Cords of Love (October 26, 2014)

sermonsA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon,
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA, Sunday, October 26, 2014

Texts: Genesis 32:22-33:11; 50:15-21; Matthew 25:31-40; Luke 10:25-37

 

One difficulty of working our way through the Bible in a calendar year is that there are more great texts than there are Sundays. Some days you have to consider more than one and this is one of those days. In his project, Brian McLaren is trying to help us see significant themes from these gathered texts that will help us understand the Bible in new, exciting ways. Today, under the theme “Rivalry or Reconciliation?” we can choose among the reunion of Esau and Jacob, the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats or the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is an embarrassment of riches! We will focus on the Joseph story, perhaps the least familiar, but have something to say about the others.

This is not the first time in this series or in this year that we have considered sibling rivalry. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau – sibling rivalry is as old as humankind. “You got a bigger piece!” “I’m smarter than you.” “Oh yeah, well can you do this?” “Mom always liked you best.” “I hate you and I’m never going to speak to you again.” I’m sure you can add your own lines to the litany. As we considered in the Cain and Abel story, this rivalry may be a result of a deep-seated belief that there is not enough love to go around.

I’m sure no one here ever played favorites or angled to be favored or blamed it on your sibling or took credit you didn’t deserve. I suppose all rivalry is not literally sibling rivalry though we might trace the roots of rivalry to this source. But what if see ourselves and all humanity as sisters and brothers in the family of God. Then all rivalry is indeed sibling rivalry. What difference would it make in our lives and in our world if we could learn to see one another as siblings, children of the one God, one family in faith?

We considered the wonderful story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau earlier this year. Remember how Jacob, the trickster and scoundrel, with his mother’s help, steals his brother’s birthright and blessing? All the scheming does him little good as he ends up fleeing his brother’s murderous rage to live in exile. Eventually Jacob risks coming home because, like the Prodigal Son, he comes to his senses and realizes there is no joy in being separated from home and family. He approaches his brother in fear, not knowing the current state of Esau’s anger, only to be greeted with tears and embrace, with love and compassion. The crucial line comes when Jacob looks at last full in the face of his forgiving brother and says, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (Genesis 33:10b). Compassion, love, forgiveness become the very face of God. Rivalry is lost in reconciliation.

The Parable of the Sheep and Goats can be challenging, even painful, if we read it all the way through to the judgment. But, it can be instructive to focus on the first part before the judgment. What can we learn from what is affirmed alone? “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” The blessed, in appropriate humility, are dumbfounded by the invitation. “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” We all know the response. We learned it long ago in Sunday School. “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:31ff).

What struck me in reading this text this time was the phrase “these who are members of my family.” I hear that as naming the least as members of your family, my family, our family. The crucial thing is that we don’t dismiss anyone, including the least of these, from the family of God. To take a superior, judgmental attitude toward another is to take that attitude toward a sister or brother. It is rooted in ancient rivalry for love and attention, for favor and security, sibling rivalry as old as humankind. To offer compassion, care, forgiveness, welcome to one’s sister and brother is to see the face of God and the family resemblance therein. “…as you did it to one of the least of these who are your sisters and brothers, you did it to me.” Rivalry is subsumed in reconciliation.

Then the self-righteous biblical scholar, the one who knew the law so well, trying to save face under the piercing gaze of Jesus, tries to trap the teacher by asking, “Well, just who is my neighbor?” Most of us could recite the Parable of the Good Samaritan from memory. The religious leaders, whom we think ought to stop to help, take the legal way out. They manage to justify hurrying by, leaving the beaten man to bleed out by the side of the road. You can see the crowd, no fans of the religious establishment, shake their heads and hear them mutter their disapproval. Then, Jesus throws everyone a curve. Enter the Samaritan. Wait a minute! Did I hear correctly? Did he say Samaritan? What’s a blankety-blank Samaritan doing in this story? He’ll probably kick the poor victim over the cliff. History tells us the hatred ran that deep.

The crowd is astonished to hear that the Samaritan is the neighbor. The poor lawyer can’t even get the word out of his mouth. When Jesus asks, “Who is the neighbor in the story?” all he can manage to sputter is, “The one who showed mercy” (Luke 10:25ff). But what if we up the ante in this encounter? What if the question is reframed as “Who is my sister, my brother?” and the crowd is invited to consider the Samaritan as a sibling? Oh, my! That may be more than is tolerable. Still, if we are sisters and brothers in the family of God, isn’t that what Jesus is moving us toward? Where do we see the face of God in this tale? In our brother Samaritan who practices forgiveness, compassion and care, seeing the broken one at the side of the road as his own brother and treating him accordingly. Even ancient rivalry can be reconciled.

