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)

On Being God’s Person (7/17/2016)

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Micah 6:1-8; 1 Peter 4:7-11

What does God require? Well, really, who cares? We’re free, independent people, right? We get to live our own lives however we please. What does God have to do with it?

“Who cares?” might be the cynical response of one who finds the “God question” irrelevant and believes he is on his own in this world. Even if there is a god, where is he? What has he done for me lately, let alone what has he done for this poor old world? Looking at the state of the world today, even people of faith may question God’s presence, let alone God’s relevance.

To ask the question, “What does God require?” And to care about the answer, of necessity, means that there is a relationship with God on which to ground the concern. If I am not God’s person, if we are not God’s people, then concern for God’s requirements is meaningless. I suppose I am stating, maybe overstating, the obvious, but I don’t think it hurts to be reminded that, for the most part, we gather here week after week because we are or want to be God’s people. And if that’s true, what God requires of us is critical, perhaps even a life and death matter. Continue reading On Being God’s Person (7/17/2016)

An Attitude of Gratitude (May 10, 2015)

Valentine's DayA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Text: Deuteronomy 15:7-11; 1 Timothy 6:6-12, 17-19

Now wait a minute. Something’s wrong here. It’s only the middle of May. Why are we talking about stewardship? Isn’t the pitch for stewardship supposed to be reserved for November? Every year, as we approach the time of thanksgiving, Jane Chin asks me about the Sunday I plan to deliver the stewardship sermon. The truth is, I don’t try to limit our consideration of stewardship to just one Sunday or just one season of the year. Perhaps you’ve picked that up by now.

For whatever reasons, in our journey with Brian McLaren, this is the Sunday he’s selected to focus on stewardship. I don’t think it will do us any harm to stay with him on this phase of our walk together. Of the many biblical passages that consider money and resources, he chooses three, two of which we have as texts today. The ancient word from Deuteronomy addresses how we handle resources in the context of Sabbath. The letter to Timothy seeks to establish in the young man a proper appreciation for the place of money in the economy of God and in the development of his own sense of godliness.

Among other things, McLaren says stewardship is “love in action.” I like that idea but maybe it needs a little unpacking. What would love in action look like to you? How would it shape a practice of stewardship? What I like about this notion is it grounds giving, sharing, caring in an attitude of gratitude.

In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Mark Biddle argues that “The economic aspect of Deuteronomy’s understanding of the Sabbath principle – release from slavery, release from debt, release from need – underscores the Old Testament’s very this-worldly viewpoint.” He argues that “Deuteronomy does not speak of a ‘spiritual freedom’ only, or of merely emotional responses to God’s Grace. One freed from the very real hardships of slavery in Egypt will find it difficult to enslave another! Can gratitude and greed co-exist?” he asks. “To begrudge the needy, among whom one was formerly numbered, is to hardheartedly and tightfistedly deny YHWH’s redemption and blessing…Deuteronomy understands Sabbath as a principle of liberation from oppression and need. In order fully to participate in the Sabbath, then, it is not enough to be freed. One must extend liberty!” (Mark E. Biddle, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, p. 270.)

Have you ever seen someone freed from some form of bondage, let off from promised punishment, given a second chance, then turn on another seeking similar freedom and possibility? Remember the parable Jesus tells in which a debtor, released from a great debt by playing on the pity of the ruler, then cruelly demands that another who cannot repay a small debt to him be thrown in prison? In the end he meets a worse fate when the ruler finds out about his lack of mercy (Matthew 18:21-35).

The whole Sabbath tradition is centered in good stewardship. It insists on learning to care for creation which, of course, means caring for our sisters and brothers. It calls is to work and play and rest in the joy of our relationship to God who made us and loves of us with unending love. The writers of Deuteronomy, as does Jesus, insist that stewardship is grounded in attitude of gratitude – gratitude to God for the wonders of creation, for the invitation to share with God responsibility for creation and, above all, for God’s grace and mercy when we manage to mess things up. In her wonderful book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells us that the two best prayers are “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” In an interview, she expands: “The full prayer, in its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks.”

First Timothy, too, expands on the attitude of gratitude. The early church developed within the rule of the Roman empire. In this context, Christian Eberhart writes that “For the most part, riches could only be acquired through continuous cooperation with the Roman administration. Those who were rich, therefore, usually supported a system that oppressed the vast majority of the population for the benefit of only few at the center of the Empire” Christian A. Eberhart, “Commentary on 1 Timothy 6:6-19, September 29, 2013”, workingpreacher.org).

