Speaking Out Boldly (6/4/2017)

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

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Text: Acts 2:6-21 (The Message)

With the crackle of flame and a whoosh of wind Pentecost is ushered in in this fantastic and familiar tale. It’s an important story that cycles around every year as we celebrate the “birthday of the church.” There are many angles a preacher could take in addressing this ancient word, but the thing that stuck out for me as we considered this text on Tuesday at Bible study is Peter’s role. In particular, I was caught by the text recording that Peter “raised his voice” (NRSV) or as The Message puts it, “spoke out with bold urgency.”

On the surface, it’s not a particularly remarkable thing. Surely someone addressing a large crowd, especially without the aid of amplification, would raise his voice or speak out boldly. The text tells us that, with the coming of the Spirit in wind and flame, all disciples are stirred up to speak out boldly. Not only do they speak out, but they are enabled to speak in such a way that people from a number of different language groups understand them. It’s something of a miracle, isn’t it? After all, these disciples are mostly Galilean peasants, poor, uneducated, unlikely to speak any language other than their own.

So, it’s a sort of circus, a kind of crazy block party, as the disciples pour out of the quarters where they have remained locked away since Jesus’ death. This week Carnaval was celebrated in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s the largest multicultural festival held on the West Coast. Did you see and hear, either in person or on the news, the different cultures, brilliant costumes, and colorful languages represented as people took to the streets in celebration? I know Pentecost did not unfold exactly like Carnaval, but it gives you some sense of the rich diversity that gathered on the streets of Jerusalem that first Pentecost morning.

The writer of Luke says the crowd was baffled by the behavior of the disciples. He reports that “When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, ‘Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?’”

We’ve played on Pentecost in the past with the variety of languages that might be spoken in our own congregation, including English, Spanish, French, Creole, Japanese, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, Orilla, and Lebanese. Imagine how it would be in our little group if people started speaking in all of these languages at once and everyone somehow understood what was being said. It would be strange, exciting, confusing, a minor miracle. Or what if I stood up to preach and each of you understood in the non-English language with which you are familiar? Crazy, huh?

Well, whatever happened that day, the writer of Luke says the crowd cried out “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” At the very least, the crowd understood the words they heard and some of them understood the Word that was behind those words. In the end, the writer reports that more than 3000 people joined the church or “their number” that day. It was the sort of evangelistic meeting that Billy Graham would envy, a mighty revival of sorts!

And speaking of evangelistic preachers, the preacher that day was none other than Peter. But before we crown Peter the chief spokesperson for emerging church for speaking out boldly on this day, let’s do a little background check. From the various gospel accounts, what do we know about Peter before this day? In my mind he was impulsive, inconsistent, an ignorant Galilean fisherman. I picture him as large, dominant, loud, opinionated, slightly boorish. One minute he has brilliant insight into the nature of Jesus’ calling and the next he is trying to stall Christ’s mission. He thinks he can walk on water until he discovers he can’t. He is a rock that is susceptible to crumbling at the most inopportune time.

In fact, in Luke’s gospel, the last time Peter is mentioned before Pentecost morning is on the night they arrested Jesus. We find him huddled in the courtyard outside the high priest’s house. Remember, earlier in the evening, when they we were all gathered around the table for the last supper, it was Peter who boldly proclaimed, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33). A form of bold speech, to be sure, but listen to Peter’s prologue to Pentecost:

When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. Christ turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered Jesus’ word, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly (Luke 22:55-62).

The camera pans out on a weeping Peter, bowed down in shame, devastated by his own words of betrayal.

So, you see, for Peter to speak out boldly on Pentecost something has to have happened in his life, something that radically transforms him, for, indeed, from this day forward it is reported that he was a strong witness for the Jesus Way, capable of performing his own signs and wonders in Jesus’ name. When the Spirit comes and lights upon you, chances are that you will be changed in ways you never imagined. For Peter, there is apparently forgiveness, redemption, and empowerment in Pentecost; he is never the same again. A Galilean fisherman becomes the Rock on which the church is founded. If it can happen to him, why not you and me?

You see, speaking out boldly is not reserved for heroic figures from long ago, for the canonized saints of the church, for folk with special spiritual gifts, it is a way of life for those who claim to follow Jesus. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone who loves Jesus needs to get on a soapbox on the nearest street corner and win souls for Christ. But I am reminded again of that old Baptist hymn that affirms:

My life flows on in endless song;
above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

And, no, that does not mean I expect any really committed Christian to join the choir (though we would be happy to have you.)

Another lectionary text for today is from the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians in which Paul proclaims:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

As the choir sang last week, there are “many gifts, one Spirit.” The challenge for each of us, as Christ followers, is to find our gifts and to use them, empowered by the Spirit, to bring about God’s Beloved Community. Each of us is encouraged to be “speaking out boldly,” in their own way, the truth of the gospel as we have come to know it. The great German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, has written, “The sending of the Holy Spirit is the revelation of God’s indestructible affirmation of life and [God’s] marvelous joy in life. Where Jesus is, there is life. That is what the Synoptic Gospels tell us. Where Jesus is, sick people are healed, sad people are comforted, marginalized people are accepted, and the demons of death are driven out. Where the Holy Spirit is present there is life” (Jurgen Moltmann. The Source of Life, p. 19).