Finally there is Joseph and his brothers. I imagine we’ve all known a Joseph – a favored child who revels in the special treatment he receives, who has genuine gifts and is not at all reticent to let you know about them, who can’t understand why her siblings resent her and wish her ill. Well, Joseph’s older brothers have come to hate him so much they decide to kill him. But at the last minute they have a change of heart and sell him into slavery. Then they tell their father his favorite has been killed by a wild beast.

Years later, after a series of adventures, Joseph has risen to be the chief advisor to the Egyptian Pharoah.   As he had dreamed, a famine comes to Canaan and his brothers find themselves in Egypt, pleading for their survival. Unknown to them, their brother, Joseph, controls their fate. Eventually the whole story comes to light, Joseph forgives his brothers, is reunited with his father and all seems healed. That is until old Jacob dies. There is an elaborate processional of Israelites and Egyptians who bear the body back to Canaan for burial.

However, in the closing verses, the brothers of Joseph suddenly find themselves not feeling so secure anymore. Maybe Joseph has just been good to them because of their father. Now that the old man is gone, are they certain that Joseph has forgiven them and will take care of them? Not really. Their guilt continues to eat away at them. So they approach Joseph with a concocted story that their father has given death bed instructions for him to care for of them. There’s no evidence that Jacob ever said this, but the brothers are desperately trying to cover all their bases. They recognize that Joseph has both justification and power for punishment.

To keep the drama going, Joseph does not give a straightforward answer. Instead, Joseph weeps. Are his tears for his brothers? For himself? Are they tears of forgiveness? Grief? Aching from his long years of painful separation? Accumulated anger at his brothers? Relief? In the end, I imagine some of all this and more was at play. Like Esau before him and Jesus after him, Jacob weeps over his brothers, both lost and found. In the enigmatic response that carries this story and our theme forward, Joseph says, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”

There seems to be personal forgiveness that comes from Joseph, moving the situation from rivalry to reconciliation, “’…have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” But there is also a significant word about how God operates in the world. As Dan Buttry reminded us last week, it is a word about how God prefers restorative justice to the retributive sort. This word from and about God is good news for us.

Rivalry has come to be a way we commonly see and treat one another, whether we see one another as siblings or not. We compete and judge, we wrangle and fight, we oppress and war, and all too often we engage in these activities with a certain self-righteousness or sense of being favored or special. We fail to understand God as love, a vibrant, sustaining love that looks out over all creation, blessing it and calling it good. As children of that same God, created in God’s image and likeness, if we could look out with those eyes we might see the face of God reflected in all we encounter. We could learn to let go of rivalry and give ourselves over to the work of reconciliation. That is God’s plan, that we live in peace and harmony in one family of faith, the family of God. We can make other plans as Joseph’s brothers did but in the end God’s plan prevails. This does not mean that God ordained Joseph’s suffering so the brothers could learn a lesson about family togetherness, but, as the one who has suffered, Joseph has the right to turn his suffering over to God’s greater plan of reconciliation.

The love that binds us together is operative throughout creation and history. It is at work even in the midst of the most vicious rivalry and awful evil, drawing us ever back with cords of love toward that family in which we were made to live and love for all eternity. Bind us together, Lord. Bind us together with cords that cannot be broken. Bind us together with love that sees beyond all rivalry and makes us all one in the family of God. Amen.

Dan Buttry’s visit

candleringWhat a great day we had on Sunday. It was such a treat to have Dan Buttry, Global Specialist for Peace and Justice, American Baptist International Ministries, with us for worship, adult education and lunch. Dan represents the kind of meaningful, contemporary mission work that keeps us, as a congregation, supporting American Baptist missions. His sermon and his sharing helped us see what a difference the gospel can make when communicated in a way that helps people live into peace and justice. And Dan’s work stretches around the globe, touching the lives of all kinds of people in all kinds of places. We heard stories from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, the Naga area of India. Philippines, Mexico and Kyrgystan. I was especially impressed with the stories of courageous, passionate young people who are learning conflict transformation from Dan and boldly practicing it in very dangerous situations. Our support for this work is surely well-spent. I hope this inspires us to give a little more to meet and even exceed our goal for the month’s World Mission Offering.

