Hope of the World (November 23, 2014)

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 15:4-13

 

It seems that today’s worship service is, of necessity, a hybrid. To begin with it is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. As one liturgical year draws to a close and we anticipate a new one in the season of Advent, it seems appropriate to recognize and celebrate the fulfillment of the Christhood in life of the child whose birth we will soon recognize and celebrate. The story comes full circle and begins again. The little boy soon to be born once more ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of God in glory.

And of course it is the season of the great US holiday, Thanksgiving, with its dual emphasis on family togetherness and conspicuous consumption. Surely we must sing either “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” or “We Gather Together,” along with other songs of thankfulness for God’s blessings. Before facing “Black Friday and its aftermath, we will gather around tables groaning with the abundance of the feast. We will share the things for which we are grateful before eating ourselves into a stupor and falling asleep before televised football games or seasonal spectaculars.

Many congregations plan their annual stewardship drives to culminate on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, taking advantage of the generous spirit the season evokes. We are no exception.   Today we have asked you to bring your pledges of support so that we might budget responsibly for the ministries of First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, in the coming year. Laura and I and others have asked and will continue to urge you to give generously in the spirit of gratitude for all that with which you have been blessed. As I have said once already this season, I am not embarrassed to ask you to give to support the budget because I believe in the ministries of this church and I believe in your witness as part of God’s beloved community. This congregation – that is, us – matters in this community and in the larger world as we worship, learn, care and serve together.

Then we have been on this journey with Brian McLaren, trying to understand how “we make the road by walking.” Because we need to move on to Advent next week, there were two chapters of the book and six wonderful scripture texts to consider for this week. If you’re not feeling a little overwhelmed by all this, you can rest assured that I am. However, undaunted by the overabundance of possibilities, we plunge ahead. Perhaps we will find a convergence of all the themes laid out before us for today. It is not unlike the rich array of dishes laid out for us at Friday’s Gratitude potluck, which, in the end, made a meal!

So let’s pick up where we left off last week. If you remember, our “Song for Sending Out” was the great hymn by Georgia Harkness, “Hope of the World.” This is one of my favorites and its words remained with me through the week, especially its opening phrase, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.”

I suppose on Christ the King Sunday the tendency is to think of Christ enthroned in glory. I know that when I googled images there was a rich collection of paintings, carvings and mosaics of the triumphant Christ, crowned in splendor. Still, there is something compelling in the Harkness image of Christ who, because of his compassion, is the hope of the world. We can glory in Christ ascendant. We can sing wholeheartedly the hymns to the Christ who reigns with God in heaven: “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne…” But how well do we understand this God who takes on human form and dwells among us out of concern for the well-being of creation?

It’s a challenging paradox, this God of glory who is also the Christ of great compassion. Hear Harkness’s prayerful words once more:

Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion:
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent.
Save us, your people, from consuming passion,
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.

In the midst of abundance and celebration, do these words speak to you? Fearful hearts, conflict rent, consuming passion, false hopes and aims? Does any of that sound familiar? I think both Isaiah and Paul heard something of Harkness’s longing in today’s texts.

Paul is writing to a people by “conflict rent.” There was a battle going on among the Christ followers in Rome between Jews and Gentiles. If it was not an all out dispute between who was in and who was out, there was certainly tension between who was more and less favored. We may not be caught up in that particular conflict, but how many such battles can we identify in our world today and how many of them affect our own lives, at least indirectly? Can you name a few?

Paul says that this is the “hope” we find in the scriptures, that “…the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant[s us] to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He goes on to explain how the Jewish Messiah is also the Christ who welcomes all, Gentiles included, from before the beginning of time. In Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike find their hope. Hope of the world – not just part of the world, not just some of the people, not just aspects of creation – it’s the whole wide world.

Perhaps Paul’s vision was well summarized in this morning’s special music:

Many members, one body; many hearts, one hope, one faith in You.

            And when we disagree teach our eyes to see that we are one

in the family of faith, the family of faith, joined by the miracle of grace.

 

We are brothers, we are sisters…children of the one Creator of all.

            So as we live and grow, help us always know, that we are one

in the family of faith…

Compassion does that to you. It makes you aware of all that’s around you. It helps you hear the hopes and fears, the dreams and challenges of others. It give you access to the hearts and minds of everyone you encounter, if you will let it function in yourself. This is one of the crucial identifying characteristics of the Christ, the capacity for compassion, to feel as the others feel, to see as the others see, to share, ironically, in a common humanity. Christ sees and understands our fearful hearts, our conflicts, consuming passions, false hopes and aims. Christ also shares our dreams and joys, our laughter and play, our communion with one another and all creation. Compassion offers a uniting vision of what the world might yet be.

Isaiah’s vision is somewhat different but perhaps still related. You may also remember from last week that I began my sermon with several “texts of terror” – Joshua’s instruction to obliterate the seven tribes that occupied Canaan and a couple of the more violent passages from the Psalms. These verses from the second chapter of Isaiah come as a kind of oasis in the grim landscape of destruction promised for a disobedient, unfaithful people. Most of the first chapter of Isaiah and much of what follows today’s text is a prophecy of doom, related to all those empires that have and will conquer Israel and Judah. “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:10-15).

