Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall (7/24/2016)

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

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 30-34; Ephesians 2:11-22 (The Message)

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Continue reading Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall (7/24/2016)

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Dressed for Success

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

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Text: Isaiah 10:33-11:9 (The Message); Luke 19:41-44; Ephesians 6:10-18

“Clothes make the man.” So observed the pundit, Mark Twain. We dress for success to quote a cliché. But, what does that mean for people of faith gathered on a Sunday morning in May in the middle of “Peace Month”? How does what we wear relate to the things that make for peace?

It has not escaped my attention that I am virtually the only one here who wears a jacket and tie to church any more. This is not a judgment on anyone, just an observation. Fashion changes over time and the truth is that I am something of an anachronism. They still sell suits and ties and dress shirts at Macy’s so I imagine there are places where they are worn. Sometimes it must still be important to dress for success. There are places and situations where what you wear matters.

I know I am my mother’s child when it comes to dressing, especially for church. By the end of her life she had closets full of beautiful clothes, most of which were reserved for special occasions. And, when I was growing up there was no more special occasion than Sunday morning. We had our “Sunday best” and those clothes were saved for that day. Washed, ironed, and polished, we would head out the door spotless and spiffy. In her worldview, you saved your best for the Lord, including what you wore to the Lord’s House. I think she had a point. How we adorn ourselves does affect our attitude, how we feel, and how we carry ourselves.

Writer Gay Talese has opined, “Putting on a beautifully designed suit elevates my spirit, extols my sense of self, and helps define me as a man to whom details matter.” That 19th century dispenser of witty wisdom, Oscar Wilde, once quipped that “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.” But even the great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, believed that “Being perfectly well-dressed gives one a tranquility that no religion can bestow.” Actually, the entire Mark Twain quotation is: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” I suppose the naked folk who sometimes lounge at the intersection of Market and Castro Streets in San Francisco can capture your attention, but they have little long term affect on social structure.

Well, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “dress for success”? Is there a connection between fashion and faith? I started to think about this Tuesday in Bible study when Thelma Parodi pointed out that The Message paraphrase of Isaiah 11:5 reads, “Each morning God will pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” Thelma thought, and I agree, that this is a charming, captivating image.  For that same verse, the New Revised Standard Version reads, “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” The reference is not directly to God but to the “shoot” that grows from “Jesse’s stump,” the one whom later tradition identified as the Messiah, and whom we have associated with Jesus.

It is this One from God (or who is God in human form) who comes to redeem creation, to guide us up the Holy Mountain, to lead us to our home in God’s Beloved Community. What does he wear? How does he dress for success? He straps on righteousness and buckles up faithfulness. He comes ready to work on the things that make for peace. Isaiah proclaims, “The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over the Promised One, the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding. The Spirit that gives direction and builds strength, the Spirit that instills knowledge and Fear-of-God.” Here is one dressed and ready for what must be done for peace to prevail.

Now this passage links nicely, at least in mind, to what Paul has to say to the church in Ephesus about being dressed and ready for the work they have to do. Except, of course, this passage from Paul is full of military imagery – hardly what you’d turn to to talk about the things that make for peace. Armor is not usually the peacemaker’s outfit of choice. I know we sometimes use the language of peace euphemistically to describe various weapons, soldiers, and military operations, but use of language doesn’t always make it so.

I’m sure the armor imagery spoke to that early Ephesian church in a place and time in which soldiers in military attire were a common sight. They would have had a clear picture of the Roman soldier in his wide leather belt, emblazoned breast plate, sturdy sandals or boots, protective helmet, carrying his sword or spear and shield. I imagine it was a more intimidating presence than the one we carry from contemporary costume dramas. These guys were not actors, they meant business.

Ironically, they were dressed to bring about peace – the great Roman Peace or Pax Romana. This was, indeed, a sort of peace – enforced peace that involved the suppression of freedom, threats or the practice of violence when needed, control and oppression of whole populations, the well-being of the few at the expense of the many. This was not the vision of God’s Holy Mountain or Beloved Community. This was not the goal of the Promised One, the Prince of Peace, to whom the Ephesian Christians pledged allegiance. While they endured the Roman Peace, Paul urged them to prepare for the peace that passes understanding. Turning the military imagery on its head, he speaks of “the belt of truth…the breastplate of righteousness…shoes for…whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace…the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one…the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

I suppose the Ephesians might have been shocked or amused at Paul’s use of this image of their oppressors to make his point about being faithful to Christ, and to God’s high calling. But then, again, maybe it was empowering, the way “Putting on a beautifully designed suit [might]elevate the spirit, extol [one’s]sense of self, and help define [one] as a [person]to whom details matter” or “Being perfectly well-dressed [could] give one a tranquility that no religion can bestow.” It is a kind of dressing for success – for the success of shalom and Beloved Community. Following the practice of the Promised One, put on your “sturdy work clothes and boots” and get busy.