This Sunday, we will continue to “make the road by walking” it. Both Wally Bryen and Dan used texts from McLaren’s book so we are still on schedule. This week’s theme is “Rivalry and Reconciliation.” We have a choice of four great texts – the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, the celebration of those who care for “the least of these” in Matthew and the parable of the Good Samaritan. I think we will focus on the Joseph story for worship, though each of these passages teaches us something about rivalry and reconciliation. Even in situations of murderous rivalry the face of God may appear in compassion, forgiveness and healing of broken relationships. This is good news.

Don’t forget the potluck and pumpkin carving Friday evening and our Quarterly Business meeting Sunday after worship.

See you Sunday at 10:00 AM for Worship and Sunday School.

God grant us more light, more love, more life as we journey together.

Pastor Rick  

Blame it on the Snake (September 28, 2014)

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

 

Texts: Genesis 3:1-13; Psalm 32; Philippians 2:1-13

I’m pretty sure all of us have had some experience with parenting. Either we’ve been a parent or we’ve been parented. That is surely one frame we can use to consider today’s text about Adam and Eve in the garden. I imagine it is a frame we have heard or used before. Doesn’t the story sound like more than one familiar family drama that focuses on trust and obedience, freedom and disruption? Dad says, “No,” and Junior asks, “Why?” Mom suggests caution and her little one says, “I can take care of myself.” How many times have you either used or heard the expression, “It’s for your own good”? And how many times have you disbelieved, felt the need to test, struggled to let yourself or your children spread wings and reach for freedom?

The grounding place in this story is still goodness. Remember we have spent the last three weeks considering the goodness of creation and the goodness of the generous Creator who not only has blessed us with all we need but has invited us to share in the care and nurture of that creation.

Today, continuing in Genesis, we consider the drama of desire. Desire – “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen; a sense of longing or hoping for a person, object, or outcome.” Among the many synonyms are “aspiring, craving, hunger, wanting, yearning, longing, wishing for, desperate for, coveting, sought after, must-have.” What do you know of desire? Do any of those terms ring a bell? Can you tell us anything about your own experience with desire?

In thinking of the drama of desire, I was reminded of two great American plays – Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m sure there are many others but these two classics dramas name desire in their titles. In Desire Under the Elms, we see a family torn apart by desire for land and heritage, for power and control, for lust and love. The desire for what is forbidden and what is ultimately beyond the characters’ control leads to death of the infant heir and destruction of both individuals and the family.

In Streetcar, the characters and setting are different but the dramatic outlines are similar. Blanche’s desire for what is gone and cannot be recovered leads her through a slow descent into madness. Her own desire to forget through alcohol and sex are crucial to her undoing. The desire of the other characters, with differing motives, to tear away her veil of unreality and expose her to the harshness of their own world results in painful suffering and loss for each of them. Desire is a dangerous, even deadly, thing.

Today’s text tells the classic tale of an overreaching desire for what can neither be contained nor controlled. The result is a disaster of epic proportions. It foreshadows the trajectory of human existence. In some sense, it becomes the story of all our lives. “I’ve seen you eyeing that forbidden tree over there,” says the snake. “I know God said, ‘This restriction is for your own good,’ but aren’t you just a little curious? Surely one small bite won’t hurt you.” Such lovely temptation. It didn’t take a lot convincing for them to give into their desire.

Now before we go any further, it is important to acknowledge that desire is not all bad. Brian McLaren writes of our text, “…there’s nothing wrong with desire. The question is, whose desires are you imitating?” This is the crucial question that this story raises and addresses. We all develop and move through this world through imitation. We begin to learn through observation and mimicking from the very first moments of life. So which desires and whose desires we imitate are vital to the kind of human being we become. McLaren continues, “To be alive is to imitate God’s generous desires…to create, to bless, to help, to serve, to care for, to save, to enjoy. To make the opposite choice – to imitate one another’s desires and become one another’s rivals – is to choose the path of death.”

It is the age-old choice set before people of every age and time. Will we choose life or death? The choice is not always an easy one. In our limited human understanding we as often choose the fruit from the forbidden tree as we do that from the tree of the life. We think, if we just had a little more power or control or knowledge or money or land or armaments, we could eliminate all our anxiety and fear and live securely on this earth. The problem is it was never meant to be that way. In our reaching for that little bit more, we fall off the ladder or out of the tree or over the cliff or into constant conflict and war. The effects are disastrous and the consequences deadly.

