Joy Bursts Forth (12/13/2015)

Advent- candelabraA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Text: Luke 3:7-18 (The Message); Philippians 4:4-7

Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers. Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice! You nest of snakes. Hardly the holiday greeting you were expecting this morning or wanted to hear. Is this some sepulchral spirit of Christmas past trying to scare old Scrooge into changing his wicked ways? Is God mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore? Has this prophet gone mad on locusts and wild honey, giving the business to those who have come out to hear him?

Is this the text we will really want read on Gaudete Sunday, that Sunday supposedly focused on joy? Yet, here it is, courtesy of the committee that sets the lectionary. I know the group that worked on this Sunday’s worship in our Advent Planning Workshop chose Paul’s exhortation of the Philippians to “Rejoice!” as the focus text for today. I apologize to them for straying into the wilderness with John. As we have wrestled the past two weeks with the stark contrasts between the anxieties, fears and terrors of the world in which we live and promises of hope and peace, it seemed disingenuous to leap directly into joy today. Still, we ought to get to rejoicing before we’re done The truth is my own feelings for you are much closer to Paul’s for the church in Philippi than John’s for the crowd at the Jordan.

In fact, you may have observed that I am not John, the Baptist. Instead I am Rick, the Baptist. I confess a fascination with John’s exhortation but I do not see you as a brood of vipers or our community as a nest of snakes. You may also have noted that most of the time I talk about we and us rather than you. I assume that whatever it is you wrestle with I do as well, that the challenges of my life are not altogether different from the challenges in yours. And certainly we inhabit the same planet, holding its difficulties and possibilities in common. John may feel free to shake his finger at those who come to hear him. Perhaps as an ascetic and prophet, promised of God to be proclaimer of the coming Messiah, he has earned that right. But I feel no more worthy of untying John’s sandals than he did those of Jesus.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, I wonder how we can connect John’s word of repentance to Paul’s words of affirmation and the joy of this day? The consensus among the reflections I consulted is that joy comes with righteousness, not the kind of perfectionism too often associated with righteousness, but with setting your heart right with God and finding right relationship with all creation. Both John and Paul affirm this, each in his own way.

John’s over-heated rhetoric is full of hyperbole. He shouts to get the attention of the crowd and to hold it. Perhaps that’s what you have to do when you’re preaching outdoors without the aid of amplification. The older I get the less I like people shouting at me. But, note that people are flocking to hear John, walking all the way from Jerusalem and the surrounding territory to the Jordan in the blazing sun, just to be called names and chastised. How many of us would make the effort? Right, I didn’t think we’d be organizing a field trip any time soon.

Still, look at the crowds being drawn to practitioners of overblown proclamation in our own time. How do you explain the appeal of many of our current candidates for political office? Why are people drawn to the bad news hurled at them? How many show up because it is “the popular thing to do”? I know John, the Baptist, doesn’t belong in the same category with Donald Trump and Anthony Scalia. Nor do I intend to do depth analysis of the psychological appeal of a negative word. Suffice it to say, humans often tend be fascinated, even obsessed with bad news. Just flip on your television for the daily broadcast.

But once John has their attention, he has something more to say, something that lowers the heights and lifts the depths and makes the rough places smooth. He may not articulate it the way Jesus or Paul will, but he, too, has a vision of God’s Beloved Community. He sees the possibility of it coming on earth and he longs for that coming. Maybe his rhetoric is over the top, but joy comes in the fulfillment of such longing. John has come to proclaim it so.

What John knows, however, is what we all know somewhere deep inside. In order for the Beloved Community to become real some things have got to change. When he shouts “Repent!” he’s not urging folks to writhe around in sack cloth and ashes, ruing their wrong doing and pleading for mercy at the hands of an angry God. He’s urging people to get with the program. Turn things around. God’s Beloved Community will come through our own practice of justice and equity, of peace and love, of compassion and care. Repentance is not meant to be the burden of self-flagellation and striving for perfection. It’s the joy of living in right relation to God, to neighbor, to all creation, even to one’s self.

To their credit the crowd gathered around John – at least some of them – don’t run in terror or turn their backs in disgust. They get the picture enough to hang in with him. They see good news in what he’s proclaiming and they want to tease it out. “What must we do, John? What must we do to be saved? What must we do to know health and wholeness? What must we do to experience real joy in our difficult lives and troubled world? And John is ready for them. He shows compassion for those that turn to him in much the same way Jesus will. The answers are simple – and challenging, but if it was too easy it wouldn’t really be satisfying, would it? Share, he says. Practice fair trade. Be honest in your dealings. In short look to right living, the living that links to right relationships. Another way to put it, love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself. If your living, your relationships, are rooted in love, you will certainly see that that joy bursts forth. It’s like the old song sings, “Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth” – when I recognize it and embrace it as my way of life – “how can I keep from singing?”