To the degree that you believe this is so – that God affirms and finds joy in all life, including yours and mine, and that “where Jesus is, there is life,” in the richest, fullest sense of the word, I invite you to take the strip of paper that was given you and write out what you might say (or do) in speaking out boldly in the Spirit of Pentecost. Take that truth claim with you. Pray about it. Invite the Spirit to move you to action. Be the church as best you can, be the Body of Christ, dream dreams, see visions, prophesy, if it comes to that. And remembering, now and then, that old affirmation of faith, sing to yourself, “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” Amen.

Pastor Gregory Says… (8/24/16)

Imagine being a part of the early church. You wouldn’t have had much going for you and your little tribe of Jewish and Gentile misfits. After all your “king” rode a donkey and waved a white flag of surrender, he was nailed to a cross as a political prisoner standing up for liberty and justice for all, and his glorious come-back in resurrection was the ultimate upset to a first century reader as it’s two women greeting him on his way to restore the Kingdom. On top of that, it was illegal to be Christian, as to follow Christ meant you were not following Caesar – prepare to hide or prepare to die. Continue reading Pastor Gregory Says… (8/24/16)

A Strong Foundation (8/16/15)

Sanctuary is openA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, August 16, 2015

Text: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17

Twice in the last three years I have made a pilgrimage to Overland Park, Kansas, for the biennial Mission Summit of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. These trips have been particularly evocative not only because Kansas is my birthplace but also because my earliest memories come from that part of the world.

Overland Park is a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, where our family lived from 1950 to 1953. For me, that period spanned ages three to six. As I have mentioned before, during those years my father was the founding pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, the suburb next to Overland Park. In that time of the post-war boom in the church, American Baptists had a program called “Churches for New Frontiers,” in which they purchased land and planted churches in promising suburbs.

My father, following a missionary yen, left a church of 1000 members to pastor a congregation of 13, which met in someone’s living room where the pulpit was the top of a new-fangled television set. At least this is the story I’ve been told. The vivid memory I do have from that time is of my father, wearing work clothes and his grey fedora, helping to roof the first building on the lot at 75th and Roe. That building was eventually the parsonage, but in the beginning it served as the church building. Upstairs was left open as a single large room which served as the sanctuary and the rooms in the lower level functioned as classrooms.

I don’t know how much of that building beyond the roof was the work of parishioners, but I’m certain someone laid a strong foundation there. I don’t mean only the foundation of the physical plant. After 65 years, that little house is long gone, but Prairie Baptist Church seems to be going strong.

I also can’t tell you the full extent of my father’s evangelistic passion that led him to leave a large congregation for one that didn’t even exist when he signed on. It must have been some of that same passion that led Paul to travel all around the Mediterranean carrying the gospel to the Gentiles and planting churches all along the way. Part of the story of my father’s missionary journey across Kansas was that, in spite of low pay and a growing family (my younger sister, the last of four siblings was born in 1951,) he stayed long enough to lead the congregation through its first crisis. He helped the congregation through the tension that arises when a second wave of members arrive, challenging the comfort and control of the charter members. I believe my father, like Paul, was a “master builder” who laid a strong foundation and the congregation weathered the challenge and grew and prospered.

People in Palo Alto also laid a strong foundation for this congregation now in its 122nd year. We have a long and rich history of faithful witness and service. But, as we face an unknown, uncertain future, I wonder what it is that constitutes a strong foundation for a church. In the hymn we just sang Rod Romney wrote that the “The church’s strong foundation is God’s eternal love…” Does that sound right to you? Is that the rock on which our church is founded, the pillars sunk deep in the soil that lift our spire towards heaven, the grounding from which our ministry rises and shines? Is it a foundation on which we can continue to build?

We know that Paul was dealing with a contentious congregation in Corinth. He believed he had laid a strong foundation – the one foundation of Jesus Christ, the sure foundation of the empowering Holy Spirit, the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. But he was worried about what was being built on that foundation. He was afraid that false prophets, bad teachers, and self-centered preachers were leading the people astray and creating chaos in the congregation. I suppose my father must have worried that the charter members of Prairie Baptist Church would not be hospitable to new folk, would not offer a warm welcome to strangers so that the message of God’s eternal love would distort and die from inbreeding.

How do we encourage one another and work together to carry the gospel forward into God’s future? In a column on “adaptive change,” Amy Butler reflects, “The old ways just are not working. The church is in need of creative leadership to take it into the future. We might need to think outside the box, to consider solutions we have never thought of before, to pursue adaptive change. What will this mean?” she asks, then answers, “Well, it will mean that people will not be happy…but life moves on…and the Spirit of God blows fresh wind wherever it wills. It’s our job to respond, discomfort or not. It’s adaptive change, and it’s true for our individual lives and for the church.”

