When Darkness Falls (3/20/16)

Jesus in GethsemaneA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Text: Luke 22:39-46; 23:44-49

Dinner is done. Bread has been broken and the cup shared. The candles have begun to flicker. It has been a warm and wonderful evening, for the most part; yet something ominous lingers in the air as darkness falls. He has taught them and blessed them, promising them each a role in the Beloved Community. But he has also talked of denial and betrayal, of suffering and death, and this is troubling.

Well, it has been a strange week and a full one at that. Just last Sunday there had been the thrill of entering Jerusalem in a kind of crazy make-shift processional when the crowd had broken into cheers, waving tree branches and tossing their coats onto the road – “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Eternal One! Peace in heaven! Glory in the highest!” Hadn’t that been a day?! Yet, afterwards, some had seen him sitting and weeping over the old city, “Ah Jerusalem! If you…had only recognized on this day the things that [really do] make for peace!” From cheers to tears in one short day – how strange.

Then there he was, wildly driving the sellers from the Temple grounds, shouting, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” They had never seen him so angry. In spite of the threats of those in authority, they had spent the rest of the week on the temple grounds where he had dazzled them all with his teaching. Some of the lawyers and religious experts had tried to trap him with trick questions but he outsmarted them every time. All the people were spellbound by his wisdom and charisma. It was truly a week of wonders!

Now they were feeling a little drowsy. A combination of the full week, the warmth of their intimate dinner, the effects of the wine and the fading of the light was making them sleepy. They cleaned up, packed their belongings and headed back to the campground on Mt. Olivet. In the peace of the old olive orchard they would stretch out on the grass under an ancient tree and gaze at the stars through leafy branches until they drifted off to sleep.

But Jesus seemed agitated. He was not ready to turn in. Something on his mind had to be worked through in the stillness and beauty of this night. He was going to pray and he wanted them to join him. “Pray for yourselves, that you will not sink into temptation.” Well yes, that seemed like a good idea, but maybe it could wait till morning. He went off by himself a little distance. At first they could see him clearly in the moonlight. He seemed to be wrestling intently with something. A couple of them caught words wafted on the night breeze, “…take this cup…your will…my will.” But their eyelids grew heavy and the next thing they knew, he was shaking them awake. “Why are you sleeping? Wake up and pray that you will not sink into temptation.”

There is much more to come, but let’s pause here. Today’s reading from Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of finding one’s self in a liminal space, in thin place, caught somewhere between heaven and earth or, in this case, between light and darkness. The quotation refers to an experience she has intentionally sought out, spending some time in the complete darkness of a cave. She has lined up friends who are seasoned spelunkers to take her deep into a cave, beyond the large and lighted chambers where the tourists go. This is all part of her desire to understand darkness better and to walk in it without so much anxiety and fear.

Here she is, caught between the opening to the cave and the deep darkness that awaits. It is decision time and it turns out not to be such an easy decision to make. She stands for a while in a kind of “twilight zone.” She writes, “On this threshold between dark and light, it is still possible to go either way: farther in or back out. It is still possible to see what you are about to lose” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark.). Bright daylight on one hand, bleak grayness on the other hand.

Isn’t this the same situation in which Jesus finds himself that night in the olive grove, on the threshold of dark and light? It is still possible to go either way. Shall he go further into his experience of God and God’s way or will he back out? Luke says he prays to God for deliverance. “God, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me.” I take this to mean he does not want to die. It seems to me a very human longing. God has given us the gift of life. We will all die eventually, but not now, not if it’s not necessary. The truth is, I don’t think God wants Jesus to die either. But Jesus knows that if he continues to walk God’s way and the world around him fails to change, the consequences are inevitable. He can’t keep speaking truth to power, love to fear, justice to corrupt systems and equity to those who have grown rich at the expense of the poor without stirring their ill-will. He can’t continue to be faithful to his calling and not pay the price.