Bruce Epperly writes of Luke’s account of the Baptist, “What is central to John’s speech is not the harshness of his language – indeed, his inflammatory rhetoric – but the possibility that we can change our lives.” He says, “We can let go of injustice, materialism, consumerism, and inequality to become citizens of a realm of freedom, love, and abundance.” God’s Beloved Community! He concludes, “John always points to Jesus’ messianic age: his refining fires temper the dross of our lives to make our lives something of beauty and love, and prepare us to meet the coming Christ. The good news is that when we change our lives, we open to a wellspring of new possibilities for ourselves and our communities” (Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary, Advent 3, December 16, 2012,” patheos.com). And joy bursts forth.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, he is saying something similar to what John said but in a gentler tone. Still, Paul is urging his friends to get with the program and to stick with it. He is concerned with right living, the sort that brings in God’s Beloved Community. He urges his friends in Philippi, “Let your gentleness” – your generosity, your magnanimity, your compassion, your Christlikeness – “be known to everyone…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And joy bursts forth. How can it not if we live like that?

Repent! Rejoice! They’re related, more than we had thought. As another old Quaker song sings, “to turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right.” Or perhaps it is in our coming round right that we find our delight, that joy bursts forth. In a contemporary story of repentance, of making an about face, and rejoicing that may speak more to us than John’s preaching on the snake pit, Phillip Campbell tells of his grandmother who late in life left her long-time congregation to join another. When questioned as to this surprising move, she said “she liked it there because of the positive message she received. For the first time in her life, she felt God’s loving presence. ‘God wants me to be happy,’ she said. ‘I never knew that before. I thought church was about keeping me from doing what I was not supposed to do. And I never felt like I was good enough.’ Late in life, Campbell says, “my grandmother heard a word of God’s grace and experienced a joy she had never known before. She began to heed Paul’s instruction to the church in Philippi: ‘Rejoice in the Lord, always; and again I will say, rejoice’” (Phillip E, Campbell, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, “Philippians 4:4-7, Pastoral Perspective,” p. 62).

God wants us to be happy, to know joy in right living, to find the wonder, the grace, the healing of the Beloved Community. Yes, there is work to be done. Yes, times can be tough and the way hard. Yes, sometimes God seems far away and hope wanes, but then a voice is heard, crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Holy One. All creation shall see the salvation of God. The Beloved Community will be known on earth as in heaven. We will see Emmanuel, God with us. And, lo, in the midst of it all, joy bursts forth. Amen.

Hope Bubbles Up

Love Came DownA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Text: Psalm 25:1-10; Jeremiah 33:14-16

When I suggested “Love Came Down” as our Advent theme this year, Gregory raised a question as to whether or not this theme is too tied to the archaic notion of a three-storied universe. I don’t think I see the universe in those terms but his question did cause me to pause and ponder. Much of our literature and imagery reflects heaven above, hell below and earth caught somewhere in the middle. We don’t give so much attention any more to hell, that underworld burning with fire and brimstone, but heaven, as the place God dwells, is still generally aspired to, some place beautiful, above and beyond. I think we are still more drawn to images of the vast and unimaginable expanse of space than we are to think on the molten mass at the center of the earth.

However, I don’t believe we have to posit a literal three-storied universe to believe that there is life, that there are qualities, that there is spirit, beyond what we know well. There is mystery, maybe even a little magic, in creation that is beyond our grasp. It’s not that we have no access to the mystery, that we are never drawn to the magic, that we are never touched by the Holy, but there is a sense that some things, some One, some Presence, comes to us from beyond ourselves. We are challenged and, when open, changed in encounter with the sacred Other.

This conversation with Gregory led to a rather playful collection of themes or titles for the services and sermons of this Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season –“Hope Bubbles Up,” “Peace Blows In,” “Joy Bursts Forth,” etc. Check your Advent calendar for a complete listing. Hope, peace, joy, love, Christ, Word, light – each of these meaningful metaphors of the season in some sense comes to us from somewhere else – from above, below, afar, near at hand. They come to us in ways familiar and totally unexpected. Perhaps this is central to the wonder of the season.

The notion that hope bubbles up comes partly from wondering whether all the wonders of the season need to come from above. If not, what would be the opposite of above? Below? I began to imagine what grows and blossoms from the soil. Flora of every sort, even those that push their way through the frozen ground of a bleak midwinter or a shoot breaking forth from a stump thought long dead. Dust to dust, we are told, so the blinded hymn writer sings, “I lay in dust life’s glory dead, and from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.” Then our Seasons of the Spirit material offered the powerful image of volcanic activity pictured on the back cover of your bulletin which made me think of Old Faithful and the geo-thermal power of geysers bubbling up from below.

