Holy Week: Death and Life

easter_cross.fwEaster Sunday was surely a day of celebration as we looked to claiming our own “ressurection power” to make a difference in this world in the name of the risen Christ.  Thanks to everyone who helped make it a special day – to Jan, Daniel Ha, Daniel Ramirez, Dominique and the choir with extra singers for wonderful music; to Pastor Gregory fo his work with the children and youth and fo his work, alongside Carolyn Shepard and Soo Kim, in making the Sanctuary so beautiful; to Laurie Cudworth, Thelma Tuttle, the Satterlees, among all those who helped with the lovely brunch; and to Chip Clark for – well, only he knows all he does! I agree with Thelma Parodi and Pastor Gregory in the their celebration of our wonderful church “family.’

With the advent of April comes a special emphasis on “Loving the Earth.” Since Earth Day is April 22, this seems like the right time to take up our opportunities and obligations to share with God in good stewardship for all of creation. Pastor Gregory is taking the lead in this programming with some wonderful offerings from people whose life and work is focused on loving the earth. I hope you will “think outside the box” – that is, consider participating beyond your own version of “church as usual.”  I know I will.

Worship will be focused on loving the earth as will the education hour afterward. Even if you don’t usually attend Adult Spiritual Formation, I think you will want to take advantage of these sessions. There will be a couple of film nights for the whole family on the first and third Wednesdays and an all church Earth Day pot-luck on April 17. There are selected books in the library, if you want to do some background reading. “The Earth is God’s and the fullness thereof.” Let’s gather as a community to learn and to celebrate.

This Sunday Pastor Gregory will be preaching on “Easter Ecology,” following John 20:19-31. The education hour will feature Greg Grifffey, who is a farm boy from Appalachia and a fan of the great American essayist and poet, Wendell Berry, in addition to being a hospice chaplain. He will share with us about spirituality and love of the land.

This would be an especially good time to invite others to join you in sharing these experiences celebrating creation and loving the earth. Join us at 10:00 AM for family worship and communion, followed by adult education and Lunch Bunch at 12:45. Let’s carry the joyous spirit of Easter throughout these 50 days of Eastertide and beyond.

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

Pastor Rick

 

Early One Morning (3/27/16)

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

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Text: John 20:1-18

She showed up very early in the morning, while it was still dark. She was alone. What was she doing there? What had drawn her to the burial ground in the gloom of a barely emerging dawn? The other gospel versions of this story say that it’s a group of women that shows up very early on Easter morning. The tradition suggests that these women come to finish preparing the body for its final resting place. There was simply not enough time between his death on that Friday afternoon and the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown. He was hastily placed in the tomb without the proper anointing, so these women arrived at the tomb at their first opportunity to finish their work.

But in John’s account Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus have already taken care of the burial. At great risk to fortune and reputation they have claimed the body and buried it properly. John writes, “After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19: 38-42). Under the cover of growing darkness they had cared as best they could for this one who was so cruelly and wrongly executed. It was finished – or so it seemed.

So here Mary is, all alone, in the fading darkness of the early morning. Why is she there? The text does not say for certain but I assume she has come to grieve. Graveside grieving is not for everyone, but some find comfort in being near the burial site of a lost loved one. And I believe Mary Magdalene loved Jesus. He was crucial to her life, her faith, her sense of well-being. His death is devastating for her. Somehow mourning is more meaningful for her in the cool, dark, damp of early morning in the graveyard.

Here in the lessening shadows she is searching for something – a quiet, private place to shed her tears, away from the confused and grieving company of his followers? Answers to her own questions? A bit of solace? There is no sense that she, or the others, expect what is to come. Her repeated concern makes this clear. “They have taken away my friend, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She assumes that the body has been moved for political purposes or by body-snatchers or for some other mysterious reason. No thoughts of resurrection are apparent for her, Peter or “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” I know the text says the latter disciple “saw and believed,” but I take this to mean that he saw and believed that body was indeed missing. He had no more idea what was happening than Mary did.

Once more we find Mary alone, still pained and confused in her sorrow in the waning darkness in front of the open, empty tomb. Suddenly a shadowy figure appears in the garden. She assumes it is the gardener, and why not? In the dim light of a breaking dawn, who else would show up to begin his day’s work? Through her red and swollen eyes, with a downcast gaze, not expecting anyone else, least of also Jesus, she makes a logical assumption. She sees a stranger. The truth does not dawn on her until he gently calls her by name. “Mary.” The half-darkness may still surround her but something blazes deep inside her as it never has before. Here is the living Christ, calling her by name. As he calls out her name, she begins to see that even in her grief and confusion, she is not alone. She never really was. She never will be. This is a great truth of learning to walk in the dark, we are never alone. The Holy One, God’s Steadfast Love, goes with us every step of the way.

We want to celebrate Easter with voices raised, instruments blaring, flowers in full bloom and hearty alleluias. There is nothing wrong with Easter joy, but in Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor points out that resurrection actually happens in the dark. In today’s Words of Preparation, she writes that “By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection.  Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after.  Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.” She says, “As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part.” I will confess that I had never really thought of resurrection this way.

