Not As the World Gives (5/1/2016)

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

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Text: John 14:25-27; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:2

Today we transition from a month-long emphasis on love of the earth and creation care to things that make for peace. The theme for May is “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.” In part, this new emphasis is shaped by this month’s special offering for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz. We have been a supporting congregation of this organization for many years.

What I am wondering, as we consider peace today, is what does the word mean to you? Off the top of your head, what do you imagine or think or feel when you hear the word peace?

Today’s gospel reading comes from the book of John. We used it as our Words of Assurance after Reflecting on our Need for God. It is interesting that this text and the Ancient Word from Revelation are actually lectionary readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter. Is it coincidence that the lectionary would give us such peace laden texts on the first Sunday of “Peace Month”? or is it the work of that Advocate, the Holy Spirit, trying to teach us something about peace and peace-making?

Most often I use these words from the fourteenth chapter of John for funerals and memorial services. That seems to be an appropriate time to call forth peace, especially peace that offers comfort and soothes the grieving heart. Jesus begins his teaching, recorded in this chapter, by assuring his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In God’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3). Many a grieving soul has found peaceful comfort in these words through the centuries. And surely this one way to look at peace.

But this time, reading this text, the sentence “I do not give to you as the world gives” stood out for me. What exactly does Jesus mean when he makes that claim or what was the writer of John trying to say when he wrote down these words? “Not as the world gives” – the peace that Jesus promises is something different than what we usually think of as peace. It is other than the absence of violence or freedom from struggle. It is more than comfort and assurance. The ancient Hebrew word used here is shalom. Shalom is something like the Hawaiian word aloha. It carries multiple meanings. It can be used to hello or good-bye. In addition to peace, it carries connotations of harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being. When Jesus gifts his followers with is peace, it is something more than what the world has to offer.

Robert Kysar writes that “…the peace that you and I most commonly seek – is best described as the absence of things. The absence of war, the absence of crime and strife and violence, the absence of pain, conflicts, struggles, unfulfilled desires.” In fact, he says, “It almost sounds as if the peace we seek is something like a vacuum…What we strive for is the absence of all struggle which sounds like the absence of life itself” (Robert Kysar, Preaching John, p. 108). And Geoffrey Hoare observes that “Many people yearn for peace in the world’s terms: cessation of conflict, whether psychological tension or warfare; a sense of calm or a serenity of spirit” (Geoffrey M. St. J. Hoare in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, p.494).

“No, not this,” Jesus says, “not as the world gives.” Both Kysar and Hoare insist that what Jesus offer is not cessation or absence but rather it is presence, the presence of God though the Holy Spirit. The Jesus Way will continue to be available to those who embrace it and follow it. He is not going away; he is going on ahead, and where he goes, we, too, may go,  in the power of the Spirit.

In Earth Month we tried to emphasize the spiritual and theological grounding for love of the earth and creation care. God made it; God delights in it; God loves it; God cares for it and, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, we are invited to approach creation in similar ways. Love it, care for it, delight in it, even join in the ongoing process of creation. God is present with us in the world all around us; we are encouraged to embrace that presence, to live into all the possibilities it offers to us.

Part of living with God’s ongoing presence in our lives is, then, to live in peace, in shalom – in harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being – with God, with ourselves, with our neighbor, with our enemy, with all creation. Again, this is not nothing, absence, cessation; it is something, something to give our lives to as we walk the Jesus Way. Remember how Genesis gave us a vision of the goodness, the well-being, the peace, if you will, of creation when God first laid it out and breathed life into it? Now the writer of Revelation offers another vision of something similar.

Beyond the pain and struggle of life as the world knows it, there is a promised land, a new creation, a heavenly city. Yes, it’s always risky to talk about heaven. Too many of us have been indoctrinated to believe that it is somewhere out there beyond this life. “This world is not my home. I’m just passing through.” But what if it just isn’t so? What if heaven is right here in our midst if we’d look more closely. “Your Beloved Community come on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus teaches us to pray. Not “just hang on; it will be over soon and you’ll get your robe and crown over there.” Nor does Jesus offer peace somewhere down the road and beyond the sunset. He offers it in the here and now.

This vision of the new Jerusalem is a poetic description of the Beloved Community, not unlike Isaiah’s dream of God’s Holy Mountain where they neither hurt or destroy because they recognize that God’s presence covers the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Jesus gifts his followers – and us – with that same presence, and he offers it now, not later.

