A Strong Foundation (8/16/15)

Sanctuary is openA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, August 16, 2015

Text: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17

Twice in the last three years I have made a pilgrimage to Overland Park, Kansas, for the biennial Mission Summit of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. These trips have been particularly evocative not only because Kansas is my birthplace but also because my earliest memories come from that part of the world.

Overland Park is a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, where our family lived from 1950 to 1953. For me, that period spanned ages three to six. As I have mentioned before, during those years my father was the founding pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, the suburb next to Overland Park. In that time of the post-war boom in the church, American Baptists had a program called “Churches for New Frontiers,” in which they purchased land and planted churches in promising suburbs.

My father, following a missionary yen, left a church of 1000 members to pastor a congregation of 13, which met in someone’s living room where the pulpit was the top of a new-fangled television set. At least this is the story I’ve been told. The vivid memory I do have from that time is of my father, wearing work clothes and his grey fedora, helping to roof the first building on the lot at 75th and Roe. That building was eventually the parsonage, but in the beginning it served as the church building. Upstairs was left open as a single large room which served as the sanctuary and the rooms in the lower level functioned as classrooms.

I don’t know how much of that building beyond the roof was the work of parishioners, but I’m certain someone laid a strong foundation there. I don’t mean only the foundation of the physical plant. After 65 years, that little house is long gone, but Prairie Baptist Church seems to be going strong.

I also can’t tell you the full extent of my father’s evangelistic passion that led him to leave a large congregation for one that didn’t even exist when he signed on. It must have been some of that same passion that led Paul to travel all around the Mediterranean carrying the gospel to the Gentiles and planting churches all along the way. Part of the story of my father’s missionary journey across Kansas was that, in spite of low pay and a growing family (my younger sister, the last of four siblings was born in 1951,) he stayed long enough to lead the congregation through its first crisis. He helped the congregation through the tension that arises when a second wave of members arrive, challenging the comfort and control of the charter members. I believe my father, like Paul, was a “master builder” who laid a strong foundation and the congregation weathered the challenge and grew and prospered.

People in Palo Alto also laid a strong foundation for this congregation now in its 122nd year. We have a long and rich history of faithful witness and service. But, as we face an unknown, uncertain future, I wonder what it is that constitutes a strong foundation for a church. In the hymn we just sang Rod Romney wrote that the “The church’s strong foundation is God’s eternal love…” Does that sound right to you? Is that the rock on which our church is founded, the pillars sunk deep in the soil that lift our spire towards heaven, the grounding from which our ministry rises and shines? Is it a foundation on which we can continue to build?

We know that Paul was dealing with a contentious congregation in Corinth. He believed he had laid a strong foundation – the one foundation of Jesus Christ, the sure foundation of the empowering Holy Spirit, the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. But he was worried about what was being built on that foundation. He was afraid that false prophets, bad teachers, and self-centered preachers were leading the people astray and creating chaos in the congregation. I suppose my father must have worried that the charter members of Prairie Baptist Church would not be hospitable to new folk, would not offer a warm welcome to strangers so that the message of God’s eternal love would distort and die from inbreeding.

How do we encourage one another and work together to carry the gospel forward into God’s future? In a column on “adaptive change,” Amy Butler reflects, “The old ways just are not working. The church is in need of creative leadership to take it into the future. We might need to think outside the box, to consider solutions we have never thought of before, to pursue adaptive change. What will this mean?” she asks, then answers, “Well, it will mean that people will not be happy…but life moves on…and the Spirit of God blows fresh wind wherever it wills. It’s our job to respond, discomfort or not. It’s adaptive change, and it’s true for our individual lives and for the church.”

In conclusion, she wonders, “When will we have the courage to boldly embrace this kind of change, to encounter the new opportunities that come as possibilities and opportunities instead of problems? Change is hard. This is a true statement. But change comes, whether we want it or not. The Spirit of God is always creating new possibilities where we prefer to endow old institutions. Will we have the courage to embrace this change? Or will we keep searching the aisles, hoping to replace what we had?” (Amy Butler, “Choosing Adaptive Change,” 8-11-2015, baptistnews.com).

The strong foundation is laid, foundation of God’s eternal love. The question is what will we build on it moving forward? Paul says we might resort to “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw.” But we know that, literally, wood is the only one of those resources with which we might build a building. Paul is more concerned with the qualities that characterize a congregation than he is with building a church building. He is wants us to consider when the refiner’s fire is lit, what will be destroyed and what will be purified?

Remember the three little pigs? Neither the house of straw nor the house of twigs survived the wolf’s bad breath. Only the sturdy brick structure built on a strong foundation withstood the horrible huffing and puffing. We have been given this strong foundation of God’s love for us and all creation, a foundation that can withstand any evil powers that threaten to disrupt us and consume us. What will we build on it?

