New Born- Again!

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

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Text: John 3:1-21

Remember the children’s song about “Michael Finnegan”? It’s one of those songs for which you could make up endless verses, dragging it out to the point of driving adults like your parents crazy? Every stanza ends with the instruction to “begin again.” That could mean start a new verse or it could mean repeat the same one over and over ad nauseum. One version that seems particularly appropriate for Pentecost goes like this:

There was an old man
named Michael Finnegan.
He had whiskers
on his chin-ne-gan.
The wind blew them off
and blew them on again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin Again.

There’s that pesky, tricky wind, blowing where it chooses and doing the most unlikely things. Imagine blowing whiskers on and off. It obviously caused consternation for poor old Michael Finnegan. This song came to mind because of that key word “again.” I was planning to use the traditional text from Acts for today’s service, but then Jan suggested we sing the spiritual, “New Born Again,” and Brian McLaren suggested we look to John 3 as a text. Was the Spirit at work, conspiring to move us from something more traditional to a new way of thinking about Pentecost? Who knows, but here we are…again.

“Born again” is a familiar phrase in our vernacular. It does not always carry the best connotations for those of a more progressive persuasion. Alyce McKenzie tells this little tale about being evangelized:

I was in the waiting area at our local Discount Tire store last week waiting for my new tires to be put on my car. I picked up a women’s magazine and was intently reading an article called, ‘How to supercharge your metabolism.’ I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I’m waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: ‘How to be born again’ and I heard a man’s voice ask, ‘Wouldn’t you like to read    something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?’

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid 40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn’t reply immediately, he asked, ‘Well, have you?’ I said, ‘I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.’ At that the man shook his head as if to say ‘Geez, lady, it’s a yes or no question. How   hard is that?’ He took his tract back and moved on” (Alyce M. McKenzie, “Nicodemus’s Non-Decision,” Edgy Exegesis, 3-14-2011, patheos.com).

I guess that’s what you get when you try to buttonhole a preaching professor with a tract and a slogan. “Born again” is not a once and for all “emotional lightning strike.” It is a “lifelong process” that “calls for our participation.” When Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, he may be looking for some simple, easy answers. However, he does not walk away when Jesus challenges him to dig deeper and look beyond what he is already so certain of. It is a little like poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again. Go over it one more time. See if you can’t enter more fully into God’s will and God’s way for your life. Find the freedom. Find the grace. Be new born…again.

If Nicodemus truly believed he had everything all worked out, would he would have come knocking on Jesus’ door under cover of darkness? Nicodemus had an itch he couldn’t quite scratch. He’d heard these remarkable stories about Jesus and he was just curious enough to come check him out. Maybe he could learn something from this young, upstart rabbi. Maybe he just meant to check his credentials.

He starts boldly enough, speaking with his customary tone of authority. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” The question is implied but he can’t quite ask it. “Are you the One or should we look for another?” You know there must have been a current of excitement running beneath that neatly manicured, richly appointed exterior. If there hadn’t been, why would he be there at all? Like the rest of the faithful in his tradition, he longed for the coming of the Messiah, the one from God who would put all things right, bringing in God’s righteous reign on earth.

The response is swift and challenging. It catches the powerful Pharisee off guard. “In truth I tell you no one will see God’s reign without being born again.” It seems that Jesus never tells us exactly what we want to hear. That is, there is always a challenge to stretch us, inviting us to grow beyond our narrow religious views into something that is more spiritually risky and fulfilling.

In his attenuated, literalistic reply, Nicodemus sounds rather foolish. (That may, in fact, be characteristic of those who take a boxed in, literalist perspective.) I wonder if Nicodemus realized how silly he sounded before he even finished his question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” In the rich tradition of John’s gospel, this is exactly the sort of question that sets Jesus off and running.

What the great “teacher of Israel” has missed is the word play. The word that Jesus uses for rebirth can be interpreted as “again” or “from above.” There is a newness of life that comes from following Jesus. The reign of God asks for and offers more than we can ever fully grasp. The challenge to live into the Beloved Community of God goes against all religious stereotyping and undermines every idolatry, whether or not we recognize such in our own lives.

There’s another verse I discovered from “Michael Finnegan” that goes like this:

There once was a man named Michael Finnegan.
He kicked up an awful dinnegan
because they said he must not sin again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again.

Sin, that which separates us from God, that which blocks the way, that which keeps us stuck. Rather than making the road by walking, we find ourselves going around in familiar circles or stuck on a treadmill. It may be good for losing few pounds, but in the end does it get us anywhere?

