Light Shines Out (1/3/2016)

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

Sunday, January 3. 2016

Text: John 1:1-18 (An Inclusive Version)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2The Word was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 

10The Word was in the world, and the world came into being through the Word; yet the world did not know the Word. 11The Word came to what was the Word’s had made, and the Word’s own people did not accept the Word. 12But to all who received the Word, who believed in the name of the Word, power was given to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of human will, but of God. 

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen the glory of the Word, the glory as of a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to this child and cried out, “This was one of whom I said, ‘The one who comes after me ranks ahead of me because that one was before me.’”)16From the fullness of the Child we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Child, who is close to the heart of the Father-Mother, who has made God known.

Well, it’s almost over isn’t it? This year’s holiday season is particularly long, especially in the liturgical sense that we have two Sundays between Christmas and Epiphany (which really is Christmas in some places.) We’re not sure how much more celebrating we can stand. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you stopped a while back. We were inundated with carols and other trappings of Christmas long before the actual occasion and now, when we ought to be singing the songs of Christmas, we’re sick of them.

Is anyone particularly tired this morning? Are you feeling the accumulated stress of the holidays? Are you ready for the peace and quiet of a little ordinary time? I’m sure you’re not alone. The “holiday season,” as we have come to know it, assaults all our senses from before Halloween through the after-Christmas sales and celebrations of the New Year. By now, it makes perfectly good sense that we would be worn out, even if we did not overindulge in welcoming the New Year.

So how many of us got everything we wanted for Christmas? What did you find in your stocking, “hung by the chimney with care”? What wonders waited for you under the tree? Were you completely satisfied with your giving and receiving? I don’t mean to be a Scrooge this morning. I enjoy many of the more secular traditions of the season as I am sure you do. However, as a people of faith, the meaning of Christmas should be more than the festivities of the “holiday season.” It is even more than the beloved stories of the angels and shepherds and Magi and Mary and Joseph and a baby born in a stable.

The writer of John tries to capture the deeper meaning in the Prologue to his gospel. “The Word,” he writes, “became flesh and lived among us…” But note this word is not just any word – like pancake or football or swimming or listen or speak or good or bad or heaven or hell. It is written with a capital “W” but it is not a name like Rick or Oscar or Kathy or Thelma or Daniel or Gerardy or Gandalf or Darth Vader or even Dumbledore. The word is “Word” and John says it is very special. He says this Word was “in the beginning with God” – you know, way, way back when God created everything. How can that be? What do you think John is talking about? What or who is this Word and what does it have to do with the true meaning of Christmas?

At first, John says “the Word was God;” then he says the Word was light and life and glory and truth and grace. That’s a lot of lovely, but abstract terms, challenging to take in and comprehend. So, he says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Now wait a minute. Have you ever encountered light or life or glory or grace or truth walking around your neighborhood? Has God been seen recently at your school or workplace? Was God in line for the “Star Wars” premiere? How is it that God became human? Who is this mysterious Word who is light and life and glory and grace and truth and is both God and human?

Could it be Jesus, the baby whose birth we celebrated at Christmas? How is it that Jesus can be this Word? Let’s play with the question a little. The dictionary says that a word is “A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing,that symbolizes and communicates a meaning…”
So the Word “symbolizes and communicates meaning.” The Word has come from God to show and tell us something about the meaning of God’s creation and our existence in it.

In Greek “the Word” is translated as “logos” and it means, philosophically, “the principle governing the cosmos…Identified with God, it is the source of all activity and generation and is the power of reason residing in the human soul.” That’s heavy! In biblical Judaism logos is “the word of God, which itself has creative power and is God’s medium of communication with the human race.”

It appears that, after God had tried to communicate with humanity through the law and the prophets, through wisdom and history, through poetry and song, God decided the only way to get our attention was in the flesh, in human form. You know how someone showing up in your space is more likely to get your attention than a text or an email or even a clever meme? So the Word became Jesus, a baby born to an unmarried peasant couple in a backwater village of a small-time country some 2000 years ago, and that same Jesus became the Word – filled with light and life and glory and grace and truth – in the flesh.