In the vision of Revelation, ”…the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” In the middle of the vision we find the river of the water of life and the tree of life spread out on either side, offering all the nourishment we could ever need or want. Even the leaves are for the healing of the nations. The difference between the peace that Jesus offers and that which the world chases is in its great “Yes” to life. Faced with his own imminent death, Jesus says “Yes” to life. The powers and principalities have no ultimate say in his life. He is at peace in God’s embracing presence. It’s a different kind of peace – not as the world gives – and he offers it to us. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Amen.

Come! (9/20/2015)

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

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Text:   Revelation 21:1-7; 22:16-17, 20-21

 Does anyone besides me share a love for a good mystery? I wouldn’t say I was obsessed but I enjoy Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis, Sherlock Homes in his many manifestations, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and most of the other British mysteries on PBS. I have read all of Joseph Hansen’s Brandstetter series and several of the Wallander tales by Henning Mankell. Now I confess, I am not very good at figuring out “whodunit.” I actually enjoy being surprised in the end when the erstwhile detective reveals it all to you. Maybe you’re one of those people who reads the end of the book first because you are impatient to know how it will all turn out. Personally, I would rather savor the story, even delaying the final disclosure in order to remain immersed in the experience of the adventure. Revelation will come in its own time; there is something satisfying for me in the enjoyment of the journey.

Or how many of you predicted the outcome of all the college football games yesterday? Who knew that the Texas kicker would miss the extra point and Cal would hang on to win 45 to 44? Who had scripted ahead of time Stanford’s masterful victory over 6th ranked USC or Mississippi’s upset of Alabama? There’s an old adage that proclaims that no one can guarantee the outcome in advance, that’s why you play the game. I suppose in this age of fantasy football one could make a fortune if she could predict accurately the outcome of all the games.

Sometimes we are eager for all to be revealed; sometimes we would rather give ourselves over to the journey. Often, we have no control over the outcome of a given story or situation and must patiently await its unfolding over time. We may find ourselves living in hope of a certain something that is to come but find we have no way to guarantee that our particular desire will be fulfilled.

Sometimes we dream. We may have a vision of the future. We may be flooded with imagery of some thing or some place or some story. It may be a revelation, but dreams and visions are not always clear, at least on the surface. They offer curious characters and situations and relationships that we cannot easily grasp. I know over the years some of you have engaged in dream work through this church. I admit that I am not a great or gifted interpreter of dreams. When I have done dream work with clients or parishioners or spiritual directees, I have always begun by asking the dreamer what they think the dream meant. I believe that that is the most fruitful way to enter another’s dream world rather than offering pre-packaged interpretations.

However, with John of Patmos, his vision was written down and distributed to his community. Others picked it up and, strange as it may seem, included it in the Bible. That means, as people of the Book, we are at least invited to consider it. Volumes have been written by scholars and schemers, seekers and dreamers, trying to make sense of John’s vision. More than one purported prophet or eschatologically-oriented community has tried to use it to predict the actual unfolding of the future. This great beast or that bloody battle are indicators that some tyrant or other fierce being is foreordained to bring about the end of the world. In spite of Jesus’ clear instructions to leave end things to God, many a Christian claimant has given over ministry and even life to following the belief that a particular piece of Revelation will lead them through Armageddon to the gates of heaven, avoiding the eternal flames of the lake of fire.

I suppose it is partly because Revelation comes at the end of the Bible that Brian McLaren has chosen to treat it in the penultimate chapter of his book. I actually like that he pairs John’s great apocalyptic vision with hope. I believe he is right about this. More than anything, John’s vision is an offering of hope for the fulfillment of God’s Beloved Community. I know there are lots of beasts and battles, bloodshed and burning, before one reaches the golden shores of the River of Life. But, following McLaren and other scholars, I can see how Revelation offers hope for an oppressed people.

We have considered before how little most of us know about oppression, at least the sort that John’s community was facing. Although it was not necessarily a period of wide-spread persecution, it was a time when Christians were a decided minority. In a polytheistic culture, it was tolerable for Jews and Christians to worship their God, but it was a curiosity that they would limit themselves to only one God when a multiplicity of gods could be so much more useful. I imagine that today we don’t understand their world view any better than ancient peoples understood monotheism. In our culture, we turn exclusively to “our God” and often treat other religions with disdain, both subtle and obvious. As Christians in the USA we don’t really grasp the oppression those early Christ-followers faced nor do we see the elitist attitude we often take toward faith traditions outside our own today.