In conclusion, she wonders, “When will we have the courage to boldly embrace this kind of change, to encounter the new opportunities that come as possibilities and opportunities instead of problems? Change is hard. This is a true statement. But change comes, whether we want it or not. The Spirit of God is always creating new possibilities where we prefer to endow old institutions. Will we have the courage to embrace this change? Or will we keep searching the aisles, hoping to replace what we had?” (Amy Butler, “Choosing Adaptive Change,” 8-11-2015, baptistnews.com).

The strong foundation is laid, foundation of God’s eternal love. The question is what will we build on it moving forward? Paul says we might resort to “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw.” But we know that, literally, wood is the only one of those resources with which we might build a building. Paul is more concerned with the qualities that characterize a congregation than he is with building a church building. He is wants us to consider when the refiner’s fire is lit, what will be destroyed and what will be purified?

Remember the three little pigs? Neither the house of straw nor the house of twigs survived the wolf’s bad breath. Only the sturdy brick structure built on a strong foundation withstood the horrible huffing and puffing. We have been given this strong foundation of God’s love for us and all creation, a foundation that can withstand any evil powers that threaten to disrupt us and consume us. What will we build on it?

I don’t mean to be a prophet of gloom, but the good news is being undermined, distorted and destroyed by the false prophets, bad teachers and self-centered preachers of our own time and place. The threatening powers are not just individual, they are also structural and systemic. Some of the biggest challenges to the church are embedded deep in our traditions and too often operate outside our consciousness – like racism, classism, sexism, power and privilege. As Amy reminds us change is hard.

Brian McLaren writes that “Jesus promised his followers three things. First, their lives would not be easy. Second, they would never be alone. Third, in the end all will be well.” “But,” he continues, “all is not well now, and that raises the question of how…how does God get us from here to there? How does God put things right?” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 245).

In this chapter on the “Spirit of Holiness,” McLaren focuses on God’s judgment, which, at first, struck me as a curious emphasis. As I imagine some of you do, when I hear the word “judgment” I think of “hellfire and brimstone.” We were raised to believe in a literal separation of the “sheep and goats.” It was better to be scared into heaven than to burn in hell. It was a terrible legacy that led us far from any strong foundation based on God’s eternal love. For me, anyway, the notion of eternal punishment simply will not reconcile with a God who is love and eternally loves by definition.

McLaren’s argument sounds to me something like the parent who expects the best of us because she loves us so. In his view, this a God of restorative justice not a God of vengeful retribution. The place of judgment is to make things right, to restore the blessed order of creation, to build the Beloved Community on the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. The call to be the best self, the best community that we can be is a call to fulfill God’s vision for us from the beginning of time.

Paul says we – you and I collectively, the church of Jesus Christ – we are “God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in” us. To live into that reality is not an easy thing. To establish God’s temple in the here and now, to be God’s dwelling place will constantly shape and re-shape our witness. It is inherently counter-cultural, not easy but worthwhile work. If we trust that we are never alone in the work, we can also trust that in the end all will be well.

In our words of preparation, McLaren writes, “If we believe in judgment [as] God’s great ‘setting things right,’ we won’t live in fear. We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world. If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just and peaceable now. If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward light each day in this life. Then, someday, when our time comes to close our eyes, we will trust ourselves to the loving Light in which we will awaken, purified, beloved, forever” (McLaren, op. cit., pp. 247-248).

A strong foundation is laid. “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” Let the church continue to be built and re-built on God’s eternal love. Amen.

How to Be Church (April 26, 2015)

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Texts: Acts 2:41-47; 1 Corinthians 14:26-33a; Colossians 3:12-17

Jesus never intended to start a church. It’s a curious thing that those of us who claim to follow him, all these many years after he walked this earth, are so focused on the church. It is the way we have come to bear witness to what we understand of his ministry among his people 2000 years ago. It’s pretty certain that he would not recognize what we have made of that ministry. More than one wag has opined that Jesus would not be welcomed in many churches today, if he even bothered to pay them a visit.

Still, Brian McLaren has tried to help us see, in this Eastertide, that Jesus’ ministry promised, or threatened, a “global uprising” in his time. McLaren is also challenging us to recapture that same sense of the urgent need for transformation on this planet today. Could we see our way to committing ourselves to such radical activity? to the kind of discipleship we considered last week? and, if we did, what would it look like?

By the time the record began to be written something called the church was beginning to emerge from the practices of those earliest followers of our faith tradition. Luke and Paul write about the early church as well as to its first congregations in various parts of the ancient near east. In today’s texts, each tells us something about how to be church. What they suggest comes closer to what Jesus taught and practiced than what the church generally engages in today.

