Early One Morning (3/27/16)

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

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Text: John 20:1-18

She showed up very early in the morning, while it was still dark. She was alone. What was she doing there? What had drawn her to the burial ground in the gloom of a barely emerging dawn? The other gospel versions of this story say that it’s a group of women that shows up very early on Easter morning. The tradition suggests that these women come to finish preparing the body for its final resting place. There was simply not enough time between his death on that Friday afternoon and the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown. He was hastily placed in the tomb without the proper anointing, so these women arrived at the tomb at their first opportunity to finish their work.

But in John’s account Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus have already taken care of the burial. At great risk to fortune and reputation they have claimed the body and buried it properly. John writes, “After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19: 38-42). Under the cover of growing darkness they had cared as best they could for this one who was so cruelly and wrongly executed. It was finished – or so it seemed.

So here Mary is, all alone, in the fading darkness of the early morning. Why is she there? The text does not say for certain but I assume she has come to grieve. Graveside grieving is not for everyone, but some find comfort in being near the burial site of a lost loved one. And I believe Mary Magdalene loved Jesus. He was crucial to her life, her faith, her sense of well-being. His death is devastating for her. Somehow mourning is more meaningful for her in the cool, dark, damp of early morning in the graveyard.

Here in the lessening shadows she is searching for something – a quiet, private place to shed her tears, away from the confused and grieving company of his followers? Answers to her own questions? A bit of solace? There is no sense that she, or the others, expect what is to come. Her repeated concern makes this clear. “They have taken away my friend, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She assumes that the body has been moved for political purposes or by body-snatchers or for some other mysterious reason. No thoughts of resurrection are apparent for her, Peter or “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” I know the text says the latter disciple “saw and believed,” but I take this to mean that he saw and believed that body was indeed missing. He had no more idea what was happening than Mary did.

Once more we find Mary alone, still pained and confused in her sorrow in the waning darkness in front of the open, empty tomb. Suddenly a shadowy figure appears in the garden. She assumes it is the gardener, and why not? In the dim light of a breaking dawn, who else would show up to begin his day’s work? Through her red and swollen eyes, with a downcast gaze, not expecting anyone else, least of also Jesus, she makes a logical assumption. She sees a stranger. The truth does not dawn on her until he gently calls her by name. “Mary.” The half-darkness may still surround her but something blazes deep inside her as it never has before. Here is the living Christ, calling her by name. As he calls out her name, she begins to see that even in her grief and confusion, she is not alone. She never really was. She never will be. This is a great truth of learning to walk in the dark, we are never alone. The Holy One, God’s Steadfast Love, goes with us every step of the way.

We want to celebrate Easter with voices raised, instruments blaring, flowers in full bloom and hearty alleluias. There is nothing wrong with Easter joy, but in Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor points out that resurrection actually happens in the dark. In today’s Words of Preparation, she writes that “By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection.  Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after.  Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.” She says, “As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part.” I will confess that I had never really thought of resurrection this way.

She continues, “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But,” she insists, “it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p.  ).  ”Now the green blade rises from the buried grain…”

Mary is prepared to grieve, to spend her time mourning what is lost. She is heart-broken and feels alone. “My God, how could you let this happen? Why have you forsaken me?” Neither she nor the rest of the disciples are prepared for resurrection. “What have you done with the body? Where have you taken him?” It doesn’t matter that he has told them more than once that he would die and rise again. It is a claim that does not compute, has not registered in their reality. Do you think it would be any different for you or me if we had been in their sandals? That lack of awareness may still be too true today.

My friend Tim Phillips writes of death and resurrection, “Maybe the worst thing about death in all its forms is that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else.” Isn’t this Mary’s truth in the early morning shadows. She couldn’t imagine anyone else. She assumed she was talking to the gardener. Tim continues to speak of death and its equivalents, “Addiction robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs of the energy to imagine some kind of wholeness beyond a cure. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that can put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive its hold on us” (Tim Phillips, “Resurrection Power,” The Spire, Vol. 80, No. 3, March 2016, Seattle First Baptist Church). On this Easter morning, what, if anything, might rob you of the energy to exercise your own resurrection power?