Maybe there are times when it is still appropriate to put on your Sunday best and to go up to God’s house to sing and pray in praise and celebration. I hope so. People still dress up to go out occasionally and wear party outfits, don’t they? We still like to watch the glamor and glitz on the various red carpets and the fashion shows on reality television. “A well-tied tie” may not be “the first serious step in life,” but there may be satisfaction in that, or however you choose to adorn yourself to feel good and beautiful and express joy in living. That is indeed a form of success, worthy of investment. Put on your red dress or sweater and celebrate the Spirit of life as we did last Sunday. Get out your tux and your formal, your high heeled sneakers, your brightest lipstick, your pink feather boa, your gaudiest bow tie, your dress up sweatshirt, and kick up your heels now and then.

But don’t forget the things that make for peace. Don’t leave Jesus sitting on the side of the hill weeping over us because we didn’t know or see or embrace the things that make for peace. Otherwise we run the risk of sowing the seeds of our own destruction – the emptiness of our good times, the felling of our great “trees” of state, the toppling of our temples, the crumbling of our cities, and the devastation of creation.

When we dress for success, we must be certain to put on clothes appropriate to the work at hand. We don’t need the image of armor to see that, if we want the things that make for peace, our sturdy work clothes and boots are righteousness or right-living, faithfulness to the living presence of God, the truth that sets us free, the salvation or sense of wholeness which the gospel promises, and the Spirit who provides wisdom and understanding, direction and strength, knowledge and fear or awe of God.

Dressed like that what other work could we do but feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners – the very things that make for peace? I guarantee you Jesus won’t be sitting on the hillside weeping. He’ll be right there working with us in his own sturdy work clothes and boots, dressed for success, the success of establishing God’s Holy Mountain, God’s Beloved Community, right here and right now. What outfits do you have hanging in your closets, ready to wear?

Plotting the Jesus Way (July 26, 2015)

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

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Text: Ephesians 5:15-6:9; Philemon 1:3-21; Hebrews 13:1-8; James 5:1-6

As we have worked to make our road by walking it with Brian McLaren this past year, we have been given a set of three or four scripture passages to consider each week to direct us on our journey. This week we have four particularly challenging passages, especially for our contemporary context. I chose the one from Philemon for this morning’s ancient word but any of the four could have been used to explore what McLaren calls “the Spirit Conspiracy.”

The dictionary defines conspiracy as “an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; a plot.” It also indicates that it is a combination of persons for a secret, unlawful, or evil purpose.” This is hardly language we want to apply to the work of the Spirit or claim for our Christian enterprise. The last definition offered seems more in line with McLaren’s word play: a conspiracy is “any concurrence in action; combination in bringing about a given result.” So the Spirit Conspiracy is more a “concurrence in action,” a coming together in service of a common goal that will lead to a radical change in a situation. It’s plotting to upset of the status quo. It’s working in community toward a transformation of life.

In commenting on these passages, McLaren actually plays with the language of Mission Impossible – “Your mission, if you choose to accept it…” Conspiring with the Spirit in bringing about the Beloved Community of God is exhilarating but challenging work that we must choose and commit ourselves to. Sometimes it operates underground, works behind the scenes, is downright surreptitious in its progress toward bringing newness to life.

In each of the four passages from New Testament Epistles there is at least a hint of subversion to the status quo following the Jesus Way. The first passage is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:15-6:9). This is the passage in which Paul urges wives to “be subject” to their husbands,” husbands to “love” their wives, “children to obey” their parents. These are some of the words Southern Baptists and others use to “keep women in their place,” specifically, outside leadership in the church. But when Paul urges that the husbands love their wives and children and that familial relationships be characterized by honor and respect, he is subtly challenging patriarchy in which the male head of household had the right to treat wife and children as property with which he could do as he pleased. Is there conspiracy with the Spirit here to undermine the status quo in service of family life rooted and grounded in love? Love brings power to disrupt might, control, domination in establishing and sustaining human relationships.