In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann tells us that “the God announced in this story is not a petty god who jealously guards holy secrets or who eagerly punishes the disobedient.” He argues that “This story is, rather, the anguished discernment that there is something about life which remains hidden and inscrutable and which will not be trampled on by human power or knowledge. There are secrets about the human heart and the human community which must be honored, bowed before, and not exposed. That is because the gift of life in the human heart and in the human community is a mystery retained by God for himself. It has not been put at the disposal of human ingenuity and human imagination.” Brueggemann asks, “So what is urged, if not knowledge? Ignorance? No, not ignorance but trust.”

We may not be quick to embrace such an affirmation. It may be challenging for us – especially with our relative privilege and affluence – to acknowledge that we are creatures, that we have inherent limits, that the exercise of our God-given freedom comes with limiting responsibilities or consequences. We have an insatiable curiosity, an unbridled desire to know. Can we then live with limits? Being such mature and sophisticated adults, can we embrace old-fashioned, child-like qualities like obedience and trust?

More than one commentator argues that this is not a text to explain the origins of sin, sex, evil or death. As you will have noted, no mention is made of “the Fall” or “Original Sin.” What this is is a story about obedience and trust. As we say here, with some regularity, God is “the More.” There is knowledge, wisdom and understanding in the Godhead that will always be “above our pay grade.” The snake challenges the humans to test that faith statement. “It won’t kill you. In fact, it might open your eyes enough that you’ll be just like God.” And you know, the snake was partly right. It didn’t kill them and it did open their eyes, but it didn’t make them gods. They were still human beings, only now their lives were distorted by what they could see and feel. Their eyes were opened alright, opened to shame and guilt. Their desire cost them the beauty and the innocence of Paradise. All they needed to do was trust and obey, but that desire to be little gods, or maybe just like God the Creator, was more than they could resist.

Brueggemann’s comment makes me think of the story I’ve told before from the television series, Joan of Arcadia. Remember, Joan is the teen-aged girl living in a mythical suburb in southern California. Out of the blue, God appears to her with tasks for her to do in her family, school and community. Each week God appears in a different form – a classmate, a small girl on the playground, cafeteria worker, homeless man on the street, trash collector, etc. and the task provides the drama for that week’s episode. Eventually Joan comes to the place where she asks God for a glimpse of the future. For just a moment she wants to see into the future, to see what God sees. After much dissuasion, God gives in and grants her desire. The revelatory scene takes place in a church sanctuary. In the moment of revealing, we see a kind of psychedelic light show on the small screen. When it is over, we find Joan lying on the floor, unconscious. Even the tiniest glimpse of what God sees and knows is more than a human can handle. There are mysteries far beyond our comprehension nor were we made to unravel them, regardless of the depth of our desire.

When we come to question the eternal goodness of the garden, when we turn our backs to Paradise, we find that the consequences are harsh and certain. But this God we serve is still, above all, gracious, tender-hearted, characterized by steadfast love. In spite of grasping desires, even with our turning away, and far beyond our insistence that we can do it ourselves, there is the waiting One, waiting for us to come to our senses, to see the wisdom of obedience and trust, to recognize that some limits really are for our own good, to come home to the garden. Whether or not our disobedience deserves the death penalty, we encounter a God who does not operate that way, whose love for creation and for us is also beyond our understanding. Indeed, in the fullness of time and need, that same creating, loving God took on human form to draw us close and show us the way back to the life intended for us from the beginning of the world. That life is still rooted in goodness and is always available to us.

Today’s Words of Preparation reiterate McLaren’s belief, “To be alive is to be mindful that we live in the drama of desire. We can imitate one another’s competitive desires, and so be driven to fear, rivalry, judging, conflict, and killing. Or we can imitate God’s generous desires…to create, bless, help, serve, care for, save, and enjoy. At this moment, let us turn toward God, not as rivals who want to play God, but as image bearers who want to imitate and reflect God.” Amen.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper? (October 5, 2014)

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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Texts: Genesis 4:1-17; Psalm 51; James 4:1-8

The drama continues. Now that Adam and Eve are settled outside the garden, it is time for them to be fruitful and multiply. “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel.” Two boys, the first family to feature two sons, something that will become a recurring motif in the biblical literature. The naming rituals seem to support the patriarchal notion of preference for the first born. Walter Brueggemann writes, “The names are suggestive: ‘Cain’ derives from qanah, ‘to get, to create.’   The name is given as praise to God. Cain is celebrated and well thought of. As first-born, he embodies future possibility. Abel’s name is ‘vapor, nothingness,’ without the possibility of life. In the text, Abel is dismissed while Cain is an embodiment of vitality” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis, p. 56).

