God.

(This is my Daily Devotional for April 27, 2015. To subscribe to the UCC STILLSPEAKING Daily Devotional go to:http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/

(Photo: R. L. Floyd, 2015)

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. Continue reading

“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)

Norwood Days: We All have to Start Out Somewhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all have to start out somewhere.

I was reminded of that today when a friend sent me a funny clip about church from Saturday Night Live and I immediately recognized that it had been filmed at the little church I grew up in.

I had seen rumblings about this on the Norwood Facebook page, that there had been a film crew at the Church of The Holy Communion, a beautiful Episcopal church in Norwood, a small town in Bergen County, NJ.

Both my parents were raised in Congregational churches (and my Mom was for a time a Methodist), but when my Mom beat the dust of the Midwest off her heels and moved to New York City she became an Episcopalian. Both my parents were, for a time, librarians at General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

They lived on the Upper West Side when I was born, which is how I came to be baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which if you’re keeping track of things like this, is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.

Before I started school we moved to Closter, New Jersey, a little town in Bergen County across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. My Dad was a commuter at the time, working downtown as the photo and caption editor for the Religious News Service, the public relations arm of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews.

While in Closter we attended the little church in Norwood, where my brother Bill was baptized, a very early memory of mine. My father, never baptized, was then a grumpy agnostic, and from him I learned to take both faith and doubt very seriously. My mother was devout and active in the church.

We moved to Norwood when I was in fifth grade, and then were within walking distance of our church.

I am sure there was sin, gossip, and the sundry pettiness that plagues every congregation of humans, but I felt loved and accepted there, and the fact that I ultimately became a Christian minister speaks well of their care and nurture for and of me.

The rector was a gentle, ancient man, Mr. (always “Mr.” as he was low church) John Foster Savidge. He had an odd way of speaking that I assumed was some kind of special ecclesiastical patois. Only years later did my Dad tell me he had CP and a resulting speech impediment. He was very kind to me, and one time when I was about 11 he came to call and neither of my parents were home. He treated me with great respect and dignity, and told me about his trips to England. Years later I had my own times living in Oxford and Cambridge.

His successor was The Reverend Robert Maitland, who was ironically more blue collar but also more high church and always “Father” Maitland.

It was under his care that I was confirmed. He was a very down-to-earth guy, much a contrast from the patrician Mr. Savidge.

When I was in high school my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those days cancer was an unmentionable and few adults talked to me about the prospect of her impending death. One was my beloved basketball coach, John Shine, and the other was Father Bob Maitland. He took me to lunch at the Red Coach Inn (any Bergen County folks remember that?). He showed me what a minister could be.

My Mom did die during my first weeks at college at the age of 53. Fr. Maitland presided at the service at the Church of the Holy Communion, to a packed house as only those who die too young can bring out. I was having none of this God who snatched away the most important person in my life.

But years later after a long and arduous faith pilgrimage (which is another story for another day) I came back to the church and to a calling as a minister, although in a different franchise.

So the Church of the Holy Communion remains one of my landmarks, a holy place. And since I always (usually) love SNL the confluence of these two made my day.

The little clip was a trip down memory lane. I took voice lessons from the organist, Walter Witherspoon, and saw the organ near where I stood for my first recital. I saw the lovely stained-glass windows. I wrote recently about the window dedicated to a  Sunday School classmate of mine who died in a sledding accident when I was in the second grade.

It has been years since I have been back there, but I thank God for the place and the people, mostly now in the church triumphant, that were there in my growing-up days.

More reflections on worry: “The Peace of Wild Things”

Berry Pond

I recently posted “Are you choking? A reflection on worry” and a friend sent me this poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” As always Berry is deeply insightful about the ways of the world and the human soul.

“The despair of the world” is great these days with wars and rumors of wars and it easy to let fear run away with us. We fear, as Berry puts it, “of what my life and my children’s lives may be.” We worry about the Middle East and Ukraine,  about Ebola outbreaks in Africa, about the tragedy of children on our borders fleeing violence. We worry about the stock market, rising income inequality, and the loss of jobs that cast a shadow over our children’s futures. With the 24/7 news cycle and the relentless posts on social media the fodder for worry is inexhaustible.

One of the features of our humanity is an awareness of the past and an anticipation of the future. It is a mixed blessing, for the cause of much of our anxiety is rooted in what Berry calls “forethought of grief.” We know that we will suffer and one day die, or as the basketball player/philosopher Charles Barkley aptly put it, “Father Time is still undefeated.”

When Jesus admonished his listeners to “be not anxious,” he told them to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. This is “the peace of wild things” that Berry suggests can free us from our anxiety for a time and let us be.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron
feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry

(Photo by R.L. Floyd. Berry Pond at the Pittsfield State Forest, Pittsfield, Massachusetts)