Paul’s little letter to his friend, Philemon, is highly controversial. Paul has been faulted for not challenging the institution of slavery head on. That may be a fair critique. In this very personal communication, Paul sends the slave Onesimus back to serve his master. We know that this is one biblical passage that has been used to support institutional slavery. At the same time, apologists note that though Paul sends Onesimus home, he also urges Philemon to receive him as Paul’s adopted son and a brother in Christ. Instead of invoking legality, Paul appeals to Philemon on “the basis of love.” Again, we see the subversive power of love lifted up with Paul’s hope that it will transform the relationship of these two children of God and brothers in Christ.

In the passage from Hebrews (13:1-8), the writer addresses issues of undocumented aliens, prisoners, torture, marriage rights and the love of money. Here the writer more directly challenges the status quo. Fear of the foreigner, incarceration of poor debtors, torture of those arrested (as Jesus himself experienced,) marital infidelity and ruthless accumulation of wealth at the expense of the poor were social ills in the first century as much as they are today. Some things seem never to change.

Make room for strangers, care about and for those in prison, those who are victims of every kind of torture, learn to live in faithful relationship and honor all those who have committed themselves to one another, free yourselves from the love of money and be content with all with which you have been blessed. And, once more, it’s all undergirded by that transformative power of love. The writer begins his exhortation with these conspiratorial words, “Let mutual love continue.” Life in the Beloved Community depends on this mutual love.

Then James, perhaps the most outspoken of all, pulls no punches in his challenge to business practices that cheat the worker for the greed of the owner and to an economy in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you” (James 5:1-6). Not a text many preachers would choose to preach on most Sundays, and yet here again we hear the word that undermines the status quo in the service of justice and equity, in service of building up the Beloved Community of God.

When it comes to the Spirit conspiracy, to plotting the Jesus Way, there are three key elements to consider. I am indebted to our friend and webmaster, Andy Kille, for sharing these in our ministers’ support group last week. He says there are three concerns that the world’s great religions hold in common – compassion, hospitality and service. My response was to say that most surely these are foundational to Christianity, necessary to plotting the Jesus Way – compassion, hospitality and service. In each of these difficult passages we see one or more of these elements at work, transforming the situation into something closer to Jesus’ vision of God’s beloved community.

Compassion, the capacity to feel with another, to walk in another’s shoes, to get inside another’s skin. If we take the time and make the space for compassion, it will be hard to hate, difficult to judge, challenging to mistreat. Compassion carries forward empathy, that capacity to care for another and to work for their well-being, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Compassion is crucial to Paul’s advice about how husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and partners, ought to treat one another – with love and respect, tenderness and care for the well-being of all.

Hospitality is essential to the Jesus Way. All are welcome in this place. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the author of Hebrews says, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Make room at the table, open your door, cheer the weary traveler, who knows what wonders God has in store for the hospitable. Ask Mary Granholm and others in our congregation how their lives have been blessed by the practice of hospitality. As the old spirituals sing “There’s plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom, just choose your seat and sit down” and “We’re gonna eat the welcome table one of these days.” Hospitality asks, why not now? And it’s not just the strangers. It’s prisoners, those who have been beaten down and tortured, those who have been left out and left behind, those who have been lied to and cheated, terrorized and abused, poor and struggling, the least and the last and the lost.

Service is the Jesus Way. It’s not enough to feel compassionate and hospitable. Something has to be done, making room, making a way, making life better for all creation. This is crucial work in the Jesus Way. To love God with your whole being, to love your neighbor as yourself, to let mutual love continue means there is work to be done. Earlier in his letter, James writes “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).

Husbands and wives, partners and lovers, children and parents, families of every size and shape, friends and neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances, strangers and enemies, rich and poor the Jesus Way insists that we all come together in one big tent, that we learn to live together and share with one another and care for one another wherever we find ourselves in whatever circumstances on this small, fragile planet. Indeed we need to extend compassion, hospitality and service to the whole of creation.

“The Spirit that moves among us,” writes Brian McLaren, “is the same Spirit that moves in and through all creation. If we are attuned to the Spirit, we will see all creatures as our companions…even as our relatives in the family of God, for in the Spirit we are all related” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 238). This is the wisdom of the Spirit Conspiracy. This is how we come to walk the Jesus Way – “to see all creatures as companions…as…relatives in the family of God.” So the plot thickens as we conspire with Spirit, as we make the dangerous, thrilling decision to walk the Jesus Way, as we devote ourselves to working for the Beloved Community. In today’s Word of Preparation, McLaren offers the challenge, “There are circles of people that the Spirit of God wants to touch and bless, and you are the person through whom the Spirit wants to work. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing to others” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 235).