She continues, “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But,” she insists, “it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p.  ).  ”Now the green blade rises from the buried grain…”

Mary is prepared to grieve, to spend her time mourning what is lost. She is heart-broken and feels alone. “My God, how could you let this happen? Why have you forsaken me?” Neither she nor the rest of the disciples are prepared for resurrection. “What have you done with the body? Where have you taken him?” It doesn’t matter that he has told them more than once that he would die and rise again. It is a claim that does not compute, has not registered in their reality. Do you think it would be any different for you or me if we had been in their sandals? That lack of awareness may still be too true today.

My friend Tim Phillips writes of death and resurrection, “Maybe the worst thing about death in all its forms is that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else.” Isn’t this Mary’s truth in the early morning shadows. She couldn’t imagine anyone else. She assumed she was talking to the gardener. Tim continues to speak of death and its equivalents, “Addiction robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs of the energy to imagine some kind of wholeness beyond a cure. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that can put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive its hold on us” (Tim Phillips, “Resurrection Power,” The Spire, Vol. 80, No. 3, March 2016, Seattle First Baptist Church). On this Easter morning, what, if anything, might rob you of the energy to exercise your own resurrection power?

Most of the time we live in what Melanie May calls the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday,” somewhere between the deep and terrifying darkness of Good Friday and the brilliantly overwhelming sunshine of Easter. Because of this, she says we have to learn to “practice resurrection.” I’m assuming this something very much like learning to walk in the dark or claiming our resurrection power. Consciously or not we wrestle with death and its equivalents – addiction, violence, illness, the burdens of existence. Practicing resurrection, learning to walk in the dark, claiming our power, entails a recognition that there is life-giving energy beyond anything we ever imagined, that there is resurrection power in all creation, that, somewhere out there, God, in Jesus, the Risen Christ is gently calling our names – yours and mine. Do you have eyes to see? Ears to hear? Hearts to open?

Here’s the resurrection reality. Mary Magdalene and the other disciples experienced a Living Christ. We can speculate all we want on what exactly that meant for them and what it means for us. But, whatever happened in the early morning darkness that first Easter changed Mary’s life, transformed the lives of us Jesus’ first disciples and ushered in the new creation, God’s beloved Community, here on earth as in heaven. At times, we may have difficulty seeing, hearing, holding onto our resurrection power.  In our current context, with so much distrust, hatred and evil, we may not recognize Jesus at first, but he is there in all that claim the promise of abundant life offered to each of us and, indeed, the whole creation. He is present in all who serve and seek to do God’s will. He can be seen wherever compassion is practiced and love made manifest. If you’ve been there for one of the least, you’ve been there for him. We may live for now in the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday;” there may be times we come to the tomb alone and heart-broken; there will be days when it’s hard to believe our eyes, but, early one morning, we will find the transformation complete. We will know that God has gone with us all along the way. There will be singing and dancing and shouts of “Alleluia!” Since we know that day has both come and continues to come, we might as well practice resurrection today, right here and right now. “Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.” Amen.

Transforming Word (1/17/2016)

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

Sunday, January 17. 2016

Text: John 2:1-11

We heard John proclaim in the very beginning of his gospel that “the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). But what would it mean, what would it look like, feel like, taste like, to experience grace and truth in the flesh – in our flesh? In the first of his “signs,” John’s Jesus begins to address this question.

Jesus is three days into his ministry, just barely begun. Like a new head coach, he has been busy putting together his team of assistants. Andrew comes with his brother Simon Peter. Philip recruits his friend, Nathanael, whom Jesus has envisioned sitting under a fig tree. Nathanael is amazed at Jesus’ perception. Jesus assures him that, if he comes along, he will see yet “greater things.”

It doesn’t take long before these words come true. The whole entourage – Jesus, his disciples, even his mother – have been invited to a wedding in Nathanael’s home town. Now remember, a wedding in this time and territory was more than a rehearsal one day followed by the ceremony and reception the next. Weddings went on for a week and involved the entire village plus assorted friends and relatives from other places. For a couple to run out of wine before the week was over was not just a social faux-pas. It was shameful, casting a shadow over the families’ good names and jeopardizing the success of the marriage.

We can speculate about Mary as mother and matron. Perhaps she was a force with which to be reckoned. Tradition has certainly portrayed her as a figure of power and influence, on earth as well as in heaven. Practically, the text says she sees that the wine is disappearing much too rapidly. “Son, they are running out of wine.” “Well, what is that to us? What do you want me to do about it?”

These words seem harsh, disrespectful to our ears. That’s no way to talk to your mother. Maybe he’s trying to assert his independence. Maybe she is interfering with the delicate timing of his ministry, a timing determined in a realm beyond her understanding and above her pay grade. Maybe this is the beginning of his assertion that only those who serve God and God’s beloved community are to be counted among his true family. We will likely never know the full meaning of this response, so strange in our hearing.

The way the story plays out makes me thing of the son who says “no” to his father’s request for help, only to be found later doing what his father asked. Perhaps Mary is meant to be instrumental in moving her son to action. She is meant to help implement heaven’s plan. Remember it was not long ago that we read again the powerful words of the Magnificat and sang of “Dreaming Mary”:

And did she dream about a son? And did he speak, the angel one?
We only know God’s will was done in the son of Dreaming Mary.
Then she prayed, rejoicing in her savior. She taught him justice for the poor. She taught that kings oppressed no more
when she taught, that Dreaming Mary.

