Who Is My Neighbor? (July 14, 2013)

sermons.fwWHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 14, 2013

Text:  Luke 10:25-37

Let us pray:  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  Every observant Jew in Jesus’ hearing would have been familiar with these words.  They come directly from the Torah and were prayed twice daily.  To love God with one’s whole being was central to Jewish law.  Every other element of the law sprang from this great commandment.  So when the lawyer questions Jesus about eternal life, it’s not at all surprising to find he already knew the answer.

Some would argue that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus.  It certainly is not the first time on this long journey to Jerusalem that a religious authority has tried to trip him up.  But I’m not altogether certain.  I think it’s in the nature of lawyers to want to pin things down, to ask clarifying questions and to try to establish precedents that people can practice.  His question may be a test of Jesus’ knowledge or wisdom, but it could be that he really is looking for an answer. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Does that question have any ring of authenticity for you?  Have you ever found yourself wondering along with the lawyer?  Do you ever worry about the heavenly road and whether or not you’re on it?  I know we largely think of ourselves as too sophisticated to put questions in these terms.  But if you found yourself in this attorney’s shoes what would you ask Jesus?  What would you want to know – about his authenticity, his message, his leadership, the way he was walking, the choices he was making, the reign of God he kept promoting?  What must I do to secure my place in this in-breaking, life-transforming, reign of God?

Now in typical fashion of argumentation for the time and territory, Jesus turns the lawyer’s question back on him.  He answers the original question with a sharply pointed question of his own.  “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  Jesus knows this man is no dummy.  This lawyer is well-read, literate in the law, perfectly capable of answering his own question, if he stops to think.  Here we get Luke’s version of the Great Commandment, but it does not come from the lips of Jesus.  It comes from the one who has just challenged him.  Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor just as you love yourself.   The law, the way, the truth, the life – all are rooted and grounded in these words about the power of love.

I imagine the lawyer was a little embarrassed at being shown up by Jesus.  He engages in a little stuttering before he comes up with a face-saving follow-up question.  “And just who is my neighbor?”  Surely, he will either get Jesus to engage him on his own terms or he will catch Jesus short in his understanding of neighborliness.  But again, Jesus does not follow the lawyer’s lead.  He says, “Let me tell you a little story.”

The crowd is enrapt as they watch the volleys back and forth between the two.  They settle in to hear one of Jesus’ famous stories, the kind with a surprise ending that will surely put his challenger in his place.  I’m sure we could all tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan from memory.  Along with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is the most familiar of all Jesus’ stories.

Jesus himself will soon walk the steep, rugged road from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Even if it is not actually familiar to his hearers, they all know of its dangerous reputation.  I can imagine they might begin by wondering what this fool was doing traveling the road alone, unless he was on some urgent business that required his taking off by himself.

Now he lies bloody and beaten in the ditch robbed of all his resources, including his robe and tunic.  The listeners are conflicted.  They understand why the priest and Levite don’t stop.  The risk of being robbed themselves and the risk of ritual impurity were just too great.  Truth be told, most of them would not have stopped either.  They could think of a dozen reasons not to get involved.  But they’d also been around Jesus long enough to begin to understand how important compassion was to the reign of God.  They had a nagging feeling that Jesus believed the priest and Levite should have stopped.  They knew that, for Jesus, human need trumped rules and standard practice every time.

So what would the catch be, what was the punch line for this parable?  A Samaritan wanders onto the scene.  Well, surely this is a turn for the worse.  Everyone knew that a hated Samaritan could be up to no good.  See, we’ve heard this story so many times it’s tamed for us, but the first century Jews, listening to Jesus talk, had been carefully taught to hate Samaritans.  The ending, so familiar to us, would have been shocking to them.

That’s right.  It’s the Samaritan who shows compassion and extravagant generosity.  The lawyer is not the only one dumb-founded.  The whole crowd is astonished, speechless.  Jesus, looking the lawyer right in the eyes, asks one last question.  “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor…?”  Stuttering again, the lawyer cannot bring himself to say the word Samaritan…“The one who showed…mercy.”  Finally, the answer to that original question about eternal life, about residency in the reign of God:  “Go and do likewise.”

