Sure Foundations (February 23, 2014)

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

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Text: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23

In case there was any lingering doubt in your minds, I am not a master builder.  Paul may have had the audacity to make that claim about himself, but I am wise enough to know better.  In fact, if you’ve ever worked with me on a Habitat build, you know that I can’t really claim any construction competence at all.  I can change a light bulb and clean up a mess, and occasionally I figure out how to accomplish a minor repair around the house or the church, but that’s the extent of it.

Now to be clear, I like working on a Habitat project, If someone will tell me what to do, how to do it and then leave me alone to work on that piece of the project.  The repetitive monotony gives me time to reflect and creates a pleasant illusion that I know what I’m doing.  When I first participated in a post-Katrina project in Gautier, Mississippi, I worked with the crew removing and replacing the roof of a home damaged by the hurricane.  As a result, I am sort of a roofing “specialist.”  I don’t mind heights and, with a little reminder, I can tear off old shingles and tar paper and help lay down new.

My only experience with foundations came after the Loma Prieta earthquake.  The duplex in which we lived was perched on a hillside.  In the front, it was a two story building, but our bedroom in the rear was actually four stories above the deck.  It was a well-constructed building and there was no obvious damage.  The power was out in our neighborhood so I gathered with my downstairs neighbors to drink some wine and listen to the reports on a portable radio.  I went to bed that night and slept well.  However, by morning the television was operative and I was flooded with images of collapsing and burning structures.  I looked out my bedroom window and it struck me how far I was above the bottom of the hill.  It was not a pleasant sensation in relation to what I had now seen on TV.

So, we called the city and went with them to inspect the foundation of our building.  There seemed to be some crumbling concrete and they “yellow-tagged” the building.  We moved out for six months and spent more than $100,000 of FEMA money shoring up the foundation, sending new concrete supports down to bedrock and adding sheer wall.  It was a profound lesson in the importance of foundations.

Now Paul was a tent maker, so I don’t know how much he knew about literal foundations.  He must have known something about the poles and stakes that hold a tent in place.  There is no doubt, though, that he understood the significance of sure foundations for the emerging church.  We don’t have to unpack all the drama of the Corinthian situation to see the importance of Paul’s word for us.  We know there was stress in First Church, Corinth.  Our congregation knows its on stress, yet we are 120 years old, with more than 2000 years of history and tradition on which to build.  First Church, Corinth wasn’t even a teenager and the tradition was less than 100 years old.  Perhaps Paul was right to be concerned about how much of what he had taught this fledgling congregation had taken root and was reflected in their life as a faith community.

Mark Tranvik says of First Church, Corinth, “This community [wa]s being torn apart by arguments about authority (Paul? Cephas? Apollos?…see 1: 12-13) and wrestling with questions about sexual morality and marriage (chapters 5 and 7), lawsuits (chapter 6), and riotous behavior at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11), among other things.”  As a result he sees that “Paul is seeking to call this distracted church back to the essentials by reminding them that ‘no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ’” (Mark Tranvik, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23,” 2-20-2011, workingpreacher.org).

Initially, Paul makes the argument that he has laid the foundation, that is, he has borne witness to the people of Corinth, he has shared the gospel, he has brought them to Christ and showed them the way.  Is there some arrogance and self-promotion in this?  I don’t see how it can be denied.  Paul was not bereft of ego and in that sense he was as human as any of us.  Still, he was the one who traveled around the known world, risking life and limb to proclaim the good news and build up the community of Christ.  Perhaps he had a right to boast, to call the Corinthians back to his way of following Christ and serving God.

Regardless of his role in the Corinthian controversy, he does offer to us an ageless way to see and understand what it means to be church, the body of Christ, the people of God.  He may have laid the foundation for First Church, Corinth, but “…no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”  He is very clear that “Christ is made the sure foundation; Christ the head and cornerstone.”  Even a big ego can give itself over to the foundational significance of Jesus Christ.  Paul clearly sees that he serves a God who is infinitely more than he himself can ever claim to be.

So now that we’re clear about the foundation, the question is: what is to be built on such a foundation?  Again, Paul is clear.  There is one structure to be built on such a foundation; it is a temple, God’s temple, the one in which God’s Spirit dwells.  What is this temple like, though?  Brian Peterson writes of this text that “…God’s wisdom is the cross of Christ, and Paul’s work was aligned with that foundational reality. True wisdom does not lie in the power, eloquence, social standing, or cultural competition that seemed to enthrall the Corinthian church (or any similar things that enthrall us). A building must fit its foundation, be supported by it and shaped to match it, and Paul wisely built the Corinthian church on Christ crucified as the church’s one foundation (Brian C. Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23,” 2-23-2014, workingpreacher.org).

