Yes and No (2/12/2017)

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Texts:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:33- 37 (The Message)

“Yes and no are very powerful words. Mean them when you say them. Respect them when you hear them.” So writes Michael Josephson in today’s Words of Preparation and I believe he is right. Such, small, simple words; yet they can carry great weight and deep meaning. They can actually shape a life. “Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” Jesus cautions his disciples, gathered on the mountainside. “When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.”

Yes and no, the crucial means to forming and communicating the choices we make. It’s yes or no. Well, there is “I’m not sure. Maybe. Let me think about it.” When I was looking for images for today’s bulletin, several of them were humorous versions of “yes, no, and maybe,” leaving room for the undecided. But there are times in life when we really must decide. Yes and no are the only options, the only choices available. I’m reminded of the poster that adorned the walls of many a college and seminary dorm room in the 60s, “Not to decide is to decide.” There are always consequences to the choices we make, even when we don’t actively make them.

Continue reading Yes and No (2/12/2017)

Where is Your Faith? (9/18/16)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 18, 2016

Texts: Psalm 29; Luke 8:22-25

Have you ever found yourself in difficulty, caught between a rock and hard place, up the creek without a paddle? Then you have some sense of what Jesus’ disciples experienced on the lake that day. It all started innocently enough. They pushed off from the shore near their home base in Capernaum headed for the Gerasene shore. At least some of them were experienced sailors. They’d made their living fishing this shallow lake. They were also familiar with the brief, fierce storms that could arise on the lake when the wind off the Mediterranean came roaring through Pigeon Pass and hit the lake hard.

Jesus was asleep. I wonder if he wasn’t exhausted from the effort involved in preaching, teaching, healing, and exorcising. This is not the only time the gospels tell us Jesus took to the sea, hoping for a little relief from the press of the crowd, from their constant demands and insistent expectations. It seems he was sound asleep, sleeping so soundly that the storm did not wake him. If we take the tale at face value, the disciples were terrified by the storm. The boat was taking on water and the prospect of drowning rose before them. “Master, Master, we are perishing!” they cried. In Mark’s older version, from which Luke draws this story, the disciples are a little snarky, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:39b). Desperate, and a little whiney, they call on him to save them.

Do you ever feel like that – “Jesus, we’re dying here. Don’t you care?” When you get between a rock and hard place, when you find yourself up the creek without a paddle, “when the storms of life are raging, when the world is tossing [you] like a ship upon the sea?” Do you ever cry out, “Stand by me!” “Jesus, savior, pilot me,” “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to your bosom fly,” “Help of the helpless, O abide with me”? Song and scripture alike lift up our cries for help. At the same time, we hear the words of assurance: “God will take care of you,” “God, who holds the future, is the One who holds my hand,” “God walks the dark hills,“ “The voice of Love is heard in every storm…and in their hearts all cry, ‘Glory!’ The Beloved lives in our hearts; Love dwells with us forever.”

Continue reading Where is Your Faith? (9/18/16)

SAY WHAAAT?

easter_cross.fwA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon, First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, April 5, 2015

Text: Luke 24:1-12 (The Message)

“Say whaat? You went to the tomb the first thing this morning and it was empty? Are you kidding us? The grave clothes were folded neatly on the ledge and you were met by a couple of angels who told you he was raised up? You girls must have gotten into the wine left over from last night’s supper! And so early in the morning! Shameful! This is just plain crazy talk!”

You get the point. The women returned from the burial site and were met with scorn and disbelief when they tried to share what they had seen and heard. I’m sure this was not the first or last time that witnesses were or will be disbelieved, laughed at, written off. We know from many crime dramas that eye witnesses can’t always be trusted and what these women were reporting was second hand. They hadn’t actually seen a risen Jesus, had they?

We’ve heard Luke’s account of the empty tomb before, perhaps many times over many years, but I have to say that this year I was struck particularly by the treatment of the women. Yes, I had noted it before, but this time it really stood out for me, “…the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up.”

Sadly, a major reason for the disbelief was that the story came from women. David Lose observes, “Luke says that those who received the testimony of the women regarded their message as an ‘idle tale.’ [But] that’s actually a fairly generous translation of the Greek work leros. That word, you see, is the root of our word ‘delirious.’ So in short, they thought what the women said was crazy, nuts, utter nonsense” (David Lose, “If It’s Not Hard to Believe, You’re Probably Not Paying Attention!” March 24, 2013, workingpreacher.org).