On this night on the hillside, he can still “go either way…farther in or back out.” He can still see what he is about to lose and he has to make a choice. Luke makes it sound easier than Mark or Matthew does. “Yet not My will, but Your will, be done.” The right response, but is it really so easily arrived at? Well, Luke, or some later editor, concedes that as he “prayed more intensely…his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” Learning to walk in the dark is not easy after all, even for Jesus. He wrestles with God, as we all do, sooner or later, if we’re willing to pay attention, if we’re willing to listen for God’s voice and look for God’s way. It may be a hard road but, in the end, it is the right road. “Pray for yourselves, that you will not sink into temptation.”

We have already seen Jesus handle temptation in his own life and ministry. More than once he has turned his back to ways that are easy, popular, self-serving. As with the disciples, any of us is vulnerable to closing our eyes in sleep when life gets to be too much. It may be the easiest way to handle the stress. When darkness falls around us, it’s easier to turn on the lights and tune out anything that “goes bump in the night.” We keep ourselves occupied until bedtime or we fall asleep on the couch in front of the television or computer. But what do we miss when we choose not to explore the deep darkness of the cave that is before us? What do we lose when we won’t face the fears that arise in those moments when we turn away from every distraction and give ourselves over to wrestling with the questions and concerns that haunt the center of our being? What would it be like if we decided to encounter more intensely the Holy One and explore more completely our role in creating and occupying God’s Beloved Community?

We are especially likely to shy away when we read the rest of the story – the betrayal by one of his own, right there in the olive grove; the harsh denial in the courtyard; the mock trials; the unjust sentence; the fleeing followers; the now jeering crowd as he parades once more through Jerusalem, this time carrying a Roman cross; the ignominious execution. Could we please skip these parts and go directly to Easter? We don’t like this twilight zone. We don’t want to go deeply into the darkness of this cave. There is too much to lose in these elements of the story. Let’s run away. Let’s pretend it never happened. Let’s take a nap and hope it will be over.

Only there he is, hanging on that wooden cross, stretched out to die an agonizing death in the blistering sun. No glowing moon, no twinkling stars, no cool night breeze, just the scorching light of day. We can ignore, deny, pretend all we want, but this is part of our tradition. It is not a pretty picture, but it is one with which we are asked to wrestle.

One irony is that here he is left to burn in the brightness of the day and what happens? Luke says that “darkness fell over the whole region” and lasted through the hottest part of the day. I had never thought of it this way before, but maybe that darkness was like a cup of cold water to a thirsty soul, a small gesture of relief on an awful afternoon. And when that darkness fell, Luke says Jesus was able to turn his gaze toward God, shouting, “Father, I entrust My spirit into Your hands!” Maybe that sounds hollow to you, given the circumstances, but I’m going to guess that Jesus is able to place his dying self into God’s hands with such profound trust precisely because he has learned to walk in the dark. He knows, in the core of his being, that, even in death, God goes with him all the way.

This is why Jesus was so eager that his disciples keep awake and pray that they wouldn’t give in to temptation. This is why Barbara Brown Taylor has invited us to share her experiences of learning to walk in the dark. This is why John of the Cross opened for us the dark night of the soul and Thomas Merton writes of the Holy One that “I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.”

Of all the weeks of this Lenten season, we come now to the one called Holy. Now when the darkness falls, where will you find yourself? In this recurring “twilight zone” in which we stand on the “threshold between dark and light,” when “it is still possible to go either way: farther in or back out,” when you “see what you are about to lose” but also have a glimpse of what might be gained, which way will you turn? Whichever way you turn, whether the crowd cheers or jeers, I hope you know that God goes with you, in the darkness and in light, in life and death – all the way. Amen.

Traveling in the Dark (3/13/2016)

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Text: Genesis 15:1-18

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to drive at night. Even before my eyesight began any significant aging, I was not crazy about driving after the sun disappeared. Maybe it’s related to all those weary trips of my childhood when my father would drive late into the night to avoid the searing heat of the August days as we drove from southern California to Louisiana. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really enjoy the challenge of trying to find my way in the dark, especially when piloting a powerful machine along an unfamiliar and unlit highway.