That’s the thing about foundations.  They really determine the structure to be built on them.  If you build something sloppy, ill-conceived, with inadequate materials, it’s not going to last.  You build something solid, following the plans of the one who designed it, with the best materials available, you’ll have a structure that will last a long time, maybe even a life-time – and beyond.

So much for First Church, Corinth, but what about First Baptist Church, Palo Alto?  Old Paul didn’t exactly lay our foundation.  Still, we may have a link to that ancient, ego-driven master builder.  You see in the end he’s preaching Christ – Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ in glory.  And there is that small matter that we claim to be Christians, followers of Christ, body of Christ, right?  Isn’t that what we say in our mission statement – we are “a church whose mission is to explore together faith and commitment to Christ”?

What then does this mean for us, for you and me?  What does it mean to affirm the symbolic truth that we are building a church on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ, a church that is to serve as a temple for the very Spirit of God?  In addition to exploring together faith and commitment to Christ, we have said that the church we are building will “worship God,” “serve those in need” and “provide a home for heart, mind and soul.”  I don’t know about you but I think that’s a pretty noble structure, one that’s worthy of the best we have to offer.

More than anything, I want to say today that we are not done building.  We have long legacy and limited resources.  We face an uncertain future with heavy demands.  We have big questions.  But I believe that God is not done with us.  There is always work to be done.  There is much to experience.  There is always more to this great project of being church, the body of Christ – more light, more love, more life.  There is the reign of God that is not yet realized on earth as it is in heaven.  We are still called to care for our own back yard along with the creation with which God has entrusted us.

Yes, we have this beautiful plant that is the legacy of all those who worked on it before us, but, quite literally, we’re still tinkering with it – repairing light fixtures, painting, improving the sound system, adding a patio and labyrinth.    I think of the great cathedrals of medieval Europe and how many of them were built over hundreds of years.  There was always something more to add.  Even today there is the work of sustaining their beauty and their praise of the divine, along with their functionality as local congregations.

However, our ultimate focus is not on the actual building.  We have said more than once that if anything sacralizes this space it is what goes on here.  It is how we live as the body of Christ, how we bear witness to the good news, how we build on the sure foundations with which we have been blessed and on which we are called to construct.

In fact, Paul asks a question of First Church, Corinth, that we might well ask ourselves, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  Do you know?  Can you see it?  Can you feel it?  Can you live into that truth?  For Paul this is a collective “you.”  He means all the Corinthian congregation and he means all of us.  Collectively we are God’s temple in which God’s Spirit lives.  Paradoxically, that is both a heavy and a liberating truth.  It bears all the responsibility of witnessing to heart-felt, soul-deep faith that we are building, here and now, a body to reflect the reign of God on earth.  It may look like foolishness to the rest of the world, but we know that that foolishness of Christ crucified and resurrected is ultimately redemptive of us and the whole creation.  This is cause for both labor and rejoicing.

“Christ is made the sure foundation; Christ the head and cornerstone.”  During Advent we sang these wonderful words from Dan Schutte that affirm our lives as builders of the temple of God.  May we embrace them as we build a church on sure foundations.

We are sons of the morning; we are daughters of day.
The One who has loved us has brightened our way.
The Lord of all kindness has called us to be
a light for his people to set their hearts free.

Let us build the city of God.
May our tears be turned into dancing!
For the Lord, our light and our Love,
has turned the night into day!

More Love (February 9, 2014)

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

Text: Isaiah 58; 1 Corinthians 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

Found Faithful (November 10, 2013)

sermonsFOUND FAITHFUL

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

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One and the Many (September 15, 2013)- Denver

First Baptist Church, Denver
First Baptist Church of Denver

THE ONE AND THE MANY
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Denver, CO
Sunday, September 15, 2013

Text:  1 Corinthians 12:4-13

In my first days as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, I encountered a mother and her young son in the church hallway.  The boy, who was 7 or so, had just finished a lesson at the music school that occupies much of the second floor of our educational wing.  I greeted them and engaged the mother in a brief, casual conversation.  Eventually, she turned to her son and introduced me as the pastor of the church.  His eyes grew wide as he gestured all around, “Do you own this church?”

I was slightly taken aback by his question.  No one had ever asked me that before.  I could see how his young mind was working, but I reassured him that I did not own the church.  I only worked there.  On reflection, it did cross my mind that it’s the people who own the church or at least its building.  The building had been there long time before I arrived and would likely be there long after I left.  And then it also struck me that the church, in a larger sense, belongs to God and to Christ, who is its head.  That was too much to lay on a little boy, so I simply wished them well, inviting them to join us any time.

