More Love (February 9, 2014)

CarnivalMORE LOVE
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 9, 2014

Text: Isaiah 58; 1 Corinthians 13

When I was a senior in high school, I was cast as the male lead in the musical. That year we performed, “Carnival,” that small but delightful show that follows the lives of an eccentric group of performers and workers in a run-down traveling circus known as “The Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris.” Paul is a former ballet dancer, now crippled and reduced to running the puppet show for the circus. He speaks his words of ironic humor, cynicism and bitterness through his hand puppets, Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Marguerite and Reynardo, the Fox. The female lead is a simple, orphan girl who wanders into the carnival looking for work. One male character after another seeks to seduce the naïve young woman until she finally falls victim to Paul’s angry rejection and bitter cruelty. Of course, the truth is that Paul is falling in love with her, a love that is eventually acknowledged and they all live happily ever after in best of Broadway fashion. The moral of the musical is the redemptive power of love. The show opens and closes with the charming little song, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Do you remember it?

Love makes the world go ‘round, love makes the world go ‘round
Somebody soon will live you, if no one loves you now.
High in some silent sky loves sings a silver song
Making the world whirl softly
Love makes the world go ‘round.

Now you can argue that this is a rather sentimental view of love. It is, after all, an American musical, based on a gentle French tale in which the basic plot line is “love conquers all.” And if today’s scripture texts are any indication, the song offers an insufficient word about love. Yet, who can ever speak with final authority on the subject. Love is as broad and deep as human knowing. There is more love than we will ever know. Ultimately, loves flows from God and back to God, carrying us along on its mighty stream. Though the song is simple, the sentiment can be profound. What if it is indeed true that love makes the world go ‘round? Would we not want to immerse ourselves in such love and let it bear us to our ultimate destination in the very heart of God?

In the musical, Paul is angry and bitter, seething at what has been unfairly taken from him. Ironically he is self-absorbed with his self-hatred. The innocent Lili holds up a mirror of affectionate delight in the world all around that draws him out of his shell and transforms his life. What she shows him is more love than he can show himself, in fact, more love than he has ever known – love and delight in his being, not at all unlike the love and delight that God holds for us, indeed for all creation.

The people who had returned from exile to the sad ruins of Jerusalem were not so unlike Paul, the puppeteer. All they could see was what they had lost. Perhaps they too were bitter and cynical. We know that they held a narrow, inward-looking view of their life as a people. They were pretty self-absorbed in religious practice that they believed would save them. The trouble was it wasn’t working. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They cry out to God, whose absence they are feeling all too keenly. “Oh Lord, nobody loves us now!”

Isaiah, speaking for God, is neither naïve nor gentle in his response. “It’s time to wake up folks. Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” My guess is that most of us are not too big on fasting as a religious practice, so maybe you can name for yourself a practice that gets in the way of following faithfully God’s will for your life. Marvin McMickle, former pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland and now president of Colgate Rochester Divinity School suggests that “There are many people for whom piety is the be-all and end-all of true religion. They keep an accurate count of the hours they spend in church, in choir rehearsal, in a board meeting, in private prayer, in Bible study, and in attendance at various other church events. That involvement in church life seems to them to be a sufficient investment in a relationship with God.”

But our practices of piety are not sufficient. We can always use more light and more love. In fact, the prophets proclaim that God gets tired of rote religious practice and turns away from rituals ungrounded in love. Last week’s lectionary readings included these words from Micah, “’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”(Micah 6:6-8).

And Amos thunders, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24). The point is, we think we can come to God with our familiar religious practices and that will be sufficient to sustain God’s favor. Fasting, sacrifice, celebrations, solemn assemblies, even our songs, our worship, are not enough in themselves to link us to God.

William Sloane Coffin tells us in our Words of Preparation that “’God is love,’ as Scripture says, and that means the revelation is in relationship. ‘God is love’ means God is known devotionally, not dogmatically. ‘God is love’ does not clear up old mysteries; it discloses new mystery. ‘God is love’ is not a truth we can master; it is only one to which we can surrender. Faith is being grasped by the power of love.” This, in fact, is the love that makes the world go ‘round and it is not sentimental at all.

