Up and Down (2/7/2016)

Pastor Tripp and Children enact transfigurationA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, February 7. 2016

Text: Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)


The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the hill
And he marched them down again,
And when you’re up, you’re up.
And when you’re down, you’re down,
And when you’re only half-way up,
You’re neither up nor down?

We could get quite carried away around the campfire, singing this ditty faster and faster until collapsing in exhausted laughter.

But the truth is, that’s the way the road goes, that’s the rhythm of life – up and down, up and down. The old spiritual proclaims,

Sometimes I’m up.
Sometimes I’m down.
Oh yes, Lord.
But still my soul is heav’nly bound,
Oh yes, Lord.

Or if you prefer a more challenging version,

Sometimes I’m up.
Sometimes I’m down.
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground.
Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

Whichever route you choose, the up and down of it is inescapable.

I think that is the vital rhythm we find in today’s texts. Even though the second story about the healing of the epileptic boy is optional in the lectionary, I think it is essential that we link them. Jesus, Peter, James and John, the rest of the disciples, the crowd, the father, the son are all up and down at one point or another. Sharon Ringe insists, “The glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated” (Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 457).

To begin with, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up on the mountain to pray. There are times in this gospel and the others when Jesus goes off, alone, to pray. We understand this as a customary and important practice for him. We believe these times of prayer kept him centered and focused. They linked him to God and they energized him for the ministry in which he was engaged. This time he chose three leaders from among his followers to join him, to share his experience and learn from it.

Up, up, high on the mountain they went where the wind blew chill and the stars drew near. These three were among the disciples who had gained or desired special attention from Jesus, including elevated positions in the heavenly realm. Here they were chosen to share with him in his time of spiritual renewal. They must have felt very special. Only by the time they got all the way up the mountain, they were cold and tired. They just didn’t seem to have his stamina. They huddled together against the cold and drifted off to sleep.

If it hadn’t been for the dazzling light they might have missed the whole thing. The light shattered the darkness, disturbing their slumber. As they rubbed the sleep from their eyes, there was Jesus, shining before them, deep in discussion with Moses and Elijah. There was no doubt in their minds who his conversation partners were. The talk was about what lay ahead for Jesus as he “set his face toward Jerusalem,” about what it meant to hold to God’s law and proclaim God’s word, about what it would cost and what it would yield to walk God’s way.

Peter, James and John didn’t hear nor could they grasp the whole of the conversation. Still, they were amazed at what they saw and heard. As they watched the great lawgiver and the great prophet vanish from the scene, Peter blurted out, “’Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ —not knowing what he said.” That last part is crucial. He spoke before he thought. He didn’t know what he was talking about. Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful just to stay up here on the mountain with Jesus, basking in the beautiful glow of his transfigured face, “lost in wonder, love, and praise”?

Have you ever had an experience like that, something that was so wonderful, so fulfilling, that you just didn’t want to give it up, something so wonderful that you wanted to stay there forever? It doesn’t have to be spiritual in a religious sense. Maybe it was romantic, or pleasurable, or playful, or powerful, or compelling. You just knew that there was something in you that wanted to stay right there on that particular “mountain top.”

And why not? It sounds wonderful. Why not stay in that ecstatic state as long as possible, forever, if you could? What did Peter not know? What did he fail to understand? Suddenly the scene changes, the wind whips up, a thick, dark cloud covers the crest, enveloping them all, as lightning crackles and thunder rumbles. “This is my Son, my Beloved, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Listen to him, listen to Jesus. Isn’t this what they’d been doing all along? Apparently not closely enough. If they’d been listening, they would have had a better understanding of the significance of the conversation with Moses and Elijah. They would have had a better sense of what lay ahead for them all. They would have known that what goes up, must come down.

And sure enough, down they came, down off the mountain, right into the midst of a teeming crowd of seeking, needy people. At the end of Tony Kushner’s great dramatic fantasy, Angels in America, a key character, Prior Walter, offers these words as a sort of benediction,

You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

After angelic visitations and amazing visions of heaven, Prior Walter comes to this sort of quixotic conclusion that there is “great work” that lies ahead and now is the time to begin. Listen to him – you are fabulous creatures, blessed beings. And what is that blessing? More life, always more life. This is the great work –the creating, establishing, nurturing, sustaining of life. We’ve seen the heavenly vision and now it is time to get busy, making it real on earth as it is in heaven.

Fresh off the mountain, Luke brings Jesus and his disciples face to face with a father desperate for the healing of his only son. The text says the father shouts at them in a most undignified manner, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.” Can you hear the ache, the terror, the desperation in that cry? Imagine if it was someone you loved who was suffering so. This father had begged the disciples to do something, but they couldn’t pull it off, at least, not on this day. Jesus had given them power and authority and they had done some pretty amazing things during their travels from Galilee, but not today. Impatient and frustrated, Jesus scolds them for their lack of faith, for their failure to remember that they are “fabulous creatures,” blessed to bring life, before he heals the boy, restoring him, whole, to his father.