The sub-theme for this week is “Alive…in the Uprising of Worship.” As we studied these texts on Tuesday, it struck me that they covered much more than worship. In these texts we get a substantial picture of what the church, at its best,  might be. The problem, of course, is that these images and guidelines provide a significant challenge to how we do church today. What we see here is a way of being and doing church that comes much closer to the radical gospel that Jesus preached in the Galilean countryside and the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem, or at least this is how Luke and Paul see the Jesus’ Way.

I ruminated on these texts as I made my way to Berkeley after Bible study. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that here was a recipe for pastoral and congregational care, which is the focus of my classes at both the American Baptist Seminary of the West and Pacific School of Religion. So much of pastoral care and counseling, as I was taught and have taught it, focuses on problems. What’s wrong? What needs to be taken care of? What needs to be fixed? These are legitimate concerns and appropriate foci for the discipline. Surely the world is full of folk who suffer, struggle, hurt, wonder, wander, despair, need help, comfort, compassion, concern and care. What has changed since I last taught these courses, a number of years ago, is a bigger focus on congregational life and care.

When I was working on my doctorate and first teaching seminarians as a teaching assistant in pastoral care and counseling classes, we were eager to instruct the students in all the amazing and wonderful things we were learning about the human psyche and counseling technique. However, we soon discovered that much of this advanced training was only tangentially relevant to people who were training for the pastorate, for work in the church. The vast majority of them would rarely, if ever, sit down with parishioners to do formal counseling. Pastoral care and counseling would be done more “on the run,” around services and meetings and the everyday routines of life in a congregation. We found ourselves quickly adapting our teaching and role plays to situations that would have practical meaning for practicing pastors.

What is interesting to me today is how this trend has developed over the years. The concerns, the material for role plays, the topics for research and presentation are much more oriented to congregational life than they are toward individuals and their concerns. Not that these are ignored but the more integrated focus on what happens in churches is instructive to me as well my students. In the course of this semester, as we have considered the breadth of possibilities for pastoral and congregational care, it seems clear to me that a focus on what is or could be good, positive, affirming, blessing about both pastoral and congregational care would be worth considering. That is, in the vein of appreciative inquiry, what could we say and do that was enriching, enlivening, empowering about church life? As David Bartlett asks in the title of his book on the gospels, “What’s good about this news?”  What is there to affirm and celebrate in Jesus’ radical word?

So this digression is to set the stage for how I taught my ABSW class last Tuesday night. We read each of these texts in turn and attempted to glean from them something about how to be church, something that would be valuable to us as pastoral caregivers and to our congregations as they engage in congregational care. We filled the chalk board up, down, across and around the edges. It was an inspiring exercise to consider the positive elements of care contained in these ancient words.

Since we didn’t have special music today, we’ve taken the time to read all three of these marvelous texts ourselves. So let us take a few minutes to see what we find here to teach us how to be church. Let’s begin with Acts 2, which some consider the original description of the first church. What do you see here that might help us be church in new, exciting, even radical ways?

They were “devoted to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.”

They practiced “wonders and signs” (though we’re not too big on that.)

They “held everything in common.” (Sounds like a commune.)

They shared “from each according to their means to each according to their need.” (That sounds downright Communist. What do right-winged, fundamentalist literalists do with this text, I wonder?)

They spent “time in the temple.” (Sounds like regular worship to me.)

They practiced, no they lived out their faith with “glad and generous hearts.” (There’s genuine joy in the church alive and well!)

They had the “goodwill of the people.” (Oh my, today young people are turning their backs in droves because the church is so tied to narrow-minded bigotry, injustice, hypocrisy and abuse! Seems like we’ve used up whatever good will they had banked for us.)

Now let’s look at Corinthians. We know what a fragmented and contentious bunch they were. Paul was determined to teach them something about how to be church, bonded together in one body, the Body of Christ. What do you see in these instructions on how to be church?

First, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an  interpretation.” (That is, everyone has something to share. We each have our gifts. We need to make room for one another.)

“Let all things be done for building up” each other and the community. (Underline this one at least three times.)

Practice setting “limits, taking turns, listening, silence.” (Since, we don’t do a lot with tongues or prophecy these days, could we find other areas in which to apply these disciplines?)

“God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” (Can those caught up in contention that leads to chaos learn to get along in the spirit of God’s ineffable peace?)

The Colossians were a different congregation. Paul here is not as determined to teach these folks a lesson as to affirm his love and care for them. What does he say to them, and to us, about how to be church?

I start with “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” and “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (That is, fill yourselves full of peace, shalom, the well-being God gives so generously along with a large portion of that radically transforming good news so that it all radiates from every pore of your being.)

Remember you’re “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.”

Then, once you’re glowing from the inside out, “clothe yourself in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

Oh! and don’t forget, “above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Well how can you beat that outfit for good taste and beauty!?)

Then, practice “forbearance and forgiveness, be thankful, teach, share wisdom, and sing with glad hearts.”