In fact, Abel appears only briefly in this tale and is gone. Cain is the character that challenges us to consider once more what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God. Abel, indeed, vanishes and we are left to deal with the Cain in each us.

When we read this story in Bible study, I think all of us had a first impulse to ask the question I’m sure many have asked before us, “Why in the world does God favor Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s?” Is there something missing from the text or from our understanding of the Ancient Near East that would explain the preference?

Perhaps it says something about an ancient feud between farmers and herdsman. Harold Kushner writes of scholars who have argued this. “The nomadic shepherds thought that the farmers were wicked people for trying to claim some of God’s earth as their private domain, and then violating Mother Earth with their sharp iron plows and tools instead of waiting for it to yield its bounty as shepherds did” (Harold Kushner, “Cain and Abel: Is There Enough Love to Go Around?” in How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, p. 121).

In Bible study we wondered if there was something in blood versus grain that was more valuable in the ancient sacrificial system. There are others texts that seem to support this. So God would automatically favor Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s because blood is more valuable than produce.

Is there a subtle challenge from the very beginning to the notion that the first son should be privileged over the second? More than once God seems to lift up a younger sibling to inherit the mantle of authority and move the story along. At least the younger son plays an important role in instructing us in how God expects us to live in this world.

However, nearly every commentator agrees that there is no real answer to this question nor is the text interested in addressing it. As frustrating as it may be for some of us, we are not privy to every aspect of the mind of God. God’s reasoning and motivation are above our pay grade. If it is any help, one can certainly argue that this ancient story is just that – a story, a myth, a parable that is not meant to explain everything as it attempts to explain something. At least we can accept that God’s seemingly arbitrary choice is necessary to the story.

One angle of address is to see in these old stories an evolution of our understanding of God. The ancients told tales that were useful in their time and circumstance for making sense of the world around them. Brian McLaren tells us that “For ancient people in oral cultures, a story was like a hypothesis. A good and helpful story, like a tested hypothesis, would be repeated and improved and enhanced from place to place and generation to generation…storytelling was, like the scientific method, a way of seeking truth, a way of grappling with profound questions, a way of passing on hard-won insights. As our ancestors deepened their understanding, their stories changed – just as our theories change” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation,  p. 20).

So what is at stake in this story? As I mentioned earlier, it is the challenge of being fully human in the best since of the word, of learning to live into the image and likeness of God. Sibling rivalry is as old as siblings. Here is evidence in this story of the first siblings. If you want more, I refer you to Harold Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have to Be? – especially the chapter on Cain and Abel.

It is also interesting to note that the Bible’s first mention of sin is in this story. Kushner argues that the sin found here is, in fact, original sin. He writes, “As I read the biblical narrative, the Original Sin is not disobedience nor is it lust. The Original Sin that affects virtually every one of us and leads to other, worse sins is the belief that there is not enough love to go around, and therefore when someone else is loved, he or she is stealing that love from us” (op. cit., p. 123).

Look at the situation this story addresses. There is nothing here to indicate that God does not love Cain. Think of our own stories. I’m sure each of us could tell a tale or two about a time when a parent or a teacher or a loved one made a fuss about a sibling or a fellow student or a child or friend and we felt left out. Your brother got a blue ribbon or your sister got straight A’s. Your child is demanding or attracting all your spouse’s attention. The job you really wanted went to someone else. Your best friend decided to hang out with another. I’m sure you can add to the list.

But it’s a big leap to go from disappointment to believing you are no longer loved or appreciated or valued. In this Cain comes across as vain and self-centered. He was very angry and downcast. “Why?” God asks. “Do you really think it’s all about you?” (Well, isn’t that a big piece of the problem? Surely he thinks that.) “Can’t you be happy for your brother? If you do well, will you not be accepted? Your day will come, my child.”

And then the ominous warning, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” For the first time, sin rears its ugly head. Sin is lurking. It desires to get you in its clutches. Beware if you do not let go of your self-absorption and animosity. They could destroy you.

