It Is Good To Be Here (2/26/2017)

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Texts:  Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

It is good to be here. I feel that nearly every time I enter this place. I feel it even more strongly on Sunday mornings when we gather for worship and community. This is a place where good people gather to celebrate, learn about, and share what it means to be God’s people. This is a place where disciples gather to consider what it means to care for one another, our neighbors, and the earth, to serve and spread the good news of Jesus Christ, to deepen and broaden spiritual interconnectivity. This is also a place where the wider community gathers to teach, to sing, to dance, to eat, to heal, to work for peace and justice. On most days, this is a good place to be. The catch is: is it enough, is it ever enough?

Moses goes up on the mountain to encounter the Holy One in a more intimate manner than most people ever conceive of. He takes the time to sit patiently on that mountainside until God is ready to speak; then he takes the risk of entering into the glorious mystery, the shekinah, the cloud of unknowing, trusting that God has a word for him that he needs to hear, not just for himself, but for his people. How many of us would be willing to go that far for an encounter with the holy, for instruction on what it means to be both God’s person and God’s people, for a vision of righteousness and right-relationship?

Continue reading It Is Good To Be Here (2/26/2017)

Facing Our Fears (2/14/2016)

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

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Text: Exodus 19:16-19; 20:2-3, 18-21; Luke 4:1-13

Two tales from the Wilderness lead to this morning’s Reflection on the Word. They are separated by centuries. They involve different characters and they describe different actions. But, what they have in common is God – the same God who searches and knows hearts and minds, who leads those who will follow in what the psalmist identifies as “the way everlasting.”

I don’t think we can unpack these stories without first having some sense of what we mean by wilderness. The dictionary records that wilderness is “a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; a tract of wasteland; any desolate tract.”

It also lists as a synonym, desert, which connects more directly to our texts. Desert is defined as “a region so arid because of little rainfall that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all; any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil.”

The key common descriptors are wild, uncultivated. Wilderness may appear as a desolate wasteland, a desert, but not necessarily. Wilderness may be as fecund, as full of life, as the chaos from which creation was drawn. We might even argue that God dwells in that chaos, in a dimension beyond our understanding and control. In today’s texts it is clear that God is encountered in the wilderness. The Holy One is experienced in ways quite different from the ordinary patterns of everyday life. This all holds the prospect of being a little bit scary, doesn’t it?

In today’s first story, God graciously offers the children of Israel a homeland, “flowing with milk and honey.” All they need to do is go with God, following Moses, God’s ordained leader, and they would be taken care of. The problems begin when they are confronted with the unknown, when they look out across the wilderness and think maybe they would have been better off in the familiar territory of Egypt, even if it meant slavery. How often do we come up against the unknown, confront chaos, or perceive desolation in some wilderness and say, “Not today, thank you”? We hear the story of the Hebrew people and we recognize it in so many ways as our own. Called to follow, we drag our feet, grumble and resist all the way. Promised land? Way everlasting? Lovely ideas, but what will the journey cost? We’re afraid it will require more than we’re willing to pay. I mean, what if it takes all that we have?

Here they are at the foot of the mountain. God comes close and they’re terrified. Well, who wouldn’t be? You have to be careful what you ask for. You want God to take care of you but then, when God shows up in a sudden storm and you’re out there in the wilderness, you’re not so sure you trust what will happen. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When it is all over – when the people have witnessed the thunder and the lightning, when they have heard the blast of the trumpet and seen the mountain smoking – every single one of these people who have prayed and prayed to hear the voice of God does a complete about face, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen,’ they say to Moses; ‘but do not let God speak to us, or we will die’” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 47). How can we survive the presence of the Holy One? Our tendency is to choose the familiar over the fearful, no matter how the familiar may enslave and abuse us.

It is tough enough to face our fears in the comfort of our homes; it can feel overwhelming to have to face them while wandering in the wilderness, detached from the familiar, praying that something or someone larger than we will rescue us. In The Chronicles of Narnia, when the rescuer turns out to be a fierce lion, the children are not so sure they want to trust Aslan to lead them through this strange new world. They are afraid. It takes time and practice for them to let the lion lead them to where they need to be. In the same sense, it takes time and practice for the children of Israel to let go of their fear and trust that God and Moses will bring them through. It takes time and practice for us to trust that God will lead us into the way everlasting. It may be that we will need to traverse some frightening wilderness. We may have to learn to walk in the dark.

