Anxiety, Judgement, Love

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Text: Matthew 6:19 – 7:12 (The Message)

This week’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount is long and rich. Brian McLaren suggests three major themes from this text and I will follow his lead.  The choir had the first word in this exploration, singing about that which we count as treasure and where we store it.  The key words that come out of this part of the text hold the affirmation that “wherever your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” This is a simple and challenging statement. The things, ideas, feelings, beliefs, people you value also capture your attention, your energy, your commitment.  As Eugene Peterson phrases it, “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” So it’s important to take the time to know and understand what you are storing in your heart.  It will determine your heart health and your general well-being.

I.  ANXIETY

So Jesus teaches, “You can’t worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you’ll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can’t worship God and Money both.” There just is not room in a healthy heart for such disparate treasure. You can’t love God and stuff. God always trumps whatever it is you’ve accumulated. It may help to remember that whatever material goods you’ve stored in your treasure chest came from God in the first place. There isn’t anything we prize and collect that doesn’t come originally from the Creator of All.

Remember those first commandments Moses recorded? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:2-5). I think this is what Jesus is reframing in positive terms as he reminds us that we will find our hearts focused on what we treasure. What treasure could be more valuable than the God who made us and loves us with unimaginable love?

Then, “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.”

Isn’t that an arresting turn of phrase – “careless in the care of God”? What, me worry? Can you imagine living that freely? Without a care in the world? Do you hold some precious memories of childhood when we walked the earth carefree? Or perhaps you’ve watched children at play and longed for that degree of freedom. I know this is a pretty romantic notion.  We understand that children have their own worries, often as challenging and intense as those of adults.  But there are those moments in the lives of children (and maybe even grown-ups, occasionally,) when the wonder and joy of existence overcome every challenge and concern. It could be that this is what Jesus had in mind when he chided his adult disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

“Careless in the care of God.” As Ethel Waters used to sing with such conviction, “Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home, when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…I  sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, for His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” This is the level of care God offers, if we would just accept it. We really don’t have to be in charge, controlling everything or anything.

I mean “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.”

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

Relax. Chill. Take it easy. Don’t be so caught up in getting that you miss out on all that God is giving. And, friends, what God is giving is beyond amazing! Look at the cover of your bulletin.  I started out with a lovely image of lilies since that’s the flower named in the most familiar versions of this text. But when I read Peterson’s paraphrase using wildflowers, my mind went immediately to fields of wildflowers blanketing our California landscape from mountain meadow to blooming deserts.  I remember once driving to Los Angeles in the spring time, passing great expanses of poppies and lupine, shining, iridescent in the shimmering sunlight. Could anyone but God create such beauty?

Flowers growing in profligate abundance, running wild and free across the countryside. If God can do that, surely God can take care of our needs. No necessity to cram your closets and cabinets with the latest fashions and beauty aids. Don’t you know you’re surpassingly beautiful just the way God made you? Remember the poster that asserted, “I know I’m somebody special ‘cause God don’t make no junk”? “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions.” Surely that is a prescription for heart health. “Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

So following McLaren in our Words of Preparation, “try telling yourself: My own anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about.” All worry does is add an unnecessary dimension of stress to your life. There is nothing you can fix or change through worry. The price you pay for anxiety is that same heart stress we referenced earlier. If you fill your heart with anxiety, how can it be healthy?

 

II. JUDGMENT

Then there’s judgment. Jesus says, “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.”

It’s probably helpful here that Peterson shifts the image from specks and logs to smudges and sneers.  I think the latter image speaks more clearly to you and me in our time and place. Still, I speculated at Bible study on Tuesday that this original image must have elicited a chuckle from the crowd if not an outright belly laugh. What a clever way to put us in our place, our rightful place. Get the log out of your own eye first.  Well, who walks around with a log in his eye? Absurd – perhaps – but you get the point while laughing a little at yourself.

However, the notion of wiping the sneer off your face, of eliminating that superior air, of shedding that patronizing stare that withers the other, that’s a different story. That may hit too close to home. As people of privilege it can be a real challenge to take care of our own tendency to judgment before attending to the smudge on somebody else’s face. “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus says and how quickly and quietly they slink away (John 8:7).