This is such a powerful statement of our agency. There are choices we can make as we walk this earth. We can choose to give in to the wily tug of sin – all that separates us from our true selves, from our brothers and sister and, ultimately, from God – or we can choose to do well, to live into the love and compassion, responsibility and grace that God blew into the core of our being at creation.

Of course it’s not easy to fulfill our creation in the image and likeness of God. The pull of sin is powerful. We are constantly challenged by that sense that, if we don’t get just what we want, we are not loved, appreciated, accepted. Despite God’s clear warning, Cain gives into his anger and hurt feelings. His self-centered pouting grows dark and ugly, eventually overwhelming him. He lures his brother out to the field and kills him.

“Where is your brother, Cain?” Once again God comes to his creature with a crucial question and once gain the creature lies, trying to keep God in the dark. “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Well, yes, Cain. Yes you are. How could you not know that?” This is central to what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God – loving and caring for your brother and your sister, your friend and neighbor, your colleague and the stranger in the land. “That’s the way I made you. Relationship and community is what it’s all about, Cain.”

It’s not at all clear how much Cain understands by the end of the story. He’s knows he’s messed up but he is still focused on saving his own skin. “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Sadly, we never hear him say “I’m sorry.” He never really repents. He sees that he’s been convicted and he even entertains the thought that he might be guilty. But where is his remorse? Where are his tears for the loss of his brother? It is painful to observe that he doesn’t fully comprehend what it will mean to live the rest of his life without his brother. As someone who has lost his brother, I have to say that Cain’s callousness is incomprehensible to me. The pain is palpable and does not recede easily.

Perhaps that is why God does not exact the expected judgment. No life for a life here. Again, as with his parents, God foregoes the death penalty. Love rules the day. There is enough love to go around, Cain, even for you who has murdered his own brother. However, this is no sappy, sentimental love. By the time he has spent his days wandering the earth, perhaps he will have come to his senses and realized the enormity of his sin. In the end, he may have wished for a quick execution rather than a lifetime to reflect on what he had done. The irony of God’s loving forgiveness is that it gives Cain a lifetime to learn what was expected of him and to understand what he has lost.

As we come to God’s welcome table, let us remember what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God. Let us look to our capacity for caring about life beyond our own, to our ability to let go of our self-centeredness, to our responsibility for brothers and sisters and all creation. God has made us for communion, to live together in peace and harmony, justice and compassion, love and community with one another, with creation and with God. Today, as we celebrate World Communion Sunday with sisters and brothers around the globe, may we see that we are all in this together. Indeed we are brothers and sisters all in the family of God and, yes, each of us a keeper, companion, sibling, lover of every other. Challenging as it may be at times, that is the role which we have been given and the life to which we have been called. Am I my brother’s keeper?

Oh, yes I am, child of God, and so are you. Amen.

God’s Story… and Ours

Doug DavidsonChristian Formation and Family Life

During Sunday school last week, the youth and I were talking about the ways our individual stories and God’s story intersect, and how each of us can play a role in God’s work in our world. I mentioned the work of author Sam Wells, who suggests we might understand the broad scope of God’s movement in our world as if it were a five-act play. But this story is not complete—Wells suggests that we live today in the midst of the fourth act of this divine drama. And the interesting thing is that we actors in this play are not given a script that directs our every word and deed. Instead, we are called to improvise, rooted in and guided by a vital tradition, but living out our individual parts with creativity. In doing so, our stories become part of that larger story.

A focus on the broad scope of God’s story is also shaping our worship and educational programming this year. Last month, our church began using the outline suggested in Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road By Walking to guide our worship on a year-long journey through the themes of Scripture. Similarly, in October, the older youth and I will begin using a new curriculum called Echo the Story, which uses videos, creative reflection, art, and story telling to help youth discover their own identity in the context of the biblical narrative. The youth curriculum breaks the Story down into 12 sessions, which means that even with an occasional break, the youth will complete the story before the congregation reaches the end of the year-long McLaren lectionary. I’ll make sure to tell the youth not to give away the ending!

Elizabeth continues to lead the children’s class, working with our three elementary school kids each week. I’m so grateful for her faithful service every Sunday. I always appreciate the various activities and crafts she puts together to help the kids in exploring the biblical themes of the day.

This month, I hope to schedule a meeting with the parents of our children and youth to talk about their hopes and desires for how First Baptist might meet the needs of its kids and young families. We’re aiming to meet after worship some Sunday in October. I look forward to this gathering, and to hearing how we can support our kids to faithfully live out their own stories, surrounded by God’s love and a community of care at First Baptist.