Barbara Brown Taylor comments on this passage, “In Jesus, John says, the word becomes flesh. The intangible light, glory, grace, and truth of God are embodied in him. God puts skin on those divine attributes so that followers who want to know how they sound and act have someone to show them” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1, pp. 189, 191).

Suddenly light shines out, infiltrating the darkness and wrapping us in its warmth. “To all who accept the Word, who see the significance of that name, power is given to become children of God. Is this the meaning that Jesus came to communicate, that we are meant to be children of God? From the beginning of the time, God has been reaching out to draw us to her bosom. Is this the ultimate Word, illuminated by the Light that has come into the world? God so loved the world that God sent God’s only-begotten child. That’s us – you and me.

In the light of this Word made flesh, Taylor suggests that we each may have a word – potential or realized – that is our word. She says, “Almost everyone has a word that he or she has a gift for bringing to life.” She suggests words like” compassion” or “justice,” “patience” or “generosity.” If you were to allow the light to shine out and illuminate it, what your word would be? Take a moment, reflect prayerfully. What is the word you have the gift for bringing to life? Taylor says, “Until someone acts upon these words, they remain abstract concepts – very good ideas that few people have ever seen. The moment someone acts on them, the words become flesh. They live among us, so we can see their glory” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 191). Light shines out.

She suggests that congregations might also have their defining words – like “hospitality” or “prayer” or “service” or “prophetic.” It is impossible for any one congregation to be all things to all people, but it might have a particular word that is its gift to bring to life. Again, take a prayerful moment to consider what might be a characteristic word for our congregation. Perhaps it is something you see or perhaps it is something you hope for. What word would you like for us to put flesh on and live out?

I encourage you to take your words – for yourself and for our community – reflect on them, pray about them, share them with someone you trust and consider how to make them real in your own life and in the world around you, to put flesh on them in your own living.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen the glory of the Word, the glory as of a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth.” “The true light, which enlightens everyone, is always coming into the world.” Light shines out. Darkness cannot overcome it. Let your little light shine. Amen.

Love Came Down at Christmas (12/20/2015)

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

Sunday, December 20. 2015

Text: Luke 1:26-55

The little boy came racing down the hall, bursting with pride in the beautiful little ceramic tray he had made in Sunday School – his mother’s Christmas present! In his haste, he tripped and the tray went flying. It landed in several pieces and the little boy was inconsolable in his grief.

Well-meaning adults who had seen the unfortunate accident or who were attracted by the boy’s sobbing, were full of sage advice for the little fellow: “He son, it was just a tray. It was not worth all this fuss. You can make another one. You can always buy your mother a better present. Hush now. Big boys don’t cry. Don’t worry about it.” Like the friends who attempted to comfort Job in his distress, their arguments were unconvincing and the little continued to wail.

Finally, his mother appeared on the scene. She knelt beside him, taking stock of the tragedy as she wrapped him in her arms. As his sobs subsided, she was able to say, “Well, now I think this we can fix this, honey. Let’s pick up the pieces and take it all home. We’ll glue it back together and it will be good as new.” You could have lit the whole world with the beam from his face, a reflection of his mother’s love.

In commenting on this tale, James Moore says, “Isn’t that exactly what the Christmas message is all about? The world is broken into many fragments, as are our lives. And God stoops down beside us. He hugs us and says, “Well, now, this is fixable. Let me help you pick up the pieces. We’ll put it back together and see what we can make of it!” (James W. Moore, Let Us Go Over to Bethlehem, p. 36).

Love came down at Christmas. First it appears in the guise of Gabriel, announcing to a young peasant girl that she is going to have a baby. As a an unmarried virgin, she is astonished at the news. She starts to protest when it suddenly sings in that this amazing heavenly being has just called her “favored one.” What can this mean? As though reading her mind, the angel assures her that she has found favor with God and that the child she will bear will be very special. And not only she, but her elderly relative, Elizabeth, is also pregnant with a special child. In the end, Mary is overwhelmed with the wonder of it all and her overflowing heart sings out, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary makes the right response. Her heart is young and receptive, open and eager for the gift that God gives. Love came down at Christmas and Mary was ready.

