“Unexpected Miracles” A Sermon on Isaiah 43: 16-21

Last spring, when your pastors Bruce and Barb invited me to come be with you I didn’t realize that I would be with you on a momentous day. For today is the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended The First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. So before this service is over we will have reached that centenary.

The Armistice ended what was then the bloodiest war in human history. It was called the Great War then, and the War to end all wars. Sadly, that was not the case. A baby boy born in London at the exact hour of the Armistice was named Pax, Latin for Peace. It was a name full of promise and hope for a peaceful world. 20 years later Pax was killed in battle in what would become known as “The Second World War.”

In 1954 President Eisenhower signed a bill declaring the holiday Veterans Day to honor all veterans, living or dead. It remains a day to honor veterans, as you have done today, and to pray for a world that knows the Peace that God intends for it.

My sermon today is called “Unexpected Miracles” and a world without war might be the greatest miracle of all.

So what is an unexpected miracle? That was what my friend Ed asked me as we walked along the shore of Onota Lake on Thursday. What a beautiful day that was. The sun was shining, there were still brilliant colors on the leaves on the Taconic Hills, and some great big fluffy clouds.

My friend Ed, a frequent walking companion and interlocutor of mine, asked me what I was doing this weekend and I told him I was coming to Littleton to preach. “What are you preaching on?” he asked me. I said, “Unexpected Miracles.” He wondered aloud, “What is an unexpected miracle?”

Ed retired as a partner in an Insurance firm, and by his own admission is no theologian. That’s why he is so helpful to talk to when I’m ruminating on a sermon. Still, Ed is a former congregant of mine, and sat under my preaching for 22 years, so he knows a thing or two. So I asked him, “What is the most important story in the Old Testament?” “I give up,” Ed said. “The Exodus!” I said.

“Ed, I’ll give you another chance, what is the most important story in the New Testament?” “You tell me, he said. “The Resurrection!” I said.

“Those are unexpected miracles!” “One more question: what are the conditions necessary for unexpected miracles?” Ed got this one just right. “They can’t be expected.”

That’s right, but I would take it even further. They are not only unexpected they are unimaginable! The conditions must be dire, hopeless. In the Exodus story the Hebrew slaves couldn’t have imagined that Moses could lead them out of bondage into freedom.

Likewise, on Good Friday the disciples couldn’t have imagined that Jesus would rise from the dead. St. Luke gives us a vivid picture of the kind of despair the followers of Jesus had in his story of the Road to Emmaus. Their high hopes were utterly dashed. And St. John describes how the disciples were hiding in a locked room the evening of the first Easter, fearful, hopeless.

And it was at one of those “out of luck,” “no hope,” “dead end” moments that we get our reading from the prophet Isaiah today.

Here is a little back-story for you. Since ancient Israel figures so prominently in our Biblical story it is easy for us to forget that it was never a great power, but a tiny nation perpetually stuck between rising great powers to its north and south.

Israel did have a brief heyday under the monarchies of King David and his son Solomon, but after that it was pretty much downhill. The kingdom split in two and had a succession of more or less corrupt kings.

Finally, in 587 BC, after a long and horrific siege, the powerful Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem. And they did a very thorough job of extinguishing the national flame of Israel. The three foundations of Israel’s identity at the time were 1. The monarchy. 2. The Temple. and 3. The land.

So first the Babylonian conquerors murdered the king’s sons before his eyes, put his eyes out and took him captive to Babylon to live out his days. Then they burned the Temple to the ground, along with most of the rest of Jerusalem, and they took ten thousand of the most important surviving citizens in chains back to Babylon, where they stayed in exile for 60 years.

And it is out of this dire period that some of the most profound theology in the Bible was forged, as Israel wrestled with the question of what kind of God must this be who allowed (or perhaps even made) such things to take place. From this period we get the Book of Job’s profound wrestling with the question of evil, we get a handful of our favorite Psalms, and perhaps, most of all, we get Isaiah of the Exile, who didn’t know at the time that he was writing a good bit of the words for Handel’s Messiah.

So, post-exilic Israel had all the necessary conditions for an unexpected miracle. Their important things were lost and gone. They had lost their land. They had no monarchy. They had no place to worship. They were in exile, far from home, far from their beloved Zion.

Psalm 137, made famous as a song in Godspell, expresses their lament for their lost life:

“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
But how could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”

That is the context in which God speaks to (or through) Isaiah, and announces to the exiles “ I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

God reminds the despairing people who they are and who he is. “I am the Lord, your Holy One.” I am the Creator.” Remember me?  I made a way in the sea where there was no way. I rescued you from Pharaoh’s chariots.