Doug Davidson
Minister with Children, Youth, and Families

Campaign Nonviolence and Adam & Eve

Three candlesMy apologies for the delay in this week’s Midweek Message. Some mystery of the Ethernet or modern technology has decided my computer may not get online. So we had to do some fancy adapting to get this out and here it is.

Campaign Nonviolence week continues. You can see above the remaining events. I want to encourage you to attend the culminating picnic and talk with peace activist, Kathy Kelly, Sunday afternoon at First Congregational Church. Kelly has recently returned from Afghanistan. Our participation here will continue with our ongoing consideration of Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis and a Revolution of Hope. We made a good start with last Sunday’s conversation in Adult Spiritual Formation. Please join us for the conversation this Sunday as we consider how the framing story of Jesus the Christ can help both to shape our lives and transform the world. It is a challenging prospect but also a worthwhile one to consider.

Meanwhile, in worship we will return to the ancient stories of Genesis. This week, Adam and Eve get thrown out of the garden. Of course, Adam blames it on Eve and Eve blames it on the snake. But God sees through it all, loving these creatures in spite of themselves. Under the theme “Alive in the Story of Creation: The Drama of Desire,” we will consider how the desire to know more, to be more, to be “as gods,” as the snake puts it, is a recipe for growing up that comes with some very harsh consequences.

Please join us at 10:00 AM for worship and Sunday School and stay for Adult Spiritual Formation. Bring someone to share the day with you.

God grant us more light, more love, more life as we journey together.

Pastor Rick  

When Meaning Comes to Call (September 21, 2014)

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Texts: Psalm 145; Proverbs 8; John 1:1-18

When Meaning comes to call, will it find a welcome, a place in our lives? When Wisdom pays a visit, will we make room for it among us? These are crucial questions posed by the texts for today’s service. Brian McLaren argues that in the story of creation, there is a world of meaning, but that does not guarantee we will grasp that meaning and incorporate it in our daily living.

So far we have seen God bring order from chaos, create life on earth, bring about humanity in God’s own image and call it all good. Sometimes we see the goodness in it all, the sacred patterns, the world of meaning. Other times we have difficulty finding our way among the challenges of life on this small planet. We may delight in the beauty of the last rose of summer, a child’s playful mischief, or a song that sings in the soul. We may despair at the loss of a loved one, the challenge of underemployment or ancient enmities that break out in violence and war.   You fill in the blanks. Where do you find meaning in life? What brings delight to your being? When do you feel hope erode and wonder where God is?

Many of us struggle with those scripture passages and stories in our tradition that seem to support a capricious, angry, punitive God, but then we get texts like today’s in which Yahweh is described as one who “…is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…good to all, and [whose] compassion is over all that he has made.” We are told about Holy Wisdom who “was daily [God’s delight, rejoicing before [God] always, rejoicing in [God’s] inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” There is both promise and hope in these ancient words that may still speak meaning to us today.

In his commentary on We Make the Road by Walking, McLaren suggests that there are “four common ways to understand the logic of the universe…” The first, he says, is to see life as “war…a survival-of-the fittest competition to the death.” This is the harshest sort of biological determinism. It posits that humans, along with other creatures, are inherently aggressive and will do anything to protect their own turf and well-being. It is a perspective that drives competition, winning and losing, getting ahead at any price and, ultimately, violence and war.

The second way is to believe that “life is compliance, a keep-your-head-down-and-do-what-your-told story of power, domination, and submission.” This is a kind of hopeless position in which survival is dependent on never rocking the boat, never exercising freedom, and never experiencing the challenges and joy that life holds. Mind your manners, mind your own business, never ask why or what or how or who. Fatalism rules.

Third, is a perspective in which “life is a machine that runs on cold and objective utility, not meaning or morality.” This would be the extreme of modern, technocratic society, the sort of dystopia presented in 1984, where Big Brother keeps society functioning without much question or challenge, or The Giver, in which life is devoid of memory and, therefore, all the meaning and wisdom that memory can provide. This perspective could be linked to the Deist notion of a God who winds up the universe like a giant clock and then leaves it to run on and out on its own.