I don’t mean to be a prophet of gloom, but the good news is being undermined, distorted and destroyed by the false prophets, bad teachers and self-centered preachers of our own time and place. The threatening powers are not just individual, they are also structural and systemic. Some of the biggest challenges to the church are embedded deep in our traditions and too often operate outside our consciousness – like racism, classism, sexism, power and privilege. As Amy reminds us change is hard.

Brian McLaren writes that “Jesus promised his followers three things. First, their lives would not be easy. Second, they would never be alone. Third, in the end all will be well.” “But,” he continues, “all is not well now, and that raises the question of how…how does God get us from here to there? How does God put things right?” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 245).

In this chapter on the “Spirit of Holiness,” McLaren focuses on God’s judgment, which, at first, struck me as a curious emphasis. As I imagine some of you do, when I hear the word “judgment” I think of “hellfire and brimstone.” We were raised to believe in a literal separation of the “sheep and goats.” It was better to be scared into heaven than to burn in hell. It was a terrible legacy that led us far from any strong foundation based on God’s eternal love. For me, anyway, the notion of eternal punishment simply will not reconcile with a God who is love and eternally loves by definition.

McLaren’s argument sounds to me something like the parent who expects the best of us because she loves us so. In his view, this a God of restorative justice not a God of vengeful retribution. The place of judgment is to make things right, to restore the blessed order of creation, to build the Beloved Community on the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. The call to be the best self, the best community that we can be is a call to fulfill God’s vision for us from the beginning of time.

Paul says we – you and I collectively, the church of Jesus Christ – we are “God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in” us. To live into that reality is not an easy thing. To establish God’s temple in the here and now, to be God’s dwelling place will constantly shape and re-shape our witness. It is inherently counter-cultural, not easy but worthwhile work. If we trust that we are never alone in the work, we can also trust that in the end all will be well.

In our words of preparation, McLaren writes, “If we believe in judgment [as] God’s great ‘setting things right,’ we won’t live in fear. We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world. If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just and peaceable now. If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward light each day in this life. Then, someday, when our time comes to close our eyes, we will trust ourselves to the loving Light in which we will awaken, purified, beloved, forever” (McLaren, op. cit., pp. 247-248).

A strong foundation is laid. “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” Let the church continue to be built and re-built on God’s eternal love. Amen.

The One and the Many (September 15, 2013)- Denver

First Baptist Church, Denver
First Baptist Church of Denver

A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Denver, CO
Sunday, September 15, 2013

Text:  1 Corinthians 12:4-13

In my first days as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, I encountered a mother and her young son in the church hallway.  The boy, who was 7 or so, had just finished a lesson at the music school that occupies much of the second floor of our educational wing.  I greeted them and engaged the mother in a brief, casual conversation.  Eventually, she turned to her son and introduced me as the pastor of the church.  His eyes grew wide as he gestured all around, “Do you own this church?”

I was slightly taken aback by his question.  No one had ever asked me that before.  I could see how his young mind was working, but I reassured him that I did not own the church.  I only worked there.  On reflection, it did cross my mind that it’s the people who own the church or at least its building.  The building had been there long time before I arrived and would likely be there long after I left.  And then it also struck me that the church, in a larger sense, belongs to God and to Christ, who is its head.  That was too much to lay on a little boy, so I simply wished them well, inviting them to join us any time.

This role of pastor is a curious one.  I do not own the church, though there are times when I feel it owns me – both literally and figuratively.  The pastorate is more than an occupation or a profession; it is a calling and a high commitment to serving God as well as a community.  The classic refrain is that a pastor is on call 24/7, year round.  Following this lead, many pastors fail to take care of themselves to the detriment of their own well-being and that of their congregation.  I trust that the First Baptist Church of Denver and Brian, as your pastor, will make mutual care and support a priority.  You will all benefit from the practice.

This summer, after Brian had invited me to preach at this installation service, I had another encounter in the church hallway.  (Funny how much ministry goes on in the church’s hallways!)  A woman from the neighborhood had brought her aging mother to see the church and to inquire about the possibility of her mother attending First Baptist.  The mother’s background was Southern Baptist and I immediately had concerns about how comfortable she would feel in our progressive Baptist setting.  I told her a little about us and encouraged her to come check us out.  I had further concerns, though, when she informed me that she had been attending so-and-so’s church in Southern California.  I believe she expected me to recognize her pastor’s name in connection with his large church.  It was clear she had a different conception of church than I.

