“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

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Prayer for the Common Good on The Fifth Sunday in Lent

O Lord, by all your dealings with us, whether of joy or pain, of light or darkness, let us be brought ever closer to you. Let us not value your grace simply because it makes us happy, or because it makes us sad, because it gives us or denies us what we want, but because all that you send us bring us to you. Let us realize that in knowing your perfection, we may be sure in every disappointment that you are still loving us, that in every darkness you are still enlightening us, and that in every bump in our journey’s road you are giving us life, just as in death you gave life to your Son, our savior Jesus Christ.

O Lord, our whole world is in the midst of struggle about our future, and there is great fear and uncertainty among us. We worry about war and peace, about terror and trouble, about the environment and the economy. Calm us down and let us speak to each other as those who have a common stake in our life together, as neighbors rather than as adversaries

Keep us from rancor and strife, from rumors and accusations. Let us seek the truth as best we can know it, and the common good above our own particular interests. Deliver us from the need to build ourselves up by cutting others down.  Let us listen more than we talk, and think before we speak, and realize that we are all in this together,

O Lord, you alone can control the days that are gone and the deeds that are done; remove from our burdened memory the weight of past years, that being set free both from the comfort of complacency and the paralysis of remorse, we may reach forth to those things which lie before us, and press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ. Amen.

(Photo: R. L. Floyd)

Ruminations on Late Winter and Late Lent

 

I have been outdoors more this Lent than perhaps ever before.  There has been lots of winter hiking and snowshoeing, which has been a real and unexpected blessing for me, since for various health reasons I have been unable to hike the trails for a couple of years, something I have sorely missed.

So many of my Lenten reflections have been on snowy trails in the nearby Pittfsfield State Forest, just a ten-minute drive from my home.  During the week there is hardly anyone there; often I hike for hours without seeing a soul.

I have gone out in all kinds of weather, and joyfully watched the daily changes that were taking place there, just as I was noticing the daily changes taking place within me.

I have always loved to be outdoors, but in my theological writings I have shied away from too much talk about it because it so easily degenerates into a kind of nature worship, or the garden variety pantheism of so much popular culture.

God is surely known in his Word, Jesus Christ, in the preaching of the same, and in the bread we share and the cup we drink together.  He is known to in the daily life of his congregations, where I served for more than thirty years.  These things I know.

But this Lent I found God’s presence too in the small rivulets running under the ice even in the hard frozen days.  Many of my Lenten Ruminations here on this blog have been illustrated with photos I have taken in the forest, with my ancient digital camera.  I wasn’t sure why.

It took some time before I made the connection between what I was seeing in the woods and streams and what was taking place in my own Lenten journey.

Today I went hiking in the rain with my daughter and her boyfriend for about three and a half hours.  It was mostly just drizzle or light rain.  The snow and ice are melting from the week-end’s heavy rains, the brooks and streams are filling up.  It is late winter.  A week from today is officially spring (though not really here!)

Today I saw a roaring swollen brook and I felt somewhere deep inside me that my Lent this year is almost over, and that I am almost ready.

I was wet, but happy.

(Photos:  top, Swollen Stream by R. L. Floyd;  bottom: Wet but Happyby R. M. Floyd)