A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon,
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA, Sunday, February 1 2015
“We are the people of God, come to this hallowing place. We are the body of Christ, bonded together by grace.” We will close our service today with this lovely hymn, written by David Bartlett and John Landgraff for another beloved congregation, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland. I especially like the lilt of this refrain which helps set the tone for our theme for this year – “To Be God’s People.”
In one sense, of course, we are God’s people because all of creation comes from God and returns to God. We are beloved children, made in the image and likeness of God, the same God who made the “blue sky, the delicate flowers of the tulip poplar tree, the distant blue hills, the sweet-smelling air full of brilliant light, the bickering flycatchers, the lowing cattle and the quails that whistle over there.” Still, as did Jesus himself, we also grow and mature into a deeper understanding of what it means to be God’s people. We are both blessed and called to be God’s people.
The text that I’ve selected to support the theme is 1 Peter 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of the shadows into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” What a great gift and rich responsibility – to be God’s people. Obviously the audience to which the letter is addressed knew a time when they did not see themselves as God’s people nor did they know God’s mercy. There was a time when they lurked in the shadows but now they live in God’s glorious light. They are called together in order to proclaim the mighty acts of God as they grow into their understanding of what it means to be God’s people.
The risk in this text is that “chosen” is a loaded term. The Hebrew people, as well people of other lands and cultures, including the one in which we live, have believed themselves to be God’s chosen people. This belief has caused a lot of grief when people were convinced they had “God on their side.” It is important to remember that when God calls on any of us to carry responsibility for spreading God’s light and love, goodness and grace, righteousness and mercy over the face of the earth, we must be careful not hear this call as an affirmation of superiority. To be chosen is not to be elevated, rather it is to be beloved. It is a call to humble service for God to others of God’s family everywhere, especially those who still dwell in the shadows and have not known mercy. We may be set aside to do a certain task but it never makes us any better than any other member of God’s family. The very essence of grace is God’s unconditional love and compassion for all that God has made. It is always gift and never merited.
This is essentially the word and the way that Jesus came to teach. Brian McLaren writes that “Jesus truly was a master-rabbi, capable of transforming people’s lives with a message of unfathomed depth and unexpected imagination. But what was the substance of his message? What was his point? Sooner or later,” McLaren claims, anyone who came to know Jesus would hear one phrase repeated again and again: the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 103-104). It seems to me that claiming the kingdom of God is the primary work of the people of God. This is the task to which we have been called.
In today’s Words of Preparation, McLaren makes it clear that “for Jesus the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now. It wasn’t a distant future reality. It was at hand, or within reach, today.” It is not something we merely hope for; it is something we commit our lives to bringing about in the here and now. I know kingdom language is not as meaningful now as it has been in the past. To claim the God’s reality as a kingdom was a direct challenge to the kingdoms of this world. It was a shocking reversal of accepted reality. God rules a kingdom to which all the kingdoms of the world are subject, to which all earthly power is beholden.
For contemporary ears and minds, McLaren suggests some alternative terms – “nation [of God], state [of God], government [of God], society [of God], economic system [of God], culture [of God], superpower [of God], empire [of God] and civilization [of God]…global commonwealth of God, God’s regenerative economy, God’s holy ecosystem, God’s sustainable society or God’s movement for mutual liberation.” I have sometimes used realm or reign of God though those also have kingdom overtones. I experimented with culture for a while, but Betsy Koester took offense at that term. You can experiment with these, see if any of them trip off the tongue and stick in your consciousness. Each captures at least a significant part of what Jesus came to teach. Or come up with a creative phrase of your own. Of all the ones McLaren suggests, I like “God’s beloved community” best. It seems to me the right goal toward which God’s people might aspire. Don’t be surprised to find me trying on that expression moving forward.
Friends, God’s beloved community is at hand. “God’s beloved community is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…” “With what can we compare God’s beloved community, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed…the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” To be God’s people and live into God’s beloved community, this is what the Teacher came to teach us.
Jeremiah proclaims that God is making a new covenant with the beloved community, a covenant in which God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God’s rule of right living, God’s way of compassion and grace, God’s way of peace and justice…these will be written on the hearts of God’s people and be so familiar that they shape their way of living. Jesus, the teacher, was steeped in this tradition. I can’t believe that Jeremiah’s great promise of the new covenant, the renewed relationship with the Holy One, would not have echoed in the Teacher’s consciousness as he taught about God’s beloved community.
Truly, to be God’s people and to commit ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s beloved community, may this be the focus and purpose of our life together in the year ahead. Amen.