There is a very real sense in which hope is born deep inside us and bubbles up to the surface. As does the psalmist, we live with a longing for something more in our lives. “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” Whatever we have acquired or become, it is never quite sufficient. Echoing the psalmist, Augustine also expressed this longing when he wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Something in the depths of our being remembers and longs for the fullness of the creation we were meant to be.

This longing is never more real than in the season of Advent when we wonder, we watch, we wait in anticipation again of the coming of the Christ, the Word made flesh, the Holy one in human form who comes to redeem the whole creation. “Oh holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin. and enter in; be born in us today.” We live with a longing that the Source of our being will come close to us from above or beyond or deep within and touch us in ways that will cleanse us, heal us and make us whole. There is hope that we may still be all that we were created to be by the Creator of stars of night, the Giver of life, the Lover of our souls. Is this not that very Holy One to whom the psalmist lifts his soul – the source of truth, of righteousness, of goodness, of mercy, of steadfast love, of salvation? Is this not the God in whom we, too, hold our hope?

“Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free. From our sins and fears release us; Christ, in whom our rest shall be.” We live in a time of fear – fear that threatens to lead to despair – despair, the antithesis of hope. We talked about this Tuesday in Bible study, how fear can control our lives and cause us to turn from this God of justice and compassion to false gods of self-serving security. Let’s build our walls higher and thicker. Surely that will be our salvation. Keep the strangers away, arm the population, lay up for yourself all the earthly treasure you can get your hands on. Remember who’s number one. That will undoubtedly ensure our safety.

But Jeremiah, speaking for God, doesn’t see it that way. We find him under a kind of house arrest. The leaders of his people have been dragged off to exile in Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem looms large on the horizon. This troublesome prophet, who has been harsh in his judgment while weeping bitter tears for his people, suddenly proclaims a remarkable word of hope. From the bottom of the barrel and the depths of his being he asserts that the days are surely coming when God’s promises will be fulfilled and justice and righteousness will rule the land. Has the prophet lost his grip on reality? Has the strain of the work overcome him? Have his own words of gloom and doom done him in?

From somewhere else comes these eloquent, noble words, an amazing confession of trust in the God who holds both the future and the prophet. Jeremiah has been safely centered in God all along. In an even more remarkable witness, Jeremiah does not just proclaim words of hope; he applies them in direct action, he lives them. While his way of life is crumbling around him, his own prospects of exile growing daily, the Babylonians gobbling up the land and destroying its ancient. sacred structures, Jeremiah elects to buy a piece of property. Yes, you heard right. This gloomy, weeping prophet of destruction, in obedience to God’s instruction, chooses to invest in a future that he believes is inevitable. In the end, if this great prophet sees anything at all of the future, he sees Who holds that future and puts his faith in that very One. Just when you think he is going to give up in despair, he expresses his hope by putting his money where his mouth is.

Seeing that hope grows from the ground up, Bruce Epperly writes of our text, “Jeremiah speaks words of hope.  A branch, full of blossoms and eventually fruit, is bursting forth from an arid and broken nation.  Life abounds beneath the current uncertainties.  Life is emerging quietly like the fig tree’s growth and we can open our eyes to the deep down hopefulness of life or live in despair.  There is a future – God has a vision for you, for good not evil, for a future and hope.  This future is not predestined or automatic, but the invitation to become the future that we dream about, incrementally embracing life’s fruitfulness and tending to growing things all around us” (Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary: The First Sunday of Advent,” November 27, 2012, patheos.com).

Is there anything we can learn from the psalmist’s affirmation and Jeremiah’s living into hope? Will we allow ourselves to become victims of the fear growing all around us or will we say “no” to terrorists and fear mongers of every stripe and “yes” to the hope that bubbles up within as God again comes to us to redeem us? Do we sense that life still abounds beneath our own current threats and uncertainties, that there is a future, that God has a vision for us? Can we yet become the future that we dream about, incrementally embracing life’s fruitfulness and tending to growing things all around us?

Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place or in the place of the psalmist. What fuels your fears? What feeds your anxiety? What might lead you to despair? Among friends and in a community that cares about you, let yourself consider these things in the safety of this place and time. These things help to make up what Carl Jung calls our “shadow,” those qualities that also linger deep inside and can be highly destructive if left unattended. We need to look closely and try to understand, but we are not to dwell there.