If we were to put ourselves into this scene today, how might the story unfold?  Who would we find in need and why?  Who would be likely to walk by on the other side and who would stop to help?  Where would you place yourself – lying in the ditch, hurrying by, taking time to lend assistance?  My guess is that each of us has had some experience of all three roles.  We’ve been down and out, hurting, in need of help.  We’ve been too busy, too frightened, too preoccupied to stop for a neighbor in need.  And there have been those moving, miraculous moments when our compassion has kicked in and we’ve stopped to help even when it was not perceived to be in our best interest.

Some would argue that it’s human nature to follow an instinct for self-preservation, to give one’s self over to caring only for one’s self and one’s own.  Michael Rogness reminds us that the shrinking world in which we live challenges our understanding of neighbor.  He says, “We are all ‘tribal’ by instinct and by habit. We are most comfortable with and usually care most about those like us. But now we live side-by-side with people of many different tribes” (Michael Rogness, Commentary on Luke 10:25-37, workingpreacher.org).  Whomever is on our personal “Samaritan” list are the ones for whom we are least likely to have time or energy.  No compassion for those folk; too hard to get inside their skin and see with their eyes.  It’s important to look after one’s own kind.  How subtly does racism, classism, sexism, homo-hatred, ablism creep in to erode our ability to love, to crush our capacity for compassion?

Gerald May argues that this very capacity for compassion, this awakening of the heart to loving and being loved is what distinguishes human beings from other animals (The Awakened Heart).  Marcus Borg says that the call to compassion is one of two key marks that distinguish Jesus’ ministry from all others (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time).  Anne Howard says of the parable, “There are two kinds of people in [this] story: those who see life with eyes of fear and the one who sees with eyes of love.”  She continues, “Jesus makes it very clear to the lawyer: there is really only one rule to the game: be a neighbor. Be the one who doesn’t count the cost, be the one who doesn’t measure the boundaries, be the one who doesn’t calculate the limits of kindness, be the one who sees” with eyes of love (Anne Howard, “Two Ways to See,” A Word in Time, July 8, 2013, beatitudessociety.org).

Compassion, love for neighbor, may not be part of our animal nature, but it is certainly central to that second nature, that higher self into which we can grow.  God has made us a little lower than the divine and crowned us with honor and glory (Psalm 8:5).  We are created and called to something beyond our base nature.  To give ourselves to God and neighbor is to commit ourselves to a life of love and compassion.  “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.  Go and practice compassion.  You already know the foundation – love of God and love of neighbor.  Go and live out what you see to be true.  Amen.

 

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Oh, Freedom! (July 7, 2013)

OH, FREEDOM! (Sunday, July 7, 2013)

A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Text:  Galatians 5:1, 13-25

“Oh, freedom over me…before I’d be a slave I’d be buried in my grave…” What do you imagine that song is about it?  Who do you think first sang it and why?  It was a very popular song of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the mid 1960s.  What famous document was signed into law 150 years ago?  What did the Emancipation Proclamation say and do?  That’s right it outlawed slavery in this country and freed the slaves from bondage.  “Oh freedom over me!”

So what exactly is freedom?  What does that word mean to you?  How many of us are free today?

If freedom means “the quality or state of being free: as a: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action; b: liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another; c: the quality or state of being exempt or released, usually from something onerous” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), then what is its opposite?  Is it slavery, bondage, constraint?  Yes, but some would also argue that freedom is also opposed by license, that it is actually not true freedom to say because I’m free, I can do anything I want.

The fellows who wrote the song I sang at the beginning of the service about wishing to be free, do you think they were longing to be free to do anything they wanted, to live a life with no rules or expectations, no compassion or love for others?  I like that song because it speaks so strongly of a desire to be connected, for you to understand me and me to understand you.  “I wish I could share all the love in my heart; remove all the bars that still keep us apart.  I wish you could know what it means to be me, then you’d see and agree that we all should be free.”  “I wish I could say all the things that I should say…”  “I wish I could give all I’m longing to give.”  Doesn’t sound much like someone who is self-absorbed, who wants to be free just to do whatever he pleases, who wants only what she wants when she wants it, usually at the expense of others.