Most of the time we live in what Melanie May calls the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday,” somewhere between the deep and terrifying darkness of Good Friday and the brilliantly overwhelming sunshine of Easter. Because of this, she says we have to learn to “practice resurrection.” I’m assuming this something very much like learning to walk in the dark or claiming our resurrection power. Consciously or not we wrestle with death and its equivalents – addiction, violence, illness, the burdens of existence. Practicing resurrection, learning to walk in the dark, claiming our power, entails a recognition that there is life-giving energy beyond anything we ever imagined, that there is resurrection power in all creation, that, somewhere out there, God, in Jesus, the Risen Christ is gently calling our names – yours and mine. Do you have eyes to see? Ears to hear? Hearts to open?

Here’s the resurrection reality. Mary Magdalene and the other disciples experienced a Living Christ. We can speculate all we want on what exactly that meant for them and what it means for us. But, whatever happened in the early morning darkness that first Easter changed Mary’s life, transformed the lives of us Jesus’ first disciples and ushered in the new creation, God’s beloved Community, here on earth as in heaven. At times, we may have difficulty seeing, hearing, holding onto our resurrection power.  In our current context, with so much distrust, hatred and evil, we may not recognize Jesus at first, but he is there in all that claim the promise of abundant life offered to each of us and, indeed, the whole creation. He is present in all who serve and seek to do God’s will. He can be seen wherever compassion is practiced and love made manifest. If you’ve been there for one of the least, you’ve been there for him. We may live for now in the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday;” there may be times we come to the tomb alone and heart-broken; there will be days when it’s hard to believe our eyes, but, early one morning, we will find the transformation complete. We will know that God has gone with us all along the way. There will be singing and dancing and shouts of “Alleluia!” Since we know that day has both come and continues to come, we might as well practice resurrection today, right here and right now. “Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.” Amen.

When Darkness Falls (3/20/16)

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

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Text: Luke 22:39-46; 23:44-49

Dinner is done. Bread has been broken and the cup shared. The candles have begun to flicker. It has been a warm and wonderful evening, for the most part; yet something ominous lingers in the air as darkness falls. He has taught them and blessed them, promising them each a role in the Beloved Community. But he has also talked of denial and betrayal, of suffering and death, and this is troubling.

Well, it has been a strange week and a full one at that. Just last Sunday there had been the thrill of entering Jerusalem in a kind of crazy make-shift processional when the crowd had broken into cheers, waving tree branches and tossing their coats onto the road – “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Eternal One! Peace in heaven! Glory in the highest!” Hadn’t that been a day?! Yet, afterwards, some had seen him sitting and weeping over the old city, “Ah Jerusalem! If you…had only recognized on this day the things that [really do] make for peace!” From cheers to tears in one short day – how strange.

Then there he was, wildly driving the sellers from the Temple grounds, shouting, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” They had never seen him so angry. In spite of the threats of those in authority, they had spent the rest of the week on the temple grounds where he had dazzled them all with his teaching. Some of the lawyers and religious experts had tried to trap him with trick questions but he outsmarted them every time. All the people were spellbound by his wisdom and charisma. It was truly a week of wonders!

Now they were feeling a little drowsy. A combination of the full week, the warmth of their intimate dinner, the effects of the wine and the fading of the light was making them sleepy. They cleaned up, packed their belongings and headed back to the campground on Mt. Olivet. In the peace of the old olive orchard they would stretch out on the grass under an ancient tree and gaze at the stars through leafy branches until they drifted off to sleep.

But Jesus seemed agitated. He was not ready to turn in. Something on his mind had to be worked through in the stillness and beauty of this night. He was going to pray and he wanted them to join him. “Pray for yourselves, that you will not sink into temptation.” Well yes, that seemed like a good idea, but maybe it could wait till morning. He went off by himself a little distance. At first they could see him clearly in the moonlight. He seemed to be wrestling intently with something. A couple of them caught words wafted on the night breeze, “…take this cup…your will…my will.” But their eyelids grew heavy and the next thing they knew, he was shaking them awake. “Why are you sleeping? Wake up and pray that you will not sink into temptation.”

There is much more to come, but let’s pause here. Today’s reading from Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of finding one’s self in a liminal space, in thin place, caught somewhere between heaven and earth or, in this case, between light and darkness. The quotation refers to an experience she has intentionally sought out, spending some time in the complete darkness of a cave. She has lined up friends who are seasoned spelunkers to take her deep into a cave, beyond the large and lighted chambers where the tourists go. This is all part of her desire to understand darkness better and to walk in it without so much anxiety and fear.