It is important to know what threatens us and frightens us, what stirs our anxieties and fuels our fears. As a paradoxical expression of grace, today’s Words of Preparation suggest that “The power of hope is made more palpable by the fragile circumstances of everyday life. A cancer diagnosis. The loss of job and home. A fight with friends or family. The rejection from a college. A divorce. The death of a loved one.” Is this not what happens to Jeremiah when finds hope bubbling up in the worst of circumstances? Even in the deepest darkness, the Light shines and cannot be overcome.

Finally, these Words of Preparation also remind us that “…often hope comes in small doses and flickering images. Signs that are fleeting and brief, and usually seem insignificant. Advent is a season in which we can cultivate a posture of waiting and watching with hope. It is hope that anchors us – it nourishes us, it sustains us, it keeps our eyes up” (Advent Meditation, d365.org). So, friends, where do you take heart? Where does hope bubble up in you? From the ground of your own being, what glimmers and glows even in the darkness that you might hang your future on? Perhaps you would be willing to share your own word of hope on this first Sunday in Advent.

It is my longing in this Advent season that we will find hope born deep inside each of us, hope that bubbles up to bring about the future that God imagined for us and all creation from the beginning of time. May hope anchor us, nourish us, sustain us and keep our eyes looking up or down or wherever it is we find hope bubbling. Amen.

Rooted and Grounded in Love (6/14/2015)

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

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Text: Psalm 116; Ephesians 3:14-21

Friday night we went to hear – and see – a fascinating production of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas admits to having struggled over the years with the complexity of Beethoven’s great musical and religious masterpiece. Drawing on his own unique genius, Tilson Thomas used orchestra, choruses, soloists, lighting and projection in a bold and creative attempt to clarify what he sees as the architecture of the piece. He conceives the work as entering a great cathedral and encountering its majesty and its mystery.

Though it evoked for me memories of many a magnificent cathedral, I thought especially of the cathedral at Chartres, just outside Paris. Not only is Chartres exceedingly beautiful in structure and adornment, there is something about it that immediately says, “Surely the Presence of God is in this place.” I think that is the same sense that Tilson Thomas was trying to capture in his re-imagining of Beethoven’s mass. I can’t honestly say it all worked for me. I find that the music speaks powerfully for itself at most turns but I applaud the maestro’s efforts to do something new and exciting with such a well- established work.

However, there was moment on Friday that caused my spirit to soar and brought tears to my eyes. At the end of the rather reflective Kyrie that opens the work, in which the combined forces pray that God and Christ will have mercy, there is a brief pause before a thunderous exclamation of Gloria – “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth.” The production had progressed from the beginning in which some members of the chorus and the soloists wandered onto the stage and walked about as if they were, indeed, entering a great cathedral in wonder and awe. The lighting was subdued and the projections evoked the view looking up into the vaulted ceiling of a great gothic structure.

But as the Gloria was suddenly trumpeted, the lights went up, color was added to the images and the boychoir came running onto the stage from both sides in a profusion of ecstatic joy. “Glory to God” not only sounded in the room, it was seen and felt to the back of the balcony. In the moment, I experienced something like the fullness of the word, the kind of moment when you want to bow your knee before God in adoration and gratitude.

I think this is what the writer of Ephesians had in mind when he wrote the beautiful prayer that is the morning’s Ancient Word. Sally Brown suggests that “An intriguing possibility is that the prayer, and much of the ‘filling,’ ‘dwelling,’ and ‘glory’ language of the book [of Ephesians] as a whole, connects to Old Testament traditions of the glory of God filling worship spaces – tabernacle and temple.” In the letter to the church at Ephesus, she writes, “…we find that the human community of mainly non-Jewish believers is envisioned as a ‘dwelling place’ for God…The apostle prays, beginning in 3:14, for God to ‘fill’ this new ‘dwelling place’ that is the church…The apostle prays for a church filled in every dimension by God, with and for the glory of God” (Sally A. Brown, “Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-21, July 29, 2012,” workingpreacher.org). “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth.”

What if this was our prayer for our community gathered in this place? “Fill us, O God, with a holy vision and the grace to live it out. Grant that a sense of your presence be strengthened in the depths of our inner being. Empower us through your Spirit. Let Christ dwell in our hearts. Keep us faithful, rooted and grounded in love.” I wonder if we began and ended every service of worship, every class, every meeting, every activity, with such prayer how our lives and our witness might be transformed. Might we come running into the Presence, overflowing with ecstatic joy, crying “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth”? Would the well-being of God’s shalom become our goal and the coming of God’s Beloved Community our way and our work?

What would it mean for us truly to comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”? Would that fill us “with all the fullness of God”? I am especially drawn to the notion of being rooted and grounded in love. You have heard me say before that I believe the only real power in this world is the power of love, that it’s love that makes the world go round, not military might or political influence, not academic prestige or fame or wealth. As a child of God and follower of Christ, I believe love will have the last word.