Anyway, Mary tells the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.” Not much time passes before they are serving the guests from a seemingly endless supply of fine wine, 120 to 180 gallons of the very best. The steward, the bride and groom, the guests, are all amazed and, of course, grateful. The party continues on to its joyous conclusion. Only the servants, Jesus and his entourage know what has really happened. I imagine they were all amazed in their own way.

Water into wine. Jesus’ first miracle, though John prefers to call it a sign. What a wonder! But it’s not as much the actual transformation of the water that’s important as it is the significance of the transforming word. In the beginning, the Word brings about creation. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4). Jesus speaks the word and the water is transformed to fine wine.

The transforming word is truth. There is another way. People live in fear that there is not enough to go around. Faith shrivels and religious practice becomes rote ritual, binding humankind instead of liberating. Compassion is little practiced. People focus on caring for me and mine. Difference is deemed dangerous and is met with suspicion, anger and hatred. People take up arms to protect their self-interest and destroy outsiders and the earth in the process.

The truth is that God never intended us to live like this and has been trying to convince us that this is so since blowing the breath of life into us and calling us very good. The truth is that the large jars filled with water for ritual cleansing could just as easily be filled with fine wine with which to celebrate the gifts of God’s goodness and the abundance of life in the Beloved Community.

Deborah Guy writes, “Sometimes, I am so focused on what I do not have that I cannot see God’s gifts. God offers me a feast. Do I eat the bounty offered? Do I drink from the river of pure joy? Where is the life and light in my own life? Do I know God and God’s faithful love? Is my heart right? Do I allow God to extend righteousness to me? (January 13, 2016, d365.org). The transforming word of truth sets us free from all that binds us so that we can live and work with the Word to fulfill God’s intention that all creation be wrapped up in a Beloved Community, blessed and sustained by God’s steadfast love.

The transforming word is grace. It is the amazing grace of God’s steadfast love for us, whatever our limitations and foibles. The word is grace that invites us to party, to celebrate the wonder and goodness of creation, to recognize that love is the real power in the universe, the only power that matters in the end. To love God with one’s whole being and to love creation as we love ourselves can only result in transformation of all. It is grace that allows love to lead the way, to shape our lives, to help us see that we are welcomed “just as we are.”

The transforming word is Jesus, the Christ. The Word became flesh. God took on human form. Jesus embodied the cosmic Christ, powerful presence from before the beginning of time, and lived among us. Jesus is the miracle, Jesus becomes the sign that leads us to God’s Beloved Community. In his life and work, in his teaching and his practice, in his compassion and his deep connection to the Holy One, he demonstrates the possibilities of transformation for all of us.

Lately I have been taken with the transforming possibilities contained in the words of liturgist and poet, Maren Tirabassi. Let’s give her the last word today as we consider her “Reflection on John 2”:

 

REFLECTION ON JOHN 2

Maren C. Tirabassi

Of course, marriage is a miracle,
like every tender, trusting, tricky
relationship between people.

It’s a miracle, given the stress
from wedding planner to dementia,
that we ever hold on
to love or respect
or the ability to cope
with each other’s relatives.

The truth in John’s pragmatic descent
from philosophical heights
to pre-toast nightmare
is that in every relationship,
we run out of something –

patience or courage or energy,
health or money or parenting skills,
physical attractiveness,
or the ability to appreciate humor,
financial trustworthiness
or the willingness to make breakfast in bed,
watch boring television,
drive aunt Susan to the tenth doctor,
accompany the kid to traffic court –
or just joy.

Everybody runs out of something, sometime.
And then we recognize
Word-boy is in the miracle business.
Jesus can transform things –
water into wine,
wine into poured-out love,
our days of fear, loss, failure, anxiety,
into a morning more healthy, more whole.

So the first miracle
is not walking on water
but making it a party,
and here comes the pun –
it works because we party-cipate.

That couple owned the clay jars;
those attendants poured;
the steward did the taste-test,
which was probably not so much
swirl and sniff
as supermarket sample.

No hocus-pocus-vintage in the smokus –
Jesus transformed something
that was already there –
something that hadn’t run out –
like love or respect or caring,
memories of counting new baby toes,
or holding one another’s hands
side by side at a grave –
into enough, into abundance.

Of course, they did run out of water
for getting clean –
and had to settle for welcoming
all those dirty guests,

but that’s where we come in –
for we’re the wedding crashers here.

(Maren C. Tirabassi, 1-13-2016, giftswithopenhands.wordpress.com).

May the transforming word come to our lives and our community, bringing joy and making all things new. Amen.

 

Light Shines Out (1/3/2016)

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

Sunday, January 3. 2016

Text: John 1:1-18 (An Inclusive Version)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2The Word was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 

10The Word was in the world, and the world came into being through the Word; yet the world did not know the Word. 11The Word came to what was the Word’s had made, and the Word’s own people did not accept the Word. 12But to all who received the Word, who believed in the name of the Word, power was given to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of human will, but of God. 

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen the glory of the Word, the glory as of a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to this child and cried out, “This was one of whom I said, ‘The one who comes after me ranks ahead of me because that one was before me.’”)16From the fullness of the Child we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Child, who is close to the heart of the Father-Mother, who has made God known.

