This Sunday we conclude our consideration of refugees and welcoming the stranger. The texts include the classic instruction from the Levitical Code to embrace and care for the resident alien in the land, and Paul’s poetic meditation on breaking down the dividing walls of hostility. It is sad to see walls threatened and built to keep those “not like me” out of “my backyard.” For strangers in the Ancient Near East, hospitality was a life or death matter. Unfortunately, it’s not so different today. Paul urged the new Christians in Ephesus to bring down the wall between Gentiles and Jews that they might dwell together, unified in God’s Beloved Community. What are the “walls” in our world that need to be broken down so we might occupy the planet in peace and harmony, compassion and well-being, justice and love? Continue reading Note from Pastor Rick (7/20/2016)
Summer continues with several from our community traveling near and far. We pray traveling mercies for them all. Still, life goes on here. Sunday we will continue our focus on “Welcoming the Stranger.” Pastor Gregory will be preaching on Matthew 25:31-46, with the title “Radical Hospitality and Holy Disruption.” Matthew says that when the time is right, Christ will look each of us in the eye and ask what we have done “for the least of these.” It is both a challenging and invigorating prospect to consider how we might act with compassion toward those in need. I don’t think Christ sees care for the “other” as onerous work, rather it offers a joyful opportunity to help bring about God’s Beloved Community in the here and now.
Growing up in High School as a Southern Baptist, we never really talked about Lent. When it was discussed it was always mentioned as being “too Catholic.” Some of my friends at school talked about giving up things like soda and chocolate, but it never really made sense to me.
Giving up diet coke and candy didn’t really seem to make sense of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, imprisoned, and prostituted. So I have a different suggestion for us.
For Lent may I suggest that we give up being apathetic about telling the truth?
The truth is…
Sixty-two billionaires have as much wealth as half the world’s population, 3.5 billion people.
More than 50% of Transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday.
90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone, 97% of native forests are destroyed, and 200 species are driven extinct each and every day.
Not one Republican presidential candidate supports my ability to get married to the person I love.
These are hard truths. This is the holy foolishness we are asked to consider for Lent if our hope is to bring about the Beloved Community. The Gospel for our time is about staring evil in the face, without backing down and without resulting to violence, and proclaiming resurrection over dry bones. Together let’s give up any complacency within us by speaking and embodying truth to power.
Sunday, January 17. 2016
Text: John 2:1-11
We heard John proclaim in the very beginning of his gospel that “the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). But what would it mean, what would it look like, feel like, taste like, to experience grace and truth in the flesh – in our flesh? In the first of his “signs,” John’s Jesus begins to address this question.
Jesus is three days into his ministry, just barely begun. Like a new head coach, he has been busy putting together his team of assistants. Andrew comes with his brother Simon Peter. Philip recruits his friend, Nathanael, whom Jesus has envisioned sitting under a fig tree. Nathanael is amazed at Jesus’ perception. Jesus assures him that, if he comes along, he will see yet “greater things.”
It doesn’t take long before these words come true. The whole entourage – Jesus, his disciples, even his mother – have been invited to a wedding in Nathanael’s home town. Now remember, a wedding in this time and territory was more than a rehearsal one day followed by the ceremony and reception the next. Weddings went on for a week and involved the entire village plus assorted friends and relatives from other places. For a couple to run out of wine before the week was over was not just a social faux-pas. It was shameful, casting a shadow over the families’ good names and jeopardizing the success of the marriage.
We can speculate about Mary as mother and matron. Perhaps she was a force with which to be reckoned. Tradition has certainly portrayed her as a figure of power and influence, on earth as well as in heaven. Practically, the text says she sees that the wine is disappearing much too rapidly. “Son, they are running out of wine.” “Well, what is that to us? What do you want me to do about it?”
These words seem harsh, disrespectful to our ears. That’s no way to talk to your mother. Maybe he’s trying to assert his independence. Maybe she is interfering with the delicate timing of his ministry, a timing determined in a realm beyond her understanding and above her pay grade. Maybe this is the beginning of his assertion that only those who serve God and God’s beloved community are to be counted among his true family. We will likely never know the full meaning of this response, so strange in our hearing.
The way the story plays out makes me thing of the son who says “no” to his father’s request for help, only to be found later doing what his father asked. Perhaps Mary is meant to be instrumental in moving her son to action. She is meant to help implement heaven’s plan. Remember it was not long ago that we read again the powerful words of the Magnificat and sang of “Dreaming Mary”:
And did she dream about a son? And did he speak, the angel one?