I wonder if there isn’t a sort of desperation in Jesus’ own frustration and impatience. He knows he doesn’t have much longer with them, much more time to teach them, to train them to do the great work that they are called to do on his behalf, in service of God’s Beloved Community. Once more they are left in amazement at the greatness of God and the miracles of the Messiah. But is it enough for them, or us, to stand there, gaping in wonder?

The reality is that down here, down in the valley, rolling across the plain, are the cries of those in need – in need of healing, in need of hope, in need of hospitality, crying for comfort, seeking for guidance, longing for love. Maybe we aren’t going miraculously to heal an epileptic boy, but there is so much work to be done to bring in God’s Beloved Community that each of us can find some way to contribute.

The reason that we shouldn’t separate these two stories is precisely because they tell us what to listen for. Marcus Borg argues that the two great and unique qualities of Jesus are his close connection with God and his compassion. Here we see exactly that – up on the mountain in deep and affecting prayer, down in that valley overflowing with compassion for those in need.

Heidi Neumark writes, “…living high up in the rarefied air isn’t the point of transfiguration…[It was] never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level” (Heidi Neumark, quoted by Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 456). That’s why we can’t sit on the mountain, Peter, wonderful as that might seem. There is great work to be done. Listen to Jesus. He’ll lead you in the right direction. All you have to do is follow. Listen to him. Take time to be with God, make time to be with your neighbors in need. Up and down, up and down. With his help and God’s grace, you will find the way. Amen.

The Impossible Dream (Providence, October 14, 2013)


A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

Monday, October 14, 2013


May I set the stage? I shall [recall] a man. Come, enter into my imagination and see him!
His name…Alonso Quijana…a country squire, no longer young…bony, hollow-faced…eyes that burn with the fire of inner vision. Being retired, he has much time for books. He studies them from morn to night and often through the night as well. And all he reads oppresses him… fills him with indignation at [humanity’s] murderous ways… And he conceives the strangest project ever imagined … to become a knight-errant and sally forth into the world to right all wrongs. No longer shall he be plain Alonso Quijana…but a dauntless knight known as – Don Quixote de La Mancha!


Hear me now
Oh thou bleak and unbearable world,
Thou art base and debauched as can be;
And a knight with his banners
all bravely unfurled
Now hurls down his gauntlet to thee!

I am I, Don Quixote,
The Lord of La Mancha,
My destiny calls and I go,
And the wild winds of fortune
Will carry me onward,
…whithersoever they blow…
Onward to glory I go!

Hear me, heathens and wizards
And serpents of sin!
All your dastardly doings are past,
For a holy endeavor is now to begin
And virtue shall triumph at last!

I am I, Don Quixote,
The Lord of la Mancha,
My destiny calls and I go,
And the wild winds of fortune
Will carry me onward,
Will carry me onward,
…whithersoever they blow…
Onward to glory I go!

When I participated in the AWAB service in Kansas City this summer, the seeds of this sermon were sown in the texts Robin chose and in the experience of the word brought with power and authority.  In this, our anniversary year, our year of jubilee, we are looking at dreams that have seemed impossible in the past and dreams that may seem impossible moving forward, but when dreams and dreamers come together in constellation around a sacred center, who is to say what is possible or not, save the Holy One herself?

We started on Broadway, a perfectly plausible place for a gay preacher to start.  Don Quixote, whether in the original of Cervantes or as shaped by Darion and Lee, is a dreamer.  You heard what Cervantes said, “a country squire, no longer young…bony, hollow-faced… eyes that burn with the fire of inner vision.”  Some say an old fool, some say certifiably insane.  Imagine tilting at windmills as if they were fierce giants, treating a coarse farm girl as an elegant lady, riding a broken down horse with a short, stocky farmer following behind on his donkey, playing squire to your not quite shining knighthood and trying to keep you from the gravest dangers.

But, oh the dreamer and the dreams, that ineffable human capacity to see beauty where others see squalor, to hold hope where others hold cynicism and despair, to yearn for a better life, a more gracious world where others have sold out or given up.  Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha, has captured the imagination and fueled the dreams of many a human being down through the centuries.

Though the comparison may be neither obvious nor easy, Paul was a dreamer.  In fact, the story says he had life-transforming vision that knocked him off his horse and turned his life around.  Saul, the clever Pharisee, student and defender of the ancient law, persecutor of the followers of the Christ, had an encounter with that same Christ that made a new being of him. He became Paul, the apostle, by his own confession “a fool for Christ.  He was willing to weather the ridicule and abuse of admitting he was wrong and spent the rest of his life trying to undo the damage he had done.