It seemed wrong to talk about more love and not at least remind ourselves of the Apostle Paul’s great hymn to love in his first letter to the church at Corinth. As with the Beatitudes from last week I am not going to try to unpack this familiar text this morning. Suffice it to say that these words are not the sentimental litany we make of them at weddings and other celebrations. As one scholar suggests, here we find love as a verb, love in action, love redeeming lives and transforming the world. Here we find that love is more than we may ever wrap our minds around. If Coffin is right, it “is not a truth we can master; it is only one to which we can surrender.”

At the same time hear this, in that surrender we may be drawn into a powerful stream of justice and righteousness, of compassion and care, of mercy and steadfast love, for so it is with God. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Paul all tell us that reaching for more love will have consequences for how we live our lives, how we relate to one another and all of God’s creation. Love asks, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”; “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…”; to “…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”; to be patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, to not insist on [our] own way, or be irritable or resentful, rejoicing not in wrongdoing, but rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things – this is the love that makes the world go ‘round. When we ask for more love, this is what we are asking for. And when God calls us into relationship this is what God desires of us.

As I said last week, I believe there are more light-filled days ahead for our congregation if that is our desire and if we are willing to risk walking into God’s light. In the same way, I believe that God has more love for us, more than we can ever receive or hold, if we are willing to surrender ourselves to that everflowing stream. This is the “new mystery” that “’God is love’…discloses.” Will we give ourselves to the mystery? Will we surrender to this truth even though we may never master it? Can we trust that love really does make the world go ‘round? And will we then allow God to ask more love of us? In our living, in our dying, and in our renewal, more love, O God, more love.

Amen.

 

Found Faithful (November 10, 2013)

sermonsFOUND FAITHFUL

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, November 10, 2013

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Today’s text contains the theme for this year’s stewardship campaign – “Found Faithful.”  Actually the New Revised Standard Version we read this morning says “found trustworthy.”  Trustworthy doesn’t carry the same theological weight that the word faithful does, but it still makes Paul’s point about the deep and abiding connection that is an essential element of good stewardship.  Giving grows, at its best, from that faithful, trusting relationship we hold with the God in whom we live and move and have our being, and in the Christ who leads the way to God.

The theme “Found Faithful,” while a good one for a stewardship campaign is not exactly what Paul is trying to say in this passage.  Paul is concerned about the Corinthian church, about its divisions, about its backsliding, about its failure to live into the gospel as he had so carefully laid it out for them.  He also was feeling a little defensive about the way some of the Corinthian Christians had bad-mouthed him in the process of doing church their own way.

“Think of us this way,” he says of himself and Apollo, “as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” As apostles, as missionaries, as people who had given over their entire lives to the building up of the body of Christ, they were entitled to a little respect.  And writing to a group of people who would understand the steward’s role in the maintenance of a well-run Graeco-Roman household, the vision of a trustworthy or faithful steward would be a standard they could all affirm and easily embrace.  So the moral is a simple one, Paul and Apollo have been trustworthy, faithful stewards of the body of Christ and the mysteries of God, so should the Corinthian Christians be, so should all God’s children, Christ’s followers, be in all places and all times.  That means us, folks.  Through thick and thin, joy and pain, good times and challenging ones, through it all, we are called to be faithful followers of Christ and trustworthy stewards of the reign of God.

Now our stewardship theme is further spelled out in terms of three areas in which we might be found faithful.  First, the people who developed these stewardship materials suggest that we need to be “Found Faithful in Little.”  I like this emphasis.  We are all familiar with Jesus’ saying about the way the big old mustard bush grows from the tiniest little seed.  We remember that day in Sunday School when we were given a little seed to plant in a paper cup.  We were to water and nurture it in hope that it would grow into some sort of recognizable plant.  If we were patient and caring and faithful, the experiment worked more often than not.  The illustration became a living thing.

The developers of the program use John’s account of the feeding of the 5000 to illustrate this aspect of the theme.  5000 men, not counting the thousands of women and children who accompanied them, were gathered on that hillside to listen to Jesus.  They were so enwrapped in the grace of his words and the power of his presence that they lost track of time.  Their stomachs began to growl; they realized they hadn’t eaten all day.  But there was no McDonald’s or Burger King or Subway on the corner.