With Liberty and Justice for All

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

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Text: Ephesians 4:1-16 (The Message)

When I was a boy in elementary school, we started every day with Bible reading, prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the flag. These “opening exercises” were as predictable and normal as anything in my life. No one gave it a second thought. The words “under God” were added to the pledge in 1954. I was 7 years old at the time and anticipating the second grade. I have a vague memory of a minor disruption in the rhythm of life as we had to remember to include the new words when we recited the pledge. I don’t remember anyone in my small circle objecting to the addition.

I have more vivid memories of 1962-63 when the Supreme Court ruled that required prayer and Bible reading was not permissible in public schools. I was in high school by then, and I remember my father was outspoken in support of the Supreme Court’s decisions. Though the decisions were unpopular in Boise, Idaho, my dad saw them as consistent with his deeply held Baptist belief in the separation of church and state. Still, American Civil Religion carries weight in this country. Ignoring the growing diversity in religious belief and practice, we still tend to use rhetoric of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in attempts to elevate our discourse and/or get elected to public office.

After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, it became common practice to sing “God Bless America” in lieu of, or along with, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” during the seventh inning stretch. But, friends, the United States of America is not the “Promised Land” nor have we any right or reason to expect special blessing from God or to claim that “God is on our side.” The privilege bought by the wealth and power of our nation has no special connection to the great God of the universe and the way we exercise that privilege has little to do with Jesus of Nazareth. It is as much a sham to claim that this is “one nation, under God” as it is to pretend that there is “liberty and justice for all.” Independence Day is not a religious holiday and that is why I choose not to celebrate it in worship.

This year, as the 4th of July approached, we were reminded dramatically that this is not “one nation,” that we are not “under God” in any sense of holding for ourselves a relationship more real and significant than other people on the planet, and that we are a long way from “liberty and justice for all.” In recognizing the holiday, one pastor friend chose to reproduce Langston Hughes’s poem, “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, writes about the American dream:

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again.

I offer these words as neither hymn nor gospel, but as the passionate yearning of one gifted black man for dignity and respect, for the recognition of his humanity and inclusion in whatever common enterprise that engages us as citizens of this land. In these days when hatred and violence have been so evident in our own backyard, when racism and white supremacy have been exposed as an ugly infection in the body politic, when fear of the foreigner and distrust of difference rule the day, Hughes reminds us how much yet needs to be done to make this “one nation…with liberty and justice for all.”

As people of faith who have reason to claim that we are “under God,” we do have responsibility to consider how our faith might inform and shape a society “with liberty and justice for all.” Hughes’s dream for America is not the dream that Paul had for the church but there does seem to be valuable interface between the two. Beloved Baptist ethicist and prophet, James Dunn, who served twenty years as director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and who died yesterday on the 4th of July, wrote, “To translate the revealed message of God’s love into public policy is a massive and sometimes tricky undertaking but our generation is not the first to try. God’s children have been bringing morality to public life for centuries. Christian social ethics is a well developed discipline, not merely a collection of reactions to news reports” (Quoted in his obituary).

What if our sense of being special is not because we live in the United States of America but because we are children of God, the body of Christ? Special not because of any elevated status but because we have heard and responded to God’s call to service. Our motivation to work for “liberty and justice for all” is not because it’s the American way. We’ve already established that this a dream unfulfilled. What if, instead, our motivation is our desire to see the Beloved Community of God come to fulfillment on earth, which surely is a call to “translate the revealed message of God’s love into public policy”?

“I want you to get out there,” says Paul, “and walk…on the road God called you to travel…And,” he continues, “mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.” He calls us to be “…Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.”

In an all too racist society, what would it look like for us to pour ourselves out for each other in acts of love? And I don’t mean sweet, patronizing acts of charity. I mean real, transforming love that sees and respects difference while working to bind all together in love. The God who made us, who loves us with unexplainable love, who calls us to communion with the Holy One and community with one another, sees beyond the American Dream. It is a larger vision of hospitality and inclusion. I know some in the USA have claimed that as our dream, but the failure to bring it to reality speaks to our inadequacies when we try to go it alone. As soon as we begin to get ahead, we suddenly want to reserve the vision of liberty and justice for ourselves rather than for all. We want to confine life to borders that secure our privilege and power because we’re afraid that there just isn’t enough to go around.