For some reason, maybe because it’s a kind of tongue twister, I liked and memorized the King James Version of verses 1 and 2 of chapter 7. “Judge not that ye be not judged for with the judgment ye judge ye shall be judged.”  “…with the judgment you judge you will be judged.” It seems to me there is a kind of grand, karmic truth here. “Your chickens will come home to roost.” “You will reap what you sow.”  “Your actions will come back to haunt you.” “When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.” How many more clichés and familiar sayings can you think of that contain this truth? More often than not our judgment of another is something we wrestle with, consciously or unconsciously, in our own lives.

Again, with McLaren, “try telling yourself: My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others.” There is no treasure in harboring judgment in the heart (though it seems worthwhile for some.) Such an accumulation will inevitably lead to soul shrinkage and a kind of deadly heart sickness. For who can claim to love God, who is love, while judging, condemning, hating sister or brother? Self-righteous judgment is a terminal ailment. Let go and be healed.

III. LOVE

“Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?”

“Here is a simple guideline for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”

How deeply do we believe in grace? How broadly do we trust in God’s care? How thoroughly do we give ourselves over to God’s steadfast love for us? And how does this shape our response to and compassion for others? I know we don’t always get what we want. We can’t always have it our way. There is suffering, pain and death. There are challenges, conflicts and detours as we walk our way through this world. People get in our way or disappoint us or hurt us or betray us. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. There is so much we do not understand and cannot control. Still, Jesus affirms that the God who conceived us in love will always care for us. As the writer of Deuteronomy says, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 37:10) – God’s great arms of love and grace for you and me and all the world.

With McLaren, can you “try telling yourself: My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved”? Truly three times may be extreme but perhaps it takes God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, all three, to convince us that we are indeed loved. If the treasure we store in our hearts is this very love of God, our hearts will be healed and whole. To love God with one’s whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself is treasure enough for this life and all life to come. Amen.

Anxiety, judgement, love

Several more familiar challenges from the Sermon on the Mount this week. Brian McLaren organizes them around three themes – anxiety, judgment and love. Jesus warns against getting caught up the first two since our lives and our living ought to be grounded in love – love for God, for neighbor, for self. The foundation of this love is God who, in the end, embraces and cares for us as if we were her children. And, come to think of it, we are! What difference might this understanding make to our Lenten journey? What if what we gave up for Lent is anxiety and judgment, so that we might center our lives more fully in the love of God?

In Adult Spiritual Formation we will continue to explore nonviolent resistance, drawing on The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink. Hugh Satterlee has challenged us to place ourselves earlier in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We come upon the robbery in progress. Do we turn our backs, scurrying away? Do we take up sticks and stones and attack the robbers? Or is there a “third way,” a way of nonviolent resistance? Give it some thought and bring your response to class on Sunday.

Come at 10:00 AM and stay for Adult Spiritual Formation. Bring some others along to share the day.

May we continue to grow together as God’s people.

Pastor Rick  

TO BE GOD’S PEOPLE! 1 Peter 2:9-10

God's People

A Mess of Crocuses (December 15, 2013)

sermonsA MESS OF CROCUSES

A sermon preached by Naomi Schulz
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 15, 2013

Text:  Luke 1:46-55: Mary’s Song of Praise – The Magnificat

Opening Prayer: Loving God, as a Hasidic Rabbi once said: “By reading sacred scripture we put your words on our hearts, but only you can put them inside our hearts. When our hearts break, oh Lord, may your holy words fall inside.” Amen.

In Judaism the written words and letters of scripture are called black fire. The written words of black fire are what get passed down unchanged from generation to generation. But the blank spaces between the letters and words is called white fire. White fire is all the stuff that could be in the story, but isn’t. The black fire of Mary’s magnificat sings praise to God who lifts up those who are vulnerable. With black fire she gives thanks for carrying a babe who will become God’s outpouring of love into the world. The black fire speaks to the fulfillment of God’s promises.