Well, it’s almost over isn’t it? This year’s holiday season is particularly long, especially in the liturgical sense that we have two Sundays between Christmas and Epiphany (which really is Christmas in some places.) We’re not sure how much more celebrating we can stand. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you stopped a while back. We were inundated with carols and other trappings of Christmas long before the actual occasion and now, when we ought to be singing the songs of Christmas, we’re sick of them.

Is anyone particularly tired this morning? Are you feeling the accumulated stress of the holidays? Are you ready for the peace and quiet of a little ordinary time? I’m sure you’re not alone. The “holiday season,” as we have come to know it, assaults all our senses from before Halloween through the after-Christmas sales and celebrations of the New Year. By now, it makes perfectly good sense that we would be worn out, even if we did not overindulge in welcoming the New Year.

So how many of us got everything we wanted for Christmas? What did you find in your stocking, “hung by the chimney with care”? What wonders waited for you under the tree? Were you completely satisfied with your giving and receiving? I don’t mean to be a Scrooge this morning. I enjoy many of the more secular traditions of the season as I am sure you do. However, as a people of faith, the meaning of Christmas should be more than the festivities of the “holiday season.” It is even more than the beloved stories of the angels and shepherds and Magi and Mary and Joseph and a baby born in a stable.

The writer of John tries to capture the deeper meaning in the Prologue to his gospel. “The Word,” he writes, “became flesh and lived among us…” But note this word is not just any word – like pancake or football or swimming or listen or speak or good or bad or heaven or hell. It is written with a capital “W” but it is not a name like Rick or Oscar or Kathy or Thelma or Daniel or Gerardy or Gandalf or Darth Vader or even Dumbledore. The word is “Word” and John says it is very special. He says this Word was “in the beginning with God” – you know, way, way back when God created everything. How can that be? What do you think John is talking about? What or who is this Word and what does it have to do with the true meaning of Christmas?

At first, John says “the Word was God;” then he says the Word was light and life and glory and truth and grace. That’s a lot of lovely, but abstract terms, challenging to take in and comprehend. So, he says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Now wait a minute. Have you ever encountered light or life or glory or grace or truth walking around your neighborhood? Has God been seen recently at your school or workplace? Was God in line for the “Star Wars” premiere? How is it that God became human? Who is this mysterious Word who is light and life and glory and grace and truth and is both God and human?

Could it be Jesus, the baby whose birth we celebrated at Christmas? How is it that Jesus can be this Word? Let’s play with the question a little. The dictionary says that a word is “A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing,that symbolizes and communicates a meaning…”
So the Word “symbolizes and communicates meaning.” The Word has come from God to show and tell us something about the meaning of God’s creation and our existence in it.

In Greek “the Word” is translated as “logos” and it means, philosophically, “the principle governing the cosmos…Identified with God, it is the source of all activity and generation and is the power of reason residing in the human soul.” That’s heavy! In biblical Judaism logos is “the word of God, which itself has creative power and is God’s medium of communication with the human race.”

It appears that, after God had tried to communicate with humanity through the law and the prophets, through wisdom and history, through poetry and song, God decided the only way to get our attention was in the flesh, in human form. You know how someone showing up in your space is more likely to get your attention than a text or an email or even a clever meme? So the Word became Jesus, a baby born to an unmarried peasant couple in a backwater village of a small-time country some 2000 years ago, and that same Jesus became the Word – filled with light and life and glory and grace and truth – in the flesh.

Barbara Brown Taylor comments on this passage, “In Jesus, John says, the word becomes flesh. The intangible light, glory, grace, and truth of God are embodied in him. God puts skin on those divine attributes so that followers who want to know how they sound and act have someone to show them” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1, pp. 189, 191).

Suddenly light shines out, infiltrating the darkness and wrapping us in its warmth. “To all who accept the Word, who see the significance of that name, power is given to become children of God. Is this the meaning that Jesus came to communicate, that we are meant to be children of God? From the beginning of the time, God has been reaching out to draw us to her bosom. Is this the ultimate Word, illuminated by the Light that has come into the world? God so loved the world that God sent God’s only-begotten child. That’s us – you and me.

In the light of this Word made flesh, Taylor suggests that we each may have a word – potential or realized – that is our word. She says, “Almost everyone has a word that he or she has a gift for bringing to life.” She suggests words like” compassion” or “justice,” “patience” or “generosity.” If you were to allow the light to shine out and illuminate it, what your word would be? Take a moment, reflect prayerfully. What is the word you have the gift for bringing to life? Taylor says, “Until someone acts upon these words, they remain abstract concepts – very good ideas that few people have ever seen. The moment someone acts on them, the words become flesh. They live among us, so we can see their glory” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 191). Light shines out.

She suggests that congregations might also have their defining words – like “hospitality” or “prayer” or “service” or “prophetic.” It is impossible for any one congregation to be all things to all people, but it might have a particular word that is its gift to bring to life. Again, take a prayerful moment to consider what might be a characteristic word for our congregation. Perhaps it is something you see or perhaps it is something you hope for. What word would you like for us to put flesh on and live out?