Here she is, caught between the opening to the cave and the deep darkness that awaits. It is decision time and it turns out not to be such an easy decision to make. She stands for a while in a kind of “twilight zone.” She writes, “On this threshold between dark and light, it is still possible to go either way: farther in or back out. It is still possible to see what you are about to lose” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark.). Bright daylight on one hand, bleak grayness on the other hand.

Isn’t this the same situation in which Jesus finds himself that night in the olive grove, on the threshold of dark and light? It is still possible to go either way. Shall he go further into his experience of God and God’s way or will he back out? Luke says he prays to God for deliverance. “God, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me.” I take this to mean he does not want to die. It seems to me a very human longing. God has given us the gift of life. We will all die eventually, but not now, not if it’s not necessary. The truth is, I don’t think God wants Jesus to die either. But Jesus knows that if he continues to walk God’s way and the world around him fails to change, the consequences are inevitable. He can’t keep speaking truth to power, love to fear, justice to corrupt systems and equity to those who have grown rich at the expense of the poor without stirring their ill-will. He can’t continue to be faithful to his calling and not pay the price.

On this night on the hillside, he can still “go either way…farther in or back out.” He can still see what he is about to lose and he has to make a choice. Luke makes it sound easier than Mark or Matthew does. “Yet not My will, but Your will, be done.” The right response, but is it really so easily arrived at? Well, Luke, or some later editor, concedes that as he “prayed more intensely…his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” Learning to walk in the dark is not easy after all, even for Jesus. He wrestles with God, as we all do, sooner or later, if we’re willing to pay attention, if we’re willing to listen for God’s voice and look for God’s way. It may be a hard road but, in the end, it is the right road. “Pray for yourselves, that you will not sink into temptation.”

We have already seen Jesus handle temptation in his own life and ministry. More than once he has turned his back to ways that are easy, popular, self-serving. As with the disciples, any of us is vulnerable to closing our eyes in sleep when life gets to be too much. It may be the easiest way to handle the stress. When darkness falls around us, it’s easier to turn on the lights and tune out anything that “goes bump in the night.” We keep ourselves occupied until bedtime or we fall asleep on the couch in front of the television or computer. But what do we miss when we choose not to explore the deep darkness of the cave that is before us? What do we lose when we won’t face the fears that arise in those moments when we turn away from every distraction and give ourselves over to wrestling with the questions and concerns that haunt the center of our being? What would it be like if we decided to encounter more intensely the Holy One and explore more completely our role in creating and occupying God’s Beloved Community?

We are especially likely to shy away when we read the rest of the story – the betrayal by one of his own, right there in the olive grove; the harsh denial in the courtyard; the mock trials; the unjust sentence; the fleeing followers; the now jeering crowd as he parades once more through Jerusalem, this time carrying a Roman cross; the ignominious execution. Could we please skip these parts and go directly to Easter? We don’t like this twilight zone. We don’t want to go deeply into the darkness of this cave. There is too much to lose in these elements of the story. Let’s run away. Let’s pretend it never happened. Let’s take a nap and hope it will be over.

Only there he is, hanging on that wooden cross, stretched out to die an agonizing death in the blistering sun. No glowing moon, no twinkling stars, no cool night breeze, just the scorching light of day. We can ignore, deny, pretend all we want, but this is part of our tradition. It is not a pretty picture, but it is one with which we are asked to wrestle.

One irony is that here he is left to burn in the brightness of the day and what happens? Luke says that “darkness fell over the whole region” and lasted through the hottest part of the day. I had never thought of it this way before, but maybe that darkness was like a cup of cold water to a thirsty soul, a small gesture of relief on an awful afternoon. And when that darkness fell, Luke says Jesus was able to turn his gaze toward God, shouting, “Father, I entrust My spirit into Your hands!” Maybe that sounds hollow to you, given the circumstances, but I’m going to guess that Jesus is able to place his dying self into God’s hands with such profound trust precisely because he has learned to walk in the dark. He knows, in the core of his being, that, even in death, God goes with him all the way.

This is why Jesus was so eager that his disciples keep awake and pray that they wouldn’t give in to temptation. This is why Barbara Brown Taylor has invited us to share her experiences of learning to walk in the dark. This is why John of the Cross opened for us the dark night of the soul and Thomas Merton writes of the Holy One that “I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.”