This role of pastor is a curious one.  I do not own the church, though there are times when I feel it owns me – both literally and figuratively.  The pastorate is more than an occupation or a profession; it is a calling and a high commitment to serving God as well as a community.  The classic refrain is that a pastor is on call 24/7, year round.  Following this lead, many pastors fail to take care of themselves to the detriment of their own well-being and that of their congregation.  I trust that the First Baptist Church of Denver and Brian, as your pastor, will make mutual care and support a priority.  You will all benefit from the practice.

This summer, after Brian had invited me to preach at this installation service, I had another encounter in the church hallway.  (Funny how much ministry goes on in the church’s hallways!)  A woman from the neighborhood had brought her aging mother to see the church and to inquire about the possibility of her mother attending First Baptist.  The mother’s background was Southern Baptist and I immediately had concerns about how comfortable she would feel in our progressive Baptist setting.  I told her a little about us and encouraged her to come check us out.  I had further concerns, though, when she informed me that she had been attending so-and-so’s church in Southern California.  I believe she expected me to recognize her pastor’s name in connection with his large church.  It was clear she had a different conception of church than I.

It’s always made me uncomfortable to hear people say, “Oh that’s Rick Warren’s church” or “Bill Hybels’s church” or “Nadia Bolz-Weber’s church” or…you fill in the blank.  As I have already said, no church is “my church” as pastor.  In fact, in the best Baptist tradition, we try to forgo any hierarchy.  The pastor may be the spiritual leader and the chief administrator, but, for Baptists, she is to be the “first among equals,” because sacred to our tradition is a belief in the “priesthood of all believers.”  At her best, a Baptist pastor is one who facilitates the spiritual life and leadership of the people whom she serves.  In a classic sense, Baptist pastors are called to be “servant leaders.”  I pray that this church will never become Brian Henderson’s church but will always be seen as a blessed community known as First Baptist Church.  Regardless of background or training, we are all on a spiritual journey in which a pastor gains as much from a hallway encounter as a congregant receives from a Sunday sermon.

In a little while we will sing a wonderful hymn by a gay, Methodist pastor, hymn writer and off-Broadway composer who for many years was on the staff of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.  Al Carmines was a clever, eclectic composer and writer.  This is probably his best known hymn.  I suggested this hymn to Brian after he told me that members of the fabulous Denver Gay Men’s Chorus would be singing “One Voice” at this morning’s service.  “Many gifts, one Spirit,” the hymn proclaims, “one love known in many ways.  In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise one Giver, one Word, one Spirit, one God known in many ways…”  The One and the many.

The theme for this hymn is clearly drawn from the words of today’s second Sacred Reading.  I have a fondness for the letters the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.  I think this is because First Church, Corinth, seems like any number of contentious, contemporary churches.  You’ve got the wealthy lording it over the poor, making sure they get the choicest elements of the meal before the ordinary folk are ever served.  You’ve got splits and factions over theology, practice and leadership.  You’ve got a congregation living at a great international crossroads with all the challenges and blessings of multiculturalism.  Don’t the issues sound like those confronted by modern congregations?  Do any of those concerns crop up wherever you worship, including this group gathered here today?  Ever bicker over money or power, influence, theology, leadership, style, etc.?

Well, Paul was a clever writer and a skillful politician.  He had his own agenda for the Corinthian Christians and he’s not shy about letting them have it.  Still, when he gets to this point in his argument, I think he’s on to something ageless.  There are many gifts, but one body.  He’s speaking here of the body of Christ, one his favorite images for the church.  As Jesus Christ has gone on to reign in glory, his disciples are left on earth to be his body, to carry forward his vision and live out his ministry.

Now none of is Christ in totality, though we may be touched by a Christ-consciousness and carry Christ-like qualities in our lives.  Paul argues that the only way Christ can be complete in the world today is if we pull together as Christ’s body – “many gifts, one spirit.”  In this 12th chapter of First Corinthians, Paul pushes the metaphor.  He writes, “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as [God] chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:14-21).

So, if we did a little poll today, I wonder how we’d do.  How many hands to we have here?  How many feet?  Who has eyes to see?   Who has ears to hear?  Who can smell the coffee brewing down the hall?  Are there any hearts of compassion present?  Any sharp minds here today?  For the fun of it, take a moment to consider, if I am a member of the body of Christ, what is my part – foot, hand, eye, ear, nose, brain, belly?  Now take it a step farther, what is my role vis-à-vis all the other parts?  How do I fit in? Where am I most useful?  When do I take the lead?  When do I step back and support another’s function or leadership?   Take a minute and look around.  In the strength of your imagination, try to see where and how you might fit as a part of the body of Christ and, by extension, the First Baptist Church of Denver.

