Living is Christ (8/30/2015)

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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Text: Psalm 90; Philippians 1:20-30

“We all will die someday. Mortality rates remain at 100 percent, and nobody among us is getting any younger.” So writes Brian McLaren, tongue in cheek, in the beginning of this week’s chapter from We Make the Road by Walking. However, turning quickly to the point, he completes his opening by asserting that “Among the Spirit’s many essential movements in our lives is this: to prepare us for the end of our lives, without fear” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 249). It seems a curious thing to take a chapter entitled, “Adventures in the Spirit of God: Spirit of Life” to focus on death but that is indeed what he does this week.

As we come to the end of this journey with McLaren, it seems appropriate to spend time considering matters of life and death. He offers three scriptures from which to choose – the great 90th Psalm, with its contrasting claims for God’s eternal majesty and the fragile, limited life of humanity; Jesus confrontation with Sadducees about marriage in the afterlife (Luke 20:27-38); and Paul’s deep sharing about life and death with his friends at the church in Philippi. Each text says something significant about the nature of mortality and of eternity. In each case we are challenged to see death as part of life, inevitable in its coming, but not inevitably to be feared. Each tries to give us a view of life and the Giver of Life that will allow us to move from the limitations of the past through the present to God’s good and glorious future.

McLaren writes that “So many of us are afraid to even think about death much less speak of it.” Now I don’t know how that is for all of you but I have heard some of you say you are not afraid of death. Others may not be so certain. We won’t take a poll this morning, but McLaren continues to argue that “That fear [of death] can enslave us and can rob us of so much aliveness” (McLaren, op. cit. p. 249). What do you think? It makes sense to me. You know how it is when you worry so much about something going right that you ultimately spoil it? Surely those who live in fear of death are proportionately robbed of life. That is both sad and unnecessary for those claim to follow the way of Christ.

McLaren asserts that “The Spirit moves within us to help us face death with hope, not fear…with quiet confidence not anxiety” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 249).  Does that sound right to you? Can you feel the Spirit of Life moving in you, bringing hope, quiet confidence, as with Paul, even joy? In spite of being in prison, in chains, Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4: 4, 6-7).

How can someone in such dire straits be as positive, as hopeful as Paul? The only answer I can discern is that, for Paul, living is Christ. That’s what he tells his friends in Philippi. He does not seem to be boasting or showing off for them. Of all the churches he planted, this is the one for which he seems to have the most affection and hope. This is a community in which he is freer to bare his soul than any of the others. So he lays it on the line for them, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” How many of us can hear ourselves making such a claim – living is Christ, dying is gain?

If you love life as much as I do it is difficult to imagine how dying would be gain. I hear the old song, “I love life so I want to live, and drink of its fullness; take all it can give…” or Dylan Thomas urging us to “rage against the dying of the light.” Is Paul suffering from a martyr complex here? A few scholars have speculated as to whether or not he was suicidal. I hear none of that in this passage. I think that, living in Christ, Paul had overcome any fear of death.

Whatever had driven his early rage against followers of Jesus was subsumed in and transformed by his encounter with the living Christ. Lying on the ground dazed and helpless he saw through blinded eyes that living is Christ and he gave himself over to that new reality. For someone who had given himself so completely to Christ, Paul believed that dying to this present life would only bring him closer Christ, lead him deeper into the reality of that life-giving relationship. But what is this reality? What does it mean for us today? What would it mean for you or me to make as our central life claim that living is Christ?

As I was working on this sermon, I recalled a verse from Rosemary Crow’s song, “Weave.” I think many of us are familiar with the chorus,

Weave, weave, weave us together,
Weave us together in unity and love.
Weave, weave, weave us together,
Weave us together, together in love.

As I learned it, the final verse of the song sings,

A moment ago we did not know
Our unity, only diversity.
Now the Christ in me greets the Christ in thee
in one great family.