I encourage you to take your words – for yourself and for our community – reflect on them, pray about them, share them with someone you trust and consider how to make them real in your own life and in the world around you, to put flesh on them in your own living.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen the glory of the Word, the glory as of a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth.” “The true light, which enlightens everyone, is always coming into the world.” Light shines out. Darkness cannot overcome it. Let your little light shine. Amen.

Walking the Way of Deep Desire

labyrinth01A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Text: John 15:1-11; Colossians 3:12-17

My friend, LeAnn, is currently on pilgrimage in Spain, traveling the famous Camino de Santiago or Way of Saint James. Rather than walking the well-traveled (and crowded) route that wends its way from southern France across the Pyrenees and northern Spain, she began her journey in southern Spain near Sevila. Following a route known as the Via Plata, her plan was to walk 500 miles from Merida to the great cathedral in Compostela, which is said to house the remains of Saint James. It is the proverbial road less traveled.

The journey started well enough, with beautiful scenery, hospitable way stations and welcomed fellow travelers. She has posted lovely images on Facebook and given a moving account of her journey. But somewhere along the road, the trip became more strenuous and difficult than she had anticipated. One report: “Tough, grueling day, complete with plague of flies…not the spiritual experience I had hoped for. We climbed to the highest point on this route and climbed back down, then walked a very long way in the heat with no stops for food. 28 km/18 miles. One of the reasons for my change of routes is that this is supposed to be fairly typical of the route through the mountains. Don’t think I have it in me.” So she is opting to take a bus to another, less taxing route on which to finish her pilgrimage. I trust that she knows what she is doing to ensure that the walk is the spiritual experience she desires. It is not the physical challenge per se that drives the pilgrimage, but the spiritual longing.

Clearly we are not on this very sort of spiritual journey this morning but, as I considered these texts, I began to wonder, what makes us go? What fuels our journey? What do we really need to find our way in this world? John says it is the presence of God, known in the companionship of the Christ and the empowering movement of the Holy Spirit. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” What do you make of that? It does not seem literally true that apart from Christ we can do nothing. There are plenty of people who make their way through this world without the slightest attention to Christ. I imagine there are already several things each of us has accomplished today without giving Christ a second thought. So what do you think Jesus is saying here?

First, according to John, he is in intimate conversation with his disciples. This passage is part of what are known as the “Farewell Discourses.” That is, this is Jesus trying to prepare his disciples for the hard road ahead. It is important to note that he is talking to disciples, individuals who have chosen to follow him as he walked his way through the world. Now on his final pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem and the end of this phase of his journey is near. For those who have chosen to follow, who have cast their lot with him, there is something in the relationship that is both sacred and empowering. To be a disciple then, to move with him toward the Beloved Community of God, may indeed mean that we can do nothing – at least, not about that commitment, that journey, that community to which we have dedicated ourselves – without him.

If we trust that discipleship means that we are friends of Jesus as John writes or even adopted children of God, as Paul argues, then what moves in us and through us, what motivates us and fuels us, ought to flow from a common source. The life-giving power of God moves by the Spirit though the vine to the branches so that we might “bear fruit,” so that we might walk faithfully the Jesus way and live fully into the Beloved Community of God.

You see there is the literal life of our existence on the planet but there is also the promise of abundant life in Christ Jesus. We can simply accept the former or we can commit ourselves to embracing the latter. In the Words to Contemplate from this week’s Midweek Message, Brian McLaren writes, “The wind can be blowing, but if your sail isn’t raised, you won’t go far. You can be surrounded by oxygen, but if you don’t breathe, it won’t do you any good. The sap can be flowing, but if the branch isn’t connected to the vine, it will wither. If you don’t have kindling and wood in your hearth, a lit match won’t burn long. It’s the same with the Spirit. We are surrounded with the aliveness of the spirit. All that remains is for us to learn how to let the Spirit fill, flow, and glow within us” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 207).

“To to let the Spirit fill, flow, and glow within us.” What would that look like, feel like, be like for you and me? I was thinking it might be like an exercise in interior design. We look at what’s going on inside us. We take inventory of our inner chambers. We consider the condition of our hearts and we choose to make some changes. Maybe a little house cleaning is in order – some things to move out, to re-cycle, to let go of to make room for new furnishings, for new being. In John, Jesus suggests that we make room for the love of God, plenty of room because God’s love is likely to claim a lot space as well as our time and attention.

Then Paul suggests that we include closets for “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance and forgiveness.” These will enrich the environment greatly. Oh and don’t forget “gratitude” as well as “wisdom.” These ought to have prominent places. Finally, Paul comes to the same conclusion Jesus does, let love bind the it all together into a beautiful whole.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” Paul says. That is, let Christ abide in you as you abide in Christ. Let God’s Spirit move in you and through you to transform not only your interior but your relationships and the whole of creation. It may be that, in the end, what needs to be done in our lives and in the world can only be accomplished in and through Christ Jesus. It may be that we can do little or nothing by ourselves but we can do “all things through Christ who strengthens [us]” (Philippians 4:13).

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” I remember, in my youth, we used to sing, with gusto, around the campfire, “I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart, down in my heart, down in my heart to stay.” Now I wonder if we had any idea what we were singing. It was a catchy tune and we sang it at the top of our lungs, but did we really have a clue as to what it all meant.” Now I think the peace of Christ, the peace that passes human understanding is a dangerous thing, risky business, decidedly counter-cultural and a threat to turn the world right side up. The peace of Christ, the peace that passes understanding is built on compassion for all, justice, equity and work for the well-being of the whole creation.