In Mary’s Magnificat, God is at work in a deeply personal way that also changes the world. It tells us that we see evidence of God at work in the world when the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are fed. But what about the white fire? I wonder about all that is left unsaid in the story. Mary sang this song of praise during a visit with her cousin Elizabeth. But, I wonder how uncertain Mary felt about her future when she left Nazareth to visit her cousin? I wonder if it was fear that prompted her visit. Perhaps she wanted someone with more experience to help her figure out what to do next. Recognizing God at work in our lives is neither easy, nor comfortable, nor always reassuring – but the black fire of today’s scripture doesn’t mention that part.

When God is working in our lives what does that look like? What does it feel like? Would we recognize it if happened to us? For Barrie Hathaway, the Executive Director of the Stride Center in Oakland, these are not idle questions. He founds his livelihood on answering them. The goal of the Stride Center is to lift people out of poverty through offering free training in cutting edge Information, Communication and Technology skills. A couple weeks ago Barrie told me that students who spend six months getting one technical certification at the Stride Center have a 61% chance of getting an entry level job. That job typically pays 16 to 20 dollars per hour – an income that doubles what many of their trainees are accustomed to earning. Study for three more months to get another credential and you have a 76% chance of finding a job. Add a little work experience and suddenly you have a 90% chance. These numbers make the Stride Center one of the most effective job training programs in the U.S., and It offers folks with histories of incarceration, generational poverty, addiction, or mental or physical disability a real and lasting opportunity for upward mobility.

Looking in from the outside, this looks like God working in a deeply personal way to change in the world. It describes the kind of reversal Mary points to as evidence of God’s presence – a God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. For those who succeed, there is indeed enormous potential for blossoming here. But that’s not all there is to this story. The black fire of Barrie’s percentages doesn’t paint the whole story.

Barrie also shared that the Center loses 10% of their students off-the-top because they are too afraid to leave their underpaying jobs – no matter how much training they complete. These folks have been beaten down so repeatedly, Barrie said, that letting go of their poverty wages feels like too big a risk to take. God may make a highway out of the desert, like Isaiah says, but experience teaches us that sometimes folks are too tired, or too scared, to follow it. For Barrie, the ethical invitation here is find ways to breach the gap. He reaches out with all the resources his institution has to offer, he works to bolster and build highways between the support systems of the folks he trains.

Despite years of effort and trial and error, he hasn’t yet found a solution to overcoming the many inhibitions that get in the way of launching the lost 10%. For me, this loss suggests a much wider societal problem – that of an insufficient safety net for protecting the vulnerable among us, and harmful structural inequalities that leave people behind at an early age. Faced with the vulnerability of our individual lives, and structural inequalities that serve to exacerbate such vulnerability rather than overcome it, I cannot help but wonder – as Barrie does – what more could be done to ensure that all of us have the opportunity and the courage to flourish.

At this time of year, our own hurts, fears, sorrows and dysfunctions are often thrown into stark relief with the cheery expectations of the Christmas season. Some of us are too sick to celebrate, some are too sad, and some of us are just plain tired. Its hard to know what to even do with these difficult feelings. It’s hard to know where to put them. Do we slip into isolation where we can keep them to ourselves? Do we throw ourselves into a flurry of activity to keep them from surfacing? No matter how hard we try to hide them, they likely break out in some form or another, often in the least helpful way at the least helpful time. So where do we find the opportunity and courage to flourish even with these difficulties?

In today’s scripture, newly pregnant Mary walked 80 miles from Nazareth in Galilee to a small hill town in Judea to visit her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Mary renewed a connection that offered mutual understanding and support. In uneasy and unexpected circumstances, Mary and Elizabeth encouraged each other, and in doing so they created a Holy Highway for intimacy and rejoicing. They held open a space for each other to flourish in their wildernesses, and we can do the same with and for each other.

Someone asked me a question last week that I’ve never been asked before. It was during an interview for chaplaincy training. After asking me to share what I might do in a hypothetical scenario common in hospital settings, the director of the training program asked me: “What is the positive side of anxiety?” Being deeply familiar with anxiety, I had a ready answer. “It’s highly motivating”, I told him. “What else?”, he asked. I was totally stumped.  After an extended pause he asked again: “What good is the I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know running through your head?” I looked at him blankly and told him I gave up. He replied that everyone else in that hospital room probably has exactly the same uncertainty running through their heads, so anything I could I do to put a little container around it would be helpful. “You can offer a glass of water,” he said. Relief poured through me. Ah heck, I thought, I can do that. I’ve done it before. We all have. But something even that simple can be hard to remember in times of stress.