When I first heard those words, that last line struck me as a curious claim – “the Christ in me greets the Christ in thee.” Isn’t that sort of absurd and a touch heretical? Christ in me? I don’t think so. At least that’s not how I learned it in Sunday School. Jesus is Christ and I’m a sinner headed for hell if I don’t get my act together. As I’ve come to let go of any notion of hell – except that which we create for ourselves, maybe even through fear of death – I have come to wonder about this way of Christ we walk. “For our days on earth are a mystery, a searching for You, a yearning for the Great Mystery to make itself known” (Nan C. Merrill, “Psalm 90,” Psalms for Praying).

I said to the Bible study group recently that I have come to wonder about the role of “Christ-consciousness” in our lives. I know this may sound heretical for some, but what if a dimension of the Great Mystery was the willingness of Jesus of Nazareth to allow Christ to take root and grow in himself. There is then an evolution of consciousness as Jesus lives into his Christness. Perhaps part of the mystery is that, if Jesus can own his Christness, we might at least follow him along that road, growing into our own Christness. Is this what he means when he invites to come and follow him? If this sounds silly to you let it go, but what does it mean to claim that living is Christ, that Christ in me meets the Christ in you?

Indulge me for a few minutes more to explore some of what it might mean to be Christ. What do you think were characteristics or qualities of Jesus that made him Christ? Might you also claim these as the Christ in you? I realize this list came from our human consciousness, what we know or think we know of goodness or righteousness, God’s desire for creation, the Jesus way. But maybe we can claim that these characteristics and qualities show us what it means to say living is Christ. Paul writes to the Philippians,

8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4: 8-9).

Remember that one of the truth claims of our tradition is that in Christ death has been defeated. Through the resurrection Christ has shown that death, though a necessary rite of passage, has no real meaning for God who is all about life and living in every form. “Think about these things,” Paul instructs. McLaren picks up the challenge, “To be liberated from the fear of death – think of how that would change your values, perspectives and actions. To believe that no good thing is lost, but that all goodness will be taken up and consummated in God – think of how that frees you to do good without reservation. To participate in a network of relationships that isn’t limited by death in the slightest degree – think of how that would make every person matter and how it would free you to live with boundless, loving aliveness” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 250).

These seem to be the sort of things Jesus and Paul thought about that shape our faith tradition. These sound like the kind of qualities that might form a Christ-consciousness. These feel like qualities that will bring to life God’s Beloved Community to reality. In these ways, living is Christ. Can we claim it for ourselves? Amen.

Not for the faint of heart…

tripp-mandolinFriends of God,

This is not for the faint of heart.

An ancient poem goes something like this:

Understand these words well:
You absolutely must achieve freedom!
You definitely must go down the path
that leads to the shore.
With an undaunted heart and singing
with a bold strong voice you will cross over.
You will have to breast the waves cheerfully
in spite of the storm’s blasts.
Even if the entanglements of illusions
cause you to reel in bewilderment
you will still have to get release.
On the path there are indeed thorns;
trampling on them,
you will have to go on.
Don’t die fearfully
while you hold dreams of happiness
tightly in your embrace.
In order to have your fill of life
You will have to sustain the blows of death.

As many of you know, it’s been a rough road lately in our home. Friends have lost loved ones, young children. We have lost family, a young man of twenty-two. The new year has been a bit rough thus far. But that is the way of things. So often I am inclined to think that there is ever a time without difficulty, without someone’s deep loss. I only imagine that there is a time free of loss and grief in the world. The truth is that there is never such a time.

This is why we must cultivate compassion. We must.

Suffering and death happen. We all get to do it. We may wish to live as if that were not true, our own mortality being too terrible a burden (understandably) for many. But today I am holding death up to the light and saying, once again, God does not give us suffering. God does not send us tests. The death of a loved one is not a test from the “God who so loved the world.” No. Never. Stop it.

Don’t do that to the one whom God loved so very much. God is kind, slow to anger, long-suffering. God is compassionate.