It’s always made me uncomfortable to hear people say, “Oh that’s Rick Warren’s church” or “Bill Hybels’s church” or “Nadia Bolz-Weber’s church” or…you fill in the blank.  As I have already said, no church is “my church” as pastor.  In fact, in the best Baptist tradition, we try to forgo any hierarchy.  The pastor may be the spiritual leader and the chief administrator, but, for Baptists, she is to be the “first among equals,” because sacred to our tradition is a belief in the “priesthood of all believers.”  At her best, a Baptist pastor is one who facilitates the spiritual life and leadership of the people whom she serves.  In a classic sense, Baptist pastors are called to be “servant leaders.”  I pray that this church will never become Brian Henderson’s church but will always be seen as a blessed community known as First Baptist Church.  Regardless of background or training, we are all on a spiritual journey in which a pastor gains as much from a hallway encounter as a congregant receives from a Sunday sermon.

In a little while we will sing a wonderful hymn by a gay, Methodist pastor, hymn writer and off-Broadway composer who for many years was on the staff of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.  Al Carmines was a clever, eclectic composer and writer.  This is probably his best known hymn.  I suggested this hymn to Brian after he told me that members of the fabulous Denver Gay Men’s Chorus would be singing “One Voice” at this morning’s service.  “Many gifts, one Spirit,” the hymn proclaims, “one love known in many ways.  In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise one Giver, one Word, one Spirit, one God known in many ways…”  The One and the many.

The theme for this hymn is clearly drawn from the words of today’s second Sacred Reading.  I have a fondness for the letters the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.  I think this is because First Church, Corinth, seems like any number of contentious, contemporary churches.  You’ve got the wealthy lording it over the poor, making sure they get the choicest elements of the meal before the ordinary folk are ever served.  You’ve got splits and factions over theology, practice and leadership.  You’ve got a congregation living at a great international crossroads with all the challenges and blessings of multiculturalism.  Don’t the issues sound like those confronted by modern congregations?  Do any of those concerns crop up wherever you worship, including this group gathered here today?  Ever bicker over money or power, influence, theology, leadership, style, etc.?

Well, Paul was a clever writer and a skillful politician.  He had his own agenda for the Corinthian Christians and he’s not shy about letting them have it.  Still, when he gets to this point in his argument, I think he’s on to something ageless.  There are many gifts, but one body.  He’s speaking here of the body of Christ, one his favorite images for the church.  As Jesus Christ has gone on to reign in glory, his disciples are left on earth to be his body, to carry forward his vision and live out his ministry.

Now none of is Christ in totality, though we may be touched by a Christ-consciousness and carry Christ-like qualities in our lives.  Paul argues that the only way Christ can be complete in the world today is if we pull together as Christ’s body – “many gifts, one spirit.”  In this 12th chapter of First Corinthians, Paul pushes the metaphor.  He writes, “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as [God] chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:14-21).

So, if we did a little poll today, I wonder how we’d do.  How many hands to we have here?  How many feet?  Who has eyes to see?   Who has ears to hear?  Who can smell the coffee brewing down the hall?  Are there any hearts of compassion present?  Any sharp minds here today?  For the fun of it, take a moment to consider, if I am a member of the body of Christ, what is my part – foot, hand, eye, ear, nose, brain, belly?  Now take it a step farther, what is my role vis-à-vis all the other parts?  How do I fit in? Where am I most useful?  When do I take the lead?  When do I step back and support another’s function or leadership?   Take a minute and look around.  In the strength of your imagination, try to see where and how you might fit as a part of the body of Christ and, by extension, the First Baptist Church of Denver.

I know we are not all members of this community nor do we all share common backgrounds and beliefs.  Still, I believe we can find ways to support and participate in the life of this congregation as it seeks to live into a period of renewed service to God, to this neighborhood, to this city and to the wider world.  Good and exciting things are happening here that at minimum need our best wishes, our prayers and our support.  Clearly this is a place that welcomes the One and the many.  That, in and of itself, is a good thing.  The larger community can only be blessed by its ministry and by that of its visionary servant leader, Brian Henderson.

A while back, when Brian was going through a rough transition and thinking he would need to leave the ministry, along with others, I encouraged Brian not to give up too quickly.  It was clear to me then and is clearer now that Brian has remarkable gifts for ministry.  This congregation is to be congratulated for recognizing those gifts and calling him as your pastor.  At the same time, this is not Brian’s church, nor is he even the head of it.  Paul makes it very clear that Christ is the head of the body, the church.  It will take all of you working together to realize the full potentiality of your call to discipleship and your shared vision of the reign of God in this time and place.

To the members and friends of the First Baptist Church of Denver and to my friend, Brian, I pray that your dreams, grounded deeply in your love for God, for Jesus Christ, for the Holy Spirit, for one another and for the world beyond your doors, bonded together from many into one, will be fulfilled.  May God bless you all with infinite blessing and keep you faithful – the One and the many.  Amen.