Jesus, himself, stood in the middle of his home synagogue and proclaimed that he had come “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And don’t you think more than one of those present though, “Isn’t this the son of that day worker, Joseph?  Who does he think he is?  He’s making a fool of himself and us in the process!”  A fool, a dreamer, a man with a vision of the realm of God, a man who proposed to walk God’s way through this world and wasn’t afraid to ask others to come along with him.   It was the impossible dream of an improbable dreamer.  In the end, it only cost him his life – yet he went willingly, with compassion, love and grace.

Forty years ago, in a seedy bar in Lincoln, Nebraska, there was another improbable dreamer with an impossible dream, another fool for Christ, another man who believed deeply that God’s reign might come on earth, especially for lgbtqiq folk.  Rodger Harrison, a Baptist preacher, from his own imagination put together a phantom organization he called American Baptists Concerned.  He named a President, Louise Rose.  I doubt he had asked her if he could put her name in nomination, let alone appoint her.  He would be vice-President and I think that’s as far as he got that night.  A fool, a dreamer, a man with a vision?  Who knew that night?  But by all rights, we are standing, upright and healthy, in his long shadow today.

I believe it takes a fool, a dreamer, a visionary to bring about changes in this world.  Those of us who turn too quickly to tradition and familiar structures for our security, nearly always have to wait for someone like Rodger or Don Quixote or Paul or Jesus to shake us up and draw us out of our shells.  We need people of every persuasion and orientation, of every shape and size and color, of youth and age, of every ability, of heart and spirit, to dream dreams and see visions in order to draw us out and on toward that realm of God.

Right in the middle of that realm sits the Welcome Table, that visionary place, often dreamed of, too seldom realized, where every single being made in the image and likeness of God is invited, welcomed, encouraged to sit and eat until we are filled with the bread of life and made whole through the cup of salvation.  That means you and that means me and, frankly, that means all the world.  No one has the right to tell anyone that they are not welcome at Christ’s table in the middle of God’s realm.  “There is plenty good room.”

It’s foolishness, an impossible dream, to imagine that there is really room for all.   There have to be some exceptions right?  Surely not everyone is included?  D. Mark Wilson, whom you saw directing the Rainbow Choir a few years back after a barrage of abuse was received from the preacher that night, a preacher who had a long list of people he was convinced were not welcome at the table, D. Mark loved to remind us of the old hymn that says, “Whosoever will may come.”  The hymn repeats that phrase several times to make sure we get it, “Whosoever will, whosoever will, whosoever will, may come.”

Cindy gave us some material to dream about last night.  Did anyone see the pots of gold at the end of those rainbows of grace?  What are your impossible dreams?   For that matter, what are your accessible dreams? Some of us are timid, some frightened, some anxious and insecure, some burned out, some who don’t trust ourselves or what see.  That’s right, people like you and me.  We’re not likely to go tilting at windmills.  We haven’t had visions that knocked us to the ground.  We see in a mirror dimly, with only glimpses of the coming reign of God.  We’re not likely to start movements or give up our security or dignity in pursuit of a cause. Or are we?

Another wise character from Broadway chides a young lieutenant with these words, “You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” (Bloody Mary in South Pacific).  So what’s your answer?  Is there a little residual Don Quixote in you?  Is there some small place in a corner of your being in which you dream dreams and see visions?  Would some small voice inside you like,

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear the unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
The reach the unreachable star

Well, here’s some good news.  The prophet proclaims for God, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”  That’s not some obscure promise.  It’s not a word reserved for improbable dreamers with impossible dreams.  God is doing a new thing.  God is always doing new things.  We are a part of God’s new thing.  AWAB is one of God’s new things.  Love and compassion, grace and acceptance, holy welcome for lgbtqiq people and our allies is God’s new thing.  And, if we’ll trust this promise, follow our dreams and our dreamers, even when – maybe especially when – they seem improbable and impossible, God will make a way in our wilderness and provide rivers in our deserts.

So let me close with one more Broadway text.  I believe it was in 1996, the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Revolution, that we strange Baptists held a retreat in Manhattan.  During that time, several of us had the privilege of seeing both parts of Tony Kushner’s great play, Angels in America.  The key character, Prior Walter, is pulled in many directions in the play as he (and Kushner and the audience) wrestle with, among many things, the significance of the AIDS epidemic. At the end of the play, Prior Walter utters these words.  He’s talking about AIDS but he could be talking about anything that makes us ill, wounds us, undoes us, steals our dreams and crushes our spirits.  He may be talking about the very wound you wrote on a strip of paper and wove into this tapestry Friday night.  He says,

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More life. The Great Work Begins” (Prior Walter in Angels in America.)

The great work begins – again and again and again – in each of us, in our impossible dreams and sacred visions.  We are eternally blessed with more life.  Let us – fabulous creatures, each and every one – take up the great work, dream impossible dreams, see the reign of God and the Welcome Table and make it so.   Amen.