In his commentary on Luke, Richard Vinson writes, “It is well documented that many 1st-century men thought that women were not as reliable as men as witnesses, being more emotional.” He quotes Joesphus who wrote, “…let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…” He then quotes Philo who “also thought women were naturally inclined to be deceitful; writing ‘…woman is a selfish creature and one addicted to jealousy in an immoderate degree, and terribly calculated to agitate and overturn the natural inclinations of a man, and to mislead him by her continual tricks…’” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 743).

Luke, who often goes out of his way to lift up women in his gospel, seems to be underscoring here one of the great transformations needed if the gospel is to be realized. There is a significant place for women in the Beloved Community of God, but the Apostles still have much to learn. Vinson continues, “Luke has told the reader early on that these women were part of the group from the beginning, and that their ministry and their providing of their means kept things going. Why, then,” he wonders, “do the guys ignore them? They heard the same predictions the women did; Peter, James, and John knew that two heavenly messengers appeared with Jesus before [Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration], and so the testimony of the women should have been credible.” Besides that, “They know these women; James and John are doubting the word of their sainted mother, for crying out loud…they are not thinking straight when they dismiss the testimony of their wives, mothers, sisters, and companions in the faith as ‘foolish chatter’” (Vinson, op. cit., p. 743).

You get the point. We’ve come a long way but we still have a lot to learn in this area. Still, I imagine the Apostles’ disbelief was not to be blamed totally on the fact that it was women who first shared it. The text says goes on to say that Peter became curious enough to check things out for himself.  However, he shows up too late. The tomb is still empty, the grave clothes are there but the angels have moved on. He is left in a state of wonder. He walks “away puzzled, shaking his head.” Puzzled, but still without a word of belief in the tale the women had told.

We have heard this story over and over centuries. It has become a part of our lore, familiar to us and largely unquestioned. We celebrate the event annually with color and flowers, with music and joy. We retrieve our “alleluias” and shout “He is risen!” But there were no alleluias on that first Easter morning. No one shouting, “He is risen!” No one responding, “He is risen indeed!” Put yourself in their shoes. Take a minute to try to imagine what it must have been like that first Easter morning.

Imagine the women. Luke implies that a whole group of them showed up – maybe all the women who gather for our monthly women’s brunch. They had come to do their duty and a sad duty it was. They hadn’t been able to prepare properly the body for burial as the sun set on the Sabbath. They had gotten up early to finish the painful task. There probably wasn’t a lot of chatter, idle or otherwise. as they made their way in the dim morning half-light to the tomb.

Imagine the shock of finding the stone rolled away, the body absent, the grave clothes neatly folded. Imagine yourself in the presence of angels, those holy spectral figures bathed in dazzling light. Hear their chiding challenge, “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” Caught off guard, what would your response have been? Mark’s gospel records that they fled in fear, but Luke has them flying back to the city, to the place where the rest of the group was hiding, their feet barely touching the ground. Their sad silence was broken. They couldn’t wait to tell everyone what they had seen and heard. How about you? Does the good news ever capture you in such a way that you can’t keep quiet?

And then imagine bursting into that room where the others were gathered – some quietly crying, some pondering the next step, some still in troubled sleep – the room dark, grim and despairing. “Wait! Wait a minute. Listen everybody. We were just at the tomb and, you’re not going to believe this, but the body was gone! The tomb was empty!” Nobody was prepared for this. No one had time for it. It was easier to dismiss these women as delirious in their grief, right? Can you see how difficult belief would have been in that sorrowing environment?

From the vantage point of two millennia of Christian tradition, we can say, “Surely they should have seen what was coming. Jesus had been talking about it for months. Why were they so slow to hear it, to get it?” Reflecting on these questions, Craig Koester, writes that “Unbelief does not mean that people believe nothing. Rather, it means that they believe something else. People say ‘I don’t believe it’ because there is something else that they believe more strongly” (Craig R. Koester, “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12,” April 4, 2010, workingpreacher.org).

They had hoped for a messiah who would drive out the Romans, put the collaborators and religious leaders in their place, re-distribute the land and relieve them of all their sickness, oppression and poverty. Jesus not only failed to meet their expectations, he got himself killed, and without even putting up a fight. You can imagine they were all pretty much down, devastated, hopeless. How could they wrap their minds around the women’s story? How does any of us wrap our minds around such a story?