The irony is that I may be a better driver after dark because I am more alert. Since I am less of sure of what is going on around me, I tend to pay more careful attention to conditions and surroundings. My eyes may get tired more quickly because I am exercising them to a fuller capacity, trying to see in the dark. It is a stressful situation, so I am always happy to come to my stopping place to await the morning’s light.

As we have been learning in this Lenten journey, darkness has its assets as well as its liabilities. It will not do to label the darkness bad and the light good. The very fact that darkness invites a heightened awareness and more careful reading of our surroundings is a valuable thing. There are lessons to be learned in the dark, lessons that may save our lives, literally as well as spiritually. There are also lessons that might help us lessen the load for others. Traveling in the dark can be a journey inward but it may also be a journey outward, one we share with others along the way.

Today’s Song of Praise tells us that “Some have fled from terror by night, hiding from bullets by day.” For them, darkness provides life-saving shelter. I had a different hymn in mind for today, but I kept thinking about the reality of refugees, those who leave home and everything they hold dear in hopes of finding a better life or of just saving their lives. I was thinking of this partly because some of the America for Christ offering goes to support American Baptist Immigration and Refugee Services. And I also remembered that we have some in our congregation who know first-hand what seeking refuge is like. Talk about traveling in the dark – to be uprooted and flee to God only knows what future, if any, has to be terrifying at the same time it may be fueled by hope.

On the other hand, Joan Chittister observes that “Darkness is a very spiritual thing.” She says, “Darkness, I have discovered, is the way we come to see. It creates the depressions that, once faced, teach us to trust. It gives us the sensitivity it takes to understand the depth of the pain in others. It seeds in us the humility it takes to learn to live gently with the rest of the universe. It opens us to new possibilities within ourselves” (Joan Chittister, “A Walk into the Dark,” 2-22-2016, visionviewpoint@benetvision.org).

Does this ring true for you? Can you think of times when darkness has been your way to see? A place in which you’ve learned to trust? A time when you have cultivated compassion? A lesson you’ve learned about living? An opening to new possibilities? A life-saving opportunity?

There are many aspects of today’s text which we might explore, but I’m guessing our guides have chosen it because of what it teaches us about traveling in the dark. Abram here is confronted with both literal and metaphorical darkness. Neither is easily handled.

In the preceding chapter of Genesis, in a bit of convoluted military history, Abram, now a wealthy, powerful patriarch has won a great victory over an alliance of kingdoms that have conquered some other city-states and captured his nephew, Lot, with all his wealth. In an interesting footnote, the text says Abram’s successful military strategy is to divide his forces and attack the enemy under the cover of darkness – “He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them…” (Genesis 14:15). Darkness is their friend.

After the battle, when it comes time to divide up the spoils, the king of Sodom urges Abram to return his subjects to him but to keep all the goods. Abram refuses. He tells the king, “I have sworn to The Holy One, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me…” (Genesis 14:22-24).

Fresh from his victory and his righteous refusal of plunder, Abram finds himself alone before God. “Do not be afraid, Abram…” We hear the classic words, uttered so often when a human encounters the holy, even in a vision. “Do not be afraid.” That is so easy for the Holy One to say and so hard for humans to live into when face-to- face with the living God. It is an inherently frightening thing to encounter God, even when the word comes in a still small, voice. For the truth is that whenever we allow ourselves to explore deeply the realm of the holy, we are in unfamiliar territory. Holy ground is likely to be shaky ground for us. The invitation not to be afraid will increase anxiety at the same time it reassures. Who can explain such a mysterious paradox?

It is time for God and Abram to talk. Has Abram summoned God or has God come unbidden? The text doesn’t tell us, but the word is clear – “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Obviously there is a link to the events of the previous chapter. Abram was right to refuse plunder. God will take care of him, provide all that he needs. Abram believes God, but…there is this business of the heir. How can Abram be patriarch of a great people and inhabit the land of promise without an heir? The family tree will perish unless it bears some fruit, and, frankly, Abram and Sarai are beyond their prime, far beyond.

