“Thin Places”

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“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’”—Genesis 28: 16

In Jacob’s dream he sees a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending it. He named the place Bethel, “the place of God.” The ancient Celts called such spots “thin places,” where the distance between heaven and earth collapses.

Thin places can be famous holy spots such as the Isle of Iona or the Cathedral de Notre Dame, but more often than not they are ordinary places, such as Bethel, or a dusty road on the way to Damascus.

You can search for thin places, but, as with Jacob, it is more likely that they will find you.

Such unexpected encounters with the Holy seem to happen in times of crisis: Jacob running away from home, Saul on his way to persecute the church.

Is it the place itself that allows for these glimpses of the advent of God? Or is it some special state of mind and heart? Either way there are times and places when the ordinarily reliable distinction between heaven and earth gets erased.

Even if we see no burning bush or ladder to heaven, nor hear the voice of Jesus, we are no less certain that we have come upon a thin place, and can say, as Jacob did, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

Prayer: Keep us alive and alert, O God, in all places and times, that we may not miss the moments of your visitation.

(This is my daily devotional for today from “Wonder,” the United Church of Christ’s 2015 Advent Devotional booklet. Photo meme by Pilgrim Press)

“Come Here by the Waters” A Baptismal Hymn

Jake's baptism

Come Here by the Waters

Come here by the waters, come bring us your child.
We’ll call on God’s Spirit, so loving and wild.
These people and parents will speak their firm vow.
This child full of blessing belongs to Christ now.

Your promise enduring will follow her* days,
And lead to a life filled with service and praise.
You’ll bless her** and keep her** and always be there,
Through life’s many changes you’ll watch her with care.

Bless us with your presence, your Word, and your power,
That we may be faithful in every new hour.
Let church be a place that is brimming with love,
And bless these dear children with grace from above.

We praise you and thank you for all you provide,
For blessings and graces that reach far and wide.
Praise Father, praise Son, and the Spirit divine,
Both now and forever, and far beyond time.

(*or his, or their) (** or him, or them)

Tune: Cradle Song 11.11.11.11.

© Richard L. Floyd, 2015

This hymn of mine was commissioned earlier this year by Eileen Hunt, former Minister of Music at Green’s Farms Congregational Church, UCC, in Westport, CT, who was looking for a new baptismal hymn. I chose the tune Cradle Song, which is the tune the British sing Away in A Manger to, because of its resonances with infancy, and because it is not so familiar that Americans will hear Away in a Manger in their ears when they sing it. Below you will find reproducible PDF’s for both a melody only and a harmony version. The tune was written by  William James Kirkpatrick and the harmony by the estimable Ralph Vaughn Williams. One suggestion is to sing the first two verses just before the act of baptism and the last two just after.

COME HERE BY THE WATERS melody only

COME HERE BY THE WATERS harmony

“The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth”

Forsyth(Note: This article first appeared in the Andover Newton Review in 1992 (Vol 3, No. 1). It is the fruit of essays I wrote for my tutor the Revd. Donald Norwood during my 1989 sabbatical at Mansfield College, Oxford. I want to thank Professor Max Stackhouse for inviting me to submit it. This is the first time it is available on the Internet. RLF)

Part 1 The Church and Our Redemption

 The British Congregationalist P. T. Forsyth, 1848-1921, is above all a theologian of the cross, and it is this soteriological focus that dominates his understanding of the church. The church was created by the saving work of Christ, and, therefore, for Forsyth, it has no other principle or foundation. Everything in, of and about the church is informed by the work of Christ; questions of polity, ecumenism, church and state, ethics, the ministry, the sacraments, all these are seen through the lens of Christ’s atonement. Since Forsyth’s view of the atonement is profoundly corporate and universal, so too his understanding of the church is corporate and universal. This understanding of a corporate and universal church created by a divine act in the atoning cross of Christ gives Forsyth’s theology a truly catholic and truly evangelical character and accounts for his continued appeal to several branches of the church as a significant ecumenical theologian for our time. Continue reading

Can the Church Survive the Decline in Worship?

KazMy Massachusetts colleague Kazimierz Bem, Pastor and Teacher of the First Church in Marlboro, doesn’t think so.

He had a wise and thoughtful post yesterday on faith street.com called Christianity Cannot Survive the Decline in Worship.

Here’s an excerpt:

The church is not made holy by the work it does — Protestants should understand that better than anyone. Rather, it is Jesus Christ and his cross that make us holy. Our service can never replace it, copy it, or perfect it. Our service can only be our response in gratitude for what God has done for us. As the great Congregational theologian Peter T. Forsyth once wrote: “The greatest product of the Church is not brotherly love but divine worship. And we shall never worship right nor serve right till we are more engrossed with our God than even with our worship, with His reality than our piety, with his Cross than with our service.”