Koester concludes, “…here is where the Easter message begins its work, by challenging our certainties (Koester, op. cit.). It challenges our certainties much as it must have challenged theirs. In the reminder of the angels, in the subsequent appearances of Jesus, they had their memories jogged as happened first to the women at the tomb: “Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Or as with Cleopas and companion on the Emmaus Road:  “’Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27). Their response:  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

Is this not true resurrection, when the Word of God comes alive in us – jogging memory, enlivening consciousness, flaming in our hearts? Above all, Jesus came with an urgent message about the in-breaking of God’s Beloved Community. It was a community different than any they had known or imagined. It was not the Pax Romana founded on imperial power and military might. It was not the obsessive ritualization of religious practice forced on them by some of their religious leaders. It was not the grinding poverty of their daily existence. It was not even an “us overcoming them” way of life.

In a great article from this week’s Boston Globe, Brandon Ambrosino has this to say about the real significance of the story those women brought from the empty tomb that first Easter morning. He writes, “What’s radical about Easter…is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means — specifically, what it meant for Rome, and, by implication, what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in. ”  He sees that “Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In this kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home. Black lives matter here, as do queer lives and the lives of undocumented aliens within our borders — ‘Remember the stranger in your midst’ is a common refrain in this kingdom” (Brandon Ambrosino, “Jesus’ Radical Politics,” April 1, 2015, bostonglobe.com).

How does this ring for you this Easter morning? Would you rather keep the story enshrouded in ancient myth and mystery, lovely lore that rarely challenges  or would you be willing to accept a more radical resurrection with a here and now flavor? If you choose the latter, part of the task for twenty-first century disciples is to remember the deep meaning of the first Easter for those first followers, how it changed their lives forever. Then, it is to let the Christ consciousness fill your mind, the flame of the Spirit kindle fire in your heart and the Beloved Community of God to become real in the living of your life. Compassion and hospitality, justice and equity, peace and love are to become our way of life as we let the Lord of Life rise and live in us. We become Easter people in the way those first disciples did and the world is never the same again. He is risen! Is he risen in you and me? Let us make it so. Alleluia. Amen.

To Hell With You (February 15, 2015)

Jacob Marley in chainsA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Text: Luke 16:19-31

I suppose there are several elements of today’s service that are playing with fire, if you’ll pardon the play on words. I don’t know that I have ever before preached on hell. I’m sure I’ve referenced it but only to say that I do not believe in a literal hell – the lake of eternally burning fire depicted on the cover of today’s bulletin or the threatening expletive that is the sermon title. However, as we make this road by walking, Brian McLaren has asked us today to consider “Jesus and Hell.” To help us in our exploration, he has given us two texts – the story of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke and the separation of the sheep from the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Both texts promise dire consequences for those who do not pay attention to the poor and needy of this world.

McLaren argues that originally the Jewish faith had little interest in the afterlife, but through centuries of acculturation to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Zoroastrian and Hellenistic beliefs and practices the faith changed to accommodate visions of life after death. Clearly Jesus believed there was more to life than what one experiences between birth and death. But when he offers these parables of judgment, is his purpose to describe what the life to come is actually like? McLaren doesn’t think so and neither do I. In commenting on this text, David Lose reminds us that “…a parable is a parable…Parables aren’t told to give [us] a complete theological system or to address ultimate questions once and for all. They are meant to give us a glimpse – often [a] surprising, even jarring glimpse – into the kingdom of God. They present various slivers of the ‘kingdom logic’ of the God who regularly surprises us with God’s compassion and concern. So,” he concludes, “maybe this parable isn’t interested in explaining to us how people get to heaven but rather invites us to look at the people around us – right here, right now – from the perspective of this peculiar logic of God” (David Lose, “On Stretching Parables, 9-23-2013,” workingpreacher.org).

This is consistent with what McLaren argues in our Words of Preparation when he says that Jesus was actually “un-teaching about hell” while offering a “transformative vision of God” as one who “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 113). It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me to suggest that the rich man ends up in a hell of his own making. There is a different set of values for life and death in the beloved community of God. The standard belief among those to whom Jesus ministered was that goodness is rewarded with prosperity and general well-being while sin is punished by poverty and illness. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that same belief system strongly operative today, perhaps even in our own lives. It makes us uneasy, then, when Jesus tells stories like the rich man and Lazarus or the separation of the sheep from the goats. We worry that he might be saying “to hell with us” because of our privilege and how we exercise it.