Remember the Grinch, the one who supposedly stole Christmas? The moral of that delightful tale is that Christmas cannot be stolen if it truly lives in our hearts. Moore, again, in commenting on that story says, “The point is clear: if the Christ Child is born in your heart, no one can steal your Christmas! For you see, the real joy of Christmas is not in material presents (nice as they are); no, it is in receiving the only gift of Christmas that really matters, the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ the gift that was wrapped in heaven” (Moore, op. cit., p. 44).

In her lovely Christmas poem, Christina Rosetti, in another place and time, asks “Worship we our Jesus, but where is God’s sacred sign?” Where are angels apparent? Where are miracles made on earth? Where does the holy inhabit our flesh bringing new life? How does God speak to her generation or to ours?

Rosetti’s poem goes on to answer her question with the affirmation that “Love shall be our token; love be yours and mine; Love to God and neighbor, love for plea and gift and sign.” Isn’t this what we see as a mother kneels beside her broken-hearted child or Mary kneels beside the manger, pondering all these things deep in her heart of hearts – prophecy fulfilled, promises kept, hearts healed, lives renewed, God in flesh appearing? What more can we ask? Isn’t it this very love that transforms life, that brings peace to earth and good will to all people, that turns the world right side up?

Again and again love comes down at Christmas. Will we be ready, receptive, open, eager like a little boy or a young girl to receive the gift? “How silently, how silently The wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of God’s heaven. No ear may hear Christ’s coming, But in this world of sin, [of estrangement from the God who made us and loves us with unstoppable love] Where meek hearts will receive him still, the Christ child enters in.”

In all the frantic activity of what we call THE HOLIDAYS, are we ready for the ultimate gift, the gift of God come so near we can’t even hear but only sense the presence in our own heart of hearts? Love comes down at Christmas. Can you feel it?

To Hell With You (February 15, 2015)

Jacob Marley in chainsA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Text: Luke 16:19-31

I suppose there are several elements of today’s service that are playing with fire, if you’ll pardon the play on words. I don’t know that I have ever before preached on hell. I’m sure I’ve referenced it but only to say that I do not believe in a literal hell – the lake of eternally burning fire depicted on the cover of today’s bulletin or the threatening expletive that is the sermon title. However, as we make this road by walking, Brian McLaren has asked us today to consider “Jesus and Hell.” To help us in our exploration, he has given us two texts – the story of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke and the separation of the sheep from the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Both texts promise dire consequences for those who do not pay attention to the poor and needy of this world.

McLaren argues that originally the Jewish faith had little interest in the afterlife, but through centuries of acculturation to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Zoroastrian and Hellenistic beliefs and practices the faith changed to accommodate visions of life after death. Clearly Jesus believed there was more to life than what one experiences between birth and death. But when he offers these parables of judgment, is his purpose to describe what the life to come is actually like? McLaren doesn’t think so and neither do I. In commenting on this text, David Lose reminds us that “…a parable is a parable…Parables aren’t told to give [us] a complete theological system or to address ultimate questions once and for all. They are meant to give us a glimpse – often [a] surprising, even jarring glimpse – into the kingdom of God. They present various slivers of the ‘kingdom logic’ of the God who regularly surprises us with God’s compassion and concern. So,” he concludes, “maybe this parable isn’t interested in explaining to us how people get to heaven but rather invites us to look at the people around us – right here, right now – from the perspective of this peculiar logic of God” (David Lose, “On Stretching Parables, 9-23-2013,” workingpreacher.org).

This is consistent with what McLaren argues in our Words of Preparation when he says that Jesus was actually “un-teaching about hell” while offering a “transformative vision of God” as one who “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 113). It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me to suggest that the rich man ends up in a hell of his own making. There is a different set of values for life and death in the beloved community of God. The standard belief among those to whom Jesus ministered was that goodness is rewarded with prosperity and general well-being while sin is punished by poverty and illness. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that same belief system strongly operative today, perhaps even in our own lives. It makes us uneasy, then, when Jesus tells stories like the rich man and Lazarus or the separation of the sheep from the goats. We worry that he might be saying “to hell with us” because of our privilege and how we exercise it.