We only know God’s will was done in the son of Dreaming Mary.
Then she prayed, rejoicing in her savior. She taught him justice for the poor. She taught that kings oppressed no more
when she taught, that Dreaming Mary.
Anyway, Mary tells the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.” Not much time passes before they are serving the guests from a seemingly endless supply of fine wine, 120 to 180 gallons of the very best. The steward, the bride and groom, the guests, are all amazed and, of course, grateful. The party continues on to its joyous conclusion. Only the servants, Jesus and his entourage know what has really happened. I imagine they were all amazed in their own way.
Water into wine. Jesus’ first miracle, though John prefers to call it a sign. What a wonder! But it’s not as much the actual transformation of the water that’s important as it is the significance of the transforming word. In the beginning, the Word brings about creation. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4). Jesus speaks the word and the water is transformed to fine wine.
The transforming word is truth. There is another way. People live in fear that there is not enough to go around. Faith shrivels and religious practice becomes rote ritual, binding humankind instead of liberating. Compassion is little practiced. People focus on caring for me and mine. Difference is deemed dangerous and is met with suspicion, anger and hatred. People take up arms to protect their self-interest and destroy outsiders and the earth in the process.
The truth is that God never intended us to live like this and has been trying to convince us that this is so since blowing the breath of life into us and calling us very good. The truth is that the large jars filled with water for ritual cleansing could just as easily be filled with fine wine with which to celebrate the gifts of God’s goodness and the abundance of life in the Beloved Community.
Deborah Guy writes, “Sometimes, I am so focused on what I do not have that I cannot see God’s gifts. God offers me a feast. Do I eat the bounty offered? Do I drink from the river of pure joy? Where is the life and light in my own life? Do I know God and God’s faithful love? Is my heart right? Do I allow God to extend righteousness to me? (January 13, 2016, d365.org). The transforming word of truth sets us free from all that binds us so that we can live and work with the Word to fulfill God’s intention that all creation be wrapped up in a Beloved Community, blessed and sustained by God’s steadfast love.
The transforming word is grace. It is the amazing grace of God’s steadfast love for us, whatever our limitations and foibles. The word is grace that invites us to party, to celebrate the wonder and goodness of creation, to recognize that love is the real power in the universe, the only power that matters in the end. To love God with one’s whole being and to love creation as we love ourselves can only result in transformation of all. It is grace that allows love to lead the way, to shape our lives, to help us see that we are welcomed “just as we are.”
The transforming word is Jesus, the Christ. The Word became flesh. God took on human form. Jesus embodied the cosmic Christ, powerful presence from before the beginning of time, and lived among us. Jesus is the miracle, Jesus becomes the sign that leads us to God’s Beloved Community. In his life and work, in his teaching and his practice, in his compassion and his deep connection to the Holy One, he demonstrates the possibilities of transformation for all of us.
Lately I have been taken with the transforming possibilities contained in the words of liturgist and poet, Maren Tirabassi. Let’s give her the last word today as we consider her “Reflection on John 2”:
REFLECTION ON JOHN 2
Maren C. Tirabassi
Of course, marriage is a miracle,
like every tender, trusting, tricky
relationship between people.
It’s a miracle, given the stress
from wedding planner to dementia,
that we ever hold on
to love or respect
or the ability to cope
with each other’s relatives.
The truth in John’s pragmatic descent
from philosophical heights
to pre-toast nightmare
is that in every relationship,
we run out of something –
patience or courage or energy,
health or money or parenting skills,
or the ability to appreciate humor,
or the willingness to make breakfast in bed,
watch boring television,
drive aunt Susan to the tenth doctor,
accompany the kid to traffic court –
or just joy.
Everybody runs out of something, sometime.
And then we recognize
Word-boy is in the miracle business.
Jesus can transform things –
water into wine,
wine into poured-out love,
our days of fear, loss, failure, anxiety,
into a morning more healthy, more whole.
So the first miracle
is not walking on water
but making it a party,
and here comes the pun –
it works because we party-cipate.
That couple owned the clay jars;
those attendants poured;
the steward did the taste-test,
which was probably not so much
swirl and sniff
as supermarket sample.
No hocus-pocus-vintage in the smokus –
Jesus transformed something
that was already there –
something that hadn’t run out –
like love or respect or caring,
memories of counting new baby toes,
or holding one another’s hands
side by side at a grave –
into enough, into abundance.