In addition to the general skepticism and disdain for the religious practices of the early church, there was also the problem of emperor worship, which had social and political implications for Christ-followers. If the emperor claimed to be a god and demanded worship as well as tribute and if the emperor was as mad as Nero or Diocletian, any noncompliance could be met with bloody persecution. So you can see how those first followers of Christ were caught in a dilemma. If they spoke up for their faith they were liable to experience social ostracism and outright persecution. If they kept their mouths shut they were guilty of failing to spread God’s Good News to the ends of the earth. It was not a comfortable position to be in. Today, we may choose to keep quiet about our faith in order to maintain social nicety or not rock the boat or respect others’ points of view, but I doubt that most of us know well the dilemma our ancestors faced in following the faith.

McLaren and others suggest that Revelation functions as kind of code – not code for us to use in deciphering literal end times and the disposition of heaven and hell. Rather it is an allegory about the ultimate failure of all principalities and powers that place themselves in opposition to the living God and the final fulfillment of creation in God’s Beloved Community. We can get hung up on the intricate and gory details of John’s dream. Many have, but in the end John means to offer a word of hope to a people who were struggling to maintain their faith in an inhospitable environment. In the end, John says the powers that be will be overcome and God’s reign will be fulfilled on earth. How exactly that will happen is in God’s hands. It will be accomplished in God’s time and God’s way. In the meantime, God’s people are asked to remain faithful, to put their trust in God, to live in hope for the fulfillment of God’s future.

McLaren writes, “Rather than giving its original readers a coded blueprint of the future, Revelation gave them visionary insight into their present situation. It told them that the story of God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven. It has always been about God descending to dwell among us. Faithfulness wasn’t waiting passively for a future that had already been determined. Faithfulness meant participating with God in God’s unfolding story. God wasn’t a distant, terrifying monster waiting for vengeance at the end of the universe. God was descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 256).

Hear again these words that sum up John’s vision, his great revelation, the way the story ends – “’See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…See, I am making all things new.’” Then,”The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. “

It’s a complex invitation. On one side we hear the invitation from heaven to come, partake of the wedding feast of Christ and the church. On another we are encouraged to speak up, to invite others to come, share the feast with us. And from a third perspective, we shout to heaven, “Even so Christ Jesus quickly come,” as we long for the fulfillment of our hope that the Beloved Community will become our reality as soon as possible.

As McLaren writes in our Words of Preparation, “What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today. Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now. That’s why Revelation ends with the sound of a single word echoing through the universe…It is a word of invitation, welcome, reception, hospitality, and possibility. It is a word not of ending, but of new beginning. That one word is Come! The Spirit says it to us. We echo it back. Together with the Spirit, we say to everyone who is willing, Come!” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 256). “…let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Come!

The Heavenly City (May 5, 2013)

THE HEAVENLY CITY
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA  Sunday, May 5, 2013

 Text: Revelation 21:10-22:5

I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow
I’m tossed in this wide world alone
No hope I have for tomorrow
I’ve started to heav’n my home

Sometimes I am tossed and driven, Lord,
Sometimes I don’t know where to roam
I’ve heard of a city called heaven
I’ve started to make it my home Continue reading The Heavenly City (May 5, 2013)

ABSW and theological education

Rev. Wilkins, Pastor Rick, and Pastor Tripp
Rev. Wilkins, Pastor Rick, and Pastor Tripp

Greetings on this very warm first day of May.  It was a privilege and a pleasure for us to have the Rev. Robert Wilkins last Sunday, giving us insight into the American Baptist Seminary of the West and the current state of theological education.  His sharing was informative and helpful as we consider how we might assist seminary students in preparation for ministry.  One exciting prospect we have to look forward to is that we will have two very fine seminary students working with us as interns next year.  I am very pleased that Naomi Schultz from PSR and Douglas Davidson from ABSW have signed on to work with Tripp, me and the congregation.  You will hear more about them in the days ahead.  We are indeed blessed.

For the next couple of weeks our worship will focus on the last two chapters of Revelation, John’s vision of the Heavenly City and all it promises for the glorious fulfillment of God’s reign.  I know there is much in the book of Revelation that is troublesome and confusing, especially if it’s taken literally.  Even in John’s grand vision of the ultimate destination of God’s creatures and God’s creation, we find ideas and images that do not sit easily with us.  But the promises of healing and wholeness may still stir to us to live into those promises as we journey in the here and now.  There is much to praise in God’s eternal presence around and in us.

Adult Spiritual Formation will be one of those periodic Sundays when you’re invited to share whatever is on your mind.  Lord knows there has been plenty in the news lately to keep us occupied far beyond our hour.  Still let’s join in open, honest and respectful conversation.

See you on Sunday at 10 as we as we gather as Christ’s beloved community.  Invite someone to come with you.

May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us.
Pastor Rick