When I titled this sermon, I was thinking that the rooting and grounding of plant life would be the appropriate image with which to work. It always amazes me to take a cutting from a plant, to watch it root in water and then to plant it in the ground and see it grow into the fullness of its being. Remember a couple of weeks we considered John’s image of how the branches extend from the vine so that they might bear fruit. If the branches are secure in the vine and the vine is secure in the soil, all will be well and life will be abundant. Remember that John says we are those branches and Christ is that vine, rooted and grounded in God, which is to say rooted and grounded in love (John 15:1-8).

Bruce Epperly writes that “Ephesians speaks of quantum leaps of energy that emerge when we are connected to God.  Perhaps, the author remembers Jesus’ promise ‘you can do greater things’ or the parable of the vine, ‘connected with Christ we will bear much fruit.'” He continues, “From God’s riches in glory – the glory of the big bang and the god-particle, we receive inner power through God’s Spirit.  Christ dwells in us and the gifts of divine Shalom are ours.  We abound even when we struggle.  God is supplying our needs and giving us manna enough for each day.  This is not the prosperity gospel, but the simple joy that comes from living in relationship to God’s unsurpassable love”(Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary: Everything’s Possible,” July 29, 2012, patheos.com).

However, after my encounter with Beethoven and Michael Tilson Thomas, I started thinking about architectural images, for buildings are also rooted and grounded in their own way. They may not grow and bear fruit organically but without a sure foundation, they are certainly liable to collapse. Remember Jesus’ parable, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:24-27).

This little story is particularly salient as part of Tilson Thomas’s conception of the mass focused on the importance of the words to Beethoven in structuring his mass. Many of the projections were words that would, at times, dissolve into letters raining down from above as when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us or letters rising up as prayers ascending to the Holy One. The solid building of the structure is meant to facilitate the flow of words and the Word between God and creation.

So my memory was drawn to the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake. Most of us remember the collapse of structures built on sand and the safety of structures sunk into the rock. At the time, we lived with friends in a large duplex in Oakland. The building was well-constructed back in the early part of the twentieth century by a contractor who specialized in building schools and other public buildings. It was solid structure built into the side of a hill. From the street it was a two-story building but in back it descended the equivalent of four stories to the deck below.

The night of the earthquake our neighborhood was without power, so we gathered in the lower unit in the candlelight to listen to the news on a battery powered radio and drink a little wine. We knew the earthquake had been devastating but it was not until the next morning when we could see the visual evidence on television that we became concerned. We called the city to come inspect the foundation on our home and they found enough damage to “yellow tag” the building. For six months we lived elsewhere as engineers created and contractors executed an elaborate shoring up of the foundation. In addition to sheer wall and other construction, they sank several large concrete pillars down into the solid rock of the hillside. I have a feeling that that building is now virtually indestructible.

Of course, I know that is not literally so but it is the way of a sure foundation to give a sense of security and safety. When we are rooted and grounded it is much more likely that we can abide the storms of life, that we can face challenges with wisdom and grace, that we can overcome obstacles and keep journeying on toward the full realization of God’s Beloved Community. And I do believe that love is indestructible. That is why I see it as the ultimate source of power. “…for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it…” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7).

To be rooted and grounded in love is to look out on all that God has created, to see the goodness inherent in it and to commit ourselves to the fulfillment of that goodness in ourselves and all that God has brought into being. To be rooted and grounded in love is to shout in ecstatic joy “Glory be to God and peace to all on earth.” To be rooted and grounded in love is to walk this worldly way with all its beauty and hardship, delights and challenges, with God as the end, Christ as guide and the Spirit as companion. In today’s Words of Preparation, Brian McLaren tells us that “Whatever ember of love for goodness flickers within us, however feeble, or small…that’s what the Spirit works with, until that spark glows warmer and brighter. From the tiniest beginning, our whole lives – our whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength – can be set aflame with love for God” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 212). Through Christ “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,” may it be so. Amen.

 

Later on …

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

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Text: John 20:19-31

Christians have been celebrating Easter for over 2000 years now. We know the story by heart. As I suggested last week, this story has become so much part of our lore, so familiar to us that it goes largely unquestioned. We celebrate the event annually, yes. but how often do we try to put ourselves in the place of those first disciples? How often do we try to see from their perspective, to feel what they felt, to understand what they were going through?