Of all the weeks of this Lenten season, we come now to the one called Holy. Now when the darkness falls, where will you find yourself? In this recurring “twilight zone” in which we stand on the “threshold between dark and light,” when “it is still possible to go either way: farther in or back out,” when you “see what you are about to lose” but also have a glimpse of what might be gained, which way will you turn? Whichever way you turn, whether the crowd cheers or jeers, I hope you know that God goes with you, in the darkness and in light, in life and death – all the way. Amen.

This Sunday

On our journey through the darkness of the Lenten season we come this Sunday to the remarkables conversion of the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road. In his miraculous encounter with the living Christ, he is struck temporarily blind. He must learn to walk in his own uniqueness darkness until he can complete his own transformation into a new creature in Christ. But the good news is that he does not have to walk this road alone. Reluctant as he may be initially to make a witness to the fire-breathing Saul of Tarsus, Ananias follows God’s lead into the darkness of this unfamiliar and frightening relationship. As their roads converge, Paul, with the aid of Ananias, begins to craft a new perspective on the faith that will change the world.

I am delighted that Greg Griffey has agreed to preach this Sunday. Greg, a hospice chaplain with Sutter Health, has been attending our church since the first of the year. Greg is a native of the hills of western Virginia and a graduate of Wake Forest Divinity School. I look forward to his contribution to our Lenten discipline of learning to walk in the dark. Sunday is also an all family service with communion.

We had a very good discussion last Sunday in Adult Spiritual Formation, so we decided to continue exploring our Lenten study book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Tayor. You are welcome to join us.

Join us Sunday at 10:00 AM for worship, study and the sharing of community. Bring someone along share in the experiences of the day.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

 

Visionary Living (2/21/2016)

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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Text:  Genesis 28:10-19a

Have you ever set out on a long journey with a sense of urgency about reaching your destination as soon as possible? You drove farther than you had planned, pressing onward through the day. Suddenly you realized the sun had set, darkness was gathering all around you, and you were in the middle of nowhere. You could feel exhaustion inhabiting body, mind and spirit. With a sigh of relief, you settled for the first seedy motel you encountered and eventually settled into fitful sleep.

This where we find Jacob in today’s text. Admittedly, he’s a fugitive, fleeing his brother’s wrath, so the urgency of his journey is a life or death matter. And, of course, he’s walking in an area where there are no motels to be found. He’s gone as far as he can manage. Exhausted, he falls to the ground, cradling his head on the nearest stone and drifts into fitful sleep. Is it his exhaustion that troubles his slumber? the hard ground and his stone pillow? the uncertainty of his future? guilt for his past? It may well be that all this and more came into play.

Jacob’s is an important story in the history of the Hebrew people but he is not a very likable character. Some want to claim for him the archetypal role of the Trickster and there might be merit to that, but it is not hard to see that he is a scoundrel. You know the story, in conspiracy with his mother, Rebekah, he cheats his poor brother, Esau, of his birthright and his father’s blessing, both crucial to establishing his patriarchal rights as the first-born son. Whether or not Esau was a dolt or just naively trusting is irrelevant to the wickedness of his brother – and, yes, his own mother.

Esau has had enough. He’s out to get his brother. Thinking quickly, Rebekah hatches an elaborate plot for Jacob to get out of town. He should head across country to Haran, the land of her family and find a wife there among her people, lest he find himself wed to one of these awful Canaanite women as his brother was. Jacob doesn’t hesitate. He hits the road for Haran and here we find him, in the dead of the night, sleeping under the stars.

The vision he dreams, the theophany he encounters, lights up the night with angelic messengers descending and ascending a ladder or ramp that reaches all the way to heaven with God holding forth above it all. This was hardly what Jacob expected, a marked man, lying on the hard cold ground. Suddenly, the Holy One, the God of his forebears stands beside him, making promises in line with the covenant God had established with his ancestors – a great line of heirs who will bless the earth. Then, “I will be with you – yes, you, Jacob. I will keep you and I will bring you home.” Jacob can hardly believe his ears.