Not exactly an encouraging word, is it? But here is the hope in these first verses of chapter 2. Walter Brueggemann points out a rhythm to Isaiah. He says, “For all its harshness, the tradition of Isaiah characteristically moves to hope” (Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Companion, Isaiah 1-39, p. 24). He affirms that “There is hope, but it is deeply postsuffering hope. Yahweh’s wrath is deep and serious and will be outlasted only by Yahweh’s resolve to bring Jerusalem to its true and proper function as a place of justice. The poet looks historical threat full in the face but holds out for the holy purpose of Jerusalem…” (op. cit., p. 22). The day will come when the nations will stream to God’s holy mountain, seeking instruction in peace and justice: “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
bringing to hungry souls the bread of life:
still let your Spirit unto us be given
to heal earth’s wounds and end our bitter strife.

I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on the glitter of the holiday season. There is much to celebrate and much for which we can be grateful. Still, even in a time of celebration, it is important to remember that there is much to concern us in the world around us and in our own lives. There is still trouble all over this world and parties and shopping and even celebratory worship services will not make it less so. Maybe in this season we can celebrate and be grateful for the Hope of the World. Maybe we can be touched by the Christ of great compassion. Maybe we can share the hopes and fears, the joys and concerns of all those we encounter. Maybe we can learn to live in harmony with one another as one family of faith. Maybe we can beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Maybe can pledge ourselves not to learn war anymore. Maybe we can heal the earth’s wounds and end all bitter strife.

Hope of the world, who by your cross did save us
from death and dark despair, from sin and guilt:
we render back the love your mercy gave us;
take now our lives and use them as you will.  Amen.

 

Made Strong (November 24, 2013)

sermonsMADE STRONG

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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Colossians 1:9-20

King – “a male monarch or ruler of a country or major territorial unit; especially one whose position is hereditary and who rules for life.”  So records the dictionary.  I am wondering if anyone here today has ever met a king.  What was he like?  I am reminded of the charming scene from Amahl and the Night Visitors in which the boy asks each of the visitors if he is a real king.  “Are you a real king, too?” he asks the dark one.  “Yes” he replies in a sonorous bass.  “Have you regal blood?”  “Yes.”  “Can I see it?” the boy presses.  “It is just like yours,” comes the patient response.  “What’s the use of having it then?”asks the incredulous child.  “No use,” is the thoughtful reply.  Apparently there is nothing inherently unique or special about royal blood or wearing a crown or living in “a black marble palace full of black panthers and white doves.”  It has its social value, but in the end the poor crippled boy and the imposing king are not that different.

We know about kings from reading, of course, literature and history and even the news.  Just yesterday I noticed on the cover of National Enquirer that poor Prince Charles has now turned 65, leaving him no hope of ever being King of England.  We have images of kings from art and movies and television.  The Bible is rich with stories of kings, good and bad, wise and foolish, strong and weak.  We remember devious assassins like Richard the Third and dashing heroes like Richard the Lion-hearted, weak, evil kings like Ahab and the glorious rule of David.  Kings rule with power and might and accumulate land and wealth.

So how did this get to be Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday?  Jesus of Nazareth, whom we now know as the Christ, scarcely fits the definition.  In truth, the Feast of Christ the King or in more modern terms, the Reign of Christ, is a quite recent addition to the liturgical year.  It was first proclaimed by Pope Pius XI in December of 1925 in an encyclical that lays out the church’s teaching on the kingship of Christ, who rules not only over the church, but over the whole world as well.  Even if that rule is not fully realized yet it will be by the end of time.

Still, for many modern Christians, especially free-thinking Baptists, the notion of celebrating Christ as king is a troubled one.  I suspect many of us would agree with Dan Clendenin who writes, “Today the language of kingship is outmoded and offensive. There are good reasons for this,” he says. “We don’t live under kings, so the metaphor feels irrelevant. And we’re rightly repulsed at how the reigns of kings meant a reign of terror for most subjects — massive wealth and power attained by cruelty and exploitation, which was then passed on by birthright to people who did nothing to deserve it.”  I believe there are several of those stories in the Bible.

Clendenin suggests that the blame for crowning Christ king should be put more on Paul than Pius.  He also sees that “…the language of kingship is embedded in the Christian story. The earliest followers of Jesus, [as well as] his detractors, used the language of kingship to describe who he was, what he said, and what he did.”

Today’s gospel reading from the 23rd chapter of Luke tells us that Jesus died an ignominious death, hung on a shameful Roman cross between two thieves.  Over his cross was nailed a crude sign proclaiming with bitter irony that this was the “King of the Jews.”  The crowd laughed at him, chided him to save himself, spit on him, gambled over his garments.  There was nothing royal in that scene and the blood that flowed was just as real as yours and mine.