In the second tale, Jesus is also drawn to the wilderness. Though the circumstances are different, one might consider that it is the same Holy Spirit that leads Jesus as led the children of Israel. There seems to be something about the wilderness that allows folk to encounter God in a depth and intensity that is not possible in the relative safety of everyday life. For Jesus, this story takes place immediately after one of the high points of his life. And how often is that so, immediately after we have been the mountain top we are plunged into some of the greatest challenges of life? Our spirits, soaring, are sorely tested. Jesus, Luke writes, is “full of the Holy Spirit.” Now I take that to be a good thing. Scripture seems to think it is. I can imagine several other things we might be full of that would be less desirable. But, I wonder how many of us have actually been filled with the Spirit in this way. I can’t help but think that there is also something a little strange about it, a little fearful. It’s exhilarating and scary at the same time. Luke doesn’t say if it was so for Jesus but I wonder.

Anyway, Jesus seems to go willingly with the Spirit into the wilderness on a sort of vision quest, a journey to find a deeper, more intense connection to God. For him, it seems essential to living into his high calling from God. He cannot do the work before him, he cannot walk the road that lies ahead, without God and so he must engage in a spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting to prepare for what is to come. Is it really different for any of us who want to walk God’s way? We need to engage in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting to get ready for the journey. That is the point of Lent, to prepare for what lies ahead, to know how to survive in the wilderness so we might come to the comfort of home, to learn to walk in the dark as surely as we walk in the light.

These temptations or tests that Jesus faces at the far edge of his wilderness wandering are uniquely his. They pertain to the work and the walk to which God was calling him. Whatever else you make of them, they were real. They represented alternate ways of accomplishing the task, but they were not God’s way. Remember the thunderous voice from the storm-tossed mountain top, ”I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me”? This is one of those places where God is fierce and uncompromising. That can be a frightening thing. Jesus had to confront it, as did the children of Israel, as do we.

As Jesus faced his own tests, wrestled with his own temptations, so must we. This is actually a situation in which the humanity of Jesus meets our own. Richard Vinson argues that, eventually, “power comes out of Jesus to heal others, and this sounds a bit like a holy energy that resides in Jesus. But Jesus claims to be able to cast out demons ‘by the finger of God,’ which is to say that he does it as God’s agent and not by his own spiritual power (11:19).” He continues, “If God wanted Jesus to turn stone into bread, he could, but not otherwise; it is a mistake to think that Jesus, by virtue of being Son of God, had supernatural powers residing in him that were unavailable to ordinary mortals.” As we considered a couple of weeks ago, “According to Luke, Jesus assigned the disciples the same authority and ability to heal and to cast out demons, so it was not innate to Jesus, but a gift of the Spirit” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 112).

Now there’s a scary thought, to consider how much more we might do to change the world if we trusted the gifts of God and the Spirit’s ability to work through us. We know that sometimes the first disciples measured up and sometimes they failed miserably. A lot depended on their willingness and capacity to face their fears. Remember how Peter succeeded in walking on water in the midst of the storm till he looked around and let his fears overwhelm him? Couldn’t the same be said of us? Sometime we rise to the occasion and sometimes we look around and let our fears overwhelm us.

“Courage,” Greg read, “which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced…How do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?…If we believe a bright security light keeps us safer after dark, there is not a statistic in the world with power to persuade us otherwise” (Barbara Brown Taylor, op. cit., pp. 37, 71). And so it is with all our fears. If we do not face them, if we are not open to wilderness wandering, if we do not learn to walk in the dark, if we are not brave enough to say “no” to anything that would separate us from God and walking God’s “way everlasting, then we will experience a kind of living death. Life may seem alright on the surface, but someday we will come to the question, “Is this all there is?” Here is the question at the heart of facing our fears, posed by poet, Mary Oliver, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”). Are you willing to do a little wilderness wandering? Will you take a chance on meeting God in deeper, more intense ways? Are you ready practice a little courage, learn to walk in the dark, take a chance on the Spirit moving mightily in you – and in us? These are questions to take into our Lenten spiritual discipline. These are the same questions Jesus must have asked as he turned his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem. Will we walk with him, all the way, this time?

Transfiguration Sunday

Rev. Rick MixonLast Sunday, during the prayer time Paul Berry was inspired by the scripture (Luke’s account of Jesus’ proclaiming the word in the synagogue in Nazareth) and the sermon to share this story from his youth. When he was in the 9th grade, a small, Jewish boy in his class announced that he was going into Manhattan to demonstrate with striking sanitation workers. While his parents did not tell him he could not go, his mother asked him, “Why? Where did you learn this sort of activism?” The boy looked at her, a little surprised, then responded, “From you, and from our tradition.” Like Jesus, this boy was paying attention when the word of God was proclaimed and he heard its call to action. Thanks to Paul for this excellent midrash on the text and the proclamation.