I think this is what Paul is writing about when he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”   Yes, this freedom in Christ is truly a freedom from whatever has bound us, made slaves of us, unduly restricted our lives.  But it is not just a freedom from, it is also a freedom to.  In particular, it is a freedom to love and be loved.  “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

Uh…wait a minute, “slaves to one another”?  What’s that about?  Well, good old Paul does love a dramatic contrast.  It surely got our attention, didn’t it?  How can we be free and be slaves at the same time?  A paradox indeed!  I suspect that Paul did not literally mean slavery in its crassest, cruelest sense.  Often that word is translated as “servants” rather than “slaves.”  The basic point is that the freedom for which Christ has set us free is the freedom to love.  It is a freedom to take on a great and meaningful responsibility.  It is the freedom that allows us to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Paul says all the ancient Jewish law, all the rules and regulations that can tie us up in knots and keep us longing to be free, all the demands and expectations we impose on ourselves and others, must be reconsidered and reconfigured in the light of the great commandments to love God and neighbor above all else.

Long ago St. Augustine said something like “Love God and do what you will.” Some people find that statement very worrisome.  They’re afraid it will lead to lots of bad behavior and chaos in the world.  They’re more than willing to come up with intricate definitions, lists of rules, and binding laws to spell out what Augustine did and did not mean by “do what you will.”  Unfortunately what they miss, the wisdom inherent in Augustine’s saying is that love for God comes first.  When you truly love and give your life over to God, everything you do and say and feel will be rooted and grounded in that love.  That’s the freedom to which Christ frees us, to live immersed in that kind of loving relationship with God and neighbor.

Now Paul goes into some detail here about what it means to love God in Christ and to love your neighbor as yourself.  He’s got a little sermon about not “gratifying the desires of the flesh.”  Sometimes we get hung up on that term.  We think of flesh as our bodies and we make it seem as if Paul hated bodies and bodily functions, thought they were all nasty and evil.  But that’s not really true.  The word that gets translated as “flesh” has a much wider and more important meaning than just our physical bodies.  What Paul is really warning against is self-absorption, “me first” or “it’s all about me.”  Elisabeth Johnson writes that “Flesh (sarx) for Paul is not merely the physical body, but the whole self under the power of sin, with its self-serving desires and motives. This self is never satisfied, it seems, never has enough esteem, status, wealth, pleasure, or whatever else it is seeking. Self-indulgence easily becomes a new form of slavery.”  We know enough about obsessions and addictions today to understand how the freedom to do as we please can lead to awful, deadly forms of slavery that affect not only our own lives but the lives of those around us.  Johnson sees with Paul that “Christ frees us not only from the law, but from the sinful self. Freed from self, we are free to serve the neighbor, to ‘become slaves to one another’ through love” (Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25, June 27, 2010, workingpreacher.org).

Paul has a list of sins, of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that get us into trouble, that serve the law, the flesh, or both.  What are some things you might add to the list?  Or perhaps you have different words for naming things on Paul’s list?  Some of those things are about the abusing the body but most of them are about attitudes and the poor ways we treat one another.  Paul is arguing that when we get hung up on these things, we are not free.  We are surely not free in Christ.  What do you think?

So then, when we are free in the freedom for which Christ has set us free, what are we to be like?  What sort of characteristics and qualities are we to take on?  Paul has another list at the end of today’s passage.  Remember a few weeks ago, we looked at this very list.  Pastor Tripp had printed these very words on strips of paper and the children and youth made sure we all had one.  Do you remember which word was yours?  Here’s mine – “kindness”.  I kept it as an important reminder of one “fruit of the Spirit” that I am free to exercise when I encounter my neighbors of every sort.  Again, are there any values you would add to Paul’s list, any fruits you would graft to his tree, any thoughts about how you might name them differently?

Somebody I read recently suggested that this list should be read daily.  I think he might be onto something.  Those of us who wish we knew how it would feel to be free, those of us longing to live beyond whatever might enslave us, those of us who want to claim the freedom for which Christ has set us free could do worse than to consider on a regular basis what it might mean to be free for “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” to be free to love our neighbors as ourselves.”  Just in case you agree with this suggestion, I’ve printed out the list.  You can take it home, post it on your refrigerator door, bathroom mirror, file cabinet next to your desk, fold it up and carry it in your purse or wallet.  Feel free to do with it as you will, and at the same time feel free to love one another, your neighbors, the world, in the freedom for which Christ has set you free.  Amen.

 giftsofspirit

Moving On (June 30, 2013)

MOVING ON

A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 30, 2013

Text:  Luke 9:51-62

This has been a momentous week on many fronts.  Supreme Court rulings have held the headlines.  All over the country lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and questioning folk are celebrating along with our allies the recognition of our right to marry under the laws of the land.  There may be a million or more celebrants on the streets of San Francisco this morning as we worship here.  To tell you the truth, there is a little tug on me to be sharing in that celebration.

