To Be Free (November 9, 2014)

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Texts: Exodus 20:1-21; Matthew 22:34-40; Hebrews 10:1-18

 

The Ten Commandments. They have become an iconic litany, carved into stone and placed in prominent places of judicial decision as well as houses of worship all around the world. I wonder how many of us can recite all ten. Perhaps this morning’s “Litany of Deliverance” jogged your memory. The Decalogue has taken a central role in this country’s culture wars as people have fought to keep their sacred monuments in public places. “A 2004 Barna poll indicated that 79% of Americans oppose the idea of removing displays of the Ten Commandments from government buildings, even though another survey indicated that fewer than 10% of Americans can identify more than four of the commandments” (Dan Clendenin, “Ancient Words for Modern Life: The Ten Commandments,” September 29, 2014, journeywithjesus. net).

I suspect a significant number of that 79% were Baptist. In spite of our historical advocacy for the separation of church and state, there are Baptists who would lie down in front of the wrecking ball come to remove one of those granite monuments from in front of their court house or state house. It’s strange to find folks entrapped in defense of the very kind of idol that is prohibited by those same commandments.

Last week we looked at the liberation of a people as we sketched the journey of Moses and the children of Israel from slavery to freedom. We saw God as one who desires that God’s people not dwell in slavery, as a God who hears the peoples’ cry for liberation and acts to set them free. The God of the Exodus is one who gets people out of slavery and sets them on the path to a land of promise where they may live an abundant life of in blessed liberty. And this God goes with them on every step of that long and difficult journey. We also saw connections to people of every age and from every corner of the earth who have claimed the promise of the Exodus that God is a God of freedom, a God who lifts oppression, a God who gets people out of slavery.

But this week, Brian McLaren raises a different concern, how does this God of freedom get the slavery out of the people? We did touch on this last week when we talked about freedom and license and our capacity to use our freedom to selfish and destructive ends. It is again ironic to consider how we might use our freedom to enslave ourselves simply because we can.

I told the Bible study group on Tuesday, that one of the images that has stuck with me in this journey we’re currently on was in the Cain and Abel story. It is that moment when God says to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). Such a critical moment for Cain. One of the things God is saying to him is that he is free, free to choose but also responsible for his choice. He is free to choose liberating love for his brother or to be enslaved by his anger and his lust to be avenged for his presumed slight.

As I said when we considered this text, what struck this time around is Cain’s freedom. He has this moment when he is completely free to choose. The choice he makes will shape his life from the inside out as well as the outside in. Is it a hard choice? Of course it is. If it wasn’t a real challenge to turn from slavery to freedom, do you think we’d still be reading about it thousands of years later?

It’s a long road to freedom. McLaren writes, “We…must remember that the road to freedom doesn’t follow a straight line from point A to point B. Instead it zigzags and backtracks through a discomfort zone of lack, delay, distress, and strain. In those wild places, character is formed – the personal and social character needed for people to enjoy freedom and aliveness” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 42). Think of the freedom, the richness Cain might have known if he’d chosen to love his brother. Not the least of the blessings would have been to have his brother walking with him on life’s journey, not crying out with haunting voice from the blood-soaked ground in which he was buried.

I’ve been singing that song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” for a lot of years now. I think I first heard it as a cover by Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary fame back in the early 1970s. There is also a powerfully moving rendition by the great Nina Simone. It became something of an anthem in the Civil Rights Movement. For me, it initially expressed some of my deep feelings about being marginalized by the church for being gay. The first time I sang it was at a Baptist meeting for which I was supposed to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I know I upset some people with my unannounced change of song, but it felt important on that day to share my pain and frustration. At that point, I did not see any bridge over the troubled water between me and the church, so I couldn’t sing about it with any integrity. I don’t know how effective my protest was for others but it satisfied me on that day. I felt the power of being able to express what was on my heart and mind.

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” I still feel that way at times. Not for the same reasons that motivated my protest forty years ago. There are other ways I wander in the wilderness after all these years. I don’t feel so much oppressed as a gay man. The church – at least in some places – has made great progress in inclusiveness over those years. The things that enslave still come from without but also from within. It’s complicated. We live in this eternal tension between freedom and expectation, liberty and law, love and judgment.

I’m not asking for public confession, but a more generic expression of those things that tend to enslave us today. When McLaren speaks of “Getting Slavery Out of the People” what comes up for you? McLaren, again, argues that “The truth is that we’re all on a wilderness journey out of some form of slavery.” He says, “On a personal level, we know what it is to be enslaved to fear, alcohol, food, rage, worry, lust, shame, inferiority, or control. On a social level, in today’s version of Pharaoh’s economy, millions at the bottom of pyramid work like slaves from before dawn to after dark and still never get ahead. And even those at the top of the pyramid don’t feel free. They wake up each day driven by the need to acquire what others desire, and they fear the lash of their own inner slave drivers: greed, debt, competition, expectation, and desperate, addictive craving for more, more, more” (op. cit., p. 41). Does this sound right? Do you recognize yourself or someone for whom you care in this description?

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all these chains bindin’ me.” As little as we like the idea of commandments or being commanded, there is liberation in this ancient law that God has laid down for us. The purpose of the commandments is to set us free from the slavery that is within us. Look for a minute at how the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandments intertwine. The first five of the Decalogue teach us about love for God and the second five love for neighbor. Jesus is spot on when he says the Great Commandments summarize “all the law and the prophets.”

In an article entitled, “It’s about Freedom,” Hebrew scripture scholar, John Holbert writes, “The Ten Commandments do not begin with a command, but with a claim. The God we worship is a God who first and foremost is a God who majors in freedom, all sorts of freedom. In whatever ways God’s people seem intent on falling back into multiple kinds of slavery, this YHWH is always in the business of searching for ways to grant these would-be slaves a perfect freedom” (John C. Holbert, “It’s about Freedom: Reflections on the Ten Commandments,” March 7, 2012, Opening the Old Testament, patheos.com). To love such a God with one’s whole being is to embrace the freedom that God desires for us. It liberates us from dependence on any other god, the worship of any idol, loyalty to all that enslaves. In God we can be free at last but we must find time and space to ground ourselves in God.

In the second half of the Decalogue, when we are enjoined not to murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony or covet, we are given a set of guidelines, which, while not exhaustive, point us toward what it means to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. These commandments go a long way toward describing the challenges and rewards of neighbor love. Frederick Buechner writes that one challenge of the Great Commandments is that “The difficulty is increased when you realize that by loving God and your neighbors, Jesus doesn’t mean loving as primarily a feeling. Instead, he seems to mean that whether or not any feeling is involved, loving God means honoring and obeying and staying in constant touch with God, and loving your neighbors means acting in their best interests no matter what, even if personally you can’t stand them” (Frederick Buechner, “Law of Love,” Whistling in the Dark, frederickbuechner.com).

It’s a long road to freedom and the desire to be free is not easily or cheaply satisfied. The work of love liberates but it is so much more than simple sentiment. As Great Commandment Christians, I wonder if we don’t too glibly utter the words as our mantra. Yes, it’s all about love of God and love of neighbor. We know these words and we proclaim them with easy assurance. But what do they mean for us, for you and me? As we long to be free, we find in the ancient law guidelines, no commandments, that, when embraced and practiced, not just carved into some stone monument or committed to long-lost memory, but actually written on our hearts, will lead us to that freedom in Christ and the way to God for which we long. 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.