Of course, they did run out of water
for getting clean –
and had to settle for welcoming
all those dirty guests,
but that’s where we come in –
for we’re the wedding crashers here.
(Maren C. Tirabassi, 1-13-2016, giftswithopenhands.wordpress.com).
May the transforming word come to our lives and our community, bringing joy and making all things new. Amen.
Thanks to everyone who pitched in last week to help with the Gratitude Dinner and to all those who signed up to help with coffee hour in the upcoming weeks. There are still some slots open and I would be grateful for your help. Remember that we will be decorating the church for the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season. We can use everyone’s help – young and old alike.
Sunday marks the beginning of the Advent. This is meant to be a quiet time do sacred contemplation in anticipation of the Christmas event when God enters our reality in human form. I imagine this is a challenge for most of usm given the frenetic pace of actitvity that has come to characterize this time of year. Hopefully our schedule for the season will help you find time and space to prepare for the coming of Christ.
I am grateful to everyone who participated in the Advent Planning Workshop and to Dan Cudworth, Jan and Greg who met with me this week to work further on the services for the season. I am excited about lies ahead for us as we worship, study and work for realization of God’s Beloved Community in our misdst, beginning with a baby born in Bethlehem.
On this first Sunday, we will focus on two texts – Psalm 25, with its affimation of God’s steadfast love and mercy, even in the hardest times; and on Jeremiah’s great affirmation of hope for the future, written from prison as the world he knew was crumbling around him. How do we hold hope and let it shape our lives when we are confronted with wars and rumors of war, threats and acts of terror, economic uncertainty and pressure to perform. All these and more generate an atmosphere of fear. But our word for the time is hope because the future is in God’s hands. We begin Advent, expectantly, that our hopes will be fulfilled.
See you Sunday at 10:00 AM ready to worship, learn and share. Bring someone with you and stay to “Hang the Greens – and blues and whites and golds!
May we continue to grow together as God’s people.
A Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, November 22, 2015
Text: John 18:33-37
The drama continues. Perhaps it concludes this week. After all, it is the end of the liturgical year, the Sunday in which we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Next week comes another Advent as we once again anticipate the birth of a baby, the Word become flesh, the light that shines in the darkness. So at least one cycle ends and another begins.
For the past few weeks we have been considering the teaching and events in Mark’s gospel that lead to his account of the Passion of Christ. We have watched Jesus challenge the religious authorities, attack their twisted version of biblical faith and practice, and engage, quite literally, in actions that underline his attack on what he has come to see as rotten religion. In today’s text we jump to John’s gospel where we find Jesus face to face with the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. However, the same dramatic thread unravels as Jesus continues to confront the powers that be.
We’ve all seen elegant representations of Jesus’ trial in classic art of every medium, but I wonder what it was really like on that day. It must have been hot. Jesus had been up all night, dealing with the religious leaders who had arrested him, held him, questioned him, tried him by their own self-serving standards. By the time he faces Pilate, he must be exhausted. He hadn’t had a chance to bathe or change clothes (if he even had a change.) He was tired, sweaty, dirty. In contrast to all those handsome, clean cut images we have seen, I like the representation above of what a Semitic Jesus might have looked like – short, dark, hooked nose.
The point is there was nothing about Jesus that shouted “king.” He was an itinerant rabbi, a peasant from Galilee, about as common as you could imagine. There he stood before the representative of Rome, Caesar’s man in Palestine, dressed in all his Roman finery, tall and regal by contrast.
“So, are you a king?” Pilate asks. It seems a curious question. Obviously this is no king. Anyone can see that. But Pilate’s dilemma is that that is the charge the religious authorities have brought against Jesus. Pilate would probably like get out of this sticky intrigue altogether. But in order to do that he has somehow to unravel the charade. Perhaps, Jesus will just deny the charge and Pilate can be done with it. But it won’t be that easy.
First a little pretrial flashback. Remember the scene when Jesus cleared the temple courtyard of the moneychangers and the sellers of doves and refused to let people mindlessly trample the temple grounds? Remember his rationale – “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers”? Remember the reaction of the religious authorities – “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him”? Why? Mark claims, “…they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mark 11:17-18)?