You have heard me say more than once that the love that binds everything together is not simple greeting card sentimentality nor is the peace that passes understanding the absence of conflict. Those words of Paul come into play when we consider the love of God and the peace of Christ – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, gratitude and wisdom.

Brian McLaren, again, says, “We start in the heart – the wellspring of our desires. That’s where our problems begin, and that’s where our healing begins, too. When we desire to be filled with the Spirit, the Spirit begins to transform our desires so that God’s desires become our own. Instead of doing the right thing because we have to, we do the right thing because we want to – because we are learning to truly desire goodness. Once our desires are being changed, a revolution is set in motion” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 207).

Later, LeAnn reports, “Lest it seem like all I do is talk about the challenges, today I am resting on a marvelous bed in a hotel in Salamanca…sharing the room with Andree, a woman from France, and Iris, my angel from Denmark. Today I am thankful for an incredibly beautiful sunrise, clouds that covered the sun for a spell when it was higher, for cooling breezes, for friends to walk with and for the frogs who were singing a glorious chorus of praise shortly after sunrise this morning. And every day I offer prayers of thanksgiving for my feet, my knees, my back, and the rest of me that all work together to enable me to have this amazing adventure…and for everyone supporting me and praying for me at home…and for my church family allowing me this time.”

I love her affirmation that the journey is not made alone. We need companions and we need community and we need Christ. I see the desire of Leann’s heart for a deep spiritual experience in line with God’s desire, with Christ’s way and with the Spirit’s lure. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” “Learn to let the Spirit fill, flow and glow within…” “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts [and] let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” Then, watch the global uprising take shape and the revolution begin. For, friends, when our deepest desires align with those of God, nothing in or around us can hold us back. Through the love of God, the compassion of Christ, the power of the Spirit and the witness of the faithful, the whole wide world will never be the same again. Amen.

New Born- Again!

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

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Text: John 3:1-21

Remember the children’s song about “Michael Finnegan”? It’s one of those songs for which you could make up endless verses, dragging it out to the point of driving adults like your parents crazy? Every stanza ends with the instruction to “begin again.” That could mean start a new verse or it could mean repeat the same one over and over ad nauseum. One version that seems particularly appropriate for Pentecost goes like this:

There was an old man
named Michael Finnegan.
He had whiskers
on his chin-ne-gan.
The wind blew them off
and blew them on again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin Again.

There’s that pesky, tricky wind, blowing where it chooses and doing the most unlikely things. Imagine blowing whiskers on and off. It obviously caused consternation for poor old Michael Finnegan. This song came to mind because of that key word “again.” I was planning to use the traditional text from Acts for today’s service, but then Jan suggested we sing the spiritual, “New Born Again,” and Brian McLaren suggested we look to John 3 as a text. Was the Spirit at work, conspiring to move us from something more traditional to a new way of thinking about Pentecost? Who knows, but here we are…again.

“Born again” is a familiar phrase in our vernacular. It does not always carry the best connotations for those of a more progressive persuasion. Alyce McKenzie tells this little tale about being evangelized:

I was in the waiting area at our local Discount Tire store last week waiting for my new tires to be put on my car. I picked up a women’s magazine and was intently reading an article called, ‘How to supercharge your metabolism.’ I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I’m waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: ‘How to be born again’ and I heard a man’s voice ask, ‘Wouldn’t you like to read    something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?’

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid 40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn’t reply immediately, he asked, ‘Well, have you?’ I said, ‘I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.’ At that the man shook his head as if to say ‘Geez, lady, it’s a yes or no question. How   hard is that?’ He took his tract back and moved on” (Alyce M. McKenzie, “Nicodemus’s Non-Decision,” Edgy Exegesis, 3-14-2011, patheos.com).

I guess that’s what you get when you try to buttonhole a preaching professor with a tract and a slogan. “Born again” is not a once and for all “emotional lightning strike.” It is a “lifelong process” that “calls for our participation.” When Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, he may be looking for some simple, easy answers. However, he does not walk away when Jesus challenges him to dig deeper and look beyond what he is already so certain of. It is a little like poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again. Go over it one more time. See if you can’t enter more fully into God’s will and God’s way for your life. Find the freedom. Find the grace. Be new born…again.

If Nicodemus truly believed he had everything all worked out, would he would have come knocking on Jesus’ door under cover of darkness? Nicodemus had an itch he couldn’t quite scratch. He’d heard these remarkable stories about Jesus and he was just curious enough to come check him out. Maybe he could learn something from this young, upstart rabbi. Maybe he just meant to check his credentials.

He starts boldly enough, speaking with his customary tone of authority. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” The question is implied but he can’t quite ask it. “Are you the One or should we look for another?” You know there must have been a current of excitement running beneath that neatly manicured, richly appointed exterior. If there hadn’t been, why would he be there at all? Like the rest of the faithful in his tradition, he longed for the coming of the Messiah, the one from God who would put all things right, bringing in God’s righteous reign on earth.