While the early church was largely counter-cultural, they didn’t exactly eschew wealth. People of means helped to fund the enterprise and keep it viable. In some cases those with resources pooled what they had with those who had little or nothing so that everyone had enough. Remember the passage from Acts we read a couple of weeks ago? “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:44-47). Remember I said that one of the things that stood out for me in this passage was that they ate their food with glad and generous hearts”? Talk about an attitude of gratitude. And the result, they had the “goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

The problem is not wealth per se. It is people’s attitude toward it. The writer tells the young Timothy that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” It’s the attitude that matters. It’s not money itself that’s the root of so much evil, as we have often heard it misquoted. It’s the love of money, the lust for wealth, that gets people into all kinds of trouble, but we don’t know anything about that, do we? Bill Leonard reports that “In the May 3 Times Nicholas Kristof noted, ‘Just the annual bonuses for just the sliver of Americans who work just in finance just in New York City dwarfed the combined year-round earnings of all Americans earning the federal minimum wage’ (Bill Leonard, “Sifting the Conscience,” May 6, 2015, baptistnews.com).

The clearly counter-cultural words of the writer of First Timothy hold a different perspective for those with wealth. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” Enjoyment? Doing good? Generosity? Sharing? Sounds like an attitude of gratitude to me. What if we were to cultivate just such an attitude, not only for stewardship season, when the whole culture suddenly rediscovers thanksgiving, but all the time, every day, every moment? Thank you, thank you, thank you. Wouldn’t this be liberating, the very freedom that the Gospel offers so freely? An attitude of gratitude – I think it’s worth a try.

The Eye of the Beholder (November 16, 2014)

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Texts: Deuteronomy 7:1-11; Psalm 137; 149; Matthew 15:21-39

 

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— 2and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. 3Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. 6For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession (Deuteronomy 7:1-6).

 

8O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 9Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9).

 

6Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, 7to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, 8to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, 9to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 149:6-9).

OK…that’s the good news for today. These are God’s words, right out of the Bible, taken from today’s texts.   How do you feel about going into all the world to proclaim this as God’s holy word and way? You say you find as much discomfort with this as I do? Well, perhaps there is still hope.

We come up against this dilemma over and over again as we consider the ancient collection of writings we claim as our holy scripture. More than once in Bible study, we have read passages like these and looked at each other in perplexed wonder. How can these words be reflective of a God whom we claim to be love incarnate? Where is the compassion and grace on which we have come to depend?

Brian McLaren shares this concern with us and offers a way to reconsider the place of violence and destruction in our religious tradition. The core to this consideration is to see that our understanding of God has evolved over the millennia as has our relationship to the Holy. This should not surprise us if we have come to see God as “the More,” the One who will always be beyond our ability to contain either in understanding or in practice. This is why we must inevitably walk the road in faith without seeing or knowing all that will sustain us as we journey and bring us home.

In today’s words of preparation, McLaren says that “Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past, and it is still all too common in the present.” He asks, “How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent?” He says of the ancient texts, “We must not defend those stories or give them the final word. Nor can we cover them up, hiding them like a loaded gun in a drawer that can be found and used to harm. Instead, we must expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us toward a better vision of kindness, reconciliation, and peace for our future and for our children’s future” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 49).

Most of the time we avoid these words of violence and destruction, of vengeance and hatred, especially in our worship. We might read Psalm 137 or 149 but we stop before we dash any babies against rocks or lift our swords in triumph. We try to emphasize words of praise and gratitude, peace and justice, compassion and love. That is largely how we have come to understand what it means to walk God’s way through this world. However, as McLaren reminds us, it is important not to deny or ignore our capacity for anger, violence, hatred, and revenge. We can all learn to expand and sustain our consciousness and practice of praise, thanksgiving, peace, justice, compassion and love. Even Jesus faced such a challenge. That’s is how I see it anyway.

He was exhausted. He had been working so hard to spread the good news and bring God’s reign into the lives of his people. Healing, feeding, exorcising, teaching, training his disciples – he needed a break. In our common humanity, we can understand that sometimes we need time off, time to refresh our spirits and replenish our resources. We call it vacation or R and R or the weekend or just a day off. Another way to think of, central to our faith tradition, is Sabbath, time to re-center our lives in God, to re-focus our attention on God’s desires for us, to re-new our bodies, minds and spirits.