When we rehearsed the Song of Reflection for today’s service, several choir members pointed out that it seemed awfully somber for the rapidly approaching holiday season.  It sounded more like Lent than Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas.  But, indeed, it is a recommended song for Reign of Christ Sunday.  Like our Call to Worship, it juxtaposes pain and majesty, suffering and redemptive power, compassion and grace in ways that give us real insight into Christ as king.

The genius of the metaphor is shown in the way Paul takes it and spells it out in the introduction to his letter to the Colossians.  Christ is king because he is the ruler over all that is and has been from its very creation.  And yet he is a king like no other, one who takes the notion of rule and transforms it into something beyond human imagining.  As the old hymn sings so beautifully, “The King of Love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never…”  King of love! Now there’s an oxymoron for you.  Didn’t you catch the definition?  A king rules with power and might, with armies and a treasury.  Surely a King of Love is doomed to defeat and death.

In Paul’s beautiful hymn that begins the letter to the church at Colossae, he helps us see and understand the kind of king Christ is.  He is both Cosmic and Crucified Christ, ruler of the universe and one who gives his life in humility and service to the living God.  Paul says “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” What a majestic perspective of the Cosmic Christ to whom we owe our life and allegiance! What promise of glory!

At the same time Paul points out that “He is the head of the body, the church;” – that‘s the very human us – “he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in [very human] him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  As the contemporary song asks, “What if God was one of us?”  That’s the point Paul says, God was one of us, in the person of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, who walked the earth to tell us and show us what life with God was really like.  In the Crucified Christ we have been invited to live into that amazing, grace-filled relationship with joy and thanksgiving.  God was one of us who suffered and bled and died and rose again, all in very human being.

The great turning point in Amahl and the Night Visitors comes when the poor mother, faced with abject poverty, nothing to eat, no fuel for the fire, no hope for herself and her crippled son, decides to take a little of the kings’ gold.  She rationalizes that they won’t miss a little and it is for the survival of her own dear child.  She is caught red-handed by the servant.  In the ensuing panic, Amahl fiercely defends his mother.  When things have finally quieted down, one of the kings, Melchior, observing their desperate need, sings,

“Oh woman, you may keep the gold.
The child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter.
His haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning, he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life, and receive our death, and the keys to his city belong to the poor.”

We exist in this sacred tension between our vision of the Cosmic Christ, the great king of the universe and the Crucified Christ who gave his life in humble service.  Living somewhere between the Cosmic and the Crucified Christ, as members of the body of Christ, can we turn from all that lures us away, all that threatens the fulfillment of God’s reign, all that frightens us, to pray with our whole being that we might be filled with knowledge of God’s will, with spiritual wisdom and understanding; that we might lead lives worthy of Christ, fully pleasing Christ, bearing good fruit and growing in the knowledge of God?  Then might we also pray to be made strong – not from dominating power or wealth or fame or other false promise on which we’ve hung our star; may we be made strong from Christ’s own glorious power to endure all with patience and to walk in the light of God – even when times are rough and the road ahead does not look promising.  Always and forever, the King of Love walks with us.  Amen.

Pastor Rick: November 21

We had a lovely time last Friday at our annual Gratitude Dinner.  Not only was the food delicious but we had a delightful time creating a collage of good things in the life of our congregation this year.  If you haven’t had a chance to see our collective “masterpiece,” it is on display in the church entryway.  Thanks to Pastor Tripp for organizing the program and to everyone who helped with the meal.

 Sunday was Stewardship Sunday, and again it was delightful to gather as a community to share further our gratitude to God for all we’ve been given.  It was very moving to hear people share things for which they were grateful un the life of our church this year.  Thanks to everyone who brought your pledge forms on Sunday.  If you have not returned yours, I urge you to do so as soon as possible.  This information is invaluable in budgeting and planning for the coming year.  It is also an opportunity to express tangibly the “abundant joy and overflowing generosity” that the gospel draws forth from each of us.

This Sunday is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.  It marks the end of the church’s liturgical calendar.  The next Sunday we begin a new liturgical year with Advent.  This year Advent does not arrive on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which gives a little more space to consider “Christ the King.”  What kind of king reigns as the “King of Love”?  What does it mean to give ourselves in allegiance to a reign of “truth”?  Sunday will be an intergenerational service as we celebrate the kingly Jesus as the whole community.

We also have a little more time to “Hang the Greens” this year.  I encourage everyone to stay after worship to help decorate the church for Advent and Christmas.  If you have visions in blue, white and gold (our Advent colors,) bring them along to share.  There is opportunity here for folk of all ages.  Once we are done decorating, we’ll gather around the tables for a simple lunch of soup, bread, fruit and cookies.

See you Sunday morning at 10:00 AM in the sanctuary for worship, sharing and learning, followed decorating and dining.  Invite a family member, friend, colleague or neighbor (or three!) to join the celebration.  Strangers are welcome, too!

May God bless us and keep us on the way,

Pastor Rick