Is this amazing grace? It surely seems so to me. Jacob has certainly not earned any favor with God. In fact, this fleeing scoundrel has had little to do with God or religion at all. He has been totally wrapped in feathering his own nest. His very name means “striver,” “usurper” or “schemer.” His whole existence had been given over to getting ahead. When he speaks to old Isaac about the Holy One, he refers to Yahweh as “your God” (Genesis 27:20). Wouldn’t he be shocked by God’s showing up, even in his dreams.
But then there is that nagging question Barbara Brown Taylor raises. “By day I can outfox questions like these,” questions that challenge conscience, questions about how I treat my sisters and brothers, questions like “who am I?” and “what am I doing here?” questions that call forth the Holy One. Looking at her own daily routine, she describes,“…racing from one appointment to the next, answering e­mails with red exclamation points by them, taking the suddenly sick dog to the vet, rummaging through the freezer for something to thaw for supper.  By day, I am a servant of the urgent.  Nothing important has a chance with me…But in the middle of the night…I am a captive audience.”

In his own little world – self-absorbed and self-serving – Jacob has made neither time nor space for God. So, God comes to him, even if God has to wait till the middle of the night to capture Jacob’s attention. In learning to walk in the dark, we run the risk of encountering God in a deeper, more intense way than we ever imagined possible. Some days it‘s the only time we’re free of the clutter that threatens to bury us. It’s the only time God can get our attention – middle of the night, lying on the hard cold ground, open and vulnerable in our sleep and in our dreams.

The problem with Jacob, as it may be with us, he only skims the surface of the encounter. Visionary living remains beyond him. Walter Brueggemann writes that “The element in the narrative that surprises Jacob and seems incredible to us is…the wonder, mystery, and shock that this God should be present in such a decisive way to this exiled one. The miracle is the way this sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, p. 242).

However, instead of falling on his knees in repentance and joy, Jacob actually tries to bargain with God. Verses 20-22 of Genesis 28 record this response from Jacob, “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.’”

He almost embraces what God is offering, but then, just to be certain, he adds that little “if” to his vow. “If you really do what you say you will, then I will take you as my God, worshipping and serving you.” Maybe it’s too much too soon. Maybe this is a far as Jacob can go in this encounter. There is no question that our spiritual journey is a life journey. There is always more to learn, more to let go of, more God to encounter and give ourselves to. Jacob is on more than one journey this night. He may be on his way to Haran but he is also on his way to heaven, as heaven draws nearer to earth. He is being drawn in the Spirit’s tether, lured by divine love into an ever closer walk with God. He has a lot yet to learn but he will never be the same, having seen this vision on this night.

Maren Tirabassi has been blogging prayer poems on the parable of the Prodigal Son for this Lenten season. They are both moving and challenging. Yesterday she posted this one, which I think gives insight into Jacob and, perhaps, to us.

Lenten reflection — recidivism
by Maren C. Tirabassi
February 20, 2016

How many times do we expect
the prodigal to return?

What about the fourth time,
when we are out of rings and robes
and the only sandals
in the house
already have feet in them?

What about the seventh time,
a little gray in the hair,
everyone’s hair,
and there is not so much
as fatted turnip left in the kitchen?

Our older child does not need
to say, “I told you so.”
It hovers in the air,
but still we are not left alone.

God, look the prodigal comes again.
We always lean our hearts
into that moment —
the one with the big hug,
and we believe every time …

the way you always do.

These are word of grace for the Prodigal, for Jacob, for you and me and all the world. Jacob is touched by his night vision but he is not healed. He will go on his merry way, creating more mischief before he comes to his senses and decides to head home. “Maybe,” he recalls, “there is something to that old covenant I made with God at Bethel. Maybe God really has been with me and kept me and now is calling me home. Maybe it’s time to pay up.”

You remember how the story ends – Jacob trembling at the Jabbok, having done everything he can imagine to cover his behind – emissaries and gifts to placate his brother, dividing up his goods and his entourage, hoping at least some will survive, Here he comes, bowing and scraping, as Esau approaches with 400 men. Here he stands before his brother,  his greatest fear for, lo, these many years. Now he is at Esau’s mercy. Will he live or die?

And, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Amazing grace, how sweet the sound of brothers weeping in forgiveness and love. Visionary living. Oh Jacob saw the vision, he dreamed the dream that night at Bethel, but it took a life time for the vision to be realized, for the healing to occur, for the promise to be fulfilled. Learning to walk in the dark opens us to dreams and night musings, to visions of what might yet be when we trust God to walk with us, keep us close and lead us home. Amen.