Jesus had left the comfortable confines of Galilee, that district that he called home and knew so well. He was no longer in familiar Jewish territory. He was in a foreign land, Gentile territory. Tyre and Sidon were in Phoenicia on the Mediterranean coast, though I doubt Jesus’ intent was a week at the shore. However, I am guessing he was not expecting to be easily recognized. He was hoping for some time away from those Galilean crowds that pressed so heavily against him with their endless neediness and constant clamoring for attention.

And now this woman, this foreigner, this Gentile is demanding a response. At first he tries to ignore her. Maybe she will go away if he simply does not respond. But anyone who has been or known a mother with a sick child understands that she will not be easily dissuaded.   Then the disciples join the fray. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  In spite of his best efforts to train them, they can’t figure out how to handle her either.

Can you hear the weariness in his response? “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Please go away. There’s nothing I can do. I have nothing left for you.” And there she is on her knees, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; help me.” She sees in him what may have dimmed for the moment but what he knows about himself, about his calling, his ministry, his work on behalf of God’s reign. In fact, she sees it more clearly than his own disciples and she believes with all her heart, mind and soul that he can make a difference.

At first he seems irritated that she has found him out and can see him so clearly. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch! That doesn’t sound very nice. Some have argued that Jesus is actually testing the woman with these words. Does she really see what she claims and believe what she says? Well, maybe, but I wonder if this isn’t Jesus struggling with a shift in his own consciousness? How difficult is it for him – or any of us – to admit that maybe he has it wrong or has misunderstood or has more to learn about God’s way and will?

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  The genius of her response completes what some have called the conversion of Jesus. A warm smile spreads across his face as he lifts her from her feet. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And it was. But the story doesn’t end here. Jesus actually seems refreshed and inspired by this encounter. He is energized by this realization that the Good News is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. Now we find him on a foreign mountainside, in Gentile territory – once again healing and exorcising and teaching. After a three day marathon, he looks with compassion on this crowd of foreigners and realizes they must be hungry. He asks his disciples about feeding the crowd and before the day is done the whole crowd of 4000 men, plus women and children have been fed. How many baskets left over? That’s right – seven. Remember that.

Have we heard this story before? Well as a matter of fact we have. In chapter 14, Matthew tells the same basic story of Jesus feeding 5000 plus on a Galilean hillside. That day there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Now here is what McLaren sees happening in this dual account of mass feeding. In the first story, Jesus has broken bread with those “children” whom he has told the woman he came to “feed.” He has ministered to his own. The twelve baskets of leftovers can be viewed as symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel.

However, I believe his encounter with the Syrophoenician or Canaanite woman has expanded his vision of his ministry, and we must expand ours. On a Gentile mountainside he as fed a foreign crowd and there are seven baskets left over. Where have we encountered seven today? “…the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you…“ At least in symbol, the healing of the nations is complete. That is, ancient enmity, hatred, violence and vengeance is left behind and everyone finds welcome at God’s feast. Jesus Christ is the consummate host. There is food enough and to spare. There is abundant healing and hope, peace and justice, compassion and love, plenty to go around and more.

Now this is Good News. Remember, God brought forth creation and called it good. God desires we share with God the joy of that creation. We are made to live in communion with one another and with God. Old ways, old thoughts, old hates, old hurts are left behind. This road we make by walking is lined with love and compassion, peace and justice, healing and wholeness for individuals, communities and all the world. We scan the road as it unwinds before us; from the ugliness of violence and vengeance, hatred and hurt, enmity and fear, a beauty emerges that has been there all along, waiting for us to behold it and embrace it as our way of life. Thanks be to God that we like Jesus can learn and grow and become the people God made us to be. Amen.

You Want to Live? (February 16, 2014)

sermonsMORE LIFE

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 16, 2014

 Text: Deuteronomy 30:11-20

 Sunrise by Mary Oliver

You can
die for it—an idea, or the world. People
have done so, brilliantly, letting
their small bodies be bound
to the stake, creating
an unforgettable
fury of light. But
this morning, climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought
of China, and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun
blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises
under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many! What is my name? What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter fire.”