It was 17 years ago on an equally hot Pride Sunday that I was ordained at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland.  We have come a long way since that day in providing a fair and equitable society for lgbtq people in this country.  Last Sunday, I worshiped at Crossroads Church in Kansas City, Missouri.  Crossroads is one of 88 congregations that both welcome and affirm lgbtq folk as part of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.  It was AWAB day at the American Baptist Mission Summit.  Since we are not allowed to be officially a part of the biennial meetings, we usually hold some sort of alternate event at a site nearby.

The day began with a worship service at which the Executive Director of the Association, Robin Lunn, preached.  I was invited to read one of the scriptures, Revelation 21:1-6.  The Association is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, having had its first meetings at the American Baptist Biennial, down the road in San Jose, in 1993.  However, part of my role as member of the current Association board is to be a kind of living history, reminding folks that the birthing organization of the Association was American Baptists Concerned for Sexual Minorities, an organization, advocating for full inclusion of lgbtq people in the life of the church.  I was involved in ABConcerned leadership for some 20 years before the Association came into being.

Before I read the scripture, I reminded people that our little movement within Baptist circles is 40 years old, not 20.  It seemed significant, as we read the passage from Revelation, to remember that the full sanctuary and the growing movement started as the dream of a few faithful people a long time ago.  It also seemed important to recognize that, whatever progress we have made in building an inclusive witness in Baptist circles, there are still dreams to be dreamed and long, dusty roads to walk.  For many it is rightly a time to celebrate, but we must not forget that tomorrow will, of necessity, be a time for moving on.

Jesus set “his face to go to Jerusalem,” Luke writes.  As an old friend of mine used to say, he was “a man on a mission.”  Up to this point in Luke’s gospel we have heard the wonderful stories of Jesus’ birth, witnessed him wowing the elders in the temple at 12 years old, the same age as Daniel Ha.  He has proclaimed in his home church that “The Spirit of [God was] upon [him], because [that Spirit had] anointed [him] to bring good news to the poor…[had] sent [him] to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,to proclaim the year of [God’s] favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  He has taught and healed and driven out demons and fed the hungry throughout Galilee.  He has established his credentials.  He has assembled a large group of followers.  Now he is off to Jerusalem to confront the forces that have corrupted the religious tradition of his people and forsaken their covenant with the living God.  He is going to challenge the imperial powers where they hold people captive in systems unjust and evil.  Along the way and in the heart of the holy city itself, he will proclaim the in-breaking reign of God on earth with the promise of salvation for all who turn to God and God’s reign.

The text is tough.  Here Jesus has no time for villages that will not readily receive him nor for those who are not prepared to hit the road.  This is not the tender and compassionate Jesus we would prefer to meet along the way, the old friend who will sit and chat with us in the corner café, the beautiful dreamer who takes to time to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  This is someone intently focused on the road ahead, a man on a mission, one completely absorbed with moving on.  There is a certainty to his step, a sharp focus to his gaze, an urgency to his voice.  The reign of God is breaking through all around.  There is good news to proclaim the poor and oppressed.  A new age is coming.  It is vital that people see and understand, that they repent of being on the wrong road and come along with him on his journey to new and abundant life in the realm of God.

We ought to be careful not to read this text as saying that we should not be concerned for family life.  Jesus still loves and cares for those around him.  One could read the hyperbole of his pronouncements here as instructing his followers to let go of anything that binds them to a past that does not see and move on toward that realm of God in which they will be free of anything that has ever bound them.  As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  There is a time for mourning, a time for getting your affairs in order, a time for reflection, a time for play.  For Jesus and his followers, this time was one for moving on.  The reign of God was breaking out everywhere.  He had to show the way.

I have to confess that I have never been behind a plow, but according to those who have, you cannot look back and maintain a straight furrow.  Long and winding roads have their charms.  The twists and turns of a mountain stream follow the natural contours of the land.  Up and down and all around can be a merry adventure.  But for farming, furrows need to be as straight as possible, otherwise you have chaos in the crops and have not made maximum use of the land.  “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” says Jesus.  “Got my hands on the gospel plow.  Wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now.  Keep your hands on that plow, hold on,” sings the spiritual.  “We’re moving on toward the realm of God.  Times are tough, the journey will not be easy, but, in time, the goal toward which we move will eliminate all our troubles, free us from every chain and wipe away every tear.