In today’s Words of Preparation, Brian McLaren tells us, “At the core of Jesus’ life and message, then, was this good news: the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world. And that gives us a choice: do we dig in our heels, clench our fists, and live for our own agenda, or do we let go, let be, and let come…and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 205). To be taken up into the Spirit’s movement is to be born again, to be born into the Beloved Community of God. It is to enter a community unlike any we have ever known. It is beyond our wildest dreams. It is all we have hoped for, longed for, prayed for and so much more. It is God loving the world, the whole wonderful creation, in ways that restore, redeem, rebirth.

We have to be clear, though, that this road Jesus asks us to walk with him is not an easy one. The Beloved Community is surely coming but we know “it don’t come easy.” John Dear reminds us some of the challenges when he writes of our present reality that “Following Jesus today in a land of nuclear weapons, rampant racism, and widespread economic injustice means actively going against our culture of violence.  As the culture promotes violence, we promote Jesus’ nonviolence.  As the culture calls for war, we call for Jesus’ peace.  As the culture supports racism, sexism and classism, we demand Jesus’ vision of equality, community and reconciliation. As the culture insists on vengeance and execution, we pray with Jesus for forgiveness and compassion” (John Dear, Jesus the Rebel, p. 29).

This was the same sort of challenge Jesus gave Nicodemus 2000 years ago. The circumstances may have been somewhat different, but the way of the world was in constant conflict with the coming Community of God. Jesus confronts us with the same sort of mission he offered Nicodemus – to be new born…again. “The way I walk, the ministry I offer, the coming of the Beloved Community is profoundly counter-culture in any sense of hanging on to static traditions and narrow views that have outlived their usefulness. You may have to let go of some of your power and prestige and the trappings that go with your high position, Nicodemus. You may need to let be a sense of uncertainty and trust the road you walk with me, even when you can’t see that far ahead. You may find that you must let the Spirit come to you and blow you around a bit and take you to unexpected places. You may find yourself buried with Christ in a baptism of water and Spirit, then rising to walk in newness of life.

As we walk that road with Jesus, we sing

“We’ve found free grace and dyin’ love, we’re new born again.
We know the Lord has set us free, we’re new born again.
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,
that all who will believe in Him will be new born again!
Free grace, free grace, free grace, sinner.
Free grace, free grace, we’re new born…again!”

Sage Singing (January 4, 2015)

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

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Today’s story is one of rich and significant contrasts. It has characters whose hearts are both large and small, whose gifts are generous and deceptive, whose intent is worshipful and murderous. We have already heard about Herod and his song. Remember how Joy Caroll Wallis told us “Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression” (Joy Caroll Wallis, “Putting Herod into Christmas,” adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5, 2004, bigforums.com). This is Herod’s world and the only song he knows.

Then there are these “three kings of Orient are” who, “bearing gifts, traverse afar.” We sing about them every year and their wondrous guiding star. Just this morning we sang, “As with gladness sages bold did the guiding star behold…” Sages, wise men, from distant lands are a key element to the Christmas story. But have we ever listened for the song they sing? If we are very still, we might hear some sage singing as they come closer to the place where the baby was born.

Their hearts sing as they cover the miles between Persia and Judea, ambling along on the rhythmic ride of their steady camels. These scientists, cosmologists of their day, spend their time studying the stars in hope of discovering clues to the mysteries of the universe. They have seen a wondrous star rising in the southeast. They believe with all their hearts that it signifies something wonderful about to happen in the world. Without hesitation but with careful preparation they set out to follow the star. In part their heart song is for a great king who is to be born, one who will have a transforming affect on the world as they know it. Their song is one of devotion and worship.

They also bring appropriate gifts for such a king. “Gold is a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (used for incense) is a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) is a symbol of death” (Alyce M. McKenzie, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: Reflections on Matthew 2:1-12, “ Edgy Exegesis, January 6, 2013, patheos.com). Gold such as would be a fit for a king, incense for worship of a holy one and anointing oil in recognition of one who would lay down his life in service of the truth as he would come to know it. Gifts borne of insight, wisdom and understanding.

Sage singing comes from big-hearted believers. These sages, magi, priests of the Zoroastrian religion, throw open their hearts to welcome a king who promises to transform life radically. It does not restrict their hope and faith that this one who is to be born comes from a different religion. They are open to whatever way God chooses to work in the world; they will follow with their sage singing – “O come, let us adore him!”