I have been reminded that we serve a God who suffers and dies every day, a crucified Christ. Suffering and death are not tests. They are never tests. Nor are they “gifts.”

The saying, “God never gives you more than you can handle” assumes we know a great deal about what God gives us in the first place. I’m not so certain we can know what God gives except to say God does not give us suffering. God does not give us death.

Instead, God suffers and dies.

Then there’s another poem. This one is from the Sufi poet Rumi. It goes something like this:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

A friend of mine recently said, “No matter how hard it gets I always say to myself, ‘I am glad to be alive.’” There is this thing we call joy, resurrection, suffering and death are never the end of the story. And though Lent will likely be a bit more deep and dark than usual for me this year, I am aware of where this season ends…

…Alleluia!
Pastor Tripp

Is There Balm in Gilead? (September 22, 2013)

sermonsIS THERE BALM IN GILEAD?
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Text:  Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Death came calling much too early in my young life.  As you have heard before, my father died when I was only 17 and he was 47.  It was actually my second significant encounter with death.  Our beloved church choir director and director of the Kiwanis Boys’ Choir, in which I had sung, died suddenly when I was 14 or 15.  But it was my father’s death that shook me to my core.  It was particularly painful to lose my father just as he and I were beginning to connect in ways we never had.

But that is not the end of the story.  My dad died in July of 1964.  Then in the summer of 1965, Jeannie Moore, with whom I had just graduated and with whom I had appeared in more than one play, was killed in a head on collision.  Jeannie was the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor and a good friend.  Summer began to feel haunted and that was only exacerbated the following summer when my beloved piano teacher, Mrs. Gorton, and her daughter were killed in another head on collision.  There was a period of time in which I dreaded high summer.

In truth, death has come calling in my life with more regularity and force than I care to recall.   I won’t go through the entire litany, but there have been many occasions when I have cried with Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”  I know something of what it’s like to feel the pain and anguish of loss, to cry out to God, “Why me?  Why now?  Why this particular life cut short?”

Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.”  His laments have given rise to the term “jeremiad,” a description of a particularly heartfelt expression of pain and loss, a crying out from the very depths of the soul.  But this form of lament is also a complaint about the unrighteousness and injustice of a people or a system.

In Bible study we wrestled with this text, as we do with many biblical texts of judgment.  In one sense, if we take the text too literally, we encounter a God who strikes down people for their idolatry and misbehavior.   We know that these are writings, millennia old, from a people who believed themselves called to be God’s people and also believed there were rewards and punishments for the ways in which people kept covenant with God.  Jeremiah had been called, at a very young age, to warn the people of Judah of impending doom if they did not change their wicked ways.  Theologically, we can understand the prophet’s use of the events of the time to draw attention to the ways people had wandered from their covenant relationship.  Politically, it’s hard to imagine that the Babylonians would not have swept down and conquered Judah, even if they had been totally faithful to God.

We don’t serve a God who manipulates the world and its events to reward or punish us for unrighteousness.  The rain falls on the just and unjust as does drought and famine.  The machinations of emperors and empires play themselves out whether or not we are faithful to the Gospel.  Viruses infect, hurricanes happen, people die without God pulling strings like some cosmic puppeteer.  Much of what goes on in and around us is the result of the rhythm of life.  They are naturally-occurring phenomena or the result of forces beyond our individual control.

Still, the prophet has a role, a word to proclaim, vital information to impart.  It may come in archaic language that is difficult to decipher.  But Jeremiah has something to tell us.  His lament, his jeremiad serves a dual purpose.  To begin with, Jeremiah is trying to tell his people that there are consequences for their behavior.  How they handle what they can control of their individual and corporate lives will make some difference in the way those lives play out.  It might not literally be the Babylonian exile, but there are consequences for turning your back on God and engaging in idolatrous practice.  If nothing else, there is the ultimately painful and disorienting loss of that centering, sustaining relationship with the holy for which we were created.