Do any or all of these framing stories sound familiar? Have you encountered them in whole or in part in your own life and relationships? Each has its practical and philosophical champions. But, as children of God and followers of Christ, none of them supports the faith tradition that we claim. McLaren offers a fourth way in which “life is a story that includes conflict, compliance, and mechanism [yes] – but [also] has a higher or deeper purpose and meaning rooted in goodness, pregnancy, creativity, and love.” We see these dimensions in today’s texts – in the psalmist’s affirmation of the majesty and the lovingkindness of God, in the remarkably creative and ordering power of wisdom and in the Word or Meaning made flesh.

It is possible to trace in the ancient law and prophets, poetry and songs, history and proverbs the course of grace and truth, but we also can get bogged down in the details of times and traditions that do not speak clearly to us. It is challenging, even impossible, at times, to sort out the relation of the familiar material in the unfamiliar context. We make meaning as best we can, but we do not always find the meaning that was intended.

John says that there came a time when God could no longer depend on the ancient texts to tell the story and to establish the intended world of meaning. So God created something new. There was a time when “the Word became flesh and lived among us…” What is this meaning of this mystery and how does it affect the living of our lives?

The Word, in Greek, the Logos, who or what is it? Some would say Logic or the Organizing Principle or Wisdom or Meaning became flesh and lived among us. The Meaning takes human form to demonstrate its possibilities for us and for creation. I have quoted before a favorite passage from John Boswell who says, “A life can be an argument; being can be a reason. An idea can be embodied in a person, and in human form it may break down barriers and soften hardness of heart that words could not.” Does that make sense? Can you identify those times when a human being, a life lived, has helped you to see truth, to find your way, to move to a higher or deeper plane when no amount of rationality or logical argument could get you there?

I think of the witness of Gandhi and King and all those who believe and demonstrate the power of nonviolence when it can hardly be argued to make sense in an angry, hostile, violent world. I think of Mother Teresa and missionaries ministering to the Ebola epidemic who risk their lives to lift up the poor and downtrodden, the sick and dying of the earth against all reasonable odds. I see St. Francis and Dorothy Day and all those who turn their backs on the accumulation of wealth, who embrace poverty and draw close to God in service to the well-being of all creation. These and others bear powerful personal witness to that fourth way of life that finds “…a higher or deeper purpose and meaning rooted in goodness, pregnancy, creativity, and love.”

Boswell continues, “This [living being as ultimate argument or meaning] is, at least in part, what John the Evangelist means when he refers to Christ as logos. Although translators often render it as ‘word,’ it is much more than that. It is Greek for ‘reason” and “argument’: our word ‘logic’ comes from it.” Ultimately, then, “Christ was God’s unanswerable ‘argument.’ [God’s] people had hardened their hearts against his spoken reasons, the arguments propounded – in words – for centuries by the prophets and sages. So he sent an argument in the form of a human being, a life, a person. The argument became flesh and blood: so real that no one could refute it or ignore it” (John Boswell, “Introduction to the First Edition,” Chris Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church, pp. xvii-xviii).

An argument, a manifestation of meaning so real, so powerful that, when seen in all its fullness and understood with the insight of wisdom, can neither be refuted or ignored. It is true that, with the wiles we often bring to the gift of human freedom and choice, we have historically, traditionally taken even this Christ and shaped to our own agendas. Often those agendas have been driven by the first three views of life’s trajectory – the logic of rivalry, the logic of compliance and the logic of meaningless mechanism. But the journey we are currently on as people of faith and seekers after meaning understands the incarnation in terms of today’s Words of Preparation: “The universe is God’s creative project, filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge, and meaning. It runs on the meaning or pattern we see embodied in the life of Jesus. In this story, pregnancy abounds. Newness multiplies. Freedom grows. Meaning expands. Wisdom flows. Healing happens. Goodness runs wild.”

Can you see it, feel it, hear it, smell it, taste it, embrace it – a universe, inhabited by us, along with all creation, a universe full of beauty, opportunity, challenge and meaning? The Meaning takes human form in Jesus of Nazareth, full of grace and truth, imbued with wisdom and radiant with light, the very essence of God in the flesh to show us first-hand who, what, how we were meant to be. Meaning, in the form of peace and justice, compassion and care, healing and wholeness became a living reality in the person of Jesus Christ, who now invites us to come along for the journey, to follow his lead, to make the road by walking.   When this Meaning comes to call, will it find a welcome, a place in our lives? When such Wisdom pays a visit, will we make room for it among us? It may be that our very lives depend on it. Amen.