This Ancient Word is an old story – it’s an interesting story but it’s not really our story, is it?  Here we have the children of Israel, gathered on the Jordan’s bank, looking over into the land of promise.  They’ve gathered to hear the last words of their leader, Moses.  He has led them through 40 long years of wandering in the wilderness while they grumbled and complained, often looking longingly back to Egypt, wondering if they would ever come to this new place that God and Moses have promised them.  Now we find them on the verge of realizing the promise.  Their old leader will not join them as the promise is fulfilled.  They will journey forward without him.  He has hard words of warning for them as they move ahead.  If they fail to journey with God, they will journey alone and the consequences will be disastrous.

But in the comfort our lives, settled already in a land of promises fulfilled, experiencing wonders and blessings beyond our imagining, this is not our story.  We’ve got it made.  We’ve already arrived, haven’t we?  What more could we want or expect?

The way I tell the story, my father had a photographic memory.  As a preacher, he would study all week, reading and reflecting on his text; then on Sunday morning, he would get up early, scribble six words on the back of an envelope, enter the pulpit and preach for thirty-five minutes, a well-thought out, well-reasoned and eloquent sermon.  That is not my story.  I approach preaching differently, and I know those of you who already think my sermons are too long are glad that I don’t preach for thirty-five minutes.

When I was in Granville, the little town celebrated its 200 anniversary.  Founded in 1805 by pioneers who headed west from Granville, Massachusetts, Granville, Ohio, felt in many ways like a New England village.  At First Baptist Church, we decided we would do a historical service to celebrate the anniversary.  It was an historical mish-mash but we had a good time remembering the long legacy of the village and the church.  I wore a frock coat and top hat.  We sang gospel songs and hymns from the mid 19th century and I “preached” a sermon written by Charles Baldwin, who was the congregation’s longest tenured pastor, serving for over 35 years.

The reason I could use one of Reverend Baldwin’s sermons was that the entire collection of handwritten manuscripts had been bequeathed to the archives of the village historical society.  I was granted access to those manuscripts and spent some time looking through them.  The obvious problems were that the language, style and theology were quite dated, not exactly what Granville’s current congregation would want to hear.  Also, Reverend Baldwin’s sermons were pages and pages long, typically lasting 45 minutes or more.  The people in Granville in 2005 were no more interested in listening to me preach that long than you are.  I finally found a manuscript that was adaptable and I edited it to an appropriate length for the day and age.  It was good compromise for an occasion of historical remembrance, but Reverend Baldwin’s story was not mine, nor did his sermon speak directly to his old congregation 125 years after he first preached it.

What’s the point of these digressions?  Nothing profound, I guess, except this morning’s scripture comes at the end of what some scholars call a very long sermon.  This is Moses’s farewell exhortation of his people and it covers the first 30 chapters of Deuteronomy.  I’m quite sure you would not be comfortable listening to me proclaim the first 30 chapters of Deuteronomy.  Maybe, if Moses himself was here, we might tolerate it.  But it’s really not our style nor is it our story.  Or is it?  Is there more life in this ancient tale than appears on the surface?

The verses we read this morning are the final words of Moses’s sermon, the climax that includes the invitation.  And, by the way, both my father and Reverend Baldwin would have concluded their sermons with such a climax and invitation to make a critical choice.  They would have urged a decision for discipleship, for following God’s way by following Jesus Christ.  We’re not comfortable with that sort of invitation these days.  Many of us are not comfortable with forced choices of any sort.  We don’t so much like, “It’s this or that.  You must choose; now is the moment of decision.”  We see life as much more nuanced and ambiguous.  We find ourselves living with the questions.  Very often there are no clear or easy answers.  So this is not our story, is it?

But perhaps there are moments in our lives when we need to step out in space and make a choice.  Might there be points at which we decide, placing our trust in God and God’s promises?  We may not be moving toward a literal land of promise but is there a symbolic land of promise for us, a place, a time, a state in which we would know more light, more love, more life if we were to make a clear choice, if we were to answer “yes”?  Brian Jones writes of our ancient word that “The choice is laid out bluntly. It is yes or no. The options presented do not include ‘maybe’ or ‘I’ll have to think about it’ or ‘I’ll give it a try.’”  Quoting from Star Wars, he reminds us, “As Yoda famously tells Luke Skywalker who has half-heartedly promised to ‘try’ to do as Yoda asks, ‘No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try’” (Brian C. Jones, “Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20,” 9-18-2013, workingpreacher.org).