Dreams and Night Musings…

LentThis week’s Lenten theme is “Dreams and Night Musings.” The focus text is Jacob’s dream of angels descending and ascending. Jacob is fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau, whom he has deceived and generally treated poorly. The Taize commentary on this story suggests that, in this dream, “Going up, the angels carry to God the fear, the guilt feelings and the suffering of Jacob. Going down, they bring to Jacob God’s presence, God’s words and promise.” Learning to walk in the dark may mean letting go of our fears and trusting God’s love and care for us and for all creation.

We are privileged to have in our sanctuary in this Lenten season a stunning work of art, “Colors of Hope,” from the art and spirituality program in the Santa Clara County jails. The program says, “The weaving represents the importance of community, the importance of each individual’s contribution to the community and the connections that are necessary.” I believe it adds something unique and beautiful to our worship space. As I did with Sunday’s congregation, I encourage you to sit on the sides so you may take it in more fully and let it enhance your worship experience.

During adult education hour this week, we will hold two events. One will be led by Pastor Gregory and will focus on our Lenten study book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor. At the same time, Carolyn Shepard and I will host a conversation about church membership in the Sunday School room. Several of you should have received invitations to participate in this conversation, though anyone is welcome to participate.

Join us Sunday at 10:00 AM for worship, study and the sharing of community. Bring someone along share in the experiences of the day.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

Facing Our Fears (2/14/2016)

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

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Text: Exodus 19:16-19; 20:2-3, 18-21; Luke 4:1-13

Two tales from the Wilderness lead to this morning’s Reflection on the Word. They are separated by centuries. They involve different characters and they describe different actions. But, what they have in common is God – the same God who searches and knows hearts and minds, who leads those who will follow in what the psalmist identifies as “the way everlasting.”

I don’t think we can unpack these stories without first having some sense of what we mean by wilderness. The dictionary records that wilderness is “a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; a tract of wasteland; any desolate tract.”

It also lists as a synonym, desert, which connects more directly to our texts. Desert is defined as “a region so arid because of little rainfall that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all; any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil.”

The key common descriptors are wild, uncultivated. Wilderness may appear as a desolate wasteland, a desert, but not necessarily. Wilderness may be as fecund, as full of life, as the chaos from which creation was drawn. We might even argue that God dwells in that chaos, in a dimension beyond our understanding and control. In today’s texts it is clear that God is encountered in the wilderness. The Holy One is experienced in ways quite different from the ordinary patterns of everyday life. This all holds the prospect of being a little bit scary, doesn’t it?

In today’s first story, God graciously offers the children of Israel a homeland, “flowing with milk and honey.” All they need to do is go with God, following Moses, God’s ordained leader, and they would be taken care of. The problems begin when they are confronted with the unknown, when they look out across the wilderness and think maybe they would have been better off in the familiar territory of Egypt, even if it meant slavery. How often do we come up against the unknown, confront chaos, or perceive desolation in some wilderness and say, “Not today, thank you”? We hear the story of the Hebrew people and we recognize it in so many ways as our own. Called to follow, we drag our feet, grumble and resist all the way. Promised land? Way everlasting? Lovely ideas, but what will the journey cost? We’re afraid it will require more than we’re willing to pay. I mean, what if it takes all that we have?

Here they are at the foot of the mountain. God comes close and they’re terrified. Well, who wouldn’t be? You have to be careful what you ask for. You want God to take care of you but then, when God shows up in a sudden storm and you’re out there in the wilderness, you’re not so sure you trust what will happen. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When it is all over – when the people have witnessed the thunder and the lightning, when they have heard the blast of the trumpet and seen the mountain smoking – every single one of these people who have prayed and prayed to hear the voice of God does a complete about face, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen,’ they say to Moses; ‘but do not let God speak to us, or we will die’” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 47). How can we survive the presence of the Holy One? Our tendency is to choose the familiar over the fearful, no matter how the familiar may enslave and abuse us.

It is tough enough to face our fears in the comfort of our homes; it can feel overwhelming to have to face them while wandering in the wilderness, detached from the familiar, praying that something or someone larger than we will rescue us. In The Chronicles of Narnia, when the rescuer turns out to be a fierce lion, the children are not so sure they want to trust Aslan to lead them through this strange new world. They are afraid. It takes time and practice for them to let the lion lead them to where they need to be. In the same sense, it takes time and practice for the children of Israel to let go of their fear and trust that God and Moses will bring them through. It takes time and practice for us to trust that God will lead us into the way everlasting. It may be that we will need to traverse some frightening wilderness. We may have to learn to walk in the dark.