There is an old Spiritual from the days of slavery called “Oh Mary don’t you Weep.”  Like many slave songs it had a coded message. One of the verses says:

“The very moment I thought I was lost
The dungeon shook and the chains fell off
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
Oh Mary don’t you weep!”

These African American slaves may have been singing of an ancient Egyptian King, the oppressor who kept the Hebrew slaves in bondage, but they were singing out of their own experience. They were singing in hope and promise about the liberator God who frees those in bondage and leads them to freedom. Because Scripture casts long shadows, giving new meaning in new circumstances. The old, old story becomes new in new contexts.

The Bible is not a story about the triumph of human accomplishment. There are few heroes in its story. Its story, which is our story, is a different kind of story.

It is a story of unexpected miracles, implausible outcomes, improbable second chances. It is a story about ordinary people becoming caught up in extraordinary events.

It is, above all, the story about God, who uses those ordinary people for his own purposes, which are hidden and unpredictable. Think for a moment about the people God calls and uses. They are often the last and the least in society. They are often very old or very young. God calls old people like Abraham and Sarah, who as Fred Buechner once wrote, had “one foot in the grave and one foot in the maternity ward.”

Or God uses young people of little standing such as David, the youngest son, or Mary, an unwed pregnant young teen.

Or God calls the unqualified like Moses, to be his spokesman, although Moses has a stutter. And God calls Jacob, a stinker, a scoundrel and a schemer, to carry the Promise.

Or God calls the women, who had little standing in a Patriarchy, like those two brave Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh and saved the Hebrew boy babies.

And remember that it was women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection, whose witness was dismissed by the all male disciples as “an idle tale.”

This is our God, the mysterious, often hidden, unexpected One. The God who makes a way where there is “no way!” So God says to broken Israel in exile, “I made a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters. This is a reminder of the Exodus across the Red Sea waters.

And then God says to them, “Now I am going to make a way in the wilderness.” Don’t focus on the former things! I am doing something new, something unexpected, something unimaginable. Look for it! Pay attention for the new thing I am doing.

Now I love my friend Ed, who my family calls Uncle Eddie, even though we aren’t related, but he has a saying that I am hearing more and more from people. Perhaps you are hearing it, too? Ed likes to say, “It is what it is!” I’ve even said it myself!

And there is a kind of factual truth to it, but it seems too fatalistic to me. It implies, at least to me, that what is must be what will be.

And since I belong to a community that believes in unexpected miracles, I don’t know what will be. None of us does. We didn’t get to choose when we were born and we don’t know when we will die. We don’t know the future. But we do know the reality of the God who is doing a new thing, who makes a way where there seems to be no way.

I admit that Ed has a right to say it, since he almost died a couple of years ago. He had a sudden heart attack, and the doctors rushed him to the hospital, discovered that his coronary arteries were clogged, and installed two stents in him. So when Ed and I walk at the lake we do not take life for granted. As we looked at the golden day, I said to him, “what a beautiful day,” and he said, “Any day I wake up alive is a beautiful day. You might say that I am an unexpected miracle!” And Ed would be right. He is an unexpected miracle.

And I am also an unexpected miracle! Eighteen years ago I had a catastrophic bicycle crash that broke my body and my brain. My body healed, but my brain didn’t, since I had suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI. Like Humpty Dumpty I couldn’t be put back together again.

And I lost many of the things that I loved. I couldn’t taste my food, I couldn’t listen and enjoy music, I couldn’t concentrate to read or write, and I had a hard time going to sleep. I lost my health, and eventually I had to retire, so I lost my job, my vocation, my community, and, since I lived in a parsonage, my home.

So I know something about loss and grief and despair. And I was ill for over a decade.

And then something unexpected happened: I got better. It didn’t happen in an instant, but it happened. My depression lifted, and some of my neurological impairments improved somewhat. It turns out that the brain is more adaptive than they used to believe, and undamaged parts of the brain “come off the bench” and help out with functions that the damaged parts can no longer do.

So I got better. I started doing some preaching again. My daughter is a UCC minister and she asked me to preach at her ordination. I was asked to write for the UCC Still Speaking Writers’ Group. I’ve now written more than a hundred devotions for them.

So the last six years of my life have been a extraordinary unexpected gift. Lovely things have happened in my life. Both my children married people we love and they started having children, and now I’m a grandpa twice over with another one due this week. So I am filled with gratitude for the restoration of my life.

And I’d like to be able to tell you I did something heroic to get better, or had great faith, but it wouldn’t be the truth. When you’re as sick as I was even faith seemed like yet another of my losses.

So the Biblical story of unexpected miracles resonates with me because my own restoration seemed so unimaginable to me. And it wasn’t anything I did.