What I like most about this story, and about the Magnificat that arises from Mary’s conversation with Elizabeth, is that they remind us that sometimes our souls most magnify the Lord when we offer each other the equivalent of a glass of water. We are all vulnerable beings and if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable together, to let the sorrow and hurt show along with the joy, perhaps we can find a way forward through the wilderness of our lives, the wilderness of of the holiday season, and the wilderness of church renewal.

Barrie, the Director of the Stride Center, is facing the problem of how to help some of America’s most hurt people to relearn just enough vulnerability to accept a well-paying job. A job that they are fully capable of excelling in. Here at First Baptist Church we discern how we can and will be present to ourselves, and to each other, during this often stressful season. May we emerge from that process as a mess of blooming crocuses in the desert.

On Eagle’s Wings (September 29, 2013)

sermonsON EAGLE’S WINGS

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 29, 2013

 

Text:  Psalm 91

 “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less,” “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” “How Firm a Foundation,” “All My Hope on God Is Founded,”  “It Is Well with My Soul,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “On Eagle’s Wings,” these and hundreds of other hymns and songs have made similar affirmations to those of today’s text.  They have cried out to God for safety and security and responded with abiding faith that God is indeed refuge and fortress, shelter and protection.

Can you identify at all with the sentiments of the Psalmist?  Have you ever turned toward God with just such an affirmation?   Have you ever prayed this Psalm?  What were the circumstances and why would you turn in this direction?  The Psalm seems to arise from a time of personal stress and possible persecution for the writer.  It is full of images that refer to demonic foes as well as the exigencies of daily life for a people living in a barren, hostile land.  In an earlier time, Frank Ballard wrote of this text, “This is the language not of prose but of poetry, Oriental poetry which,” he says, “may often seem extravagant to the Western mind.  We do not move easily among metaphors drawn from nomad life, with possible references to night demons and magic spells.  We are not engaged in watching eagles and their young: nor do we walk warily because of the pitfalls and traps that have been set for the careless” (Frank H. Ballard, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 4: Psalms, Proverbs, p. 494).

We may not be altogether familiar with the language and imagery of the Psalms, but in our times of trouble, insecurity, fear and anxiety, how often do we turn to them for hope and reassurance?  Psalm 23 is the same genre of Psalm as this one.  Without being overly familiar with sheep and shepherding, how many of us can still recite it from memory?  How often has it been an anchoring text for a funeral or memorial service or other occasions of grief and loss?  Sometimes we just need the comforting word, regardless of its familiarity or factual reliability.

As we considered this text in Bible study, we came up against that ancient Hebrew practice of measuring life’s ups and downs as reward and punishment from God.  This is the song of a people who believed they were God’s chosen people.  They lived within the bounds of a sacred covenant with God.  When they kept the covenant they were rewarded.  When they abandoned it, they were punished.  But we know this is not true.  As we considered last week, stuff happens.  The rain, as well as drought and famine, come to the just and the unjust.  Viruses happen.  Hurricanes happen.  Arguments become fights become wars.  Families feud.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Some of this we can do something about, much not.

The great British preacher of the last century, Leslie Weatherhead, said of this text, “…men and women, it is just not true” (Quoted in Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 91:9-16, 10-18-2009,” workingpreacher.org).  Such promises as this Psalm contains are neither literally true nor would they be deserved if they were.  Bad things happen to good people and vice versa.  We have each had our share of trials and tribulations, large or small.  It is in the very nature of being human.  Jane Strohl writes, “Not only does evil befall us, we constantly act as its agents. Our lives are fraught with fears of all sorts and deceit beyond measure. We worry about our health, our finances, our children’s welfare, global warming, unemployment, poverty, natural disasters, and the burden keeps growing year by year. What, then, can the psalmist mean when he assures us that we are in the care of God’s holy angels?” (Jane Strohl, “Commentary on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, 2-21-2010,” workingpreacher.org).  ” It seems to me this is a fair and reasonable question.