Jumping to John from Luke’s account, we pick up the story later on, that same day. John writes that much has happened. We know all about it — Mary and Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” at the empty tomb in the early morning darkness, the dazzling figures who suddenly appear, Mary’s encounter with the risen Christ. Was it too much for them to grasp, more than they could wrap their troubled minds around? When folks have been traumatized, as those first followers surely must have been by the cruel crucifixion of their leader, it would not have been an easy or sure thing to take in the news that he has risen from the dead. Indeed, the most normal response to trauma is a kind of merciful numbness, no thoughts, no feelings, a kind of nothingness that allows time for adjustment and healing. This good news that comes so quickly may be more than they can handle.

So later on, that same day, we find them huddled together in that common room, doors locked against all that they fear. But what is it that they have to fear on that first Easter? Unfortunately, John uses the term “the Jews” and, because of that, much antisemitism has been unleashed on Jewish people over the ensuing centuries. The writer of John was probably Jewish. (Certainly he  was if he was John, Jesus’ original disciple, the one “whom Jesus loved). He was writing to a Jewish community, telling them the tale of a group of people who were themselves Jews.

It would be much more accurate to say those gathered in the locked room were afraid of the religious authorities, those Jews who controlled the Temple and the practice of their ancient religion. These were the ones who, out of their own fear of Jesus’ challenge to their power and practice of the faith, had engineered his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Those first followers were, rightly, afraid of the powers that dominated and oppressed them, that would have it in for them because of their association with the seditionist, Jesus of Nazareth. They had no way of knowing for certain if they were being hunted down as terrorists, a threat to the religious elite of their own tradition and to the empire. Even if Jesus was alive, what was to prevent some twisted recurrence of what had taken place on Friday?

Then, as Elisabeth Johnson suggests, “They are likely afraid for their own lives, afraid of their uncertain futures.” As exciting as a living Christ might be, what did that actually mean for the living of their lives? In fact, she continues, “…just maybe, the disciples were also afraid of Jesus. After all, they had failed him miserably. Peter had denied him three times, and the rest had deserted him… Perhaps the last person the disciples wanted to meet on that evening was Jesus, risen from the dead to confront them with their failures” (Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on John 20:19-31,” April 27, 2014, workingpreacher.org). This seems an intriguing possibility. If we were to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment, how might we feel at the prospect of having to face this one who has loved us so thoroughly and whom we have abandoned so completely?

So later on, that same day, here they were huddled in the same room, locked away in fear and suddenly, without warning, there he was standing among them, in the middle of that crowded space. Imagine for a minute what it must have been like. Place yourself in a secure space, doors locked and bolted from the inside and suddenly someone is there who wasn’t there when you locked the locks. It reminds me of the shock old Scrooge experienced when his midnight visitors appeared in his secure chamber, uninvited.

However, Christ does nothing to frighten them further. His first words are neither challenging or chastening. “Peace be with you.” Not just “peace” but the classic “Hebrew greeting, ‘shalom,’ a blessing that,” as Elisabeth Johnson says, “connotes more than tranquility, but a deep and holistic sense of well-being — the kind of peace the world cannot give” (Johnson, op. cit.). In spite of all he has been through, Christ remains concerned for their well-being; soon they are rejoicing. Who wouldn’t, on such an occasion? Can you imagine yourselves experiencing the joy of that evening, excitedly reaching out to the one who was dead and is alive again? Sorrow, guilt, shame, the numbness of trauma are all left behind as Christ obviously is not there to hold their failures against them. All is forgiven in the warm embrace of Christ’s shalom.

Then, later on, that word again, “Peace be with you. Remember when we were talking and I told you I wouldn’t leave you comfortless, orphaned? Well here…”  and “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” In John’s story, Pentecost is as simple and powerful as a breath, the very breath of life.

People have struggled for years with his next word, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Surely he didn’t mean to give his followers, then or now, the power to forgive sin as we have come to understand it. Isn’t forgiveness of sin God’s business, one of those things far above our pay grade?

Again, Elisabeth Johnson writes, “As many interpreters have demonstrated, ‘sin’ in John’s Gospel is not primarily a moral category; rather,” she says, “it is fundamentally unbelief, the refusal to receive the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.” So then, “Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, he is further specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be ‘released’ (aphiemi) from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be ‘retained’ or ‘held onto’ (kratéo). The stakes of this mission are very high indeed” (Johnson, op. cit.).

Clearly Jesus has returned to send those first followers, that fellowship of the fearful, out with renewed power to carry on the work of the Beloved Community that he had come to share with them and, indeed, with all creation. Part of Christ’s word of peace, of shalom, part of Christ’s concern for their well-being is that these are the ones he has trusted and trained to carry on his ministry. These are the ones Paul will characterize as the living “Body of Christ,” once Jesus has ascended to God. The breath of life is the power of God to motivate them to go out and transform the world in the name of the Risen One.