Here’s the challenge as I see it in this week in which so many of us want to be celebrating the in-breaking of justice and equality for people who have been marginalized and treated as second-class citizens.  When the party is over and the streets have been cleaned up, we have to see that “it’s not all about us,” that Monday or Tuesday is time for moving on.  In the same week that DOMA was overturned and Prop 8 struck down, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was gutted by the same court along with a delay for the dreams of affirmative action for people of color.  The prospects of immigration reform were shot down by a recalcitrant House of Representatives and its leadership.  Legislators are making headway in taking away a woman’s right to choose how she handles pregnancy.  War is being waged in the Middle East and elsewhere, its living victims huddled into refugee camps while others wail and weep the loss of life and livelihood.  The very life of the planet is being threatened.

In our Association board meeting, one of our members rightly reminded us that justice is a whole cloth.  None of us is free to all of us are free.  Too often little victories are won at the expense of others.  Sometimes we are unwilling to look beyond our self interest.  We are too preoccupied to hit the road when Jesus calls us to be moving on.  In the end, however, we can’t stay put or we will suffer the dire consequences.

I know the burden can seem overwhelming, the road impassible, the work impossible, God’s realm unreachable.  But we just can’t afford the luxury of giving up or resting on our little islands of security. Ethicist Sharon Welch challenges people like us when she writes, “The despair of the affluent, the middle class, has a particular tone: it is a despair cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege. It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one’s family…Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs” (Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 15 quoted in Alyce M. McKenzie, “Keep Your Hand on the Plow!” Edgy Exegesis, 6-24-2013, patheos.com).

In a sense, this is the same challenge Jesus gives to those along his way who are not ready to join in the journey.  There some things, things that are sacred to us, that we have worked long and hard to develop and preserve, that we must let go of in order to move on with Jesus.  I really don’t want to be so presumptive as to say what those things are for you.  All I can do is invite you to listen to Jesus’ call.  What is being asked of you to help ensure the reign of God in your here and now, in this time and place?

If Jesus walked into our sanctuary today – his face set steadfastly toward Jerusalem, or Washington, or wherever captives need to hear a liberating word, wherever the poor need to find economic equity, wherever the oppressed need to be lifted up, welcomed and affirmed, wherever the blind need to see, the deaf hear and the mute speak, wherever the year of God’s favor needs to become a living reality – how would you or I respond?  Would we be prepared to let go of the past and dream of God’s new thing?  Would we be ready for moving on?  As my friend, D. Mark Wilson, sang at my ordination service long ago, on one of those days when we stopped to celebrate as millions are celebrating today, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes” (Bernice Regan Johnson, “Ella’s Song”).  Today, tomorrow, the next day, in the strong and steadfast name of Jesus, it’s time for moving on.  Amen.

Random Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty (June 16, 2013)

Random Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty

A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 16, 2013

Text:  Luke 7:36-50

This is an exercise in “bumper sticker theology” or rather a midrash on a bumper sticker text.  The bumper sticker, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” is a kind of whimsical mandate to “lighten up,” to “stop to smell the flowers,” to “slow down, you’re going too fast.”  It has a peculiar charm in its reminder that there is so much more to life than hurrying here and scurrying there so we can cross one more thing off our “to do” lists, so we can make one more dollar, so we can exercise a little more control over the world that is whirling by outside us at the same time it is churning around inside us.  The bumper sticker reminds me of the story of Ferdinand, that gentle bull who stops to commune with flowers, completely losing track of what he’s “supposed” to be doing as a fierce fighter in the bullring.  Like Ferdinand, we might find happiness as gentle practitioners of kindness and connoisseurs of senseless acts of beauty.

What a potentially liberating set of ideas!  Just for a moment, might we allow ourselves the luxury of being kind, without needing to calculate how our kindness might work to our benefit?  Might we occasionally engage in the creation of beauty with no rhyme and little reason?  Or are we afraid that, if we practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty, we will never make our next appointment?   Is it possible that random kindness will cost more in time and energy, in reputation and power, than we are prepared to pay?  Do we get overly concerned that, leaving ourselves open to the beauty in creation, we will lose control of our carefully crafted schedules, that the neat and familiar categories into which we have organized our world will disintegrate?

