A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 9, 2014
When I was a senior in high school, I was cast as the male lead in the musical. That year we performed, “Carnival,” that small but delightful show that follows the lives of an eccentric group of performers and workers in a run-down traveling circus known as “The Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris.” Paul is a former ballet dancer, now crippled and reduced to running the puppet show for the circus. He speaks his words of ironic humor, cynicism and bitterness through his hand puppets, Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Marguerite and Reynardo, the Fox. The female lead is a simple, orphan girl who wanders into the carnival looking for work. One male character after another seeks to seduce the naïve young woman until she finally falls victim to Paul’s angry rejection and bitter cruelty. Of course, the truth is that Paul is falling in love with her, a love that is eventually acknowledged and they all live happily ever after in best of Broadway fashion. The moral of the musical is the redemptive power of love. The show opens and closes with the charming little song, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Do you remember it?
Love makes the world go ‘round, love makes the world go ‘round
Somebody soon will live you, if no one loves you now.
High in some silent sky loves sings a silver song
Making the world whirl softly
Love makes the world go ‘round.
Now you can argue that this is a rather sentimental view of love. It is, after all, an American musical, based on a gentle French tale in which the basic plot line is “love conquers all.” And if today’s scripture texts are any indication, the song offers an insufficient word about love. Yet, who can ever speak with final authority on the subject. Love is as broad and deep as human knowing. There is more love than we will ever know. Ultimately, loves flows from God and back to God, carrying us along on its mighty stream. Though the song is simple, the sentiment can be profound. What if it is indeed true that love makes the world go ‘round? Would we not want to immerse ourselves in such love and let it bear us to our ultimate destination in the very heart of God?
In the musical, Paul is angry and bitter, seething at what has been unfairly taken from him. Ironically he is self-absorbed with his self-hatred. The innocent Lili holds up a mirror of affectionate delight in the world all around that draws him out of his shell and transforms his life. What she shows him is more love than he can show himself, in fact, more love than he has ever known – love and delight in his being, not at all unlike the love and delight that God holds for us, indeed for all creation.
The people who had returned from exile to the sad ruins of Jerusalem were not so unlike Paul, the puppeteer. All they could see was what they had lost. Perhaps they too were bitter and cynical. We know that they held a narrow, inward-looking view of their life as a people. They were pretty self-absorbed in religious practice that they believed would save them. The trouble was it wasn’t working. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They cry out to God, whose absence they are feeling all too keenly. “Oh Lord, nobody loves us now!”
Isaiah, speaking for God, is neither naïve nor gentle in his response. “It’s time to wake up folks. Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” My guess is that most of us are not too big on fasting as a religious practice, so maybe you can name for yourself a practice that gets in the way of following faithfully God’s will for your life. Marvin McMickle, former pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland and now president of Colgate Rochester Divinity School suggests that “There are many people for whom piety is the be-all and end-all of true religion. They keep an accurate count of the hours they spend in church, in choir rehearsal, in a board meeting, in private prayer, in Bible study, and in attendance at various other church events. That involvement in church life seems to them to be a sufficient investment in a relationship with God.”
But our practices of piety are not sufficient. We can always use more light and more love. In fact, the prophets proclaim that God gets tired of rote religious practice and turns away from rituals ungrounded in love. Last week’s lectionary readings included these words from Micah, “’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”(Micah 6:6-8).
And Amos thunders, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24). The point is, we think we can come to God with our familiar religious practices and that will be sufficient to sustain God’s favor. Fasting, sacrifice, celebrations, solemn assemblies, even our songs, our worship, are not enough in themselves to link us to God.
William Sloane Coffin tells us in our Words of Preparation that “’God is love,’ as Scripture says, and that means the revelation is in relationship. ‘God is love’ means God is known devotionally, not dogmatically. ‘God is love’ does not clear up old mysteries; it discloses new mystery. ‘God is love’ is not a truth we can master; it is only one to which we can surrender. Faith is being grasped by the power of love.” This, in fact, is the love that makes the world go ‘round and it is not sentimental at all.
It seemed wrong to talk about more love and not at least remind ourselves of the Apostle Paul’s great hymn to love in his first letter to the church at Corinth. As with the Beatitudes from last week I am not going to try to unpack this familiar text this morning. Suffice it to say that these words are not the sentimental litany we make of them at weddings and other celebrations. As one scholar suggests, here we find love as a verb, love in action, love redeeming lives and transforming the world. Here we find that love is more than we may ever wrap our minds around. If Coffin is right, it “is not a truth we can master; it is only one to which we can surrender.”
At the same time hear this, in that surrender we may be drawn into a powerful stream of justice and righteousness, of compassion and care, of mercy and steadfast love, for so it is with God. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Paul all tell us that reaching for more love will have consequences for how we live our lives, how we relate to one another and all of God’s creation. Love asks, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”; “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…”; to “…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”; to be patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, to not insist on [our] own way, or be irritable or resentful, rejoicing not in wrongdoing, but rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things – this is the love that makes the world go ‘round. When we ask for more love, this is what we are asking for. And when God calls us into relationship this is what God desires of us.
As I said last week, I believe there are more light-filled days ahead for our congregation if that is our desire and if we are willing to risk walking into God’s light. In the same way, I believe that God has more love for us, more than we can ever receive or hold, if we are willing to surrender ourselves to that everflowing stream. This is the “new mystery” that “’God is love’…discloses.” Will we give ourselves to the mystery? Will we surrender to this truth even though we may never master it? Can we trust that love really does make the world go ‘round? And will we then allow God to ask more love of us? In our living, in our dying, and in our renewal, more love, O God, more love.