Still, later on, that evening, Thomas shows up. Who knows where he’s been? Maybe as a practical man he’s been out trying to find enough food to feed the assembly or maybe he’s just gone out for some fresh air, to escape the suffocating atmosphere of that locked and fear-ridden room. Anyway, he’s having none of their tale about a risen Christ. We love to say he was a “show me” kind of guy and history has unfairly painted him as a doubter. I like to think of him as a realist and a sensate type, one who perceives by putting the pieces together in practical and logical ways. “I want an experience of this risen Christ,” he insists, “for myself.”

I like Bruce Epperly’s view of Thomas. He writes that “He missed out on the spiritual revival of the upper room; and wanted proof that Jesus was alive. His quest was not just intellectual, it was experiential and spiritual. He wanted to see Jesus, feel his breath, and touch his body. He wanted the real presence of the risen Jesus not just talk about it” (Bruce Epperly, “Just Breathe,” in Living a Holy Adventure, April 22, 2014, patheos.com).

So later on, a week later, in fact, they’re all gathered in that same room. Is the door locked? The text doesn’t say, but the “doors were shut” and once more Jesus stands among them. Only this time, Thomas is there. I don’t think Thomas needs to touch Christ’s wounds. His sense of the presence of the Risen One is enough for him to cry out, “My Lord and my God!” It was the living experience of the presence of Christ that he craved and, in that moment, his craving was fulfilled.

Epperly writes, “We [all] need breathing space and it is a credit to the disciples that they gave Thomas breathing space, and allowed him to live with his questions.” As a result when, later on, “…Jesus returns to the group, [Thomas] is amazed and transformed, and he can breathe again” (Epperly, op. cit.). The community holds space for Thomas. As a result, he is able to have the same transforming experience that they had had. Isn’t that what the Beloved Community does for you and me and all the world, hold the space for us until we find for ourselves an experience of the living Christ?

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus tells them. We know that those so blessed are descendants of the fellowship of the fearful, gathered in that locked room so long ago. We are all kin to Thomas, desiring and finding our own unique experiences of the living Christ, held in faith and love, grace and compassion by a redeemed and transformed fellowship that is the Beloved Community of God.

Later on, John writes at the end of his book, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Because they experienced and believed and cared and shared, we share with them the Body of Christ. We join a fellowship of those freed from fear, living in the liberation of Christ’s shalom. We also share in the global uprising that is the work of the Beloved Community Christ came to inspire, beginning with them and stretching on to eternity.

As Brian McLaren says in today’s Words of Preparation, “So fellowship is for scarred people, and for scared people, and for people who want to believe but aren’t sure what or how to believe. When we come together just as we are, we begin to rise again, to believe again, to hope again, to live again. Through fellowship, a little locked room becomes the biggest space in the world. In that space of fellowship, the Holy Spirit fills us like a deep breath of fresh air” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 175). From such humble beginnings the world is transformed in the reality of the Risen Christ.

Amen.

 

 

New Day, New Covenant (October 20, 2013)

sermonsNEW DAY, NEW COVENANT

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

Sunday, October 20, 2013

 

Text:  Jeremiah 31:27-34

Well, now, what has become of our “Weeping Prophet”?  If not optimistic, Jeremiah at least has taken a turn toward the hopeful in today’s text.  He has left the gloom and despair, the pain and destruction of exile long enough to bring a word about a new day and a new covenant.

This section of Jeremiah, beginning with chapter 30, is known as the “Book of Consolation.”  Jeremiah, in the midst of the dire predictions he brings to Judah, is still touched with a deep empathy for his people, for their failures, for their pain, for their suffering, for their desires.  Like God, he feels with the people, suffering when they suffer.  That is why he is known as the “Weeping Prophet.”  Perhaps one attraction to Jeremiah over the centuries has been this capacity to see the harsh realities of life around him at the same time he holds a vision of a new day and a new covenant.  Some prophets just proclaim their hard word and let the chips fall. Jeremiah is a man of both hard truth and deep compassion.  He cares about the pain and possibility of his people as much as he cares about their failures and consequences.  It seems very much to foreshadow the way that Jesus walked this earth.

The new day is surely coming, he reassures the people – a new day when God will replenish the earth, will redeem all of Creation.  Ultimately, salvation is not just for God’s wayward people, it will somehow be for all that God has made.  It has taken Jeremiah 29 painful chapters to get to this element of his prophecy.

If you go back to chapter one, to the language of his call, you will find that he was given a six-point charge.  The first four points of his charge as God’s spokesperson, God’s representative, were “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.”  However, the final elements of his charge were “to build and plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).  I don’t think Jeremiah’s charge was so much literally to engage in these activities himself as to lay out for his people the inevitability of each – first, the plucking up and pulling down, the destruction and the overthrow, through which they all experienced the same anguish; and then these great words of hope for building and planting to which God and God’s people would ultimately turn.