For the whole article go here. I heartily recommend it. Kaz even quotes P.T. Forsyth. Well done!

“A Chorus of Trees”

“Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming” –Psalm 96: 12, 13.

“What are these excitable trees singing and clapping about? They are celebrating the coming of God, a coming worth getting excited about, full of promise for the restoration, judging, cleansing and healing of all things. And this coming will not be only for people and nations, but for all that belongs to the Creator, “the whole earth and everything in it. Which means that our Advent hope for the coming of God is not a private “spiritual” matter, but a hope of quite cosmic proportions.” (From “Tear Open the Heavens” Advent Devotion 2014. The United Church of Christ)

This devotional of mine for December 22  from the UCC Advent Devotionals was made into a very moving YOUTUBE video. Thanks to Katherine Schofield for this. I tried to put the eschatology back into Advent, and I think she captured it.

On Holy Ground: A Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

Burning bushOne of the accepted truths of our faith is that God is everywhere. But here and there, now and then, the Bible tells us about a particular in-breaking of the Divine Presence into someone’s life in a most extraordinary manner.

One of the best known and most important of these stories is the encounter we just heard about between God and Moses on Mt. Horeb.

The back-story to this event starts with the migration of Hebrews to Egypt during and after the time of Joseph, where they increased in number and flourished.

But a new Egyptian king, or pharaoh, came to power who hadn’t known Joseph, and he was threatened by the presence of the Hebrews and he subjected them to slavery.

This is the world Moses is born into, a world where his people are oppressed, and his own life is in danger. This paranoid king orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all the Hebrew boy babies, but in an act of revolutionary daring they disobey him.

You all know the story of how the baby Moses was hid in the bulrushes along the Nile River, and was discovered by Pharoah’s daughter. And how when Moses grew up she adopted him, and he was treated like an Egyptian prince.

So Moses escapes the plight of his people, but not for long. One day he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave, and Moses rushed to defend the slave and in the ensuing fight he killed the man.

Fleeing for his life he ends up far away on Mt Horeb, where he settles down with a wife and tends the goats for his father-in- law.

That brings us to our story for today. It is not a very promising story, Moses wanted for murder, running away from his home and his people. And he knows that his people suffer terribly under the authority of pharaoh, who is the king of the most powerful empire in the world. Moses may have just been relieved to get out of town with his life.

So it’s just another ordinary workday for Moses, keeping an eye on the flocks as they forage for food on the side of the mountain. And then, suddenly, the ordinary day is transformed by this extraordinary sight, a flaming bush that seems to burn but is not consumed. And there is a divine messenger in the fire, for that is what an angel is. The angel never speaks, but the voice of God speaks directly to Moses, calling him by name, “Moses, Moses.”

Moses knows he is the presence of something or Someone much greater than he, and so he says, “Here am I.” Then God warns Moses to come no closer: “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground!”

What makes it holy ground? It is holy ground because God is present there. God is holy, and where God is present it is holy ground. Did you know that the Latin word, sanctus, meaning holy, is where we get our word sanctuary? A sanctuary means “a container for holy things.” This room is called a sanctuary because it has been set apart as a place where we may know the presence of God. There is nothing intrinsically holy about this room, or Mt. Horeb, for that matter. They only become holy ground because God becomes present there.

I need to say a word about mountains. The ancients often viewed mountains as holy places where the gods or the larger powers dwelt. They were places best left alone. I recently learned that there are very few Native American artifacts on the tops of mountains. For example, Darby Field, who was the first European to climb Mt Washington in NH in 1642, could convince only one of his 26 Indian scouts to approach the summit with him.

They discerned that holy ground can be dangerous ground. Something Moses sensed as well. On Mt Horeb he finds himself suddenly on holy ground, that sacred space where heaven and earth meet.

One of the things I love about scripture is that I notice new details every time I read a passage, even a familiar one like this. Here’s what I noticed about this one: first, it doesn’t say that God is invisible. On the contrary, Moses turns his face in submission to that which is greater than he. The belief was if you looked at God you would die. Later in Exodus, after a long and complicated relationship, Moses gets bolder, but here he turns his face away from God.

The other detail I had never noticed before was the angel. And why doesn’t the angel speak? That’s their job as intermediators. But here it is God who speaks directly to Moses.

Think about it. This encounter with God must have been both terrifying and amazing, both awesome and awful, two words that used to be synonyms but have evolved to being opposites to show the tension that exists in any encounter with God’s presence. Was it awesome? Or was it awful? Both.