So the die was cast early in the week. Jesus’ challenge to the religious authorities was more than they could bear. They were determined to do away with him. It seems like a lot of power to give a peasant preacher from the provinces. But there is the crowd to consider. He does have a way of stirring up the crowd – mostly the mindless rabble. Still, they could not afford any sort of insurrection, whether it challenged them directly or indirectly undermined their uneasy alliance with the Romans.
Next scene, these religious authorities have hatched a scheme to arrest him in the dark of night, when he is virtually alone except for a few of his backwoods followers. In fact, they have recruited one of his own to pick him out of the midnight gloom, betrayed by a kiss, not of friendship but of deception, from a disappointed disciple. Clearly Jesus had not been the king Judas wanted him to be, the Messiah who would come with heavenly power to overthrow the oppressors and restore the rightful rulers in Israel. So Judas settles for 30 pieces of silver, trading his dreams for a bag of coins.
Now the authorities have him where they want him. They plan to get the sordid mess over with before the break of day, before the people can awaken and possibly rally on his behalf. His own close followers desert him. A king with no one following? Hardly seems worth considering. The religious authorities charge him with blasphemy, a charge with merit, I suppose, if you consider their rotten religion to be the real thing. But they know they are forbidden to execute anyone and they want him dead. Only the Roman authorities have the power to execute but they will be laughed out of court if they bring him up on charges of blasphemy. Pilate has no interest in entering into a religious squabble. It’s hard enough to rule this rebellious bunch with Roman law without blending church and state.
The truth is that Pilate has already made some serious missteps in ruling Palestine, errors that have landed him in hot water with Rome. He certainly does not want to risk another. He doesn’t want to upset the religious authorities nor does he want to upset the people, if Jesus does indeed have some influence with them. He looks into the tired yet piercing eyes of the Galilean peasant, standing patiently before him and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Wait a minute, who’s in charge here? It’s the governor’s job to ask the questions, not the prisoner’s, isn’t it?
Pilate’s sarcastic question has not gotten any response he expected or wanted. There is a little confusion, a bit of defensiveness in his comeback. “Hold on. I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Suddenly the great Roman governor, the representative of the power of empire, is rattled as he realizes there may be more here than he first thought. He’d better proceed with caution.
Jesus’ response is no help. His answer is indirect again, a curious claim, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Now the old warrior understands the part about how a king’s army would be fighting to defend him. Hadn’t Pilate made a career of just such practice? But kingdom from another world? What could that mean? Is the man daft?
Pilate continues carefully, “So, you are a king?” And again a sort of non-response, “You say that I am a king.” This interrogation is getting out of hand. Pilate has never encountered a prisoner like this. It all seems so absurd, and yet…
Well, the charge is sedition, a purported claim to kingly power and authority. The prisoner is not exactly denying it. He’s not helping his case. At the same time, there is something compelling in the very presence of this strange little man who stands before Rome, showing no fear. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate is blown away and Rome, the religious authorities and all who can neither hear or see with him. Truth confounds and liberates, even in the face of dominating empire.
Our text ends abruptly here. Of course, we know how the tale ends. Against whatever is stirring in his own heart, Pilate will eventually order the execution. He can find no other way to appease the religious authorities and he certainly doesn’t want them reporting him to Rome, not over some scruffy Galilean peasant, no matter how compelling those eyes or how intriguing his arguments. The question remains for us to answer for ourselves –“So, are you a king? And, if so, just what kind of king are you?” We’ve wrestled with this issue before. We don’t really deal with kings if we can help it. US history is grounded in a revolt against kingly rule. We are a fiercely independent people and profess a certain egalitarian belief. What would it mean for us to claim allegiance to a king, even if it this king claims his kingdom is not from this world and is centered on truth-telling?
We may not have a king in this country but we know something about power and authority. It may not always be clear where that power and authority actually rest but we see the consequences of its exercise everywhere – in the massing of military might, in wars and rumors of war, in accumulation of great wealth at the expense of people and the earth itself, in the stigmatization, marginalization and outright oppression of whole populations. This may not be Rome. There may be some rule of law. We may not have a king or queen, but we do know about the powers that be, about political intrigue, economic manipulation, false security founded on weapons of mass destruction, border walls, self –aggrandizement, fame and fortune. Is it really so different than what Jesus confronted in his time? Is our empire so far removed from Rome and our religious practice so divorced from that of those ancient religious authorities that we don’t recognize where we are trapped?