The response is swift and challenging. It catches the powerful Pharisee off guard. “In truth I tell you no one will see God’s reign without being born again.” It seems that Jesus never tells us exactly what we want to hear. That is, there is always a challenge to stretch us, inviting us to grow beyond our narrow religious views into something that is more spiritually risky and fulfilling.

In his attenuated, literalistic reply, Nicodemus sounds rather foolish. (That may, in fact, be characteristic of those who take a boxed in, literalist perspective.) I wonder if Nicodemus realized how silly he sounded before he even finished his question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” In the rich tradition of John’s gospel, this is exactly the sort of question that sets Jesus off and running.

What the great “teacher of Israel” has missed is the word play. The word that Jesus uses for rebirth can be interpreted as “again” or “from above.” There is a newness of life that comes from following Jesus. The reign of God asks for and offers more than we can ever fully grasp. The challenge to live into the Beloved Community of God goes against all religious stereotyping and undermines every idolatry, whether or not we recognize such in our own lives.

There’s another verse I discovered from “Michael Finnegan” that goes like this:

There once was a man named Michael Finnegan.
He kicked up an awful dinnegan
because they said he must not sin again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again.

Sin, that which separates us from God, that which blocks the way, that which keeps us stuck. Rather than making the road by walking, we find ourselves going around in familiar circles or stuck on a treadmill. It may be good for losing few pounds, but in the end does it get us anywhere?

In today’s Words of Preparation, Brian McLaren tells us, “At the core of Jesus’ life and message, then, was this good news: the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world. And that gives us a choice: do we dig in our heels, clench our fists, and live for our own agenda, or do we let go, let be, and let come…and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 205). To be taken up into the Spirit’s movement is to be born again, to be born into the Beloved Community of God. It is to enter a community unlike any we have ever known. It is beyond our wildest dreams. It is all we have hoped for, longed for, prayed for and so much more. It is God loving the world, the whole wonderful creation, in ways that restore, redeem, rebirth.

We have to be clear, though, that this road Jesus asks us to walk with him is not an easy one. The Beloved Community is surely coming but we know “it don’t come easy.” John Dear reminds us some of the challenges when he writes of our present reality that “Following Jesus today in a land of nuclear weapons, rampant racism, and widespread economic injustice means actively going against our culture of violence.  As the culture promotes violence, we promote Jesus’ nonviolence.  As the culture calls for war, we call for Jesus’ peace.  As the culture supports racism, sexism and classism, we demand Jesus’ vision of equality, community and reconciliation. As the culture insists on vengeance and execution, we pray with Jesus for forgiveness and compassion” (John Dear, Jesus the Rebel, p. 29).

This was the same sort of challenge Jesus gave Nicodemus 2000 years ago. The circumstances may have been somewhat different, but the way of the world was in constant conflict with the coming Community of God. Jesus confronts us with the same sort of mission he offered Nicodemus – to be new born…again. “The way I walk, the ministry I offer, the coming of the Beloved Community is profoundly counter-culture in any sense of hanging on to static traditions and narrow views that have outlived their usefulness. You may have to let go of some of your power and prestige and the trappings that go with your high position, Nicodemus. You may need to let be a sense of uncertainty and trust the road you walk with me, even when you can’t see that far ahead. You may find that you must let the Spirit come to you and blow you around a bit and take you to unexpected places. You may find yourself buried with Christ in a baptism of water and Spirit, then rising to walk in newness of life.

As we walk that road with Jesus, we sing

“We’ve found free grace and dyin’ love, we’re new born again.
We know the Lord has set us free, we’re new born again.
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,
that all who will believe in Him will be new born again!
Free grace, free grace, free grace, sinner.
Free grace, free grace, we’re new born…again!”

Followers Follow (April 19, 2015)

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon,
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA,
Sunday, April 19, 2015

Text: John 21:1-19

“‎Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers. It’s that simple. Followers follow, and those who don’t follow aren’t followers. To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it” (Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow).

Followers follow. Scot McKnight says it’s simple, but I wonder. It may be simple but that does not mean it is easy. Take these first followers of Jesus. In chapter 20 of John’s Gospel, the risen Jesus stands among them – more than once – bearing witness to God’s ability to turn the world right side up. In this epilogue, which was clearly added to John’s original later, we find those first followers busily bringing the Beloved Community into being, right? Well, not exactly. It seems they’ve made their way back to Galilee, left the big city and all its challenges behind them. They’re back home, just sitting around, apparently at loose ends.

In chapter 20, Jesus has offered them peace, shalom, well-being, the breath of the Spirit, the power to forgive and retain sins, even. Something significant has been given to them and yet they are not clear about what comes next. What exactly does it mean to follow the risen Christ? Hmmm. I don’t know. “Let’s go fishing.” “Yeah, that seems like a plan. Let’s go.”

Now admittedly fishing can have its meditative moments. Sitting in a boat, on a quiet lake, waiting for the fish to bite can provide time and space for contemplation. “Yes, we agreed to follow. We want to follow. Followers follow, but just where is it you want us to go?”

It’s a long, silent night on the lake. No fish, not even a nibble. Well, yes, there are nights like this. Fishing takes patience, no doubt. But now the eastern sky is showing the first faint signs of sunrise. There is a tinge of pink spreading through the clouds on the far horizon. Time to call it a night and wait for a better day, right?