How to be church…friends this is quite a list, daunting perhaps. But what if it comes closer to Christ’s vision of the Beloved Community of God than anything we’ve ever known or practiced? There are lots of things about the radical good news that overwhelm us, that baffle us, that frighten us. Granted, but surely we know how to listen, to take turns, forgive and give thanks. Surely we could practice compassion and kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We know how to share and care and forbear, don’t we? Study, prayer, worship, fellowship, breaking bread – we’ve visited all those places, more than once. Building up one another and the community, working for peace, well-being, wisdom, the good-will of the people – haven’t we at least longed for these to be elements of our life together?

How to be church – well, there it is, a lot to think about and work on and yet all so eminently doable if we give ourselves to it. It may take discipline but we can practice this way of being and doing church, of giving congregational care, of living out Christ’s radical vision of God’s Beloved Community, without an advanced degree. Oh! and don’t forget that cloak of love, which binds everything – even us, church – together in perfect harmony. Amen.

Powerful Foolishness (May 11, 2014)


A sermon preached by Doug Davidson
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 11, 2012

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

I want to share a concern with you.

Or, maybe I should say it another way: I’m a little worried.

Yes. Worried. Let me explain.

I think some of us have been hanging around the church for too long.

No, really–I mean it. I think some of us have spent so much time in church that we’ve gotten the wrong idea. We’ve been soaking in these waters of Christianity for so long, that we’ve developed a certain… misconception.

We’ve started to think the message of the cross is just good common sense.

We think the Gospel blends nicely with conventional wisdom.

We think the word of the cross is easily harmonized with the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Let’s see, it’s “1. Be Proactive, 2. Begin with the end in mind, and #3. If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.Or we think it fits well with the practical suggestions of Ben Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanac. Get up early, eat your vegetables, brush your teeth, work hard, oh, and bless those who persecute you. It’s the recipe for success, right?

I think maybe we’ve heard so many sermons, we’ve sung so many hymns, we’ve spent so many hours and days and week and years in churches, we’ve gotten used to it. We’ve lost sight of how crazy this message of a crucified Jesus is. How foolish. How improbable and unacceptable. How radically ridiculous.

The apostle Paul understood how extraordinary it was to suggest that God’s power is revealed to the world on a cross. Paul was a Jew, so he knew it didn’t match Jewish expectations of what a messiah would look like. Nor did it match the wisdom for which the Greeks were famous. Yet in this letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul lifts up the cross. God’s power and wisdom are revealed, says Paul, through Jesus’ crucifixion—an event the world understands only as weakness and foolishness. This cross, Paul says, offers an upside-down wisdom that causes religious folks to stumble, and makes philosophers shake their heads.

God’s power is revealed in a Jesus who, in faithfulness, empties himself of everything that looks like power.

Here’s the shape of God’s saving power, Paul says. It’s not in kings and generals and armies. It’s not in wealth and degrees. It’s in a Jesus who is betrayed and abandoned; who is stripped, beaten, and executed like a common criminal. And this one hanging on the cross calls us to follow him.

Now, maybe some of us have been around churches for so long that we’ve forgotten how ludicrous this word of the cross might sound. And that’s one reason it’s important to remember that Paul didn’t write these words with us in mind. Paul was writing a personal letter to the church in Corinth, a community of Christ followers living just 20 to 30 years after Jesus’ death. Paul wasn’t writing for the twenty-first century seminarians in Berkeley or the Baptists in Palo Alto. We’re eavesdropping. We’re reading someone else’s mail.

What’s more, as we read Paul’s words about the foolishness of the cross, we need to understand that we’re stepping into an ongoing drama. Now, if we open our Bibles, and see that we’re reading from the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we might think we’re getting the beginning of the story. But as Suzanne Watts Henderson reminds us, First Corinthians “plunges readers into a conversation well underway.”[1] We’re jumping right into the middle of the scene. It’s like we’ve come home and grabbed our popcorn, sat down on the couch and turned on the TV, only to find out the show has already started. And we need to try to piece together who the characters are and what’s already going on.

In fact, it’s clear that in First Corinthians, we’re not just in the middle of an episode, we’re already several seasons into the drama. In chapter 5, verse 9, Paul refers to an earlier letter he’d written to the Corinthians, about some major issues that had entered the church. We don’t have that letter. So we need to remember that this invitation to embrace the foolishness of the cross isn’t really from “The first letter of Paul to the Corinthians,” despite what it says at the top of the page in my Bible. It’s from the first letter we have.

So figuring out exactly what word God might have for us, here, today, is a major task. Because we’re starting with a letter written 2,000 years ago that picks up in the middle of an ongoing conversation with another community in another time and another place.

But knowing a little bit about Corinth can help us begin to unpack it. Corinth was a Roman colony situated between two seaports. It was a city of diversity, “a thriving melting pot where social mobility and economic opportunity fostered vigorous competition.”[2] Sounds a little bit like Palo Alto. And the Corinthian church reflected the city’s diversity. There were Jews and Greeks, and slaves and free persons, rich and poor—a wild mix of cultures, and classes and customs. And the followers of Christ there, reflected that diversity. And from everything we can gather, they were at each other’s throats, arguing about what they thought be doing, and where the church was headed.