Haltingly, traveling in the dark, Abram decides to take God on. It is a measure of his great faith, his trust in God to keep God’s word, that emboldens him to question just when and how this promise will be fulfilled. God takes the old man outdoors to show him the midnight sky. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be.” Well, it’s a beautiful, powerful image. It moves Abram deeply but it doesn’t really answer his question. He is left to travel in the darkness. In fact, the text tells us that as he sleeps “deep and terrifying darkness” descends upon him. He really is in unfamiliar territory, questioning the Creator. This intimacy with God is not an easy place to find one’s self. Though driven by love, Aslan is no tame lion. And this fierce God is about to do a remarkable thing.

In the story God enacts an ancient ritual of covenant. In the original version of the ritual, the two parties entering into covenant would begin at opposite ends of a path between the split carcasses, walking toward each other, meeting in the middle and continuing to the other end as a means of sealing the covenant between them. The pledge they made was that they would be cut in half, like the sacrificial animals, if they failed to keep the covenant. But what is remarkable in this story is that it is God alone, in the form of the smoking pot and flaming torch, who walks the path, sealing the covenant.

In the end, it is not really a covenant that is created. God uses the ritual to show Abram how serious God is about keeping what God’s promises. God’s action is a gift of grace. God owes Abram nothing but God has said…and God will keep God’s word. In the end, still traveling in the dark, Abram accepts God’s word and comes to trust the promise. It is not a direct answer to his question and it is enough.

Traveling in the dark we find fear and blessing, terror and salvation. Richard Rohr writes, “God teaches the soul most profoundly through darkness–and not just light! We only need enough light to be able to trust the darkness. Trials and darkness teach us how to trust in a very practical way that a good God is guiding us. I don’t need to be perfectly certain before I take the next step. Now I can trust that even my mistakes will be used in my favor, if I allow them to be” (Richard Rohr, “Order, Disorder, Reorder,” 2-23-2016, cac.org).

So, here is the final word for today. God comes to Abram directly, according to the text. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes God needs us to act with God as agents of faith, hope and love. Sometimes God needs us to be trustworthy and keep promises of compassion and care on God’s behalf. Sometimes we must learn to walk in the darkness for ourselves so that we might also travel in the dark with others in need of a “friendly face,” a helping hand. Since we have each been a stranger, have had to find our way when the way was not clear, have had to learn to put our trust in the Holy One, we can also try to understand what it is like for others. There may be times when we feel we must travel the dark hills alone. Still, God says, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And, if it is so for us, is this not good news we can share, indeed live out, with others who also travel in the dark? Traveling in the dark is a journey inward and a journey outward.

“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton).

More Light (February 2, 2014)

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 2, 2014

Text: Matthew 5:1-12

candleringWhen I saw you last it was Epiphany, that special day in which we celebrate the coming of the Magi to find the Christ, led by the light of a remarkable star.  Imagine my surprise, returning a month later to find that we are still stuck in Epiphany, if not the day, at least the season.  Furthermore, it seems the season will go on for another 4 or 5 weeks.  I guess there is no harm in holding onto Epiphany a little longer, continuing to mark a time when the light of God entered the world in a way that illuminated every corner.  We can always use more light, can’t we?

The theme of light runs all through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.  “God is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear” (Psalm 27:1)?  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).  “…they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:9-10).  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5). Mystery of mysteries, God joins us, you and me, in human form, Jesus, the Light of the World.

Now I know it’s somewhat risky to focus on light at the beginning of black history month.  Unfortunately, our recent history is blighted by the association of darkness as evil with those whose skin is darker.  While we celebrate the brilliance of the light, we need to remind ourselves of the beauty of the dark.  Some light is blinding and some dark is healing. There are times when the light which we are exploring this morning glows in and through the very heart of darkness.  When John of the Cross speaks of the “Dark Night of the Soul,” he envisions experience beyond nights of trouble and anguish, something more than a crisis of faith, or those difficult times when one experiences the absence of God.  The dark night can also include a kind of ultimate religious experience when one lets go of all that is familiar in world around and enters fully into the Sacred Presence, when one steps out on the high wire without benefit of a net.  Paradoxically this step can be crucial to reaching for more light, for something deeper, more intense, more intimate and, therefore, fearful, than one has ever known before as one enters more fully into the powerful presence of the Holy One.