Moses and his people had been wandering together for 40 years.  They had been freed from captivity in Egypt but they had not found the place God had for them.  Now it was in sight, so close they could smell it across the river, but, before they entered, Moses had a last word for them.  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”  There it was all laid out before them.  Sometimes God does put it to us in just such a fashion.  Here is the opportunity, now is the moment, how will you decide?  As you can see, the decision you make, the direction you choose will have consequences.  Are you willing to take the chance?

There are problems with this ancient text.  It can certainly be seen to support a prosperity gospel, though I believe that is a misreading.  It can be read as presenting God as a harsh and punitive parent, though again that’s not how I read the conditions.  And, because, for the original Israelites, claiming the land of promise meant occupying a literal land, often through bloody, genocidal means, the metaphor of promised land can be tainted for many of us.

Still, I see a promise of more life here and a challenge for us to claim it for ourselves and all creation.  Let us ask ourselves what God has set before us – what dimensions of life and death, of blessing and curse, of happiness and distress, of fulfillment and disappointment.  Then, what would it mean for us to choose life, blessing, happiness, fulfillment of God’s promises for us?

Thelma Parodi is responsible for the title of this sermon.  She brought it to us at Bible study on Tuesday – “You want to be happy?”  She was clear it’s not a statement.  It comes with a big question mark.  Do you want to be happy?  I don’t think she meant smiley faces with giggles and facile laughter.  Do you want to be happy?  To be blessed? To feel fulfilled?  To know deep joy and peace that passes understanding?  Then you need to choose God, thereby choosing life in its richest, fullest sense.   Carolyn Sharp argues that in “[t]his deeply moving text… Moses is urging his people to commit, heart and soul and body, to a vibrant relationship with the God in whom they live and move and have their being.”  You want to be happy?  There it is.  Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself.

If we want to be happy, to know the joy of the promise fulfilled, then we must turn to God, we must center ourselves in God, we must commit ourselves to following God’s ways, we must turn ourselves over to life-giving relationship with the Giver of all life.  It is not conditional in any obligatory sense.  The great irony is that God does not wish to punish us ever. God wants only the best for all us and all creation.  It is our self-centeredness, our selfishness, that does us in.  We think we’re in charge or we can do it by ourselves.  The awful consequences of not walking with God are the inevitable consequences of being outside that life-giving relationship.  It is in the very nature of choosing life that we find light and love.  The alternative is to choose death and to lose both light and love.

In today’s Words of Preparation, William Sloane Coffin speaks eloquently of what it is like to choose life.  He says, “For joy is to escape from the prison of selfhood [where we often encounter obfuscation, apathy and death when left to our own devices] and to enter by love into union with the life that dwells and sings within the essence of every other thing and in the core of our own souls.  Joy is to feel the doors of the self fly open into a wealth that is endless because none of it is ours and yet it all belongs to us” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p.  123).  When we choose life, this is our “land of promise,” if you will – to be in concert with the Creator and all creation, to dwell with the riches of infinite blessing.  Even in the midst of our most difficult times and most painful struggles, this is the promise to which we assent.  This is the life to which we utter our inextinguishable “yes.”  You want to be happy?  Choose life.  More life, O God, more life.  Amen.

 

 

 

12.00

MORE LIFE

A sermon preached by

Randle R. (Rick) Mixon

First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Monday, February 16, 2014

 

Text: Deuteronomy 30:11-20

 

Sunrise

Mary Oliver

 

You can

die for it—an idea, or the world. People

have done so, brilliantly, letting

their small bodies be bound

to the stake, creating

an unforgettable

fury of light. But

this morning, climbing the familiar hills

in the familiar

fabric of dawn, I thought

of China, and India

and Europe, and I thought

how the sun

blazes

for everyone just

so joyfully

as it rises

under the lashes

of my own eyes, and I thought

I am so many! What is my name? What is the name

of the deep breath I would take

over and over

for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is

happiness, it is another one

of the ways to enter fire.”

 

 

This Ancient Word is an old story – it’s an interesting story but it’s not really our story, is it?  Here we have the children of Israel, gathered on the Jordan’s bank, looking over into the land of promise.  They’ve gathered to hear the last words of their leader, Moses.  He has led them through 40 long years of wandering in the wilderness while they grumbled and complained, often looking longingly back to Egypt, wondering if they would ever come to this new place that God and Moses have promised them.  Now we find them on the verge of realizing the promise.  Their old leader will not join them as the promise is fulfilled.  They will journey forward without him.  He has hard words of warning for them as they move ahead.  If they fail to journey with God, they will journey alone and the consequences will be disastrous.