Here is the truth, the truth that promises to set us free, if only we would let it. To use the old language, the king we serve is the King of Love. The kingdom he came to proclaim, the Kingdom of God, is the Beloved Community. Instead of pressing us into service, he calls and patiently waits for us to follow. It is our choice; there is no conscription here. We know the old literature, the stories and teachings, the poetry and wisdom that make up the religious tradition through which this kingdom comes – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Woman at the Well, the Syro-Phoenician Mother, Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene, the Great Commission, the Great Commandments, the letting go of self-absorption to find one’s true self in service, and so much more. These all speak of radical welcome, extravagant generosity, prodigious compassion, peace that passes understanding, amazing grace, overwhelming love, especially for the least and lost, the stigmatized, marginalized and oppressed.
“So, are you a king?” we ask. Well, now it all depends on what you mean by king, doesn’t it? But if any of the truth laid about above appeals to you, then come along. You won’t be disappointed to follow, even if it is a strange little peasant man, slightly unkempt, with tired but piercing eyes. You might even come to call him king of your life. Stranger things have happened.
Live Free! That is the theme of our stewardship emphasis this year. At first glance, it seems somewhat curious, given there are other texts that point more clearly to generosity and giving. But after a second look, it makes sense to consider Christ’s gracious gift of freedom as meaningful motivation for good stewardship. We don’t make a big push for supporting the life and work of the church each year. At least in part, I believe this is because we are a congregation with a deep understanding and commitment to stewardship. We come back to the importance of stewardship over and over in the course of our worship, learning and mission because we understand it as fundamental to our faith and practice.
Live Free! Take Hold of the Life that Really Is Life (1 Timothy 6:18-19). The stewardship material we received from the Ecumenical Stewardship Center suggests this theme and the additional text from First Timothy. They divide the overall theme into four considerations. The first is “Free – from the Money Trap.” I think we all must have some familiarity with this phenomenon. If we just had a little bit more, we could… You name it! Money becomes very much a “yoke of slavery.” What is it money can buy that we just HAVE to have? A bigger house, a better neighborhood, designer clothes, the latest gadget, the fastest car? Who is it we have to impress and why?
Jesus says “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!…Instead, strive for God’s Beloved Community, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:22-23, 29). Again it takes a moment to grasp Jesus’ meaning, to see how this word really does offer freedom from the “money trap.” Part of our freedom is the recognition that there is so much more to life than accumulating wealth, making money, living for a fragile and faulty security.
The second consideration is that we are “Free – to Be Rich.” It almost sounds like a contradiction of point one. But there are ways to be rich that are a function of freedom. Remember the old song that sings “the best things in life are free”?
The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life are free
The stars belong to everyone
They gleam there for you and me
The flowers in spring
The robins that sing
The sunbeams that shine
They’re yours, they’re mine
And love can come to everyone
The best things in life are free
In his letter to Timothy, Paul exhorts his young protégé, “…to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up…the treasures of a good foundation for the future…take hold of the life that really is life.” This is wealth born of accepting what is so generously and freely given; then giving rather than getting. We are free to gather in and spread around riches like this because Christ has set us free.
In part three, they suggest that we are “Free – from the Uncertainty of Riches.” “It is easy to confuse our wants with our needs, especially in a culture that continually urges us to buy more.” Related to point one, we are asked to place our trust in the one who clothes the lilies of the field and numbers the hairs on our head (if we have any left!) We are encouraged to understand that “all belongs to God, there is no transfer of ownership. As God’s stewards, we don’t own anything.” This is difficult for us to wrap our minds around. We are conditioned to believe that somehow we are in charge of ourselves, our relationships, even our world. To have responsibility for these things does not put us in charge, though. “When we recognize that the entirety of life is a gift from God, we are less likely to hold on so tightly, as gifts are intended to be shared.” Can we buy into that freedom, that gifts are intended to be shared? It really can be liberating to share with grace and generosity.
Finally we are enjoined to be “Free – to Take Hold of Life.” We circle back to Paul’s invitation to “life that is truly life.” Christ sets us free to live this life that is truly life. This is the life of the Beloved Community that Christ came to proclaim, to demonstrate, to call us to. It is life in which we let go of the insecurity of all scarcity belief and recognize that there truly is enough to go around, especially if those of us who are so blessed, so privileged learn these lessons of stewardship. For freedom Christ has set us free – free to be the best and brightest, the most compassionate and generous, the happiest and loveliest of what God created us to be. Live free so that you may take hold of the life that really is life.
Yours on the journey, Rick