Paul refers to different factions within the church. Some of the believers claimed loyalty to other preachers who’d been with them, like Apollos, or Cephas. Others claimed allegiance to Paul himself—and he wasn’t really any happier about that. See for Paul it’s not about the preacher; it’s about the cross. In fact, in verse 17, Paul celebrates that he really wasn’t much of a speaker. He claims that his own proclamation was “not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” Paul seems to think the Corinthians are getting caught up in the rhetoric of their teachers. Their ability to craft brilliant arguments and communicate human ideas of knowledge—it’s getting in the way. Because it’s not about the skill and technique of a particular teacher. It’s about the power of God, which comes in the unexpected form of a crucified Lord. And it’s this power that Paul heralds as the one thing that could unite the Corinthians across all their diversity and differences.

But two thousand years later, in this heavily Christianized culture, I think we can lose our sense of how scandalous and improbable the cross is. We see crosses in our churches, some of us wear them as jewelry around our necks, or have them tattoed on our biceps. It’s become the symbol of our faith. But Beverly Gaventa says Paul’s assertion that the cross demonstrated God’s power “must have struck some of Paul’s contemporaries as the ravings of a madman.” The cross wasn’t a symbol of power. It was, in fact, “the antithesis of power–except as it revealed the power of the Roman Empire to crush those regarded as opponents.”

But the reality of the cross can still shatter our presuppositions. I was reminded of this one day when our family was living on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where my wife was working on her M.Div. Our son, Elliot, was probably about three years old at the time. One afternoon Elliot and I walked into the seminary library to drop off a book for a friend.

As we stepped through the bright red doors, moving from the bright sunlight into the darkened vestibule of the library, Elliot stopped in his tracks. There, on the wall to his right, hung a sculpted crucifix, nearly life size. I watched his young eyes study Jesus’ agonized face, the dying body nailed to a tree, the nails piercing his hands and feet.

I knew the image was a new one to him. He wasn’t used to it. He’d spent much of his young life in churches, but the crosses in our Baptist church were all clean and sanitized; their Jesuses were all resurrected and ascended.

For a moment, I considered hustling him back out the door, thinking maybe I should try to shield him from this holy horror in the same way I would sometimes “rewrite” the violent plots of his Batman comic books when I read them aloud. But he’d already taken it all in.

I thought he might cry. Instead, without ever taking his eyes off the dying Jesus, he slowly spoke words filled with great sadness and wonder: “What happened?”

Elliot reminded me of the great mystery of it all. He felt the horror of it. He’d heard stories about this Jesus who welcomed children, and healed sick people, and chased after lost sheep. But somehow this Jesus taught and healed and forgave and loved others with an intensity that threatened the religious and political powers of his day. Jesus didn’t color within the lines. He hung out with prostitutes, and ate with sinners, and welcomed the marginalized and forsaken. And he talked about a different kingdom, one that belonged to the poor, and the hungry, and downtrodden. So they made a symbol out of him: Here’s what happens when you mess with the system. You end up dead on a cross. That’s the way the world’s power works. We dare not shield ourselves from the horrible reality of this.

But that’s not the whole story. Because on the cross, Jesus demonstrated his devotion to the same love that he incarnated throughout his life. He was willing to trust in faith that the future was in God’s hands, not in the hands of the religious and political authorities who conspired to kill him. In his death, Jesus embodied the same radical devotion to God’s exorbitant love that he revealed throughout his life.

You see, Jesus lived in ways that weren’t very…practical. They don’t match up well with common sense. And he called those who would follow him to this same way. Here’s the path to life, says Jesus. It’s foolishness. Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Forgive without end. Give away all you have. Drop everything and follow me. Don’t worry about the future. Live a life of radical devotion to the one who created you. That’s God’s wisdom. Yes, it may put you at odds with the rulers of this world, who think they have the key to life. But it aligns you with something greater, with a love so powerful that even death cannot extinguish it.

So what does this mean for us, for this group of believers here at First Baptist Church of Palo Alto? How do we live into this new age? Here we sit, a few blocks from Stanford University, one of the preeminent educational institutions in the world. We’re in Silicon Valley—our neighbors are Facebook, Google, Apple, and tons of other technological companies that are reshaping the world. Palo Alto has more than it’s share of the world’s wisdom and power. How can this little church have any impact? What can we offer in light of the technological and economic power, unimaginable wealth, and knowledge that surrounds us?

What we have to share with the world is a knowledge that’s rooted in something very different. It’s a power revealed in weakness. In serving others. In practicing forgiveness. In humility. In foolish acts of faithfulness. In grace and welcome to all. This is the way God’s spirit breaks into the world.

What does it mean to worship a God whose wisdom is revealed on a cross? It means we seek to embody that same faithfulness to God that Jesus lived. It means inviting God to break our captivity to worldly conceptions of power and wisdom. It means finding our true unity by committing ourselves ever more fully to the upside-down logic of the cross. And it means knowing that when we fall short in our efforts to be faithful, and we will, we have a God’s whose forgiveness and love cover our failures.