This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday. The texts are from Exodus – Moses comes down from the mountain, after his encounter with God, and his face shone so brightly, the people couldn’t stand to look at it; and Luke – Jesus takes some of the disciples up on the mountain, where he converses with Moses and Elijah and is himself transformed into a dazzling figure. God tells the people that Moses is the chosen one, the one to lead them from slavery to freedom, from servitude to a land of promise. God tells the disciples that Jesus is the Chosen One, God’s beloved Son. In each case the observers are urged to listen to these chosen ones and to follow. What does it mean for us to listn, to pay attention to the One who speaks from shrouded mystery and those that would lead us in paths of righteousness, of goodness, justice, compassion and peace?

In this last Sunday before our Lent, we look toward a season of contemplation and discernment, a time for learning to walk in the dark. I pray that it will an enlivening time for each of us.

In Adult Spiritual Formation, we will continue to explore “Saving Jesus Redux,” focusing again on the question of “Who Was Jesus?”

Join us Sunday at 10:00 AM for worship, study and the sharing of community. Bring someone along share in the experiences of the day.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

 

To Be Free (November 9, 2014)

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Texts: Exodus 20:1-21; Matthew 22:34-40; Hebrews 10:1-18

 

The Ten Commandments. They have become an iconic litany, carved into stone and placed in prominent places of judicial decision as well as houses of worship all around the world. I wonder how many of us can recite all ten. Perhaps this morning’s “Litany of Deliverance” jogged your memory. The Decalogue has taken a central role in this country’s culture wars as people have fought to keep their sacred monuments in public places. “A 2004 Barna poll indicated that 79% of Americans oppose the idea of removing displays of the Ten Commandments from government buildings, even though another survey indicated that fewer than 10% of Americans can identify more than four of the commandments” (Dan Clendenin, “Ancient Words for Modern Life: The Ten Commandments,” September 29, 2014, journeywithjesus. net).

I suspect a significant number of that 79% were Baptist. In spite of our historical advocacy for the separation of church and state, there are Baptists who would lie down in front of the wrecking ball come to remove one of those granite monuments from in front of their court house or state house. It’s strange to find folks entrapped in defense of the very kind of idol that is prohibited by those same commandments.

Last week we looked at the liberation of a people as we sketched the journey of Moses and the children of Israel from slavery to freedom. We saw God as one who desires that God’s people not dwell in slavery, as a God who hears the peoples’ cry for liberation and acts to set them free. The God of the Exodus is one who gets people out of slavery and sets them on the path to a land of promise where they may live an abundant life of in blessed liberty. And this God goes with them on every step of that long and difficult journey. We also saw connections to people of every age and from every corner of the earth who have claimed the promise of the Exodus that God is a God of freedom, a God who lifts oppression, a God who gets people out of slavery.

But this week, Brian McLaren raises a different concern, how does this God of freedom get the slavery out of the people? We did touch on this last week when we talked about freedom and license and our capacity to use our freedom to selfish and destructive ends. It is again ironic to consider how we might use our freedom to enslave ourselves simply because we can.

I told the Bible study group on Tuesday, that one of the images that has stuck with me in this journey we’re currently on was in the Cain and Abel story. It is that moment when God says to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). Such a critical moment for Cain. One of the things God is saying to him is that he is free, free to choose but also responsible for his choice. He is free to choose liberating love for his brother or to be enslaved by his anger and his lust to be avenged for his presumed slight.

As I said when we considered this text, what struck this time around is Cain’s freedom. He has this moment when he is completely free to choose. The choice he makes will shape his life from the inside out as well as the outside in. Is it a hard choice? Of course it is. If it wasn’t a real challenge to turn from slavery to freedom, do you think we’d still be reading about it thousands of years later?

It’s a long road to freedom. McLaren writes, “We…must remember that the road to freedom doesn’t follow a straight line from point A to point B. Instead it zigzags and backtracks through a discomfort zone of lack, delay, distress, and strain. In those wild places, character is formed – the personal and social character needed for people to enjoy freedom and aliveness” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 42). Think of the freedom, the richness Cain might have known if he’d chosen to love his brother. Not the least of the blessings would have been to have his brother walking with him on life’s journey, not crying out with haunting voice from the blood-soaked ground in which he was buried.