This makes me think of the song from the musical, “Carnival,” in which Lili, a naive country girl, who finds beauty everywhere, joins a company of tattered circus puppets to sing about “Beautiful Candy,” too pretty to eat.  She urges them to:

Treat yourself to some dreams from the upper shelf,
Buy something someone took years to produce,
Something you’re sure is of no earthly use.
Try a treat like beautiful candy, too pretty to eat.

Stop living for reason,
Time to start living for rhyme.
I’m on a spree and I’m gonna make sure it’s a perfectly good waste of time.

Sun today will be scrambled for my soufflé.
I don’t whether to float or to fly.
First, I’ll find something I don’t need to buy
Something sweet like a hat with a bell, a blue parakeet,
Whistles to blow as I dance down the street,
beautiful candy, too pretty to eat.

Random kindness and senseless acts of beauty may seem silly on the surface, but what joy lies beneath?  Do we worry that, if we take the risk to follow our hearts, if we hunger for kindness and seek after beauty, the world as we know it might actually be turned right side up?  Funny how something as simple as a bumper sticker can send one reeling off into thoughts of sedition and fantasies of revolution!

Well, what of today’s text?  First, in the gospel of Matthew, we find another story about Jesus at table.  Jesus is in the home of Matthew, the tax collector, immediately after calling Matthew to follow him.  Jesus’ dining here is in direct violation of the purity code.  The Scribes and Pharisees ask the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  These keepers of the religious establishment were shocked by Jesus’ behavior.  Bill Herzog comments that “[t]o grasp the power of this social conflict, it helps to know that the Pharisees were a table sect.  The goal of their efforts to keep the Torah by following the tradition of the elders…was realized around the table.  In short, Pharisees desired to eat every meal in a condition of purity equal to that of the Priests eating meals in the temple.  So, the table was finally the issue and arena of conflict” between them and Jesus.

When he is challenged by the Pharisees and Scribes for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus’ response goes to the heart of the gospel: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means,” he says, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).

In this morning’s text there are three key characters in the little drama enacted in Simon’s courtyard – a Pharisee, a woman of ill repute, and a Rabbi.  Each character is a person and a representative.

First, the Pharisee.  What do we know of him?  He is a man of wealth and social standing in his community. What he, as a person of standing and as the host, does and doesn’t do in the story shapes the action.  He invites the Rabbi to dine with him.  This accords with the custom of the time, in which an itinerant Rabbi would be invited to the home of one of the town leaders to dine and to dispense his wisdom.  These dinner events would be pretty much open to the whole town, though it was clearly established who would sit –  actually recline – at the table, leaning on one elbow, feet trailing out behind, and who would stand around the outside, gathering in crumbs of food and wisdom.

The scene is surprising for the time and territory.  The Pharisee would naturally invite this Rabbi who was stirring up the countryside to come to dine with him.  But what the Pharisee does not do is also remarkable and needs some explanation.  He does not follow accepted custom.  He fails to greet his guest with a kiss (a mark of respect which would always be given to a distinguished Rabbi;) he withholds the drop of fragrance with which it was customary to anoint a visitor’s head; and, perhaps most importantly, given the state of Galilean roads (really tracks in the dust) and the simple sandals worn, he neglects the cooling, comforting water bath that would soothe the tired feet of his guest.

Why this rude behavior, we ask?  We can only speculate about the answer:  Is he some sort of agent provocateur, working with the Rabbi’s enemies to entrap him in a statement or action with which they could bring legal charges against him?  One commentator suggests that he may be the kind of small town official who likes to collect celebrities in order to enhance his reputation and sense of importance.  Perhaps he sees his guest as his inferior in terms of age and status, therefore feeling free to dispense with the customs with impunity.  Whatever his motivation, he clearly treats the Rabbi with mixed measures of respect and disrespect.

Now, the woman – she’s a scandal!  Sinner in the text is probably a euphemism for prostitute.  It is problematic for the scene that she would even be there, standing with the crowd around the perimeters of the table. Yet there she was, with her long hair cascading around her face and down her back, in a manner which would scandalize the good citizens of the town.  Perhaps they chalked it up to her notoriety and chose not to see the woman’s outrageous behavior.  (“Oh, it’s her again.  Well what else would you expect from one of her kind.”)

