How to Be Church (April 26, 2015)

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Texts: Acts 2:41-47; 1 Corinthians 14:26-33a; Colossians 3:12-17

Jesus never intended to start a church. It’s a curious thing that those of us who claim to follow him, all these many years after he walked this earth, are so focused on the church. It is the way we have come to bear witness to what we understand of his ministry among his people 2000 years ago. It’s pretty certain that he would not recognize what we have made of that ministry. More than one wag has opined that Jesus would not be welcomed in many churches today, if he even bothered to pay them a visit.

Still, Brian McLaren has tried to help us see, in this Eastertide, that Jesus’ ministry promised, or threatened, a “global uprising” in his time. McLaren is also challenging us to recapture that same sense of the urgent need for transformation on this planet today. Could we see our way to committing ourselves to such radical activity? to the kind of discipleship we considered last week? and, if we did, what would it look like?

By the time the record began to be written something called the church was beginning to emerge from the practices of those earliest followers of our faith tradition. Luke and Paul write about the early church as well as to its first congregations in various parts of the ancient near east. In today’s texts, each tells us something about how to be church. What they suggest comes closer to what Jesus taught and practiced than what the church generally engages in today.

The sub-theme for this week is “Alive…in the Uprising of Worship.” As we studied these texts on Tuesday, it struck me that they covered much more than worship. In these texts we get a substantial picture of what the church, at its best,  might be. The problem, of course, is that these images and guidelines provide a significant challenge to how we do church today. What we see here is a way of being and doing church that comes much closer to the radical gospel that Jesus preached in the Galilean countryside and the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem, or at least this is how Luke and Paul see the Jesus’ Way.

I ruminated on these texts as I made my way to Berkeley after Bible study. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that here was a recipe for pastoral and congregational care, which is the focus of my classes at both the American Baptist Seminary of the West and Pacific School of Religion. So much of pastoral care and counseling, as I was taught and have taught it, focuses on problems. What’s wrong? What needs to be taken care of? What needs to be fixed? These are legitimate concerns and appropriate foci for the discipline. Surely the world is full of folk who suffer, struggle, hurt, wonder, wander, despair, need help, comfort, compassion, concern and care. What has changed since I last taught these courses, a number of years ago, is a bigger focus on congregational life and care.

When I was working on my doctorate and first teaching seminarians as a teaching assistant in pastoral care and counseling classes, we were eager to instruct the students in all the amazing and wonderful things we were learning about the human psyche and counseling technique. However, we soon discovered that much of this advanced training was only tangentially relevant to people who were training for the pastorate, for work in the church. The vast majority of them would rarely, if ever, sit down with parishioners to do formal counseling. Pastoral care and counseling would be done more “on the run,” around services and meetings and the everyday routines of life in a congregation. We found ourselves quickly adapting our teaching and role plays to situations that would have practical meaning for practicing pastors.

What is interesting to me today is how this trend has developed over the years. The concerns, the material for role plays, the topics for research and presentation are much more oriented to congregational life than they are toward individuals and their concerns. Not that these are ignored but the more integrated focus on what happens in churches is instructive to me as well my students. In the course of this semester, as we have considered the breadth of possibilities for pastoral and congregational care, it seems clear to me that a focus on what is or could be good, positive, affirming, blessing about both pastoral and congregational care would be worth considering. That is, in the vein of appreciative inquiry, what could we say and do that was enriching, enlivening, empowering about church life? As David Bartlett asks in the title of his book on the gospels, “What’s good about this news?”  What is there to affirm and celebrate in Jesus’ radical word?

So this digression is to set the stage for how I taught my ABSW class last Tuesday night. We read each of these texts in turn and attempted to glean from them something about how to be church, something that would be valuable to us as pastoral caregivers and to our congregations as they engage in congregational care. We filled the chalk board up, down, across and around the edges. It was an inspiring exercise to consider the positive elements of care contained in these ancient words.

Since we didn’t have special music today, we’ve taken the time to read all three of these marvelous texts ourselves. So let us take a few minutes to see what we find here to teach us how to be church. Let’s begin with Acts 2, which some consider the original description of the first church. What do you see here that might help us be church in new, exciting, even radical ways?

They were “devoted to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.”

They practiced “wonders and signs” (though we’re not too big on that.)

They “held everything in common.” (Sounds like a commune.)

They shared “from each according to their means to each according to their need.” (That sounds downright Communist. What do right-winged, fundamentalist literalists do with this text, I wonder?)

They spent “time in the temple.” (Sounds like regular worship to me.)

They practiced, no they lived out their faith with “glad and generous hearts.” (There’s genuine joy in the church alive and well!)

They had the “goodwill of the people.” (Oh my, today young people are turning their backs in droves because the church is so tied to narrow-minded bigotry, injustice, hypocrisy and abuse! Seems like we’ve used up whatever good will they had banked for us.)

Now let’s look at Corinthians. We know what a fragmented and contentious bunch they were. Paul was determined to teach them something about how to be church, bonded together in one body, the Body of Christ. What do you see in these instructions on how to be church?

First, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an  interpretation.” (That is, everyone has something to share. We each have our gifts. We need to make room for one another.)

“Let all things be done for building up” each other and the community. (Underline this one at least three times.)

Practice setting “limits, taking turns, listening, silence.” (Since, we don’t do a lot with tongues or prophecy these days, could we find other areas in which to apply these disciplines?)

“God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” (Can those caught up in contention that leads to chaos learn to get along in the spirit of God’s ineffable peace?)

The Colossians were a different congregation. Paul here is not as determined to teach these folks a lesson as to affirm his love and care for them. What does he say to them, and to us, about how to be church?

I start with “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” and “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (That is, fill yourselves full of peace, shalom, the well-being God gives so generously along with a large portion of that radically transforming good news so that it all radiates from every pore of your being.)

Remember you’re “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.”

Then, once you’re glowing from the inside out, “clothe yourself in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

Oh! and don’t forget, “above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Well how can you beat that outfit for good taste and beauty!?)

Then, practice “forbearance and forgiveness, be thankful, teach, share wisdom, and sing with glad hearts.”

How to be church…friends this is quite a list, daunting perhaps. But what if it comes closer to Christ’s vision of the Beloved Community of God than anything we’ve ever known or practiced? There are lots of things about the radical good news that overwhelm us, that baffle us, that frighten us. Granted, but surely we know how to listen, to take turns, forgive and give thanks. Surely we could practice compassion and kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We know how to share and care and forbear, don’t we? Study, prayer, worship, fellowship, breaking bread – we’ve visited all those places, more than once. Building up one another and the community, working for peace, well-being, wisdom, the good-will of the people – haven’t we at least longed for these to be elements of our life together?

How to be church – well, there it is, a lot to think about and work on and yet all so eminently doable if we give ourselves to it. It may take discipline but we can practice this way of being and doing church, of giving congregational care, of living out Christ’s radical vision of God’s Beloved Community, without an advanced degree. Oh! and don’t forget that cloak of love, which binds everything – even us, church – together in perfect harmony. Amen.

To Be God’s People (February 1, 2015)

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon,
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA, Sunday, February 1 2015

Texts: Jeremiah 34:31-34; Mark 4:26-34; 1 Peter 2:9-10

 

“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.

 

 

Mission Summit and AWAB

Pastor Rick and Children
Pastor Rick and Children

There was no Midweek Message last week as I was in Kansas City for the American Baptist Mission Summit.  Many I heard commented that this was the best biennial meeting in many years.  I went early for the theology conference, held at Central Baptist Seminary.  The theme was “Baptists and the Spirit: Living into God’s Future.”  It began with a fine address by Central’s President, Molly Marshall.  It was good to see my mentor, David Bartlett, there along with other friends and colleagues.  One of the joys of these events is seeing old friends.

The Mission Summit itself started with a stirring address by author and attorney, Michelle Alexander.  You can see a report on her address on “The New Jim Crow” here.  There were fine programs with excellent speakers at the MMBB luncheon, BPFNA and Coalition for Baptist Principles breakfasts and the Roger Williams Fellowship dinner.  Worship was well coordinated by Brad Berglund.  We celebrated three historical events – the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 200th anniversary of the arrival of missionaries Ann and Adoniram Judson in Burma and the 375th anniversary of the First Baptist Church in America (Providence, Rhode Island.)  One night we had a “battle of Burmese choirs” from opposite sides of the convention hall.  Two different choirs of Burmese-Americans and refugees from different ethnic groups, each over 300 strong, sang beautiful Burmese songs of praise.  A centerpiece of the Mission Summit was a series of facilitated “table conversations” in which participants shared their dreams and concerns for the ongoing mission of the ABC-USA.

On Sunday, June 23, I participated in the gathering of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists at Crossroads Church in Kansas City, Missouri.  We led the morning worship service, with the AWAB Executive Director, Robin Lunn, preaching.  After a typically delicious KC barbecue we witnessed a powerful documentary entitled, God Loves Uganda.  The film portrays the homo-hatred and abuse of lgbtq folk in that central African country, which has legislation pending that would make lgbtq identity a capital offense.  Part of the sad state of affairs is that this terror is being fueled by Christian fundamentalists from the USA, in particular the members of a KC mega-church called the International House of Prayer.  I hope we may be able to show this movie in the coming year.  It deserves to be seen widely.

Thanks to those who filled in in my absence.  This Sunday is the church picnic.  The theme for out intergenerational service is “Oh, Freedom!” We will use the 5th chapter of Galatians as a text, which includes Paul’s famous proclamation, “For freedom, Christ has set you free.”  But what is the nature of this freedom and how do we live it out?  Paul has timely suggestions in this chapter about freedom and “fruits of the Spirit.”

Come this Sunday at 10 AM dressed for the picnic and ready for celebration.  Bring someone along to share the morning with you.

May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us.
Pastor Rick