I’ve been singing that song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” for a lot of years now. I think I first heard it as a cover by Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary fame back in the early 1970s. There is also a powerfully moving rendition by the great Nina Simone. It became something of an anthem in the Civil Rights Movement. For me, it initially expressed some of my deep feelings about being marginalized by the church for being gay. The first time I sang it was at a Baptist meeting for which I was supposed to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I know I upset some people with my unannounced change of song, but it felt important on that day to share my pain and frustration. At that point, I did not see any bridge over the troubled water between me and the church, so I couldn’t sing about it with any integrity. I don’t know how effective my protest was for others but it satisfied me on that day. I felt the power of being able to express what was on my heart and mind.

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” I still feel that way at times. Not for the same reasons that motivated my protest forty years ago. There are other ways I wander in the wilderness after all these years. I don’t feel so much oppressed as a gay man. The church – at least in some places – has made great progress in inclusiveness over those years. The things that enslave still come from without but also from within. It’s complicated. We live in this eternal tension between freedom and expectation, liberty and law, love and judgment.

I’m not asking for public confession, but a more generic expression of those things that tend to enslave us today. When McLaren speaks of “Getting Slavery Out of the People” what comes up for you? McLaren, again, argues that “The truth is that we’re all on a wilderness journey out of some form of slavery.” He says, “On a personal level, we know what it is to be enslaved to fear, alcohol, food, rage, worry, lust, shame, inferiority, or control. On a social level, in today’s version of Pharaoh’s economy, millions at the bottom of pyramid work like slaves from before dawn to after dark and still never get ahead. And even those at the top of the pyramid don’t feel free. They wake up each day driven by the need to acquire what others desire, and they fear the lash of their own inner slave drivers: greed, debt, competition, expectation, and desperate, addictive craving for more, more, more” (op. cit., p. 41). Does this sound right? Do you recognize yourself or someone for whom you care in this description?

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all these chains bindin’ me.” As little as we like the idea of commandments or being commanded, there is liberation in this ancient law that God has laid down for us. The purpose of the commandments is to set us free from the slavery that is within us. Look for a minute at how the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandments intertwine. The first five of the Decalogue teach us about love for God and the second five love for neighbor. Jesus is spot on when he says the Great Commandments summarize “all the law and the prophets.”

In an article entitled, “It’s about Freedom,” Hebrew scripture scholar, John Holbert writes, “The Ten Commandments do not begin with a command, but with a claim. The God we worship is a God who first and foremost is a God who majors in freedom, all sorts of freedom. In whatever ways God’s people seem intent on falling back into multiple kinds of slavery, this YHWH is always in the business of searching for ways to grant these would-be slaves a perfect freedom” (John C. Holbert, “It’s about Freedom: Reflections on the Ten Commandments,” March 7, 2012, Opening the Old Testament, patheos.com). To love such a God with one’s whole being is to embrace the freedom that God desires for us. It liberates us from dependence on any other god, the worship of any idol, loyalty to all that enslaves. In God we can be free at last but we must find time and space to ground ourselves in God.

In the second half of the Decalogue, when we are enjoined not to murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony or covet, we are given a set of guidelines, which, while not exhaustive, point us toward what it means to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. These commandments go a long way toward describing the challenges and rewards of neighbor love. Frederick Buechner writes that one challenge of the Great Commandments is that “The difficulty is increased when you realize that by loving God and your neighbors, Jesus doesn’t mean loving as primarily a feeling. Instead, he seems to mean that whether or not any feeling is involved, loving God means honoring and obeying and staying in constant touch with God, and loving your neighbors means acting in their best interests no matter what, even if personally you can’t stand them” (Frederick Buechner, “Law of Love,” Whistling in the Dark, frederickbuechner.com).

It’s a long road to freedom and the desire to be free is not easily or cheaply satisfied. The work of love liberates but it is so much more than simple sentiment. As Great Commandment Christians, I wonder if we don’t too glibly utter the words as our mantra. Yes, it’s all about love of God and love of neighbor. We know these words and we proclaim them with easy assurance. But what do they mean for us, for you and me? As we long to be free, we find in the ancient law guidelines, no commandments, that, when embraced and practiced, not just carved into some stone monument or committed to long-lost memory, but actually written on our hearts, will lead us to that freedom in Christ and the way to God for which we long. Amen.