I know we are not all members of this community nor do we all share common backgrounds and beliefs.  Still, I believe we can find ways to support and participate in the life of this congregation as it seeks to live into a period of renewed service to God, to this neighborhood, to this city and to the wider world.  Good and exciting things are happening here that at minimum need our best wishes, our prayers and our support.  Clearly this is a place that welcomes the One and the many.  That, in and of itself, is a good thing.  The larger community can only be blessed by its ministry and by that of its visionary servant leader, Brian Henderson.

A while back, when Brian was going through a rough transition and thinking he would need to leave the ministry, along with others, I encouraged Brian not to give up too quickly.  It was clear to me then and is clearer now that Brian has remarkable gifts for ministry.  This congregation is to be congratulated for recognizing those gifts and calling him as your pastor.  At the same time, this is not Brian’s church, nor is he even the head of it.  Paul makes it very clear that Christ is the head of the body, the church.  It will take all of you working together to realize the full potentiality of your call to discipleship and your shared vision of the reign of God in this time and place.

To the members and friends of the First Baptist Church of Denver and to my friend, Brian, I pray that your dreams, grounded deeply in your love for God, for Jesus Christ, for the Holy Spirit, for one another and for the world beyond your doors, bonded together from many into one, will be fulfilled.  May God bless you all with infinite blessing and keep you faithful – the One and the many.  Amen.

Oh, Freedom! (July 7, 2013)

OH, FREEDOM! (Sunday, July 7, 2013)

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

Text:  Galatians 5:1, 13-25

“Oh, freedom over me…before I’d be a slave I’d be buried in my grave…” What do you imagine that song is about it?  Who do you think first sang it and why?  It was a very popular song of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the mid 1960s.  What famous document was signed into law 150 years ago?  What did the Emancipation Proclamation say and do?  That’s right it outlawed slavery in this country and freed the slaves from bondage.  “Oh freedom over me!”

So what exactly is freedom?  What does that word mean to you?  How many of us are free today?

If freedom means “the quality or state of being free: as a: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action; b: liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another; c: the quality or state of being exempt or released, usually from something onerous” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), then what is its opposite?  Is it slavery, bondage, constraint?  Yes, but some would also argue that freedom is also opposed by license, that it is actually not true freedom to say because I’m free, I can do anything I want.

The fellows who wrote the song I sang at the beginning of the service about wishing to be free, do you think they were longing to be free to do anything they wanted, to live a life with no rules or expectations, no compassion or love for others?  I like that song because it speaks so strongly of a desire to be connected, for you to understand me and me to understand you.  “I wish I could share all the love in my heart; remove all the bars that still keep us apart.  I wish you could know what it means to be me, then you’d see and agree that we all should be free.”  “I wish I could say all the things that I should say…”  “I wish I could give all I’m longing to give.”  Doesn’t sound much like someone who is self-absorbed, who wants to be free just to do whatever he pleases, who wants only what she wants when she wants it, usually at the expense of others.

I think this is what Paul is writing about when he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”   Yes, this freedom in Christ is truly a freedom from whatever has bound us, made slaves of us, unduly restricted our lives.  But it is not just a freedom from, it is also a freedom to.  In particular, it is a freedom to love and be loved.  “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

Uh…wait a minute, “slaves to one another”?  What’s that about?  Well, good old Paul does love a dramatic contrast.  It surely got our attention, didn’t it?  How can we be free and be slaves at the same time?  A paradox indeed!  I suspect that Paul did not literally mean slavery in its crassest, cruelest sense.  Often that word is translated as “servants” rather than “slaves.”  The basic point is that the freedom for which Christ has set us free is the freedom to love.  It is a freedom to take on a great and meaningful responsibility.  It is the freedom that allows us to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Paul says all the ancient Jewish law, all the rules and regulations that can tie us up in knots and keep us longing to be free, all the demands and expectations we impose on ourselves and others, must be reconsidered and reconfigured in the light of the great commandments to love God and neighbor above all else.

Long ago St. Augustine said something like “Love God and do what you will.” Some people find that statement very worrisome.  They’re afraid it will lead to lots of bad behavior and chaos in the world.  They’re more than willing to come up with intricate definitions, lists of rules, and binding laws to spell out what Augustine did and did not mean by “do what you will.”  Unfortunately what they miss, the wisdom inherent in Augustine’s saying is that love for God comes first.  When you truly love and give your life over to God, everything you do and say and feel will be rooted and grounded in that love.  That’s the freedom to which Christ frees us, to live immersed in that kind of loving relationship with God and neighbor.