On the other hand Herod and his company remind me of the Grinch. Their hearts have shrunk two sizes too small. Those whose hearts are full of fear and greed, of hate and anger have no room for hope or sage singing of any sort. If they sing at all, their songs are vicious, hateful and dishonest. Herod sounds sweet as honey when he oozes out instructions for the wise ones to “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” We know he has no such intentions. His fearful, shrunken heart only wants to do away with the competition. He has no vision of what the baby brings to the world. He just wants to be rid of it before it exposes him for the despot that he really is.

As we’ve noted, these sages come with gifts that burst forth from their singing hearts and are fit gifts for one born to be king, but a unique king who will eventually be murdered because he insists on being a different kind of king. Alyce McKenzie tells us that today “we need an ever-fresh supply of these three gifts to offer this child as he grows and becomes strong. We need gold to value his identity as a king over our lives. We need frankincense to affirm his identity as the Son of God. We need myrrh to remind ourselves of his identity as a crucified messiah, to prevent our forgetting the forces within ourselves and our world that threaten this precious life in our midst” (McKenzie, op. cit).

Herod, the master of deceit and ill will, promises no gift for the child except his malevolent presence. What he has to offer is a sword that will strike the baby dead before he ever has the chance to speak God’s truth and bring God’s way to life on earth. Of course, this is no gift at all. In fact, the taking of life is the very antithesis of gift giving.

These singing sages have traveled a long way – o’er “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.” Why have they embarked on this arduous journey? They come before Herod asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” – to pay homage, to bow down and worship the holy one. They recognize that God has come near in this little child and they want to pay due respect.

Herod professes the desire to worship him, too. But there is no room in Herod’s heart for worship. He is so self-absorbed, so determined to maintain his power that he cannot begin to fathom God’s open-hearted, self-giving way for the world. Herod’s point of view is to maintain power and domination, to exercise cruelty and violence. He can tolerate no threat to his narrow way. His rageful rule is murderous.

Hearts large and small. Gifts generous and murderous. Worship of God and self – these are some of the significant contrasts in this ancient tale. It comes down to us with questions about which singing we will listen for and which road we will travel. Will our hearts grow three sizes through this Christmas season or will they shrink to something tiny and poisonous? Will we give gifts that are appropriate and generous, that come from hearts large and open or will we give little, withholding the best for ourselves, giving only when it will net a good return? Will we fall down and worship God who comes near to us, year after after year, offering hope, peace, joy and love or will we be so self-absorbed that we hear neither angels nor sages singing the wonders of God’s creation?

Sages, leave your contemplations brighter visions beam afar.
Seek the great Desire of nations, you have seen the natal star:
Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn king.

Stay Alert (August 11, 2013)

sermons.fw STAY ALERT
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, August 11, 2013

Text:  Luke 12:32-40

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
The time is drawing nigh.

So sings the old spiritual, with words of warning to stay alert and be prepared for the coming “Day of the Lord.”  Or is it the day of freedom?  Is this one of those great signaling songs about the underground railroad and the way to liberation?  Stay alert. “There’s a better day a comin’, fare thee well, fare thee well.  In that great gittin’ up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well.” “My Lord, what a morning when the stars begin to fall!”  These songs and many others like them sing the hope of a people for freedom from slavery, for a better life lived in liberty, for the promises they heard in God’s word and longed to claim for themselves and their families.

Earlier this summer I saw a semi-staged version of West Side Story, the great American musical about life among poor white and Puerto Rican youth in 1950s New York City.  Early in the musical, Tony, the white boy who is the musical’s hero, is persuaded by Riff, the leader of the Jets, his former gang, to join them at the neighborhood dance that night, not knowing that Riff intends to start a rumble with the rival Sharks.  Tony agrees to go along with his old friend, though he is clear he wants no more part of gang activity.  At the end of the scene with Riff, he breaks into this powerful song of hope for a better future.

Could be
Who knows?
There’s something due any day
I will know right away
Soon as it shows
It may come cannonballin’ down through the sky
Gleam in its eye
Bright as a rose!
Who knows?
It’s only just out of reach
Down the block, on a beach
Under a tree
I got a feeling there’s a miracle due
Gonna come true
Coming to me
Could it be?
Yes it could
Something’s coming
Something good
If I can wait
Something’s coming I don’t know what it is
But it is
Gonna be great!
With a click
With a shock
Phone’ll jingle
Door’ll knock
Open the latch!
Something’s coming, don’t know when
But it’s soon
Catch the moon
One handed catch
Around the corner
Or whistling down the river
Come on – deliver
To me
Will it be? Yes it will
Maybe just by holding still
It’ll be there!
Come on, something, come on in
Don’t be shy
Meet a guy
Pull up a chair
The air is hummin’
And something great is coming
Who knows
It’s only just
Out of reach
Down the block, on a beach
Maybe tonight
Maybe tonight…

Stay alert, Tony.  Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.  The day is drawing nigh.  Something’s coming, something good, something great…maybe tonight.