The interplay of light and darkness is at the core of our being.  In searching for a theme for this year, the words that came to me were these:  “More Light…More Love…More Life.”  Oleta pointed out to me that these same words can be found on the masthead of the website of First Presbyterian Church.  It may be that I subconsciously pilfered them.  If I did, I apologize.  However, neither the words nor their order are copyright so far as I know.  If they’re good enough for the Presbyterians, they should be good enough for us.

Alex Spiridon asked me a while back what my goal or vision is for this congregation.  He could list for me what he understood as the foci of the last several pastors and was wondering if I could identify mine.  It was good question and a good exercise in which to engage.  What keeps returning for me is the notion that I would like to assist us all in going deeper spiritually, to find ourselves, individually and collectively, moving closer to the heart of God in both our living and our witness.  This is an important growing edge for me personally, which is part of why I am using my sabbatical to do a diploma in the art of spiritual direction.  How may I assist you as pastor and how may we assist one another as companions on the way to find more light, more love, more life for ourselves and those we serve?

Though we won’t linger long here, there is spiritual direction in today’s text.  We know the beatitudes.  They are among the most beloved and challenging verses in scripture.  Jesus looks out at the crowd that he’s collected on his journey through Galilee.  He must have seen that some of them were excited, some were joyful, some were wondering, some were curious, some hopeful, some wandering, some lost, some hurting, some longing, some desperate.  He sat down on that sun-drenched mountain side and said, “Let’s see if I can shed a little more light on the situation.”  And he launched into a litany of ways that those who were following him might find themselves closer to living fully in the commonwealth of God.

Blessed, happy, fortunate, to be congratulated are those who are “poor in the sense of being oppressed and abused…downcast and depressed because of their situation”; they will find a place in the coming commonwealth of God.  Those who are “disenfranchised, overcome with helplessness…because of their allegiance to God in a lost world” will find comfort in the Comforter.  Those who are “gentle…who are totally dependent on God will in due course inherit the land.”  Those “who long for what is truly right and long that right be done in general are reflecting God’s wishes and will.”  “God will show mercy to those who have exhibited it themselves.”  Only those with “personal holiness…can enter into the holy presence of God.”  Peacemakers, reconcilers, “the people who establish shalom, well-being, wholeness for all concerned…shall be…sons and daughters of God.”  Those who have suffered and “experienced the scars of persecution” belong to the commonwealth of God and it belongs to them.  Those who suffer for “Jesus’ sake…have a good pedigree – they stand in a long line of the great biblical sufferers for God’s cause…” They will have a great reward in heaven (See Ben Witherington, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary: Matthew, pp. 121-123).  Blessed, happy, fortunate, to be congratulated are these.  Do any of these familiar words and images speak to you today, draw you into their sacred light?

Jesus is not trotting out an ethical laundry list here.  He is not saying do all these things and you will be saved, or if you follow these instructions you will go straight to heaven.  Rather, in wisdom and grace, he seeks to shine light on what it means to be a child of God, what it’s like to inhabit the commonwealth of God, what it’s like to sink into the Holy Presence as a way of life.  More light than they could assimilate and, I imagine, the same could be said for us.

Still, as consider our future as children of God, individually and as a congregation, what light may we desire to shine on us?  Take a moment to examine yourself as you relate to God and to our faith community.  Where do you need, where do we need, more light?  Excited, joyful, wondering, curious, hopeful, wandering, lost, hurting, longing, desperate – how do you look to the Light of World and ask for a little more – a little more grace, a little more wisdom, a little more understanding, a little more faith, a little more stamina, a little more commitment, a little more of that very Light?

I believe there are light-filled days ahead for us.  Stepping out on that high wire, taking a risk in search of more light, may be uncomfortable, scary even, but if we want to explore more deeply, to look more fully, to listen more intently, to follow more faithfully, to live more gracefully, we must put our trust in God who goes with us all the way.     In our living, in our dying, and in our renewal, more light, O God, more light.  Amen.