Like the Pharisee, she is remarkable for what she does and does not do.  Spontaneously (or is it by some greater design?) she takes on the host’s responsibilities.  She washes the Rabbi’s feet with her tears and dries them with her hair.  Then, astonishingly, she anoints his feet first with her kisses and then with the concentrated perfume from the small alabaster vial she – as did all Jewish women of the time – wore around her neck.  She does not pay attention to the looks of horror and contempt evident around the crowded table.  She simply acts, from the core of her being, acts of pure devotion in place of the Pharisee’s absent hospitality.  The murmurs of “whore,” “slut,” and “unclean” do not penetrate the security of her rapt fixation as she ministers to the Rabbi.

And what of the Rabbi?  He, too, is remarkable for what he does and does not do in this tense and potentially explosive situation.  First, in response to the murmurs of the crowd and the Pharisee’s open proclamation of disapproval – “If this fellow was a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of a person this woman is who keeps touching him, for she is a bad woman.”  (The Pharisee’s comment, by the way, is an indication of the kind of “show” he expected from his visiting celebrity – “Be clairvoyant.  Do magic tricks.  Predict the future.”  Or like the Herod of “Jesus, Christ, Superstar,” “Prove to me that your no fool, Walk across my swimming pool.”  But this fellow, this fake, can’t even recognize an outcast prostitute when she approaches him.)

The Rabbi calls the Pharisee by name, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”  He proceeds to tell him the tale of two debtors whose debts, though widely disparate, are both forgiven by the generous lender.  “Who then” the Rabbi asks, a hush settling over the murmuring throng, “will love him more?”  Simon, though a little wary of the Rabbi’s trap, plunges ahead.  “I presume the one to whom the greater favor was shown.”  “Right,” the Rabbi says, and then he springs the trap on the blindly self-righteous Pharisee.  “You did not even offer me common courtesy, let alone the recognition my position warrants, while this woman, whom you have condemned as evil, has recognized me and treated me accordingly.  So her sins, however great they may be, are forgiven for she has recognized the love which has come to her and has embraced it wholeheartedly.”   Unfortunately, the Rabbi’s recognition of her acts of devotion only holds the crowd’s attention for a moment, then they are back to murmuring.  But, in that blessed moment, some have seen loving kindness and holy acts of beauty, and their lives are forever transformed.

You see kindness is not really random nor are acts of beauty ever senseless in the presence of the love of God.  The closed system into which the Rabbi and the woman have entered, with its rigid sense of class and resultant grinding poverty for many, leaves so little room for kindness or beauty, and judges these qualities harshly when they appear but do not conform to accepted practice.  There is passion, even eroticism, in the woman’s behavior.  She offers back to the Rabbi what she has caught from his perceptive gaze that sees right through her sins to the kind and beautiful being God has created.  How ironic that it is such love and passion which actually turn the world right side up!  In the end, most of these folks don’t want their world reversed.  In their rejection of love and passion, of kindness and beauty, they will eventually shout for the Rabbi’s crucifixion.

Like Simon, the Pharisee, they cannot see the sin of their own self-righteousness nor the evil and oppressive ways in which they attempt to hold God’s precious gift of life in inflexible vessels of their own construction, whether these vessels are made of alabaster or purity.  Surely the world is too chaotic and frightening a place to live without some structure, but the risk we take in trying to make creation conform to our own will is that we will not be open to God’s coming, especially when that coming may seem random and senseless – like taking on human form, being born in a stable, working and living among the poor and outcast, teaching peace and love, hanging on a cross, or vacating a stone-sealed tomb.  May we, like the woman in the story recognize our flaws and accept our limitations so that when we find God at our tables, in our work or play, within our joy and tears, suffering with our sisters and brothers, we will be able to respond like her.  Where we find God’s love poured out in our midst, may we be free to pour out our own lives in kindness and acts of beauty.

The Heavenly City (May 5, 2013)

THE HEAVENLY CITY
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA  Sunday, May 5, 2013

 Text: Revelation 21:10-22:5

I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow
I’m tossed in this wide world alone
No hope I have for tomorrow
I’ve started to heav’n my home

Sometimes I am tossed and driven, Lord,
Sometimes I don’t know where to roam
I’ve heard of a city called heaven
I’ve started to make it my home Continue reading The Heavenly City (May 5, 2013)