Paul declares that God has chosen the weak of this world to shame the wise. Let us learn to let go of our own futile grasps at power and wisdom, that we might deepen our commitment to the crucified Christ. Amen.

[1] Suzanne Watts Henderson, “1 Corinthians,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, Beverly Roberts Gaventa and David L. Petersen, eds. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 788.

[2] Henderson, 788.

Sure Foundations (February 23, 2014)

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

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Text: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23

In case there was any lingering doubt in your minds, I am not a master builder.  Paul may have had the audacity to make that claim about himself, but I am wise enough to know better.  In fact, if you’ve ever worked with me on a Habitat build, you know that I can’t really claim any construction competence at all.  I can change a light bulb and clean up a mess, and occasionally I figure out how to accomplish a minor repair around the house or the church, but that’s the extent of it.

Now to be clear, I like working on a Habitat project, If someone will tell me what to do, how to do it and then leave me alone to work on that piece of the project.  The repetitive monotony gives me time to reflect and creates a pleasant illusion that I know what I’m doing.  When I first participated in a post-Katrina project in Gautier, Mississippi, I worked with the crew removing and replacing the roof of a home damaged by the hurricane.  As a result, I am sort of a roofing “specialist.”  I don’t mind heights and, with a little reminder, I can tear off old shingles and tar paper and help lay down new.

My only experience with foundations came after the Loma Prieta earthquake.  The duplex in which we lived was perched on a hillside.  In the front, it was a two story building, but our bedroom in the rear was actually four stories above the deck.  It was a well-constructed building and there was no obvious damage.  The power was out in our neighborhood so I gathered with my downstairs neighbors to drink some wine and listen to the reports on a portable radio.  I went to bed that night and slept well.  However, by morning the television was operative and I was flooded with images of collapsing and burning structures.  I looked out my bedroom window and it struck me how far I was above the bottom of the hill.  It was not a pleasant sensation in relation to what I had now seen on TV.

So, we called the city and went with them to inspect the foundation of our building.  There seemed to be some crumbling concrete and they “yellow-tagged” the building.  We moved out for six months and spent more than $100,000 of FEMA money shoring up the foundation, sending new concrete supports down to bedrock and adding sheer wall.  It was a profound lesson in the importance of foundations.

Now Paul was a tent maker, so I don’t know how much he knew about literal foundations.  He must have known something about the poles and stakes that hold a tent in place.  There is no doubt, though, that he understood the significance of sure foundations for the emerging church.  We don’t have to unpack all the drama of the Corinthian situation to see the importance of Paul’s word for us.  We know there was stress in First Church, Corinth.  Our congregation knows its on stress, yet we are 120 years old, with more than 2000 years of history and tradition on which to build.  First Church, Corinth wasn’t even a teenager and the tradition was less than 100 years old.  Perhaps Paul was right to be concerned about how much of what he had taught this fledgling congregation had taken root and was reflected in their life as a faith community.

Mark Tranvik says of First Church, Corinth, “This community [wa]s being torn apart by arguments about authority (Paul? Cephas? Apollos?…see 1: 12-13) and wrestling with questions about sexual morality and marriage (chapters 5 and 7), lawsuits (chapter 6), and riotous behavior at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11), among other things.”  As a result he sees that “Paul is seeking to call this distracted church back to the essentials by reminding them that ‘no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ’” (Mark Tranvik, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23,” 2-20-2011, workingpreacher.org).

Initially, Paul makes the argument that he has laid the foundation, that is, he has borne witness to the people of Corinth, he has shared the gospel, he has brought them to Christ and showed them the way.  Is there some arrogance and self-promotion in this?  I don’t see how it can be denied.  Paul was not bereft of ego and in that sense he was as human as any of us.  Still, he was the one who traveled around the known world, risking life and limb to proclaim the good news and build up the community of Christ.  Perhaps he had a right to boast, to call the Corinthians back to his way of following Christ and serving God.

Regardless of his role in the Corinthian controversy, he does offer to us an ageless way to see and understand what it means to be church, the body of Christ, the people of God.  He may have laid the foundation for First Church, Corinth, but “…no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”  He is very clear that “Christ is made the sure foundation; Christ the head and cornerstone.”  Even a big ego can give itself over to the foundational significance of Jesus Christ.  Paul clearly sees that he serves a God who is infinitely more than he himself can ever claim to be.

So now that we’re clear about the foundation, the question is: what is to be built on such a foundation?  Again, Paul is clear.  There is one structure to be built on such a foundation; it is a temple, God’s temple, the one in which God’s Spirit dwells.  What is this temple like, though?  Brian Peterson writes of this text that “…God’s wisdom is the cross of Christ, and Paul’s work was aligned with that foundational reality. True wisdom does not lie in the power, eloquence, social standing, or cultural competition that seemed to enthrall the Corinthian church (or any similar things that enthrall us). A building must fit its foundation, be supported by it and shaped to match it, and Paul wisely built the Corinthian church on Christ crucified as the church’s one foundation (Brian C. Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23,” 2-23-2014, workingpreacher.org).