John Holbert says of the first seven chapters of Jeremiah, “…we have listened to the prophet attack, abuse, and generally excoriate his own people for their lack of attention to YHWH’s demands for justice and righteousness, their complete lack of the knowledge of what YHWH wants from them, and their continuous attraction to other gods and their idols of one sort or another” (John C. Holbert, “What It Takes to Become a Prophet:  Reflections on Jeremiah 8:18-9:1,” Opening the Old Testament, 9-15-2013, patheos.com).  Regardless of the actual consequences, Jeremiah is speaking truth about the state of affairs in Judah.  It is the prophetic role to call the people to accountability for their sinfulness.  Jeremiah is much less invested in predicting the consequences of sin than he is in getting people to understand that they have strayed and there will be consequences.

The second and perhaps more important word from the prophet is caught up in today’s text.  God and God’s prophet actually agonize over the consequences of sinfulness.  There is no way God or Jeremiah want the people to suffer.  They do not delight in the suffering and pain of the people.  “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”  Is it God or the prophet who cries out?  Does it really matter?  God and God’s spokesperson share the anguish of their suffering people.  I think the more instructive part of the jeremiad for us is to understand how God suffers with us than to focus on God’s vindictive or judgmental anger.  God desires righteousness from us because God loves us and desires our well-being.  God is angry when we screw up (as we frequently are angry with ourselves when we don’t do right) and God aches with us when we get it wrong or make a mess of things.  Above all, God is about relationship.  The God of compassion feels with us and for us and wants only the best for us, at the same wanting us to want the best for ourselves.

I am a Syrian refugee, living in a makeshift camp far from my home.  Is there no balm in Gilead?  I lost my beautiful six-year old to the random gunfire of a disturbed shooter.  Is there no healer here?  I live in a homeless encampment, they say the largest in the land, right in San Jose.  Is there no shelter in Silicon Valley?   My son committed suicide shortly after returning from his last tour of duty in Afghanistan.  Is there no peace to be found on earth?  My mortgage is underwater and I’m facing foreclosure on our family home.  Where will we find home?  My life partner is in the ICU and I am denied access because the state does not recognize our relationship.  Where will we find acknowledgement and respect?  The owner of my company made a fortune last year; I’m struggling to make ends meet.  Is there economic equity anywhere?  My sister was badly beaten because she insists on wearing her burqa.  Will our neighbors ever see the family resemblance?

The market massacre in Nairobi, the Navy yard shooting, the gutting of the food stamp program, I could go on and on with a litany of violence, injustice, inequity, unrighteousness, not to mention natural disasters, asking the questions of those who lament the consequences.  It is not God who is meting out punishment on these and others who suffer.  All of these examples and others that you could easily add are the result of some failure to follow the way of the God who loves and lures us, the Christ who challenges us and calls us, the Spirit who convicts us and moves us.  Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Is there no remedy, no comfort, no justice, no compassion, no peace to be found among God’s people on God’s earth?

In one sense, Jeremiah leaves us hanging.  Is there balm in Gilead?  He leaves us to answer the question for ourselves and for one another.  The truth is that the healing riches of Gilead remained.  They existed.  They were available.  The question was how to access them for those in need?  It is ironic that our song of reflection takes the text and answers the question with certainty. “There is a balm in Gilead” sang the slaves from the midst of their pain and suffering, from the heart of injustice and inequity, from the depths of sorrow and longing for freedom.  “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.  There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”  They knew it was true because they lived their lives to make it so.  Their faith and their community, born of sacred relationship, was balm that healed and made whole.

Here I am reminded of that old parable of heaven and hell.  As the story goes, Rabbi Haim once ascended to the firmaments. He reported, “I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger.

“As I came closer, I understood their predicament.  Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.

“Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell – row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal.

“As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat?

“As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.

“I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other” (“Allegory of the Long Spoons,” wikipedia.com).

Is there balm in Gilead?  There is.  There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.  There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.