Still, we turn to God in our distress and, occasionally, even in our joy.  Is there truth to that oft-quoted adage of Augustine about our hearts being restless until they rest in God?  Are we talking here about a different, deeper order of life than we recognize in our daily routine?  Is there something about this relationship to the living God that is beyond anything we know of relationship in the course of what we call reality?  Maybe we ought to open ourselves to a dimension in which the demonic and the sacred exist in ways we only barely understand.  Or maybe it’s as simple as acknowledging that we can’t do it on our own.  No matter our gifts, talents, skill, wealth, power, perseverance, celebrity or good looks, we need others and, in particular, we need God, the ultimate Other.  This ancient imagery of comfort and security can be powerfully appealing from this vantage point.

When I write the “Pastor’s Note” for the Midweek Message, I mean it to be a few paragraphs to highlight past and upcoming events on the church calendar, to thank people for their efforts on behalf of the life of our congregation, to give a brief insight to the coming Sunday’s worship and Adult Spiritual Formation, to encourage you to be here on Sunday and to bring someone along, and to offer a simple blessing – nothing profound or earth shattering.

So I was surprised to receive the following email from a colleague this week.  “Pastor, in the midst of your busy season I’m guessing that the weekly routine (like a mid-week message) can seem burdensome. Just know, I needed the excerpt above right in the moment that I read it. Thank you.”   What my colleague had excerpted from my “Pastor’s Note” was this sentence, “Psalm 91, our focus text for Sunday, reminds us that we are sheltered under God’s abiding wings, that when we are at our lowest, most vulnerable, God reaches out and draws us into God’s protective presence.”

I wasn’t trying to impress anyone when I penned that line.  My colleague is a smart, talented, up to date pastor, wise to the ways of the world.  Still, on hard days or in tough times there is hope, comfort, reassurance in this ancient spiritual truth.  What struck me about my colleague’s note was the simple, straightforward, heart-felt confession of the need for a sense of God’s sheltering presence.  Sometimes we just want to find that place of quiet rest, near the heart of God, to sit there in stillness for a while, to sigh, to breathe, to replenish, to heal.  I know I find myself in that position, maybe more than I care to admit.

Again, as we affirmed last week, there is balm in Gilead.  There is power to heal the sin sick soul, grace to make the wounded whole.  It may not look like the healing or wholeness we imagine we ought to have.  Healing is not cure and wholeness is not the absence of concern.  It is the capacity to live day by day, moment by moment, in both the fullness of life and in that mystic sweet communion with the one who has made us, loves us and draws us ever closer into the relationship for which we were intended.  We don’t lose the world when we find God.

There is much from which the fragile wings of a mother hen or the powerful, outstretched wings of an eagle can never protect us.  Not literally.  We have developed weapons that will blow a rock fortress to smithereens.  We have turned our backs on angels.  We have created plenty of enemies of whom we live in mortal fear.  We spend enormous sums to become masters of our own security, only to be threatened by new technology or terror we had never imagined.

Where do we turn for simple solace?  When we are weary, disconsolate, frustrated, hopeless, where do we go?  To the medicine chest, the bottle, to some other obvious addiction, to the mall, to the market, to an underground bunker?  Maybe there is still something to be said for eagle’s wings, for the sheltering power of the Almighty, which, in the end, may be nothing more than the capacity to love and to care.

I can’t tell you for certain why, but time and again, I resort to the notion that whatever befalls us, underneath there are “everlasting arms.”  Make of that what you will.  It gives me a measure of peace, of comfort, of reassurance that ultimate things are not in my control.  Of course, I have work to do, a call to answer, compassion to be shared, peace to be made, justice and mercy to be cultivated, but, in the end, it is that humble walk with God that makes all the difference.  I don’t know when or how or why, but some day God will raise me – and you – raise us up on eagle’s wings, bear us on the breath of dawn and make us to shine like the sun, bringing us to dwell in the very palm of God’s hands.  All I can do is surrender in thanksgiving to that truth, which I feel so deeply in my being drawing me homeward.  Amen.