This makes me think of the simple wisdom of Malvina Reynolds who sang, “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.” In fact, real love is only love in the giving. It cannot be hoarded. I understand that there are challenges to reaching across lines of race and class, to welcoming the stranger in the land, to learning new languages and cultures, to eating strange food and singing unfamiliar songs. But remember God’s challenge to Peter from a couple of weeks ago – “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28b). We used to sing it in Sunday School, “Red, yellow, black, brown, white, all are precious in God’s sight.” What if we committed ourselves to looking within this beautiful diversity for the God-ordained unity that sees every one as precious – yes, even the ones you really struggle with – maybe especially the ones you struggle with.

Let’s be clear though to say that “all lives matter” is not the same as to say “black lives matter.” The call for unity can never gloss over difference nor deny the painful picture painted by Hughes in his poem. Paul says we have to “notice differences,” we have to see and acknowledge the other’s pain and struggle, hopes and dreams. Racism and white supremacy are real. Until we see and understand those realities there will never be “liberty and justice for all.” If one us is not free then none of us is truly free…and God deeply desires freedom for all creation.

Let me close with some words from another poet of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson, who, along with his brother, Rosamond, wrote what has come to be known as the black national anthem:

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Or in the words of Paul, “…I want you to get out there and walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.

God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

Rooted and Grounded in Love (6/14/2015)

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

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Text: Psalm 116; Ephesians 3:14-21

Friday night we went to hear – and see – a fascinating production of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas admits to having struggled over the years with the complexity of Beethoven’s great musical and religious masterpiece. Drawing on his own unique genius, Tilson Thomas used orchestra, choruses, soloists, lighting and projection in a bold and creative attempt to clarify what he sees as the architecture of the piece. He conceives the work as entering a great cathedral and encountering its majesty and its mystery.

Though it evoked for me memories of many a magnificent cathedral, I thought especially of the cathedral at Chartres, just outside Paris. Not only is Chartres exceedingly beautiful in structure and adornment, there is something about it that immediately says, “Surely the Presence of God is in this place.” I think that is the same sense that Tilson Thomas was trying to capture in his re-imagining of Beethoven’s mass. I can’t honestly say it all worked for me. I find that the music speaks powerfully for itself at most turns but I applaud the maestro’s efforts to do something new and exciting with such a well- established work.

However, there was moment on Friday that caused my spirit to soar and brought tears to my eyes. At the end of the rather reflective Kyrie that opens the work, in which the combined forces pray that God and Christ will have mercy, there is a brief pause before a thunderous exclamation of Gloria – “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth.” The production had progressed from the beginning in which some members of the chorus and the soloists wandered onto the stage and walked about as if they were, indeed, entering a great cathedral in wonder and awe. The lighting was subdued and the projections evoked the view looking up into the vaulted ceiling of a great gothic structure.

But as the Gloria was suddenly trumpeted, the lights went up, color was added to the images and the boychoir came running onto the stage from both sides in a profusion of ecstatic joy. “Glory to God” not only sounded in the room, it was seen and felt to the back of the balcony. In the moment, I experienced something like the fullness of the word, the kind of moment when you want to bow your knee before God in adoration and gratitude.

I think this is what the writer of Ephesians had in mind when he wrote the beautiful prayer that is the morning’s Ancient Word. Sally Brown suggests that “An intriguing possibility is that the prayer, and much of the ‘filling,’ ‘dwelling,’ and ‘glory’ language of the book [of Ephesians] as a whole, connects to Old Testament traditions of the glory of God filling worship spaces – tabernacle and temple.” In the letter to the church at Ephesus, she writes, “…we find that the human community of mainly non-Jewish believers is envisioned as a ‘dwelling place’ for God…The apostle prays, beginning in 3:14, for God to ‘fill’ this new ‘dwelling place’ that is the church…The apostle prays for a church filled in every dimension by God, with and for the glory of God” (Sally A. Brown, “Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-21, July 29, 2012,” workingpreacher.org). “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth.”

What if this was our prayer for our community gathered in this place? “Fill us, O God, with a holy vision and the grace to live it out. Grant that a sense of your presence be strengthened in the depths of our inner being. Empower us through your Spirit. Let Christ dwell in our hearts. Keep us faithful, rooted and grounded in love.” I wonder if we began and ended every service of worship, every class, every meeting, every activity, with such prayer how our lives and our witness might be transformed. Might we come running into the Presence, overflowing with ecstatic joy, crying “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth”? Would the well-being of God’s shalom become our goal and the coming of God’s Beloved Community our way and our work?