There’s an old hymn that captures the former use of awful, “Before Jehovah’s awful throne.”

So Moses finds himself on holy ground, and knows there are dangers. What are some of the dangers of holy ground?

  1. The first is that you are on holy ground but don’t know it. The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . .” and it is true. You may not see a burning bush, but if you are paying attention something of the grandeur of God is everywhere apparent. But you might be busy or distracted and miss it. You were on holy ground and never knew it.
  2. A second danger is that you are on holy ground and you do know it, find it awesome, but then don’t want to leave it. This is the punch-line of the Transfiguration story, when Peter’s answer to the divine encounter is to want to pitch his tent right there and stay. Recall how Jesus said, “No. We’ve got to go down from the mountain. We have work to do. I have a cross to face.”

And that is the essential truth about all divine-human encounters. They always come for a reason and a purpose. They are always attached to a call. They are not information about God, but an invitation into the work and will of God. We don’t discover God, like the New Yorker cartoons where the pilgrim climbs a mountain to find the solitary guru to tell him the truth about God. Our God is not a God we can discover, but a God who reveals himself to us, for a purpose, the divine purpose.

That’s what makes these encounters so dangerous. Moses recognizes that this invitation is fraught, because God’s work is not safe. This is why Moses offers excuses and alibis to get out of it. And I love that God never refutes his excuses and alibis, but simply ignores them.

It’s a great story, but is it our story? I think it is. And here’s what I think we may need to hear from this story. Moses is going about his day job, and he thinks he is autonomous and answerable to no one. In that way he is like us, because that is the great myth of our time: that we are both autonomous and accountable to no one.

So on this ordinary day on the mountain God breaks into Moses life, calls him by name and tells him he has a job for him. The sudden presence of God, the bush, the angel, the voice, make it clear to Moses that he is not autonomous, that there is something, Someone, greater than he with whom he is in relationship, and he is accountable, he is called. In the face of the divine presence and before the divine authority Moses realizes he has a vocation, and that his own fate is closely linked with the fate of his people, who are enslaved. The very people he has run away from.

Something else I noticed for the first time in this story. In the beginning of Exodus Moses’s people are called “the Hebrews.” But here there is a shift. God says to Moses, “The cry of “the Israelites” has come to me.” This naming creates a new identity. I am reminded of the line from the 1 Peter 10:2: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

So Moses wants to know who is this God? We assume monotheism, but in Moses time there were lots of gods around. God says this is who I am, and discloses the divine name: Yahweh, which means I am who I am. “Tell the Egyptians I am sent you.”

And now that God has identified the Hebrews as Israelites, recall that Jacob’s name became Israel, he explicitly identifies himself as not any old god, but the same God who made covenant with the ancestors. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

This is the central story that constitutes a people, Israel, and by extension the church. It is not the end of the story by any means; later on this very same mountain God will give Moses the Ten Commandments. The book of Exodus tells us God bestows on his people Presence, Law, and Covenant as the abiding features of a new community set apart to be holy. They are to be slaves no longer, but to live for his will and way on behalf of the whole world.

And on every Passover Jewish families repeat this story at the Seder table. They don’t say, “when our ancestors were slaves in Egypt.” They say, “When we were slaves in Egypt.” In doing so they collapse the time from then to now.

In much the same way when we Christians hear this story and think about this story we know that it is our story too. It is a story of liberation. It is the Passover from slavery to freedom. It is the Easter from death to new life.

The story reminds us that we are neither autonomous nor accountable to no one. That is a lie our society tells itself. But it is not true. On the contrary, our God sees, hears, knows, calls us by name, and invites us to share the divine work of liberation from every form of bondage, and every structure of oppression, whether it is personal or societal.

The bush still burns. The call still comes. “Who will speak for me? Who will hear and respond to the invitation to work for my will and way?” Amen.

I preached this sermon on August 31, 2014 at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. To hear a podcast of the service that contains this sermon go here.

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

Crash helmets and life jackets in church? So suggests Annie Dillard

A week ago I posted one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard.  My friend and former Baptist colleague (former colleague, not former Baptist) Ashley Smith commented (on my Facebook Page): “Dillard is one of my favorites as well; I’ve read Holy the Firm over and over, and used these quotes more than once in preaching and writing.”

I wrote her back: “Ashley, her (Dillard’s) words maintain their freshness, don’t they? The other perennial quote from her, which I can’t seem to find, is about how people should be wearing crash helmets during church services because of the danger of the holy.”

And she found it.  Thanks Ashley!

It’s from the essay “An Expedition to the Pole” in Dillard’s volume Teaching a Stone to Talk:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”  (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper and Row, 1982)