In the second tale, Jesus is also drawn to the wilderness. Though the circumstances are different, one might consider that it is the same Holy Spirit that leads Jesus as led the children of Israel. There seems to be something about the wilderness that allows folk to encounter God in a depth and intensity that is not possible in the relative safety of everyday life. For Jesus, this story takes place immediately after one of the high points of his life. And how often is that so, immediately after we have been the mountain top we are plunged into some of the greatest challenges of life? Our spirits, soaring, are sorely tested. Jesus, Luke writes, is “full of the Holy Spirit.” Now I take that to be a good thing. Scripture seems to think it is. I can imagine several other things we might be full of that would be less desirable. But, I wonder how many of us have actually been filled with the Spirit in this way. I can’t help but think that there is also something a little strange about it, a little fearful. It’s exhilarating and scary at the same time. Luke doesn’t say if it was so for Jesus but I wonder.

Anyway, Jesus seems to go willingly with the Spirit into the wilderness on a sort of vision quest, a journey to find a deeper, more intense connection to God. For him, it seems essential to living into his high calling from God. He cannot do the work before him, he cannot walk the road that lies ahead, without God and so he must engage in a spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting to prepare for what is to come. Is it really different for any of us who want to walk God’s way? We need to engage in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting to get ready for the journey. That is the point of Lent, to prepare for what lies ahead, to know how to survive in the wilderness so we might come to the comfort of home, to learn to walk in the dark as surely as we walk in the light.

These temptations or tests that Jesus faces at the far edge of his wilderness wandering are uniquely his. They pertain to the work and the walk to which God was calling him. Whatever else you make of them, they were real. They represented alternate ways of accomplishing the task, but they were not God’s way. Remember the thunderous voice from the storm-tossed mountain top, ”I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me”? This is one of those places where God is fierce and uncompromising. That can be a frightening thing. Jesus had to confront it, as did the children of Israel, as do we.

As Jesus faced his own tests, wrestled with his own temptations, so must we. This is actually a situation in which the humanity of Jesus meets our own. Richard Vinson argues that, eventually, “power comes out of Jesus to heal others, and this sounds a bit like a holy energy that resides in Jesus. But Jesus claims to be able to cast out demons ‘by the finger of God,’ which is to say that he does it as God’s agent and not by his own spiritual power (11:19).” He continues, “If God wanted Jesus to turn stone into bread, he could, but not otherwise; it is a mistake to think that Jesus, by virtue of being Son of God, had supernatural powers residing in him that were unavailable to ordinary mortals.” As we considered a couple of weeks ago, “According to Luke, Jesus assigned the disciples the same authority and ability to heal and to cast out demons, so it was not innate to Jesus, but a gift of the Spirit” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 112).

Now there’s a scary thought, to consider how much more we might do to change the world if we trusted the gifts of God and the Spirit’s ability to work through us. We know that sometimes the first disciples measured up and sometimes they failed miserably. A lot depended on their willingness and capacity to face their fears. Remember how Peter succeeded in walking on water in the midst of the storm till he looked around and let his fears overwhelm him? Couldn’t the same be said of us? Sometime we rise to the occasion and sometimes we look around and let our fears overwhelm us.

“Courage,” Greg read, “which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced…How do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?…If we believe a bright security light keeps us safer after dark, there is not a statistic in the world with power to persuade us otherwise” (Barbara Brown Taylor, op. cit., pp. 37, 71). And so it is with all our fears. If we do not face them, if we are not open to wilderness wandering, if we do not learn to walk in the dark, if we are not brave enough to say “no” to anything that would separate us from God and walking God’s “way everlasting, then we will experience a kind of living death. Life may seem alright on the surface, but someday we will come to the question, “Is this all there is?” Here is the question at the heart of facing our fears, posed by poet, Mary Oliver, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”). Are you willing to do a little wilderness wandering? Will you take a chance on meeting God in deeper, more intense ways? Are you ready practice a little courage, learn to walk in the dark, take a chance on the Spirit moving mightily in you – and in us? These are questions to take into our Lenten spiritual discipline. These are the same questions Jesus must have asked as he turned his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem. Will we walk with him, all the way, this time?

Light Shines Out (1/3/2016)

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

Sunday, January 3. 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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