 

But in the comfort our lives, settled already in a land of promises fulfilled, experiencing wonders and blessings beyond our imagining, this is not our story.  We’ve got it made.  We’ve already arrived, haven’t we?  What more could we want or expect?

 

The way I tell the story, my father had a photographic memory.  As a preacher, he would study all week, reading and reflecting on his text; then on Sunday morning, he would get up early, scribble six words on the back of an envelope, enter the pulpit and preach for thirty-five minutes, a well-thought out, well-reasoned and eloquent sermon.  That is not my story.  I approach preaching differently, and I know those of you who already think my sermons are too long are glad that I don’t preach for thirty-five minutes.

 

When I was in Granville, the little town celebrated its 200 anniversary.  Founded in 1805 by pioneers who headed west from Granville, Massachusetts, Granville, Ohio, felt in many ways like a New England village.  At First Baptist Church, we decided we would do a historical service to celebrate the anniversary.  It was an historical mish-mash but we had a good time remembering the long legacy of the village and the church.  I wore a frock coat and top hat.  We sang gospel songs and hymns from the mid 19th century and I “preached” a sermon written by Charles Baldwin, who was the congregation’s longest tenured pastor, serving for over 35 years.

 

The reason I could use one of Reverend Baldwin’s sermons was that the entire collection of handwritten manuscripts had been bequeathed to the archives of the village historical society.  I was granted access to those manuscripts and spent some time looking through them.  The obvious problems were that the language, style and theology were quite dated, not exactly what Granville’s current congregation would want to hear.  Also, Reverend Baldwin’s sermons were pages and pages long, typically lasting 45 minutes or more.  The people in Granville in 2005 were no more interested in listening to me preach that long than you are.  I finally found a manuscript that was adaptable and I edited it to an appropriate length for the day and age.  It was good compromise for an occasion of historical remembrance, but Reverend Baldwin’s story was not mine, nor did his sermon speak directly to his old congregation 125 years after he first preached it.

 

What’s the point of these digressions?  Nothing profound, I guess, except this morning’s scripture comes at the end of what some scholars call a very long sermon.  This is Moses’s farewell exhortation of his people and it covers the first 30 chapters of Deuteronomy.  I’m quite sure you would not be comfortable listening to me proclaim the first 30 chapters of Deuteronomy.  Maybe, if Moses himself was here, we might tolerate it.  But it’s really not our style nor is it our story.  Or is it?  Is there more life in this ancient tale than appears on the surface?

 

The verses we read this morning are the final words of Moses’s sermon, the climax that includes the invitation.  And, by the way, both my father and Reverend Baldwin would have concluded their sermons with such a climax and invitation to make a critical choice.  They would have urged a decision for discipleship, for following God’s way by following Jesus Christ.  We’re not comfortable with that sort of invitation these days.  Many of us are not comfortable with forced choices of any sort.  We don’t so much like, “It’s this or that.  You must choose; now is the moment of decision.”  We see life as much more nuanced and ambiguous.  We find ourselves living with the questions.  Very often there are no clear or easy answers.  So this is not our story, is it?

 

But perhaps there are moments in our lives when we need to step out in space and make a choice.  Might there be points at which we decide, placing our trust in God and God’s promises?  We may not be moving toward a literal land of promise but is there a symbolic land of promise for us, a place, a time, a state in which we would know more light, more love, more life if we were to make a clear choice, if we were to answer “yes”?  Brian Jones writes of our ancient word that “The choice is laid out bluntly. It is yes or no. The options presented do not include ‘maybe’ or ‘I’ll have to think about it’ or ‘I’ll give it a try.’”  Quoting from Star Wars, he reminds us, “As Yoda famously tells Luke Skywalker who has half-heartedly promised to ‘try’ to do as Yoda asks, ‘No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try’” (Brian C. Jones, “Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20,” 9-18-2013, workingpreacher.org).

 

Moses and his people had been wandering together for 40 years.  They had been freed from captivity in Egypt but they had not found the place God had for them.  Now it was in sight, so close they could smell it across the river, but, before they entered, Moses had a last word for them.  See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”  There it was all laid out before them.  Sometimes God does put it to us in just such a fashion.  Here is the opportunity, now is the moment, how will you decide?  As you can see, the decision you make, the direction you choose will have consequences.  Are you willing to take the chance?