Of course, Tony doesn’t live to see the day.  Neither did many of the African slaves in the USA.  Nor did those who first heard Jesus’ words as recorded in Luke.  Nor did many an Israelite who wandered in the wilderness.  The “Day of the Lord” did not come soon enough for them – at least not that grand apocalyptic day of radical transformation.  God’s kingdom did not come on earth as it is in heaven.  Still the hope lived on and it lives on today.  Stay alert.  You don’t know when the Bridegroom may return – or the thief break in.  You’re never sure when God may show up in your life – or the evil one challenge you from within or without.

We know that, for those who first heard Luke’s gospel, there was an eager expectation that Christ would return soon and make all right with the world, that the day of God’s final judgment was imminent and they’d better be prepared.  We don’t live so much with that expectation or even hope anymore.  I suspect most of us are not at all eager for the “Day of the Lord.”  We are not looking for God’s final judgment any time soon.  So, maybe these ancient words don’t have much to say to us.  Maybe we live in such comfort that we are not caught up in the Hebrews’ hope for a promised land, in the slave’s longing for freedom, in Tony’s dream of something better than the poverty and violence of the city’s streets, in the early church’s longing for Christ’s return.

Stay alert.  For what, we might ask.  We don’t live in that three story universe in which we hope to achieve heaven and avoid hell.  Most of us don’t worry about the devil.   We know there is evil in the world, but by and large it bypasses us.  We’re not so directly affected.  Our fears are not much the imminent danger of poverty, war, displacement, hunger, homelessness, street violence.  So when Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock…” does it have any meaning for us?  Does it touch you at all where you live?

Well, let’s take a minute and consider these words, “Do not be afraid, little flock…”  Of what might we be afraid, you and me?  Are you ever afraid of not being in control?  Do you ever worry about a lack of security?  Have you saved enough, accumulated enough to keep you comfortable and safe?  Are you ever concerned about thieves breaking in?  Any anxiety about the kind of future your children might face?  Perhaps our fears are not as dramatic as those of the most needy of our sisters and brothers, but they are certainly real for us.

Now the point is not to encourage us to dwell on our fears, to overinvest in them, to make them worse.  The encouraging, hopeful word in Luke’s story is just the opposite.  Before today’s text, Jesus has been talking to his followers about letting go of their fears and anxieties.  “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:22-31).

Life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  Strive for the reign of God and you will have all that you need.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  We need to hear very clearly.  The word is not that God wants us to work hard and do right so we can earn God’s favor.  It’s not stay alert and don’t mess up because that’s your heavenly insurance policy.  It’s that God wants to give us the delights of God’s realm.  God wants to shower us with the abundance and joy of God’s reign.  It’s God’s pleasure to welcome us home.  We don’t need to worry about anything.  God will take care of us, if we let her.

In our words of preparation, Alyce McKenzie writes of the place of fear in our lives: “We are all wrong about fear. We think it is our protective shield. But fear is the thief. When we dwell on our fears, they become our treasures. Jesus says, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. Faith is the genuine treasure we are to be accumulating, but we get it backwards when our fears fill our hearts and faith cannot gain entrance.”

So when I say stay alert, it’s not meant to be an admonishment to fear and anxiety.  Rather I see it as an invitation to faithful living.  It’s a word about watching over our lives so that unwarranted fear and anxiety do not come creeping in as a thief in the night and take over.  Stay alert, be mindful, so that the mighty movement of God in our lives and in the world all around us will be so obvious to us that we fall right in.  McKenzie again writes, “Live in the past and you will be depressed. Live in the future and you will be anxious. Live in the present with gratitude and you will be at peace.  From our Christian perspective the message is that that we need to be preoccupied, but not with fear and anxiety. We need to be preoccupied in the present with faith in God’s future.”  As children of God and disciples of the living Lord are our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds focused with faith on God’s future rather than self-absorbed with the petty details of our daily existence?  Stay alert to what is so much larger and more wonderful than we could ever imagine on our own.  Stay alert for that which can only nourish us and make us whole.

Friends, something’s coming, something good, something great.  Stay alert.  It may not be the apocalyptic “Day of the Lord” but “there’s a better day a comin’.”  Not only will it be showered upon us liberally without our ever lifting a finger, we can also be a part of making it happen – not because it demanded of us as a way of earning our salvation – but because that is where our treasure lies and, with it, our hearts.  Stay alert.  It can only lead us to the goodness of God.  Amen.