Jesus turned to Philip and asked, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?”  Poor old Philip, caught off guard by the question, finally manages to sputter, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  Of course, his economics are spot on.  It’s a hopeless task that Christ has set before him.  But Andrew, who is perhaps a little less practical than Philip, suggests to Jesus that there is a boy present with a boy-sized lunch of five small barley loaves and two little fish.  “But what are they among so many people?”  Well, you know the rest of the story, when Jesus blesses and breaks the bread there is enough to feed the crowd with 12 baskets of leftovers (John 6:1-21).

Hermann Weinlick tells this story about the importance of keeping faith in small ways.  He writes, “My sister had been recently widowed and was now living alone, more than a thousand miles from me, the relative with whom she had the most contact and closest relationship. She asked me to do her a favor: to send her an email every day. I said yes and did what she asked. This was a little thing—often only a few words, sometimes something forwarded that I had received from someone else, sometimes about a conversation with a friend, sometimes about what I was doing. I did it for about a year and a half, until her death.”  He concludes, “Life is made of little things. We are shaped by little things, little things that add up” (Hermann Weinlick, “Companion Resource for the ‘Found Faithful’ Stewardship Emphasis,” p. 19-21).  Found faithful in little can make a world of difference in the life of an individual or family or community in which there is need.

Then we are reminded to be “Found Faithful with Much.”  As we are capable of being faithful stewards in little things and small ways, we are also people who have been blessed with much.  Surely this is evident when we think of the resources we have, living where we live, compared to folk in the rest of the world.  Think today of those in the Philippines and Vietnam or Balasore Technical School or even our neighbors on the other side of the freeway.  We are called to be faithful servants of Christ and trustworthy stewards of the reign of God with the much we have been given.

Here we might draw on the parable of the talents as recounted by Luke.  “Well done, good slave, because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities” (Luke 19:17), because you have proved faithful with much, I will give you more.  So says the king to the servant who has taken all that she has been given and made it worth so much more.

The problem I sometimes have with this parable is that the servants who do well seem, at least partly, motivated by the fact that their master is a harsh and demanding man.  They respond in fear.  In the economy of God, I would rather think that I might give much for my faith because what I have has been given to me in faith.  I take that with which you have entrusted me, O God, and multiply it in the joy of being your faithful servant and trustworthy steward.

Herman Weinlick again writes of the parable, “We usually think of this parable of the talents as about money. But it is really about much more. It is about the varied gifts God has given to all of us and how they can multiply when we put them to work.” And he concludes, “So much of Jesus’ words and his life with his closest followers is about reminding them of how much they can do, how much they can be used by God in continuing the work of Jesus in bringing God’s healing and reconciling touch, when they are faithful stewards of what God has given them.”

Then there is “Found Faithful with All.”  Here we are reminded of Matthew’s stories of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price.  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).

God’s reign is of such value that it is worth risking all to invest in its coming.  Those who are faithful stewards of all they have will know the joy of God’s gracious welcome into that realm.  The money, the stuff, the material resources we accumulate are nothing compared to the treasure hidden in the field or the pearl of great price that is God’s reign on earth.  It is worth everything.

Once more Weinlick tells this tale.  “I have two friends who, in different cities, lead intentional communities: persons who live under one roof, share space, share income, and try to minister in their neighborhood. They do this because they understand all things as a gift from God. They do this because they are trying to live in solidarity with their neighbors who are poor or homeless.”  Ironically this is may be precisely what that treasure in the field, that pearl of great price, the kingdom of heaven, looks like, if we have eyes to see.

Writing also of the early church described in Acts in which “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32), Weinlick says, “…such communities, both in the first century and now, remind us that we are responsible, as stewards, to be faithful, to use well all that we have, including money.” “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O God from thee.”

So we are in that season of the year when we are asked if we will be found faithful – in little, making the most of the smallest resource that we have; with much, sharing from our abundance with those in need; with all, recognizing that all we have and are is rooted and ground in the grace and generosity of God who made us in God’s own image with that same possibility of grace and generosity.  Will we be able to claim, with Paul, that we are faithful servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries who have been found trustworthy?  For with the blessings we bless, we will be blessed.  Amen.