A new day is coming, a day of hope and promise, a day in which Jeremiah claims “thus says the Lord: I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart,I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:10-14).

It seems that this promised new day is tied closely to a new covenant.  But is it truly a new covenant, or is it a new approach to a covenant that is as old as creation?  More than one commentator argues that there has never been more than one basic covenant between God and humanity.  It is that fundamental agreement that God will be our God if we will be God’s people.  The trouble is we have tried to make that covenant conditional when God’s forgiveness and grace have been constant and unconditional.  We have burdened this covenant of loving relationship with expectations and demands, with laws and codes, with rules and regulations, with systems of reward and punishment.  The evidence of this is clear in the very ancient words that we claim as sacred scripture.  A huge part of Jeremiah’s prophetic enterprise is to convince his people that they are being seiged, killed and carried into exile because they have failed to keep God’s laws.  They have broken the ancient covenant.  It’s simply a system of punishment and reward.  When they mess up, God smites them.  Then, when they say they’re sorry, God forgives them and makes everything nice again.

But we know God doesn’t work that way.  We know it from our own experience.  Of course there are consequences for our behavior, but God doesn’t pull strings of reward and punishment like some cosmic puppeteer.  What we label good or bad happens to people we also label good or bad, and it happens indiscriminately.  Is there another way to look at this ancient covenant that is more consonant with what we know of life?

It seems to me the essence of covenant is this:  God brought creation into being as an original blessing and called it good.  God created human beings in God’s image and likeness and called us good.  In a profoundly simple sense God desires nothing more to than to live in communion with us, to be our God as we are God’s people.

It is a relationship of deep and transforming intimacy.  It is a relationship characterized by nothing more – and nothing less – than love.  In fact, the writer of Jeremiah describes God as husband to Israel.  When the word translated “know” in the phrase, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…,’” the word thus translated is the one that often means sexual intimacy.  There is no need to obsess over the literalness of the language.  The point is that we are made to be in the most profound, intimate relationship imaginable with God.

Of course that kind of relationship will have a radical affect on how we live our lives.  Bruce Epperly writes that this text asks us to see “a vision that God acts in ways that invite us to be part of a greater adventure, companionship with God in healing the world.”  God delights in sharing life and care for creation with us.  Epperly continues, “[Our] alignment with divine evolving order, sharing the good news of an open-spirited gospel that reflects a living, moving God, and prayerful persistence in seeking the greatest good are all responses to God’s vision of Shalom,” of the peace and well-being, healing and wholeness God desires for all creation (Bruce Epperly, “Prayer, Scripture, and the Law of our Being,” The Adventurous Lectionary, 10-20-2013, patheos. com).

This is the new covenant that leads to God’s new day, or rather the new approach to the ancient covenant built into the very nature of things that will take us to that day.  No more unrealistic expectations and demands, binding laws and codes, restricting rules and regulations, impossible, oppressive systems of reward and punishment!  We are invited to live in the dangerous freedom and close embrace of God who loves us and desires the best for us and from us in the living of our lives.

Jeremiah’s ancient wisdom is absolutely contemporary and draws us toward God’s amazing future of abundant life.  It invites us to work with God in the building of that future.  Last week, Pastor Tripp said, “I want to know how to live here and now but as someone who believes that God is here and that the Kingdom is now.”  Isn’t this a desire we hold in common as children of God and followers of Christ?  I hear this as a desire for the new day and the new covenant that Jeremiah promises

Epperly again writes, “Jeremiah aspires toward a heart-felt relationship with God in which we do the good as a result of our relationship with God.”  He says, “Jeremiah imagines a new day for Israel. Divine help is on the way. The broken country can be healed. Alienation can give way to reconciliation. The law…can become our deepest reality, written on our hearts.”  In response to this deep desire to know God and God’s way, he says, “…the prophet imagines a day in which the nation will walk with God again. The laws of God, written in our hearts, will no longer be a source of dissonance, but flow out of our relationship with God. Every action can reflect the intimacy we feel toward our Creator and Lawgiver. Law is no longer an external judge or something we need to live up to, it is the inspiration to a new way of life, loving justice and walking humbly in relationship with God” (Epperly, op. cit.)

A new day, a new covenant.  Can you see it, feel it, taste it, smell it, imagine it? A day and a way in which God will dwell in us and we will dwell in God.  Thrilling, frightening, challenging, appealing!  It is coming.  See it breaking through?  May it be fulfilled in us – and soon.  Amen.