 

There are problems with this ancient text.  It can certainly be seen to support a prosperity gospel, though I believe that is a misreading.  It can be read as presenting God as a harsh and punitive parent, though again that’s not how I read the conditions.  And, because, for the original Israelites, claiming the land of promise meant occupying a literal land, often through bloody, genocidal means, the metaphor of promised land can be tainted for many of us.

 

Still, I see a promise of more life here and a challenge for us to claim it for ourselves and all creation.  Let us ask ourselves what God has set before us – what dimensions of life and death, of blessing and curse, of happiness and distress, of fulfillment and disappointment.  Then, what would it mean for us to choose life, blessing, happiness, fulfillment of God’s promises for us? 

 

Thelma Parodi is responsible for the title of this sermon.  She brought it to us at Bible study on Tuesday – “You want to be happy?”  She was clear it’s not a statement.  It comes with a big question mark.  Do you want to be happy?  I don’t think she meant smiley faces with giggles and facile laughter.  Do you want to be happy?  To be blessed? To feel fulfilled?  To know deep joy and peace that passes understanding?  Then you need to choose God, thereby choosing life in its richest, fullest sense.   Carolyn Sharp argues that in “[t]his deeply moving text… Moses is urging his people to commit, heart and soul and body, to a vibrant relationship with the God in whom they live and move and have their being.”  You want to be happy?  There it is.  Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself.

 

If we want to be happy, to know the joy of the promise fulfilled, then we must turn to God, we must center ourselves in God, we must commit ourselves to following God’s ways, we must turn ourselves over to life-giving relationship with the Giver of all life.  It is not conditional in any obligatory sense.  The great irony is that God does not wish to punish us ever. God wants only the best for all us and all creation.  It is our self-centeredness, our selfishness, that does us in.  We think we’re in charge or we can do it by ourselves.  The awful consequences of not walking with God are the inevitable consequences of being outside that life-giving relationship.  It is in the very nature of choosing life that we find light and love.  The alternative is to choose death and to lose both light and love.

 

In today’s Words of Preparation, William Sloane Coffins speaks eloquently of what it is like to choose life.  He says, “For joy is to escape from the prison of selfhood [where we often encounter obfuscation, apathy and death when left to our own devices] and to enter by love into union with the life that dwells and sings within the essence of every other thing and in the core of our own souls.  Joy is to feel the doors of the self fly open into a wealth that is endless because none of it is ours and yet it all belongs to us” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p.  123).  When we choose life, this is our “land of promise,” if you will – to be in concert with the Creator and all creation, to dwell with the riches of infinite blessing.  Even in the midst of our most difficult times and most painful struggles, this is the promise to which we assent.  This is the life to which we utter our inextinguishable “yes.”  You want to be happy?  Choose life.  More life, O God, more life.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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More Light… More Love… More Life

Three candlesThis Sunday we will continue our experience of the Jesus Dojo with an emphasis on “Framing our Practice of Love.” In particular, we want to turn our thoughts to Lenten practices and shaping Lenten worship. To that end we would like to encourage everyone to participate, not just the “regulars.” Lent is not just about an obligatory “giving something up.” Its focus is on drawing nearer to the heart of God as we move toward the celebration of Easter. What might you do as an individual and what might we do as a congregation to intensify our experience of the Holy over the 40 days of Lent? What might we do to share that experience in our witness? It is both a journey inward and a journey outward.

In worship we will conclude a three part consideration of our theme for this year, “More Light…More Love…More Life.” As we anticipate our Renewal Proposal, I continue to believe that there is more light, love and life to come to this faith community as well as more of each to come from us. Sunday we look at Moses’s last speech from the book of Deuteronomy in which he encourages his sometimes cynical, sometimes recalcitrant people to “choose life,” as they stand on the banks of the Jordan, looking over to the Land of Promise, with both longing and anxiety, wonder and worry about what lies ahead. What is our land of promise? How will we approach it? Will we enter it with anticipation and joy? Thelma Parodi has suggested the sermon title should be, “You Want to Be Happy?” What do you think? Will we be happy, blessed, fortunate, if we take the risk to choose life? Deuteronomy says that to choose life is to choose God, who is life. How would that shape our life together?

See you Sunday at 10 AM; plan to stay to share your thoughts on Lent and practicing love.

God grant us more light, more love, more life as we journey together.

Pastor Rick