The rich man – notice he doesn’t even get a name in the parable, though later tradition called him “Dives,” which is really just Latin for “rich man” – is not just rich. He’s over the top in letting everyone know he’s rich. Think of someone who is exorbitantly extravagant in flaunting what they have. Richard Vinson, in his commentary, says the sort of rich person Jesus describes would have been the subject of satire and lampooning, much as she or he might be today. These satirists would have been “…making fun of a real trend toward conspicuous displays of wealth during the first century, as the so-called Pax Romana brought unprecedented disposable income to Rome’s upper crust.” Sound familiar? “Romans often lamented the loss of the old values of thrift and Spartan simplicity, and some emperors tried to enact…laws prohibiting expensive clothing or jewelry or foods. Luke’s rich man is thus both a recognizable type-character from satires and comedies and an icon for a whole class of real people” (Richard D. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 530).

It’s not just that the man had money; he was a fool with his wealth. His arrogant attitude allowed him, daily, to step over poor Lazarus, sick and disabled, begging at his door. Lazarus might have survived on the scraps from the rich man’s table, but even this was too much bother for this rich man. He left Lazarus to die “like a tramp on the street.”

This is where Jesus’ great reversal gathers momentum. The rich man may not have had eyes to see, but God does. Lazarus is not rewarded for his piety or his poverty. He is graced by God’s compassion. He finally finds comfort in the “bosom of Abraham.” Remember, God “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count.” God’s compassion and grace are of a different order than our own vision of reward and punishment. For God, everyone counts.

Now, ironically the rich man dies about the same time, perhaps a victim of his conspicuous consumption. He practiced a gluttony which certainly could not have been good for his heart – literally and figuratively. In the Jewish system of Jesus’ time, Hades and the arms of Abraham were the places where souls went to await the final judgment, the Day of the Lord. Is there a possibility that intermediate stations provide time and space in which one might yet reflect and repent before the final end? The text doesn’t address this.

Suffice it to say that the rich man remains clueless even when “tormented in the flame.” Though he can see across the chasm that separates them (indeed, as he could see across the reverse chasm that separated them before they died,) he still does not see Lazarus as a child of God. “Send Lazarus to cool MY tongue.” “Send Lazarus to save MY brothers.” Not a word of remorse or repentance for the way he treated Lazarus who, in the beloved community of God, is also his brother. He just doesn’t get it and Jesus is saying that, until you get it, nothing changes. Until you see with the eyes of your heart the suffering of your sisters and brothers your heart will remain cruelly and lethally congested.

Most of you know by now, that Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite gospel stories. In it the great Victorian author provides a spot-on commentary on this parable. Remember how, in the beginning, we meet Ebeneezer Scrooge, of whom Dickens writes, “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster…He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

But, as we know, Christmas is a time of miracles, and old Ebeneezer, who is decidedly not extravagant with his wealth but is equally without compassion, is given a wondrous opportunity to repent. Several spirits appear to help him see the error of his ways. Unlike Jesus’ parable, spirits do bridge the chasm with a message from the heart of God. The first of these is his miserable old partner, Jacob Marley, who walks through the doubly locked door to Scrooge’s chambers, dragging an onerous chain made up of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”

Marley’s message is this:

“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!

“I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“…A very little more, is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.

“[Humankind] was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

“At this time of the rolling year…I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

“That is no light part of my penance…I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

Dickens’s parable is no less and no more fantastic than the one told by Jesus. To hell with you is never God’s desire for us or any aspect of creation. Like Marley’s chains and the rich man’s torment, hell is something of our own creation, “forged in life, made link by link, and yard by yard, girded on of our own free will…” It is fortified every time we step over Lazarus at our doorsteps, simultaneously seeing and not seeing. And, Marley’s wisdom notwithstanding, it is something we can let go of by letting go. Scrooge gets it in the end, Jesus gets it all along. In the words of another old spiritual, “All my troubles will be over when I lay my burden down.” To give myself over to life in God’s beloved community is to undo the chains and embrace the goodness of God’s creation. It is to enter into partnership with God who loves everybody to make sure that everybody knows they count. The good news is that it’s never too late to choose to live in God’s goodness and grace. God help us to find our way.

Amen.