But I had lots of help. I know Pastor Bruce and Pastor Barb have been preaching about the miracles of community and congregation. I think about all the people that helped me, supported me, and loved me, even when I was pretty unlovable. First and foremost, my wife, Martha. And my two children. And my extended family and friends, and some great doctors. And in time Martha and I found a new congregation that accepted and loved us.

So I want to testify to you today about grace, the free gift of love, which comes unexpected and undeserved, but comes nevertheless. Comes as an unexpected miracle.

The Christian Story is a story about a God who rescues, restores, liberates, heals, and forgives. This story shapes our life together, it tells us who God is and who we are as God’s people.

And you know, I never finished the story of those poor Exiles in Babylon. They got to go home. God found a Way. In the geopolitical world of the Ancient Middle East a new power arose: Persia, which is modern day Iran. They conquered Babylon (which by the way is modern day Iraq). And the King of Persia, Cyrus, freed the exiles and let them go back to Zion.

The God who makes a way where there is no way made a way. And after Jesus died on a cross on a lonely hill in Jerusalem, and there seemed no way for the story to go on, God found a way.

And then the disciples remembered that Jesus had called himself the Way, the truth and the life. And the little movement that he started, long before it was given the name Christian, called itself “The Way.”

And here we are two thousand years later still worshipping the God who finds a way where there is no way, and watching with our eyes (and faithful imaginations) for the new thing that God is about to do. In our world, in our community, in our congregation, in our lives.

You are people of the Way. You are one of God’s unexpected miracles. Amen.

(I preached this sermon on November 11, 2018 at the Congregational Church of Littleton, Massachusetts. Photo, R.L. Floyd, 2012)

“The Community that Mercy Makes”

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” —1 Peter 2:10

The First Letter of Peter was written to encourage Christians in Asia Minor who were being persecuted for their faith. Most of them were Gentile converts to Christianity, and Peter reminds them that their inclusion in the church and in the promises of God was by an act of divine mercy made real by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Continue reading

“Our Nation of Immigrants”

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

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

My Top Ten Posts from 2016

cropped-winter-11Once again as the old year passes and the new year beckons, it is my custom to look back at my most popular posts of the year. Some years a theme emerges, and this year it is the passing of old friends and mentors. Three of my professors from seminary died within a few weeks of each other early in the year, and my tributes to and remembrances of them were among the most popular posts.

Here in order are the most visited new posts from 2016:

A Prayer for Christmas (and for our time) from Karl Barth

A Tribute to Meredith Brook “Jerry” Handspicker 1932-2016

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

Remembering William L. Holladay

Let us not treat this wound too lightly. Reconciliation requires repentance

Mike Maguire and Me: Recollections from Long Ago

“Rich in Things and Poor in Soul” A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

A tribute to Max L. Stackhouse

“Holy Weeping’ A Sermon on Romans 12:19 and Revelation 21:1-4

“Known knowns, known unknowns,” and the New Testament

As in previous years certain posts have had real staying power. Many of these are sermons that desperate preachers found on search engines. For example, my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent was the number one entry if you Googled “Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.” Consequently, I saw extraordinary spikes in traffic the week before.

So here are my all-time top ten posts since I started “When I Survey . . .” in 2009:

Why did Jesus refer to Herod as “That fox” in Luke 13:32”?

“Rejoice! Rejoice!” A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

“Prayer for a Retired Pastor“

God Gives the Growth,” A Retirement Sermon

“The Lord Will Provide:” A Sermon on Genesis 22

“There is nothing to be afraid of!” A Sermon on Psalm 27:1-2

An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts

“God With Us” A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Behind Locked Doors” A Sermon on John 20:24

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

Another milestone for this blog is that it reached 100 followers this year. So I thank you all for your interest and support. Come back and visit now and again in 2017.

My Book on the Atonement

CoverThe Christian doctrine of Atonement has long been a theological preoccupation of mine, which may seem strange since I didn’t come out of an Evangelical background, where this is a central concern.

I was blessed to have sabbaticals from the pastorate at three iconic British universities, Oxford, St Andrews, and Cambridge, where I read and wrote about this subject.

Out of those experiences came a number of journal articles and this book of essays. I have been heavily influenced by the thought of the British theologian P.T. Forsyth, and many of the chapters in this book focus on his theology.

The book was published in 2000 by Pickwick Press, which later became part of Wipf and Stock Publishers, who re-issued the book in 201o, for which I am grateful.  It is a humble little book that traces my attempt to come to grips with this vexing doctrine. It has an extraordinary foreword  by the estimable Gabriel Fackre, which I think alone makes the book worth having.

Wipf and Stock is currently having a 40% off sale until May 1, so if you are interested in obtaining this book, now is the time. You can go to the link here.

“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

“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