But there, there on the beach is a shadowy figure. He is waving, asking that infernal question no fisherman likes to hear or answer on a night like this. “How’s it going?” the voice skims the calm surface of the lake. “Caught anything?” “No, not tonight. They’re just not biting.” “Why don’t you give it one more try, over on the right side of the boat?” Who does this character think he is, telling us how to fish this lake? We’ve been out here all our lives. On nights when they don’t bite, there comes a time when the fishing is futile. Pack it in and head for shore.

But for some strange reason, on this night they decide to humor the stranger on the beach. Maybe they’re just trying to be nice. Maybe there is something compelling in his tone of voice. Maybe he hooks the fisherman’s eternal hope that just one more cast will bring in the big one. Whatever their reasoning, they cast the net on the right side. The catch is so significant it threatens to swamp the boat.

It’s that disciple called the “one whom Jesus loves,” that disciple who seems to be more finely tuned to the master’s voice, who first floats the idea that it is Jesus, once more standing among them. Peter, fumbling with his tunic, leaps into the water and starts swimming for shore, in an act of ecstatic impulse at the thought of seeing Jesus once more.

One compelling thing about the story telling in John’s Gospel is the richness of these tales in curious detail. There are seven of the original 12 there. (Where are the others?) It’s apparently important to remember that Thomas is a twin and that Nathanael comes from Cana. Peter is fishing in his underwear, stripped for the hard labor of the night. They are only 100 yards from the beach. They catch 153 large fish. (Who knows the significance of this exact number?) Even with such a large catch, the net holds, it does not tear. Then there is Jesus, standing next to a cook fire, a charcoal fire to be precise, preparing fish and bread for breakfast. Details unnecessary, perhaps, but surely enriching the story.

Those first followers are both sure and not quite sure who he is. It’s again that early morning half-light that keeps things shadowy and unclear. Yet, the voice and the power of the presence are undeniably his. They have learned from Thomas’s challenge that it is better not to question the miracle of his appearance. And then, like Cleopas and his companion in Emmaus, they have that powerful sense of remembrance in the breaking of bread, the sharing of a simple meal. Didn’t our hearts burn within us? Don’t you just know when you’re in the presence of the risen Christ?

Pity poor Peter…so eager to greet Jesus, impatiently rushing to his side, hoping that all has been forgiven or at least forgotten in these blessed moments that they have together. But after breakfast it’s time to talk. Jesus and Peter stroll down the beach. They stop by a large rock. Jesus leans against the rock and Peter squats down at his feet. “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” The question pierces Peter. All is not forgotten. Is it also not forgiven? “He calls me Simon. That’s my old name. He has withdrawn his affirmation of me as the Rock.”

The painful memories come flooding back, Peter, standing in the courtyard of the High Priest on that fateful night. That woman, guarding the gate, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” “I am not.” Followers follow. It’s simple but not easy. That night they were gathered around another charcoal fire, warming themselves. “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” “I am not.” Such a simple thing to follow and so hard. “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” “No, damn it. I’ve told you, it wasn’t me.” The piercing crow of the cock and the scalding tears.

Do I love him? “Oh yes, yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” The words come tumbling from his mouth. He is so eager, desperate in his desire to be in the teacher’s good graces again. “How can I make it up to him? How can I convince that I really do love him?”

Some moments of silence and again the voice, so terrifying in its gently aching inquiry, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” The ache moves back and forth between the two friends. These are necessary and painful moments for restoring a trust betrayed. Peter cannot look up. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” uttered with that lingering fear that Jesus does not know for certain the extent or even the existence of Peter’s love.

More silence. Then a third time, the same searching question, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” The tears brim in Peter’s eyes, the lump in his throat causes the words to catch there, the pain is palpable, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Followers follow, so simple, so difficult. “Lord, I want to be more loving…Lord, I want to be like Jesus…Lord, I want to be a Christian, in-a my heart.” Yes, but outside your heart, in the real, tough world, when you’re standing in the High Priest’s courtyard, warming yourself at his fire, being challenged to tell the truth, what then Peter? Not so easy, is it?

“But Simon, son of John, I need you. I need you to feed my lambs, to tend my sheep. I need you to be Peter, the rock on which I can establish the Beloved Community of God. I need to know I can depend on the depth and breadth of your love for me both to live inside and manifest on the outside of you. Follow me, Peter. Can you simply follow me?”

“‎Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers. It’s that simple. Followers follow, and those who don’t follow aren’t followers.” But here’s the catch. Here’s where it gets hard. It’s not enough to want to be like Jesus in your heart. “To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it.”

The risen Christ stands among us, bearing witness to God’s ability to turn the world right side up and offering us the same peace, shalom, well-being, along with the breath and power of the Spirit, that was offered the first followers. Are we any more ready, any more willing than they to accept these gifts and follow, to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules and love shapes everything? Are we any better than Peter at speaking truth to power and living out our love and allegiance to the Lord of all life? Do we find ourselves any more busily bringing the Beloved Community into being than those first followers? Or are we, too, sitting around, at loose ends, waiting for the next miraculous appearance or a few more signs and wonders?

Can you hear the call today, echoing down the ages, so simple, so challenging, “Follow me.” Will you heed the call? accept the challenge? walk the way? bear faithful witness? Followers follow…it’s that simple and that difficult. What about you…and me?