What would it mean for us truly to comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”? Would that fill us “with all the fullness of God”? I am especially drawn to the notion of being rooted and grounded in love. You have heard me say before that I believe the only real power in this world is the power of love, that it’s love that makes the world go round, not military might or political influence, not academic prestige or fame or wealth. As a child of God and follower of Christ, I believe love will have the last word.

When I titled this sermon, I was thinking that the rooting and grounding of plant life would be the appropriate image with which to work. It always amazes me to take a cutting from a plant, to watch it root in water and then to plant it in the ground and see it grow into the fullness of its being. Remember a couple of weeks we considered John’s image of how the branches extend from the vine so that they might bear fruit. If the branches are secure in the vine and the vine is secure in the soil, all will be well and life will be abundant. Remember that John says we are those branches and Christ is that vine, rooted and grounded in God, which is to say rooted and grounded in love (John 15:1-8).

Bruce Epperly writes that “Ephesians speaks of quantum leaps of energy that emerge when we are connected to God.  Perhaps, the author remembers Jesus’ promise ‘you can do greater things’ or the parable of the vine, ‘connected with Christ we will bear much fruit.'” He continues, “From God’s riches in glory – the glory of the big bang and the god-particle, we receive inner power through God’s Spirit.  Christ dwells in us and the gifts of divine Shalom are ours.  We abound even when we struggle.  God is supplying our needs and giving us manna enough for each day.  This is not the prosperity gospel, but the simple joy that comes from living in relationship to God’s unsurpassable love”(Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary: Everything’s Possible,” July 29, 2012, patheos.com).

However, after my encounter with Beethoven and Michael Tilson Thomas, I started thinking about architectural images, for buildings are also rooted and grounded in their own way. They may not grow and bear fruit organically but without a sure foundation, they are certainly liable to collapse. Remember Jesus’ parable, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:24-27).

This little story is particularly salient as part of Tilson Thomas’s conception of the mass focused on the importance of the words to Beethoven in structuring his mass. Many of the projections were words that would, at times, dissolve into letters raining down from above as when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us or letters rising up as prayers ascending to the Holy One. The solid building of the structure is meant to facilitate the flow of words and the Word between God and creation.

So my memory was drawn to the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake. Most of us remember the collapse of structures built on sand and the safety of structures sunk into the rock. At the time, we lived with friends in a large duplex in Oakland. The building was well-constructed back in the early part of the twentieth century by a contractor who specialized in building schools and other public buildings. It was solid structure built into the side of a hill. From the street it was a two-story building but in back it descended the equivalent of four stories to the deck below.

The night of the earthquake our neighborhood was without power, so we gathered in the lower unit in the candlelight to listen to the news on a battery powered radio and drink a little wine. We knew the earthquake had been devastating but it was not until the next morning when we could see the visual evidence on television that we became concerned. We called the city to come inspect the foundation on our home and they found enough damage to “yellow tag” the building. For six months we lived elsewhere as engineers created and contractors executed an elaborate shoring up of the foundation. In addition to sheer wall and other construction, they sank several large concrete pillars down into the solid rock of the hillside. I have a feeling that that building is now virtually indestructible.

Of course, I know that is not literally so but it is the way of a sure foundation to give a sense of security and safety. When we are rooted and grounded it is much more likely that we can abide the storms of life, that we can face challenges with wisdom and grace, that we can overcome obstacles and keep journeying on toward the full realization of God’s Beloved Community. And I do believe that love is indestructible. That is why I see it as the ultimate source of power. “…for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it…” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7).

To be rooted and grounded in love is to look out on all that God has created, to see the goodness inherent in it and to commit ourselves to the fulfillment of that goodness in ourselves and all that God has brought into being. To be rooted and grounded in love is to shout in ecstatic joy “Glory be to God and peace to all on earth.” To be rooted and grounded in love is to walk this worldly way with all its beauty and hardship, delights and challenges, with God as the end, Christ as guide and the Spirit as companion. In today’s Words of Preparation, Brian McLaren tells us that “Whatever ember of love for goodness flickers within us, however feeble, or small…that’s what the Spirit works with, until that spark glows warmer and brighter. From the tiniest beginning, our whole lives – our whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength – can be set aflame with love for God” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 212). Through Christ “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,” may it be so. Amen.