The rich man – notice he doesn’t even get a name in the parable, though later tradition called him “Dives,” which is really just Latin for “rich man” – is not just rich. He’s over the top in letting everyone know he’s rich. Think of someone who is exorbitantly extravagant in flaunting what they have. Richard Vinson, in his commentary, says the sort of rich person Jesus describes would have been the subject of satire and lampooning, much as she or he might be today. These satirists would have been “…making fun of a real trend toward conspicuous displays of wealth during the first century, as the so-called Pax Romana brought unprecedented disposable income to Rome’s upper crust.” Sound familiar? “Romans often lamented the loss of the old values of thrift and Spartan simplicity, and some emperors tried to enact…laws prohibiting expensive clothing or jewelry or foods. Luke’s rich man is thus both a recognizable type-character from satires and comedies and an icon for a whole class of real people” (Richard D. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 530).

It’s not just that the man had money; he was a fool with his wealth. His arrogant attitude allowed him, daily, to step over poor Lazarus, sick and disabled, begging at his door. Lazarus might have survived on the scraps from the rich man’s table, but even this was too much bother for this rich man. He left Lazarus to die “like a tramp on the street.”

This is where Jesus’ great reversal gathers momentum. The rich man may not have had eyes to see, but God does. Lazarus is not rewarded for his piety or his poverty. He is graced by God’s compassion. He finally finds comfort in the “bosom of Abraham.” Remember, God “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count.” God’s compassion and grace are of a different order than our own vision of reward and punishment. For God, everyone counts.

Now, ironically the rich man dies about the same time, perhaps a victim of his conspicuous consumption. He practiced a gluttony which certainly could not have been good for his heart – literally and figuratively. In the Jewish system of Jesus’ time, Hades and the arms of Abraham were the places where souls went to await the final judgment, the Day of the Lord. Is there a possibility that intermediate stations provide time and space in which one might yet reflect and repent before the final end? The text doesn’t address this.

Suffice it to say that the rich man remains clueless even when “tormented in the flame.” Though he can see across the chasm that separates them (indeed, as he could see across the reverse chasm that separated them before they died,) he still does not see Lazarus as a child of God. “Send Lazarus to cool MY tongue.” “Send Lazarus to save MY brothers.” Not a word of remorse or repentance for the way he treated Lazarus who, in the beloved community of God, is also his brother. He just doesn’t get it and Jesus is saying that, until you get it, nothing changes. Until you see with the eyes of your heart the suffering of your sisters and brothers your heart will remain cruelly and lethally congested.

Most of you know by now, that Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite gospel stories. In it the great Victorian author provides a spot-on commentary on this parable. Remember how, in the beginning, we meet Ebeneezer Scrooge, of whom Dickens writes, “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster…He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

But, as we know, Christmas is a time of miracles, and old Ebeneezer, who is decidedly not extravagant with his wealth but is equally without compassion, is given a wondrous opportunity to repent. Several spirits appear to help him see the error of his ways. Unlike Jesus’ parable, spirits do bridge the chasm with a message from the heart of God. The first of these is his miserable old partner, Jacob Marley, who walks through the doubly locked door to Scrooge’s chambers, dragging an onerous chain made up of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”

Marley’s message is this:

“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!

“I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“…A very little more, is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.

“[Humankind] was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

“At this time of the rolling year…I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

“That is no light part of my penance…I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

Dickens’s parable is no less and no more fantastic than the one told by Jesus. To hell with you is never God’s desire for us or any aspect of creation. Like Marley’s chains and the rich man’s torment, hell is something of our own creation, “forged in life, made link by link, and yard by yard, girded on of our own free will…” It is fortified every time we step over Lazarus at our doorsteps, simultaneously seeing and not seeing. And, Marley’s wisdom notwithstanding, it is something we can let go of by letting go. Scrooge gets it in the end, Jesus gets it all along. In the words of another old spiritual, “All my troubles will be over when I lay my burden down.” To give myself over to life in God’s beloved community is to undo the chains and embrace the goodness of God’s creation. It is to enter into partnership with God who loves everybody to make sure that everybody knows they count. The good news is that it’s never too late to choose to live in God’s goodness and grace. God help us to find our way.

Amen.