That’s the thing about foundations.  They really determine the structure to be built on them.  If you build something sloppy, ill-conceived, with inadequate materials, it’s not going to last.  You build something solid, following the plans of the one who designed it, with the best materials available, you’ll have a structure that will last a long time, maybe even a life-time – and beyond.

So much for First Church, Corinth, but what about First Baptist Church, Palo Alto?  Old Paul didn’t exactly lay our foundation.  Still, we may have a link to that ancient, ego-driven master builder.  You see in the end he’s preaching Christ – Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ in glory.  And there is that small matter that we claim to be Christians, followers of Christ, body of Christ, right?  Isn’t that what we say in our mission statement – we are “a church whose mission is to explore together faith and commitment to Christ”?

What then does this mean for us, for you and me?  What does it mean to affirm the symbolic truth that we are building a church on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ, a church that is to serve as a temple for the very Spirit of God?  In addition to exploring together faith and commitment to Christ, we have said that the church we are building will “worship God,” “serve those in need” and “provide a home for heart, mind and soul.”  I don’t know about you but I think that’s a pretty noble structure, one that’s worthy of the best we have to offer.

More than anything, I want to say today that we are not done building.  We have long legacy and limited resources.  We face an uncertain future with heavy demands.  We have big questions.  But I believe that God is not done with us.  There is always work to be done.  There is much to experience.  There is always more to this great project of being church, the body of Christ – more light, more love, more life.  There is the reign of God that is not yet realized on earth as it is in heaven.  We are still called to care for our own back yard along with the creation with which God has entrusted us.

Yes, we have this beautiful plant that is the legacy of all those who worked on it before us, but, quite literally, we’re still tinkering with it – repairing light fixtures, painting, improving the sound system, adding a patio and labyrinth.    I think of the great cathedrals of medieval Europe and how many of them were built over hundreds of years.  There was always something more to add.  Even today there is the work of sustaining their beauty and their praise of the divine, along with their functionality as local congregations.

However, our ultimate focus is not on the actual building.  We have said more than once that if anything sacralizes this space it is what goes on here.  It is how we live as the body of Christ, how we bear witness to the good news, how we build on the sure foundations with which we have been blessed and on which we are called to construct.

In fact, Paul asks a question of First Church, Corinth, that we might well ask ourselves, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  Do you know?  Can you see it?  Can you feel it?  Can you live into that truth?  For Paul this is a collective “you.”  He means all the Corinthian congregation and he means all of us.  Collectively we are God’s temple in which God’s Spirit lives.  Paradoxically, that is both a heavy and a liberating truth.  It bears all the responsibility of witnessing to heart-felt, soul-deep faith that we are building, here and now, a body to reflect the reign of God on earth.  It may look like foolishness to the rest of the world, but we know that that foolishness of Christ crucified and resurrected is ultimately redemptive of us and the whole creation.  This is cause for both labor and rejoicing.

“Christ is made the sure foundation; Christ the head and cornerstone.”  During Advent we sang these wonderful words from Dan Schutte that affirm our lives as builders of the temple of God.  May we embrace them as we build a church on sure foundations.

We are sons of the morning; we are daughters of day.
The One who has loved us has brightened our way.
The Lord of all kindness has called us to be
a light for his people to set their hearts free.

Let us build the city of God.
May our tears be turned into dancing!
For the Lord, our light and our Love,
has turned the night into day!

Corinth and the Jesus Dojo

Three candlesThis Sunday we will continue our experience of the Jesus Dojo with an emphasis on “Letting Go and Gathering Up.”  Last week we looked more at Lenten practices and less at shaping Lenten worship.  So this week we will continue to look at Lenten practices while we focus on upcoming worship opportunities.  We would still like to encourage everyone to participate, not just the “regulars.”  Lent is not just about an obligatory “giving something up.”  Its focus is on drawing nearer to the heart of God as we move toward the celebration of Easter.  What might you do as an individual and what might we do as a congregation to intensify our experience of the Holy over the 40 days of Lent?  What might we do to share that experience in our witness?  It is both a journey inward and a journey outward.  How might this play out in our Lenten worship?

In worship we will consider a passage from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.  He encourages that troublesome bunch to understand that everyone will be better off when they realize that Christ provides the sure foundation for the community of faith.  What would a truly Christ-centered church look like?  What would be its worship and its practice?  How would its members care for one another at the same time they serve the wider community?  We hearken back to our theme from a couple of years ago – “Come build a church with soul and spirit, come build a church of flesh and bone…Jesus shall be its sure foundation.  It shall be built by the hand of God.”

See you Sunday at 10 AM for worship and Sunday School.  Bring a friend or three and plan to stay to share your thoughts on Lent and practicing love.

God grant us more light, more love, more life as we journey together.
Pastor Rick