Now Paul goes into some detail here about what it means to love God in Christ and to love your neighbor as yourself.  He’s got a little sermon about not “gratifying the desires of the flesh.”  Sometimes we get hung up on that term.  We think of flesh as our bodies and we make it seem as if Paul hated bodies and bodily functions, thought they were all nasty and evil.  But that’s not really true.  The word that gets translated as “flesh” has a much wider and more important meaning than just our physical bodies.  What Paul is really warning against is self-absorption, “me first” or “it’s all about me.”  Elisabeth Johnson writes that “Flesh (sarx) for Paul is not merely the physical body, but the whole self under the power of sin, with its self-serving desires and motives. This self is never satisfied, it seems, never has enough esteem, status, wealth, pleasure, or whatever else it is seeking. Self-indulgence easily becomes a new form of slavery.”  We know enough about obsessions and addictions today to understand how the freedom to do as we please can lead to awful, deadly forms of slavery that affect not only our own lives but the lives of those around us.  Johnson sees with Paul that “Christ frees us not only from the law, but from the sinful self. Freed from self, we are free to serve the neighbor, to ‘become slaves to one another’ through love” (Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25, June 27, 2010, workingpreacher.org).

Paul has a list of sins, of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that get us into trouble, that serve the law, the flesh, or both.  What are some things you might add to the list?  Or perhaps you have different words for naming things on Paul’s list?  Some of those things are about the abusing the body but most of them are about attitudes and the poor ways we treat one another.  Paul is arguing that when we get hung up on these things, we are not free.  We are surely not free in Christ.  What do you think?

So then, when we are free in the freedom for which Christ has set us free, what are we to be like?  What sort of characteristics and qualities are we to take on?  Paul has another list at the end of today’s passage.  Remember a few weeks ago, we looked at this very list.  Pastor Tripp had printed these very words on strips of paper and the children and youth made sure we all had one.  Do you remember which word was yours?  Here’s mine – “kindness”.  I kept it as an important reminder of one “fruit of the Spirit” that I am free to exercise when I encounter my neighbors of every sort.  Again, are there any values you would add to Paul’s list, any fruits you would graft to his tree, any thoughts about how you might name them differently?

Somebody I read recently suggested that this list should be read daily.  I think he might be onto something.  Those of us who wish we knew how it would feel to be free, those of us longing to live beyond whatever might enslave us, those of us who want to claim the freedom for which Christ has set us free could do worse than to consider on a regular basis what it might mean to be free for “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” to be free to love our neighbors as ourselves.”  Just in case you agree with this suggestion, I’ve printed out the list.  You can take it home, post it on your refrigerator door, bathroom mirror, file cabinet next to your desk, fold it up and carry it in your purse or wallet.  Feel free to do with it as you will, and at the same time feel free to love one another, your neighbors, the world, in the freedom for which Christ has set you free.  Amen.

 giftsofspirit

Pastor Rick: December 12

Thanks to everyone for the flexibility in scheduling our annual caroling and chili event.  We had a good turn out; we sang for several folk from our community who are not able to be with us regularly.  Then we gathered back at the church for chili supper.  I think the singing was much appreciated by those we visited.

Please remember our Friday evening Contemplative Services.  They are lovely, brief opportunity to spend time in the beauty of our sanctuary praying, singing and meditating our way through this Advent season.

This Sunday we will continue to spend time with John the Baptist as well as the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah and the apostle Paul as we search out the light of joy in this Advent season.  The challenge for us will be to look for the joy in the sharp critique and sometimes harsh words these biblical characters bring.  I suppose the real question is whether or not there can be joy in our lives and in the world if we do not get our house in order.   Yet, even in our wondering and our waiting Paul encourages us to “Rejoice in God always!”

Soprano Susanna Jimenez will be singing with the choir Sunday.  She will also supply some very special Music of Preparation when she sings “Rejoice Greatly” form Handel’s Messiah.  You will want to be here early to hear her.  After Adult Spiritual Formation, in which we will consider what it means for Christ to come into the world as we know it, we will take a little break before reconvening at Spiridons for their annual open house for the whole congregation.  We are always grateful to Alex and Nana for opening their lovely home and providing a fabulous party.

This is a wonderful time to invite a family member, friend, colleague, neighbor or stranger to join us in worship, sharing and learning.  See you Sunday before 10:00 AM and at the other events of the season.

May God bless us and keep us on the way,

Pastor Rick